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Kanak Culture

The Kanak people are the native people of New Caledonia. They comprise just under half of the total population of New Caledonia, around 45% by some estimates.

To gain an insight into the Kanak way of life and to define their traditional structures, we must first understand the main features of their complex socio-economic organisation.

Kanak man

Kanak Clans

Kanak society is organised around clans, which are both social and spatial units. The clan could initially be made up of people related through a common ancestor, comprising several families. There can be between fifty and several hundred people in a clan. This basic definition of the clan has become modified over the years due to historical situations and places involving wars, disagreements, new arrivals etc. The clan structure, therefore, evolved as new people arrived and were given a place and a role in the social organisation of the clan, or through clan members leaving to join other clans.

Within the clan there is a certain form of affective and respected hierarchy, first of all between the members of the clan and between the families, then within the descendents, through to the top of the ladder to the clan's chief, also called the " the eldest brother ". KanaksThe "eldest brother" who is the clan's representative and is respected and loved by the clan's members, presides over clan life and settles any disputes which occur between members of the group. In some places, notably the Loyalty Islands, clan autonomy becomes reduced through their integration into a large social organisation, which is known today by the term « district coutumier » or "customary district". In this more elaborate organisation, various clans join together around a large "chefferie" (dwelling places ruled by the chiefs), where their status and prestige is more similar to Polynesian royalty than to the Kanak clanical chefferie, this development no doubt resulting from significant Polynesian immigration to the islands in the past. In this context, the clan not only identifies itself as its own autonomous entity, but also by the place it occupies in the social organisation of the district and by the attributes which are bestowed on it in relation to the great "chefferie" (property owner clan, magic clan, warrior clan etc.) Kanak HutThe clan's chief becomes a sort of servant to the great chief and owes him obedience and respect. He in turn symbolises the district and assures the social cohesion to this title, he is respected and admired by the district's population. He is the reference, the chief of the land and the people, and steps in as a last resort to settle any disputes.

Men and Woman

In all aspects of social and daily life, Kanak society is structured according to a clear distinction between men and women.:

Kanak carvingMen, have social and public responsibilities (entering into alliances, social relations and public life, the clan's social durability etc.), responsibilities for the community's food resources, including responsibility for the yam growing and customary objects of social exchange.

Women, have responsibility for life, and for everything pertaining to the family's intimacy, the daily tasks and housework and for the family's supplies. As the bearer of life, they ensure the reproduction of the members of the clan.

Kanak manThis duality can be seen in the young people : the boys work for the community and are cared for by it ; following adolescence they live together in a separate area where they are educated on their future social and clan responsibilities. The girls, on the other hand, live with their mother at the family home until marriage, where they learn the rudiments of family and domestic life.


In their relations with individuals, social or clan groups, with the community, the Kanak will on all occasions refer to one of the three dimensions of his identity, of his personality, which generate three types of relations.:

KanaksBlood relations, by nature more individual, affective, intimate, which induce depending on the type of relation, specific relations and behaviour. The Kanak will thus have distinct attitudes and gestures depending on whether he is addressing a brother, an uncle, a brother-in-law, an aunt etc.

Relations as a result of the position and the roles of his clan in society ; he will be a man of the earth if his clan is a landowner; he will be a fisherman if he is a member of the clan of the sea, he will be the spokesperson of the district etc. Finally, relations determined by age which will privilege the eldest in relation to the youngest, which impose the respect of the elders, of the oldest to the detriment of the youngest etc. These are the types of social relations which bestow certain privileges or favours according to age. Thus, for example at meals, the old men and women will be served first; The new yams of the harvest will be kept for the elders; a hierarchy based on age will become established in any social group during activities or community ceremonies.

Author & photographer: David Johnson (Virtual Oceania)



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