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Marie Olive Reay (1922–2004)

by Jeremy Beckett and Paula Brown Glick

Marie Reay, former Senior Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at The Australian National University (ANU), author of The Kuma and numerous articles on the New Guinea Highlands, as well as Aboriginal Australia, died on 16 September 2004, aged 82. She had been ill for some years, and after spending her early years of retirement in Canberra, had been living with her sister near Newcastle, NSW.

Marie was born near Maitland, NSW. She enrolled in arts at the University of Sydney during World War II, and in her second year took anthropology after hearing A.P. Elkin debate the philosopher John Anderson; this was despite the urgings of the adviser to women students against such a step. Elkin inspired her with an interest in Aborigines and, in the mid-1940s, she was the first anthropologist to study contemporary conditions among Aborigines in northern NSW. She published six articles on this work, and it was the subject of her master’s thesis, awarded in 1948 while she was a Teaching Fellow at Sydney.

After a year as a Research Assistant at the London School of Economics, she spent two years lecturing at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA). She then began a study of the Orokaiva in Papua New Guinea (PNG), under the supervision of her other Sydney mentor, Ian Hogbin. This project was aborted by the eruption of Mt Lamington. But later she returned to New Guinea as a Research Scholar of the ANU under the brilliant but autocratic S.F. Nadel. In the early 1950s, the Highlands were the new ethnographic frontier that Nadel was intent on opening up, bringing in research students from Britain and the United States. In 1953, however, Marie was the first woman anthropologist to go to the Highlands, though the authorities took a good deal of persuading, and imposed absurd restrictions including dress, which once in the field she was able to ignore. The journalist Colin Simpson discovered her there, and featured her in his travelogue, Adam in Plumes (1954).

Marie submitted her thesis in 1957 and returned to Sydney, but within two years she was back at the ANU as a Research Fellow, working on The Kuma, which was published in 1959. She remained at ANU for the rest of her career, becoming first a Fellow and then Senior Fellow. In the early 1960s she began fieldwork in Borroloola (at Elkin’s suggestion), but after publishing a few articles, she announced that she had ‘wiped the Abs’. She returned to the Wahgi in PNG, where she maintained a house, continuing to visit them, despite increasing infirmity, almost to the end of her life.

Hal Wootten (later Judge of the Supreme Court and Royal Commissioner) recalls:

In 1950, I was Senior Lecturer in Law at ASOPA. Marie joined the staff as an anthropologist. I remember her as a stimulating colleague of keen intellect and a remarkably lucid and confident command of her discipline, given her age. My abiding impression is of a person who did not suffer fools gladly and disposed of those placed in that category with a devastating sardonic wit. Shortly after joining the School, she went off to do field work at Higaturu in Papua. This was abruptly terminated by the eruption of Mt Lamington. According to contemporary reports, ‘the paroxysm occurred at 10:40 am on the 21st of January 1951. A roar was heard 320 km away and a catastrophic avalanche ripped apart the side of the mountain. Loss of life was 3000 to 4000. At the settlement of Higaturu, 10 km to the north of the crater, only one house remained reasonably intact, and it was moved 4.5 m northward by the force of the flow. A jeep was thrown into the trees and wedged between branches’. I don’t know how Marie escaped, but she suffered a nervous breakdown for which she was hospitalised on her return to Sydney. My last memory is of visiting her in hospital with other colleagues, when she did not recognise us. I left ASOPA shortly afterwards and lost touch with her.

By the time Paula Brown met her, she had completed her first field trip with the Kuma. Paula remembers that soon after arriving at the ANU in 1956, she attended the founding meeting of the Australian section of the Association of Social Anthropologists. Recent work in the Highlands was the hot topic. Present were Mervyn Meggitt and D’Arcy Ryan from Sydney and ANU students Robert Glasse, Ralph Bulmer and Marie Reay, all recently returned from the field. John Barnes, Bill Stanner, Derek Freeman and Mick Read were the senior members. The discussion turned on how the unilineal segmentary system, which British social anthropologists had identified in Africa, applied to PNG Highland peoples. Read, Berndt, Salisbury and Meggitt had maintained that ‘lineage system’ was appropriate for the highlands, and ‘lineage’ might be a segment of a subclan or clan. Marie Reay, however, insisted that the Kuma had very short genealogies, usually known only to adult male members, and that ‘lineage system’ was inappropriate. She would call Kuma groups clans, subclans and sub-subclans, as well as adopting the terms Hogbin and Wedgwood had coined, ‘phyle’, ‘parish’ and ‘carpel’ (see Oceania 23, 1953). Meggitt and others argued that the Highlanders had true lineages, and later Meggitt wrote The Lineage System of the Mae Enga (1965), generalising this to the rest of the Highlands. Marie’s acerbic review of the book formed part of a long interchange among fieldworkers in the Highlands, best known through John Barnes’ famous article, ‘African Models in the New Guinea Highlands’ (Man 62, 1962).

The Kuma: Freedom and Conformity in the New Guinea Highlands (1959), based on Marie’s 1957 dissertation, was the first book on a Highlands people from an ethnographer both trained and writing in Australia. In it, she dealt with the problem of descent groups by giving clan descent concepts and genealogical statements from living men. The discussion of kinship, group structure, activities and spirit beliefs stands out still. It is historic: much of what is described in The Kuma has changed or ceased, her fieldwork being in the first period of colonial control, before the coming of the missions.

Her personalised discussion of women’s lives in Kuma was another first and, again, the beginning of a long debate on gender and male domination. She also wrote tellingly of the kiap (Australian government officer) and his relations with her Kuma friends, casting light on the miscommunications of 1950s colonialism. Marie returned to Minj and the Middle Wahgi many times and published more than 30 articles on all aspects of their life. Unfortunately, these mostly appeared in Australia, and thus were not as widely known elsewhere as they deserved. Some of the topics she covered, such as myth, have had little attention from other ethnographers. She wrote of a ‘high pig culture’ in Kuma and the Highlands, ‘mushroom madness’, witchcraft, ritual conflict, pig ceremonies, post-independence warfare, law making, local courts, and raskolism. She continued to record changes in the Wahgi valley into the late colonial period and under independence.

Jeremy Beckett recounts:

I first met Marie as a newly arrived scholar in January 1956. Nadel was contributing to the Yale Human Relations Area File and he sent me to Marie to break down her material into the designated categories. The exercise was tedious, but she made it fun, and as well persuaded me of the serendipity of the ethnographic encounter. The project was abandoned when Nadel died, two weeks later, but I continued to see Marie at seminars and socially, and later discovered that she wrote and enjoyed poetry. Marie played a more important role in my career, when my original research plans foundered, suggesting that I work with Aboriginal people in NSW, as she had done at the beginning of her career. She took the trouble to type out—there being no photocopiers in those days—some of her field notes that might be useful. In 1964 she was to edit the collection Aborigines Now, featuring the work of younger anthropologists, including myself, who had undertaken this kind of study after her. When I was working in Torres Strait, in the early 1960s, and she was at Borroloola, Northern Territory, we exchanged ‘letters from the field’. I remember her response to my complaint that while I liked the Islanders, I had not bonded to any particular individuals, as I had in Western NSW. She replied that when her clan in the Wahgi bade her farewell, the tears rolled down her cheeks, but among the Aborigines in NSW, it was the individuals she remembered. In fact, she did revisit some of the latter in the 1970s.

Although Marie never lost her playfulness and love of the absurd, her long years at ANU took their toll and, at times, her anger provoked the sardonic wit that Hal Wootten had remarked on. Although denying she was a feminist, she did not suffer her senior male colleagues gladly (although she retained a regard for Elkin) and did not have much time for the increasingly frequent changes in anthropological theory. Nor was she comfortable with the increasing radicalism of the 1970s and 1980s, and never had much sympathy for Aboriginal land rights. Nevertheless, her love of social anthropology found expression in her friendship with, and advice to, many graduate students. It was also manifested in her tireless work for the Australian Anthropological Society over many years. This work, and her pioneering contributions to the ethnography of both Aboriginal Australia and the Highlands, was officially recognised when Marie was made an Honorary Life Fellow of the Society.

The Wahgi always remained her strongest passion, and her frequent visits there provided an escape from tiresome colleagues as well as rewarding relationships with friends of many years’ standing. As she grew older, she told us, her clan set aside the place where she would be buried. Although that was not to be, maybe her spirit went back there.

* Originally published in Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia Annual Report 2005 and the Australian Journal of Anthropology 16(3) (2005).

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Citation details

Jeremy Beckett and Paula Brown Glick, 'Reay, Marie Olive (1922–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 April 2024.

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