This week is Burning Man, when your quiet downstairs neighbor with the amber-lensed glasses takes off for the Nevada desert wearing less clothing than Miley Cyrus at the VMAs (but surrounded by the same ratio of plushies). Each year Burning Man has a theme beyond the overarching Will-Trade-Glowsticks-for-Molly, and this year the focus is on the incredibly fascinating phenomenon of "cargo cults": groups of South Pacific islanders who worship an American military figure who, they believe, will return someday, bringing gifts of wealth to their nation.
During World War II servicemen stationed in the South Pacific began to arrive on the remote islands, parachuting in from the sky, mysteriously and impossibly equipped with more materialistic goods than any human could possess. There are various versions of this legend, exacerbated by various forms of hallucinogenics (just like Burning Man!) but the basic idea is that the servicemen promised to come back, bearing more "cargo," or material goods from the West.
Different cultures worship different personas, and, on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu—80 islands first introduced to you by Jeff Probst as the set of Survivor: Islands of Fire—they call him John Frum, which likely originated when someone introduced himself as "John from... America" or "John from... New Jersey." (Another Vanuatu tribe worships Queen Elizabeth's husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.)
After the war, these remote island believers launched a frenzied campaign to entice John Frum to return, ceremoniously building their own planes, landing strips and control towers from grasses and bamboo. For over 50 years John Frum Day has been observed on February 15 when followers hoist U.S. flags on wooden flagpoles and parade in colorful, DIY military garb. (Which is kinda like the plot of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, when those desert kids descended from the survivors of a crashed Qantas jet think Mel Gibson is "Captain Walker" and perform rituals with him to get the plane to fly again.)
In many ways the John Frum movement is more political than religious: it has its own party, suffered a violent split in 2004, and its president was appointed Vanuatu's ambassador to Russia. But it also waits patiently for the return of John Frum, a man that the spiritual leader of the movement, Chief Isaac Wan, has described as "our Jesus."
And there's also this obsession with material, Western goods. David Attenborough visited the Vanuatu island of Tanna in the 1960s as part of his book and BBC series The People of Paradise. Attenborough found the culture preoccupied with his radios and recording equipment. (Of course, Mike Daisey also traveled to Tanna for one of his monologues, which has not been retracted... yet.) As one islander told a reporter from Smithsonian Magazine: "John promised he'll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him. Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things." (Which is kinda like the plot of The Gods Must Be Crazy, and, if you think about it, is the EXACT OPPOSITE of Burning Man.)
However, according to Kirk Huffman, an anthropologist who lived with the group for 17 years, the movement is less about a quest for Western materialism and more of a rejection of French and British colonialism. In Huffman's view, John Frum encouraged this cargo cult to revolt against the beliefs pressed—or oppressed—upon them by Protestant missionaries. "Nobody knows who John Frum was, though it is irrelevant whether he was a real person or a spirit," he said. "Movements like these were a way for traditional people to come to terms with colonialism and Christianity. Vanuatu's culture would have been entirely squashed if it wasn't for cults like John Frum."
Which brings us back to Black Rock City. The Burning Man artist statement adds an intergalactic twist on the concept, proposing "an enormous replica of their sky-craft, hewn from the primitive materials of our backwater planet. Burning Man will stand atop this streamlined structure, majestically revolving like an interstellar beacon. Within this three-decked vessel participants will encounter the Temple of the Navigator, a shrine that features six hand-operated zoetropes that will function as prayer wheels. These will rehearse what little we know, or believe we know, of John Frum's story." You can watch this being built in real time.
Luckily for the rest of us, this bodes quite well for slideshows of 2013 Burning Man fashion, which, as previewed in the meticulously styled Instagrams of attendees, will be a mashup of camouflage evening gowns, neon flak jackets, Buck Rogers-era jumpsuits, Hawaiian shirts, tiki masks, coconut bras, and other inappropriate takes on the American military complex
imperializing interacting with South Pacific islander culture.
Please send these our way for review and critique ASAP.
[Lead Image: Keith Pomakis; Plane, thinkst.com; Flags, Wikipedia; Soldiers, Atlas Obscura; Poster: Theme by Larry Harvey, text by Larry Harvey and Stuart Mangrum, illustration by D.A. of Black Rock (aka Dominic Tinio), BurningMan.com]