Marchers in the annual John Frum Day parade on February 15, 2019, which marks the day that a mysterious American is said to have promised to return to Tanna, Vanuatu.

Who Is John Frum?

In the 20th century, anthropologists fell over themselves to study the “cargo cult” phenomenon in the South Pacific. But was it really a new religion—or just a Western fantasy?

One day in 1900 or 1940, or at some point in between, a man whose name was John Frum—although he might not have been a man, and his name might not have been John Frum—arrived on Tanna island, in an archipelago that was then called the New Hebrides but is now called the Republic of Vanuatu.

He came, someone told me, in a plane that could somehow land in the bush without needing an airstrip, but I also heard that he simply walked up from the sea, and that he appeared, mysteriously, in a village one day. His home might be on Tanna’s tallest mountain; or nearby, inside of the island’s active volcano, which shoots lava and smoke into the sky every night; or in my own country, the United States, thousands of miles away. He may have appeared first as a tiger, although Tanna is deep in the South Pacific, where no tigers live. Then again, that may have been only a dream, and the tiger also could also have been only a cat, and John might have appeared first as a black man with a mustache, before finally returning in his final form, that of a white man who could magically speak the native languages of the island.

Anyway, he came, and that much almost everybody agrees on.

A framed illustration of a ship titled “World Discoverer,” at the headquarters of the John Frum Spiritual Movement on Tanna.

The first person known to write down the name “John Frum” was British district agent James Nicol, the local representative of a colonial government that, because the British and French couldn’t agree who ought to control a group of islands two oceans away, was run by both. (The archipelago became independent in 1980 and, as the Republic of Vanuatu, encompasses 83 islands.) It was November of 1940, and Nicol was trying to figure out why goats kept disappearing from the herds of some Seventh-day Adventist converts. Over the course of his investigation, the agent heard that the goats were being cooked to many people were convening, night after night, at a nakamal—a sacred area beneath a banyan tree, where village leaders make decisions and people drink an intoxicating beverage made from the kava root—at a region on the Tanna coast known as Green Point. There, writes the anthropologist Lamont Lindstrom, in his 1993 book Cargo Cults: Strange Stories of Desire from Melanesia and Beyond, people gathered and “listened to the words of a shadowy figure who named himself John Frum.” The people were eager to hear what John had to tell them: A message of rebellion against the colonizers, with their missions and their schools and their restrictive laws, and promised that, if people instead kept up their own traditions, John would reward them with all the livestock and money they needed.

I’m quoting Lindstrom and not Nicol here because the latter’s original report, along with four more years of his dispatches about the early days of the movement that arose around John, are now gone. They mysteriously disappeared in the decades after World War II. Our only knowledge of what the original documents contained is gleaned from what others later wrote about them. The confusion feels like an appropriate beginning to the complicated mythology of John Frum. Even the primary sources are really tertiary at best. They are rumors, compiled by a foreigner, then filtered through the layered agendas of those who read them.

A soldier being shaved before marching in the parade for the John Frum Day celebrations, Tanna.
A guitar used for singing traditional songs on John Frum Day.

There would soon be quite a lot of people reading, and writing, and rewriting, the story of John Frum. First were the white missionaries and colonialists who’d descended on Tanna the century before he appeared, and who saw in John an obvious threat to their authority; they sought to blame each other for his rise. Next there were the anthropologists, who flocked to a prime example of a fashionable new concept in their field: the “cargo cult,” a unique sort of social movement that developed on the islands of Melanesia during and after the Second World War. (The term was first used in an Australian news magazine in 1945, in reference to a movement in Papua New Guinea that was also known by colonial authorities as the “Vailala Madness”: people were neglecting their crops and livestock because they believed they would soon receive ships loaded with cargo.) The common explanation for the phenomenon went like this: after the military apparatus of World War II flooded the sparsely developed region with ships, planes, soldiers, and all the various supplies—cargo—necessary to support them, local people began to develop odd beliefs about how they might summon such spectacular wealth for themselves. Sometimes they built replicas of airplanes from wood or reeds, or cut landing strips in the jungle, or invested their hopes in specific Western figures (Lyndon B. Johnson, who was predicted to arrive atop a mountain in Papua New Guinea; Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who is, in a separate belief system in one Tannese village, considered a divine being; the mysterious John Frum himself). “Cargo cults develop when primitive societies are exposed to the overpowering material wealth of the outside industrialized world,” read a typical summary, published in the Los Angeles Times in 1984. “Not knowing where the foreigners’ plentiful supplies come from, the natives believe they were sent from the spirit world … The faithful still expect the Americans to arrive soon, bringing them lots of chocolate, radios, and motorcycles.”

Even the primary sources are really tertiary at best. They are rumors, compiled by a foreigner, then filtered through the layered agendas of those who read them.

The cargo cult narrative held a flattering appeal for Western observers, who seemed to like how they were reflected in it, in the perceived universality of the desire for Western goods, in the pleasant idea of a white prophet revered by a faraway and supposedly primitive people. An early idea whose origins aren’t recorded—that John was connected in some way with the United States—began to grow with the telling. He had introduced himself as “John from America,” the stories went, or perhaps John from Tallahassee, or Detroit; he may have even been an actual American airman shot down during the war and then seen not as a messenger, but as an object of worship. In newspapers and books and documentaries, which increased in number in the decades after the war, the people of Tanna were depicted as endlessly, futilely awaiting John Frum’s return with the cargo he had promised. “On a Pacific Island,” read a 1970 headline in the New York Times, “They Wait for the G.I. Who Became a God.”

The term “cargo cult” quickly transcended anthropology, becoming a kind of pop cultural shorthand for misguided or confused hope, for yearning that is destined to remain eternally unrequited—even for the fetishization of consumer products and alienation from the means of production. Computer programmers referred to cargo cult programmers, novices who ritualistically paste in lots of unnecessary code because they understand what the code does but not how it works. Politicians around the world have been lampooned as cargo cultists for promoting policies that critics regard as empty promises incapable of achieving meaningful results. After the global financial crisis a decade ago, the performer Mike Daisey went on tour with a one-man show comparing international finance and the mortgage crisis to a cargo cult. In the UK, a souvenir shop called Cargo Cult Shop once invited customers to visit “if shopping is your religion.” The physicist Richard Feynman, in a 1974 commencement speech at CalTech, introduced the term “Cargo Cult Science” for scientific disciplines that he thought lacked integrity, explaining, “They follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”

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A tourist from New Zealand visiting Tanna for the John Frum Day celebrations.
The John Frum Red Cross Monument, Sulphur Bay, Tanna.

Lamont Lindstrom, a professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa, has been studying the phenomenon of the cargo cult (as well as the related phenomenon, of how outsiders react to it) since his first visit to Tanna in the 1970s. He argues that the term has become one of his field’s most persistent legacies, on par with concepts such as worldview, socialization, culture, and rite of passage. In a 2013 paper, he sums up the various kinds of symbolic roles that we have assigned those who believe in John Frum and his brethren: “Cargo cultists are misguided, even stupid nitwits who are deluded by irrational thinking and overblown desire; or cargo cultists are gallant rebels, cultural critics even, who scorn and reveal the dull, soul-numbing lesions of our consumerist modernity.” He continues, “The term, as metaphor, functions as a barely-disguised model of Western desire itself, although a desire that is displaced onto Melanesia: cargo cult is a just-so story about our peculiarly modern mode of desiring that is always ultimately unrequited, unquenchable, and never-ending.” In 2013, the organizers of Burning Man declared the annual theme of the Nevada desert festival to be “Cargo Cults”: “Like the islanders, most of us are many steps removed from the cargo that entirely shapes our lives.” (One Burner called the theme “a mind-fuck” because, with their followers’ shared adherence to strange beliefs and pointless rituals, “the difference between ‘Burning Man’ and a ‘cargo cult’ is the difference between ABC and CBS. They’re not the same thing, but a casual observer might never notice.”) On a promotional poster for the festival, a spaceman descended from a flying saucer sporting a banner that read, “WHO IS JOHN FRUM.” The answer, clearly, was someone who had left his origins on a small Melanesian island far behind him.

But the people on Tanna have not left John behind. As the rest of the world debated and borrowed and reinterpreted his symbolism, many Tannese continued to believe in John, not as a concept or a theoretical question, but as an actual historical and spiritual figure who brought a message of genuine importance to their ancestors, and who still matters very much today; the John Frum Spiritual Movement, as it’s called, has even been represented in Vanuatuan Parliament. “It’s a belief that has held this community together,” Richard Shing, the director of the Vanuatu Cultural Center, told me in February. I was visiting his office in Vanuatu’s capital city, Port Vila, on my way to Tanna, where I hoped to learn something about the way that the people closest to John understand him, more than 70 years after his last reported visit to the island.

Shing, who grew up on Tanna, sent me on my way with a final piece of advice: “Be very open-minded,” he said. “You will hear things that don’t sound rational.” This was okay, he added. It was part of the process.

A new road financed by Chinese investors, Green Point, Tanna.

Early believers in John Frum cleared an airstrip for his return on the north end of Tanna, but today visitors to the 200-square-mile island arrive on the west coast, at a small airport serviced twice a day by Air Vanuatu. Tourists deplane and are met by the drivers of burly trucks sent from the bungalows where they will be staying; occasionally, in acknowledgment of what some of these visitors have come to Tanna hoping to see, their hosts opt to pick them up wearing grass skirts and face paint. The outfits are both a performance for outsiders and a genuine tradition, in regular use during dances and ceremonies, that people are eager to see maintained. They made me think of the contradictions of Bislama, the English-based Creole language that people from different parts of Vanuatu (the country has just 288,000 people but more than 100 languages) use to talk to each other. Bislama was born because the late 19th century practice of “blackbirding”—essentially, the kidnapping of laborers from varied places to work on distant plantations—necessitated it. The language, with its use of object pronouns as subjects, the way it dispenses with articles, its profusion of words such as “pikinini” and “blakman,” can feel like an uncomfortable performance of colonial stereotypes. It is also Vanuatu’s national language, embraced, in the words of one researcher, as “the language of unification against the two colonial powers.”

For over a decade, the government of Vanuatu has borrowed millions of dollars from China and hired a Chinese company to build paved roads throughout Tanna. The drive from the airport to Lenakel, a town of painted concrete buildings with metal roofs, is smooth. (Lenakel’s other name is Blackman Town, and several people told me proudly that a town where all the businesses are owned by ethnically ni-Vanuatu people is a rare and special thing). The road stays paved for most of the way over the island’s central highlands before giving way to muddy tracks maintained with hand tools. Tanna is known within Vanuatu for being densely populated, but for the most part, the villages, which are often built from bush materials with woven walls and thatched roofs, are hidden from passing view behind a dense tropical canopy. From the road, you see only pedestrian and jeep trails leading off into the green, and groups of people walking long distances with the bounty of their gardens—everything from bananas and breadfruit to sweet corn, peanuts, and yams. At an intersection, where many people had gathered to drink kava (on Tanna, it is still often made by young boys, who prepare the root by chewing it), I heard someone shout my name. Leaning out of a truck window was Jean Pascal Wahe, the cultural center’s representative from Tanna, with whom I’d previously connected on Facebook. The largest annual celebration of John Frum was in two days, and Wahe had agreed to accompany me and the photographers I traveled with, to help us understand what was happening.

US military uniforms and flags used for the annual parade.
A US military Thompson submachine gun bag from World War II at John Frum headquarters.
Chief Isaac Wan (center), with his assistant (left) and his son Moly, wearing uniforms on John Frum Day.

The next morning, Wahe told us what he said was the real story of John Frum, not to be confused with conflicting versions we might hear (had, in fact, already heard) elsewhere. It went like this: before the arrival of outsiders, the people of Tanna lived in peace, tending their gardens and listening to the spirits—“so, like stone age,” explained Wahe, though with this he was referring not to the prehistoric period but to the custom of the time, which included an important role for certain, specially shaped stones whose careful keeping over generations guaranteed the health of the food crops with which they were associated. Then, in the late 19th century, Christian missionaries arrived and forced local people to move their villages, follow a new god, and abandon all that in Bislama is called kastom: everything from dancing to drinking kava to a host of specific traditions overseeing how villages are ruled, how people marry, how children come of age. The missionaries sometimes even broke the stones, in rejection of the old customs. This time period, around the early 20th century, became known as the era of Tanna Hall. “We say the missionaries came here,” explained Wahe, and “they made a big mess.”

It was in this context that, in 1939, a white man appeared at Green Point. He introduced himself as “John from America,” said Wahe, though Wahe wasn’t sure why—because of the man’s command of Tannese language and his ability to come and go at will, it was clear to the people of the time that John, though he looked like a person, was a spirit and not a regular man. (A few years later, American troops, part of the force fighting in World War II in the Pacific theater, did come to Vanuatu in large numbers. Many Tannese encountered them when they went to work at a base the Americans had built 500 kilometers to the north, on the island of Espiritu Santo.)

As the rest of the world debated and borrowed and reinterpreted his symbolism, many Tannese continued to believe in John Frum as an actual historical and spiritual figure.

John, said Wahe, told everyone he met to stop listening to the missionaries, and re-embrace kastom. He spread a message requesting that the island’s chiefs meet with him at Green Point; when they arrived, he asked them to tell him their wishes. One asked for money, one for a truck, one an icebox, another to be good at business, another for wisdom, and so on. Yet, Wahe continued, it was wrong to assume that the Tannese were still waiting around for these promises to be kept. It had sometimes taken generations, but all the wishes had been fulfilled: the chief who asked for money was from the west, where the town of Lenakel eventually sprung up; the one who asked for wisdom, “now all his grandchildren have master’s degrees.” Greg Tom, the manager of the bungalow where I was staying, had already told me what had happened to the chief—his ancestor—who asked to be good at business: “Now, in my family, we are all business-minded. The promise that John made to him is already kept.” Other locals I spoke to saw John’s promises reflected in the new wharf, the health of their gardens, the Peace Corps volunteers who work on sanitation or health projects, the new roads (although at least one person was upset that the road funding had come from China rather than America). “The cargo is the school, the church, the education,” Wahe continued. “Now we have an iron-roof house. Now some of our kids are doctors or lawyers.”

In Wahe’s telling, John Frum had nothing to do with an imposed cargo cult narrative of sitting around waiting for outside help to arrive. Instead, he had come to symbolize all kastom on Tanna, all the stones and spirits and living traditions: “They use the John just to bring it all together.” John was an emblem not of external transformation, but of becoming more yourself.

Coconut cups used for drinking kava, Green Point.
A man preparing the national dish, laplap, which is cooked wrapped in leaves, ahead of the John Frum Day celebrations at Sulphur Bay.

The only wish that John did leave unanswered was the one made by the chief from the village of Sulphur Bay, on the east coast of the island: “I want you to come back,” the chief said in Wahe’s telling, “and we will sit at one table and eat together.”

February 15 is the day on which some people say John promised to return. Every year there is a big celebration—or rather, there are two separate celebrations, in villages just down the road from one another. The divide is the result of a schism that occurred in the early 2000s when a Tannese man known as Prophet Fred, who was said to be able to perform miracles, correctly predicted a large flood (a lake drained overnight and wiped out Sulphur Bay) and warned that the world would soon end. Fred, a member of the Presbyterian Church, spoke of “Jesus-John,” a spirit that united the promises of John Frum and Christianity. Thousands of people arrived from Tanna and elsewhere to follow him, many splitting off from the movement’s previous leader, a man called Chief Isaac Wan, who left to build a new village a short distance away with his remaining followers. Ever since, even after the new sect dramatically diminished in numbers following Fred’s death in 2011, the two groups have hosted separate gatherings on February 15. People on Tanna informed me that Sulphur Bay’s celebration is the real one; that no, it was certainly the gathering that Isaac Wan led; and also that both groups had departed from the true legacy of John Frum—that a new chapter had been falsely grafted onto an old story, and that “that John is not the real John that we were talking to.”

A man in front of Mount Yasur, Tanna’s active volcano.

To reach the celebrations, streams of people on foot and packed into the backs of pickup trucks passed beneath Tanna’s active volcano, Mount Yasur—a great gray triangle, from which rise endless clouds of billowing gray smoke, above a barren plain of gray ash that stands out bizarrely against the green jungle. They began to arrive in the days before the 15th, carrying food and supplies and small children. But the first to come, a week in advance so they’d have time to practice, were the 40 or so men who had volunteered to take part in what has evolved to become the most striking element of the daylong ceremony: parade-ground drills by a volunteer militia carrying bamboo “guns” and wearing American military uniforms.

Early on the morning of the 15th, the militia members gathered on a dry riverbed and changed from shorts and soccer jerseys and tie-dyed T-shirts into faded, olive-green fatigues, some of them still bearing US Army and Air Force insignias and even name tags: West, Turner, Patterson. Each carried a fat, sharpened bamboo pole painted red at both ends—a stand-in rifle and bayonet. The group’s leader, whose name tag read “Hill,” wore Desert Storm fatigues and boots that distinguished him from the barefoot men clad in World War II green who followed his shouted marching orders. (In a spare moment, I asked where the uniforms had come from, and was informed that they’d been sent from America, by a man named Kevin. In earlier days, the men painted “USA” on their bare chests.) Almost as soon as the militia members began to practice their drills—they marched in formation, executed tight turns and quick footwork, and ducked from columns into rows and back again—the skies above them opened. The small boys carrying the men’s regular clothes ran for an outcropping of rock, but the soldiers kept their faces still, marching resolutely in the pouring rain.

The crater of Mount Yasur, where some say the spirit of John Frum lives.
A man puts on a US military uniform in preparation to march in the John Frum Day parade.
Early morning parade preparation drills in a dry riverbed.

By the time the militiamen entered Isaac Wan’s village a short time later, the sun was already hot and the men’s uniforms were dry. For shade, the village had raised, in a circle around a central square, long pavilions with palm roofs. Packed tightly inside were hundreds of onlookers. The soldiers entered, performed their turns and drills, then stood at attention as the American national anthem was played over a generator-powered loudspeaker, and the American flag was raised on a wooden pole between the flag of the Republic of Vanuatu and that of the US Marines. A string of local dignitaries sat on an elevated platform shaded with palm fronds. The small, white-headed figure of Isaac Wan stood out in the sweltering heat; he wore shiny black shoes and a crisp blue military uniform, heavy with medals and epaulettes, that accentuated the thinness of his legs.

The day before, I had met Isaac and two of his sons: Moly, white-bearded like his father, now beside him onstage in his own uniform, and Isaac Jr., who had disappointed the family by converting to Methodism, but who, like many other people I met on Tanna, felt the two belief systems—“the John Frum Spiritual Movement” and Christianity—could comfortably coexist. Isaac’s family told me yet another version of the John Frum story, one that gave them an original claim to the mythology: before arriving in Green Point, they said, John appeared first as a tiger to Isaac Wan’s father. In a dream, he introduced himself as John Frum, but he pronounced his surname not as from, but as rhyming with broom. “The name means ‘broom out the dirty,’” Isaac, Jr. said; it referred not to America, but to John sweeping out the missionaries and their Tanna Law. After World War II began, the story went, some chiefs were arrested by colonial authorities for following John and flouting the law, imprisoned in Port Vila, and finally released by some unidentified Americans, who also gave them a flag—the reason for all the red, white, and blue pageantry today. But the Stars and Stripes, Isaac’s sons explained, were not meant as a symbol of America. The flag stood, instead, for the way John protected kastom, and kastom protected the people of Tanna. The island is known within Vanuatu for having maintained its cultural traditions to an unusual degree; many of the people I spoke to on Tanna attributed this feat to the powerful legacy of John Frum, who is taken seriously even by those who don’t consider themselves believers. As a teacher named Fidel Johnson told me, public schools throughout Vanuatu have recently begun putting a strong new emphasis on teaching local culture and customs to kids. At school on the following Monday, he would quiz the students about Tannese kastom, including John Frum.

Overlooking the parade at Lamakara.

Once the military drill was over, the dances began—dozens of them, performed by troupes from villages around the island, in a variety of costumes. One dance involved a reenactment of the Tanna chiefs being freed from prison; another portrayed the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. There were dances about planting vegetables and hunting fish and birds, and the people who played the animals often died deeply dramatic deaths that made the crowd roar with laughter. In between the dances, there were speeches: by Isaac Wan; by the man introduced as the representative of the John Frum believers in the national parliament (“You no forget kastom. You hold it tight”); by the secretary-general of the John Frum Spiritual Movement, a high school principal in Port Vila, who told me that because the United States doesn’t maintain an embassy in Vanuatu, he had recently traveled to the one in Papua New Guinea to file requests for funding for things like water tanks and a truck for hospital transport. He was certain the US would listen, he said, because the US had helped start the movement and was surely aware of all the responsibility that implied.

Another speech, by Tanna’s police commander, referenced the handfuls of white tourists who were watching the festivities. “See these people here taking photos?” he asked. “They are showing the world that we have the best kastom, the best movement.” One of those tourists, a 61-year-old man wearing a pair of American flag jeans, an American flag T-shirt, a red hat, and a large camera, stood out more than the others. He introduced himself as Tony Page, from London, and said he had dreamed of visiting the John Frum celebration ever since first reading about it in a guidebook nearly 30 years before. “I’m a sensation seeker,” he added, in between clicks of his camera shutter. “I’m not coming to the zoo, looking at the caged animals.” His travel companion cast a meaningful look at Page’s flag pants. “Not going to the zoo?” he asked. Page had heard somewhere that if visitors bring the gift of technology to Tanna, they can adopt the name “Frum” as their own. He approached the dais with a bag that Isaac Wan solemnly received but did not open. Inside were old clothes, Page explained: he reasoned that zippers and Velcro counted as technology.

I sat on a mat woven from a palm frond, scribbling notes and asking questions, trying and failing to reconcile the many versions and time lines of John Frum. I tried to remember Richard Shing’s advice about keeping my mind open to things that did not make rational sense. The ceremony had been happening for decades now, its meaning changing with each passing year. So many of the roles we played that day were recurring ones: the leaders codifying the story as they wanted it told; the dancers enlivening it, mixing in their other concerns and beliefs; the photographers isolating moments from time and context; the tourists seeking spectacle and stories to tell; the journalist tasked with forming a cohesive narrative from a complicated and evolving belief system she didn’t understand. In the background, a familiar flag, transformed into a symbol not of imperialism but of resistance, flapped in the hot wind. But it seemed I was alone in my confusion. As the day got late, the people who had been watching from the shade stood up and joined in the dancing.

British tourist Tony Page at the John Frum Day celebrations, Lamakara.
A local woman wears a grass skirt to participate in the John Frum Day celebrations.

The following day, we decided to cross the island to the village of Green Point, where John held the meetings that seemed to be the connecting thread of all the stories, and where the photographers wanted to see a stone that John was said to have left behind when he departed, as proof of his message. After an hour-long drive, we arrived at a grassy field atop a seaside cliff and found a group of about 20 men, women, and children planting flowers and palms and raking up fallen leaves. They were frustrated by all the attention that Isaac Wan and his followers received—“They say they own the John Frum and we say we own the John Frum,” one man said—and had decided to prepare the area so they could begin to receive visitors of their own. (One asked me later if I had also visited Israel—if I was making pilgrimages to all the world’s holy lands.) When we asked to see the stone John left behind, the people spent a long time debating in the local language. I took in the view over the ocean, an anthill at my feet. Finally, the chief of the village said, yes, okay, but instead of showing us the stone around which they’d been gardening, a group of men climbed into the back of the truck we’d rented. There were many stones to visit, they said, if you wanted to know the story of John Frum.

The Stars and Stripes, Isaac’s sons explained, were not meant as a symbol of America. The flag stood, instead, for the way John protected kastom, and kastom protected the people of Tanna.

We drove to a nearby beach. During the time of Tanna Law, our new guides explained, some villages had been forced to relocate here, nearer to missionary schools. Three villagers saw a person, a white man, appear as if from nowhere; when they approached him, he disappeared into a stand of wild cane. Later, the man came again, and this time Jack Kahu, a man from Green Point, managed to touch him, though John jumped so impossibly high that Jack was left hanging over a cliff by the root of a screw pine tree. As a reward and a test, John asked Jack to kill and roast a chicken for him, to stay awake until the morning star rose, and then to burn the bowl in which he had served the bird. As we walked from the beach down a muddy trail through a coconut grove, the men from Green Point told the story in turns, interrupting each other to add or argue over details. At last, they stopped and stood in a circle around a stone—gray, lichen-covered, a few feet high—in the jungle. “John gave this to Jack Kahu,” explained one of the men, whose name was also Jack. “He said, ‘You’ve done everything I’ve told you, so now: this is a stone.’” The rain was pouring down again. We all stood in silence, looking at the stone that John had left. It looked quite a bit like other stones nearby.

The next stones, straight up a steep, muddy path, were called memory stones. Before John left for the last time, the men explained, the people asked him for proof to give to anyone who might doubt that he had existed. John gave them the stones and said that if his messages were false, the stones would disappear; if true, they would remain. This was convincing proof, said the men from Green Point. There was a term for this sort of marker—“eye proof”—and now we had seen it. Surely, we could not doubt what we had now seen with our own eyes. “The story that we give to you, it’s alive,” said a man named Ada. “It’s the real one.”

The place where some say John Frum first appeared, Green Point.

In recent decades, anthropology has distanced itself from the term “cargo cult,” which is now seen as having been reductively applied to a lot of complicated and disparate social and religious movements that arose from the stress and trauma of colonialism, and sought to attain much more varied and amorphous goals—things like self-determination—than material cargo. Those movements are now more likely to be studied independently than under the broad rubric of cargo cults. (This didn’t mean that Westerners stopped writing about cargo cults, though; the new trend was to use them as a chance to reflect on what they said about the cultures that diagnosed them. Cargo cults became a means “to study the Western Self: why and how did We create Them?”),” the anthropologist Marc Tabani wrote in 2007.) But some anthropologists feel that the reinterpretation has gone too far, effectively erasing the existence of events and beliefs that had not been wholly imagined by outside observers, simply because those observers had failed to understand them in a satisfying way. Tabani, for his part, wrote that he’d thought of John Frum as essentially a heritage of folklore, until the schism with Prophet Fred—at one point, more than 3,000 people, some of whom quit their jobs or abandoned gardens on other islands, moved to join him—revealed how strong the current of belief still was. I felt much the same way, meeting the people of Green Point. The February 15 spectacle felt full of performance and politics; here, the belief was just as hard for me to grasp, but it felt profound in its sincerity.

After so many decades of fascination on the part of so many parties, the literature of cargo cults—the documents, the collected stories, the interpretations, the retellings—has grown plentiful. “The Story of John Frum, could all its chapters and verses be collated, would outweigh a Bible,” Lindstrom wrote. His explanation for the obsession is that the cargo cult story of endlessly waiting for an unattainable desire is achingly familiar to a Western world built on consumerism and consumption: “We find reassurance and desirous echoes in strange tales of people who are madly in love with what they cannot have.” It’s a compelling argument. But as with the broader mythology of cargo cults, it also feels very removed from the John Frum movement as people now describe it on Tanna. I thought of the other piece of advice Richard Shing had given me before I left for the island. On Tanna, Shing said, “it’s not uncommon to find people who believe that their place is the center of the world.” I replied that I could think of some others who have the same viewpoint.

Stands of trees at Green Point.

The people of Green Point continued their story of John, embedded in the landscape. A cave, a long climb up a cliffside, and many questions later—no, John had nothing to do with America; no, his last name didn’t mean “broom,” either; no, February 15 had no meaning—we found ourselves in the nakamal, still in regular use, where John is believed to have met with the chiefs all those years ago, the place where he was last seen, where he told the chiefs to go home to their own nakamals and to keep their own kastom, and where he made his last unfulfilled promise: that he was not gone for good.

“This is the place where they finished the story,” said Jack. He gestured around him at the open field, dotted with cow dung; at the circle of women who had changed into painted grass skirts to send us off with a kastom dance; and up at the enormous banyan tree, the tangled mess of its roots growing right out in the open air. The tree must have been an impressive specimen even all those decades ago, when the living story of John first began.

The memory stone that the people of Green Point say was placed there by John Frum.
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