Cargo cults are a strange part of World War Two's legacy in the South Pacific. Though there is debate about the first instance, it's clear they are deeply linked to the mass arrival of American troops in the Pacific in 1942, setting up bases to fight off the Japanese. Planeloads of canned food, supplies, and even refrigerators started streaming in—things the islanders had never seen before. In the aftermath, a belief emerged that the only way the Americans could only have this stuff was because they were connected to the spirit world.
This was the birth of the cargo cult movement—a religion that revolves around worshipping material goods. All over Melanesia, these groups performed elaborate rituals with the hope they could attract the spirit god's attention and be delivered material wealth of their own—even building goods they'd seen the US army use. Runways were carved into the earth, makeshift planes cobbled together on the tarmac.
Many of these cults fizzled out after a few decades, but on the remote island of Tanna in Vanuatu, a fairly unique version of a cargo cult still exists. The members are holding out the hope that a man named John Frum is going to coordinate the American army to deliver a bunch of cargo goods which would solve all their problems… but only if they worship the US hard enough.
Each morning, the villagers of Lamakara raise the American flag—they celebrate John Frum Day in February each year. Men from the village march in formation to the flag in order to show their respects. They paint USA across their bare chests, carrying bamboo sticks they've fashioned into muskets.
Curious about how a tiny island village came to worship a mythical American figure, documentarian Jessica Sherry headed to Tanna. Her film, Waiting for John, explores the history and thought process behind the John Frum cargo cult. According to Sherry, the villagers carry out these rituals because it's what the US soldiers did. They believe if they do the same, "they'll also get the goods to come to them."
Why John Frum though? The general consensus is that he was a soldier from America, but his name probably wasn't "John Frum"—that was just what everyone heard when he introduced himself as "John from America." But Sherry says that, after her time in Vanuatu, she has a different take on the origins of John Frum.
For the islanders, the cargo cult was, in her view, "a way to get their strength back" and reclaim their cultural identity after years of colonial repression. Sherry believes John Frum was actually a spiritual being called "John Broom"—the words broom and frum sound similar in Vanuatu—who the leaders hoped was going to "broom" the French and English colonial rulers off their island. "The leaders were looking to take power at that time and so they took this idea and made a movement out of it," she says.
Sherry also feels the rituals and practices built up around worshipping John Frum are a powerful force in bringing the community together and strengthening their sense of cultural identity. The group's charismatic leader, Chief Isak has been a strong enforcer and advocate of their traditional values since he took over from his father in 1975. He preaches once a week to the villagers about the dangers of outside influences, and of money making ventures. "It makes them feel like they belong," Sherry says. "Every religion does that in a way."
In the past few decades though, the John Frum Movement has been weakened on Tanna. This is due, in part, to the rise of Seventh-Day Adventism but also to an evolution of thinking in the younger generations on the island. Chief Isak, now in his 70s, remains deeply conservative on issues such as women knowing their place below the men. According to photographer Tim Richards, who's taken photos on Tanna over the last couple of years, the John Frum Movement "has changed its focus" to the ideas of traditional governance because it's now well-known the cargo is never going to come.
But there still remains a core group of believers.
Each morning, they raise the American flag and gather every Friday night to sing songs about their history and John Frum. They are still waiting for the cargo that's never arrived. So why do they still believe? Journalist Paul Raffaele put this question to Chief Isak in his article for Smithsonian, asking why he's "kept faith with him" when essentially, "prayers [to John] have been in vain."
In response, Chief Isak compared the John Frum Movement to Christianity. If followers of that religion haven't given up hope after "waiting 2000 years for Jesus to return to earth," why would he?
But Chief Isak's faith puts him in the minority. After getting to know people on Tanna, Sherry realized that while no one was going to outright say they didn't believe in John Frum anymore, people are questioning the movement. "There is this environment of 'we're all in this together'," she says, "but you soon realize they are questioning everything—just like everyone—and are looking for better opportunities."
In particular, many young people are leaving Tanna in search for work and they aren't looking back. A report done by the Vanuatu Cultural Centre found although young people would like to be connected to their traditional roots—and have an understanding of traditional customs—the importance of finding a job and earning an income won out.
So, would it be such a bad thing if the people of the JFM lay down their bamboo bayonets and packed away the American flag for good? Most Americans have no idea there's a tiny community on a Vanuatuan island worshipping their culture of excess consumerism. But the end of the John Frum movement would also mark the closing of a chapter in this island's history, wherein its people fought to reclaim their own traditions.
While Sherry agrees their obsession with the US is weird, she says it would be sad to see the movement laid to rest. "It marked a point in their history where they took back identity and power for themselves. Where they said, 'We believe in John Frum, and we're not going to follow your rules anymore."
Learn more about Waiting For John, and find a screening near you here.