Meeting the Huli: Dispatch 10 from Extraordinary Cultures

March 27th, 2009 by Richard Kurin

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is tenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Papua New Guinea

Huli women practicing traditional weaving methods. Photo: Richard Kurin

Huli women practicing traditional weaving methods. Photo: Richard Kurin

Our group arrived in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, and split up in three to explore different parts of New Guinea—one to the Sepik River, one to an area near Mt. Hagen, and one to the Tari Valley in the Southern Highlands. I went with the latter given that a colleague, Steve Feld had done a wonderful series of ethnomusicological recordings in the Bosavi region of the Southern Highlands over the past three decades and published a wonderful set on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

We arrived after a 90 minute flight on a Dash-8. There was no terminal, only a landing strip. A colorfully attired group of hundreds welcomed us—it was market day. We made our way down and up the adjacent hillside to the Ambua Lodge—named after the yellow ochre used as face paint by the Huli. We were treated to a visit to a nearby village; we watched, learned and listened as women wove fibers into carriers, men fired arrows at banana tree stumps, and demonstrated fire-making techniques.

The next day Huli from different clans demonstrated mumu cooking—placing raw corn, pumpkin, sweet potatoes and other foodstuffs into a backing pit covered with heated rocks. The Huli men—called “wig men” conducted a workshop on the growing, care and use of wigs—a shamanistic practice, and finally held a sing-sing greeting dance. We learned about the role of the clan in the inheritance of garden plots, domestic life, gender relations, and the use of pigs as a specialized form of money—30 pigs being the typical price of a bride. One of the lodge staff, herself a Huli woman told movingly about her own life as a girl and her divorce. Another guide spoke about men’s warfare and weaponry.

A Huli wig man applies make-up before the sing-sing. Photo: Richard Kurin

A Huli wig man applies make-up before the sing-sing. Photo: Richard Kurin

Here it is the men of the different clans—thought to be mythically descended from the river, tree, dog, pig, and bird—who elaborately adorn themselves. The men painstakingly tend to their wigs, paint their faces with make-up, and tie leaves on their waists to imitate the tail feathers of birds. Land and clan affiliation pass through men. Men clear land for gardens and feud with other clans and tribes—typically over land, pigs, and women. Women do most of the gardening, cook, make rope and carrying bags, and take care of the children—though boys and girls are separated while young to live with men and women respectively, be initiated, and learn their roles.

New Guinea has long been a site of anthropological work, with classic studies done in the early 1900s in the Trobriands by Bronislaw Malinowski and along the Sepik by Margaret Mead among others. Horticultural societies found on the island largely characterized the most technologically advanced of human societies in the period from about 15,000 years ago to the beginnings of the great agricultural civilizations. Given that and New Guinea’s relative isolation until the mid-20th century, its cultures in some ways offer a glimpse back in time. Here we still see the operation of tribal and clan societies, strong differentiation of gender roles, an economy closely tied to pigs and garden produce, trade networks moving between isolated, hard-to-reach settlements, and a ritual life strongly tied to beliefs in natural spirits and those of the dead.

New Guinea of course is not pristine. Many people today work for gold mines and oil companies. Missionaries have established churches, schools and clinics. And new manufactured products and well as second-hand western clothes are ubiquitous. Still, we are all abuzz about the traditional ways of Papua New Guinea’s people and how they will fare in the future.

This post is tenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Click here to learn more about travel to Oceana.

Click here to play recordings made of Margaret Mead for Smithsonian Global Sound.

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