Michael Main Portrait
Michael Main has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University. Michael’s PhD research focused on the Huli population in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) highlands and the impact of ExxonMobil’s Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas project. Michael has a professional background in geology and environmental science, which underpins his interest and work in the anthropology of development and resource extraction.

by Michael Main

As an outsider coming to Hela Province, one of the most delightful remarks one can make to any Huli-speaking local who engages you in conversation is I Hela igiri/wandari, “I am a son/daughter of Hela”. The concept of Hela is driven by an expansive, all-encompassing ethos that delights in its appropriation by outsiders. It is hard to ignore comparisons with the expansive ethos of ancient Rome and the claim civis romanus sum. Like the Roman state, Hela is strengthened by an egalitarian embrace of diversity that is able to be incorporated under a singular membership. The desire for Hela to be incorporated into the world is fundamental, I believe, to what I observed to be a marked absence of racism towards Chinese trade store owners in Tari and Komo, including the ready acceptance of marriage between Chinese men and Huli women.

It is easy to connect these sentiments with the relatively recent formation of Hela Province, which was carved out of the Southern Highlands Province and declared in August 2012. Yet the notion of Hela as a “federation” of clans, 1 although a seemingly modern post-colonial idea, can be extended to well before the infamous first contact period of the 1930s. The first patrol officers soon realised that the people of the Tari area were part of a much broader understanding of a Hela people: “The word Hela Huri 2 is often heard and seems to embrace all true Huri people.” 3 Esdale’s interpretation of the word “Hela” as “‘altogether’ or ‘one kind’”, while incorrect, does describe the sentiment of a people united by a singular, apical ancestor named Hela. The particular challenge for any researcher in Hela province is to come to terms with the geographical extent and scale of Hela and the difficulty in obtaining meaningful understandings of Huli society without accepting the need to expand your field site as far as the cosmology wants to take you. Early research undertaken by Robert Glasse was restricted to an area within the immediate control of the Australian administrative station at Tari. As I outline in Chapter 3, the first missionaries to arrive at Tari, Robert and Barbara Hutton, were restricted to a three-mile radius of the station because of safety concerns over the constant tribal fighting. Although the idea and a sense of the gravity of the Hela identity has been described by Steven Frankel 4 and every researcher since, a detailed description of how Huli society is linked, not only cosmologically, but as an emergent property that arose out of the movement of people that traced a tangled network of genealogical relations to land, rivers, mountains, swamps, caves, ritual sites, and thousands of named clan affiliations, has never been accounted for. The reason for this is that the task is nigh on impossible. The immensity of the data required to present a navigable overview of Huli social structure is such that, even if such a definitive set of information exists (which it almost certainly does not), it is questionable as to what relevance such a collection of data could possibly have. The extent of Huli society is well beyond the cognitive capacity of any single person to encapsulate, yet what is well understood is the metanarrative of Hela, which exists as a concept detached from the minutia of clan, land and kin that must be negotiated in accordance with the requirements of everyday life. Hela can therefore be considered as a nation according to the definition provided by Benedict Anderson as quoted in my introduction.

The western concept of nationhood and the use of “nation” in the English language to describe a collective people can be traced back to the 14th century and pre-dates by several centuries what remains a common understanding of “modernity”. 5 “Nation” was even used from at least the 15th century to describe the collectiveness of clans. 6 The contemporary idea of nationhood has taken on a very modern flavour and is not usually applied in the analysis of societies in Papua New Guinea. Given the use of the word “nation” to describe indigenous Australian language groups, as well as indigenous collectives in other parts of the world, my application of this word in the Hela context can hardly be controversial. Aletta Biersack’s use of the word “cosmopolitan” 7 is a much more pointed challenge to the concept of modernity and attempts to illuminate the sophisticated complexity of pre-contact Papua New Guinean highlands societies so that they may be regarded on equal terms with our own “modern” sensibilities. Both ideas of “nationhood” and “cosmopolitanism” are predicated upon the interconnectedness of a broad range of social collectives spread across a large geographic area. To equate either with modernity is therefore to restrict the notion of modernity to those societies that are expressed across sufficient scales of geography and population. The natural question would be where is the threshold at which these scales become sufficient? I would resist restricting the concept of modernity only to these larger-scale societies and my use of the word “nation” is not intended as an analogous idea to that of modernity. When it comes to my use of the word “modernity” the question for the reader is not so much “what does this writer mean when he uses the word ‘modernity’”, but “why do I the reader understand what this word ‘modernity’ means?” The concept of modernity that I argue in this thesis requires an examination of materiality as its common and most salient feature.

The sense of social largesse across the interconnected peoples of the highlands, understood in Huli terms as the people of Hela, is by no means a product of the post- contact era. John Black during his excursion with the Hagen-Sepik Patrol in 1938-39, collected for himself a set of perceptions that challenged his pre-conceived ideas about the pre-modern society that he was observing: “Natives live life like our own. They are yeoman peasants and are not the barbarians we popularly suppose them. They are a superior people with a stable society.” 8 Black garnered a sense of being looked down upon as he realised that, from the point of view of the locals, the members of his party were clearly subject to “many prohibitions” as to how they were able to conduct their lives. By contrast the highlanders were living unrestrictedly in their own complex social setting. Black writes:

We are regarded as the barbarians and not they … European missionaries teach native races the equality of man. This is not so bad but when the result is that the native regards us as something inferior it is another matter.

I hesitate to interpret these sentiments as a 1930s expression of the ideal of the noble savage. This feeling of inferiority is common to anyone who visits a foreign land where they are unfamiliar with the language, customs, and history of the society in which they are interloping. Black had travelled widely across the PNG highlands and gathered a perception that is only available to those who have been exposed to a broad cross-section of highlands society. The experience of Taylor on the same patrol moved him to caution against becoming “blinded by superficial differences to the essential similarity of all men … thought processes of the New Guinea people that I have met seem to be almost identical with our own, modified only by their social background.” 9 Taylor, I believe, had picked up on a common relationship with materiality that existed both across the different highlands groups as well as with the European explorers. Early patrol officers, who regularly undertook lengthy, cross-sectional patrols, also wrote of their changing perceptions as a result of their exposure to neighbouring groups. Sinclair writes: “I am more than ever convinced that the Duna people are a branch of the Huri, who must be considered the parent people.” 10 Such an assessment was precisely the understanding of Huli-speaking people who very much consider themselves to be at the centre of a cosmological realm that expansively included all their neighbouring groups and that, in many ways, has by now expanded to include the entire world.

On this point I partly disagree with Biersack when she writes of the ex-centricity of Huli, Duna and Ipili people as “centred not on themselves as geographical isolates but on the culturally diverse field in which their mythology, trade routes, and marriage practices embedded them.” 11 Huli did not consider themselves to be “geographical isolates”, but their geographical connectivity was certainly centred upon themselves. Indeed, their centrist and hegemonic understanding of themselves depended upon their connections throughout the diverse field that surrounded them. Much has been written on the cosmological underpinnings of this expansive Huli worldview, 12 but there are also economic factors in the form of trade routes and centres of production peripheral to a centralised Huli-controlled trading zone that are important to providing an understanding of the Huli-centric nation of Hela. Tom Ernst writes, “The degree of freedom of movement by Huli and to Huli territory is more likely to have been “the peace of the trade” than a commonly subscribed to Huli ritual or cosmological hegemony.” 13 I don’t think that it needs to be a case of one or the other, rather that both are intimately related. This chapter is intended to describe Hela as an experience. In order to understand Huli society and Hela more broadly, it is necessary to describe, as with any nation, the lived experience of being, and perceiving to be, a part of that nation. All social structure is sentimentality made manifest, and nothing is more sentimental than a person’s relationship to the past. As the past changes its future remains forever out of reach and the present reveals as something perpetually unmade. This combination of an ever-present sense of incompleteness, precipitous disorder, and as yet unrealised possibility has been and remains the lived experience of Huli society.

(An extract from, “Until Hela Becomes a City”, The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity. Michael Main. A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the Australian National University. Canberra, April, 2020., pp. 271-276.)

  1. Manasupe Zurenuoc and Felicity Herbert, “The Creation of Two New Provinces in Papua New Guinea – A Story of False Starts and Near Fatal Collisions,” (SSGM Discussion Paper 2017/2: The Australian National University, 2017). []
  2. Huri was the name initially given to the Huli people and language []
  3. Esdale, F.V. “Tari Patrol Report No. 6 of 1954/55.” Patrol reports [microform], Port Moresby: National Archives of Papua New Guinea, 1955. []
  4. Stephen Frankel, The Huli Response to Illness, 16. []
  5. OED, “nation, n.1,” in Oxford English Dictionary online. []
  6. Ibid. The OED example refers to Irish clans. []
  7. Aletta Biersack, “Introduction,” in Papuan Borderlands: Huli, Duna, and Ipili Perspectives on the Papua New Guinea Highlands, 6. []
  8. John Black, “Hagen-Sepik Patrol field notes, April-June 1939,” (ffaNational Library of Australia, MS 8346, MS Acc11.0961939). Box 6, File 8. This entry is from 30 May 1939 when Black was camped at Waimeram. []
  9. James S. Taylor, “Hagen-Sepik Patrol Report,” in Papers and photographs of Jim Taylor, “Native thinking and culture contact” p. 2 []
  10. James Sinclair, “Duna Patrol Report No. 2 of 1955/56,” (Patrol reports [microform], Port Moresby: National Archives of Papua New Guinea1956), 31. []
  11. Aletta Biersack, “Introduction,” in Papuan Borderlands: Huli, Duna, and Ipili Perspectives on the Papua New Guinea Highlands, 7. []
  12. See especially: Stephen Frankel, The Huli Response to Illness; Laurence Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes; Chris Ballard, “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.” []
  13. Tom Ernst, “Full-Scale Social Mapping and Landowner Identification Study of PRL02,” Report commissioned by ExxonMobil (2008), 33. []

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