by Michael Main

Dr. Michael Main
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. 

Datagaliwabe is commonly understood to be the Huli word for “God”. It is difficult to trace where and when datagaliwabe came to be understood as the Christian God, although it is clear that the transition happened very quickly and soon after the first missions arrived. Elder Huli interviewed during the 1980s from both the Catholic and United Churches indicate that this transition was common to at least both those denominations. 1 The existence of datagaliwabe and his ready interpretation by Huli as being the God that was preached to them by the first missionaries, is largely taken as concrete proof by Huli themselves that they were, in many ways, a Christian precontact society. That the early missionaries were talking about datagaliwabe when preaching about God was so obvious to Huli that the missionaries discovered that the Huli conversion to Christianity was a surprisingly easy task. However, for Huli ethnographers, datagaliwabe has proved to be a difficult and elusive spirit, largely because his transformation into the Christian God was so rapid that not much data has been gathered that relates to his pre-contact form. Glasse paints datagaliwabe as a standalone figure who judges human moral behaviour but does not respond to ritual or sacrifice as other dama spirits. 2 Goldman is unimpressed by the portrayal of datagaliwabe as stern moral invigilator with the power to punish, and finds instead that datagaliwabe is rarely invoked at all and appears mostly indifferent to human behaviour. 3 Goldman finds datagaliwabe in the context of “caretaker-child socialization patterns” 4 as a way of remonstrating with children in order to keep them well-behaved. In the context of Christianity, datagaliwabe has certainly been elevated to an extraordinary level of importance that he did not previously possess. However, the question remains as to the mysterious existence of datagaliwabe, even if as childhood spirit, and his ready availability to be elevated within a Christian paradigm. It was, after all, Huli themselves who interpreted datagaliwabe as God.

The major difficulty for the researcher in trying to understand pre-contact understandings of datagaliwabe is the need to disbelieve almost everything that Huli themselves have to say on the matter. But there does exist common ground in the findings of Glasse, Goldman, and Arabagali in that datagaliwabe watches and perceives and does so through a moral lens. Some people in Tari told me that datagaliwabe is also the sun, although they were not clear as to whether datagaliwabe is the sun, or lives in the sun. Ipili understandings of the sun are cognisant with Huli notions of datagaliwabe, and it seems clear that Ipili and Huli are describing a very similar concept. For Ipili the sun “is an omniscient, sighted subject [who] sees and knows everything,” and “the solar orb is his eye,” 5 although there are important differences. The Ipili sun is the provider of mana to Ipili, especially Ipili big men, whereas the Huli datagaliwabe is more like the detached retina of a knowing sun dispersed and omnipresent, but not the source of knowledge or mana. My efforts to understand what older Huli had been told about datagaliwabe by their pre-Christian fathers corresponds with Goldman’s findings, and I was at pains to ensure that what I was being told was what pre-Christian Huli fathers had told their sons, and not what the sons currently believed. Interestingly, the two people I spoke with who had experienced Christian conversion during the 1950s, one from Tari and the other from Koroba, both insisted that datagaliwabe had always been the Christian God. This is representative of the fervent embrace of Christianity by Huli, and may go some way to explaining the difficulties that ethnographers have had in understanding this figure. When I made specific efforts to understand from older Huli in the Komo region what their pre-Christian fathers had told them about datagaliwabe when they were children some of the responses were illuminating and complex. Maga Arawi, the Secretary of the Kangalu ECPNG mission near Komo, spoke of the datagaliwabe of his childhood as a sort of house spirit:

So this is our fireplace. You sit on that side and I sit on this side. I’m not allowed to jump over the fireplace and come to your area, your place where you sit. You are not allowed to come up my side and get leaves or something like that for smoking or anything. And they also tell us that there is datagaliwabe up here in the roof looking down on us so don’t steal anything inside. Don’t jump over from one place to another place, don’t steal. So we just got scared.

Joseph Abuli, who is from the foothills of Mt Sisa, gave a very detailed response that is worth quoting at length:

Datagaliwabe is the belief that they have. Maybe they are talking about nature or something like that. When you eat outside and you come in that’s our fathers from the mountain they told us ‘don’t eat outside. If you eat outside you need to bring half of what you are eating outside.’ For example, when you eat pig outside, in Huli when we cut pig meat we never keep only meat or the fat. The fat with the meat two of this one you give it to a man or a person. But when you go to other part of this world they will just give a bit of meat or grease. But our Huli way is two of these: fat and then meat I will give you. That’s our culture. So, when you eat this meat outside you bring the fat or eat the meat. Don’t finish yourself outside. Why when you eat and you come in on your hand the smelling will be there. They will smell you that you eat some good food like pig meat. Or like cassowary meat or any other meat outside. Or any other good food outside. You eat hide but you come to the house the datagaliwabe will know that you are outside you have this good time there and you come in here and if you trick these people. And then datagaliwabe know that you have done the thing wrong because you need to bring that pig meat or the fat in here but you have never done this one. That is you are wrong.

So they believe that datagaliwabe is looking at you. Datagaliwabe’s home is somewhere here, somewhere in the space. Not in the roof of that house but somewhere that what you are doing the datagaliwabe is watching. Maybe the nature is watching you what you are doing. You are doing outside but father used to sit in the house and say ‘the trees will tell you. Son you are going there and you know if you friend with a woman I said don’t friend with a woman. If you friend with a woman the law I am giving you from this house I said not to fornication or whatever with that woman if you do datagaliwabe is watching. I give order not to do but the trees there, the place where you are and you see something there those are the things that will tell me.’ Father used to say like that. When I see a tree there the tree will tell me. When I see bamboo there bamboo will tell me. When I see banana there banana will tell me. That’s nature. The natures will tell me. Why I’m saying is the datagaliwabe is there watching. What are you doing. In the eyes of datagaliwabe you do the things properly. Not on yourself walking here and then everywhere you go. I am not here with you. My mother is not there with you. Your immediate family we are not there with you. But someone is there taking control of you, watching you. If you see the house the house is watching you. If you see the dogs on the road the dogs is watching you. If you see trees, if you see the rivers or whatever you see. Any environment around you. Those are the people who’ve got eyes, ears, they see you and what you are doing is good or wrong or right you know they will tell us. Oh! Once father said like this and I was sitting in the house he came to build this airstrip here at Komo. 6 I was very small boy. And then father say, he just got up very early four o’clock in the morning. And he just peel the kaukau and you know put them on the fire and then put it into the ashes. And then took the kaukau out and then he just put them in his big bilum. He was trying to come here for build this road. Not only him but every strong people living in this area Komo, they came to build this airport or airstrip. Son he said ‘you are sitting there and that is your…’ This is the fireplace and the father is sitting there.

Next father is sitting here. Like the small boys and myself you know we small boys sitting at the back sitting there. If I sit here this will be my area, the compartment that daddy giving me to sleep here… So don’t put your hand here and there everywhere or come to my side. This is big boundary, the fireplace. That is by using the words they said this is a corridor. Or mark, boundary. This is iba Tagali, 7 they will say iba Tagali… this is the Tagali river going here. You are not allowed to come to this side. Father will say if you come across the datagaliwabe is watching. So I have heard this word from the daddy so that time when father comes to work here he just took the kaukau out from the ashes and the father, mother used to make a bag the small bag for me so in that small bag the father cooked the kaukau and filled them up in the small bag with the kaukau, the cooked one. Son you just want to stay at home, look after pigs. Stay with the mother. Get my smoke leaves. Leaves from the bush. Collect them, put them here on my side. Get the firewood from the bush and put them already here. Enough for your side. But the order I am giving you don’t come to my side. I have everything there just hanging them on the wall. You are not allowed to touch them. If you do, he used to bring some wire [fly wire over the window] he just picked up some wire here on the road from Komo. Like tin fish. They ate the tin fish and empty tin fish we never left it. Our olden time. I don’t know why we collect them and bring them to the house and we just put them in the house. We don’t know what to do but we see the colours of the tin and these things. Maybe we smell it and it smells nice. So father wants to show us this is the fish, these things the white man ate…. Father and I had approx. maybe a thousand tin fish build them in the house. Father said ‘son you are not allowed to touch this wire’. You see he will touch this wire using his fingers. Can you see its taking? [Scrapes the flywire with his fingers to make a sound]. This will inform me what you have done here when I am away. Then he will just get a stick and touch a little bit on the tin fish, you see the noise coming there? That’s his talking, that’s the tin is talking. Don’t touch anything here. And then I believe that’s datagaliwabe. And then they said when you go to the garden. Father used to tell us. You go to the garden and you break the sugar cane.

When you break the sugar cane it will not just break but can you hear the noise of the sugar? You break the sugar cane and you hear this noise. That’s the sugar cane saying ‘father this man is killing me or taking me away. He is calling it. He is calling to the owner. When you break the sugar, the noise of that when you break the crack or whatever you heard. That’s the calling out from the sugar. Calling his owner. So the owner will hear that noise and he will come and if you steal the sugar from the man that noise you will heard when you are breaking the sugar so don’t you ever go to other man’s garden and break the sugar or banana. When you cut down that banana break down the banana or pull the banana out you will see the noise when you pull the thing out and hear the noise that’s a calling out from the banana tree or sugar calling to his daddy. Daddy the [?] coming here and taking me away. So don’t you ever cut the banana down or trees down or anything which you are not allowed to enter his area and get the things. The woman will call out, ‘this man is killing me’ or ‘this man is raping me’ or ‘this man is doing this and that’ ‘this woman is doing this and that’.

The human being used to call out. But whatever we are keeping in the house or we plant in the garden whatever they have eyes, they have ears, they have something mouth to talk. Don’t touch them. You stay where we are. Stay with us. When you break your banana yourself then he will feel himself having the pain and said [makes sound] when you cut it off. He is talking. Father used to say like told us datagaliwabe. When they say datagaliwabe is that. And we believe back. Okay fold our arms and we stay where we are. We will never touch their pigs or their garden food. They told us they have not given authority to do these certain things we will never do it. They giving us the tracks to walk. You follow this track to this place. That direction which you are not given you are not allowed to go because our enemy is there. Those are the talk we stand firm on father has promised us. And then we believe that is datagaliwabe. The datagaliwabe is that. Sometimes they said, people making garden they will just sit down and look around and see spaces there and see but today’s weather is not clear. Sometimes when it’s clear they come. You see the, I mean the look on the skies and you see the clouds sit and you know the small blocks, I mean in heaps sitting all around. The father will say, our older mother and father will say, ‘And they are planting taro, some people are planting taro there.’ He used to say ‘those are the taro mountain planting taro.’ Ma hanga 8 also talk. Humbirini. 9 Humbirini means spirit of the people. Man died and went away. They are planting ma hanga. Those are the around when it’s a fine day. You see the good weather. Datagaliwabe and maybe these people are making garden on top outside. We don’t know.

Abuli’s response brings us, I believe, closer to an understanding of the mysterious figure of datagalwabe than previous research has been able to achieve. I have reproduced Abuli’s lengthy speech in full because of the way he builds upon his nuanced argument with layers of description. Datagaliwabe’s observance is manifest in the engagement with the material universe throughout the conduct of life. Smells, sounds, selfish behaviour in relation to the possession of objects, illicit sex; nothing is without the element of conscious observance by the internality of the external world of the internality of the individual person. Datagaliwabe is the animus that is an inherent component of materiality. The vital relationship is between datagaliwabe and shame (taga), where shame must be experienced as a reflection of an external knowing of personal behaviour. 10 There is a great deal of ambivalence in the Huli relationship with nature, as of course there is in Western relationships. Nature is without mindful intent, which is a concept that I explore in detail in chapter 5, yet it can also respond when something is asked of it. Nature is wordless, yet it is not without voice. Nature is moral and pure by default because it does not have the agency to be immoral or impure. Some form of Cartesian-like struggle is evident in the Huli relationship with nature, which is an observation also made by Goldman. 11 Goldman is careful to outline the limits to this comparison and stresses the inseparability of material actions (“mental events”) that are caused by mental states. Minds and their mental states have “for Huli a metaphysical hardness as concrete as any physical movement of muscle”. 12 The internal, observing state of the external world also has a metaphysical hardness that is manifest in datagaliwabe. Nothing is immaterial and shame, like other states of mind such as anger, is worn on the body; “in shame ‘the nose points down’”. 13

Goldman agrees with Glasse that belief in datagaliwabe “lends support to the machinery of social control”. 14 However, he refutes any notion that datagaliwabe can be considered as “a moral guardian of adult mores”, but is rather a device for the socialisation of children. Yet it is also true that datagaliwabe was available in the adult world to be immediately embraced as the figure of God or Jesus that was being preached by the first missionaries. By being neither associated with ritual performance, nor amenable to human influence, datagaliwabe was open for reinterpretation and to receive the projections of a Christian God. Although the vast majority of Huli were converted to Christianity, it is far from the case that conversion was universally accepted. The documentary film “Christ comes to the Papuans” follows a Huli elder named Wandipe who refuses conversion despite the urgings of his friends. The film opens with Wandipe’s opinion about Jesus and Christianity, “About Jesus. We already had our own God. They didn’t bring us anything new.” 15 Wandipe was referring to datagaliwabe. Later in the film one of Wandipe’s friends, Ghini, who is accepting conversion, remarks on datagaliwabe, “Our ancestors used to worship a spirit they called datagaliwabe. But since we saw the pictures of Jesus we finally realised that datagaliwabe was, in fact, Jesus.” The film exposes a material basis for their belief in Christianity. Wandipe complains, “Missionaries were never able to show God or to bring him out in front of me.” Yet Ghini accepts the material evidence for Jesus in the pictures of Jesus that have been put up on the church wall. When I visited the Catholic mission at Koroba I was also told that there were pictures of Jesus (of the actual Jesus) on the wall. The material basis for a Huli conception of God is at the core of arguments about why Wandipe should believe in God. In one scene three of Wandipe’s friends are extolling him to join them in their intention to be baptised.

Wandipe: You are just reporting what they told you. You have never
seen this Jesus… why are you getting baptised?

Ghini: To clean all the bad things we did. Like all the pigs we stole.
And having sex with all those women. That will be cleaned too.

W: Who will do that?
G: God can forgive everything.
W: How is he going to do it?
G: I don’t know but he answers all our prayers… because we pray
for our sick kids and he cures them all.

W: They told you God existed and you just believed it?
G: God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit will defend us. Who will defend

W: My God told me to hold on to my bow as my only defence.
G: You must understand you were created by God the father.
W: But where is he?
G: Who do you think is flying the airplanes?
W: Do you mean God is in the airplanes?
G: Yes. God made all the planes and all the cars. God made all the
vehicles on the earth. He made it with his breath. Like this
conversation, he made this earth.

There is no evidence that pre-Christian Huli worshipped or had any type of ritual connection with datagaliwabe. 16 There is also no evidence that datagaliwabe was considered to have a role in the creation of the earth or of humans. An interventionist datagaliwabe is certainly a reformulation through a Christian lens. The immediate connection is the role that datagaliwabe played in the gap left by a materialist concept of nature. Huli Christianity is based on tangible, material evidence for God who created the earth via the deeply Huli materialist concept of speech (see Chapter 4). In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 17 When discussing the origins of Hela, a friend Michael Ango, son of Allan Ango who provided the prologue to this thesis (see Chapter 7), told me that Hela was a bi, a language or a talk. Ango studied at the seminary and there is no indication that Hela as the Word is a widely held belief, however it is emblematic of the ways in which Huli have been able to incorporate Christianity as something that has always belonged to them. Christianity is very much a material possession with material agency. Nature is without speech and therefore without material agency, unless via the human act of speech that is applied to it. Nature is not without voice, when you break the sugar cane the sound vocalises nature’s awareness of what you are up to, but nature is without talk. Nature’s concrete awareness is datagaliwabe. From a sychoanalytical point of view, datagaliwabe is externalised moral consciousness projected onto the material presence of the natural world.

In pre-Christian Huli genealogical accounts, humans came from nature but were separated from it the moment they became fully human, or what may be described as Ipomoean modern. Huli ancestors include a wide range of totemic animals such as the dog, the pig, the cassowary, and also specific species such as the Papuan Lorikeet or the Black Palm Cockatoo, who are considered by specific clans to be their original progenitors. 18 Some clans have non-animal totems such as the sun, or even a species of plant. 19 Datagaliwabe is the pan-theistic presence that resolves the metaphysical problem in the inherent ambivalence of the separation between humans and nature. The Ipomoean modern Huli construction of nature that was encountered by the early colonial administration was to profoundly shape the rapid and radical changes in the Huli world that began with the establishment of the Tari patrol post in 1951.

(Extract printed with permission of Michael Main. “Until Hela Becomes a City: The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity”. Doctoral Dissertation, Canberra: Australian National University, 2020. pp. 62-76)

  1. Damien Arabagali, Datagaliwabe was Working in the Huli (Port Moresby: Treid Pacific (PNG) Ltd, 1999), 30-32. []
  2. Robert Glasse, “The Huli of the Southern Highlands,” in Gods, Ghosts and Men in Melanesia, ed. P. Lawrence and M.J. Meggitt (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1965), 37. []
  3. Laurence Goldman, The Culture of Coincidence: Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli, 314. []
  4. Laurence Goldman, “The Depths of Deception: Cultural Schemas of Illusion in Huli,” in Papuan Borderlands: Huli, Duna, and Ipili Perspectives on the Papua New Guinea Highlands, ed. Aletta Biersack (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995), 130. []
  5. Aletta Biersack, “Moonlight: Negative Images of Transcendence in Paiela Pollution,” Oceania 57 no. 3 (1987). []
  6. airstrip here at Komo. []
  7. Tagali River []
  8. Taro plant []
  9. Land of spirits []
  10. The etymology of datagaliwabe is unclear. The relevance of datagaliwabe to the concept of shame leads me to posit da-tagali-wabe, where da = prefix for sky-related beings, and tagali = “shame-man” []
  11. Laurence Goldman, The Culture of Coincidence: Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli, 287. []
  12. Ibid, 289. []
  13. Ibid. []
  14. Laruence Goldman, “The Depths of Deception: Cultural Schemas of Illusion in Huli,” 130. Citing Glasse, “The Huli of the Southern Highlands,” 49. []
  15. Thomas Balmès. “Christ comes to the Papuans”, TBC Productions, France, 2000 []
  16. Robert Glasse, “The Huli of the Southern Highlands,” 37. []
  17. John 1:1 KJV []
  18. Laurence Goldman, “Talk Never Dies: an analysis of disputes among the Huli,” 72. []
  19. Laruence Goldman, “Full-Scale Social Mapping and Landowner Identification Study of PDL 1 – PNG LNG Gas Project,” (2008), 49. []

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