The Return of Tahonane

by Ron Meshanko

Young Huli wigman with a yellow painted face and wearing a cowrie shell necklace.

The Huli people first encountered White men in 1935 when Jack Hides and Peter O’Malley traversed one hundred and twenty miles of their territory. 1 They looked queerly at the two explorers and whispered excitingly among themselves about these men who, according to one myth 2, resembled the ancient Tahonane, the white son of the first Huli man, Tagonimabe. This son was nursed by a great god, grew quickly, and left the Huli area never to die. Tagonimabe’s other son, Tamindini, was born black and nursed at his mother’s breast. He became the father of all the Huli people through his son Tiliali, whose name means “a man of short stature.” Perhaps the Huli people thought that Tahonane’s tall, white descendants had now returned to their homeland. They therefore presented the two explorers with sweet potatoes from their gardens and escorted them throughout their individual clan territories. However, the people would not let the whitemen touch them nor did they accept their gifts of bead and cloth, so fearful were they of Tahonane’s lost children.

As the two explorers penetrated further into Huli territory they were greeted with varying degrees of hospitality or rejection. In the end, two Huli men were killed when the explorers fired upon a group of warriors who had encircled them. This powerful display of force instilled even greater fear among the people and quelled any form of resistance against the movement of the whitemen amongst the people. While the people spread stories about the power of the whitemen and wondered if the descendants of Tahonane had indeed returned; the two explorers announced to the world the “discovery” of a “Papuan Wonderland” inhabited by a “volatile, excitable people, divided into numerous small groups that frequently engaged in warfare.” 3

Hides and O’Malley were followed by three other patrols into the Papuan Wonderland before S.S. Smith established a government station at Lumu-Lumu (Tari) in 1951. C. Champion and F. Anderson left Lake Kuutubu and explored the Tari basin in 1937. J.L Taylor and John Black surveyed the territory in 1938-39. It was during this trip that people experienced the “big, shiny bird” of the whitemen when a plane made an air supply drop at Hoiebia, the site of the future Methodist Mission. These explorations paved the way for Smith’s final patrol from Lake Kutubu into the Tari basin where he built an airstrip and government houses with the help of Huli men. A large war consisting of over twenty clans and one thousand warriors broke out during this initial period of development. The government representative, A. Carey, ended the warfare with a volley of gunfire shots and the arrest of the responsible leaders.

Thus began a new era of “peace” wherein the Huli people experienced a slow diminishment of warfare, the meeting of two worlds, and perhaps, the reunion of the descendants of two long lost brothers, Tahonane and Taminidi, the Whiteman and the Black Huli.

Photo courtesy of Eric Lafforgue Photography.

  1. See Stephen Frankel’s description of administration patrols in The Huli response to illness. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986., p. 10. []
  2. “The Origins of Man,” Legends, (Mendi: Mendi Diocese Liturgical-Catechetical Commission), p.2 circa 1956 (mimeographed).[]
  3. R. Glasse, Huli of Papua, Paris: Mouton and Co. (1968) p. 17.[]