Huli Traditional Courts

by Ron Meshanko

The improper payment and distribution of bride-wealth as well as the resolution of divorce proceedings result in social-structural conflicts that are usually settled in traditional courts (kui kui bia.) These courts are also the forum for other cases which are listed below: 1

Case% Frequency
Damage by pigs13%
War, Fighting12%
Illicit Sex10%
Land Disputes6%
Ownership Disputes3%

The courts aim to settle disputes through two types of redress actions: compensation or restitution. The Huli seldom regard “equal restitution as sufficient to right a wrong” 2 and rarely seek redress in this manner. The fundamental form of redress is the seeking and demanding of compensation for past wrongs (kui kui bia.)

The Huli, a litigious and loquacious people who pride themselves in their rhetoric or oratory, solve their problems by reaching consensus among the factions involved after many hours, if not days of debate. Indeed, 87% of all disputes where compensation is rendered were publicly debated two or more times. 3 They enjoy using three types of aesthetic and symbolic speech (bi mone, bi mabura, and bi yobage) in long monologues which often impede the consensus building in that the discussion is thwarted by diatribes with veiled meanings. 4 The Huli language has eleven terms that describe inappropriate, futile, or ineffectual speech used at court proceedings. Six other phrases describe positive speeches that clarify issues, reveal important matter or unveil confused meanings. Another seven phrases denote speech which finish points of argumentation or actually end the debate. 5 This elaborate settlement language attests to the social importance of traditional courts in Huli society.

Men are the usual speakers at court debates, although women are permitted to speak on occasion. The proverb: “The woman turned the bow and the outside struts of a house around for the man” (wanli danda/anda maga beregeda), which refers to the mythological primacy of woman who taught men to use the bow and construct houses, is used against men who attempt to assert that women are politically marginal and should be prevented from participation in disputes. 6

The men with the most influence at court proceedings are “big-men” (agali timbuni homogo) who have a broad knowledge of Huli traditions, clans and individuals. 7 They achieve their power and influence through the acquisition of wealth in the form of pigs which enables them to marry more wives who in turn tend more pigs to increase the man’s wealth. They also achieve their status through knowledge of their genealogy which, along with their many wives, allows them to claim many clan connections. Big-men act as arbiters at courts and are seldom partisan to any one clan unit or individual. This non-partisan nature is seen in the other title given to big-men, agali kuyuma, which is derived from kuyuma, meaning sociable. Big-men are usually trusted to make fair decisions and often decide the best way to implement the group’s consensus that resolves the dispute.

Other important men at court debates are elders called biyi – “the ones who hold the talk”. 8 They have important knowledge of events, traditions, customs, and genealogies. These elders are either called manayi or tigali depending on their role in court proceedings. The manayi is a man who holds the mana or knowledge of traditions and myths necessary to settle some disputes. The tigali or “the one who will straighten it” knows the essential information concerning historical events that will help clarify issues.

Agali ko (rubbishmen) are the least influential men in debates since they have little genealogical knowledge that would enable them to have influential ties with other clans. They are also economically marginal in that they have few pigs, few claims on land, and only one, if any, wife.

The compensation talk of these men at court proceedings is replete with idioms that pertain to illness and sickness. 9 Talk strikes and kills (bi bara) just like malaria (warago bara). Talk sticks and adheres (bi para) just as the pain of lingering illness adheres to a man (tandaga para.) Talk pricks (bi kodo) like pain pricks (tandaga kodo) and remains like a deeply embedded arrow (bi timu ale ho wiabo) that causes lasting pain or death (tandaga ale ho wiabo). The compensation payments that result from this talk are seen as a form of obligatory medicine that restores health in body and community spirit, Compensation payments are like medicinal treatments (nogo tigi kaya: compensation pig + medicinal leaf use to rub over a part of the body where there is pain) that heal a person and his relation to the community. The term of indemnity in Huli is abi which may be a derivative of dabi, meaning “to get well or recover.” Tagi abi and Mege abi, are compensation payments for inducing shame and insult, heal over the wounds suffered by the victim. Timu abi, the payment for arrow wounds, brings about the healing of the wound itself as well as the recovery of the injured relationship between victim and assailant. The failure to compensate injuries or murders is believed to inhibit recovery of the victim and inter-clan relations as well as lead to their literal or figurative death.

Compensation payments also placate the spirits of murdered men or warriors who died in battle so that they do not inflict suffering on their attackers. Pigs are given to the kin of a murdered man (nogo damba: compensation pig + “to close or cover over) to “cover over” the spirit of the dead man and prevent him from making a ghostly attack. Agali hana (man + place into a string bag) also refers to the indemnity of a dead man in order to imprison his spirit and keep him from seeking revenge,

The medicinal nature of compensation payment terms and compensation talk indicates the social importance of traditional courts in Huli society. The greatest import is in the area of inter-clan unit disputes which account for 57% of all public compensation payments 10 These payments heal over tense situations that could lead to large scale fighting.

The traditional court system is still effective, although the government has altered it by appointing magistrates who function as presiders and arbiters at court hearings. Biya elders and big-men maintain their vital functions in the altered system. The Village Court handles divorce problems, bride-wealth disputes, theft, and other minor disputes. The government has also placed a District Court in Tari that serves the entire Hela population. The district magistrate presides over rape, war disputes and other major cases according to British Commonwealth law.

  1. L. Goldman, “Compensation”, p. 63. []
  2. R. Glasse, “Revenge and Redress”, p. 286. []
  3. L. Goldman, “Compensation”, p. 62. []
  4. L. Goldman, “Speech Categories”, p. 212. []
  5. Ibid, p. 215[]
  6. Ibid, p. 223. []
  7. See: R, Glasse. Huli of Papua, pp. 89, 103, 114-117. []
  8. See: L. Goldman, “Speech Categories”, p. 221. []
  9. See L. Goldman, “Compensation:, pp. 57-58. []
  10. Ibid., p. 68. []