Huli Warfare

by Ron Meshanko

Huli wigman carrying bow and arrow.
A Huli man carrying a bow and arrow, the main warfare weapon.

In the era before the Australian administration, when warfare between clans was the dominant orientation of Huli Society, war disputes precipitated approximately twelve percent of all compensation cases. 1 Most boys dreamed of becoming great warriors (wayali) and prepared themselves for that role from the age of twelve, when they first learned to use a bow and arrow. They were obligated to defend their clan unit during warfare with the black palm bow they received upon completion of the first stage of the Tege Pulu initiation rite. The name of the Tege Pulu rite itself signifies warfare or defense since it is derived from Tege la which means “to pull a bowstring.” The initiated boys then entered the Haroli bachelor cult which trained them in endurance, strength and courage during battle. The parade of initiated bachelors carrying a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other, symbolizes the importance of warfare in Huli society.

Battle Formation by Damien Arabagali
Arua clansmen in battle formation. (Photo courtesy of Damien Arabagali)

The Tege Pulu initiates and young bachelors were instructed in the Huli philosophy of war which maintains that revenge is the obligatory counteraction to breaches of norms. Such breaches demand the infliction of greater damage than received, through poisoning, sorcery and warfare. They were also trained in the manufacture of Huli weaponry: axe, bow, six types of arrows, bark shield and fighting pick.

The young men fought in war parties comprised of the war initiator (wai tene: war source), his clan unit, and allies from other clan units and clans. The war parties announced a state of war before they began their offensive with the phrase: “he went carrying a fighting bag” (wai nu hanalu piya). This phrase signifies that the men are preparing for war and instructs all women and children to flee with their pigs to friendly clan units. All normal activity ceases as the men discuss their plan of attack and individually perform Timu Gamu (arrow sorcery) to ensure that their arrows hit the target. The war parties engage during the day under the informal direction of a famous warrior by exchanging volleys of arrows at a distance of about fifty to one hundred yards. They also infiltrate enemy lines by traveling through the long deep ditches that crisscross the terrain in order to attack the enemy with fighting picks, axes, spears or arrows.

Ten to one hundred warriors engage in minor wars (wai eneme) that last only a few days and result in few deaths. Major wars (wai timbuni) last several months, involve two hundred to one thousand warriors and result in many deaths. The most common causes for both major and minor wars are revenge for killings, unpaid indemnities, and pig thefts. Minor wars also break out over adultery, rape, land disputes, and trespassing. Minor wars often flare up into major wars if both parties enlist many allies.

Bows and arrows have been replaced by modern weaponry.
Bows and arrows have been replaced by modern weaponry. (Photo courtesy of Michael Main).

Wars used to be terminated by mutual agreement, by the disbanding of one or both forces or the intervention of neutral parties. Nowadays, wars are rare, and when they do occur the government intervenes before they become major wars. The Tari District police station calls the “riot squad” from Mendi which enforces peace, usually by instilling fear into the people by burning their gardens and houses and killing their pigs if they become involved in the fighting. The government law forbids men to carry any form of weaponry on public roads, in the main towns, or on public property (market places and churches.)

War related deaths and injuries must be indemnified in the same manner as peace-time murder and accidental injuries. The war initiator is responsible for making compensation in the form of pigs to allies who kill an enemy (nogo gima); to allies who sustain battle injuries (nogo nigi kaya); to clan unit victims wounded by the enemy (timu abi) and to the kin of a dead clan unit warrior and to the clan unit of the dead enemy (dabia bia). Indemnity is only paid to the enemy when both sides inflict the same number of deaths, although the war initiator’s clan units often exchange thirty to forty pigs to “make the war sleep” (nogo palia pole). These pigs are killed and eaten at separate mortuary feasts. 2

(Photo courtesy of Ramdas Iyer Photography)

  1. L. Goldman, “Compensation”, p.57. []
  2. See: S. Frankel, “Conjugal Bereavement”, pp.302-305.; R. Glasse, Huli of Papua, pp. 66-71; C. Simpson, Plumes, p. 394; and Papua Letters, Volume 6, p.1. []