by Dr. Michael Main

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.

Desire for particular forms of change should not be read in isolation from one another. Huli wasted no time in linking the ability to embody and take into their possession desirable change with the need for education. During my fieldwork the traditional ways of distributing Huli mana in the men’s house, now long abandoned, was sometimes described to me as “Hela University.” The loss of traditional knowledge that used to be passed down in this way is often lamented and put forward as an example of the (entropic) decay of Huli society. However, this needs to be read in the broader context of developmental decline that has occurred over the past few decades and has only accelerated since the inception of the PNG LNG project and the rise to power of the O’Neill government. When schools began to be introduced, government administrators and missionaries found that land was freely given to them so that they might be able to construct their schools, aid posts, and churches.

Allan Ango, whom I interviewed at his home in Koroba, was an important land holder during the 1950s when he gave a great swathe of land to the Catholic church. Ango, as a dindi pongoneyi 1 and important and widely recognised holder of Huli mana, was eager to send his children to school. When Ango came to visit us in Komo, he attended the local Catholic church service and I witnessed the mission school teachers come and ask him various questions pertaining to traditional knowledge. As the school headmaster put it to me, “We only know the word for bird [ega], but we are never taught the words for different types of birds.” There is a high degree of ambivalence over the impact of western education, although there is no ambivalence over its desirability and importance. The incorporation of different types of knowledge is better understood when examined in terms of their perceived value, rather than their cultural origins.

In Tari I interviewed a very old man named Igibe, who was one of the first Huli to receive an education from the Huttons at Hoyebia. Igibe had many stories, including being given knives and blankets by the administration as payment for helping to build the airstrip at Tari, and his assignments given to him by John Hutton to travel the Huli landscape spreading the ten commandments. Igibe had long been blind when I met him, but when I took out my notebook and pen his companions started mentioning the word bebenini. 2 Igibe understood what they meant. They claimed that their ancestors had prophesised the coming of a white man with bebenini.

Initially they did not know what the word bebenini meant, but after white people arrived, they realised that it meant “paper and pen”. They were short on further detail about this prophesy, and I am unsure as to its origins, however this reworking of language to incorporate the coming of new forms of knowledge is a fine example of Huli encompassment of the new. The creative tendencies in the interpretation and application of Huli language is enabled by what Goldman has described as “the mechanics of synonym substitutions and metamorphoses of sound shape … the whole artistic empire is built on the foundation of appellative transformations.” 3 That bebenini sounds like “paper and pen” is support enough for the prophecy to be revealed. Given these strong linguistic traits there is little that cannot be readily incorporated into the logic of the Huli historical telos. The Huli idiom for the mental recording and holding of knowledge is to say that the talk is carried under one’s armpit. White people recorded knowledge with paper and pen. The white man’s knowledge was quickly valued for its ability to give access to forms of employment, travel, and material goods.

At Komo I attended a large mumu celebration for a young man who had returned from completing a business degree at an institution in India. A couple of years earlier, in recognition for his intellectual abilities and his performance at high school in Tari, the whole community had rallied together to raise funds to send him to business school. Dozens of pigs were killed and the young man sat with all the elder clansmen who, each in turn, provided sage advice to assist his way into the future. His education was deeply valued and he carried the hopes of his entire community with him. The desire for education to facilitate participation in the world of business is linked to the promise and language of the Business Development Grants and Industry Development Grants that were promised with the PNG LNG project. In theory, Huli are allowing their gas to be extracted in order for them to be able to develop. The promises spoke to a desire for an industrialised Huli future. The ubiquitous lamenting of the loss of Huli traditional knowledge is linked to the broader decline in Huli society that has accompanied PNG’s economic woes. Yet nothing is perceived as a case of one or the other: the decline of the western education system is itself part of the disappointment. The Huli future, of which a globally recognised standard of education is an integral part, is a gas-given Huli right.

Dali Ango’s eldest son, Michael, obtained a tertiary education and worked as a civil draftsman in Rabaul. When the PNG LNG project began to conduct social mapping exercises, Michael returned to Hela to apply his extensive knowledge of Huli clan histories, and to claim his own right to benefits. Michael spent several years at Nogoli working with a Duguba leader named Stanis Talu, helping to sort out land ownership issues for the gas project. The coming of the PNG LNG project meant that Michael’s traditional Huli knowledge, which he had obtained from his father in the “Hela University” of the men’s house, took on a new form of value. Social problems are blamed on loss of knowledge because the problems themselves represent an impoverished state that requires forms of value to be introduced, or reintroduced. Relative poverty results in an increase in the perceived value of knowledge. During the early colonial period, Huli did not perceive themselves to be materially deprived in relation to each other, but they did so in relation to the government and the missionaries.

Desire for these new forms of material wealth was inseparable from the desire for the new forms of knowledge that accompanied this wealth.

First contact and the later influence of government and missionary settlement brought new materialities, but less so new materialisms. New materials along with their new possibilities for form and function, such as steel, tin, cloth, kerosene, calico, and guns, were incorporated through existing materialist conceptions of reality. This is a crucial distinction to make, and is something that has been largely ignored by theories of developmental change. Marshall Sahlins uses his mondegreen “developman” (derived from his mishearing of the word “development” in a conversation between two speakers of Melanesian Pidgin) to provide an alternative to Marx’s prophecy of convergence. 4 “Developman” is the epoch where cultures in underdeveloped societies incorporate western objects into their own culture thereby creating a unique indigenous version of development. According to Sahlins, rather than a western hegemony taking over indigenous cultures so that they become more like us, they are instead compelled to become “more like themselves.” Sahlins quotes a Kewa man from PNG as saying that their version of development is “building up the lineage, the men’s house, killing pigs.” Yet the history of the initial stages of development and change among Huli is a story of hospitals, schools, roads, new material goods, and new opportunities. Sahlins took his quote from a book by Lisette Josephides published in 1985 that was based on field work conducted between 1979 and 1981. 5 But Josephides was quoting from an earlier publication to which Sahlins did not refer and which reveals a different context to the one that Sahlins had assumed. The full text is as follows:

Development, in as far as it is understood at all, is seen as a unilineal evolutionary stage that inevitably will come to all, mediated by the government or ‘companies’. It is monolithic, substantive even, and foreign. As one bigman once told us, ‘You know what we mean by “development” (in Kewa, Ada ma rekato [to raise or awaken the village]: building a ‘house line’ [neada], a ‘men’s house’ [tapada], ‘killing pigs’ [yawemena]. This we have done. Now we are talking about white people’s development. 6

The bigman was contrasting a traditional (pre-contact) conception of development, one that had already been achieved, with the coming of the all-encompassing white people’s development that they were now being compelled to adopt. The bigman’s concept of development was strikingly Marxist. Sahlins’ misinterpretation rendered him blind to the fact that the Kewa were changing their relationship with the world by adopting already existing relationships that they desired. The Kewa were looking to our past as their future. 7 I make the same case for Huli development and change. The Huli approach to change was to make the unfamiliar familiar through the reinterpretation of prophesy and lore via a perception of their own history that regarded a better future as something that could be made possible through human action. The Huli philosophy of history is markedly materialist, and Huli embrace of Western capitalist culture is based on a shared materialism that was easily recognisable. First contact did not become an event until this shared material relationship had been established. In the next chapter I examine materialism and the contemporary Huli experience.

(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. 111-117)

(Photo courtesy of Max Haensel of Localiiz)

  1. “Land root man” a type of ritual leader who possess a great deal of inherited knowledge relating to Huli and Hela clan origins (dindi malu) and closely guarded ritual requirements to ensure the health and fertility of the land. []
  2. Bebenini is the Huli word for a type of epiphyte that grows high on forest trees. A Huli myth tells of a tree kangaroo being used to collect the bebenini, which originates in Duguba and was brought up from the south (Ballard, pers. comm.). []
  3. Laurence Goldman, Child’s Play: Myth, Mimesis and Make-Believe, 66. []
  4. Marshall Sahlins, “Goodbye to Tristes Tropes: Ethnography in the Context of Modern World History,” Journal of Modern History 65, no. 1 (1993). []
  5. Lisette Josephides, The Production of Inequality: Gender and Exchange among the Kewa (London: Tavistock, 1985). []
  6. Lisette Josephides and Marc Schiltz, “Beer and Other Luxuries: Abstinence in Village and Plantation by Sugu Kewas, Southern Highlands,” in Through a Glass Darkly: Beer and Modernization in Papua New Guinea, ed. Mac Marshall (Boroko: Institute of Applied Social and Economic Research, Monograph 18, 1982), 82. []
  7. This writing on Sahlins and his misinterpretation of developman first appeared in Michael Main, “Mining and Development in Papua New Guinea: The Contest between Ambition, Environmental Damage, and the Question of Sustainability,” (2013). []