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.

In April 2016 I attended a ceremony for the ordination of a priest at the Catholic mission in Koroba. The ceremony involved many features of indigenous ritual acts reinterpreted so as to express the offering of a new priest into the Catholic church. Ironically, much of the ritual on display had been taken from practices that had been banned by the various Christian missions decades earlier, especially the elaborate tege pulu and dindi gamu ceremonies. 1 The centrepiece of the performance was the new priest, whose bringing forth and entry into the priesthood was analogously portrayed as the bringing of a new born (male) baby into the world. At the basis of the ceremony was the idea of new life, fertility, and the health of future generations; identical to the concerns of pre-contact ceremonial efforts to ensure the “fertility of the universe.” 2

Throughout the ceremony, and in many different guises, was the symbolic use of nature to express universally-held desires for the health and prosperity of the new priest. The types of dressing on display were far removed from the usual Mali dancing that is used for celebration and is commonly put on display for tourists.

Igiri Ainya Koroba Ordination 2016
Photo 5.2 Igiri Ainya

The women dressed as igiri ainya (mother of the boy) represent the birth of a new male child, but is here interpreted to represent the symbolic birth of a new priest. The headbands worn by the women on either side, and the blackened grass skirts signify the loss of a husband and the fact that the women must raise the child without the support of the father. The orange-painted legs signify that the child (priest) is to become strong and sure like a parrot.

Ngawe dressing by Michael Main
Photo 5.3 Ngawe dressing
Ngawe dressing by Michael Main
Photo 5.3 Ngawe dressing
Papuan Lorikeet
Lori papou. Famille des Psittacidés. Ordre : Psittaciformes

Urubu ngawe is the Huli term for the Papuan Lorikeet. 3 The yellow face paint signifies the beak, and the red signifies the wings. The diamond pattern on the body and the yellow and green foliage are easily recognised in the representation of the Papuan lorikeets to the left. 4 As for the women above, the decoration is used to represent the health and vitality of the newly garnished priest and the promise of his salubrious future. The painting of the legs, which can also be seen for the children in the background and the women above, symbolises the perceived strength of the bird’s legs. The talons are strong and housed in tough skin that is imitated through the desire for fighting prowess.

Video 5.1 Bilagu and Dawa Haga

The above video depicts a man preparing for a type of dress described to me as Gereya and Bilagu, before the ceremonial procession is shown that includes his role. The man is dressed as a combination of a hornbill and a cassowary, with hornbill beaks on either shoulder and a cassowary feather coat. He is also wearing a kunai grass skirt. This adaption of bilagu is a reinterpretation of a ceremony that, by the 1980s, had mostly ceased to be performed. 5 However, as the ordination ceremony indicates, although performance of bilagu is exceedingly rare, its historical memory and associated relevances remain intact. Bilagu was originally performed at the end of a nogo hagua ceremony in an effort to ward off bad dama and restore health to the land and people. 6 The cassowary symbolises “strength and aggression” and hornbill beaks are worn as a symbol of potency, and the two together enabled the performer to deter the malevolent dama. The meaning of the grass skirt is unclear, and its origins are likely to be from Mt Bosavi, as is the name gereya. 7 I was told that the grass skirt represents female fertility, although it is unclear if this is a contemporary interpretation. A version of this ceremony is described in a patrol report from 1952 as being performed to “stay the rains which had been annoying the party considerably” and that the “heavily decorated” man sings verses of a song that are repeated by others in the party. 8 The sung verses call the names of surrounding landscape features and local flora and fauna. 5 This singing role is depicted in Video 5.1 above. The text of the singing included the following:

Text 1
Iba kuyama ora walu ebero
Spirit lakes we left them at home
Agiru iba kuyama
Agiru [name of man] spirit lakes
Andalu iba kuyama
Andalu [name of man] spirit lakes
Muguya, Bakana, Baliebe
[names of men]
iba kuyama ora walu ebero
Spirit lakes we left them at home

Iba kuyama (literally “water kuyama”) is a generic term for spirit lakes. These often have the ability to disappear and reappear and are said to be able to fly from one place to another (as described in Chapter 2). The spirit lakes were traditionally used for sacrificing pigs to appease the dama spirits. The names are of the priest’s ancestors who used to sacrifice in that lake. The song is a declaration that the new priest is leaving the old ways of belief in dama spirits and entering into the church.

Text 2
Nogo wane ibu kiuruli tugu hene ale ebero
Daughter of pig was bringing to you like picked kiuruli [tanget] leaves
Nogo wane ibu kayuli tugu hene ale ebero
Daughter of pig was bringing to you like picked kayuli leaves
Nogo wane ibu kayumba tugu hene ale ebero
Daughter of pig was bringing to you like picked kayumba leaves
Nogo wane ibu wanali tugu hene ale ebero
Daughter of pig was bringing to you from Wanali
Nogo wane ibu wangale tugu hene ale ebero
Daughter of pig was bringing to you from Wangale

The kiuruli, kayuli, and kayumba are praise names for tanget leaves. Daughter of pig is a praise name for the priest’s mother. The song refers to a new born baby being wrapped in tanget leaves, which in this case is the young priest being brought to the church as if the mother is offering her child.

Text 3
Wara iba, Warali iba, Kibili iba, Anga iba
[names of women, followed by iba “water”]
Yabera iba tene igini yalu ebero
[name of woman] bring the son like pure water
Anga iba, Anga iba, Angai iba tene igini ale ebero
[names of women] water, bring the son like pure water

The named women are the priest’s “mothers”, or his female relatives. The priest is compared to iba tene, or “pure water”.

Text 4
Alungi yuguai yakama bogo bagale
[praise names for clouds]
Alungi yapu lalu yalu ebero
Bring forward like the separating clouds

The list of praise names for clouds, Alungi yuguai yakama bogo bagale, is one of the most common Huli tropes used in song. The five names are always used in the same order, and are not synonyms representing different cloud types, shapes, sizes, colour, etc. 9 However, lists of this type, such as the list of names for tanget leaves given above and of which there are many in Huli, do evoke a notion of movement and their use is highly evocative and sentimental. The following video contains an example of a morphologically-related place name list, so common to Huli rhetoric. The following text is a partial transcription.

Video 5:2 Women Singing

Text 5
Yagua aiyage igini ale yalu ebero
Carry forward the son of the black palm tree from Yagua
Yagubi aiyage igini ale yalu ebero
Carry forward the son of the black palm tree from Yagubi
Yangaba aiyage igini ale yalu ebero
Carry forward the son of the black palm tree from Yangaba
Libira aiyage igini ale yalu ebero
Carry forward the son of the black palm tree from Libiria

Ayage igini, “palm tree son” may refers to the black palm used to make bows. This idiom is commonly deployed as a way of expressing strength and steadfastness, as the wood from the black palm is strong and durable. The listing of the place names evokes sentimental refrain and unifies the audience in the shared experience of place. In his collection of lists of praise names in Huli, Laurence Goldman has found no evidence that different praise names for the same thing carry different meaning. In terms of the compilation of lists, this is no doubt the case. However, lists of Huli praise names, when used in context, can invoke some type of motion or change of state, and this is certainly the case for the list of praise names for clouds. When nature is understood as a verb, standard lists of praise names can be seen to play the role of bringing movement to the way that nature is deployed symbolically. The salience lies not in the fact of the clouds themselves, but in the way that they behave. The ordination ceremony was centred around a procession whereby the new priest was brought from the community, through the crowd, and towards the bishop. The language performed during this process used natural processes in simile (ale = “like”) with the process of transition from ordinary man to priest, and is part of the “marked and unremitting attention to synonym usage” 10 that is a distinctive feature of many of the ways in which the Huli language is deployed. The use of simile in Huli fictional story telling (bi te) is a standard rhetorical device and, combined with the use of praise names and the “natural imagery” they evoke, create “layers of meaning associated with the poetics of expression.” 5 A layer of meaning that has not been addressed in the literature on Huli language is the evocation of transitional states of motion via simile with natural processes through the deployment of standard lists of praise names. Such meaning depends on minane and the ontological separation of human and natural processes. Simile is used to link the two together and a poetic wonderment is created that delivers the pathos that the situation demands. Minane unburdens the language from the weight of meaning that would otherwise be attached to natural processes imbued with intent.

The above observation can be contrasted with what Steven Feld has revealed about the expression of sentiment in Kaluli songs. For Kaluli sentimental metaphor is found, not in tangible objects of nature and the way that these objects behave, but in the sound of birds. 11 Meaning, “inside words”, is encoded in sound itself and, when singing, Kaluli “become those very birds.” The meaning contained in bird sounds are understood through myth such as “the boy who became a muni bird,” where communication via speech was useless in transmitting feelings of dejection so the boy resorted to “talk from a bird’s point of view.” 12 Rather than construct an innate, objectified nature that can be deployed at a distance, Kaluli transform themselves and inhabit the natural subject from within. Huli song tunes are standardised, lilting melodies that do evoke feelings of sentimental refrain, at least to my ears, but there is no indication that the melodies themselves encode language or specific meaning.

Meaning is found in the text, in metaphorical construction, in the evocation of place, of objects that relate to place, and in a nature that is the unimbued motion of objects that may be used as a vehicle for the expression of meaning that is beyond the capacity of ordinary, utilitarian speech.

(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. 176-186.)

  1. These ceremonies have been described by previous researchers, most notably Frankel, and an account of them will not be reproduced here. My interest for the purposes of this thesis in in the ways in which elements of these ceremonies have been preserved and consciously reinterpreted for
    contemporary purposes. []
  2. Chris Ballard, “The Fire Next Time: The Conversion of the Huli Apocalypse.” []
  3. Charmosyna Papou. Urubu is the generic Huli term for parrot, and ngawe refers to the lorikeet. “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.”, vol. 2, Appendix B9. []
  4. John Gould and R. Bowlder Sharpe, “Charmosyna papou Papuan lorikeet”, in The Birds of New Guinea and the adjacent Papuan islands: including many new species recently discovered in Australia, (Vol. 5, Plate 15, London: H Sotheran & Co., 1875-88). []
  5. Laurence Goldman, “Decorated Being in Huli.” [][][]
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Laurence Goldman (pers. comm.) []
  8. A T Clancy, “Tari Patrol Report No. 1 1952,” (Patrol reports [microform], National Archives of Papua New Guinea1952), 58. []
  9. Laurence Goldman, pers. comm. []
  10. Laurence Goldman, Child’s Play: Myth, Mimesis and Make-Believe, 66. []
  11. Steven Feld, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression, Third edition (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), 85. []
  12. Ibid. 34. []