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.

by Michael Main

The overwhelming feature of the ethnographic experience in Huli society is the fact that people’s lives are extraordinarily difficult. This reality, in the face of the complete failure of the PNG LNG project to deliver on its much-hyped promises for development and wealth, immediately situates Huli subjects within the “suffering slot” and demands that the ethnographer pay attention to the common humanity of trauma. 1 I do wish to push back on Robbins’ argument that the universality of trauma is something of a false premise. In parts of this thesis I deal with extreme trauma. A trauma that takes the particularities of a culturally meaningful life and turns them into plasma. The lesser experience of trauma that Robbins has managed to contain and assigned some sort of slot is not the trauma to which I refer. It is not merely the trauma of poverty, or the awareness on the part of the Huli population of the gross inequalities of their lives in relation to, say, Australia; but the lived and daily experience of extreme violence that crystallises the air. As my host at Tari, Euralia, put it to me in Tari upon my return to begin my second stint of field work, “People are tired.” I had asked Euralia about how things were for Huli society since my previous visit. Things had certainly deteriorated, political frustrations were building, and there was little reason for optimism that people’s lives were going to improve anytime soon. Hardship, and especially trauma, indeed comprised an excess that overwhelmed my interest in Huli culture.

At Komo I interviewed a young woman named Stacey as part of my efforts to understand the way young Huli people situate themselves within a broader Papua New Guinean national identity. Stacey’s account of her childhood was a familiar tale of disruption and displacement due to warfare. Stacey was 22 years old and had only recently completed high school at Tari. Stacey explained that an outbreak of warfare when she was seven years of age forced her family to flee to Nogoli:

“We went to Nogoli to reside with my uncle when I was seven years old. Eight they were still fighting. Nine they were still fighing. Ten and eleven I restarted at school. That was when I did grade one.”

The fight involved Tagima clan who were being supported by some people from Imini clan. Stacey was from Imini clan but her parents were not involved in the fighting. When I asked why they had to flee Stacey explained:

S: Because they fight, I mean they kill anybody. Anybody they see they will shoot… the enemies are running away so they have no choice to chase them so they are killing even a child or a girl or a lady or whoever they saw they would kill them. So we migrate. So they burn down the houses, the buildings, hospitals, schools, church. They just destroy everything.

Me: Why?

S: Some are jealous men, so they involve in fighting. Some they want to kill men. Some they are fighting for killing the enemy but some they are involving just to destroy the houses, nice buildings…

Me: A lot of people must just want to go and live somewhere else.

S: Some they migrate to Moresby, Tari. I only pray sitting on the PMV.

Stacey, like many young people I interviewed, wanted nothing more than to obtain an education, find employment, move to another part of the country and leave the violence of Hela Province behind her. The pattern of Stacey’s life had been largely defined by violent conflict, rather than adherence to any recognisable Huli cultural or cosmological tradition. Conflict has become less about the ability to cleverly wield dispute language and more about the wielding of the gun, and the arms race that has developed between Huli clans. As one Huli youth put it to me, “When we hear the old people talk, it just gives us a headache.” Yet in spite of the increasing interconnectedness of Papua New Guinean communities, Papua New Guinea is tending towards fragmentation rather than nationalisation. Stacey described her Huli identity in terms of language.

Me: Do you see yourself as Huli or Papua New Guinean?

S: Huli. Because I can speak Huli language. We are used to identifying only in language, different languages. Huli we speak Huli language, Hagen they speak Hagen language. Throughout Papua New Guinea they have different languages. We have how many 800 different languages. They are used to identifying in their own languages.

Me: So it’s all about language, that makes you Huli?

S: Our own language. Some they look like Hagen people, some Hagen they look like Huli people, but we are used to identifying in the language. In the dialogue like Huli we spoke like this. Even in Tok Pisin or English we use our own language dialogue.

Me: The things you talk about, the way you…?

S: The sound of the language.

Me: The accent?

S: We speak our own vernacular. In English we speak it and it can come under the same sound. Dialogue the words we are speaking the pronunciation is different. Hagen people Tok Pisin they can get some different types of sound and they can. In Huli straightforward, there is no break or something like this. We just straightforward we speak hurry. But in Hagen they get a break, I mean they speak something like that. The Simbus.

Me: So you hear someone speaking Tok Pisin and you know if they are Hagen or Simbu or…

S: Yeah, we can identify. In Huli we pronounce chicken in English and kakaruk in tok pisin. In Huli ega masin. In Huli people we pronounce kakaruk, in Hagen they pronounce it kagru, they pronounce it like this, they will get different sounds.

Stacey identified as Huli, not because she speaks Huli language, but because she can speak Huli language. Huli identity is not necessarily expressed using the symbolic identifiers such as face paint and clothing styles, although these are still commonly deployed. The possession of a cultural identity, which is able to be expressed symbolically through the wearing of adornments and the praxis associated with cosmological and spiritual belief, is not diminished even as the material features of its expression, and especially its belief system, disappear from view.

The question remains as to what is Huli other than the fact of its language?

(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. 128-138)

  1. Joel Robbins, “Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19 (2013). []

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