by 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.

There is a great deal of commonality to be found in the extensive body of literature on polygyny. Rather than a neatly incorporated cultural norm that exists in relative harmony with indigenous modes of human sociality, women’s attitude towards polygyny is revealed as a constant source of tension, and as an unembraced reality that sits uneasily with desired ideals. For women within polygynous societies there always exists an awareness of polygyny as an objectified reality against
which other, more desirable realities are ideally possible. This is commonly expressed in terms of jealousy, and enmity between co-wives where open hostility is a common feature. These accounts are
recorded for Hagen women in the work of Marilyn Strathern where
issues of jealousy and open hostility between cowives coexists with ideals of romantic love in pursuit of first marriages by women of men. 1

Although polygyny is permitted for Kaliai in West New Britain Province, a woman is considered justified in attacking her husband if he brings home another wife. 2 Kewa women will protest, sometimes violently, when their husbands take additional wives. 3 Engan wives express sexual jealousy towards additional wives for years until “economic ambitions” come more into consideration. 4

Where in all these accounts is the creation of the romantic ideals of modern personhood? I am not prepared to accept the premise that polygyny and the ideals of romantic love have ever not been in an easy coexistence. According to the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the definition of love “is to give that one does not have to someone who does not want it.” 5

We can ask of this insight, what then does love have to do with polygyny and the bride price system? The answer is nothing. Bride price and polygyny remain important, if increasingly contentious, aspects of Huli society. During a bride price exchange the groom gives over pigs (what he does have) to the family members of the bride (which they do want). Love, however, involves the giving of an excess of reality to someone who is not demanding anything from you. Love in Huli society is not expressed via bride price transactions, but through the symbolic use of language. Love is very difficult to account for ethnographically because it is the symbolism, rather than the material or the praxis of ritual that can account for its existence. What does love have to do with polygyny. Of course, nothing. Indeed, what does love have to do with culture, history, or language? Nothing except that these are the providers of a symbolic order that is drawn upon in the expression of love. Lacan’s point is that love is not about demand; it is a need that has no object. As a corollary to Lacan’s definition of love, perhaps hatred is to give what one does have to someone who does want it. The most intense expressions of hatred that I encountered during my fieldwork were when I interviewed elder women about marriage.

It won’t be regarded as an insightful contribution to say that young Huli women do not want to be involved in polygynous marriages. Many speak of their own childhood experiences in polygynous families and the intense family conflicts that result. The most striking aspect of the responses from Huli women is that they are extraordinarily uniform, regardless of age, educational status, or economic standing. There is a difference in the degree to which feelings are openly expressed, with younger women far more ready to speak openly. Older women were more open when speaking in groups, and especially when they had the support of younger women around them. But in a situation where everyone felt relaxed and confident to express themselves openly it was like a dam had burst and vitriol, poison and wrath came flooding out. With the help of a Tari friend, Brenda, the opinions of some elder women of Kikita village about their hatred of polygyny was able to be expressed: Fucking hate it like fucking shit. It’s so fucked up… Oh it’s fucked up and they’ll be swearing and oh man if you ask more questions they will be going crazy already.
For young women in the remoter parts of Huli territory, who don’t have access to educational and eco-nomic opportunities, married life for many closely resembles that of their ancestors. Although less common than it used to be, separate living is still practised and some of the more powerful leaders have more than ten wives. I visited some of these remoter families while on mobile patrol with nurses from the Kangalu aid post at Mananda village, near Komo (see photo 5.4). Child brides are not uncommon with girls as young as twelve becoming pregnant, often resulting in malformed children. Many men still adhere to the practice of avoiding sight of their own babies and often do not know the identities of all their grown children. Stacey at Komo provided the following account: Some girls … they bear a child not strong. I’ve seen it from my cousin. When she was 12 years old. Another baby from another man.
When first child his father is from Yalibu. His father is an old man. They are not in love but the money, she married money. And he gave her money and then she … he didn’t walk properly. When he will walk he will fall down and his neck he will not hold properly. Not strong. He can’t walk properly. He will walk like a drunk person. The emergence of child brides in poorer parts of Hela Province is a grotesque and urgent problem for Papua New Guinea, and is a genuine example of the pernicious effect of a breakdown in cultural tradition combined with lack of development and the influx of cash. Yet the solution to these problems lies not in the re-establishment of a once proud cultural tradition, but in the elimination of poverty. In highlighting the materialism that exists as a core component of a Huli epistemology, I wish to show that the separation of humans and nature is necessary for the creation of an objectified reality that has, for centuries at least, been subject to the constant desire for change. The subject of change relates dialectically to the cognisance of possibility, but to remove this cognisance through retrospective appeals to tradition is an evil act that denies the accumulated wisdom of elderly Huli women who really fucking hate polygyny.

Although the most evident features of Huli marital relationships are bride price transactions and the behavioural strictures governed by an ideology of female pollution, these features are not about loving relationships, but about power. Indeed bride price and love frequently come into conflict with each other, as young Huli couples are bypassing the system in increasing numbers. This creates conflict between families that can sometimes have fatal consequences, as parents demand bride price payments for daughters who have fallen pregnant. When interviewing young people about this phenomenon it was often explained to me in the context of love, and the process of falling in love that seems to trump any concerns over the bride price. Love also featured as an explanation for the phenomenon of female suicide, which has been a noted feature of Huli society since the first ethnography conducted by Robert Glasse in the 1950s. Stacey from Komo:

they are in love with another boy. And then that boy he has no
parents. He come from poor family. The mother will say I don’t want
to become an in-law of that boy. She will get up and say like that her
mum. And then the girl she is already in love with that boy so how
can they give up or something like that? That girl will sit down and
think why my mum don’t want that boy? I love him so much. So the
girl will sit down and think then really my mum don’t want to become
in-law with that boy. She will think like that and then she will go and

The ideology of female pollution also needs to be understood in terms of a system of shared beliefs that serve to govern human conduct. The belief in female pollution required the enforcement of prohibitions and strictures that was a shared responsibility. Female pollution resulted in a complex power arrangement that is not easily accounted for in terms of a simple patriarchal model. At its extreme end is an account given to me by the last Patrol Officer at Komo station prior to independence, John Hocknull. According to Hocknull it was the Huli women who ultimately “had all the power”, which was an opinion that had been influenced by his experience of a domestic argument where the wife became so enraged at her husband that she spread her menstrual blood around the perimeter of his house. The power of this substance was such that the husband was unable to step over the polluted barrier and she kept him imprisoned that way until he died of starvation. The disappearance of belief in the pollutive power of women has the paradoxical effect of creating new vulnerabilities for Huli women as certain forms of power have diminished while an overtly patriarchal structural violence has been reinforced. While many beliefs have changed, the practice of polygyny remains. The taking of multiple wives is a function of the desire for
material accumulation, and the establishment of social efficacy.

During his fieldwork in the 1950s, Robert Glasse struggled with his theory that the only way to explain the phenomenon of men living on the land of their wives’ families was that Huli society was cognatic, which is a theory that was subsequently debunked. Yet I contend that the widespread practice of polygyny was evidence in itself of an agnatic society. While knowledge and belief in Huli mana in all its forms has radically changed over the past decades, the desire for material accumulation has remained. This desire, along with an agnatic system that still largely prevents women from owning land, is at the basis of the polygynous system that persists. The effect works in both directions, as unmarried women desire a husband who will give them land on which to live and garden, and increasingly cash to spend on market goods.

Polygyny, in the contemporary context, is a function of poverty. Young Huli women to whom I spoke expressed their desire to obtain an education so that they would be able to support themselves through employment and not have to rely on marriage. This perspective, which separates conceptual understandings of materiality and material desire from cosmogony and other cultural beliefs, creates a space for more nuanced understandings of human relationships. Hela as a land of blood and war, of rape and neglect, is clearly observed and well-described. Hela as a land of love, which is a sentiment that was repeated to me throughout my fieldwork, requires that new conceptual space if it is to be understood.

At Komo I interviewed Gama Undia, the elderly mother of my host about her marriage and the wandari dagia gamu that she used to attract her husband. The process was identical to what is described above, that is the cutting of the tanget leaf while saying the gamu words. However, the text is slightly different.

Payini podaro
I am breaking on the shoulder
Habini podaro
I am breaking on the palms
Baini podaro
I am breaking on the thighs
Baguni podaro
I am breaking on the waist
Bunini podaro
I am breaking on the liver
Babarini podaro
I am breaking on the calf
Balarai podaro
Lumbini podaro
I am breaking on the umbilicus
Kobemini podaro
I am breaking on the ribs

While the gamu is being said, a sighting of the Papuan Lorikeet is taken as a sign that the spell has been effective. I had to rely on male translators for what Gama Undia had to tell me about relationships and marriage. However, this gender discrepancy did not diminish the sentiments being expressed, on the contrary, they were clearly being enhanced by the glosses of my interpreters, Michael Ango and Joseph

MA: I’m penetrating on the thighs of that man. I’m penetrating, kneeling and penetrating on the elbow of the man, on the hips of the man, heart of the man, waist of the man, shoulder of the man, jaws of the man, toes of the man, figure of the man. I’m kneeling, I’m penetrating. And this is declaring to nature and then the nature

[JA: He can demand] nature will detected right after the language is spoken, right after the language is spoken the nature prevailed and bring the wanted to loved man closer and closer and comes to see the
woman. And then same time maybe a minute or two those nature is the parrot, beautiful parrot, flying parrots, sky parrot are just flying surrounding you. And that signifies them that the husband is coming.
Husband is here. Husband is just at the door, just at the gate so they just wait for seconds the man is already there.
JA: While doing this maybe birds are flying around all over the place. And maybe that is reminding her at the same time the relatives or other man who is beside of this man they are preparing the payment.
MA: Not the payment but the husband is already at the door… Even no matter what but nature has already nailed and penetrated to bring him to her. After cutting the leaves at the same time they say these secret words. And then same time they praise, they praise the occurrence of the mountains, rivers, valleys. And the relatives’ names, the brothers’ praise names convince direct that the nature will bring to her. It’s part of a moral like… you put the north pole here and the south pole there and if comes a bit closer then it attracts… It’s like the man is on the other side, the woman is here, maybe one is moving closer so that the other comes and meets them…

Dagia gamu text and performance are expressions of lust as much they are of finer sentiment and an appeal to care. During my fieldwork I encountered use of the word “nature” in many contexts associated with development as well as in descriptions of traditional times. Agreements signed with the state over the PNG LNG project include promises to protect the natural environment, and this was raised with me on several occasions. 6 Although use of the term “nature” and appeals to its preservation reflect more contemporary concerns over anthropogenic threats to its well-being, nature as a concept has been deployed throughout the language through song, spells, and stories. In this chapter I have attempted to illuminate a Huli materialist concept of nature via various forms of Huli linguistic praxis. This method is influenced by the work of Descola and the relationship between Western art and the objectification of nature, as I have described. Huli artistic praxis is an exercise in language, and a Huli concept of nature is encoded in the same, and the two are related in ways that are analogous to Western artistic traditions. The creation and use of a forest language to confuse the spirits depends on concepts of both a natural domain and a spirit domain, whereby both humans and spirits are able to inhabit and share the same forest space. It is not the mindless and intention-less acts of nature that are the concern of the forest language, but the malevolent intentions of spirits that act as beings separate to, yet within, a natural domain.

The symbolic deployment of the objects of nature is fundamental to the emotional power of Huli songs. Nature, as an object, exists as a resource to be used by humans in the creation of songs and spells. These objects are material, without sentience or intent, and are available for linguistic manipulation by the human mind. These objects also act, they are not necessarily static, as clouds move by themselves without reason or cause, and that movement in itself is the materialist conception of nature without an interior that is available to be given purpose by being deployed in song. Nature is what happens naturalistically, rather than what is naturalistic. The Papuan Lorikeet responds to the spell, the song is composed in response to the movement of the clouds. It is the latter that behaves minane. Minane might be glossed as “naturally”, as the adverb that partitions intended human events and creates a space for a particular historicity to exist. Individual love and desire are agents of contingency that act upon the flow of human
history, following a path as yet unformed and governed by no divine will. History, therefore, is able to be created. It is not set in stone and follows no predetermined set of rules. Humans may act according to their own individual will, which is free because nature pays it no mind. Huli epistemology allows for “a history in itself”90 that has had profound implications for Huli society in its encounters with our modernity.

(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. 199-209.)

  1. Marilyn Strathern, Women in Between. Female roles in a male world: Mount Hagen, New Guinea, (London and New York: Seminar Press, 1972), 52 & 83. []
  2. Dorothy Ayers Counts, “Beaten Wife, Suicidal Woman: Domestic Violence in Kaliai, West New Britain,” Pacific Studies, 13, no. 3 (1990). []
  3. Lisette Josephides, The Production of Inequality: Gender and Exchange among the Kewa, (London
    and New York: Tavistock, 1985), 129. []
  4. Polly Wiessner, “Of Human and Spirit Women: From Mother to Seductress to Second Wife,” in Women as Unseen Characters: Male Ritual in Papua New Guinea, ed. Pascale Bonnemère (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 159. []
  5. Jacques Lacan, The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XII: Crucial problems for psychoanalysis 1964-1965, trans. Cormac Gallagher ( 2011), 191. []
  6. Independent State of Papua New Guinea, “Angore PRL 11 License Based Benefits Sharing Agreement,” (2009), contains a section that refers to the “Environmental Plan” that has been approved for the project. This is not referred to in the umbrella agreement signed at Kokopo []

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