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.

Huli post-contact history can be divided into four identifiable phases, which may be labelled the establishment phase, the Pax Australiana that ended with the emergence of political violence in the 1990s, the political phase, and the resource phase that has culminated in the PNG LNG project. As with all historical categorizations, these are rough boundaries that crudely seek to divide a continuum that nonetheless displays certain distinct phases that appear in hindsight. Viewed through this lens, however, it is possible to map out processes of change that have moved through Huli culture and society over the past seven decades. This chapter focusses on the period leading up to the pax Australiana that took hold during the 1970s.

The establishment phase began in 1951 with the arrival of acting Assistant District Officer S. S. Smith at the Hoyebia air strip site near present day Tari that had been initially constructed by Taylor and Black’s Hagen-Sepik patrol in 1938. 1 The so called “first contact” episodes during the 1930s are more known for their tales of adventure and discovery, than as transformative episodes for the Huli who encountered these visitors. In other words, first contact as it has been popularly presented is more about our history than theirs. In particular, the brutal Fox brothers expedition of 1934 that involved the massacre of dozens of Huli who were unfortunate enough to get in their way, has been shown by Ballard to have registered as a “non-event” in Huli historical terms. 2 The Fox brothers, the famous Hides expedition that intersected the southern part of Huli territory in 1935, as did Ivan Champion the following year, and even the Hagen Sepik patrol that received air-dropped supplies at Hoyebia 3 (see Photo 2.2), were all marginalia to a grander Huli historical narrative. Even as one might imagine that the Fox Brothers’ murderous spree should impress itself upon this narrative, Ballard points out that, in the case of Huli warfare and conflict, narratives “that are deemed to be culturally meaningful are those that relate to issues of compensation and exchange.” 4 Events that could be labelled “political”, that rearrange relationships and are recorded in the oral historical narrative for future reference when relationships and disputes again need to be negotiated, do not include the brief interludes made by white Australian explorers that have no relevance to these relationships. These encounters were not historically significant for Huli because their material impact, although experienced intensely by some, was narrow and transient. When the Australian administration first established a permanent presence near Tari in 1951, the material changes to the lives of Huli people could be incorporated by Huli as a permanent phenomenon to be incorporated into both the future and the past.

It is difficult to say what the Hoyebia Huli made of the Hagen-Sepik patrol that arrived in May 1938, although it is clear that their experiences were a lot more friendly than those of the Fox brothers four years earlier. Pat Walsh, the patrol’s photographer, wrote of large gatherings of men, with about a thousand holding a “conference” after their arrival at Hoyebia on 10th May. 5 That night one of their carriers, Kelawa, who had been ill with influenza and carried for some time, died. When he was buried the next morning Walsh reports between 600 to 800 locals showing up and bringing food. That same day work began on the airstrip, which continued to attract large crowds who, by Walsh’s account, brought an abundance of food most days, including pigs. The Huli locals also demonstrated enthusiasm for the work of flattening the airstrip and the patrol had no trouble in utilising their numbers to tramp the ground to create a suitable base. Walsh describes this process: “On drome. About 1,500 males around. Food brought. Natives brought pigs. Two parties from opposite directions came and at a signal joined forces and rushed around the drome area before coming to the banis.”

‘Tramping down the runway. Hoiyevia’. Carriers and local men dance to flatten Hoiyevia strip, 23-26 May 1938
Photo 3:1 “Tramping down the runway. Hoiyevia”, May 1938 6
Dropping cargo Hoiyevia June 1938
Photo 3:2 “Dropping cargo Hoiyevia”, June 1938 7

John Black, second in command of the Hagen-Sepik patrol, describes the relationships that developed between the party and the highlands groups in terms of material desire and exchange. In a talk given to the Anthropological Society of South Australia, Black explained an initial reluctance to trade on the fact that the members of the party were considered to be “supernatural”, that “White men were explained as tribal deities of the sky… and that our natives were dead returned to earth to seek their loved ones.” 8 Many Huli very likely did initially believe that the white explorers had come from a place they called daluyanda, meaning “place in the sky”, similar to the Enga belief. Whatever a more comprehensive analysis of how the Taylor-Black party was understood ontologically might have revealed, it is clear that the relationships changed dramatically once it was established that trade in material items was viable: “a precedent for barter was soon established and talk went ahead of us and the fame of our wealth was not long left unexploited by these property-minded peasants.” Black was struck by the materialism of the highlands groups, for which Huli groups are included as Enga: “It was apparent that they were exceedingly property-minded and canny. Later knowledge indicated that this concern with property was the dominant motive of their culture.” The same sentence could have been written about my initial experience of Huli in the shadow of the PNG LNG project in 2009. Once the patrol party was established as ontologically relatable, then material exchange had the effect of establishing a relationship with a new and desirable material reality that existed outside Huli territory. Jim Taylor was careful to describe this process, contrasting an initial desire for new materials based on their symbolic value, which was later augmented by a growing understanding of and desire for their use-value. Initially “steel hungry” people desired knives as wearable objects of decoration. 9 Initial reactions to gunfire were uncomprehending of the instrumental power of the object in use, until “Once they realise the power of the European and that he does not wish to harm them, real friendship is established with the people and they lose any fear they may have had …

The community becomes wealthy and famous in the district and they wish the white man to stay among them forever.” 10 The realisation of the local populations that they had a shared material instrumentality with the white men was the crucial moment of their encounter. Photo 3.3 below shows a Huli man who has decorated his feather headwear with a flattened powdered-milk tin. The photo is revealing of both the broad scope for individual choice of expression in pre-contact Huli presentation (some are wearing the everyday Huli wig, some have bare heads, some prefer feathered arrangements), and the willing embodiment of the new materialities associated with the Taylor-Black patrol. The significance of symbolic decoration in Huli should not be underestimated. Pre-contact Huli were self-reflexive about their Huli identity, which was expressed materially through decoration. 11 By adorning the material indicators of the white explorers, Huli were making the new materiality part of what it meant to identify as Huli. The photo also speaks to an everyday casualness of Huli life that is easily extinguished by oral reminiscence, and the reconstruction of a complex cosmological order. It is the everyday that is the key to understanding change. Fleeting moments, even of great disruption and violence, even of incomprehensible ontological discord, are impotent as change agents. New materialities that result in permanent alteration to the experience of everyday life, even when as benign as an introduced potato, are powerful disruptors such that nothing will ever be the same again.

Huli - Michael Main Thesis 2020 -- A Man of Hoiyevia Photo 3.3
Photo 3:3 A Man of Hoiyevia 12

By 1951, at least some of the Huli population were well aware of the Australian administration’s presence in other parts of the highlands and had expressed their desire to have a permanent government presence on Huli territory. The first task of the Australian administration was to again establish an airstrip (the precursor to the present-day airstrip of Tari), for which they needed a force of local labour. Smith reports his fortune at having the assistance of two Hulis who had experience of the administration and its airstrips; one who had been taken to Kutubu by Champion in 1939, and another who had experience of the airstrip at Wabag and had taken to wearing “a gas mask haversack.” 13 The initial reaction by Huli to the Fox Brothers’ steel axes had been curiosity and amazement at the effect these tools had on wood, and the types of wood chips they produced, 14 but not as items of desire to be incorporated into Huli sociality such that the source of these items invited incorporation into any historical narrative.

In 1937, Ivan Champion encountered some Huli with “some of the steel car springs given to them by Hides as axes.” 15 By the 1950s, patrol officers were reporting an intense desire for items such as axes, which had been distributed by successive patrols and no doubt traded into Huli territory, “as one old man said, “we look up to the aircraft flying over head and call out to them to drop us axes.”” 16 The desire for material items was accompanied by a desire for a permanent government presence to be established. As reported from an early patrol into southern parts of Huli territory from Lake Kutubu, “The withdrawal of the patrol from the Huri basin last year rather shook the natives’ faith, and they have shown some anxiety as to whether the government is going to go away again.” 17 This remark referred to the aborted attempt by Smith in 1951 to establish an airstrip at Tari. A sudden budget cut meant that his initial patrol was forced to withdraw just as they were about to level the airstrip for landing. 18 Smith had taken 35 Huli men from Hoyebia to Kutubu station, and by the time of Carey’s patrol the following year, fifteen of them remained at Kutubu to be used as carriers back to Tari. By this time an abundance of desirable material goods had made their way into Huli territory. Smith states that in order to purchase both land and labour, his inventory included some 150 axes, 200 tomahawks, 600 knives, 500 yards of calico, 200 flannel vests, 300 wool blankets, 200 leather belts, along with the requisite pearl and cowrie shells, beads and salt. 19 It is little wonder that the Huli population were disappointed when the government suddenly packed up and left.

In late 1951 Len Twyman and George Sexton, both of the Unevangelised Fields Mission (UFM), walked into the “Lower Tari” from Lake Kutubu. They had been encouraged to take their mission to the Tari valley by Ivan Champion, who was at that time Director of the Department of District Services, and who organised their permits. 20 Over the next few years various mission groups began to spread around Huli territory as it was opened up by the colonial administration. The early missionaries’ focus on health had an extraordinary impact on the lives of Huli people within their reach, and their names are widely known and highly revered to this day. 21 Along with the introduction of new material goods, the imposition of law and order by the administration as well as the health services provided by the various mission groups, served to vastly improve the material conditions of life for the Huli population. Such a statement is, of course, most obvious and plain to see. However, so much scholarship has focused on the ravages of capitalism and the imposition of “Western” consumerist culture and values that the salient Hobbesian (figuratively speaking) fact of pre-contact hardship tends to become buried in the analysis of post-colonial failure. This is a difficult sentence to write, because any notion of the colonial success story has long since disappeared from respectful company. The ethnographic evidence from much of highlands PNG supports so strongly this heretical point of view that it is disingenuous to ignore it. The challenge is therefore to understand it. James Sinclair describes the broad attitude across highlands societies towards post-war colonialism in terms of the primacy of their material concerns: “It was a situation that in other parts of what was coming to be called the Third World was producing violent anti-white and anti-colonial insurrection. But this was not the case with the Highlanders. They were hard-headed and pragmatic. They wanted more white settlers to come in, not fewer.” 22 In 1940 Jim Taylor wrote of Huli society and the evident consideration of wives as a form of property; “Women form the basis of native capitalism.” 23 These early observations of an overtly materialistic society deserve to be taken seriously. The attitude of Huli living within the zone of influence of the colonial administration and missionary groups during their first few years provides the clearest insight into the dramatic effect these interventions had on their lives. Barbara and John Hutton arrived in Tari as UFM missionaries in 1956. Like many missionary couples, Barbara worked as a nurse and a teacher while John concentrated on religious conversion. As a schoolteacher Barbara encouraged students to write their own stories, as a way of developing literary skills, and they often wrote about the changes that had taken place in their lives. I interviewed Barbara Hutton at her home in Traralgon in March 2017: Well when we first came we were not allowed to go any further than 3 miles from the government station because of the fighting. And then my husband got permission to go a little bit further, and then eventually it was all opened up. But particularly came out in school kids’ compositions and things, how before the white people came they were frightened all the time, there was fighting all the time, they talked about running and hiding in the bush, having nothing to eat but grass, they told those sort of stories saying how much better it was since the white people had come.

This type of observation accords with what Huli say themselves about the time of initial colonial influence. Of greater impact than the introduction of steel axes or woolen blankets was the radical change in the structural conditions of power that unburdened life from the necessity of fear. This impact was particularly important for the women. When I asked John Hocknull, the last patrol officer at Komo station, about what the people thought of road construction when they didn’t have cars, he explained that the major impact of the roads was to provide a safe, neutral space for people to move about. It is important to engage directly with the Huli account that life became better after the white people came. Huli used the word honebi to describe the pale-skinned colonialists, but the distinction was not racial in the way that race had been constructed in the West. Honebi is the word given to describe, for example, the colour of pale clay, but there is no evidence to suggest that Huli accorded any notion of superiority or otherwise based on visible difference as markers of origin. Even during my fieldwork I was struck by the absence of racist attitudes expressed towards the Chinese trade store owners who have set up throughout the PNG highlands. Huli epistemology demands a face-value account of personhood. Huli embodiment of what they considered to be a better materiality was a far cry from the process of humiliation that Sahlins believes to be a requirement for the changes evident in the processes of global economic development. 24 Rather than encounter these new materialities as externally-derived and imposed, Huli incorporated them through the reinterpretation of their own prophetic imaginings. Huli weren’t so much dominated by the West, as entitled to it.

(An extract from Talk Never Dies: An Analysis of Disputes Among the Huli. A thesis submitted by Laurence R. Goldman for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University College, London. February, 1982., p. 77-89.)

  1. S. Smith, “Interim Report – Tari Patrol – Southern Highlands Division,” (Patrol reports [microform], Port Moresby: National Archives of Papua New Guinea 1951). []
  2. Chris Ballard, “La fabrique de l’histoire: événement, mémoire et récit dans les Hautes Terres de Nouvelle-Guinée [Making history: Event, memory and narrative in the New Guinea Highlands].” In Les rivages du temps: Histoire et anthropologie du Pacifique, eds Isabelle Merle and Michel Naepels, 111–34. Cahiers du Pacifique Sud Contemporain no. 3. Paris: L’Harmattan. (2003 [1992]). []
  3. Pat Walsh, “Field diary, 26 January 1938 – 19 January 1939,” in Papers and photographs of Pat Walsh (National Library of Australia, MS 9219, Series 2. Hagen-Sepik Patrol papers, 1938-39, Item 1, 1938). Walsh reports fifteen consecutive days of “drome” making before the pilot of the aircraft that attempted to land reported that the airstrip was not long enough for take-off. Air drops were subsequently organised instead. It remains unclear what the Huli population thought was the purpose of the airstrip that they had helped construct. []
  4. Chris Ballard, “La fabrique de l’histoire: événement, mémoire et récit dans les Hautes Terres de Nouvelle-Guinée [Making history: Event, memory and narrative in the New Guinea Highlands].” []
  5. Pat Walsh, “Field diary, 26 January 1938 – 19 January 1939.” []
  6. Pat Walsh, “‘Tramping down the runway. Hoiyevia’. Carriers and local men dance to flatten Hoiyevia strip, 23-26 May 1938,” in Papers and photographs of Pat Walsh (National Library of Australia, MS 9219 Series 1. Hagen-Sepik Patrol photographs, 1938-39, Subseries 1. Binder 1: Hoiyevia Base Camp area, May-June 1938, File 4. Roll 4: Hoiyevia Base Camp, May 1938, Item 2.1938). []
  7. Pat Walsh, “‘Dropping cargo Hoiyevia’”, 1 June 1938. Bags fall, local men crouch by the strip,” in Papers and photographs of Pat Walsh (National Library of Australia, MS 9219 Series 1. Hagen-Sepik Patrol photographs, 1938-39, Subseries 1. Binder 1: Hoiyevia Base Camp area, May-June 1938, File 6. Roll 6: Hoiyevia Base Camp, June 1938, Item 5.1938). []
  8. John Black, “The Hagen / Sepik Patrol 1938/39,” Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia 8, no. 8 (1970). []
  9. James S. Taylor, “Hagen-Sepik Patrol Report,” in Papers and photographs of Jim Taylor, “Native thinking and culture contact”, p. 10 []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Laurence Goldman, “Decorated Being in Huli,” in Body Arts and Modernity, ed. E Ewart and M O’Hanlon (Wantage: Sean Kingston Publishing, 2007: 142-65) []
  12. Pat Walsh, ““A Man of Hoiyevia” 11-14 May 1948,” in Papers and photographs of Pat Walsh (National Library of Australia, MS 9219 Series 1. Hagen-Sepik Patrol photographs, 1938-39, Subseries 1. Binder 1: Hoiyevia Base Camp area, May-June 1938, File 2. Roll 2: Hoiyevia Base Camp, May 1938, Item 3.1938). []
  13. S. Smith, “Interim Report – Tari Patrol – Southern Highlands Division”, 5. []
  14. Chris Ballard, “La fabrique de l’histoire: événement, mémoire et récit dans les Hautes Terres de Nouvelle-Guinée [Making history: Event, memory and narrative in the New Guinea Highlands]”. []
  15. Ivan Champion, “Daru Patrol Report No. 4 1937/38,” (Patrol reports [microform], Port Moresby: National Archives of Papua New Guinea1937), 34. It is unclear to me why Hides gave them leaf springs rather than axes, or why he was carrying car springs in the first place. []
  16. E.D. Wren, “Lake Kutubu Patrol Report No. 11 1952/53,” (Patrol reports [microform], The National Archives of Papua New Guinea 1953). (no page numbers visible). []
  17. Q.P. Anthony, “Lake Kutubu Patrol Report No. 2 1952\53,” (Patrol reports [microform], Port Moresby: National Archives of Papua New Guinea1952), 11. []
  18. Arthur Carey, “Tari Patrol Report No. 1 1952,” (Patrol reports microform], Port Moresby: National Archives of Papua New Guinea 1952). []
  19. S. Smith, “Interim Report – Tari Patrol – Southern Highlands Division,” 6. A preference for “brightly coloured” calico “preferably red” is stated. []
  20. Eva Twyman, The Battle for the Bigwigs (Melbourne: Unevangelized Fields Mission, 1961), 13. []
  21. People of all ages know the names of the early missionaries. During my fieldwork I met Alf and Wilmer Norman, the first missionaries at Mananda who established the current ECPNG health centre and school in 1962. The Normans came to visit at Easter and were greeted with great celebration. Their names are known all across the Mananda and Komo valleys, and across to the Papuan Plateau. []
  22. James Sinclair, Middle Kingdom: A Colonial History of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea (Adelaide: Crawford House Publishing, 2016), 219. []
  23. James S. Taylor, “Hagen-Sepik Patrol Report,” in Papers and photographs of Jim Taylor, “Native thinking and culture contact”, p. 4. []
  24. Marshall Sahlins, “China Reconstructing or vice versa: Humiliation as a stage of economic “development”, with comments on cultural diversity in the modern “world system”,” in SOAC Congress (Seoul, Korea1989). []

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