by Dr. Laurence R. Goldman

Few of my Melanesian colleagues would disagree with me when I say that the Huli – prophetically referred to by Sinclair (1973) as the ‘Wigmen of Papua’ – are very much the face of Papua New Guinea for the outside world. As Timmer (1993) has remarked, in the last decade Huli have eclipsed the Asaro mudmen as an evocative image of the tribal and exotic in Papua New Guinea. A number of circumstances explain this propulsion to a national marketing image:

• The Huli have continued to prove an enduring mecca for anthropologists, ornithologists, film-makers and tourists. It is promoted as one of the last areas in PNG to have been ‘opened’ up despite first contact occurred in the 1930’s. This gives the Huli a quite unprecedented level of exposure 1 in which they have become subject to commercial processes.
• Since 1990, there has been increased attention on the Southern Highlands Province as a centre of resource development for gold (Kare), gas (Hides), and oil (Moran, Mananda and Kutubu). In this cauldron the Huli numerically dominate their neighbours such as the Foi, Fasu, Onabasulu, Wola and Ipili. They are regularly flown to America and Australia on corporate promotion tours, and their ‘decorated’ images are used by the multi-national developers on computer mouse mats, screen savers, and clothing.
• As well as being regarded as a resource-rich province, the Southern Highlands is also one of the most violence ridden areas in Papua New Guinea. Its ‘law and order’ reputation reflects endemic tribal factionalism and the growing divide between the resource development ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Public and media attention continues to be fed images from this region, and separatist political agendas in the province have now been co-opted by Huli.
• Lastly, there is an embedded and perhaps ineffable aesthetic encapsulated in the Huli decorated being which appeals to the Western imagination in ways not matched by other regional analogues.

Significantly, pre-colonial Huli, like their Duna counterparts (Haley 1992:73), objectified salient cultural differences in stereotypical speech forms often used on compensation, dispute or war occasions. These speeches foreground the repertoire of decoration items used as diacritics of alterity :

The Huli with hair bound with rope/decorated with yellow everlasting flowers/purple everlasting daisies/arrows with decorated shafts/with aprons of pigs tails

The Duna with their form of axe/aprons made of this species of axe/feather worn in the hair/string-cap

The Dugube (Papuan Plateau peoples) with their tree oil/axe/bow/species of cane/dogs-teeth-necklaces/bamboo through their nose/hair style/killing stick (cf Goldman 1983:67-68;297).

Ballard (1995), Clarke (nd) and Timmer (1998) have all cited my previous ethnography to indicate that Huli displayed a self-reflexivity about their cultural identity and distinctiveness long before colonialism. This consciousness of similarity and difference as embodied in varying ‘decorated’ styles was undoubtedly enhanced by vigorous inter-cultural trade, the migrational processes that spawned huge population enclaves, and the rich interaction between these neighbours predicated on shared sacred geographies and origins. This objectification process extended not only to knowledge of apparel, but also house styles, language and dance: Duna – tele te; Dugube –geyeye, Obena – Poro màli. When the ‘light coloured’ (honebi) men came these speech forms about the material culture of decoration were adapted to include trousers, etc. 2 Clarke (nd) was thus right to interpret these data as a challenge to the notion that Pacific ethnic identities only emerge with colonialism and selective reifications of culture (cf Linnekin & Poyer 1990). The ethnography points to how Huli rendered decoration as critical in the reproduction of identity, of Huli-ness – it thus speaks to the relationship between decorated being and decoratedness in this culture as an ethnotheory of ethnicity.

Huli perceive themselves as a culturally homogeneous unit because they share mana (custom) – ina mama mamalinaga mana ogome mo mbiyaore kemagoni: the mana of our ancestors makes us one (Goldman 1983:67). Mana embodies a symbol of identity, integrity, a criteria for self-definition from the individual to the tribal. The material culture of decoration is but one realisation of mana itself. Etymologically the meaning of the term reflects the morpheme ma (“past, before, neck, behind”) – so that there is embedded here the idea of present convention and praxis linked to an ancestral past. Mana derives its epistemic validity and status from association with history, and was always part of the self-conscious rhetoric of Huli ethnicity. Clearly, those neighboring ‘others’ were differently decorated in accordance with their own mana; but equally they were reproducing this with a dissimilar similarity. This is the dialectical interplay between the construction of otherness and sameness much commented upon by Highlands ethnographers. In other words, there was an implicit apprehension on the part of the Huli about the being of decoration as an expression of history. A culturally reflexive metaphysics fashioned in light of “difference and externality” (Thomas 1992:213).

For both Huli and Duna, this awareness about decorated being was further encoded in two features of mythic structure. (1) It was common for stories to have a coda whereby there was a population diaspora leaving Huli in the ‘middle’ ground. These accounts often relate an ancestral distribution of mana to the ethnic groups 3 as an explanation of difference. (2) Pre-colonial Huli loosely encoded their belief about a world populated by four major groups through use of the honorific prefix Hela – Hela Huli, Hela Duna, Hela Obena (Ipili), and Hela Dugube (Papuan Plateau) (cf Glasse 1965:33;Goldman 1983:113; Ballard 1995:55). Huli ideas about their cosmic centredness and balance with outsiders was marked by this appellation. In some eschatological narratives, Hela is an original Huli progenitor, though other informants understood the prefix simply to reflect an assumption of commonality or descent.

Longitudinal ethnographic data are now clearly indicating a revitalisation of this belief harnessed to new agendas about regional and local land rights. A movement to split the present Southern Highlands Province into two with the creation of a new Hela Province has gathered momentum in the last five years. It is a now a strong political force articulated, driven, and owned by Huli politicians and a sizeable constituency of the grass-root Huli population . The public press statements include the following explanations (see attachment):

“We are one ethical 4 unit. We are born of our common ancestor Hela..from time immemorial we have maintained the Hela identity..the name Hela also means, let it be, preserve, conserve, let it live; do not touch, keep off…The Hela province issue – is an issue in the heart throbe, bone marrow and blood vein of all and every Hela” (Press Statement – The National19.9.2000).

In this new myth-making enterprise, Huli use the traditional rhetoric and idioms of descent (‘blood, bone, heart’) to promote a political agenda by melding these with the indigenous predilection to draw meaning from the homonymy between a proper name – Hela – and an imperative form of the verb “to leave alone” (hela). What is thereby suggested is that the agenda of this movement was decreed by the ancestors – that Hela should be preserved as a unified regional group.

Is it cynical of me to suggest that there is a strong economic rationale to this new political movement? Importantly, the new Hela myth talks not of four but five core members – Huli, Duna, Dugube, Obena and the Lake Kutubu people traditionally and collectively referred to as Hewa Wane. The new Hela flag is thus to have five stars to include Hela Hewa – an entirely new artifice of the sacred cosmology of Huli. What we witness is the transformation of an old myth into a new one endorsing conventional wisdom about the malleability of myths to reflect the present in the past. It appears no coincidence that the new Hela province would thus embrace the electorates of Komo-Margarima, Tari-Pori, Koroba-Lake Kopiago in Southern Highlands), and Laigap-Porgera, and Kandep in Enga Province. The resource grids of Porgera and Kare gold, gas in Hides, and oil and gas at Moran, Mananda, Kutubu and Gobe, overlays perfectly onto these proposed Hela electoral lines. Huli have been able to monopolise this movement by virtue not simply of their relatively massive population base – more than 100,000 speakers – but also because the same myth is in part shared by Duna 5 . Other commentators (Clark nd) have talked of their aggressive chauvinism and territoriality, and there is little doubt that Huli is set to become the lingua franca of the southern highlands. 6

Whilst it is no longer easy to tease out what is purely Hela and what is Huli, the symbolic power of contemporary dance performances such as Máli inscribe such concepts of identity. This is a context when Huli ethnicity is presented, contested and delineated with respect to, or against the backdrop of, Hela regional agendas. The sentience of the decorated being in màli is thus bound up with a conjoint affirmation of individual status and Huli nationhood in all their primordial and historical distinctiveness. An overture is thereby made to onlookers and overhearers to enjoin in a shared fantasy about cultural aspirations. The dance creates a fictional space as a poetics of the possible. Not slavishly dependent on its traditional narrative embedding, but not comprehendible outside such mimetic rationales.


The màli dance usually consists of two opposing lines of decorated dancers –sometimes terminated by a young boy or female holding a stick – who chant a two-tone shout (màli iwa) while beating hand drums in a syncopated beat-and-a half stroke. The dancers take short hopping steps in unison and in one direction – the routine is recommenced periodically after short breaks. The performance has no words, is highly repetitive, but is perceived now as the quintessential manifestation of decorated being. Traditionally màli was one of a number of dance styles summarily listed in Table 2 below.

Decorative/Dance StyleDescription
MáliCelebratory dance traditionally in anticipation of an enemy death and in fertility cycle rites of Tege. Ira Mali in pre-colonial times required small central stake around which dancers moved. A two-tone shout with syncopated drum beats was made by two opposing groups of dancers who hop in one direction.
BilaguAlso known as Dawe Haga performed as climatic conclusion after divination and Nogo Hagua/Kolo to restore good health. One or two practitioners would dance through the night as antithetical agents to spirits (dama). Primary feathers were cloaks of black cassowary from which were suspended hornbill beaks, beads (dade) and rattles. The head-dress consisted on white sulphur cockatoo feathers (abuage). Song verses plot the geography of surrounding areas and the associated natural fauna and flora.
Komia*Performed as part of the drought fertility rites (gaiya tege) in which two dancers would jump over the cult fence known as ali damba. Apart from drumming, no verses accompany the performance. Decoration is dominated by plumes from the Lesser bird of paradise after which the dance takes its name.
KabuguaThe “wrapped”(kabu ) ones were figures of fun who acted with licensed aggression against children in Tege rites – a kind of ritualised ogre (Goldman 1998:182) of pantominic proportions. Black is predominant in colour and cassowary feathers.
Hewabi biNot recognised as Huli in origin, appears to derive from the lake Kutubu region. Large fronds of sago palm are worn at the back very reminiscent of Papuan Plateau dancers.
HaroliFirst stage initiates wore the base black coiffure (manda tene), whilst second stage neophytes wore the ‘red’ coiffure (manda hare)(see Goldman 1983).
Iba TiriThe Huli trickster imitated in the Tiri Yagia rite performed as part of oblation to the supernatural to cure ‘water’ based illnesses in Koroba region. Dancers dress up in ferns and suspend two Ribbontail feathers from their heads while encircling a male transvestite (ega wandari)(Goldman 1998:246).
Baya HoroThe Huli ogre which is often imitated by older boys and caretakers to frighten and entertain children (Goldman 1998:183) – game baya horo ibira (‘Baya Horo is coming’).

*The most common performative verb used with these names was “hitting”(ba) – eg Tege baga, Komia baga, – or “planting”(hangaga) – Ega hangaga, Himugu hangaga, urubungawe hangaga. These ritual terms draw on the same kind of figurative allusions captured in the English verb to “hit” as in ‘hit the town’, ‘hit it on the head’ etc.

For several decades after sustained contact in the 1950’s, most of these dance/decorated styles were still performed albeit separated from their traditional anchorages. On occasions such as political rallies, school or hospital openings, or other celebratory occasions such as regional shows, Huli continued to display these styles. However, since the late 1980’s only Máli appears to be regularly performed. The reasons for this survival are no doubt complex, but certainly include the fact that it alone allows for an undetermined number of participants to form groups. Moreover, it does not require any control of esoteric song forms (unlike Bilagu) or intricate decorative styles.

The Máli was traditionally performed prior to an impending war, when a warrior would drive a small sharpened stake into the cleared dancing ground (hama), and mark it with rings of coloured clay to signal the number of men that he would kill in the battle. When we draw on the same linguistic resources used to explicate Yari and Manda

MÀLI [celebratory dance] : [death platform] MÀLI
{The sense in which this dance relates to the death platform for skeletal remains}
it becomes clear why this dance is now an arena for the assertion of ethnic status, power and land rights. Skeletal remains were usually laid on a platform to dry (mo mali) in preparation for placement in limestone caves or raised coffins (homa mali). These same internment boxes now carry the names of those attributed responsibility for the death (see Plate 15).

Grave box

The Mali, in either of its manifestations, was a preparatory, anticipatory and prospective rite; it was a kind of mnemonic about proclaimed intentions connected with the dead. In the same way that a màli platform prepares the dead spirit for its journey to the land of dead souls, so the Máli dance prepares for a coming death of an enemy. Mali was thus always a collective statement, and always performed on the open public clearings (hama). Just as the modern màli may signal an intention to claim compensation rights for a death, so too the modern Máli dance reasserts the claims of ethnic identity and politico-economic agendas. The ethos of display on public grounds requires that only the finest presentational mediums be used – pigs, paint or parlance are here interchangeable currencies of symbolic capital. In this regard, it is significant that of all the stylistic forms listed in Table 2, ‘red wigs’ are worn only for the Máli . What is thereby suggested, is that in Máli the performers have passed through the mundane of the black lake, and emerged from the ‘red’ lake – a decorated being whose meaning is inscribed with and by blood.
Máli performances now mark political rallies, festival openings, and large inter-clan and inter-tribal compensation exchanges. The decorated remain imbued with narrative authenticity as storied beings, but invested with the political potency of Hela. That the emergence of this pre-eminent symbol is perhaps tourism inspired – a representation of the frozen landscape of exotic culture – merely replicates processes engaged in by Huli themselves. The decorated beings are thus very much authors of their own newly adapted fictions. We witness here again the seemingly silent interanimation between ‘mali’ genres. The performers have renarrativised their experience to reflect political agendas. The communicative practices of decoration or being decorated can be seen to be inalienably intertextual in nature. But whatever the situated context of an individual’s performance, at some juncture it draws meaning from having been ‘storied’.

  1. Timmer (1993) has charted the use of Huli faces on German telephone cards, Lipton tea adverts, CD covers, T-Shirts, and even the cover of Cultural Anthropology ( Keesing & Strathern 1998). []
  2. The Dugube with their wagia hale (tree sap lights), the Huli with their Bai hale (split wood from bai tree) and the Honebi (colonial) with their lamp. []
  3. cf Goldman 1983:129 for a passing down of mana between related genealogical lines. []
  4. This appears to me as a typographic error, and clearly should have read as‘ethnic’. []
  5. Known in this language as Hala []
  6. Estimates suggest an average 30% of all Duna, Fasu, Onabasulu and Foi are now bi-lingual in Huli. []