Academic journal article Ethnology

Wealth Items in the Western Highlands of West Papua (1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Wealth Items in the Western Highlands of West Papua (1)

Article excerpt

This article compares the distinctive uses of wealth items among Grand Valley Dani, Western Dani, and Me, the largest ethnic groups in West Papua. The time period covered is primarily from first contact with Europeans to the early 1970s. (Wealth items, inalienability, ancestor cult, exchange)


The Western Highlands of West Papua extend from the Grand Valley of the Baliem to the western tip of the Central Highlands (see map). The area coincides with the "Western Sphere" of the Highlands as identified by Hyndman and Morren (1990). They define a sphere as "a potentially expansive, segmentary, reticulated mosaic of local groups that, notwithstanding observable ethnolinguistic diversity, share a common tradition and are strongly influenced by one or more core populations at the historic-geographic centre of their region" (Hyndman and Morren 1990:10). Hyndman and Morren (1990:13) distinguish three such spheres in the Central Highlands: Eastern, Central, and Western. The Eastern Sphere centers on "a chain of eight valleys from Arona-Aiyura to Tari-Koroba"; the Central on "the Sepik Source Basin and the Sibil valley"; and the Western centers "on the Baliem valley and the Paniai Lakes."


A number of ethnic groups, well represented in ethnographic studies, reside in the Western Highlands of West Papua. Best known are the Grand Valley Dani, the Western Dani, and the Me. The Grand Valley is located in the lower reaches of the Baliem River where it flows southeast through a wide valley with a relatively flat floor before it leaves the Highlands via the Baliem Gorge (see map). The habitat of the Grand Valley Dani is formed by the floor, the slopes of the valley, and its tributary valleys. The habitat of the Western Dani centers on the valleys of the North Baliem, the Boko, north of the Grand Valley, the Toli, the Yamo, and the Ila rivers. They occupy the entire middle section of the Western Highlands north and west of the Grand Valley. In the recent past they pushed further west. As a result, the valleys of the Ila, the upper Kema, the Nogolo, and the Dora have an ethnically mixed population of Western Dani, Damal, Moni, and some smaller groups. The habitat of the Me runs from the middle reaches of the Kema to the westernmost tip of the Highlands. Most Me live around the Paniai, Tigi, and Tage lakes, and in the valley of the Edege River and its tributaries. The Grand Valley Dani, the Western Dani, and the Me are by far the largest Highlands groups, and are the focus of this article.


The establishment of colonial rule in the West Papua Highlands started in the late 1930s in the Paniai Lakes area. The extension of colonial control was interrupted by World War II. Missionaries and administrative officers settled in the Dani areas in the 1950s, in 1954 in the Grand Valley, and in 1956 among the Western Dani (Hayward 1980:124), and missionaries of various denominations have remained active. In 1963, the Indonesian government took over the administration of the area, and when highlanders appeared to resist it, they were dealt, to all appearances, extremely harsh measures (Defert 1996:ch. 12; Meiselas 2003:142-44). Ethnographic coverage of this incorporation is understandably slight. The Me have been studied by Pospisil (1958, 1963, 1978, 1989), who referred to the people as the Kapauku, more recently by Hylkema, a Franciscan missionary and self-taught ethnographer, and by Giay (1995), himself a Me. Giay is one of the proponents of the name Me rather than Kapauku or Ekagi (Ekari), names still in use. At his death in 1998, Hylkema left behind many monographs and writings in draft, based on his association with the Me that lasted from 1969 to 1994. I am editing and introducing two incomplete manuscripts that he worked on shortly before his death (Hylkema n.d.a and n.d.b). In addition, there is ethnographic material about the Me by the administrative officers de Bruijn and Dubbeldam, the botanist Eyma, and the medical officers van der Hoeven and Boelen. …

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