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Tapa & Tattoo Festival: A glimpse of the rich Oro culture

Tapa cloth and tattoos in Oro ProvinceEURALIA PAINE

An entry in The Crocodile Prize
Cleland Family Award for Heritage Writing

AT nightfall, a silvery moon slithers its way across the starry sky casting its glow over the ocean like diamonds on a sheet of glass. That’s when the maidens come out to dance the kere.

Dressed in tapa cloth, coconut shell armbands and scented leaves, their bodies glisten in the moonlight. The maidens have gathered on the beach to serenade young men.

Their seductive melodies waft through the night air accompanied by the swish-swish of the tapa. The kere beckons the young men to leave their fishing canoes, lay down their hunting spears and join the maidens on the beach for a playful rendezvous.

It is a dance I learnt as a school girl. It is a dance that was performed by the mothers and daughters of Killerton village at the inaugural Tapa & Tattoo Festival held in Popondetta, Oro Province in November last year.

The event was officially opened with the national anthem sung magnificently in the Orokaiva language by school children and the festival stage was set for a truly unique experience.

Oro Governor Gary Juffa did not mince words when he reminded the 4,000 or so people who gathered on the first morning that they were once proud warriors who should maintain their unique culture.

The Oro culture is steeped in stringent unwritten protocols recollected and passed down through generations. The people believe that their culture is a beacon of light that identifies who they are and denotes the character, manners, values and practices that should be followed in their daily lives and during rituals and ceremonies.

It is their proud heritage. It defines where they come from, ancestry as well as province.

The sharing of common values and knowledge by people who live in Maisin near Milne Bay, Manau on the north coast, and from Kira to Kokoda and Afore to Banderi in the hinterland. The area comprises of 21 local level governments (LLGs) and the entire Oro society.

These are the people who showcased their cultures at the inaugural Tapa & Tattoo festival. They are the people who are proud to welcome visitors to their home with cheers of ‘Oro, Oro’. The word Oro means welcome and is synonymous with tapa, tattoos, Tufi fjords, Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing (the largest butterfly in the world), and the Kokoda Track and fierce fighting during World War II. Such contrasts are what make Oro Province special.

In the Oro culture, women are the custodians of the intellectual property that encompasses tapa and tattoo designs. Walking through the tapa wear and finery stalls at the festival, one couldn’t help but notice the arduous task involved in concealing modesty.

Women showed how they beat the inner bark of paper mulberry with a baton-like stick until it is stretched to the shape they want. Large rectangular pieces are worn by women as wraparound skirts and cloaks, and smaller long pieces are worn as sihi (loincloth) by men.

Patterns are intricately painted using line and dot method onto the tapa cloth with natural dyes. Each design on the fabric identifies what clan or family the wearer comes from. In another stall, a demonstration on facial tattoos took place.

There is a similarity between the design of the tattoos on a woman’s face and the tapa she wears indicating that art comes in different forms but has its roots in past ancestry and lineage. In the past, tattoos were not only an icon of beauty but a reflection of the character and strength of a woman.

It was not uncommon for male suitors to enquire about the extent of tattoos on a woman’s body before asking her hand in marriage. A wise old woman once told me: “If a girl had tattoos on her face, chest and thighs, she was regarded as a great beauty. It indicated that she had withstood pain and would endure whatever the future held in store.”

The manifestations of human art forms have evolved; some slowly disappearing such as the tattoos on Oro women particularly amongst those who have left the province. These days the display of tattoos usually occurs at festivals and celebrations.

Unlike tattoos, tapa cloth has gained enormous popularity and has become an item of commercial value due to increasing demand from visitors and fellow Papua New Guineans. From practical items like bags and t-shirts to fashion shows, tapa cloth and designs have taken pride of place here and overseas.

This has prompted the people to look into how they can patent and protect their ceremonial sacred patterns and designs that appear on tapa cloth. However to tap into the commercial window of opportunity, they have developed contemporary designs for tapa that are sold in craft markets and artifact shops.

In many other countries steps are being taken in order to preserve traditions and art forms. For example, the Andean Community in South America has introduced regional laws to protect traditional knowledge and genetic resources. The Oro people, particularly those who own the tapa designs hope to go down this path.

Modernisation is rapidly changing society and cultural traditions are losing their significance. The way food is prepared defines a culture and in some parts of Oro province, women still prepare food in clay pots especially during feasts.

During the festival Orokaiva women were invited to cook food in clay pots which was served VIPs for lunch. Women play a pivotal role during feasts or bondo. The men may set the dates but it is the women who will tend the gardens, organise the harvest and feed the crowds. They advise the men on who should be invited and who will bring clout to the occasion. Throughout the generations, successful Oro chiefs have been propelled by strong women.

Festivals such as the Tapa & Tattoo Festival provide an avenue for people especially the young generation to appreciate and enjoy traditional art forms in their full colour and glory. The first day of the festival was dedicated predominantly to school children and youth.

A Tapa Queen contest attracted four young girls who were part of the performing groups. They were required to explain their traditional attire and answer questions on culture. The youngest contestant was eight years old. The winner Blanchley Gagari from Kokoda won the hearts of judges with her poise, grace and beauty.

It was a delight to see large dance groups from Agenahambo, Sasembata and Kokoda that had more than 100 dancers in each group showcase their best finery. The bamboo dancers from Afore rattled our spirits and the caricatures from Kira had us in stitches.

I may be biased in thinking the tatao’on dance performed by the Yaudari people of Sangara, was not just exceptional but also awe-inspiring.

Line dancing Oro-style came in the form of a large group of Kokoda dancers who performed to the Papas string band. Topless women clad in tapa cloth twerked their way into the hearts of the crowd while their male counterparts did not miss a beat. The line dancing was definitely something to behold and is sure to make a come-back at this year’s festival.

Flamboyant headdresses and traditional heirloom jewellery topped off rhythmic dancing to the beat of kundu drums. As is customary for the Oro people, dramas, comedies and parodies were served as appetisers before serious dancing took place.

Children and men led the way and women took centre stage. The dances conveyed creation stories, imitated birds and other animals and the songs and chants narrated stories of someone’s life or sent hidden messages to loved ones afar. It was poetry in motion!

Culture also defines how one communicates in a particular society and it was interesting to learn that there are 25 languages in the Oro Province which has an estimated 200,000 inhabitants. Children from the Higaturu Oil Palm International School had spent weeks researching languages before the festival. They had a stall in which they showed that some of the 25 languages are disappearing whilst new ones are being created.

Many Oro people speak English as their second language, not Pidgin or Motu. Don’t be surprised if an elderly woman or man strikes up a conversation with you in eloquent Queen’s English. They would have most likely been taught in schools by early Anglican missionaries or teachers from Great Britain.

The two-day Tapa & Tattoo Festival attracted over 10,000 people. With the construction of a new stadium at the Independence Oval, and the rebuilding of four main bridges that were destroyed by Cyclone Guba in 2007, the festival promises bigger and better things to come.

The festival is an opportunity to reconnect with the past and gives you a glimpse of the rich Oro culture. The experience is truly sublime. Diarise the dates – 15 and 16 November in this year’s calendar and make a trip to Popondetta. You will not be disappointed.


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Euralia Paine

Aaah... such a wonderful insight into my culture and heritage. Thank you for sharing Chris.

Chris Overland

Having lived in Oro Province (or the Northern District as it then was) for 3 years in the early 1970's, I am impressed by how Euralia's article so vividly describes the impressive traditional costumes, body art and dancing of the Oro people.

Gary Juffa is correct to describe Oro culture as being based upon a warrior tradition.

So fearsome was the reputation of the Orokaiva that at the turn of the 20th century the colonial administration felt compelled to take firm action to bring them "under control".

To this end, one Charles Arthur Whitmore Monckton (1873 - 1936) was appointed as Assistant Resident Magistrate, based at Tufi.

Monckton, born in New Zealand, was a former gold prospector and plantation manager who, thanks to making some good connections in the colonial administration of Papua, secured the job bringing law and order to the Oro people.

He was intelligent, tough, resolute, organised and exceptionally ruthless. In Monckton, the Oro warriors came face to face with their nemesis.

While genuinely interested in Oro culture and traditions, Monckton was perfectly willing to use lethal force to crush the merest hint of resistance to the colonial administration.

During his wide ranging patrols he and his police unhesitatingly killed anyone who attempted to harm or obstruct them. Even by the standards of the day, his willingness to resort to rifle bullets to suppress resistance caused considerable unease in some circles.

Eventually, he over reached himself and found it necessary to leave the colonial service, going on to become a successful author of books about his experiences in Papua.

His immediate legacy was a long trail of bodies and a very subdued Oro population.

In the longer term, the ability of the Oro people to rapidly adapt to the changed circumstances allowed them to take full advantage of some of the positive things that the colonial administration offered, notably access to education.

This is probably explains why, as Euralia points out in her article, Oro people are more likely to speak fluent English as a second language rather than Motu or Pidgin.

Happily, the underlying pride and self respect of a warrior culture still lives on, albeit without the incessant bloody feuding and warfare that characterised pre-colonial Oro life before Monckton brought it to such an abrupt and brutal end.

A great value-adding comment, Chris. Many thanks - KJ

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