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My father’s dilemma: when cultures collide

Men of Enga (Joe Herman)
Men of Enga (Joe Herman)


SEATTLE - The word arrived quickly that Pambene, a cousin in neighbouring Pumas village in Enga Province, had been assaulted and severely injured by tribesmen over a land dispute.

As expected, my oldest brother Yandapae and two cousins retaliated and forcibly took a large pig from the culprits as compensation.

It was slaughtered at Kepelam and the meat distributed among our tribesmen.

Retaliatory actions were normal. Any subsequent outcome would have been addressed between the two tribes.

However, by this time the colonial administration had decreed that such practices were unacceptable, and the pig’s owner reported the matter to the police.

Yandapae and the two cousins were taken to Laiagam station and were charged with assault and theft.

The kiap disregarded the fact that Yandapae and the cousins’ conduct under such circumstances was culturally acceptable.

Had they not carried out the dawn raid and taken the pig, Yandapae, as Pambene’s older maternal cousin, would have been regarded as pisirii pyapae, a coward, by clan members.

He felt he had to live up to expectations and follow the footsteps of my father who had a reputation for fearlessness and was well known for conducting singlehanded raids.

The ability to fight, conducting raids and shrewd economic dealings were all important attributes of an ideal Enga man.

My father found himself in an agonising predicament.

On the one hand, he was the Tultul, an appointed junior colonial official, after he had played a role in assisting the colonial power penetrate and pacify our area.

On the other hand, he felt obliged to defend Yandapae’s action.

His reputation at stake, the effect of the colonial power struck home and my father found the ordeal and the imprisonment of Yandapae devastating.

Men of Enga 2 (Joe Herman)Being a Paramount Chief, a significant traditional leadership role, and a Tultul, should he have been accorded the courtesy by the kiap to make an input to his son’s charges? It was a dilemma.

In this new order, his appointment as Tultul took precedence over his traditional role.

But, as Paramount Chief, he could effectively resolve conflicts and preserve harmony and had done so for years.

This case was the first of increased instances of colonial expectations and traditional norms coming into direct conflict.

During the court hearing, we stood outside and peeped through the cracked louvre-blade windows.

A policeman kept us at bay and we couldn’t hear anything from inside the courtroom.

Finally, a couple of policemen led away Yandapae and the two cousins to serve their prison time. They glanced at us as they were led away.

Eventually we learned that Yandapae told the kiap that he was responsible for the dawn raid and taking the pig and the cousins were mere accomplices.  His prison sentence was longer than the cousins.

When they were released from prison, they had a heroes’ reception at Kepelam, which gave a different meaning to imprisonment.

Pambene, whose assault had initiated the dispute, and his clansmen felt remorseful at what had happened to the men and made restitution by presenting pigs to Yandapae and the two cousins.

The spirit of mona auu puu katenge, reconciliation, one of the hallmarks of Enga life had been preserved.


Two former kiaps comment

Chris OverlandChris Overland

In the case as described, the kiap was caught between his duty as a law officer and his insight into the cultural norms of the people involved.

Once the theft of the pig had been formally reported and a complaint laid, the law required him to act.

If no-one had formally reported the matter he could have avoided taking any action even if he had heard about it at an anecdotal level.

This case neatly illustrates the way in which a kiap could be forced into acting when, privately at least, he may have been sympathetic to the defendants.

I would hope that the defendants were not sentenced to lengthy prison terms because this was one area of the law where the kiap could use his knowledge of cultural norms and expectations as a mitigating factor.

The Supreme Court frequently did this, as did most kiap courts.

The overarching policy requirement placed upon all kiaps was to ensure good order and good governance in the areas over which they exerted control.

This definitely included the suppression of physical violence even if that was part of the prevailing tradition and culture.

Indeed, this was and is one of the basic and enduring objectives of the British legal system upon which the colonial era laws of both Australia and PNG were based.

Thus in a contemporary Australian context, the suppression of violent behaviour is a primary objective of police forces and taking retaliatory action for the criminal conduct of another person will rarely be accepted as a defence or even a mitigating factor in sentencing.

So I think the kiap in this case arguably acted correctly.

PhilPhil Fitzpatrick

It would be interesting to know when this event took place. The (Traditional) Customs Recognition Act didn't come into force until 1963 (and is still law as far as I know).

The section of the Act pertinent to this case is Section 4:


Subject to this Act and to any other law, custom may be taken into account in a criminal case only for the purpose of–

(a) ascertaining the existence or otherwise of a state of mind of a person; or

(b) deciding the reasonableness or otherwise of an act, default or omission by a person; or

(c) deciding the reasonableness or otherwise of an excuse; or

(d) deciding, in accordance with any other law whether to proceed to the conviction of a guilty party; or

(e) determining the penalty (if any) to be imposed on a guilty party, or where the court thinks that by not taking the custom into account injustice will or may be done to a person.

I would have thought that the customary reaction to the assault on Yandapae's cousin would be to seek compensation rather than carry out direct retaliation.

Had the assault been reported to the kiap he probably would have arrested the offenders and then not only tried them for assault but also ordered them to pay compensation.

In the event, the retaliation had occurred and he had to deal with it as a criminal matter.

He would also have been mindful of curtailing what could have spiralled into a series of retaliatory acts by both sides.

Invoking the Customs Recognition Act, he might have considered that in terms of the sentence given to Yandapae and his cousins.


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