The identity of the remarkable Huli people of the PNG Highlands is expressed in a bewildering multitude of ways as they adapt to the pressures of change
CANBERRA - Although the practice of wearing the everyday Huli wig has long since passed, and what is recognised as traditional Huli clothing has become a ceremonial uniform, the subtle and individual expressions of Huliness are a widespread feature of contemporary Huli life.
The existence of a self-consciously Huli ceremonial uniform was a feature of pre- contact Huli life, especially as worn by members of the haroli bachelor cult when they returned to social view after an extended period in isolation.
This ‘emergence’ as described by Robert Glasse was something akin to a catwalk where the entirety of their performance amounted to being seen and admired.
The bachelors constructed themselves as close as possible to a platonic version of Huli ore; perfect human specimens replete with shiny, oiled skin, the most beautiful wigs adorning the gleaming health of a male that has shunned all possible contact with the polluting effects of women.
The concept of an idealised Huliness is a theme that still resonates strongly in contemporary Huli life, and does so in equal step with the strength of Huli individualism.
In the same chapter Glasse describes Huli as a “complex, mobile society. Individuals have great freedom of choice.”
In very real ways pre-contact Huli culture had been constructed as an externality; as a self-conscious awareness of the existence of a cultural identity to be adopted and expressed.
There is a continuation then with contemporary Huli cultural performance for the admiration of tourists, or ceremonial occasions such as the greeting of visiting politicians.
This cultural self- consciousness also creates the space for individualism to flourish, because it is the existence of an idealised form that provides the anchor to which Huli identity is always tethered, regardless of the individual choices that are made.
But there is more to Huli individualism than permitted possibility. Individualism is itself a definitive cultural artefact that has profound metaphysical implications.
At Komo I lived with Charles Haluya on a large portion of land with his two wives and three young children, along with several male clansmen who would come and go according to the common Huli practice of multi-residence.
Charles slept in the guest house he had built while his two wives lived in bush material houses that he had built for them on opposite ends of the property. The family group practised separated living, which has become unusual for Huli families, although the practice of polygyny has not.
Women were not allowed to enter the balamanda (men’s house) and took a wide berth when passing through the property so as not to come too close.
The family were also practising Catholics, and Charles’ first wife and their children were closely involved with the nearby Catholic mission. Neither Charles nor his wives were permitted to take communion because of their polygynous arrangement.
The land where we lived was not Charles’ clan land; he did not have tene (a direct agnatic connection to the land) or even yamuwini (connection to land via a female ancestor) status on his land.
Instead, Charles had purchased the portion of land, which was called ‘Napale’, from the tene owner of the land under what would be commonly recognised as a land title arrangement.
The land had been professionally surveyed and a copy of the survey plan was pinned to the wall inside the guest house.
Charles’ tene land and council ward was located a few kilometres southwest of Komo station. Charles’ life can be described as a bricolage constructed out of the wide variety of choices available to him.
A bit of Catholicism, a bit of traditional polygyny, a traditional bush material house, and a high- covenant house, western model of land ownership, and the traditional practice of multiple residency with the coming and going of transient residents on his land.
The flexibility and range of possible modes of being offered by a Huli ethos of individualism are limitless.
During the first month of my fieldwork Charles took me to visit Hides so that I could take a close look at ExxonMobil’s Hides Gas Conditioning Plant.
While at Hides we were accosted by a highly agitated man carrying a bachelor wig, who was complaining to Charles in very rapid Huli.
It turned out that the man was the leader of a bachelor group and, because Charles had an anthropologist living with him, he demanded that I be taken to inspect his group. The bachelor group was located at Kulu village, a few kilometres northwest from Nogoli.
Arrangements were made and I spent a day with the Kulu wigman organisation learning about their bachelor cult tradition and, especially, the intricacies of their adornments. The group was not a haroli bachelor cult as has been described in the literature, but a ‘wigmen association’ that had formed as, more or less, a corporate group.
Tourists do not venture to Kulu village, or anywhere other than Ambua Lodge southeast of Tari. These Huli wigmen groups are derived from the haroli tradition, but in a context that is largely removed from the complex web of cosmological and spiritual belief that did previously exist.
The eldest member and bachelor leader informed me that I was only the second white man that he had ever met, and that the first was a man named Laurence Goldman, whom he had met during the 1970s.
The group took particular delight in teaching me how to play the kundu drum, dressing me in a bachelor wig, and having me participate in a mali dance. Later during my fieldwork I witnessed the same thing happening to one of the Dutch Volunteer Services Organisation doctors during celebrations in Tari.
The young doctor had been given the full Huli treatment replete with paint, leg bands, wig, tanget leaves, etc., but his discomfort at what he perceived for himself to be insensitive cultural appropriation was obvious.
It became clear to me, however, that the self-conscious act of cultural appropriation was the whole point of the exercise. Those who dressed me up in Huli garb wanted me to embody and perceive Huli culture from their own point of view.
The western experience is ubiquitous, but Huli for the embodied westerner is something unique, and Huli perceive this uniqueness from the westerner’s own point of view. To objectivise Huli culture materially and try it on for size is an authentic act.
The material objectivisation of Huli culture is part and parcel of the culture itself. The Kulu wigmen association members had made their own independent choices about which aspects of Huli identity they wanted to adopt.
In Tari I spent some time interviewing a visitor to our house by the name of Stanley Wai. Wai is the Huli word for warfare and Stanley was named Wai because he was born while his mother was fleeing a major battle.
Stanley was trained as a mechanic and had lived and worked in Port Moresby. Stanley had a daughter with his first wife who graduated as an aircraft engineer and was working for Air Niugini before she had a falling out with her boyfriend and committed suicide by overdosing on malaria tablets.
After Stanley’s marriage fell apart he returned to Hela and married a younger woman with whom he was living as a yamuwini on his wife’s land, which was located between Komo and Hides.
Stanley was unable to find work as a mechanic as the expected jobs that were supposed to have resulted from the business boom of the PNG LNG project had not materialised.
They had built a ‘high covenant’ house that was razed to the ground during warfare that involved his wife’s clan. After that Stanley decided that they would build a bush material house and live as his ancestors had done so that a new house could be easily rebuilt should another war break out.
Stanley kept his toolbox buried beneath the floor of his house so that he might be able to return to retrieve it should his house get burned down again.
So what did Stanley make of his own Huli identity? “Nowadays it’s all in a mess, not intact,” was Stanley’s observation of Huli culture.
Many men produce wigs, he said, but they are often making wigs out of women’s hair to save them the trouble of having to grow and cut their own hair.
Considering the traditional rites involved in growing one’s hair were predicated on avoiding the polluting effects of women, the practice of constructing wigs out of women’s hair is enough to represent the total collapse of any unified Huli cosmological system.
In very real ways Huli are free to be tourists within their own cultural heritage. Anything is ripe for reinterpretation and appropriation for the benefit of the individual.
This multiplicity of Huli possibilities is having a radical impact on gender relations, even to the extent that women are becoming able to claim legitimate rights to land ownership, which is something previous research on Huli social organisation could never have foreseen.
Extracted from ‘Until Hela Becomes a City: The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity’ by Michael Main. A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Australian National University, Canberra, April 2020
Michael’s PhD research focused on the Huli population in the PNG Highlands and the impact on them of ExxonMobil’s PNG liquefied natural gas project. Michael has a professional background in geology and environmental science