The Dani Of The Grand Valley

Text and Photos:  Hans Ossen



After only a quarter of a century of contact with "white man", I felt privileged when I visited the land of the Dani, situated in the Grand Valley of the Baliem River, a broad, temperate plain lying 5,000 feet above the tropical jungles of Irian Jaya. At least fifty thousand Dani live on the densely settled valley floor, and another fifty thousand or so inhabit scattered settlements along the steep-sided valleys around the Grand Valley. Temperature is mild, rainfall moderate, wildlife harmless and disease rare; this is surely one of the most pleasant corners of manís world.

Dani-4.jpg (44630 bytes)The faces of the Dani are like those of the other peoples who live in the thousand-mile-long mountainous heartland of New Guinea. These peoples, numbering hundreds of thousands, are called Papuans. The Papuans are not closely related in language, culture or race to the other peoples of the Pacific, the Malayo-Polynesians. Although anthropological research on the Papuans is far from complete, it now begins to appear that the different Papuan groups are racially, culturally and linguistically related to each other.

The Grand Valley of the Baliem is a vast and magnificently tended garden. In it the Dani spend most of their working lives, and from it they receive abundant and diverse nourishment. The Dani have names for over seventy different kinds of sweet potatoes, which are cultivated in the valley. Certain ones are preferred for breakfast, others for quick nourishment during work and others still for more relaxed eating in the evening. Other vegetables are ginger, taro, cucumber, carrot, greens and yam. Banana is the only cultivated fruit. It is grown exclusively in the village gardens, where it grows tall and tree-like, shading the houses and breaking the force of winds. Tobacco is grown and cured primarily by the men, but is smoked by the women as well. Nearly every adult Dani smokes. Dried tobacco leaves are kneaded and matted down with the palm of the hand. Then the mass is rolled up, twisted slightly. Subsequently the roll is wrapped in banana bark and hung behind the fireplace for a few days to cure further. It is made into cigarettes wrapped in one of the various leaves, usually a spurge, gathered in the forest and dried in presses. Since there are no seasons in the Baliem, agriculture is a continuous activity. The Dani are practically free from the kind of anxiety associated with other less fortunately situated farming cultures. Insufficient rain, floods or pests, which for seasonal planters could easily mean starvation, sometimes occur, but with considerable milder consequences.

The Dani seem surprisingly healthy, strong and active despite their lack of internal medicines and their unbalanced diet, heavy in starch and light in protein. To some extend this health maybe due to the favourable location of the Grand Valley, with its temperate climate. Because of the high starch in the predominantly sweet potato diet, most women and children (who get a meager share of the available pigmeat) have protruding stomachs. The men, however, are surprisingly well muscled and handsome looking. Baked in coals or steamed in a leaf bundle, the sweet potato is eaten by every Dani several times a day and constitutes at least ninety percent of his diet. The rest of this fare is made up of other tubers, as well as pork, greens and fruit. Seasoning is seldom used, but occasionally salt is sprinkled onto meat. Meals are monotonous but satisfying. A Dani never starves, except for those who live along the banks of the Baliem River itself, where gardens are occasionally flooded. Partly because of the high infant mortality rate, partly because of the low birth rate, there is as yet no population pressure in the Grand Valley.

Among the Dani, men are creators while women are the producers. Men conceive and originate; women listen and follow. By western standards, there is a vast inequality between the sexes, especially after childhood. Though industry was evident, in both the male and female worlds, men pre-emptied all the drama and excitement, while women are limited to a routine of drudgery. It would be a mistake to assume that the Dani men do no useful or routine work. Their hands combine the attributes of strength and dexterity necessary for the difficult work of making a new garden, of dredging an old irrigation canal, of weaving a bracelet from fern fibers or of knitting long, ceremonial bands from bark string. Large and powerful men with well deserved reputations as warriors would sit for hours rolling beaten bark into string on their thighs, making skirts from Orchid fibers for their wives. The menís heavy work is eminently practical. They are the house carpenters, garden makers, ditch diggers and woodcutters. Such labours seemed to proceed in individual spurts. Typically a man might spend an arduous week clearing a ditch in a garden from which he would later harvest a crop. Then for a week or more he might do no heavier task than gathering leaves in the hills for wrapping his small cigarettes.

Dani-2.jpg (18378 bytes)The technology of the Dani is one of the simplest on the world. The tools are made of stone and bone, wood and bamboo. The raw materials are those of the local environment: wood, grasses and vines. A few of the more exotic materials, such as seashells, furs, feathers and the finest woods, reach the Grand Valley along the native trade routes. Metals, and even pottery, were unknown to the Dani, and only for some twenty years has iron begun to be important in Dani technology. But despite their primitive tools, the houses and gardens of the Dani are complex and sophisticated.

No phenomenon, either real or imagined, is of greater significance to Dani life than their believe in ghosts. The logic of their existence rests on the premise that all happenings are the result of both human and ghostly instrumentality. Like magnetism or gravity, ghostliness is not itself visible except through its manifestations. When a person falls while walking on a muddy path, he will often say that a ghost made him slip, and though he might also say that he saw the ghost, he would not claim that he saw how it had made him fall. The presence of ghosts is as real to every Dani as the company of his family and friends. They are powerful, though not omnipotent in the sense that the living must passively accept their domination. The Dani do not separate themselves from ghosts through fear or ignorant superstition. Still ghosts have certain advantages, which means that in maintaining good relations with them, one must employ magic as well as practicality. Without in any sense being awed by the imagined power of the ghosts, the Dani sprinkle much of their behaviour with ritual or magic acts. Within the logic they have developed to explain such things, the Dani understand that the ghosts are greedier than they ought to be, and they themselves are too often willing to neglect their magical duties and obligations. How else could they explain the repeated occurrence of sickness, bad weather and, most frequent of all, a sort of spiritual disease?

The Dani also have their mythological justification of the fact of death, with a story in which they recount the race between a bird and a snake. It tells of a contest, which decided weather men would be like birds and die, or be like snakes which shed their skins and have eternal life. The bird won, and from that time all men, like birds, must die.

Dani-3.jpg (19130 bytes)The Dani, as most Papuans, consider pigs the most important living creatures besides people. Pigs mean, above all else, wealth and social importance. To own a large herd is the most desirable of all goals. Only the possession of several wives is as important and usually a man who has many pigs will have more than one wife, for it is pigs which provide men with the economic and social leverage, that enables him to attract and hold together a polygamous household. (Approximately half of the adult men are polygamous.) Whereas the ownership and use of pigs are almost exclusively a male prerogative, their care falls most heavily upon women and children. A man, it would seem, is as must interested in having wives and children to look after his pigs, as he is in having the animals, in order to effort wives and children. Domestic pig meat is the major source of Dani protein, and pig exchange and feasting form the core of every Dani ceremony. This became apparent to me through my observation of Ebe Akho, - the great pig feast -, and the major ceremony in Dani life that climaxes a ceremonial cycle. The pig feast consists of three main ceremonies, that is:

Jogal Isin - the wedding ceremony, which lasts approximately five days.

Wam Oat Balim - which lasts only one day and starts after the Jogal Isin has been completed.

Waja Hakat Apin - the initiation ceremony, which lasts eight to nine days.

During my exploration of the northern part of the Valley, I was informed that the Ebe Akho was about to begin in the area of the village of Pugima, situated in a little side valley, not far from where I happened to be at the time. As a pigfeast occurs only once in four years, I considered this an excellent opportunity, not to be missed. Pugima proved to be a strenuous two day walk over dreadful muddy tracks and hundreds of slippery log bridges, which span the numerous irrigation ditches. I lost my way countless times in a labyrinth of working tracks, but the unhurried and purposeful activities of the farming Dani generated a distinctly rural and tranquil atmosphere. So I felt appeased when I finally reached the village of Pugima.

Dani-5.jpg (11386 bytes)To say "village" is to use an expression which is only the nearest English equivalent to the Dani reality. Their settlements were really collections of compounds enclosed by a common fence or stockade. Within the surrounding fence were four kinds of structures, arranged according to a traditional, though not inflexible pattern. At one end of the oval courtyard was the dominant dwelling Ė the circular domed menís house. On both sides were long rectangular family or cooking houses and smaller circular structures in which each woman slept with certain smaller children and her husband, when he was not in the menís house. Finally there were houses divided into stables where the pigs were kept. A cluster of such compounds, in each of which perhaps two to five families might live, formed what I have called a village. At one of these compounds, I was invited to stay by one of the headmen, who spoke Indonesian. There I would observe the feast.

On the second morning following my arrival, the first steps were taken. Numerous pigs of various sizes were brought into the compound. After a brief period of deliberation, a couple of young men picked up the doomed pigs, one holding the ears, others holding the two hind legs. The animals were dispatched with(blood-letting) arrows, shot into the heart from a distance seldom greater than a foot. The bowman grasped the arrow by the hilt, perhaps jabbed it in a bit further, and then removed it. Holders set the pigs on the ground. If the shot was good, the pig would immediately topple. Some would run a few meters before they finally dropped. A particularly lively pig was chased by the men and knocked over, then several of them placed their feet on its side, pressing the blood out of its body. When this proved to be unsuccessful, the bamboo arrow was reinserted in the wound. Then it was plunged in and out, in order to enlarge the wound. The pig finally fell and died.

As soon as they were still, the bodies of the pigs were laid out in a line extending from just in front of the menís house toward the entrance of the compound. The men conferred on them for a while, sometimes rearranging the order. Then a man walked the length of the line of pigs, pausing at each and shouting the name of the donor, so that the ghosts will take notice and be placated. This moment, which passed by almost unnoticed, was one of the symbolic climaxes of the entire ceremony. I later learned that this was a symbolic statement communicating to the ghosts the concern of the living for the dead. By laying out the pigs, the people say to their ghosts in effect, "Look what we have done for you". Then ears and tales were cut off. The ears roasted and eaten; the tails would become magical neck ornaments. Fires were quickly lit to burn off the bristles, and experienced hands, using sharp bamboo knives and steel axes, began the butchering. In a short time the meat was divided into parts, which would be cooked immediately, saved for later feasting, or retained for use in magic. The jawbones were invariably removed and hung within the menís house (like tails, they recall the occasion). Also the bigger pigsí tusks were removed, which would later serve as nose pieces.

File0001.jpg (16710 bytes)While the pigs were prepared for cooking, a layer of stones were laid down on the ground, then logs built up, and another layer of rocks laid down over it. The fire was lit and allowed to burn down for about an hour. Meanwhile, the steampit was readied. The grass from the last steaming was removed and collected water scooped out. A layer of long grass was laid down from the center of the pit, overlapping the edges and extending out a meter or so beyond the hole. This grass was eventually bunched over the top and used to bundle up the steamings. When the rocks were hot, and the food assembled, the process of building up the steel bundle had begun. Long tongs were used to carry the hot rocks from the fire to the pit, where they were deposited in alternating layers with vegetables, sweet potatoes, pork and grasses. Water was poured on the rocks to produce steam. When the mass was built up, the grass was flipped in over the top of the bundle and the binding wrapped around it. Then the food was allowed to cook for about an hour until it was judged ready. The steam bundle was dismantled, the stones Ė now cool enough to be handled Ė tossed to the side and the food distributed to the guests. Although I was a little hesitant at first to accept my share, I can assure you that it tasted excellent.

The next day marked the opening of the Jogal Isin ceremony. During this wedding celebration, all girls who had undergone a Hodalino ritual (marking the onset of regular menstruation) since the last pigfeast were to be married off, for there would not be another opportunity to wed until the next feast, which could take as long as five years. The young men married for the first time, while a couple of elder men took additional wives. An important "kain" (headman) was to marry his sixth wife. In "our village" five young maidens, who were between twelve and eighteen years old, were given in marriage. Just after dawn a pig was slaughtered for each of the brides. While the steampits were prepared, the brides were overloaded with carrying nets, presented by guests and relatives. When the final net was placed on the last girlsí head, a dirge was started. I later learned that this symbolized the parentsí grief for their parting daughters. Thereupon the steampits were opened and the food set out for distribution. First to those who had presented carryingbags, then to other guests. After dinner the actual Jogal Isin ceremony took place. The brides changed their grass-skirt for a "jogal", an attire that symbolizes a married womanís clothing. They also received a new "hipiri tegť", a digging stick which is used to plant sweet potatoes.

From now on the girls were considered women. The women sang all night long and the young brides had no chance to sleep. One of the girls was frequently overpowered by sleep, but the elder women awoke and rebuked her, for the girl would suffer evil dreams and will think that her husband was dead. The next day was not much better for the girls. They were constantly reprimanded for not sitting straight or dozing off. Yet in the course of time I perceived a gradual decrease of this sternness. The girls were allowed to sleep and walk around the compound, but never left the village, out of fear of being abducted by her future husband. This happens occasionally and is attended by heavy fighting. During these days the girls ate enormous amounts of pork and covered themselves with pig fat whenever it was available. I was told that the Dani consider this not only healthy but cosmetic to do so. They feel elegant almost in proportion to the amount of fat applied to their hair, face and body. Without any they feel untidy an even a little mortified.

Dani-7.jpg (19452 bytes)On the final day, five more pigs were slaughtered. Women and girls prepared themselves for the festive procession, in which the brides would be conveyed to their bridegroomís village. Then, all at once, four women dressed up as warriors and armed with twelve-feet-long spears entered the compound. They ran to and fro alongside the family house until the brides came out escorted by their parents. A short ritual was performed, whereupon the brides proceeded in the wake of the departing warriors, accompanied by countless heavily attired women and children who carried big limps of pig meat. I brought up the rear of one of the fast advancing, festive processions, which sometimes came to a standstill to alter into elated dancing and singing. This practice was continued for an hour or so, until we reached the bridegroomís village. Their another short ritual took place, after which the bride spent the night with her mother-in-law. The following evening the bride met her husband for the first time in the family house. The bridegroom cut up a big lump of pork and divided the bits among several relatives. His bride and himself ate the last two bits. I was told that this ceremony is called Wam Balek Balin, after which the bride and groom would spend the night together. With this the wedding feast was over.

In the second phase of the great pig feast the Wam Oat Balin was celebrated. With this ritual, the Dani honour all expressions of sympathy for the dead showed by friends and relatives. The importance of this ceremony used to be much greater when it included the commemoration of prominent warriors who had suffered death during the traditional tribal warfare, which was ultimately banned by the central government in 1966. During this one-day commemoration, a big pig was slaughtered. The lumps of meat were divided among those who had showed expressions of sympathy for the dead, such as cutting wood for the funeral pyre or mutilation of one or more fingers, a common practice especially among women. After the meat was distributed, no further acts were committed.

Dani-8.jpg (14064 bytes)Two days earlier, a start was made with the Waja Hakat Apin ritual. The boys who were to take part in this initiation ceremony numbered more than twenty and varied in age from three to thirteen years. They were separated from all other people and stayed together in an abandoned, old family house, right behind the dominant menís house. Women were not allowed near them during the entire ceremony. I noticed that a considerable number of young boys did not participate, although most of them could not have initiated during the past pig feast, four years ago. When I raised this question, I learned that each Dani is a member of one or the other of the two moieties, "wida" or "waja". Moiety membership effects use of kin terms, some food restrictions, and participation in certain ceremonies. Boys who are "wida" do not participate in the initiation ceremony. No Dani could tell me why the "wida" boys are not allowed to participate. "It has always been like this", was the common answer.

Over twenty pigs were slaughtered in the early morning of the first day. While the steampits were prepared, the boys were led to the river, where they washed themselves thoroughly. After the boys were purified they were lined up and each received a new "holim" (penis gourd) and "sany" (a little string to hold up the gourd). Some of the elder boys, who wore gourds already, removed the old ones which were burnt later in front of the menís house. Then the boys covered themselves with pig fat, while the men shouted: "Grow up, grow up!" All at once a group of magnificently attired warriors surrounded the compound with loud screams and raised spears. The boys tried to flee in dismay, but were restrained by the men in their vicinity. When a counter attack was mounted, the assailants fled after a brief clash. This triumph was celebrated with a prolonged victory dance, after which the steampits were opened and food set out for distribution. That night, the men sang all night through, not allowing the boys to sleep. Just after daybreak the boys were instructed to fetch some water from the river. After receiving small bows and arrows, they ran toward the river enthusiastically, but were unexpectedly ambushed by a group of heavily armed warriors. The boys fled fearfully, chased by the warriors who threw scores of spears at them, but deliberately missed their targets. In the end, the exhausted boys safely reached the compound. The rest of the day was characterized by incessantly singing and dancing.

Dani-9.jpg (10633 bytes)On the morning of the third day, the boys were led to the open field where their own accompanists suddenly attacked them. After a brief skirmish peace was restored. The men made a fire and set around it; it was early in the morning and still chilly. The boys, who had been lined up again, were totally ignored. Finally some of them were called by the men, but when they complied with the request, they were ordered not to move from the spot. This continued for a while. Afterward everybody ate, sang and danced till late in the evening. The following day, the men adorned themselves with feathers of many different birds, dog fur armbands and nassa shell chest pieces. The boys greased themselves with pig fat. After groups of fully attired warriors from neighbouring villages had arrived, an imposing horde set out for the Wam Sabusin (beg for pig meat) ceremony. The procession passed through several villages in the area where Ebe Akho was celebrated. At each village they stopped to start dancing and singing. Some warriors ran up and down with raised spears, while others called the "kain"(headman) and asked for a share of pork. When the kain appeared with a chunk of meat, the dancing and singing silenced. The kain then told them to take it and a number of warriors made a run for it. The collected meat was stowed away in a carrying bag and the ceremony moved on to the next village, where the same procedure was repeated. This went on till sundown. Back in their village the collected meat was divided among the men. I was told this meat is considered taboo for the boys and they are not allowed to eat it. The next day the same process was repeated, but in other parts of the valley.

On the morning of the sixth day, a feigned battle was enacted. Just after dawn a large band of warriors, decorated with pig tusks in their noses, chest ornaments made of various shells and furred and feathered head-dresses, left for the dancing ground not far from the village. All were armed with huge, ten-to-fifteen feet long spears and bows and arrows. In order not to cause any injuries to the opposing sides, the arrows were made of bamboo. It was a spectacular side. Suddenly a man ran up toward the warriors and informed Dani-10.jpg (16851 bytes)them that the enemy was nearing, heaving already killed a woman in the garden. The atmosphere was tense, the boys became restless. For a while the warriors deliberated their stratagem. Then gangs of warriors, each taking some of the boys, scattered sneaking over the grassy plain. All at once they were ambushed by a frantically screaming enemy. A vehement battle developed. At the front, the two sides threatened each other, shouting and waving feather plumes. As they darted about they shot bamboo arrows at likely targets. Some kains shouted directions, which were often unheeded at the height of battle, but contributed to the confusion and excitements. At times one side would mount a sudden charge and the front would shift rapidly, stringing warriors out along the ridge of the plain. After some time, the enemy fled, chased by the men and boys. The pursuit was soon abandoned and a victory dance started. The dancing subsisted for the rest of the day.

On the final day of the ceremony, several fires were lit under a big tree. In order to create some smoke, wet grass was thrown on the fires. Then the boys were instructed to climb up the tree, where they disappeared in the smoke. They coughed and sneezed distressfully. Sometimes one of the boys tried to come down, but was repulsed with sticks by the loudly screaming men. Then a sudden gust of wind dispelled the smoke and the nearly suffocating boys descended triumphantly. I was later told that this ceremony is intended to accustom the boys with endurance. In the afternoon the boys received target-practice from the men. While the smaller boys just watched, the elders aimed for a big tree and hit their target from a short distance. Subsequently they were told to gather some firewood with a view to make them understand that from now on this would be part of their duty. Then a small circular enclosure was erected, so that the boys would not die soon and thus have long lives. With this, I was told, the initiation ceremony had ended. The boys stayed in the compound for another three days in order to finish the last bits of pig meat.

During my observations of "The Great Pig Feast", it was clear that this feast is the essence of Dani life. During the entire ceremony everyone was in high spirits, dressed up, ate enormous proportions of meat, and participated in incessant dancing and singing.

Dani-11.jpg (20960 bytes)Traditionally the Dani believe in a renovation of strength and prosperity for the community, affected by the celebration of the Ebe Akho, for this is an institution of the ancestors, and by celebrating it at set times and in a traditional way, the ancestors will be pleased. Through them, prosperity can be expected and after each pig feast many new gardens will be made and many wars will be fought.

But the wars have been banned already, and the increasing exterior influences on the younger generation will cause further decay of the traditional Dani culture. However, to return the Dani to their pre-1954 state is impossible, and its desirability a subject only for philosophical speculation. In one way or another they will be brought into the modern world socially, economically, politically, and religiously. Yet there are major obstacles to their development. No natural resources have been found in the valley, which is only accessible by air, for a road from the coast into the valley is little less than an impossibility. The Dani have nothing and produce nothing that the world wants. In short, the chances are slim indeed for the Dani to become other than detribalized parasites.

© Hans Ossen 2002