Imagine yourself surrounded by hundreds of Stone Age tribesmen, each one smeared from head to toe in pig grease and soot, howling frenzied war chants and brandishing arrows, spears, or axes in your direction. Something that is not up your alley isn’t it? Actually, you might be watching the annual Highlands Show of Papua New Guinea.
Taking Papua New Guinea into consideration, it is located in between and the equator, it is comprised of the eastern part of the large island it shares with Indonesia and the small islands from the Bismarck Archipelago. What happened in 1975 was that it gained independence and nationhood but before that managed Papua and New Guinea separately under various United Nations trust arrangements. In terms of the western way of life, some parts of the country are still unaware.
It was during the 1930s when white men traveling on foot were able to explore these rugged Highlands. Today, the white man is still considered as a novelty and a tourist with a camera is just as amazing as the painted warriors who are performing in the Highlands Show. Normally held alternately in the towns of Goroka and Mount Hagen, this is a two day show that attracts 60,000 viewers most of which are Papua New Guineans. Because they want to participate in the festivities, some people will walk long distances from places like Telefomin, Wapenamanda, and Ukarumpa.
Aside from the usual agricultural and crafts exhibits being staged there are also demonstrations for house building or fire making. There are segments for light entertainment too. The competitors have their weapons with them and are barefoot as they engage in bicycle races, chasing after a greased pig, and racing up a greased pole where there are cigarettes and beer dangling above. The sing sing competition is when the tribes display to tourists and locals their treasured ceremonial attire and this is considered as the climax of the weekend.
To the deep hollow beat of the kundu drum, people dance and chant even under the heat of the sun as the pace changes to simulate a battle or stage a legend from tribal history. What is amazing about the Highlands sing is the kaleidoscope of color and costume. Here, the dancers embellish themselves. They cover their bodies in the darkest soot and their faces in red and blue ochre and for the trimmings they use store bought crepe paper, leaves, beads, and feathers. Aside from having safety pins for earrings, they use ball point pens and even pieces of an automobile engine for their pierced septums instead of the usual pig’s tusk or other bone.
On such special occasions the village heirlooms are unwrapped and exhibited. There is much pride when children wear their headpieces made from the fur of the spotted cuscus, a small marsupial. Immense seashells, once a form of currency, are still highly prized even though few of these people have made the long journey to the sea. People occasionally witness the tall swaying plumes of the peacock like Raggiana Bird of Paradise, the national symbol, or that of the cassowary.
After this the eerie Asaro mudmen come into view. They cover themselves in white mud and then wear grotesque heads fabricated from sun baked clay and straw. Dancing their swaying dance, leaves are slapped off their thighs. From a legend comes the story of how one tribe retreated into the Asaro River when their enemies pursued them.
Retreating were their enemies when they emerged looking like ghouls all covered in the white clay. This victory is commemorated by the Asaro mudmen up to no by covering themselves in the same river mud. It is after all the sing sings that cash and cattle prizes are awarded to the groups who were able to deliver the best presentations and were the best in costume. As the sun sets, the people begin their trek downhill heading for home.
2017 SIID Annual Lecture ‘Dispossession and the Environment: Some new thoughts’ with Paige West
This lecture will examine some of the ways in which inequalities are produced, lived, and reinforced in today’s globalized world by demonstrating how representational strategies with regard to Papua New Guinea are complex acts of dispossession and carefully crafted accumulation strategies as well as ideologically grounded attempts to persuade and motivate. Dr West argues that there are racist logics of representation that underlie all uneven development and that Papua New Guinea is one of the places where, if we examine the various representational strategies we see there every day, we can begin to develop a more robust understanding of the ideological work that underpins the differential economic climates that capital needs for its constant regeneration.About the SpeakerDr West is the Claire Tow Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, where she joined in 2001, the year after earning her PhD in cultural and environmental anthropology at Rutgers University. Dr West’s broad scholarly interest is the relationship between societies and their environments. More specifically, she has written about the intersections between indigenous epistemic practices and conservation science, the linkages between environmental conservation and international development, the material and symbolic ways in which the natural world is understood and produced, the aesthetics and poetics of human social relations with nature, and the creation of commodities and practices of consumption. She has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, Australia, Germany, England and the United States.