Teaching the cannibals to dance: Part Two

Craig Nelson journeys farther than expected into a land of penis gourds and pig sacrifices.

By Craig Nelson
January 20, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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The first European to write extensively about the Baliem valley was Robert Mitton, who fell in love: "Baliem is as close to paradise as one can get, the only place in the world where man has improved on nature." He wasn't being lyrical; it is knock-you-out beautiful here. The land is so verdant it fluoresces green; the mountains are topped with a permanent ring of cloud forest; and the basin is dotted with oak-brown thatch huts, the rising plumes of home fires, and purple-green fields of yam. Off in the corners are forests of auracaria, casuarina, oak and chestnut, home to the ostrichlike cassowary bird -- red-necked, blue-faced and notoriously moody. At the bottoms of the trees grow pitcher plants, which are fertilized by insects they've ensnared, drowned and digested, and in the branches, clamping tightly to the bark, are plenty of New Guinea's 3,000 different species of orchids. Through it all rushes the turbulent, milky-brown Baliem River, filled to bursting with those delicious crayfish.

Yos and I walked to the village of Akima in order to meet Kain (great war king) Werapak Elosarek. The smell of fire, pig and tobacco struck the minute we entered the sili, a fenced-in compound of round grass huts built from oak and chestnut beams, with a second-story sleeping loft and a roof of saplings tied over in heavy thatch. For a crisp, perfect 100-rupiah bill (about 1 cent, but it has to be a crisp, perfect bill or the Dani will refuse it), the Akimans brought out Kain Elosarek, who was a smoked black mummy, his mouth opened in a scream, and his body seated, which is how all funerals are performed; the corpse is tied to a chair and cremated. We visited with the men in their pilai, where everything is burnished red from the smoke except for the fresh, purple yams. Any number of fetish objects, especially pig jaws, boar ribs, black magic stones and big fish (imported from the coast), hung in the rear of the hut, and everyone chain-smoked cigarettes.


We then went to visit with the women in their long thatched shed used for cooking and as a home for the black, insouciant pigs. There had recently been a death in the village, and the deceased's female relatives had daubed their bodies in yellow mud as a sign of mourning. Dani do not live to be very old, and the tribes are in constant warfare over various small-town dramas involving pigs and women, so lurking constantly in the Baliem are these spectral mud people. Besides the yellow clay, it used to be a common practice to cut off a few of a young girl's fingers when someone died -- young meaning around the age of 3. The finger was first tied up to stop the blood's flow, the arm would be hit, hard, to numb the hand, and the finger would be chopped off with a stone blade. The removed fingers were then dried in smoke and buried in a holy place, while the hands were bandaged in grass and leaves and the little girl would show it to everyone, a mark of honor. Though this practice has stopped, there are still plenty of middle-aged Dani women today with an entire hand of missing fingers.

The Dani women's lives may be harsh, but they are tough as tough can be. The only tool they use in the yam fields is a smoked and sharpened pig thigh, and if necessary it can become a lethal weapon. If a woman is unhappy with her husband, she will dress up every day and work in the fields closest to an enemy tribe, showing herself off and hoping to get stolen. If a man calls for war and the women don't think it's justified, they'll beat him up. It's a custom not to have sex from the first signs of pregnancy until the child reaches 4, but most wives don't think much of this idea. While the men think it's OK for unmarried girls to have abortions (an unmarried girl usually being under the age of 12), they think it's bad for their wives to do it. The wives, however, don't care to be sexually deprived for years and so feel free to get as many abortions as they want. As far as the men are concerned, the women think, what do they know?


All of New Guinea was once a hotbed of cannibalism, and though the government claims that this practice has been stopped, I don't believe it for a second. Just a few years ago, the coastal Yali ate two missionaries and wrapped up their heads in fig leaves and rolled them through the fields for target practice. The Asmat, living in the swamps, believe that having a human head pillow will ward off the evil schemes of malevolent ghosts, and that if you kill an enemy, eat his brains, and wear his jaw bone as a necklace while carrying a dagger made from a crocodile's jaw, other people won't bother you so much. Who could argue?

Though no one really knows the fate of Michael Rockefeller, a man who collected primitive art, it's thought he was eaten by the Asmat while on a sculpture-finding expedition. The story goes that two Dutchmen, searching the wilds of New Guinea for oil deposits, got into a dispute with the locals and killed two of them before running off. The Asmat believe that justice is done when you perform an eye-for-an-eye on anyone from the tribe that did you wrong, and they believe that all white people come from the same tribe. The next white person to enter their territory was Michael Rockefeller.

Now I don't know about you, but I'm fascinated by cannibals, because they've got a thought process I just can't assimilate. Think: You see someone really good looking, and your mind (or whatever) immediately responds with: what a beauty. Would your next thought be: Sauce biarnaise? These are two ideas I just can't put one after the other, but every people-eater can, and does. All the human meat-eating nations also make up their own peculiar forms of people-eating etiquette. Paraguayan cannibals, for example, aren't allowed to eat their immediate family (which would be something to them like incest), aren't allowed to eat brains unless they're old men, aren't allowed to eat penises unless they're pregnant women and aren't allowed to eat any vaginas, ever, no matter who they are. As I wandered around the Dani villages, I couldn't help but remember that Barbra Streisand classic: "People, people who eat people, are the luckiest people in the world!"


All this time, dour guide Yos was being a damn sourpuss, so I decided what the hell? I made him ask all the Dani (even though I knew he wouldn't like it): When was the last time you ate long pig?

"Long pig" is what they call human meat, and practically every Dani replied in exactly the same, evasive way: "Oh, ah ... ah ... a really, really, long time ago." The way they said this, though, made me think that by "long time," they meant, "last week."


Though there weren't any human skulls lying around, the more time I spent with the Dani and saw that, except for candy, cigarettes and those 100-rupiah notes, they weren't remotely interested in anything about 20th century culture, the more I was convinced that they'd stuck with their entire traditional way of life, even if some of it now had to be done secretly. After all, they were an unbelievably proud people, so much so that the formal version of their hello is the outrageous boast, "Narak-a-la-ok" -- I eat your feces!

It was time to check out of the Baliem Palace and get to the middle of nowhere's middle of nowhere. As I had my last lunch there, Hubon, seeing my luggage, asked in his most perfect Diana Ross diva voice, "Will you remember me ... here?" and then giggled in hysterics. Yos and I piled our stuff into a Jeep and took off down the highway, which turned out to be a placed line of boulders that kept you from sinking into the mud. We bounced around for two hours, finally reaching the far corner of Dani territory, and checked into the worst hotel I've ever seen in my entire life.


The Losmen La'uk (Motel Hello Woman) is run by a nasty Javanese-Chinese man named Toukimen. If you have to stay in this territory you have to stay at Motel Hello Woman, and his monopoly made Toukimen about as gracious and hospitable as the Microsoft Corporation. A German tour group of four was also staying here, and when we arrived, Toukimen was shouting at them about something. He turned to us and announced that our pre-paid voucher didn't include meals (there was nowhere else to eat), so dour guide Yos had to dig up the paperwork and call back to the agency in Wamena (which I had to pay for) to prove we would indeed get food. Toukimen then had us seated in the alley instead of the dining room with the Germans, so he could cover up that he was feeding them better. While I took video of the toilets and the cook and the wife cleaning the vegetables, I had Yos explain to the innkeeper that I was here to make an American television special, and so would be interviewing everyone who worked at Motel Hello Woman. This got us back into the dining room and the better food.

After lunch, I went for a walk in the cloud forest, which, just like its name, was moist and damp and filled with mosses and ferns. As a Dani family approached, a tiny snake crossed the path, and when the family saw it, they halted dead still and began screaming in terror. Snakes are extremely rare in the Baliem, and the Dani think them all viciously poisonous and terrible omens of bad luck. I tamped my foot, the little reptile sidled off into the grass, and the family, obviously grateful, kept walking.

When I reached the path to the holy Waga Waga caves, it started to pour, and the path's boulders turned wet and slippery. I was pathetically making my way downhill and slipping and sliding around when, out of nowhere, before I even realized what was happening, two big Dani men appeared and picked me up under each arm and carried me really fast down the hill and into the caves. At first I thought I was being dragged off for some nefarious purpose, but then I realized this was their moonlighting business, and it was a great ride. They showed me the sacred rocks while, overhead, flying foxes squeaked and rustled their five-foot, leathery wings. I passed out smokes, and then they lugged me back into the forest. In a way, they made me feel honored and well taken care of, and in a way, they made me feel like luggage.


That night, I got to find out just what a pit Motel Hello Woman really was. The communal toilet turned out to be a brick tub of river water, black with silt, and a filthy towel lying on the floor. There was no soap and no toilet paper, and it smelled just like a morgue. My room had paper-thin walls and a bed of plywood covered by a thin piece of foam, one sheet and an itchy blanket. At 9 o'clock sharp, Toukimen turned off his generator and we were thrown into primal darkness; I hadn't known this was coming, and so had to crawl around on the floor looking for my flashlight. An unholy ruckus (which would last the entire night) started up outside: Dogs howled piteously, there was a ratcheting whistle from the cicadas and the nightjars called out in their low tock-tock-tock. Every time I moved a muscle in bed, the plywood would creak and squeal. Then it started to rain like hell and I realized the roof was made of tin, since the raindrops sounded like a marching band of snare drums. The minute the rain stopped, the dogs, cicadas, nightjars and whatever the hell else was out there started up again, including a dozen boisterous roosters, and I too was now ready to ooh and aah over the Baliem Palace.

At breakfast, Yos and the German guide told us we had some options to consider. Both our agendas today included a two-hour hike up the slippery mountains to a brine pool, where women stick banana fronds into the water, get the fibers completely soaked, then go back to their villages and burn the plants on a rock. The gray ash result is used as salt and stored in leaf jars. Or instead, we could go see the village of Jiwika put on a battle, a festival and a pig roast, but this would cost an extra 20 bucks each. I'd already had my slippery hike the day before (and today, with no sleep, wasn't interested in another), and so immediately voted for the battle/festival/roast, but one of the Germans, a doctor, was convinced we were being taken to the cleaners, that this was a guide scheme. "Why does it cost so much?" he whined. Yos simply answered, "You have to pay for the pig."

Finally everyone agreed to this supplement, and we were all led to an open field, but there was nobody there. We waited and waited -- and suddenly there was a scream of "Whoop whoop whoop whoop!" that came from the horizon, and we looked up to see Kain Yali Mabel, the chief of Jiwika, standing about 20 feet up in a kaio, a lookout tower made from saplings bound together with vines, and pointing his loaded bow directly at us. Thirty warriors rushed into the field, screaming the mournful call of the mountain pigeon -- "Who-week! Who-week!" -- and battling with spears, bows and arrows, the lines of men moving back and forth like a gridiron, offense, defense, countermoves and even a kind of instant replay.

Before, every Dani we'd seen had his penis-gourd or her cord skirt, the men adding a feather or furred crown for the hair, and the women's backs always draped with their string-net bags. For this battle, however, the entire village of 50 people had dressed to the teeth -- literally. The men's pierced noses and ears held boar's tusks and pig ribs, curved up or down like polished-white Fu-Manchu mustaches. They'd coated their faces and chests with pig grease mixed with ash to look as black and feral and gleaming as possible, and many had stuck broad, white ferns into their hair to stick out, like antennae, from the corners of their eyes. There were headdresses of black, swooping bird-of-paradise tail feathers and red ginger blooms; armlets of braided ferns and dried pig testicles; bibs and breastplates of cowry, snail shells and stone worn as armor. Along with bows, arrows and spears, the men thrusted and parried with white egret feather batons and black cassowary feather whisks to confuse and distract the enemy. They looked completely alien, completely primitive and completely fantastic.


At the victory celebration back in the village, we were greeted by Kain Yali with the traditional welcoming puffs of "Wah! Wah! Wah! Wah!" as now the entire tribe came out to chant, sing and dance. There were robin's egg blue legs and orange ochre clay legs and ghostly white legs; one boy had dotted his torso to look like a fawn, and an elder had so many bird-of-paradise feathers in his crown it looked like a fright wig. Every kind of penis gourd you can imagine appeared, many with crowns of feathers or fur. Some of the men had a thin thread around their necks, fashioned from a spider's web, which was guaranteed to keep malevolent ghosts from trying to choke you to death. The women had on their best skirts and bags, dyed in various patterns, and after the men had finished whooping it up, they were the ones, led by a crone, who sang a quiet, beautiful chant, shaking out a rhythm with the batons and whisks, a continuous background music during the rest of the ceremonies: Ah oh ay yah, sapay yo dago ay, sapay ya pano ay, ah oh ay yah, botay yo dago ay, botay ya pano ay, ah oh ay yah.

Two of the men brought out a squealing piebald baby pig, carrying it by the haunches and the ears, and held it, stretched out, while Kain Yali shot an arrow into its lungs. The pig was then put down to run away from death, but he was caught, and he lay on his side, his legs still running frantically, until he died. One of the men then carefully removed his ears, tails and teeth, which would be smoke-dried and used in fetish objects to keep away evil ghosts, while the other singed off the animal's hair over a flame.

A great pit had been dug in the center of the sili, and its bottom was covered in green branches to make steam. The men used long sticks as tongs to carry over white-hot rocks from the fire, and they layered this pit with yams, rocks, more green branches and finally, wrapped in leaves, the singed pig. The meal would be eaten by hand, served on banana fronds, cut by bamboo stalks sharpened into knives.


This was of course all done for us tourists, but it also maintained a very serious part of Dani culture during a period when the authorities had banned tribal wars and therefore, victory feasts. Though I'm sure the wars are still going on secretly (9,000 years of tradition doesn't end with a few Jakarta-exported cops), the Dani were obviously filled with pride at showing off to us. The proof of this attitude came when they brought out some items we could buy: bows and arrows, net bags, grass skirts, horims and digging sticks. Nowhere, however, were the magnificent headdresses and armbands and batons and whisks and the women's special, more beautiful outfits we'd spent the day watching. Some of the Germans tried bartering for the bibs off their chests and the bones out of their noses, but the Dani weren't interested in selling their real treasures.

The spectacle was of course engrossing and magnificent -- but I was unsatisfied. The Dani were the most alien aboriginal people I'd ever met in my life. Their pigs stank, the local hotel was a hellhole, their language was too difficult to pick up on a short stay, and they were the ultimate in distant stand-offishness when it came to outsiders. Except for cigarettes, candy and those 100-rupiah notes, they wanted absolutely nothing to do with me, and I just couldn't stand it. I had to make this kitten purr.

They'd really knocked themselves out performing the war and the dancing, and were sweaty and tired and starting to wander off when I came up with an idea. I'd seen an awful lot of American Indian shows growing up in Texas, so I had Yos tell Kain Yali that we have people like the Dani in America, and would he like to see how they dance? The chief allowed as how he would very much like to see that, so I started a little chant, and a little hopping two-step, and suddenly the entire village converged around me, picking up the chant, clapping and whooping. I switched to another, and then another, and then another, and each time the tribe picked up the song as if they'd known it all their lives. They spurred me on and wouldn't let me stop, making me dance in that torpid heat. The one-way exhibition had now become a two-way party.

After a solid hour, I couldn't do any more, and now I was the one who was sweaty and exhausted, but the Dani had never seen anything like this before (no surprise), and they fell in love. Every single male in the village came over to trade chants and songs and steps with me, one after another after another. Soon enough, I too was covered and smeared in their pig-grease body paint. One extremely old man, wizened and on his last legs, kept looking at me, and laughing, and imitating some of my steps, and clapping with glee. This turned out to be Kain Yali's father, who in his prime had 65 wives. When two of his sons were caught and killed in a raid, he tracked down the murderers and ate them.


Kain Yali couldn't contain himself; he kept coming over to me and softly chanting, "Wah wah wah wah wah," and we walked around the village, our arms wrapped around each other, the Kain holding on so tightly I could barely move. He kept holding me by the shoulders and kissing me on the ears, his huge penis-gourd digging into my belly. With Yos translating, Yali introduced me to his entire tribe, including his six current wives and infinitesimal children. Then, when Yos turned his back for a moment, Yali stuck something in my pocket and looked at me with his fist over his mouth.

I went off to take a leak and in that moment of privacy, had a chance to look at what Yali had stuck in my pocket, and was stunned. It was a ganekhe, a fetish, one of the village's sacred ye stones, long and black like an extruded egg, and originating from the Papua volcanoes many miles away. It was made to bring good luck, and tied to it were the dried tail, ears and teeth of the pig whose ceremonial death anchored it to the world of the ghosts. The stone was oily and resonant with odor; it'd just been cleaned with sacred grease and firesmoke.

I'd finally found it: the ultimate nowhere -- the anti-Manhattan -- and I could come back at any time.

I was, once again, home.

Craig Nelson

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