NOWADA OF THE DANI TRIBE
Please, for a moment, let me share my simple life with you. I am trapped in a world you can’t possibly enter. Oh, some have come, tourists and missionaries, anthropologists and government types, and those most curious. You see, you outsiders refer to us as ‘stone-age’ people, and quite frankly, up to 100 years ago, many of your educated believed us to be something less than human. Truth be told we never had opportunities such as you. This world I speak of encompasses all that we can see, together with the realm of frightening darkness, the place of immaterial spirits, and unseen creatures, and the ghosts of our ancestors. We can’t escape this world, it defines who we are. So, I want to tell you of our pain, something we embrace each day with every breath we take. Now, please, you take a deep breath. Go on, breathe deeply. What do you feel? Peace? Well-being? Satisfaction, perhaps? Had there been such a thing as a cosmic coin toss, what I share here might have been your story!
My name isn’t important, you may think of me as Nowada. My friend here is Gudupi. We are not sisters, but cousins. We belong to one of the Dani tribal clans located in the Baliem Valley, in the Highlands of Irian Jaya, Indonesia. I’m showing you my hands right off so you see for yourself my constant daily reminder our life is difficult. Whereas we take joy at the birth of a son or daughter, a large part of our existence involves mourning our dead. We Highland Dani still have a high mortality rate compared to say, Coastal tribes in proximity to the ocean.
Fresh from a funeral, Gudupi is covered with chalky mud. She will grieve in this fashion for some time, often without eating food or drinking water, or tending to her garden, and every Dani woman knows the importance of her garden plot.
We Dani people are sedentary hunters and gatherers, having garden plots carved into the sides of the mountains. We use stone hand axes to work the ground. Our men will clear a plot, but we women must dress it and plant the crop. Usually, ubi-ubi, sweet potatoes. If we are not vigilant, wild pigs can decimate our food supply overnight! It takes two cycles of the moon for our crop to mature. Thus tending our garden plot is very important and arduous. The outsiders and missionaries bring more modern tools, tools with sharp metal edges. Only a few Dani men can afford to trade for such things. We rely on various sized sharp pieces of hard stone for our tools. Additionally, we women must gather the fire wood for both the men’s living hut (honai) and our own (ebei). Our hut houses have two levels, the lower where we gather and cook, and the upper berth where we sleep because it’s safer from snakes and spiders, plus the wafting smoke rising takes the chill off during cold nights. They say this is what causes our many breathing ailments.
We carry water from the stream, tend the babies, cook the food, forage for green edibles, and weave our carrying bags (nongkin). The outsiders sometimes provide us with white-man’s clothing, but it doesn’t last long. We weave skirts that cover our feminine parts of soft grasses, soft and airy. Men will wear woven cloth shorts, but these foreign shorts cover their manliness without allowing a measure of bravado. Some men wear the penis gourd (koteka) and the shorts together! But we think that’s funny! We laugh when they are not looking. Tall penis gourds are the traditional Dani male coverage. The larger the better!
Our men cut trees, hunt the deer and wild pig. They make the bows and arrows they use in war and hunting. Some prefer ironwood spears. Occasionally, there is a clan incursion. Our men defend us to the death so we’re not taken for slave wives. If they are not doing these things, they tend to the enemy skulls that adorn the men’s meeting house. Of all these tasks, the obligation to mourn the dead falls more to us than to them. Ancestor ghosts can cause mischief and harm. We consider them with oblations placed in the trees. We believe that in dying they pass to the unseen realm. Hundreds of years experience has taught us they do not wander. So, our desire is that our oblations please them and they will stay hidden in the forests. Ancestral ghosts can be very annoying, bringing sickness and famine, and often miscarriage. Consequently, one tradition we dare not forget is the digit removal ceremony.
The missionary suster (nurse) often refuses to give us their medicine if one of the women has had a digit removed. They want us to stop doing it, they think our tradition is crude and inhuman, but they don’t understand. When a next of kin dies, the closest female must undergo the digit removal. Occasionally, more than one digit is removed from the same finger. A clan elder will usually perform the ceremony during the time the dead one has been funeralized. He uses a small sharp pointed stone to separate the finger. He wraps the stub in leaves with tobacco spittle. Eventually it will heal. The digit cut off accompanies the dead, thus there remains a connection between the two realms, living and the dead. I have refused cutting my first two fingers on my right hand because I need hold my garden hand ax very tight.
Yes, every aspect of our daily life seems to cause pain, yet had it not been for the outsiders, we would not have known that life for others is more pleasant. You see, ‘stone age’ people have little in the way of life activities that offer a contrast. Even less are activities that might bring a smile. We survive knowing the pain we feel, for us, is life itself. Carrying heavy firewood, mending stone and wood fences, birthing children, cooking wild pig with hot stones in a fire pit, weaving the articles and skirts we need, tending the wounded, and yes mourning the loss of the young, the old, or the warrior in between. Our traditions and rituals serve us so we never forget that our ancestral ghosts would be mad if we changed our ways. I would love to have more fingers, but our world is not something individuals control. We fear great calamity would befall us if we do not strive to maintain a balance in nature, as you outsiders express it. Dani people are proud. We never forget that ancestral ghosts have power to bless us or to cause us harm. The fearful things lurk unseen in darkness, and our pain reminds us of who we are.
Story written by
Theodore A Henning II