DixPix Photographs

     

INDONESIAN ARCHIPELAGO

 
     
  Indigenous Groups:  Sepik River, Papua New Guinea  

 

The Sepik River of northwestern Papua New Guinea (PNG) is the longest on the island of New Guinea, and considered the largest uncontaminated drainage in the Asian Pacific.  Most of its 1100 kilometer meandering length is navigable and was settled by various groups in antiquity.  In a general sense, the cultures are also typical of those of the lowlands of the northwestern PNG coast, usually accessed via the city of Madang.

 

A typical dugout being poled along a marshy margin of the Sepik.  I am told that the men are hunting crocodiles and other edible reptiles. Click to see big picture (640x438 pixels; 74 KB)

The Sepik River and its tributaries are the highways in this region, and the dugout canoe is the usual conveyance.  Here a mother is out with youngsters.  Women do most of the fishing.

Click to see big picture (640x366 pixels; 116 KB)
But at a surprisingly young age, the kids seem to be adept on their own.  Poles, rather than paddles, are usual, showing that much of the river is shallow. Click to see big picture (640x344 pixels; 92 KB)
A dugout canoe in construction.  Metal tools no doubt make the job easier, but it is still a remarkably simple "stump to river" process. Click to see big picture (328x480 pixels; 83 KB)
Rafts are also poled in quieter sectors of the river, providing more cargo space.  There are few welcome smiles at the sight of a powered tourist vessel. Click to see big picture (640x417 pixels; 107 KB)
Cooking lunch on a raft-dugout combination. Click to see big picture (640x453 pixels; 134 KB)
A festive palm-frond dance for the tourists at a river village.  Of interest here is that buildings are raised high on pilings or stilts, in part no doubt to deter entry of wildlife and provide shelter for pigs etc., but also this is an active flood plain. Click to see big picture (640x358 pixels; 108 KB)
Cooking Sago "tortillas".  How typical a scene this is nowadays is hard to say. Click to see big picture (640x380 pixels; 92 KB)
Traditionally, the pith from the heart of the Sago Palm has been the staple starch in lowland cultures.  Click to see big picture (575x480 pixels; 105 KB)
Sections of a Sago Palm trunk are peeled and the pithy center scraped out.  This is the true Sago Palm (Mextroxylon sagu), not to be confused with the ornamental (and poisonous) cycad by the same name. Click to see big picture (640x416 pixels; 116 KB)
After purification with water, Sago may be carried as a slurry as this woman is doing, or dried into a cake.  It is pure starch, no protein. For that one may turn to the Sago Grubs, a nutritious delicacy raw--yummy. Click to see big picture (640x451 pixels; 115 KB)
Betel Nut, which is really the fruit of the Areca Palm (Areca catechu) is known in PNG as Buai, and traditionally chewed (in addition to lime powder) with an elongated mustard known as Daka, rather than the betel leaf employed elsewhere. Click to see big picture (640x392 pixels; 67 KB)
Traditional dress for a man of importance in the coastal area. Click to see big picture (634x480 pixels; 144 KB)
And there is also traditional music played on a simple flute. Click to see big picture (337x480 pixels; 88 KB)
The villages along the Sepik River are a mixture of traditional and modern influences.  Landing at one of them is likely to be met with something like this.  Much interest, but few smiles. Click to see big picture (640x429 pixels; 104 KB)
One of many typical villages on stilts along the Sepik.  Click to see big picture (640x434 pixels; 110 KB)
Another picturesque village. Click to see big picture (640x408 pixels; 79 KB)
Markets tend to be simple and with limited produce. Click to see big picture (640x463 pixels; 134 KB)
But those in the larger towns of the coast are often crowded, and provide a social center or meeting place. Click to see big picture (640x449 pixels; 132 KB)
The pride of any worthy village is the great hall or Spirit House where meetings and ceremonies are carried out.  It will be decorated in carvings and other artistic or religious items.  In the violent past there might also have been skulls of enemies, battle trophies.  Some houses are for men only. Click to see big picture (640x422 pixels; 113 KB)
The Sepik is famous for artistic carving, especially of masks.  Some oval ones are shaped as (or made of) turtle shells.  Turtle Masks are for luck in hunting, it is important to spit betel juice on them before leaving to hunt. Click to see big picture (640x480 pixels; 144 KB)
The symbolism in masks is complex and often varies with the tribe.  They may be sold or disposed of if they appear to have lost their magical power, or if the owner has changed to Christianity.  Click to see big picture (640x450 pixels; 125 KB)

Savi Masks usually have a tongue stuck out, a sign of defiance.  They are meant to project power in magical dealings.  Traditionally carving is done by men.   Most masks lack eye-holes and were not meant to be worn over the face.

Click to see big picture (589x480 pixels; 127 KB)
Some of the most primitive figures are of ceremonial importance.  They may represent ancestors or they may be just stylized decorations. Click to see big picture (447x480 pixels; 54 KB)
Cowrie (or cowry) shells carried spiritual significance and were used in rituals.  In the highlands they were also rare and used as money, in fact the PNG currency was named after them. Click to see big picture (347x480 pixels; 48 KB)
Yam Masks, known as Bapamini are important to some tribes.  These are placed over their giant yams (Discorea alata) in special ceremonies, turning them into ancestral spirits. Click to see big picture (360x480 pixels; 45 KB)
Sexual elements are also built into some of the carvings, although they do not seem to be a dominant theme. Click to see big picture (509x480 pixels; 72 KB)