Plumed Dancers: People and birds of paradise

A new exhibition at the Museum focuses on birds of paradise and the people who have shared their world in the highlands of Papua New Guinea for thousands of years, reports anthropologist Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman.

The exhibition Rituals of Seduction: Birds of Paradise promises to open eyes and minds to the diversity and behaviour of a magnificent family of birds. And behind their splendid plumage, hypnotic dances and ancient rainforest habitats in the highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG) is the story of their continuing relationships with Papuan people.

Lying on shelves in the Museum’s Pacific store are magnificent wigs made of human hair, decorated with everlasting yellow daisies and the antenna feathers from a Parotia bird of paradise, as worn by the Huli people in PNG’s Southern Highlands Province. There are long judge wigs, edged with rows of bright green beetles, made over a tree bark structure and decorated with yellow resin, from the Waghi Valley, Western Highlands, and an impressive Central Province plumed head dress collected by explorer and photographer Frank Hurley in 1923.

These adornments and others from the collection represent a wealth of mythology and material culture, but are they still in use today? Do they have the same cultural significance now as then? How can we select the most relevant and dramatic objects from the Museum’s vast PNG collections to demonstrate the relationships between people and birds of paradise?

Human voice

To answer these and other questions, we needed to place the objects into a cultural context and where possible update existing anthropological information. We also wanted to include contemporary human voices and indigenous Papuan perspectives in the exhibition by working in partnership with Papuan community members in Australia and PNG.

Our first stroke of good fortune came in contacting Ms Ruth Choulai from Pacific Island Trade and Invest in Sydney. Thanks to her support and enthusiasm for the exhibition, I quickly found myself on a plane bound for PNG, sponsored by Air Niugini and the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority.

On arriving at Goroka, capital of Eastern Highlands Province, I met with two academics from Goroka University, Dr Michael Mel and lecturer Kai Bomai. We talked about the exhibition and formed an ambitious plan to visit various communities by driving through the high peak mountains and steep valleys of Simbu Province to the Waghi Valley, then to Hagen in the Western Highlands. And so we set off on what was to be a memorable road trip – myself, Kai Bomai and cameraman Dillon Doiki, also from Goroka University.

Welcome

That evening, we arrived in the village of Tsigel, in the Minj area, and our four-wheel-drive vehicle was quickly surrounded by a curious but friendly crowd. Following a formal welcome by community representatives, we were invited to the Tsigel Cultural Centre where, after our evening meal, elders and others began to arrive, respectfully opening the wooden door and crowding into the building.

We took this opportunity to talk about the project and show photographs of the Museum’s cultural collections – bird-of-paradise plumes and other objects. In the discussions, an elder began sharing stories of the birds with two young boys, and his narratives stimulated further stories and helpful information from the assembled community.

Jiwaka sing sing

That evening, we found out that a large sing sing (social celebration) was to be held the following day in nearby Minj to mark the formation of Jiwaka Province. People told us the sing sing would attract large crowds of highlanders dressed in full bilas (traditional attire) from all parts of the province – another wonderful stroke of luck for our project.

The following morning brought an air of great excitement. People gathered along roadsides or walked along, the children laughing and waving small flags and wearing green ‘Jiwaka’ T-shirts. They were heading to the Minj ceremonial grounds where hundreds of people were already grouped, dressed in the most elaborate and magnificent assortment of large plumed head dresses and body decorations. Men and women marched and sang, dancing and drumming as they slowly made their way – a waving, mesmerising sea of plumes.

Here was abundant evidence of the continued cultural significance of the birds of paradise. Their plumes are highly regarded at such festivities, supporting and enhancing the strength, prosperity and collective beauty of each clan – the Black Sicklebill and Stephanie’s Astrapia plumes for the Waghi people, the Lesser Bird of Paradise for the Kalam people and so on – with costumes and dances that seem to evoke the male birds and their display movements.

Thanks to Kai and Dillon, we were able to interview and film a group of five men from the Jimi Valley, traditional hunters of birds of paradise, and they were joined by a bigman (man of status) from Minj, Koken Kauage. Through them, we documented contemporary perspectives about the hunting and conservation issues facing the birds – but more of that later.

Hunting magic of the Kalam people

The following day, sitting in the grounds of the cultural centre, Kai showed photographs of plumes from the Museum collections to some Kalam men from the Jimi Valley. People from the Tsigel community came along to listen to the hunters’ narratives and watch the filming.

There was an intense feeling that something important was unfolding. Guided by Kai, each of the Kalam men began sharing their insights about kumul (birds of paradise), their myths, cultural significance, hunting practices and traditional laws.

At first reserved, the men gradually drew us into their narratives about the forest world – the birds’ secret dancing grounds and the spirit protectors that live inside the trees – before revealing profound insights into the sacred relationship between hunter and bird.

They told how a hunter must use specific magic rituals to clear the hunting area of spirit protectors that would otherwise drive the birds away. They would then use magic to attract up to 30 male birds to congregate and display in one tree, next to which the hunter hides in a specially built hut. Once the massed male birds are in full display frenzy, the hunter shoots just two or three with his arrows. In this way, the men add to their collection of feathers without affecting the future prospects of the bird’s population.

They also reported that guns are replacing bows and arrows for hunting the birds in some areas. Though the feathers have been traded for centuries in the traditional economy, the use of guns is an unwelcome change, motivated by money, and it is raising fears for the conservation of the birds.

Meeting the Huli people

After Waghi, we travelled to Hagen to attend its annual cultural festival. It was begun in the 1950s by missionaries and the colonial administration who wanted to replace warfare between tribal groups with a more peaceful cultural competition.

We met with Chief Nakabe and his Huli men from Koroba, Southern Highlands, hunters of the Superb and Blue birds of paradise, and they gave us information about various objects from their culture for the Museum exhibition. Their vibrancy, sense of humour and warmth were highlights of this unforgettable field trip.

But it emerged that all is not well in their forest world. Their brightly decorated faces could not hide their apprehension as they expressed concerns, echoing those of the Jimi hunters interviewed earlier, about the steadily approaching pipeline of the PNG LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) project. Cutting a swath through virgin forest, the pipeline will disturb the birds’ habitat and bring logging, mining exploration, stream pollution and other unwelcome intrusions.

As each man leaned over the table to sign release forms for their filmed narratives, the shimmering Superb Bird of Paradise plumes in their wigs, lit by the flickering candlelight, somehow evoked the uncertainty facing both the birds and the cultures that have shared their secret worlds for thousands of years.

Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman,
Collections Officer, Cultural Collections and Community Engagement

Dedicated to the following people as a form of thanks and respect for their valuable contributions: Ruth Choulai, Colin Taimbari, Colin Lyttle, Dr Michael Mel, Kai Bomai, Dillon Doiki, Klinit Barry, Koken Kauage, Kepas, David Mui and his Kalam men, Chief Nakabe and Huli kinsmen and Tsigel community members.

First published in Explore 33(1).


Michael Hugill , Online Producer (Content Strategy & Social Media)
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