Tag Archives: tribes

Cowrie shells: More than simply “shell money.”

My travels in West Papua introduced me to so many different people, and my eyes were opened to a host of new and interesting customs and cultures, unlike anything I had experienced in the past three decades of travel around the world. I’d heard stories of head-hunting, tribal warfare, freedom fighters, of Don Richardson’s amazing “Peace Child” account with the Sawi tribe, of man-eating witches and of witch-eating men!

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I also heard of less dramatic but equally intriguing accounts surrounding the lore of pigs as valued over women (principally to extract a high bride price in the purchase of wives), the extraordinary value of cowry shells (so credited because of the storied histories accompanying them), the use of stinging nettles as salves to abate pain, and of polygamous clans headed by honored chiefs (in which more wives indicated an increase in the chief’s status).

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This post explores the beautiful cowry shell, an item not unfamiliar in the legend and mythos of New Guinea. I start with some interesting general information (with links to original resources) and conclude with a few paragraphs specific to the tribes of West Papua. Enjoy!

Illustration from Natural History: Mollusca (1854), p. 169 – “Full-grown Cowry”

Cowry shells (also spelled cowrie, plural cowries) are home to the Cowry snail, a marine mollusk of the Cypraeidae family. These sea snails are native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, particularly the waters around the island nation of Maldives, off the southwest tip of India.

Erosaria marginalis Dillwyn, 1827

Erosaria marginalis Dillwyn, 1827

The shells of cowries are usually smooth and shiny, often colorfully patterned, and more or less egg-shaped, with a flat belly showing a long, narrow, slit-like opening, often toothed at the edges. Their lengths range from a tiny 5 mm to a robust 19 cm.

The attractive cowry shells have fascinated people throughout history and, subsequently, have been used extensively in jewelry and for other decorative and ceremonial purposes.

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Interestingly, they are also one of the oldest known forms of currency and have been widely used as such around the globe. This practice dates back at least several thousand years ago to China where, because shells could not be counterfeited and sources for cowries were so far removed from China, the wealthy imported cowry shells for use as currency. Excavations of early Chinese emperors evidenced that even the royal dead had currency in store for the afterlife, as cowry shells have been found placed in their mouths! The shells were used for centuries as African currency and huge amounts of Maldivian cowries were introduced onto the African continent by western nations during slave trading days. History shows that they were also used as means of exchange on the sub-continent of India as well as in Arabia.

A print from 1845 shows cowry shells being used as money by an Arab trader.

A print from 1845 shows cowry shells being used as money by an Arab trader.

Beyond their value as currency, cowry shells have been used as symbols of wealth. Rows of shells found attached to African masks symbolized great wealth and clothes covered with cowry shells likely indicated royalty. Anton Ploeg documented wealth items used in the Western Highlands of West Papua, Indonesia.  He uses the term “wealth items” to refer to movable objects (cowry shells and pigs rather than land, for example), accorded great value and used as means of payment, as gifts, as ritual objects, and as markers of identity.

Hindu dancers at the Festival of Lights (1916)

Perhaps most surprising, the Ojibwe (Chippewa) original peoples in North America, who inhabited the area around Lake Superior, used cowry shells in ceremonies. Debate exists about how the Ojibwe traded for or found these shells, so far inland and so far north, so very distant from their natural habitat. Oral stories and bark scrolls seem to indicate that the shells were found in the ground, or washed up on the shores of lakes or rivers. They may also have been obtained through trading.

Five Ojibwe chiefs in the 19th century.

Five Ojibwe chiefs in the 19th century.

There are numerous additional uses of cowries, both traditional and modern. Rachel Naba has written an interesting piece entitled, “The Gift of the Cowry.” Cowry shells have also been viewed as symbols of womanhood, fertility, and birth. Waistbands strung with cowry shells have been worn around hips to increase fertility. Women in Roman Pompeii wore them to prevent sterility. In Japan, one name for the cowry shell translated to “the easy delivery shell” and some women held cowry shells while giving birth to aid in a successful delivery.

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Cowry shells are sometimes used as dice, as in board games or in divination (foretelling the future or gaining occult knowledge). As shells are thrown, those landing with opening upwards indicate the actual number rolled.

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The Cowry in West Papua

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As I desired to understand the culture & customs of the various people groups in West Papua, what I learned regarding the cowry came in part from casual conversations with Papuans.  I am also indebted to Kal Muller, whose stunning photography and careful documentation in West Papua, have helped introduce not only the world to the Papuans, but also Papuans to their own rich history. In February 2013, Mr. Muller gifted me three beautifully written and illustrated texts: Introducing Papua, Highlands of Papua, and South Coast of Papua. These excellent resources distill years of research into manageable, organized bites; perfect resources for my visit to the interior highlands.

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The importance of cowries in the highlands of West Papua was linked to their usefulness as trade items. While major trade items included pigs, salt, stone blades, and seashells, the specific type of cowry, Cypraea moneta, morphed into the most commonly used form of currency. Items less valuable than the major trade items were traded or sold for this “shell money.” Other types of cowries were used as well, but on a much smaller scale. Lower value items included, for example, various bird feathers, colored soils, or orchid fibers from outside the area.

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The “shell money” system may have been introduced to New Guinea by the Japanese during World War II and further spread via porters assisting the first Protestant missionaries through the 1950s. In the mid-50s, the Dutch government brought in large quantities of lower valued shells. Soon thereafter the Indonesian rupiah (IDR) was introduced. Cowry shells still see use in trade and purchase, and are currently used alongside the rupiah. This is especially true in more remote interior communities.

Cowry shells, Cypraea moneta. Now: Monetaria moneta (Linnaeus, 1758)

Cowry shells, Cypraea moneta. Now: Monetaria moneta (Linnaeus, 1758)

Cowry shells also still serve an important role in acquiring brides, as part of the bride price, in highland communities. The cowries are accompanied by a number of pigs as well as rupiah, the latter two in accordance with the wealth of the groom’s clan.

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I found it immensely interesting that the value of the cowry – especially in times preceding 1950 when cowries were difficult to obtain – had more to do with its history than with its size and color, which predominantly determines the value of newer shells.

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This young West Papuan woman wears her cowry necklace as many commonly do, as simple jewelry.

This young West Papuan woman wears her cowry necklace as many commonly do, as simple jewelry.

It was explained to me in story form; that is, “This cowry was used to settle a certain dispute between such-and-such clans. Later, it was offered as part of the bride price for so-and-so, a man of status in the community. Finally, this particular cowry was given as part of a trade for a number of pigs needed for a significant celebration.” It was in this manner that cowries increased in value as they accumulated history.

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So Wogo Saigia

Being invited to an afternoon wogo saigia (pig roast) demonstrated to me the second of two extremely hospitable Moni cultural practices.

The first practice involved welcoming travelers into an nduni (men’s hut; seen in my last post). Each village or clan enclave provides an opportunity for travelers to rest or spend an evening in an nduni prior to continuing their travels. No cost is incurred by the traveler, but the customary expectation for reciprocation exists; that is, everyone is expected to offer respite for a traveler.

The second practice reflects a similar generosity and involves welcoming a visitor to a meal. If a guest joins a meal, whether invited (as in our case) or not (a “walk-in,” if you will), the expectation to extend an invitation and share that meal exists.

I am curious how these practices originated, but I might venture a guess that in terrain as rough as the highlands of Papua, a little generosity goes a long way in building alliances. I welcome your thoughts & comments.

The wogo saigia I experienced was primarily a celebration honoring a visiting missionary family (the folks who hosted me) who had spent much of their life and energy in this village. Such roasts are reserved for great occasions and typically become an all-day and extremely social event. A recent epidemic, however, had decimated a large part of the local pig population, so our wogo saigia wisely morphed into a saigia of veggies, hoga, and so wogo, rabbit. Super tasty as well!

Start by digging a hole in the ground large enough to hold all the veggies and meats that you wish to cook, as well as banana leaf linings and hot rocks needed to make this oven functional. Our host was serving approximately 20 people, so our hole was about a foot deep and 3 feet in diameter.

Gathering all the veggies and preparing the animals took a couple of hours. Of course, a healthy amount of friendly socializing & play kept the work of cooking festive, not unlike the outdoor bbqs of my childhood.

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Everybody joined in to help prepare the rabbit, chicken, sweet potatoes, taro, corn, squash, and a variety of tasty greens.

A little bonfire heated the cooking rocks. Those rocks, transported via forked sticks into the waiting hands of someone who would wrap them in banana leaves, were then carefully placed into the oven.

Cover it all up with additional greens and roughly three hours later … voilà! …. a tasty celebration with plenty for all … including two uninvited, but welcomed – as per hospitable culture – guests.

Enjoy!

A Return to the Mud Below & the Sky Above!

I took nearly the entire month of February to trek through the interior of Papua’s highlands with the sole intention of getting to know the people through whose lands I wanted to continue traveling in the future. And to be perfectly clear, a month is barely enough time to even scratch the surface!

Amy shows pictures from a  previous visit to the Bulapa village area.

Amy shows pictures from a previous visit to the Bulapa village area.

For me, it was a total immersion experience. I met with everyone I could, sometimes just to say hello, sometimes to explain in greater detail why I was passing through. It would not be accurate to say that I involved myself in the practice of “muna muna” because I needed translators (my friends Amy, John & Maximus) to help me tell stories. Nonetheless, we were very warmly received everywhere.

A little "muna muna" goin' on!

A little “muna muna” goin’ on!

Only men “muna muna.” This looks like two or more men squatting on their haunches (a common & apparently comfortable pose, at least for Papuans), deeply involved in conversation. These conversations will run the gamut, but many of them revolve around what traditionally has been the domain of men in tribal society: strategies to wage war, the secrets of effective hunting, and how to best protect their families. These discussions are secretively guarded among the men to the extent that involvement is considered a bit taboo for women, but it is also true that some women hinted that their men “muna muna” to such an extent that entire days are consumed in the practice, and no work gets done!

People would rarely let you pass through their territory without some manner of cordial acknowledgment. Walking along a roaring river, my eyes drifted three-hundred up to the very top of an embankment to see a family waving. Far across a field of crops, a working family yells a greeting, barely discernible, but clearly friendly. A tough looking group of six young men steps out from a village hut, and a quick “amakanie” breaks down barriers as we all shake hands and greet each other. (“Amakane” is the customary greeting in the singular form; “amakanie” is the plural form.)

I zoomed in on these folks, who greeted us from a  substantial distance.

I zoomed in on these folks, who greeted us from a substantial distance.

After spending a hospitable evening in an “nduni” (a men’s hut, where travelers are welcomed to spend the night), our host dressed up in his traditional best, recognizing that us tourists would likely love a photo. He and his family got just as big a thrill out of the evening of stories and meal sharing as we did, and were delighted to see themselves in a digital photograph.

An nduni, men's hut.

An nduni, men’s hut.

Our host joyful posed with us in his traditional best.

Our host joyfully posed with us in his traditional best.

Not everything was all sweet and perfect along the way, of course, and I hope to unpack some stories in the months to come that will help paint an accurate and realistic picture of the peoples and the lands through which we traveled. This was my second trip to New Guinea, however, and I remain hanging onto Amy’s statement about these people: “They are the loudest talking, meanest looking … intelligent and friendly people you would ever meet!” She grew up here, and so far that has been spot on!

Do the Moni really want to live as they always have?

Amy with a Moni friend c. 2007

As a child of missionaries to West Papua, Indonesia, I have heard many discussions about one’s interaction with indigenous people groups. Some are heartfelt and deeply thought out, some are shoot-from-the-hip perceptions that cover the gamut of opinion. Recently, catch phrases such as “White Savior Complex” have been used to describe those of us who would seek to partner with indigenous people. The concept of “helping” has become a minefield, fraught with criticism and cynicism.  Although new and catchy words or phrases may be used, the concepts and criticisms are anything but new. Anyone who has worked with indigenous people for any length of time, will at some point have their motives challenged. One cannot argue that over the years there has been truth to some of the criticisms. However, I would submit that the new social-anthropologists-journalists-environmentalists commentary and yes, even well-meaning tourists, actually demean the very people groups they claim to hold in such high esteem. After over a half century of living and partnering with the Moni tribes people, I would say that this partnership can be both exceedingly simplistic, and exceedingly complicated.

It is purely a Western construct that indigenous cultures must never change and “we” must protect them at all cost. This has always baffled me. Why is it okay for Western thought and culture to change, but not the culture of the Moni? There has been much hype about the protection of women’s rights in the recent re-election of President Obama. No one would dare suggest that we return to an era where women are viewed as possessions, or subservient to their male family members, yet the current push to “leave them alone” relegates Moni woman to exactly that. Why is that okay for them, but not for me? Do the Moni really want to live as they always have? Has anyone actually bothered to ask them?

It is my belief that the suggestion that the Moni are “offended” by the helping hands offered to them is totally contrived. I would even go so far as to suggest that it demeans the intelligence of the Moni. It is a house of cards that pretends to care without actually knowing who or what they are, much less what they actually want. I can recall translating this for a Moni tribesman once when the question was posed, and he sniffed and wrinkled his nose very quickly as Monis do when they are mildly disgusted, and said, “What? Am I of a child’s mind, that I cannot distinguish these things? Does that person think that they are wiser than I? Is that why they must explain it to me? Can I not determine for myself the heart of a person who comes to our land? Is it that I am child that needs protecting?”

Several years ago a journalist came to Papua wanting to hear from the indigenous people about a Western NGO doing exploration in their areas. My brother was asked to interpret. The Moni tribe’s men and women waxed eloquent about their ancestral lands and how the spirit of their ancestors lived among the mountains and could not be disrupted … unless, of course, the company was willing to pay a steep monetary price. My brother, being very good friends with several of the village elders, asked after the meeting what exactly they were saying. They all laughed and responded, “Tuan, do you not say and do what YOU need to get what YOU want.” It would seem the tribes men were willing to play to the sympathies of a Western journalist, to set the stage for a specific outcome. When the company decided to pull out because of these factors, Western journalists and environmental groups rejoiced, and declared victory. The Moni tribes men, however, rioted and demanded the company return for negotiations.

National Geographic recently ran an article about a group of anthropologists who were studying a central highland tribe in Papua as observers and documenters. Sometime into their observation an illness swept through the village. A great argument broke out among the anthropologists.  Several wanted to sit back and observe how the villagers handled illness and death, and others wanted to “help.” What was the right thing to do? Finally, one of the anthropologists decided academic research principles could go to hell, and carried the most ill woman over the trail to the nearest hospital with Western medicine.

Perhaps we should re-evaluate the social construct that is so pervasive today. Maybe we need to take a step back from all the political correctness of the day; the one that arrogantly assumes the worst of the helping hand. Rather than treating the Moni like children that must be protected, maybe we should begin recognizing that they are equal to us in their ability to think critically and determine for themselves how to interface with the “helping hand.”

AGM, November 2012

Many thanks to Amy Meredith for this contribution.

My good friend Maximus introduces me to dignitaries of the Legislative Assembly of Mimika Regency in Timika, Papua (June 2012).

Relationship building in a different culture and actively listening to the Moni people describe what they want and need, and don’t want and don’t need, requires more time and less “action” than most Westerners are accustomed to.

I will join John and Amy in Papua in February 2013 to meet with various Papuan village and tribal leaders to discuss community development and infrastructure needs along the Sugapa-Carstensz trekking route. Somewhat reminiscent of the National Geographic article in which cave people “sent a surprising message to the modern world,” the Moni seek economic and educational opportunities, as well as health and infrastructure improvements for their local communities.

John and Amy, as children in Papua in the 1960s.

Growing up in Papua has given John and Amy an exceptionally strong love and regard for the Moni people. It is most certainly true that our February excursion is built upon strong cross-cultural relationships that began their development with the life-time service of John and Amy’s missionary parents. Only two decades ago cannibalism was still practiced (though not by the Moni) and it was (and still is) the work of Christian missionaries that has defused tribal conflicts and advocated for the human rights and dignity of the indigenous peoples. John still actively serves in West Papua, where he fiercely advocates for tribal peoples and is fueled by, as he states, “Many are starving; there is much work to do.” In addition to ministry and relief/aid services, John has mediated between the Grasberg mine and the indigenous peoples who dwell in the surrounding area, as well as in cases of inter- and intra-tribal conflict.

John speaks with Dani tribal warriors and children during preparations of a pig festival.

Visiting Papua (Part 3: Cultural Sensitivity)

Teju Cole, writer, art historian, street photographer, and contributor to the New York Times, the New Yorker and more, recently tweeted several striking statements that really grabbed my attention:

  • From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.
  • The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.
  • I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.

And I certainly encourage you to read Mr. Cole’s complete comments in The Atlantic, March 21, 2012, at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/ for context, but my question here is, “How do I balance our visits with the Papuan’s traditional ways of life?” Whether I come to guide a climb of Carstensz or to involve myself in some sort of ‘community development’ project, can I do so in a way that not only does no harm to the Papuans, but also in a way that is rooted in respect? I admit, I have to learn what this means. I certainly don’t desire to be a part of that White Savior Industrial Complex. Oh yeah, and I was born in Amsterdam. That’s not considered a bonus in Indonesia!

I’ve read or heard statements which just make me wince. I knew these statements were likely borne of cultural ignorance, not maliciousness, but I wondered how they might read if their authors had been more culturally aware and in-tune with their role as visitors:

  • “The Dani are so much nicer than the Moni.”
  • “The exciting thing about Carstensz is that you start the trek from a village … whose people still walk around naked, with bows and arrows and eat spiders.”
  • “There’s also a lack of any sort of facial recognition of closure or agreement. No smiles. No handshakes. No nods of the head.”

One of these statements came from a friend of mine, so don’t mistake me, I’m not lambasting anyone, I’m simply using these examples to caution myself with the understanding that I, too, can share the spotlight with the “culturally insensitive tourist” or even the “white savior industrial complex,” and those attachments I’d like to avoid!

Perhaps I can share a few (admittedly simplistic) cultural sensitivity guidelines which I held to on my first climbing adventure in June-July 2012:

It is important for people not to “lose face.”

“To lose face” means to be embarrassed or to lose respect in the presence of others. For example, if we have some sort of misunderstanding, miscommunication, issue, etc. with one of our local porters, we should bring that issue to the local porter leader rather than taking it up with the individual porter. For example, we had a climber who needed help carrying a backpack, and the porter who carried that pack was not always nearby when it came time to take a rest stop. Regardless of how many times that occurred (or how badly we wanted the porter to stick close by), we remained sure to ask our porter leader to manage the porters. As a result, we didn’t shame an individual porter and our local porter leader retained his lead role without losing the respect of his team.

We may see things that we do not agree with.

For example, several young boys (probably about 10 years of age) accompanied our party and carried supplies for several days. While we might think these young children should be in school (and, of course, we also have strong feelings regarding child labor), in this case, we learned that the boys actually came along as helpers for their dads. They were enjoying being out with their dads during a week-long furlough from grade school! They were just “working” so much harder than any 10-year old we know.

Honestly, there are a number of other things that might cause our eyebrows to lift, practices which are so far removed from our own cultural norms that we naturally can’t help but apply value judgments. Polygamy, cannibalism (though recently this has only been found in cultic ceremonies), animist practices, the role and value of women and children in tribal society, tribal warfare, etc. all fall into this camp. It is important for us to be aware of just how very much Papuan life contrasts our own.

Greetings

Before heading to Papua, it was explained to me that Papuans love greetings. I came to learn that this was true even with the simplest greetings. Of course, the fun part is recognizing that tribal greetings are different from our own.

A friend who grew up on the island mentioned that to a Western tourist, the tribal people (speaking of the Moni with whom we worked) can seem loud (the Moni speak loudly in clipped, guttural tones) and look mean (their facial and body language is far more reserved than we are accustomed to). She then added that they were likely “the loudest talking, meanest looking … intelligent and friendly people we would ever meet!” And I indeed found them to be unbelievably friendly.

“Amakane” (ah-MAH-kah-nā) is the traditional and most common Moni greeting used by both men and women. It literally means, “Welcome to my bosom.” I have been told that all Moni greetings are offering up a private body part in some way or another. Amakane, (which offers up one’s breasts) is no different. The message is warm and welcoming and lovely, and implies, “I offer to nurture you.”

Another wonderful greeting, a mix between our Western handshake and a finger snap, is a knuckle snap. A lightly held opening handshake is followed by the knuckle snap and then by a closing lightly held handshake.  The knuckle snap itself results in a loud snapping noise, just as if one snapped their fingers really well. The two who greet each other curl their hands in order to intertwine the knuckles of each other’s 2nd and 3rd fingers. Then holding tightly, they quickly pull away from each other causing the snapping noise. What a wonderful greeting! It is rare that this greeting does not bring smiles to faces!

I did find that for all of their reserved nature, flashing a smile and saying “amakane” never failed to produce a similarly friendly smile and greeting in return.

Enjoy!