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The Incredible Danis
An original Dani legend tells of their belief that all people were born white and lived in a cave called Huwainmo. Those that emerged first and went to live in far-off countries remained white, whereas the Danis who stayed longer within the cave and their direct descendants then turned black.
The Danis still retain a very strong sense of their own cultural identity, despite the many attempts to change their beliefs and indoctrinate them into first the Christian and then the Moslem religions. They mostly live in and around the Baliem Valley in the centre of Irian Jaya and are divided into some thirty clans (sibs). The Danis believe that men and birds once lived together in absolute harmony, not realising that they were different from each other. As a result of this former relationship each of the thirty clans has developed an affinity with a particular species of birds, which are themselves then also considered to be clan members. The Dani men mostly walk around completely naked, apart from wearing a strange penis gourd which is held in place by one string at the base and one from the top tied around the stomach. The gourds are called either kotekas or horim and can be of extraordinary length, curved or straight and are invariably shaped depending upon the individual Dani's preference. Each man may own several horim to be worn on different and special occasions. He will often use the small open end to carry tobacco or money or even more bizarre objects. The Dani women are also more or less naked, apart from wearing brief fibre skirts made from grasses or tree bark or even yellow orchids. These skirts are called youngal and are short and slung very low on the hips. They are never removed, even at night, and it is considered bad luck if one is broken.
Conflicts within the clans mostly occur over ownership of pigs and jealousy over women, although occasionally over land rights and property matters. Their original warfare and battles though were often conducted in order to placate the many ghosts or spirits whom they consider sometimes live either within the villages or nearby. These ghosts are thought to control death and sickness and can cause illnesses to their pigs. Some of the ancestral ghosts were associated with vivid geographical features of the land, whereas others were related to the ancestors of tribesmen who had fallen recently in battle. These killings usually had to be avenged very quickly or their spirits would themselves cause great mischief. It has always been very necessary for the Danis to attempt to stay on the good side of the local spirits as they often make visits to their homes and villages. In previous real battles or subsequently in the mock ones, after anointing their hair, faces and bodies with pig grease, they always wear fancy headdresses made of cuscus, tree kangaroo fur and feathers of all kinds, necklaces and bibs of cowrie shells or pieces from the baler shells. Their spears can measure up to nearly 5 metres and they also often carry very long bows and a supply of deadly arrows.
In the past the women would watch the battles from a safe distance, bringing food and water whenever it seemed the men were ready to take a break from the actual fighting. A battle was always commenced by one Dani throwing insults at another. They were usually semi-humorous insults, perhaps highlighting the opponents' sexual inadequacies or other lack of physical attributes. The actual fighting lasted for only ten or fifteen minutes and initially there would be a sequence of small clashes, as many as twenty in total before each major battle, which itself would not last for too long. The warriors were always willing to postpone the action if it rained as they all especially hated to have their furs and feathers spoiled. They particularly very much enjoyed facing each other off in a kind of pretend conflict.
The Danis were never really very angry with each other, mainly using warfare as a kind of showing-off to another clan and before their womenfolk. The shafts of their arrows were always weakened about 10 centimetres back from the tip, to ensure the tip itself would break off within the victim and therefore cause most harm and pain. When someone was wounded his friends would then pick him up and carry him off the battlefield and leave him with the spectators. The death of one of them would not normally arise directly from being hit by an arrow, but from the infections caused through the broken arrow tip being dug out and the wound left open. When someone was finally killed and maybe a battle won, there would then follow two days of dancing and celebration. This was also another way of their calling forth the spirits of their ancestors to witness their success. Each defeat would trigger off a cycle of revenge, as the beaten enemy would try to even up the score by attacking at some time in the future. This might not happen for a week or a month or might only occur after several years had passed.
The faces of the Danis are strong-looking and expressive. They are more deeply-set than the Indonesian faces one sees in the lowlands, with many folds of muscle hardened across their faces. Their skins are very craggy and with lengthy ageing lines. Their facial expressions can change in a moment as they suddenly transform into smiles which seem to move in waves across their faces. When a newcomer turns up to join a group, all the others stand up and greet him with a cry of `wa, wa, wa.' They like to touch him on the shoulder or the body and then will clear a space for him to sit down amongst them. If something amuses them or seems to be particularly interesting, apart from breaking out again with `wa, wa, wa' they also flick their penis gourds with their fingernails. I was told this meant `wow' and was a way of expressing their delight. Danis never wear shoes and their feet are huge and extremely wide, so very different to the ordinary Indonesian foot which is quite small. Some of them have calves like fissured boulders, which seem quite appropriate as they are often jumping from boulder to boulder with extraordinary ease. Their arms are so muscled they sometimes look like bundles of pythons tied up at one end, flailing around independently as their hands move. This makes the Danis excellent to use as expedition porters and to help carry the heavy equipment and stores across the plains and up the rocks and mountains. Their feet, bulging out at the sides, have presumably been genetically shaped from several thousand years of climbing sheer, razor-back rocks to which they cling limpet-like often at impossible angles, sometimes carrying enormously heavy loads. The Danis also have large, muscular stomachs and their buttocks are rather squat and broad -- almost horse-like.
The pig is absolutely crucial to the Dani way of life. It is really the most important thing they possess. They can become so totally miserable at the loss of a pig, perhaps through his desertion, particularly if he was considered a favourite, that a man will often hack off parts of his own ears with a bamboo knife. Pigs are even treated equal to people. Sometimes the Dani men whisper into their ears like little children and they are often fed on bits of cooked food and allowed to sleep close to the fire at night. Like children, the pigs are considered to have souls, but obviously are unaware of any religious taboos they should observe and so can be forgiven for rooting in the spirit gardens or eating food forbidden to the owner's individual clan. However, in the way that human beings are just considered as part of the natural way of life and as death occurs naturally to them, pigs can still be killed, even in huge numbers when necessary, although this is only done on special occasions. In fact nothing important can occur without the slaughtering of a pig. Originally when war was to be waged the pigs were first consulted, then killed and offered to their ancestors in order to bring the warriors good luck. They are a major part of a bride's dowry and naturally a man cannot hope to get more than one wife unless he has a large number of pigs. The most senior village elders can get up to ten wives each if they have enough pigs.
Young boys cannot be initiated into manhood without eating lots of pork and first having a live, squealing piglet held in front of them to charm the bad spirits out of their chests. After the pig has been killed the boys must then go through a mock battle, at the same time experiencing the cold and hunger needed to make each one of them into a man. Funerals and burials of course also take place with the slaughter of pigs. It seems the spirit of the dead man is first appeased by being offered plenty of cooked meat, then it is driven out, before it can do any harm, by other tribesmen rushing through the compound hurling rocks, crying and shouting. The spirit then is forced to leave and must go and live in one of the Dani ghost houses. These are mysterious, square-shaped huts into which no foreigner is ever allowed to enter. They contain bundles of dried grasses, bound up to look somewhat like human beings. Often these ceremonies are celebrated all at once, so that marriages, initiations of young boys, remembrances of the dead, take place in a great pig feast held by a group of villages perhaps every four or five years. The pigs which have been so carefully tended over a number of years are nearly all killed and there follows three or four weeks of incredible gluttony, in which some Danis might eat several whole pigs each. The more you can eat the more favourable the ancestors will regard your village and the better it will be for a future marriage or perhaps a battle.
Roasted or steamed the sweet potato called hepere is probably ninety per cent of the Dani diet. There are more than 70 varieties of potato. The Danis also grow taro, yams, bananas, various greens, ginger, tobacco and cucumber. The gardens are very high-yielding and are sustained by a kind of strangely-sophisticated irrigation system that covers some twenty per cent of the area. The Dani women then scoop the rich mud from the bottoms of the ditches to fertilize the soil where the sweet potato vines grow. The Danis never live in large villages but form small scattered compounds near their gardens. Each compound usually contains some two to five families, who are bound together by a special relationship. Each rectangular compound is surrounded by a fence and at one end stands a domed men's hut to which the women are not allowed entry. Then there are several circular shaped women's huts which are just a scaled-down version of the men's huts. There is also on one side of the compound a long, rectangular cooking shed, sometimes also containing the pig stalls. The men and women always sleep separately and sexual relationships are controlled and limited. This is also to make certain that a mother does not become burdened with too many young children at the same time. The Dani mother is totally responsible for looking after the children. Men's work consists of the co-operative digging, maintenance of the irrigation system, setting up the fences and occasionally building huts and repairing them. Women work in the fields for long, tedious hours, as well as doing the planting, the weeding, looking after the pigs, the children and doing all the cooking. The only animals usually kept are dogs and the pigs. Only the pigs have the run of the land and are allowed to crash through any garden where it is unprotected by a strong fence.
There is a large, locally common spider, almost qualifying as a third domestic animal, which is encouraged to weave on prepared frames. The matted webbing spun by the spider is worked into fabric used for men's head and throat coverings. These throat coverings in narrow strips are considered magical and guard against the attack of evil spirits who usually attack at the throat. Most men and women carry string bags called noken which are made in a very loose knit, rather like long hair nets and can be filled with sweet potatoes, wood, even small children or piglets. The noken are knit from bark fibres that are rolled tightly on one side to be able to string. The colouring is made from various clays, orchid tubers and small ferns. Each noken is usually suspended down the back by a cord circling the forehead. Until some thirty years ago the only tools used were stone axes, scrapers made from stone or from boar's tusks, knives made from sharpened bamboo and wooden spears and digging sticks. Stones had to be carried from the bed of the Yalime River, which is about 150 kilometres north-west of the Baliem Valley in the Nogolo Basin. There are three kinds of stone taken from the Yalime River, the greenish andiba which is particularly hard, a bluish stone called wang-kobme and a black flint stone called kalu. Of course now the Danis can obtain steel axes in their trading, through their weekly markets or in the permanent one situated in the town of Wamena. Traditional Dani trading has always been through the bartered exchange of using seashells (the famous cowrie shells).
Most of the families, particularly those that have related wives live in communal type houses or huts. There is very little privacy and they see no reason why there should be. Invariably there is a central fireplace with it being the women's responsibility to make certain that the fire is kept burning. The women get up first and leave each morning, immediately after dawn, to work in the sweet potato fields or to look for firewood or to carry out any of the other chores that are necessary. The men take things much more leisurely. The huts are often full of roaches and the constantly burning fire is necessary to drive them away. Because of the proximity of living one with another, the Danis are extremely open about the physical side of their relationships, sex between male and female particularly. Even the young men are sometimes bonded together, this is known as Mbai, although only in the sense of being the closest of friends; perhaps a good way to describe this close relationship is that of being blood brothers. They often grow up together, work together, hunt together and even sometimes marry at the same time, so that they can set up a communal home. No one needs to be shy about the intimate relationships between any particular couple. If you come across a couple out in the jungle, even in the most intimate of positions, you do not need to hide yourself from them or not let them be aware that you have seen them. All you should do is jump right over them, yell at the top of your lungs and especially yell out your own name. If this occurs they are then meant to name their next baby after you. If they don't there is every chance the baby will sicken and die.
Another Dani tribal custom relates to the finding of a cassowary egg. It is essential not to pick it up initially; first you must run away, swatting at your ears and your head as if you are being chased by bees, Only then can you go back and pick up the egg to eat it. If you don't do this the egg will definitely be spoiled and uneatable. When someone dies the body is never buried but is allowed to slowly decompose, sometimes over weeks. It is continuously watched over, to prevent it being attacked by dogs or scavengers or other animals. However maggots are allowed to eat through it so that it becomes quite a revolting nest of maggots, but treated as occurring within the natural cycle of the life process, of which the tribesmen feel such a part. To our senses this may seem somewhat barbaric but the Danis are from a totally different world and this is their world. Skulls are always collected and stored, although they cannot be removed until they have separated on their own accord from the spinal chord. The Danis wait for the body to decompose and for it to fall apart, leaving only the skull as the final necessary part to retain. Eventually the clean, white skull is decorated, with even the eye sockets and nose holes being filled with beeswax and other substances. Sometimes they leave the skulls in certain places to ward off evil spirits or to frighten away their enemies or even as a sign of the way to follow. Occasionally the desiccated bodies of very important tribesmen (Big Men) are kept for supernatural purposes and it is possible to see their mummies housed separately within the village.
The Danis have many ancient songs, although it is rare to hear them sung nowadays, except in the privacy of their homes or the separate men's houses which are sometimes called Jeu. Invariably when they get together they love to smoke some strange kind of leaf or reed which has a very heavy and pungent smell. They also love to dance, but the men dance with each other, yelping and wriggling, each one laughing and jerking his hips in a way that shakes the penis gourd in the most extraordinary manner. Perspiration pours down their bodies and flies around the room, everything seems very disconnected and strangely shadowed in the flickering light from the inner fire. Mostly this is accompanied by incessant drumming. The songs are invariably of their past battle glories, of the times when headhunting was totally permissible and it was the way in which their enemies were finally defeated, so their heads could be displayed as trophies to the women and children of the village. The women are only allowed to enter the men's rooms when food is being served. They may not remain but after serving the food must retreat, so the men can continue with their dancing and antics which are hilarious to watch, full of fun, merriment and the very essence of the Dani way of life itself.
The Danis live their lives free of the constraints of modern society and follow ancient rituals and customs of honour and respect. They are not afraid and yet understand fear and truly understand, although without being aware of it, the Zen concept and the search to live without ego. At times we all yearn to escape, often not knowing from what, and in Irian Jaya perhaps there exists one of the answers. D.H. Lawrence wrote a poem he entitled Escape which starts, 'When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and fright.' In the land of the Danis yesterday does not seem so far away.