Sun, 18 Jun 2000

War dance a welcoming sight to tourists

Text and photos by PJ Leo

WAMENA, Irian Jaya (JP): Repeated shouts of "wah" -- welcome in the language of the Dani tribe -- greet a group of foreign visitors.

The new arrivals are not invaders, although the Dani have turned out in traditional costumes, brandishing sege (spears) and sike (bows) in Kurulu village, Jiwika regency, about 25 kilometers from Wamena.

The foreigner tourists have been drawn to the spectacle of the Dani war dance.

Kurulu, situated in the mountain valley of Baliem, has become a magnet for foreign and domestic tourists to Wamena wanting to witness the arts and culture expressions of the Dani. It is said that a trip to Irian Jaya -- called Papua by groups demanding independence from Indonesia -- is incomplete without a visit to Wamena, its cool climate in refreshing contrast to the heat of the rest of the province.

The ancient war dance tells of a land dispute between two tribes. They fought until there was a peace agreement and a joint celebration to mark the achievement.

"There is a feeling of pride for us in Kurulu that even though we are far from the city center, and farther still from the seat of the Indonesian central government, we have been able to showcase the Dani's arts abroad," said tribal head and Dani war chief Yali Mabel.

"In 1996, a group of Japanese tourists who had visited here invited us to conduct a Dani artistic performance during a community gathering and parade in Tokyo. I went along with three other Kurulu villagers and the head of tourism from Wamena, spending eight days in Japan." He said he learned a little Japanese during the stay.

The war dance begins with Yali Mabel standing on a high tower in the middle of the valley and warning the gathering of an impending attack.

The clash ensues, with casualties on both sides, as people fall having been speared and hit by poison arrows. They fight on until there is an agreement to settle the land dispute.

"In celebration of peace, the rival tribes will hold a party on the disputed land," declares Yali Mabel.

Shouts of "wah" ring out again as the villagers welcome the tourists to the peace celebration and run around them in small circles. A Dani tribeswoman beckons to a male foreign tourist and carries him on her shoulders to liven up the merriment.

"Wow, this show was really interesting," the American tourist said after climbing down from the woman's shoulders. "I'll never forget this spectacle and I'll definitely return here."

As the celebration gets into full swing, Yali rubs a switch of rattan repeatedly on a log atop a mound of dried grass. Once the fire is lit, he uses the log to heat stones.

Women take a dominant role in preparing for the festivities, cleaning cassava leaves and large tubers. Their men set off into the forest to hunt wild hogs.

When the stones are a glowing red, the villagers use wooden pinchers to move each stone to a hole bedded with dried grass. The top layer of stones is covered with grass, the tubers placed on top of them and then another layer of grass put in place. There are four layers in all, the final one consisting of the cassava leaves and hog's meat on top of hot stones. Grass covers the hole in the shape of a cone.

The Dani's cooking method is equivalent to steaming, with the vapor given off by the hot stones heating the tubers, leaves and hog meat.

In the two hours it takes to cook the feast, the Dani dance and sing in a spirited performance. They save their broadest smiles for the moment when the food is declared ready to eat and the different layers of the hole are unearthed.