Hatmen of the Mountains

Aspects of Ethnic Identity in the New Guinea Highlands

By: James G. Flanagan

Originally Published in 1981

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In recent years, anthropologists in Papua New Guinea have begun to work more with ‘peripheral’ peoples; in particular those who inhabit the fringe areas of the central highlands chain. These groups are, usually, numerically small, population figures of under one thousand being common, and live in close proximity to, and in intensive contact with, other similar but distinct groups. It is interesting, in these circum­stances, to ask “How do these groups main­tain their identity and survive as distinct cultural units?”

In this paper I explore this question with reference to the Wovan, who inhabit the Schrader Mountains in the southwest corner of Madang Province, Papua New Guinea and who operate with a number of `identities’ which are dependent on con­text. Ultimately, however, they hold a concept of themselves as a distinct people, basing their distinctiveness on language, residence and, most importantly, on the series of initiation rites a male goes through an his way from childhood to full adult­hood, and which confer and constantly reaffirm his identity as “Woven.” Associ­ated with these rites are various insignia of initiation, the most prominent of which is the net hat (yonggulit) worn for two years by the adolescent male initiate. This net hat is symbolic of the whole ritual process and Wovan men make this explicit in speaking of themselves as “batmen.” Wearing it is essential to becoming an adult male Wovan.

The Wovan: An Overview

There are currently some seven hundred Wovan living on the northern and southern slopes of the Schrader Range, mainly in the Arame and Kaiwa river valleys. The rugged territory varies in altitude from 400 meters above mean sea level at the Jimi river to over 2,400 meters at the top of the ridge, the main zone of habitation and culti­vation being confined to the 700-2,000 meter range.

The Wovan are subsistence horticultural­ists, hunters and gatherers. Employing slash and burn techniques, they cultivate taro and sweet potatoes as their staple crops. Bananas, yams, marita pandanus, edible pitpit, breadfruit, sugarcane, and a number of greens all provide variety in the traditional diet. The recent introduction of maize, pumpkin, several types of beans, and cabbage has further supplemented the inventory of crops. Pigs and dogs were, traditionally, the only domesticated ani­mals, but a number of domestic fowl have recently been obtained. Hunting is highly valued, both as an activity and for the food it produces. Fruits and fungi, pandanus nuts, insect larvae and bush hen eggs are collected.

Unlike many people of the central high­lands, the Woven do not build separate men’s and women’s houses. They build large, slightly bulging. rectangular houses which are internally divided into men’s and women’s sides. A married couple shares a single room located at the end of the house. A house normally contains a minimal lineage [a set of true brothers or the sons of brothers, their wives, sons, unmarried daughters and the parents and unmarried sisters of the men). A married man may build a smaller house for himself and his wife and children, but he will still refer to the larger house as his place of residence. It is at this larger house that he and his brothers will hold initiation cere­monies for their sons and these men are referred to by other members of the com­munity as constituting “one big house” (hram diibb fanger). Currently, the Woven occupy forty-eight such big houses, the majority of which are still dispersed, but three small hamlets, Adiip, Fatok, and Funkafunk have developed in response to mission and government pressure.

These forty-eight minimal lineages com­bine into twenty-five larger groupings (lineages) which control hunting and gardening land. Ideally, these groups con­sist of patrilineally related persons. All Wovan men will speak of themselves as having unlimited access to their ‘father’s land’ (land controlled by their own patrilineage) and limited access to their `mother’s land’ (land controlled by their mother’s patrilineage). If, as is often the case, a man’s parents are both from a sin­gle patriline, these will be the same.

The Wovan are, and traditionally have been, strictly monogamous. Parallel cousins (father’s brother’s daughter and mother’s sister’s daughter) are the preferred marriage partners both ideally and in practice. Parallel cousins are called by the same kin term as siblings. Thus, the Wovan say a man should marry his ‘sister.’ These marriages are frequently between close kin, first cousin marriages being common. Almost 85% of all marriages over the past three generations were between exclusively Wovan partners. The Wovan, with some justification, therefore, refer to themselves as fanger hanye mangk (one blood limb) or fanger hrille hrangxub (carried by one penis).

Notwithstanding the fact that the world known to the Wovan prior to contact with the Australian administration in 1962 was very limited geographically, they were in contact with a wide variety of people, particularly with the Aramo, to the west, and the Kopon (Wandi), to the east, with both of whom they traded and fought, and occasionally intermarried. To the north, the Wovan went on trading expeditions to the Sepik river where they exchanged their net bags, tobacco, black palm bows, marsupial and dogs’ teeth for shells. They knew of the existence of the more distant Kalam, Dzauwe, and Yonggole people, but had little direct contact with them.

The administration’s first contact with the Wovan was in 1962, when a patrol led by 5. A. Johnston from the Jimi River Patrol Post at Tabibuga entered their terri­tory. Johnston distributed gifts, and no hostilities were reported. However, access to Wovan territory from the fimi valley is extremely difficult and during the next six years patrols through the area were very infrequent. In 1968 jurisdiction of the Western Schraders was transferred from the Western Highlands to Madang Province and thereafter the Wovan were patrolled from the Simbai Patrol Post (now District office) which had been established in the late 1950’s.

The first Wovan census was in 1968-69 and village officials were appointed at that time, Census records show, and inform­ ants confirm, that the Woven system­atically avoided the initial patrols. Only 151 people presented themselves for registration in 1968; women and children in particular were hidden when the imminent arrival of the patrol was announced. Today, the majority of the Wovan have regular contact with the administration officials who come to their territory, but a small minority still avoid contact.

Since the late 1930’s or early 1940’s, when the first steel axe was traded in from the Sepik, the world of the Wovan has undergone significant changes over which they had no control. Contact with the administration, though limited to infrequent patrols, had appreciable effect, since fighting and retaliatory killings ceased soon after 1962. In 1976, a medical aid-post was established at Fatok, and in tate 1977 the Anglican Church established a mission station in Adiip. The Wovan, however, still make only limited use of the aid-post, preferring traditional remedies for all serious illnesses, and there are as yet no baptised Christians in the community.

The changes in their world presented the Wovan with a new problem of identity. How are they adjusting to this new and expanded world?

The Contexts of Identity

Wovan identity currently operates at three levels: that of being Simbai people; that of being Kopon; and that of being Wovan. The contexts in which each of these identities operates and the units contrasting at each level are quite distinct.

At the broadest level, the Wovan today think of themselves as being Simbai peo­ple. In this category they include with themselves the Kopon people (whom they call Wandi), the Kalam of Simbai itself, and the Ganj people east of Simbai. They exclude the Jimi valley people on the grounds that they are administered from Mount Hagen. They set this category of Simbai people in contrast with all coastal peoples, the Sepik people, and the Southern Highlanders (whom they always refer to by the hyphenated term Mendi-Tari).

Within the category of `Simbai people’ the Wovan distinguish between the Ganj, the Kalam (Simbai proper) and the Kopon, among whom they count themselves.

At the lowest level, they maintain the term Wovan to refer to themselves and their language, This usage contrasts the Wovan people with the Aramo, Kalam, Dzauwe, Sepik and Kopon (Wandi) peo­ples. A terminological confusion has been created for us by current usage in that the people whom the Wovan call Wandi are referred to by the Kalam and, nowadays, by anthropologists and administrators as Kopon. Here I will use the term ‘Kopon’ to mean both the Wovan and Wandi people and use the term ‘Kopon (Wandi)’ to refer specifically to the Wandi people.

I want now to discuss each of these identities and the contexts in which it operates.

We, Simbai The plantation is not a good place, We, Simbai men, join with the Sepik men fighting against the Mendi-Tari. The others are to blame and soon only Simbai men will be permitted to work on the plantation. (Plantation returnee on work at the coast). The Wovan identity as being ‘people of Simbai’ is born of the contact situation. It is an identity which becomes operative only in their relations with distant outsiders, people with whom they had no interrela­tionships prior to contact. In particular, it emerges in interaction with coastal and distant highland people while working on the coastal plantations (as the quotation above shows) and in interaction with government officials who patrol through Wovan territory. In many respects, it is an identity forced on the Wovan from the outside by virtue of the administrative center being located at Simbai.

In 1973, the first Wovan men entered indentured labor on the coastal plantations. An indentured labor contract runs for a two-year period. These six men returned to the village in 1975, but three left immedi­ately for a further two-year period; only one man never returned to the plantation. When I arrived among the Wovan in 1978, 16 men had returned from serving on the plantation. While more left to undertake plantation work, no further men returned until a Few weeks before the end of my fieldwork in 1980. The men who had re­turned, however, brought tales of the out­side world that the Wovan had not known before, as well as some highly valued material goods (metal pots, clothes). These men had been recruited at Simbai and were, therefore, identified at the plantation as being from Simbai. Early plantation workers were known to their foremen by an areal designation and number, rather than by name. The Wovan men returned to the village bearing the identifications Simbai 10, Simhai 17, etc. These numerical designations are still used in reference to, and in conversation with, many of these men.

A small town has grown up around the government offices in Simbai and this is the only town to which the Wovan have access (a government walking track con­nects Wovan territory with Simbai and, even though it is a two-day walk, the Wovan now make the journey with increas­ing regularity). The first Wovan man ever to visit Simbai did so after 1968. In Simbai, they can buy goods otherwise not available to them, and communicate with govern­ment officials at times when no patrol is expected. Simbai has become for them, therefore, the administrative center, the judicial center, and the commercial center. With its stores, school, and medical center, Simbai is also the model of what the Wovan would wish to achieve for them­selves.

The post-contact situation has, there­fore, acted to establish Simhai as a focus of Wovan identity. In the future, this identity will probably be subsumed under more far reaching concepts of themselves as being of Madang Province and citizens of Papua New Guinea, but, as yet, neither of these ideas has any general recognition. At the moment, the locus of highest authority is in Simbai, and it is in Simbai that they locate their own most general identity.

We, Kopon

We Kopon dress like this when danc­ing. (Young Wovan man showing me his dancing finery for the first time)

Prior to contact, the Kopon (Wand!) people to the east were a significant part of the Wovan social environment. With a population of 4,000 living in the Kaironk valleys, they were, and are, the largest ethnic group in the area. The Wovan inter­married (8% of Wovan marriages), fought with, assisted in warfare, and formed part of a single exchange network with the Kopon (Wandi) people. They never re­garded themselves, however, as being the same people. After contact, a number of factors emerged some of which assisted the maintenance of this boundary and some which forced the Wovan to think of them­selves as more and more part of a single `Kopon’ group.

Missionization, in this case, assisted the maintenance of ethnic identity. The Kopon (Wandi) people are presently being mis­sionized by the Church of the Nazarene (an American-led Fundamentalist Christian sect). Converts to this sect are prohibited from chewing betel nut, smoking tobacco and eating the meat of pigs killed in con­nection with traditional rituals. The Wovan, as has been mentioned, are being mis­sionized by the Anglican Church which prohibits none of these activities. The prohibition on the eating of pork is the most significant factor in this regard, as it has isolated Christian converts among the Kopon (Wandi from an ongoing exchange network. Further, the Church of the Nazarene has discouraged, if not pro­hibited, certain initiation rituals among the Kopon (Wandi. A similar attempt to pro­hibit initiation rituals among the Woven by the Anglican mission met with complete failure, and one of the principal reasons given by the Wovan for their refusal to comply was that the Kopon (Wan di) have suffered illness and death since abandoning their rituals.

On the other hand there has been pres­sure on the Woven to identify with the Kopon (Wandi) from both the administra­tion and the Kopon (Wandi) themselves. Since first contact in 1962, and continuing to the present, the Wovan are officially regarded as part of the Kopon subdistrict. No official recognition of their cultural and linguistic difference is given by the admin­istration. Many Wovan men are bilingual in Wovan and Kopon (Wandi) and the gov­ernment officials still communicate with the Wovan through Kopon (Wandi) interpreters. This is quite a complicated procedure as it entails the government official speaking in Pidgin English (p.e.), the interpreter speaking in Kopon (Wandi) and a bilingual Wovan translating this to Wovan.

The Kopon (Wandi), for their part, have little regard for the Wovan, thinking them­selves superior in most areas of life. The Wovan, today, acknowledge this superior­ity. Immediately after contact, the Wovan abandoned their traditional dancing adornment and adopted that worn by the Kopon (Wandi and the rest of the Simbai area for all major singsing (p.e. any festival implying dancing and singing). The singing of traditional songs and the wearing of traditional dancing dress are now confined to a limited set of contexts which will be discussed below. When asked why they adopted this form of finery, the Wovan respond by immediately denigrating their traditional dress. Their ancestors were ‘men of the bush’ and not sophisticated like the Kopon (Wandi) ‘men of the town.’ Young Wovan men today would never attend a singsing in Kopon territory with­out dressing in the style of the Kopon (Wandi).

The Kopon (Wandi), too, represent certain ideals that the Wovan wish to achieve. They are successful coffee growers, they have many small trade stores in their territory, and the Nazarene-sponsored airstrip, at Dusin, gives the Kopon (Wandi) access to the outside world. To be `Kopon’, then, in many respects is to partake in this advancement.

It is evident, from the foregoing, that the contexts in which the identity `Kopon’ becomes operative are very different from that of being ‘Simbai’. It is an identity for ‘close outsiders’, in contrast with the dis­tant outsiders discussed in relation to the Simbai identity. Nonetheless, complete integration of the Wovan and Kopon (Wandi) people has not occurred and when asked if they (the Wovan) consider the Kopon (Wandi to he the same as them­selves, they will answer “No” without hesitation. In the last analysis, then, the Wovan are distinctively Wovan.

We, Wovan

We put the yonggulit hat on our young men to make their hair grow. Only we, Wovan, do this. (Wunding, Wovan elder)

Many Kopon (Wandi) men would like to marry our women but they are afraid that the women will bring their sons back to put on the yonggulit. (Anangise, young Wovan man)

The term ‘hatman’ (usang a nambe) is used by the Wovan primarily to describe a youth who has just undergone the hamo initiation ceremony and is still wearing the yonggulit (net hat). It is also used, on occasion, to describe older men wearing other types of headgear. Traditionally, Wovan men having passed through initia­tion allowed their hair to grow and kept it covered with a hat of net or chewed bark. Wearing a hat marks one off as a man, and, more particularly, a Wovan man.

In order to understand the significance the Wovan attach to wearing the hat, it is necessary to have some knowledge of Wovan initiation practices and how these fit into the belief system. Here, I can out­line only the four major (compulsory) rites that a male goes through between childhood and full adulthood. Females have no comparable rites of passage and the Wovan themselves convey a definite idea that all girls are ‘little women’ while boys are merely the raw material from which men are made.

1) Anganaiv (the dressing ceremony): In contrast to female children who are clothed from the time they are a few weeks old, Wovan boys remain naked until they are four to six years of age. At this time, the boy goes through a public dressing ceremony during which he is clothed in a traditional cane belt and net genital cover­ing and is given his first net carrying bag and cowrie shell necklace. The ceremony is held in daylight and is witnessed by both males and females. The boy’s body is painted with marita pandanus oil and he is given specially prepared pig’s liver and taro to eat.

The ceremony greatly alters the boy’s social position in that he acquires his first social obligations (towards his sponsor and fellow initiates) and taboos (he may no longer call his sponsor by name but must for the remainder of his life refer to him by the relationship term nomai. The Wovan explicitly state that the purpose of the ceremony is to help the boy’s growth and ensure that his back is straight.

2) Hamo (the net hat ceremony): In his teens, usually between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, a youth undergoes the hamo initiation during which he dons the yonggulit net hat which he wears for two years.

Preparations for the hamo initiations take three to four months to complete and the rite itself takes two nights and two days. On the first night, the initiate under­goes severe hazing during which he is sweated in front of a large fire. While this is being done, he is given the ‘law’ (mAna … ‘talk’) by the elders. The law governs the youth’s relations with women, prop­erty, and animals (wild and domestic), and his comportment in the community. It is the basic constitution of Wovan society. The next day he rests. On the second night, the youth is dressed in the yonggulit hat and is given the specific taboos which he must obey for the duration of wearing it: he may not have sexual intercourse, nor eat any food cooked by females, nor drink water. (This restriction is lifted at the end of the first year; chewing sugar cane is the only substitute permitted.) He may not touch his hair and must never permit a woman to see his hair.

All females and uninitiated males have been excluded from the proceedings thus far. On the second morning, however, the initiates are led to the front of the main house to be seen by the entire community. It is the duty of the initiate’s female rela­tives to come and look at him at this time. The initiate then enters a two-week period of total seclusion after which he is gradually permitted to resume his normal activities.

Whereas the anganaiv ceremony changed the young boy’s relationship with a limited number of people (his sponsor and fellow initiates), the hamo ceremony changes his relationship with a whole category of per­sons (females) and a wide variety of objects (taboo foods, water). In the weeks after the seclusion has ended, the initiate is taught many of the magical spells associ­ated with gardening and hunting.

Each of the ‘acts’ of the rite is given a separate interpretation by the Wovan. The sweating is aimed at reducing body water (as is the prohibition on drinking water) so that the man will he lighter and be able to climb to the topmost branches of a tree in search of possum. The net hat will make his hair grow (long hair is beautiful in all Wovan myths). Learning garden and hunting magic will make him successful in both these pursuits. The hamo initiation, then, is aimed at creating a good-looking, successful man.

After two years, the net hat is removed and the youth may again resume normal interaction with females, but he is still prohibited from marrying.

3) Angge (cockatoo ceremony): In his early twenties, the male passes through the angge ceremony, so called from the white cockatoo feather headdress worn by the initiates. Like the hamo ceremony, the cockatoo ceremony is conducted under cover of darkness and al] females and uninitiated males are excluded. It is com­pleted in a single night and there is no seclusion period.

The initiates are not taught love magic during the ceremony hut it is recognized that they will soon learn it. This ceremony entitles them to marry. Like the hamo initiations, all adult Wovan males may attend and many do. All who attend par­ticipate by giving the talk to the initiates. They are told the origin myth of each of the items of dress involved in the cere­mony; mother-of-pearl shells, cowrie shells, cassowary plumes, and cockatoo feathers. They are reminded of their duties to both the ancestors and the community. In the morning, they emerge and kill the pigs which will be distributed in repayment of old debts or given to create new obligations.

4) Aime (spirit ceremony]: Being married and having children is not, however, the achievement of complete adulthood for the Wovan male. He has a final initiation to go through. Married men, who have not yet undergone this ceremony, refer to them­selves as boys. Full adulthood for a man is achieved when he spends a week in seclusion with the elders in the inner men’s room of a house. Here he is taught curing and other magic and is given knowledge of how to communicate with the spirit world. For the duration of his seclusion, he is close to the spirit world and may die if startled. This communion with the spirits is achieved by drinking a concoction made from the root of a small shrub (aime).

The room, in which this ritual is con­ducted, is the most sacred place in Wovan territory and is taboo to females at all times. Once the male has passed through this ceremony, he will enter the inner sanctum whenever his kin or close neigh­bors hold a ceremonial pig killing.

Initiation and the Reaffirmation of Identity

From all of this it is clear that, for the Wovan male growing up is a social and cultural process which is both problematic, in that it cannot occur without the assist­ance of outside agents and the conduct of specific rituals, and of vital interest, in that older men have an obligation to assist younger men to grow to adulthood and if they fail in this duty the whole community will be punished by the spirits through sickness and even death.

To be a Wovan locates a person in a complex kinship network. It means having an association with particular tracts of land; place of origin, current residence, hunting and gardening land. It means, for a male, undergoing specific initiation rituals and being bound by non-kin ritual ties to one’s sponsors and fellow initiates. It means speaking the Wovan language. All these features set them apart from their non-Wovan neighbors.

By concentrating on the initiation pro­cedures, I have necessarily neglected the role of women. While the rituals them­selves are conducted only by men, they cannot be conducted without the assistance of women. Every Wovan male who passes through an initiation ceremony is the son, brother, or cousin of one or a number of females. These women have a duty to pre­pare the ritual paraphernalia of the boys. They make the armbands, legbands, net bags and hats the initiates will wear. They have tended the pigs which will be killed following the ceremony and they lead these pigs to the slaughter. They confer the new name an initiate is given after the hamo initiations. Wovan myths attest to the importance of the role a ‘sister’ plays in the preparations for a boy’s initiation. Initiation rituals are performed for the benefit of the entire community and, while center stage may be taken by the males, they involve the participation, at some level, of the entire community. In this sense, the performance of initiations is a public celebration of being Wovan that involves all the Wovan.


Within a period of less than twenty years, the Wovan world has expanded rapidly, and they have had to re-define their own identity. Yet, so far, they remain resolutely Wovan, and this study of that identity in relation to their identity as Simhai and as Kopon (Wandi) calls atten­tion to what they themselves value in their own culture. Outside agents (be they administrators, missionaries or anthro­pologists) working with them may, with this knowledge, be able to avoid damaging vital Wovan cultural interests.

Finally, from the point of view of the Wovan themselves, what defines their identity today is not likely to be exactly what defines their identity in the future. Today the Wovan are citizens of the inde­pendent state of Papua New Guinea. The first Wovan ever to receive formal educa­tion outside the territory began attending junior school in 1979. For him, and for the many more who undoubtedly will follow, I hope that this paper may be, someday, of historical interest.

Cite This Article

Flanagan, James G.. "Hatmen of the Mountains." Expedition Magazine 23, no. 2 (January, 1981): -. Accessed July 15, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/hatmen-of-the-mountains/

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