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ETHNONYMS: Akhuni, Konda, Ndani, Pesegem


Identification. Dani is a general term used by outsiders for peoples speaking closely related Papuan (Non-Austronesian) languages in the central highlands of Irian Java, Indonesia (formerly Netherlands New Guinea, West New Guinea, Irian Barat).

Location. The various Dani groups live in and around the Balim River, approximately 4° S, 138° to 139° E. The greatest concentration of Dani is in the Grand Valley of the Balim. To the north and west of the Grand Valley, in the upper Balim and adjacent drainage areas, live the Western Dani. This is generally a rugged, mountainous country, with a temperate climate. Because of the high altitude and the sheltering ranges, the Dani area is temperate and unaffected by monsoon cycles. In the Grand Valley, the mean range of temperature is from 26° C to 15° C. Rainfall in the Grand Valley is about 208 centimeters per year, but wet and dry periods occur irregularly. For all practical purposes, the Grand Valley Dani do not recognize any yearly seasonal cycles, nor do they shape their behavior around them.

Demography. The broad floor of the Grand Valley, at 1,500 meters, has about 50,000 people, or about half of the entire estimated Dani population. It is densely populated, one of several such broad valleys found across the central ranges of the island. The other Dani are scattered across the rough mountain terrain from about 900 meters to about 1,800 meters above sea level. The major concentration of non-Dani in the area is in Wamena, the Indonesian administrative center, a town of some 5,000 people at the southern end of the Grand Valley.

Linguistic Affiliation. The half-dozen languages and dialects of the Great Dani Family are related to other Non-Austronesian language families of the Irian Jaya Highlands Stock, which belongs to the Trans-New Guinea Phylum.

History and Cultural Relations

The western half of the island of New Guinea, where the Dani live, was part of the Netherlands East Indies until 1949. With the independence of the rest of Indonesia, the Dutch held on to Netherlands New Guinea until it was transferred to Indonesia in 1963 via a United Nations Temporary Executive Authority. It is now the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya. Even as the Javanese component of the population is being increased through the resettlement program (Transmigrasi ), a small Free Papua movement continues to demand independence from Indonesia. But neither the new settlements nor the insurgents have had any direct effect on the Dani. No archaeology has been done in the Dani area. Some Dani groups were contacted briefly by expeditions prior to World War II, but the first permanent outside settlements were established by Western Christian missionaries in the 1950s. By 1960, the Dutch government was carrying out its program of pacification and development in the Grand Valley. This has been continued and intensified by the Indonesian government since 1962.


Dani compounds are scattered across the floor of the Grand Valley. The basic compound is one round men's house, a smaller round women's house, a rectangular common cook house, and a rectangular pig sty. The largest compounds may have up to half a dozen more women's houses. The structures are linked together by fences and open onto a common courtyard. Behind the houses, and enclosed by an outer fence, are casual household gardens. The houses are built of wood and thatched with grass. Compounds vary greatly in size. They may contain just a single nuclear family or many families and assorted others. A compound may stand by itself or it may be physically attached to several other compounds. The compound itself is a social unit, at least in terms of intensity of social interaction. These largest compound clusters may house well over 100 people, but they do not form social units. The population of the compound is fairly unstable, as people often move about from one place to another, usually in the same general area, for a variety of reasons. Although a few Dani now live at the government centers in houses with sawnlumber walls and corrugated-zinc roofs, most settlements in the Grand Valley have changed little in forty years.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. About 90 percent of the Dani diet is sweet potatoes. They are grown in the complex, ditched field systems surrounding the compounds. The men prepare the fields with fire-hardened digging sticks, and women do most of the planting, weeding, and harvesting. The ditch systems capture streams and run the water through the garden beds. In wet periods, the ditches drain off excess water. These gardens usually go through a fallow cycle, and when they are again cleared, the rich ditch mud is plastered on the garden beds. Dani living near the edges of the Grand Valley may also practice slash and burn horticulture on the flanking slopes. Because of the absence of marked growing seasons, the sweet potatoes are harvested daily throughout the year. In addition to sweet potatoes, Grand Valley Dani grow small amounts of taro, yams, sugar cane, bananas, cucumbers, a thick succulent grass, ginger, and tobacco. Pandanus, both the kind with brown nuts and the kind with red fruit, is harvested in the high forests, and now the trees are increasingly planted around the valley floor compounds. Although the Western Dani had adopted many Western fruits and vegetables, especially maize, before actual contact, the Grand Valley Dani are more conservative and even by the 1980s only minor amounts of a few Western foods were grown there. Domestic pigs are an important part of the Dani diet, as well as being major items in the exchanges at every ceremony. The pigs live on household garbage, and forage in forests and fallow gardens. Pigs are tempting targets for theft and so are a major cause of serious social conflict. The Grand Valley itself is so densely populated that little significant wildlife is available for hunting. A few men who live on the edge of the Valley keep dogs and hunt for tree kangaroos and the like in the flanking high forests. In the Grand Valley, there were no fish until the Dutch began to introduce them in the 1960s. The only water creatures which the Dani ate were crayfish from the larger streams.

Industrial Arts. Until the 1960s, when metal tools were introduced by outsiders, the Grand Valley Dani tools were of stone, bone, pig tusk, wood, and bamboo. Ground ax and adz stones were traded in from quarries in the Western Dani region, and the Jale, or Eastern Dani, got their stones from even further east. Other tools were made locally. They made no pottery or bark cloth. Gourds were used for water containers and also for penis covers. String rolled from the inner bark of local bushes was used extensively to make carrying nets, women's skirts, and ornaments. Rattan torso armor for protection against arrows was made by Western Dani but the Grand Valley Dani neither made it nor traded for it. Spears and bows and arrows were the weapons of war. The arrows were unfletched, with notched, barbed, and dirtied (but not poisoned) tips. By the 1980s, cloth, metal axes, knives, and shovels, as well as the detritus of modern lifecast-off tin cans and plastic bottleshad partially replaced traditional Dani crafts.

Trade. Even before contact, various seashell types had been traded up from the coasts of the island into the entire Dani area. Ax stones and flat slate ceremonial stones, bird of paradise feathers, cassowary-feather whisks, and spear woods were traded into the Grand Valley in exchange for pigs and salt produced from local brine pools.

Division of Labor. Gender and age are the major bases for division of labor. There are no full-time specialists; but there is some spare-time specialization. A few people are known as expert arrow makers or curers. Generally, men do the heavy work like tilling gardens or building houses, while women do the tedious work like planting, weeding, harvesting, and carrying thatch grass. Men weave the tight shell bands used in ceremonies, women make carrying nets, and both make string. Because of the very relaxed atmosphere between men and women, there is little activity totally hidden from either sex.

Land Tenure. Quite informal usage rights are the rule. Although there is little or no population pressure in the Grand Valley, the extensively ditched sweet potato gardens on the broad valley floor do represent quite a considerable labor investment, but even so, rights are casually and informally transferred. Large garden areas are usually farmed by men of a single sib or a single neighborhood. Fields are controlled by men, not women.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Grand Valley Dani have exogamous patrilineal moieties and exogamous patrilineal sibs. Some sib names can be found also in groups outside the Grand Valley and there are hints, perhaps remnants, of a moiety system in Western Dani. In the Grand Valley, people are born into the sib of their father, but at birth all Grand Valley Dani are considered to be of the wida moiety. Before marriage, those whose fathers are of the waiya moiety "become waiya," the boys through an initiation ceremony, the girls without ceremony. The chief function of the moieties is to regulate marriage. Sibs are associated with one or the other moiety, never both. There are sib-specific bird totems and food taboos. Local segments of sibs keep their sacred objects in common, store them in the men's house of the most important man, and hold renewal ceremonies for these objects. Grand Valley Dani are not much concerned with tracing genealogy. Common sib membership is assumed to mean common ancestry, but people rarely know their ancestors more than a couple of generations back.

Kinship Terminology. The Dani have Omaha-type kinship terminology.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Weddings take place only at the time of the great pig feast, which is held in an alliance area every four to six years. Moiety exogamy is invariably observed. Marriages tend to take place between neighbors, if not within a neighborhood at least within a confederation. Some marriages are arranged by the families, while others are love matches arranged by the individuals. Marriage begins a series of relatively equal exchanges between the two families, which continues for a generation, through the initiation and marriage of the resulting children. These exchanges consist of pigs, cowrie shell bands, and sacred slate stones. Immediate postmarital residence is patrilocal, although within a few years the couple is likely to be living neolocally within the neighborhood or confederation where both sets of parents live. Divorce is fairly easy, but long-term separation is more common. At early stages of tension, the wife, or the junior wife, moves out to another relative's compound for a time. Nearly half the men are involved in polygynous marriages. The Grand Valley Dani have remarkably little interest in sexuality. A postpartum sexual abstinence period of around five years is generally observed by both parents of a child. The minority of men who are involved in polygynous marriages may have sexual access to another wife, but for most men and all women there are no alternative outlets nor any apparent increased level of stress for those subject to the abstinence. Ritual homosexuality is absent. This extraordinarily long postpartum sexual abstinence has not been reported among the Western Dani.

Domestic Unit. It is easy to identify both nuclear families and extended families, but these units are usually less important than the compound group as a whole.

Inheritance. There is little real property to inherit. As boys grow up they join with their fathers in maintaining the sacred objects held by the local patrilineal sib segment. In a more general sense, sonsand to some extent daughtersof the wealthier and more powerful men benefit from their father's position.

Socialization. Child rearing is very permissive. Toilet training is casual. Children are rarely, if ever, physically disciplined and even verbal admonishment is rare. There is almost no overt instruction. Children learn by participating but not by asking questions. Since the late 1960s, government-sponsored schools, usually run by missionaries, have been teaching more and more Dani children to read and write in Indonesian.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In the Grand Valley the largest territorial sociopolitical unit is the alliance, with several thousand people. Warfare and the great pig feast are organized at the alliance level. Each alliance is composed of several confederations, which are also territorial units containing from several hundred up to a thousand people. Confederations are usually named for the two sibs with the strongest representation. Many ceremonies, and the individual battles that constitute warfare, are organized on a confederation level, initiated by the confederation-level leaders. Within the confederation territory there are usually recognizable neighborhoods, but these are not true, functioning social units. Contiguous clusters of compounds, also making up physical units, are not social units. Each individual compound, although lacking formal organization, is the venue of the most intense social interaction. Moieties and sibs are nonterritorial, unilinear descent groups which crosscut the territorial units. The two moieties, being exogamous, are represented in every compound. A couple of dozen sibs may be represented in a confederation, even though it is dominated by members of only a few sibs. In Dani areas outside the Grand Valley, the confederation is the largest unit and alliances are absent.

Political Organization. Dani leadership is relatively informal, vested in nonhereditary "big-men" (that term is used in Dani). The leaders of the confederation and the alliance are well known, but they are not marked by special attire or other artifacts. They are men of influence, not power, and they emerge as leaders through consensus. Leaders take responsibility for major ceremonies and for initiating particular battles. The leader of the alliance announces the great pig feast and directs the final alliance-wide memorial ritual. Leaders are believed to have unusually strong supernatural powers.

Social Control. Grand Valley Dani have no formal judicial institutions, but leaders, using their influence, can resolve disputes up to the confederation level, assessing compensation for pig theft and the like. But beyond the confederation, even within a single alliance, disputes often go unresolved because rarely does anyone's influence extend across confederation boundaries. Norms were not expressed in explicit formal statements. Now the Indonesian police and army have taken over dispute settlement.

Conflict. Until the early 1960s, interalliance warfare was endemic in the Grand Valley. Each alliance was at war with one or more of its neighbors. Wars broke out when the accumulation of unresolved disputes became too great. A war could last for a decade. Then, as the original grievances began to be forgotten, fighting would slack off. At that point an alliance that had built up unresolved interconfederation grievances could split apart, resulting in re-formation of alliances and ties, whether of war or of peace, between alliances. The confederation itself remained relatively stable, but alliance groupings shifted. It was the ritual phase of war that lasted for years. Once begun, it was fueled by the belief that ghosts of the killed demanded revenge. Since both sides were Dani, with virtually the same culture, and the same ghost beliefs, the killing went on, back and forth. In the ritual phase of war, formal battles alternated with surprise raids and ambushes at the rate of about one incident every couple of weeks. Battles might bring 1,000 armed men together for a few hours on a battleground. A raid might be carried out by a handful of men slipping across no-man's-land hoping to kill an unsuspecting enemy. But a war would begin with a brief, secular outburst that had no connection with unplacated ghosts. Some confederations in an alliance would turn against their supposed allies and make a surprise attack on villages, killing men, women, and children indiscriminately. The alliance would be broken apart, and both sides would withdraw from a kilometer-wide area, which would become a fallow no-man's-land on which the periodic battles of the ritual phase of war would be fought. By the mid-1960s, the Dutch and then the Indonesians were able to abolish formal battles of the ritual phase of war, but sporadic raids and skirmishes continue in isolated parts of the Grand Valley.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Grand Valley Dani explain most of their ritual as placating the restless ghosts of their own recent dead. These ghosts are potentially dangerous and cause misfortune, illness, and death. Thus, attempts are made to keep them far off in the forest. Dani also believe in local land and water spirits. In the 1950s, the Western Dani region experienced nativistic cargo cult-like movements that swept ahead of the Christian missionary advance. But these movements had no effect on the more conservative Grand Valley Dani. Now, in the 1990s, many DaniGrand Valley as well as othersare practicing Christians. Islam, the majority religion of the larger nation, was not able to cope with Dani pigs and has had little success there.

Religious Practitioners. Various people, mainly men, are known for their magical curing powers. Ritual as well as secular power is combined in the leaders at various levels. Leaders of alliances seem often to have exceptionally strong and even unique powers.

Ceremonies. During the time of war, ceremonies were frequent. Battles themselves could be seen as ceremonies directed at placating the ghosts. There were also ceremonies celebrating the death of an enemy or funerals for people killed by the enemy. At the cremation ceremony for someone killed in battle, one or two fingers of several girls would be chopped off as sacrifices to the ghost of the dead person. Men might occasionally chop off their own fingers or cut off the tips of their ears, but these actions were signs of personal sacrifice and mourning. Funeral ceremonies as well as wedding ceremonies continued at intervals after the main event. Both were concluded in the great pig feast held every four to six years, in which the entire alliance participated.

Arts. The Grand Valley Dani have practically no art beyond decorations on arrow points and personal ornaments of furs, feathers, and shells. Formal oratory was not important, but casual storytelling was a well-developed skill.

Medicine. The Grand Valley Dani have no internal medicine, but they do rub rough leaves on the forehead to relieve headaches. For serious battle wounds, they draw blood from chest and arms. Until the recent introduction of malaria and venereal diseases they were quite healthy.

Death and Afterlife. The Grand Valley Dani conceive of a soullike substance, edai-egen or "seeds of singing," which is seen throbbing below the sternum. It is considered to be fully developed by about two years of age. Serious sickness or wounds can cause it to retreat towards the backbone, whence it is recalled by heat and by curing ceremonies. At death, this feature becomes a mogat, or ghost, and it must be induced to go off into the forest where it cannot harm the living. Death itself is considered to be caused by magic or witchcraft but, although witches are known, there is no particular fear of them in the Grand Valley. Similar patterns of witchcraft belief occur among the Western Dani, but there witches are lynched.


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