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ETHNONYMS: Girara, Gogodara, Kabiri


Identification. The Gogodala live in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea. Earlier names for them were based on misunderstandings of a term for "language" or "speech" (girara ) or the name of a small creek, "Kabiri." The basis for the name Gogodala is not known.

Location. A few Gogodala villages are found on the north bank of the Fly River, but most are located along the Aramia River, a major tributary of the Bamu. The region, at approximately 8° to 8° 15 S and 142°30 to 143° 15 E, is largely one of flat, swampy floodplain with numerous meandering water-courses; alternating mixed woodland and grassland are punctuated with low hillocks and ridges where settlements are placed. During the wet season (December-May) about 75 percent of the annual rainfall of 216 centimeters occurs and most of the area turns into a vast sea, with canoes as the only means of mobility among the hillocks that form islands in it. Bird life and wild game (including wallabies, cassowaries, and wild pigs, with some deer found nowadays) are abundant, as are mosquitoes.

Demography. Population estimates have changed Somewhat since significant European contact began after the turn of the twentieth century, with a low of 5,000 proposed in 1916 and about 7,000 Gogodala speakers currently recognized.

linguistic Affiliation. Gogodala is a Non-Austronesian language, the only other member of its family being Ari-Waruna, which is understood but not spoken by Gogodala. Linkages with peoples of the Fly River are indicated by the joining of Gogodala with Suki as a separate stock in the Trans-New Guinea Phylum. Currently, most Gogodala also speak Tok Pisin, and many are fluent in English.

History and Cultural Relations

According to oral traditions, the ancestors of the Gogodala arrived in a large canoe from the direction of the Fly River, settling at the Aramia River after many years of wandering and being happy to find a region rich in sago, fish, and game. Physically, socially, and culturally they share many features with the peoples of the Trans-Fly region and southwest New Guinea. Almost all that is known of traditional Gogodala life is based on reports of government officers who visited them for brief periods in 1910-1916 and the work of the anthropologist Paul Wirz, who conducted fieldwork among them in 1930. Missionaries of the Unevangelised Fields Mission (now the Asia Pacific Christian Mission) established a station in Gogodala territory in 1934 and two years later local converts and native evangelists, in concert with the missionaries, were responsible for mass destruction of all traditional art and ceremonial paraphernalia. During World War II the people were left on their own, but intensified missionary efforts in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in drastic social change, including the total abandonment of traditional longhouses themselves. A cultural revival in 1972 culminated in the erection and dedication of a new longhouse as the Gogodala Cultural Centre, established as a museum, an educational center, and an assertion of cultural identity at Balimo, the site of the first mission station.


Until the 1950s, a Gogodala village consisted of a single communal longhouse, elevated about 2 meters above the ground and surrounded by gardens made on the sloping sides of the chosen hillock, usually well inland from the river banks. These multistory fortresses were up to 200 meters long, each having a central chamber that extended the length of the building and served as a general social area. Men entered the house from either end and slept on an elevated platform above the chamber. Women entered the house from underneath, where pigs were kept and objects stored, and occupied cubicles along the sides, cooking on a lower floor and sleeping in an upper story. Since the 1960s all Gogodala villages have consisted of rectangular family dwellings made of split palm with sago-thatch roofs or, increasingly, galvanized iron sheeting.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Apart from sago extraction from trees in some of the swampy areas, gardens provide staple foods such as yams, taro, cassava, breadfruit, bananas, coconuts, and sugarcane. Recently introduced sweet potatoes, pumpkins, corn, and cucumbers are also planted. Piper methysticum, for the manufacture of kava, was traditionally cultivated in special manured garden beds, and it continues to be grown and used despite opposition from the missionaries. Fishing, with nets, traps, and poison, is an important subsistence activity, as is hunting, which yields game required for a variety of social exchanges. Carvings have recently become a major source of cash income.

Industrial Arts. Everyday implements such as bows and arrows, digging sticks, canoe paddles, fishing nets, and wicker fish traps were made from locally available materials, as were the wispy grass aprons traditionally worn by women and coarse fiber nets and bags. Despite abundant suitable clay in the area, no pottery was manufactured or used. In a region devoid of natural stone, the Gogodala were, and remain, remarkably skilled wood-carvers, intricately ornamenting house posts and dugout canoes, some of the latter being up to 12 meters long.

Trade. Prior to government control of the region, trading opportunities were restricted, as cannibal enemy groups resided to both the north and south of the Gogodala; with pacification, however, the Gododala traded European goods with the Kiwai of the Fly River for stone adz blades originating in the Torres Strait. Between Gogodala villages, there was frequent trade of tobacco, bird of paradise plumes, ornaments, and daggers, with the villages nearest the sea providing shell of various kinds.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, all men made their own implements for everyday use and were also responsible for construction, felling sago palms, gardening, and hunting. Women's tasks included making sago, fishing, cooking, weaving, and making twine; also, wild piglets captured by men on hunting trips were tended by women. While all men learned to shape wood at an early age, some boys were recognized as having special talents and were apprenticed to master craftsmen and artists who, although their everyday lives were the same as those of others, occupied a distinctive place in society.

Land Tenure. All lagoons, patches of forest, and sago swamps are owned by clans and subdivided according to subclan. A man may make gardens and hunt on the land associated with his own clan, and a woman fishes in the area belonging to her husband's clan, although she may be permitted also to use her father's clan's portion of lagoons and waterways.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is reckoned patrilineally and Gogodala society is composed of eight exogamous, totemic clans, each of which has its own ceremonial canoe marked with its totemic insignia. A person traditionally was allowed to eat the primary totems of his or her mother's clan and those of unrelated individuals, but not that of his or her own clan. Clans are divided into subclans but also united into moieties, each of which includes four clans.

Kinship Terminology. Wirz's account of Gogodala Kinship is incomplete, but it appears that there was a very strong tendency towards generational terms, with all women in the parental generation called by the same term and father's brother equated with mother's brother (but not father) ; sexes were distinguished, but otherwise one's own children were called by the same terms as one's brother's or sister's children; in one's own generation, elder and younger siblings were distinguished and it is likely that these terms were extended to cousins in a Hawaiian-type system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages were contracted traditionally through sister exchange, with a man forbidden to marry a woman in his own, his mother's, or his father's mother's clans or any of his father's sister's children. Formerly polygyny was common but is now practiced by few; divorce was uncommon.

Domestic Unit. Traditionally, husbands and wives slept separately but all lived together with the entire community in the longhouse; nowadays, families form living units. While neither men's gardening activities nor women's fishing is shared with a spouse, whole families may spend days or weeks together in the bush seeking building materials and carrying out their various subsistence tasks.

Inheritance. Men bequeath their land and other property to their sons or, if they have none, to their brothers, with nothing left to daughters. A wife may be allowed to use her dead husband's land, but she claims no title to it.

Socialization. Babies are cared for by their mothers or older sisters; fathers are affectionate to infants but their active interest is said to wane with the growing independence of the child. In the early years, children are largely left to their own devices and spend much of their leisure time in the Lagoons. From the age of 4, boys have their own canoes and race them, imitating their fathers. Young girls accompany their mothers to sago swamps and fish on their own; boys work with their fathers in the gardens and sometimes go along on hunting trips. It is a father's responsibility to teach his sons about daily life, while their mother's brothers transmit the secrets of manhood and cult life.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. Moieties provided a dualistic organization to Gogodala society, with symmetrical subdivision into clans constituting the basic organizational framework, especially in matters of marriage, intercommunity relations, and ceremonial life. Although some sojourners indicated the existence of chiefs, Wirz's account based on fieldwork stresses an egalitarian ethic that colored daily life, with no recognized formal leadership positions.

Social Control and Conflict. Disputes arose traditionally over land or women, and at moots all were free to air their views. Subsequent truces or agreements were celebrated with races between clan-owned canoes. Prior to government Control in about 1912, wars were waged arising from vendettas between Gogodala communities and disputes with the Kiwai and peoples to the north of the Aramia River. Head trophies were taken, but cannibalism was not practiced by the Gogodala.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Ancestral totems (including the snake, crocodile, pig, bird of paradise, hornbill, eel, hawk, and cassowary) were at the core of traditional religion, and clan insignia were displayed on all implements, canoes, and ceremonial objects. A general spiritual force traditionally was believed to control most happenings in the world; it could be tapped through carved effigies (placed around longhouses and in gardens) and used to dispel sickness from the village and ensure growth and fertility. Virtually all of the traditional Religion was supplanted by Christianity, beginning in the 1930s.

Ceremonies. The direct campaign waged by missionaries and evangelists beginning in the 1930s effectively destroyed what was evidently a very rich ceremonial life in Gogodala Villages. Men made and drank kava to mark all feasts and celebrations, which included first-menstruation rites for girls and a cycle of initiation for males, the culmination of which was the spectacular ceremony inducting all adolescent males into the aida cult. Aida not only united the males of a village in a secret society but also bound together neighboring longhouses. Canoe races symbolized the competitive rivalry but also the complementarity of clans and communities at the conclusion of the aida ceremony and at truce making. Through the efforts of the Australian government and the Papua New Guinea National Cultural Council, the establishment of the Gogodala Cultural Centre in 1974 has revived local interest in and enactments of traditional ceremonial life in new, syncretic forms.

Arts. In the southern region around the Gulf of Papua, rich artistic traditions abound, and Gogodala styles have been regarded as perhaps the most abstract and individualistic of them all. Until the 1930s, Gogodala surrounded themselves with their art, elaborately carving and painting longhouse posts and joists, ladders, canoes, canoe paddles, drums, and nearly everything else. Light, balsalike wood and cane were the basic materials for flat, shieldlike masks and plaques, flat or round ancestral human figures, and three-dimensional totem effigies, all of which typically manifested the Gogodala hallmark of concentric designs incorporating asymmetric appendages. Destruction of these objects was related to the fact that nearly all artistic productions were based in Gogodala traditional religion, aimed at soliciting the intervention of ancestors in worldly affairs. Individuals distinguished locally as artists were believed to inherit their talents, and all had their individual styles. While all traditional art focused on the Supernatural world, nowadays Gogodala artists produce most of their work for sale, and some of them have exhibited their work as far away as West Germany.

Medicine. Illness and death traditionally were attributed to attacks by spirits and sorcery; thus individuals wore Personal charms, and effigies were placed outside longhouses and in gardens to ward off the spirits responsible. When these failed, numerous medicinal plants were used in treatment, which emphasized external applications rather than internal use. Since World War II, mission clinics have provided Western medical care.

Death and Afterlife. All early European visitors to the Gogodala remarked upon the coarse net veils completely covering the heads of relatives of the recently deceased. Such veils were worn in mourning for about a year, though high death rates through disease and warfare could result in at least some people wearing such veils almost perpetually. The dead were buried with their heads facing the east in shallow graves on ridges at some distance from the longhouse. If the deceased was male, an effigy was placed in his garden, warning all to take nothing from it until a feast was held at which all of the food from his garden and all of his pigs would be consumed by the community. The soul was believed to leave the corpse with the rising sun on the day following death, at which time it would travel to the west to its final resting place.

See also Kiwai


Beaver, Wilfred N. (1914). "A Description of the Girara District, Western Papua." Geographical Journal 43:407-413.

Beaver, Wilfred N. (1920). Unexplored New Guinea. London: Seeley, Service & Company.

Crawford, Anthony L. (1981). Aida: Life and Ceremony of the Gogodala. Bathurst, N.S.W.: Robert Brown & Associates.

Haddon, Alfred C. (1916). "The Kabiri and Girara District, Fly River, Papua." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 46:334-352.

Lyons, A. P. (1926). "Notes on the Gogodara Tribe of Western Papua." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6:329-359.

Wirz, Paul (1934). "Die Gemeinde der Gogodara." Nova Guinea 16:371-499.


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