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ETHNONYMS: The Kirikiri consist of three dialect groups. These groups call themselves Kirikiri, Taû, and Faia. Except where indicated, Kirikiri is used here to refer to all three dialect groups.


Identification and Location. The Kirikiri live in the western Lakes Plains region of Papua (Irian Jaya) Province in Indonesia, about 220 miles (350 kilometers) west of the provincial capital, Jayapura. The Kirikiri area encompasses about 200 square miles (500 square kilometers). The area is a vast sago swamp with many small rivers, lakes, and back-waters in the Rouffaer river basin. The elevation is 490 feet (150 meters) above sea level and there are no significant differences in rainfall or temperature throughout the year.

Demography. As of 2000, the largest group of the three groups was the Taû with 175 members, followed by the Kirikiri and the Faia, with 70 and 50 people respectively. The population density is less than one per square mile. The people generally do not speak any of the national language nor have they received formal education of any kind.

Linguistic Affiliation. Kirikiri is classified as Papuan, Geelvink Bay Phylum, Lakes Plains Superstock, West Lakes Plains Family, Kirikiri. The three dialects share 95 percent cognate words. Kirikiri is an isolating and tonal language with six phonemic consonants (f,b,t,l,s,k), seven phonemic vowels (i,I,e,a,o,u,U, where I and U are fricated variants of the high vowels) and six phonemic tone patterns.

History and Cultural Relations

The known history of the Kirikiri people covers about twenty years. In 1928 brief contact probably was made by the Smithsonian Institution's Matthew Stirling expedition as it passed through the area on its way to the Nassau Mountains in search of pygmies. However, no oral history of that event was known by Kirikiri living at the end of the twentieth century. Outsiders first contacted the people who spoke the Kirikiri dialect in 1978, and this name subsequently was used for all three dialect groups. The Taû group was contacted in 1982, and the Faia group in 1990.

In 1985 the Bauzi people from the Van Rees Mountains nearly exterminated the Faia group by killing every adult. The children were taken captive and raised by Bauzis in native Faia territory. Although these children (in 2000 constituting about fifty adults) no longer speak Faia, they and the land of their parents are still considered Faia by the Bauzis and by neighboring language groups. Throughout their history the Kirikiri groups did not integrate with the more numerous neighboring groups. This has produced unique characteristics, such as a language very distinct from the neighboring languages, and the fact that 30 percent of the Kirikiri people are left-handed and one in fourteen births consists of twins. Even interaction between the Kirikiri groups was limited. Until 1995 the Kirikiri and Taû groups did not know that the Faia group existed. Whereas the Faia group fought and traded with the Bauzi, Biri, and Deirate peoples, the Kirikiri and Taû groups fought and traded with the Fayu and Elopi peoples.


The Kirikiri do not live in villages but in single dwellings along the riverbanks. Each house is inhabited by a nuclear family (a man and his wife or wives and children) and is less than half a mile from the nearest neighboring house. Sometimes brothers live at the same location, either in another house or in one large house. Before the mid-1980s extended families lived under a single roof. The houses are about forty-three square feet (four square meters) and are built on poles about three feet (one meter) off the ground. The frame is made of wood from small trees; the floor is made of palm bark and roofs are made of sago leaf thatch. Some houses have an outer wall that faces the river. There is one village in each of the dialect areas where there is an airstrip, a church, and other public buildings. Each family has a house in these villages, but the people occupy these houses only when there is a specific need to be in the village (for instance, for celebrations, immunizations, and church services).


Subsistence. The Kirikiri are hunter-gatherers and change residence every few weeks in search of new food supplies. The primary food sources are sago flour obtained from the sago palm and breadfruit. The primary sources of protein are fish and other river animals as well as wild pigs, birds, and insects from the forest. The Kirikiri plant bananas, taro, and sugarcane in clearings but do not tend gardens or engage in animal husbandry. After around 1995 this lifestyle began to change as some Kirikiri experimented with sweet potato gardens and pig raising.

Commercial Activities. Since 1995 some Kirikiri men have worked for money as menial laborers for a lumber company. They buy knives, axes, clothes, salt, and other items with the money they earn.

Industrial Arts. Kirkiri men produce bows and arrows, dugout canoes, musical instruments, and some household items such as bone and bamboo knives, fetishes, bamboo and flint fire makers, and body ornaments. As recently as 1988 some Kirikiri were using stone and bone tools exclusively. The women produce fishing dip nets, string bags, and household items such as sleeping mats, bark cloth, and bark containers. Traditionally, the Kirikiri do not have cooking containers. Since 1990 they have traded and bought pots, metal knives, woks, and other cooking equipment.

Trade. Traditionally, the Kirikiri traded among themselves or with outside groups with which a family had an alliance. This trade centered on the exchange of girls and the settlement of the bride-price. Items in the exchange included bows and arrows, ornaments, and food. Since 1990, the exchange has also included knives, axes, clothes, and other store-bought items.

Division of Labor. Men hunt, make canoes and houses, and protect the family and clan. They also help in making sago flour by cutting down the sago trees and pulverizing the pith. Since the mid-1990s men have gone to work at a lumber company for three to nine months at a time. Women do most of the fishing and food gathering, including most sago flour processing. They also raise the children.

Land Tenure. Both men and women own land. A child has the right to hunt and gather food on his or her father's and mother's land. There is no concept of trading or selling land. Non-food-producing trees are considered common property. As of 2001 there were no outsiders occupying Kirikiri land, but timber concessions frequently are granted to lumber companies by the government to take timber from the area.


Kin Groups and Descent. Each of the three Kirikiri groups consists of a number of clans, each with a headman. These clans hold food-gathering rights to a specific territory. Lineage is determined from the father's clan. Alliances are made between clans through the trading of brides.

Kinship Terminology. In the Kirikiri kinship system, the father and all his siblings are given one kin term and the mother and all her siblings are given another kin term. However, the children of the parent's same-sex siblings are considered siblings, whereas the children of the parent's opposite-sex siblings are considered cross-cousins. Males and females use the same terms, "older" and "younger," for siblings of the same sex as the speaker, but males have a single term for older and younger female siblings and females have a single term for older and younger male siblings.

In the affinal system, a woman calls her husband's sisters by the same term a man uses for his wife's brothers and his wife's sister's husband. Additionally, a male has a kin term for his wife's sisters and a different term for his wife's brother's wife.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages are arranged by males in the extended families of the couple. These arrangements include the bride-price, which, in addition to goods, can include the groom laboring for the bride's family and the promise of future brides from the groom's clan. Girls can be pronounced "married" as early as age eight but typically are twelve or thirteen. Boys are married at ages eighteen to twenty. Consummation occurs after the girl's first menstrual period, at which time the couple moves out of the bride's family's house and begins living together in their own house. A marriage is considered an alliance between two families or clans. One is not allowed to marry someone for whom he or she has a consanguineal kin term. A man may have more than one wife, but the additional wives are almost always widows. Widows with children do not require a bride-price, but a widow's late husband's brothers must approve of her remarriage. If a marriage is intolerable for the woman, she can, at risk of her life, run away.

Domestic Unit. Typically, a household consists of a man, his wife or wives, and his children and stepchildren. If he is the oldest son and has a widowed parent alive, the parent also will live with him. Each adult woman has her own hearth. Each woman has on average four children who live to adulthood. On occasion brothers live together in one large house.

Inheritance. Property is not inherited; instead, one has rights to hunt and gather on land owned by one's parents and one's spouse. At the owner's death, material possessions are buried with the deceased or left on top of the grave.

Socialization. The mother and the father are the main caretakers and teachers of children. Skills are learned by observation, and care is taken that mistakes are never made. At about age eight boys learn about the sacred flute cult and begin consuming semen from their older, usually unmarried, kinsmen. This practice ensures that they will grow up to be masculine and virile. At about age sixteen a boy is allowed to participate in community "fights" that consist of threats but rarely bloodshed. These fights are over trivial matters and are designed to give a boy the opportunity to prove that he is someone to be reckoned with.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Kirikiri organize themselves by clan. Each clan is of equal status, and although there is a headman, within each clan individual male members have equal status. However, headmen are more persuasive and/or aggressive than other males. A person receives clan allegiance from his or her father. Women are equal in terms of rights to land and have an opportunity to voice opinions on family matters, including the choice of husband for one's daughter. Men, women, and children eat together and share food equally. Most people over age ten are expected to find the bulk of their food themselves and share the excess with family members.

Political Organization. Decisions are reached by discussion in which every adult is given a chance to express an opinion. The headman of the clan is considered the wisest, and his opinion carries the most weight. Although most go along with a group decision, no one is obligated to do what the group or the headman decides. The headman sometimes is called on to negotiate with other language groups on behalf of his clan. After the mid-1990s a new hierarchical system of authority was introduced by the Indonesian government. This system requires that the Kirikiri be represented by one person and that everyone accept the authority of the government. As of 2001 this introduced system has not had any practical impact.

Social Control. Conflict most often arises from the theft of food, extramarital affairs, and accusations of sorcery. Theft is resolved through dialogue and payment. The other two sources of conflict can result in violence and death. If death results, revenge by reciprocal murder is sought and a cycle is started that is difficult to end. When peace is made, a large payment is settled on, and in some serious cases where the offense is clear, the offender is executed by a family member of the offended.

Conflict. When these conflicts are with other neighboring groups (mainly the Elopi, Fayu, and Tause peoples) and the issue is murder, a member of the offending family can hand over one of its members to the offended family, usually for execution. Since the early 1990s this has become increasingly rare. Governmental and religious institutions are encouraging dialogue rather than fighting and are mediating intergroup disputes.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Kirikiri believe in a seen world and an unseen world that coexist. Malevolent spirits of deceased acquaintances who have somewhat supernatural powers over health, hunting, and fertility inhabit the unseen. These spirits have to be kept at bay through a host of food and sex taboos and by placating them with symbols of affection. Animals also have spirits that can adversely affect the living. The Kirikiri cosmos does not include a creator being or other superterrestrial beings. In their folklore, women spirits (especially those who died in childbirth) are particularly dangerous and bird spirits can be benevolent.

Christianity was introduced to the Kirikiri in the mid-1980s by evangelists from the highland Dani group. Because these evangelists could not speak the Kirikiri language or understand the culture, the impact has been superficial. However, changes in burial practices, better hygiene, and the near elimination of intergroup warfare were major effects.

Religious Practitioners. There are no religious specialists in Kirikiri culture. All males are taught to control power from the spirit world though the use of sorcery. However, men who are renowned for being better at sorcery than others are sought out. Since all human spirits are malevolent, all sorcery drawing on their power is malevolent as well.

Ceremonies. Sorcery is done by obtaining something from the intended victim (hair, feces, a possession) and cursing it through the help of the spirit world. The Kirikiri also have a secret flute cult. Bamboo flutes (28 to 47 inches long; 70 to 120 centimeters) are made by men at the time of their use. They are blown in pairs (usually by brothers) hocket style, with no break in sound between the players. The sound is said to be the voice of the cassowary and helps ensure good hunting. When the blowing session is finished, the flutes are smashed and thrown into the river. Only men are allowed to see or blow the flutes. If a woman sees them, she will be gang raped and then killed.

Arts. The Kirikiri traditionally do not express art communally. They sing individually (while working, accompanying a child, and mourning) and improvisationally, using a four-note "scale." Since intergroup warfare ceased in the early 1980s the Kirikiri have borrowed many songs and some dances from neighboring groups.

Medicine. The Kirikiri believe that all ill health is due to the malevolence of the spirit world, directly or through a curse. Treatment includes bloodletting and burning the affected area. A pig is sacrificed if the problem is deemed especially serious. Lesser ills, such as sore muscles and headaches, are treated by rubbing stinging nettles on the area or by blowing magic.

Death and Afterlife. When a Kirikiri dies, his or her spirit enters the spirit world and becomes malevolent. The degree of malevolence depends on the nature of the death. Traditionally, the body was placed in a tree or kept in the rafters of the house until the flesh rotted off the bones. These bones were kept for their power. Signs of mourning include covering the mourners' bodies with mud, especially the face, and all-night singing. Mourning can last several weeks to several years. Since the advent of Christianity, the Kirikiri have buried their dead. If he is male, they make a coffin out of his canoe, tear down his house, and build a small shelter over his grave. His belongings are buried with him or put on the grave. Women's burials are similar except that the coffins are made from whatever materials can be found locally.

For other cultures in Indonesia, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 5, East and Southeast Asia.


Clouse, Duane A. (1996). "Towards a Reconstruction and Reclassification of Lakes Plain Languages of Irian Jaya." Papers in Papuan Linguistics, No. 2, 133-236. Pacific Linguistics A-85.

(n.d.). Taû Tilì: An Ethnography of the Kirikiri People. Unpublished ms.

Clouse, Duane A., and Heljä Clouse (1996). "A Recent History of the Development of the Kirikiri People." Report to the Department of Rural Development, Republic of Indonesia. Unpublished ms.