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ETHNONYMS: Aiga, Binandele, Hunjara, Mambare, Wasida


Identification. "Orokaiva" is the name for a number of culturally similar tribes in Papua New Guinea who speak mutually intelligible dialects. Although the tribes did not have an inclusive name for themselves until "Orokaiva" was introduced by Westerners, they generally distinguished among themselves as the river people (umo-ke ), saltwater people (eva'embo ), and inland people (periho).

Location. The Orokaiva reside in the Oro Province of Papua New Guinea and are concentrated in the Popondetta district in an area reaching from the coast at Buna Island to the northern slopes of Mount Lamington and in the regions to the north of this general line. This area is a humid tropical lowland, and uniformly high temperatures and rainfall provide a year-round growing season. The wet season, from December to March, is characterized by northeasterly or Northwesterly winds, high temperatures and humidity, and late-afternoon thunderstorms, while the dry season, from May to October, produces northeasterly winds, lower temperatures, less cloud cover, and less-predictable rainfall.

Demography. The indigenous population of the Popondetta district totals some 36,500, of whom 26,500 are Orokaiva in the central lowland area. The number of Orokaiva at the time of Western contact is not known.

Linguistic Affiliation. Orokaiva is classified in the Binandere (or Binandele) Family of eight languages spoken in most of the more densely populated parts of Oro Province. Orokaiva is spoken by about half of the population in the Orokaiva-Binandere area. Dialect divisions within the Orokaiva language area are minor; the boundaries of the area coincide with those of the region administered by the Higaturu Local Government Council, which covers the Saiho and most of the Sohe-Popondetta census divisions. While there are considerable vocabulary differences between the Binandere Languages, there is a close resemblance in grammar and enough similarity in vocabulary to make a limited degree of communication possible.

History and Cultural Relations

In response to Australian pressure, the British government annexed Papua in 1888. Gold was discovered shortly thereafter, resulting in a major movement of prospectors and miners to what was then the Northern District. Relations with the Papuans were bad from the start, and there were numerous killings on both sides. The Protectorate of British New Guinea became Australian territory by the passing of the Papua Act of 1905 by the Commonwealth Government of Australia. The new administration adopted a policy of Peaceful penetration, and many measures of social and economic national development were introduced. Local control was in the hands of village constables, paid servants of the Crown. Chosen by European officers, they were intermediaries Between the government and the people. In 1951 an eruption occurred on Mount Lamington, completely devastating a large part of the area occupied by the Orokaiva. Survivors were provided with food, medicine, and other relief by the government and were maintained in evacuation camps. Large-scale, expertly planned social, economic, and political development began in Papua around 1960 with the introduction of cash crops, agricultural extension work, landtitle improvement, road improvement, and educational development.


Small villages with populations not exceeding 720 are the typical units of settlement, with houses dispersed in a more or less rectangular form around a central earth or grass "square." Villages are in flat clearings where the grass is scrupulously cut and kept free of rubbish. Houses are built by the men, each house normally being occupied by one nuclear family. Bachelors' houses, of the same size and construction, are also built.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The household is the basic unit of production and consumption, with swidden horticulture as the subsistence base. The main crop is taro, which occupies about 90 percent of the cultivated land. A variety of other plants are grown as well, including bananas, sugarcane, edible pitpit, and a few introduced cultigens such as pineapples, tomatoes, beans, and sweet potatoes. Although the Orokaiva traditionally tended coconut, sago, betel-nut, and a few other varieties of trees in gardens, Villages, and in the bush, their arboriculture was rudimentary in comparison to their precise and detailed attention to tubers, especially taro. In response to Australian pressure during the colonial period, rubber, coffee, and coconut palms for copra have been planted, providing the Orokaiva with a reliable and substantial cash income in recent years. A good deal of plant and animal food is obtained by foraging, especially in the tropical rain forest that covers most of the Northern District. Foraged animal foods include grubs, frogs, snails, rats, and bush eggs. Foraged plant foods are valued during the dry season, when roots, leaves, and fern fronds make up part of a meal. Fish are an important resource, being used not only for consumption but for trade. Hunting is less important; the usual quarry consists of small marsupials, birds, and pigs. Pigs, dogs, and fowl have been domesticated and each man has one or more small dogs that he uses for hunting but that are ultimately destined for the pot. Fowl are a useful source of meat, eggs, and feathers for decoration on headdresses, spears, etc. Domestic pigs are slowly disappearing from the villages, due to a government campaign to eliminate pig husbandry in an attempt to improve village hygiene.

Industrial Arts. Items produced include rafts and canoes, pottery, bark cloth (tapa) from the paper mulberry, mats and baskets of coconut and pandanus leaves, wooden bowls, rious musical instruments, and weapons.

Trade. Intertribal trade was mainly in animal products, betel-nut products, feathers, and certain artifacts known to be of high quality in particular districts. Although small in volume, trade was politically important in providing a motive for terminating warlike disputes.

Division of Labor. Cooperation among men is common during hunting and house-building. Cooperation of a total village is rare, but there are cooperative hunting and fishing expeditions. There is also a sharp sexual division of labor. Men hunt; prepare tools and equipment; make sago; plant all crops, both traditional (taro, yams, sweet potatoes) and introduced (rubber, coffee); maintain the yams and rubber; harvest rubber; and market coffee. Women cook, care for the sick, maintain the taro and sweet potatoes, harvest taro, and market root crops. Men and women both fish, build fences, collect firewood, maintain and harvest the coffee crop, and market rubber.

Land Tenure. Various land rights may be given to the clan branch, the lineage, or an individual, the relative significance of each varying with the locality and population density. More than one descent group may have rights in a single piece of land. In many instances, the clan branch functions as a reference group, with all land being associated with it. However, it may also function as a primary right-holding group for those hunting areas distinct from current garden land, Typically the grasslands. Primary rights to garden land are normally vested in the lineage. Nevertheless, all such land is ultimately identifiable with individuals who may distribute land (and property) prior to their death not only to their immediate family but also to more distant kin. Traditional tree crops are not planted in stands or groups like cash-crop trees but are widely scattered and are as likely to be planted on patrimonial land as on the land of affines or matrilateral kin. Inheritance of rights to trees usually does not bring rights to the land on which they stand.


Kin Groupe and Descent. Every Orokaiva is recruited by birth into the clan of his or her father. All members of a clan claim, but cannot necessarily trace, common descent from a usually eponymous ancestor. Each clan is subdivided into named subgroups or lineages that trace their origin to a named ancestor.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Iroquois type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Polygyny among the Orokaiva is accepted but rare. Clan exogamy is preferred, but not strictly enforced. Villages are not exogamous. A large bride-price is required for arranged marriages, although in the past wives were also obtained through capture. Postmarital residence is ideally patrilocal, but in practice people have a wide choice between the villages of patrilateral or matrilateral kin or of affines, and residence may be changed at any time. The distribution of clan branches through a number of villages is closely related to access to the group's land, hence the initial motivation for a long-term change in residence may be influenced by proximity to land intended to be brought into cultivation. Divorce is allowed, with custody of minor children going to the father, except for infants.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic and economic unit is the household, composed of either a nuclear or extended family.

Inheritance. Inheritance is usually patrilineal.

Socialization. Errant children are subject to beating and especially to scolding. Education is predominantly through a system of mission schools, partly financed by the government's department of education.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The social system is characterized by flexibility in arrangements for group membership and for transmission of rights to land. A village normally contains more than one clan branch and consequently is not necessarily a landholding unit. Residents may have closer kinship ties to residents of other villages than with some of their coresidents. Nevertheless, common residence implies some Community of interest and a degree of group solidarity that is reinforced by government policy, which recognizes villages rather than descent groups as functional entities. Marriages between members of different clan branches within the village also reinforce this solidarity, which is expressed in ways such as daily food gifts, cooperation in certain tasks, and joint ceremonial activities. On the average, a lineage comprises three Households. Usually, several clans are represented in a village, with members of a single clan (clan branches) being scattered among a number of neighboring villages. Lineages are more localized in character, frequently being confined to a single village and tending to occupy one section of it.

Political Organization. Political organization incorporates no central authority or hereditary leadership. Instead, it is characterized by big-men (embo dambo ) and an ascendancy of elders who have proved themselves equal to the task. Such men command the respect of the village, based upon observed qualities of generosity, diligence, wealth, ability to make wise decisions, and skill in arranging ceremonial activities. This status confers no sanctioning authority, however. The Orokaiva tribes, around twelve in number, are very loose units politically and recognize no single leader. The largest unit is the tribe, which has a common territory usually demarcated from neighboring tribal territories by a belt of uninhabited land.

Social Control. There are customary restrictions upon feuding within the tribe, which exist in sharp contrast to the standard acceptance and formalization of hostility between tribes. Formerly, official legal penalties, generally violent, were meted out to criminals. Fear of the ancestors and desire to avoid unfavorable public opinion remain the major mechanisms of social control.

Conflict. Prior to European contact, aggression against the members of another tribe took the form of organized, often cannibalistic raids.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. The traditional beliefs of the Orokaiva, though in many respects vague and locally variable, focused primarily on the "spirits of the dead" and their influence on the living. The Orokaiva had no high god. Formerly, they were animists, believing in the existence of souls (asisi ) in Humans, plants, and animals. The taro spirit was of particular importance and was the inspiration and foundation of the Taro Cult. The Orokaiva have been swept recently by a series of new cults, indicative of their religious adaptability in the face of fresh experience. Mission influence is strong in the Northern District. Religious training is provided almost exclusively by the Anglican church, although mission influence has not totally eradicated traditional beliefs, producing an air of mysticism about the resultant religious system.

Religious Practitioners. Orokaiva shamans, or "taro men" serve as healers, weather magicians, and sorcerers.

Ceremonies. Dances are held often, sometimes accompanied by music, singing, and drums. From time to time, bigmen sponsor large redistributive feasts, featuring pig sacrifices and food distribution. Activities associated with the taro cult (the "Kava Keva" cult) are the major ritual activity. The Taro Cult began about 1915 and soon evolved into ritual practices meant to placate the spirits of the dead (sovai ) who control the taro crop. Thus, it is both a fertility cult and a cult of the dead. Taro men lead the ritual which includes choral singing, drumming, feasting, and violent shaking movements.

Arts. The Orokaiva decorate all manner of artifacts with abstract and representational figures. They are especially fond of music and in the past produced wooden drums and pipes, conch and wooden trumpets, and Jew's harps of bamboo.

Medicine. Illness and misfortune are attributed to the sprits of the dead, to the actions of sorcerers, or to natural causes such as an accident or the weather. Since illness is generally seen as caused by a foreign element entering the body, most cures used by curers (those who have sivo, or special power and knowledge) are designed to extract the foreign element. These methods include producing noxious odors, rubbing the affected area, and extracting a foreign object by sucking.

Death and Afterlife. The Orokaiva believe that upon death the human soul is released and becomes a sovai. Initially, the sovai roam the village, but they ultimately depart to special places of the dead, such as rock outcroppings and stagnant pools of water. Sovai often chastise errant kin by bringing upon them misfortune, illness, and even death. Death is appraised with particular realism, although it is still considered to be ultimately the result of supernatural causes.


Keesing, Felix M. (1952). "The Papuan Orokaiva vs. Mount Lamington: Cultural Shock and Its Aftermath." Human Organization 11:16-22.

New Guinea Research Unit (1966). Orokaiva Papers. New Guinea Research Bulletin no. 13. Canberra: Australian National University Press.

Oostermeyer, W. J., and Joanne Gray, eds. (1967). Papuan Entrepreneurs. Canberra: Australian National University, New Guinea Research Unit.

Schwimmer, Erik G. (1973). Exchange in the Social Structure of the Orokaiva. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Schwimmer, Erik G. (1979). "Reciprocity and Structure: A Semiotic Analysis of Some Orokaiva Exchange Data." Man 14:271-285.

Williams, Francis Edgar (1930). Orokaiva Society. London: Oxford University Press.