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ETHNONYMS: Elema, Ipi, Western Elema


Identification. The term "Orokolo" generally refers to all of the Western Elema people living around Orokolo Bay in Papua New Guinea, although the name also refers to one of the five languages in the Eleman Language Family, to the major dialect of this language, and also to one of the five major Orokolo villages (Arihava, Yogu, Orokolo, Auma, and Vailala). The Orokolo are similar to the Eastern Elema People (sometimes called Toaripi) in both language and culture.

Location. The Orokolo live in the Gulf Province of Papua New Guinea, between the mouths of the Vailala River (to the east) and the Aivei River (to the west) at 8° S and 145° E. Their villages are located along the beaches of the 20-milewide Orokolo Bay in the Gulf of Papua. Orokolo territory consists of a wide coastal strip, fringed by coconut palms, behind which lie the sago swamps that provide much of the People's food. The area is tropical, but, due to an unusual local pattern, the monsoon rainfall patterns are the reverse of those generally prevalent in New Guinea. Hence the northwest monsoon, from October to April, brings a comparatively pleasant, drier season of relative calm, whereas the normally mild southeast trade winds blow directly into the gulf, bringing heavy rains and restless surf for the balance of the year.

Demography. In 1937, the ethnographic present for this report (when F. E. Williams concluded his major monograph on the Orokolo), the population was 4,500. Today it is in excess of 7,500.

linguistic Affiliation. Orokolo is a member of the Eleman Language Family, a group of about five closely related, mutually intelligible Non-Austronesian languages generally placed within the Purari-Eleman Stock. The Eleman Family has about eight different dialects. The major Eleman linguistic distinction, like the major cultural division, is between the Eastern Eleman and Western Eleman groups of languages, which are bisected by an only distantly related language called Raepa Tati, spoken near the provincial headquarters at Kerema.

History and Cultural Relations

European contact along the Gulf of Papua began well before the turn of the century and was quite extensive. Missionaries and labor recruiters were active, and the entire area was considered "controlled" before 1912. By 1919, there were reports of the "Vailala Madness"one of the first recorded manifestations of a Melanesian cargo cultamong the Orokolo. These cargo cults are generally thought to be linked to mental confusion surrounding rapid sociocultural change associated with European contact and to a breakdown of traditional Culture. "Vailala Madness" involved mass hysteria, in which large numbers of people became giddy, appeared to lose Control of their limbs, and reeled about. This condition was known locally as haro heraipe, meaning "one's head is turning around." These psychosomatic symptoms were associated with teachings that the spirits of the dead would return and that the old ceremonies and cultural practices should be eliminated. In Eastern Orokolo villages, bullroarers and masks associated with sacred ceremonies were taken from men's houses and burned in front of women and uninitiated boys. After several years, however, traditional practices were resumed in this area on a more limited basis.


Villages, perhaps 800 meters in length but only about 54 meters in width, stretch out along the beach. Large areas are fenced to keep pigs either in or out. There are some vacant spaces, however, so that the entire village resembles a series of very elongated rectangles. Inside the rectangles lie the houses, built in several alternative styles but generally on piles, with veranda platforms and small entrances. Dominating the ordinary dwellings are the large men's houses, called eravo, some 30 meters long and 15 meters tall, accompanied by one or two smaller versions, nominally for boys. The rectangular enclosures are generally kept meticulously clean of weeds and debris.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Orokolo are predominantly dependent on the sago palm for their livelihood. Sago grows in such profusion that there is no need to tend trees or plant suckers. The other main sources of staples are gardens that are communally fenced and divided into Individually tended lateral strips. Main garden crops are yams, taro, and bananas. Coconuts and domestic pigs are also eaten. Huntinggenerally with bows and arrows, sometimes with spears, and often aided by dogsis practiced. Larger quarry include wild pigs and cassowaries, while smaller prey include marsupials and birds. Orokolo also fish, employing a variety of techniques: most commonly they use nets or fish with bows and arrows or spears from pedestals in the water. However, considering the Orokolo's proximity to the sea, maritime produce contributes relatively little to their diets.

Industrial Arts. Orokolo adults are generalists, commonly producing nearly all of the art, craft objects, tools, and clothing used in their daily lives. There are different individuals who are acknowledged experts in making dugout canoes, drums, ceremonial masks, and carvings, but these crafts are not in any sense commercial activities.

Trade. Orokolo engage in utilitarian barter among themselves and in some rather limited trade for ornamental shells with groups to the east, but historically their most important intertribal exchange is the anthropologically well-known hiri trade with the Motu people of the Central Province. Because of prolonged dry spells and resultant food shortages in their territory, the Motu made annual voyages to the eastern Gulf of Papua to exchange clay pots, shell ornaments, and stone blades for gulf sago. The Orokolo obtained their cooking pots in this fashion. The medium of communication between the tribes that developed through this trade was a pidginized form of Motu, combining a limited Motu vocabulary with a Structure grammatically and syntactically similar to Toaripi (and Orokolo). This language, called "Police Motu" or "Hiri Motu," subsequently became the lingua franca of all Papua and is today one of Papua New Guinea's three official languages.

Division of Labor. As in most tribal societies, division of labor is primarily based on age and sex. Orokolo often say that women's work is in the village and men's work is abroad, although this description is not entirely accurate. Women tend to the children, cook, clean the house and grounds, feed the pigs, provide the water and firewood, and do skilledcraftwork, including the making of nets. Another important part of their work is making sago, a task shared with men. Men fell the trees, split the trunks, and scrape out the pith, while women wash and beat the sago and carry it home. Men do virtually all of the gardening, hunting, fishing, and building.

Land Tenure. Land is not in particularly short supply, and land tenure and ownership are quite flexible. Ownership of land is nominally vested in the bira'ipi, a rather fluid group based on both residence and descent. In actuality, it is subDivided among larava, patrilineal kinship groups that might best be termed lineages. The senior male of the lineage (based on principles of descent) is the "controller" of the land. In practice, however, permission to use land is freely given, and sometimes an entire village segment will garden on land technically belonging to just one of its constituent lineages.


Kin Groups and Descent. Orokolo have a series of about ten named, totemic, exogamous patrilineal clans subdivided into patrilineal lineages. Each clan has an extensive mythology, including art forms associated with the myths, that relates to the clan ancestors and totems.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Iroquois type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage rules, like many other rules among the Orokolo, are flexible. Most marriages are monogamous, but polygyny is permitted. Traditionally, young men generally married immediately after emerging from the age-grade seclusion associated with male initiation; there was thus a Marriage "season." Young women generally married one of their age mates at this time. It is preferred that women marry outside their lineages but within their villages. Bride-price, in the form of shell ornaments and a live pig, is paid to the wife's family by the husband's, and the two families also exchange shell valuables. After marriage, the bride generally lives with the husband's family, although matrilocal postmarital Residence is not uncommon. Marriages are mostly permanent, although they may be severed by the restitution of shell ornaments.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit is the household, generally consisting of a married couple and their children. In polygynous marriages, both wives live together in the same household. Households often include related individuals, such as widowed parents, unmarried or newly married Siblings, or orphaned children, on a temporary or permanent basis.

Inheritance. Inheritance is normally patrilineal. Socialization. Among the Orokolo, direct coercion of any individual, and most particularly physical coercion, is considered inappropriate behavior. Children are no exception, and, by Western standards, children are indulged. Parents frequently play with children, and they do not order them about; even small children enjoy a considerable freedom of will and action. Children learn by watching and imitating the actions of their elders. They have very few "duties." Young men pass through a series of age grades that traditionally included a period of seclusion lasting some six to twelve months at about the age of 14 or 15. Each age grade was associated with a particular costume. Women have no such age grades, but they do have a recognized age-group membership corresponding to that of men.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social organization is very complex, consisting of a great many crosscutting units, primarily based on residence, descent, and age affiliation. In terms of Residence, the Elema people are divided into tribes, of which the Orokolo is one, and subdivided into village groups, villages, and units called karigara, or village segments. Each village segment is normally associated with a men's house or eravo. These eravo communities are further subdivided into bira'ipi, units that combine descent and residence principles. In terms of descent, Orokolo have the previously described patrilineal clans and lineages. They also recognize a variety of fictive friendship relationships, as well as numerous named age groups that pass through a series of eight age grades. Political Organization. The Orokolo are fundamentally an egalitarian culture, and influential people typically achieve their status through a combination of individual competence, force of personality, age, and experience. Each eravo or men's house community has a dual division, with each half technically headed by a "chief." The entire group also has a "village chief," a descendant of one of the original settlers who owned and controlled village land, although this chief is often one of the eravo chiefs. In practice, these chiefs cannot command action and have very little power, since decisions are usually reached through group consensus.

Social Control. In the absence of a coercive tradition, Social control within the group is maintained largely through the strength of public opinion and the fear of supernatural retribution. Since reciprocity is so important in Orokolo activities, individuals who do not meet their social obligations soon have problems. Sexual infidelities and perceived inequalities in exchange are common causes of conflict within the village. Cases are usually settled in group meetings with the aid of influential men who act as mediators. Traditionally, each clan had a "chief" (bukari ) with particular legitimacy to stop conflicts and achieve settlement by virtue of his control over the clan bullroarer.

Conflict. Before European contact, warfare between tribes was not uncommon, though it was very rare within the tribe.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditional Orokolo have no belief in a high god or gods, and, in some sense, the exact nature of their beliefs is rather vague. There is a fundamental animistic notion of a sort of mana or impersonal force present in certain objects. However, the most important aspects of their religion involve two categories of spirits: spirits of the dead, or ghosts; and spirits of the natural environment. While both groups are considered to be capable of affecting human affairs, the latter spiritswho once lived, whose exploits are told of in myth, and who now haunt parts of the natural environmentare the focus of most religious magic. Individuals seek to control events through partial reenactments of mythological episodes.

Religious Practitioners. While all people practice magic, there are part-time specialists who are acknowledged as particularly proficient in garden magic, in diagnosing and in treating sicknesses, and in sorcery.

Ceremonies. Traditional Orokolo ceremonial life is extremely rich and varied. Like all of the Elema people, Orokolo have a bullroarer cult and a series of elaborate ceremonies characterized by distinctive and ornate masks. For the Orokolo, the most important masked ceremonies are the kovave and hevehe. The latter ceremony involves a series of stages linked in a ritual cycle taking as long as twenty years to complete.

Arts. All sorts of mundane and ritual objects are Elaborately decorated by the Orokolo. Wooden objects, including musical instruments (especially bullroarers and drums), are often carved with stylistic designs. By far the most spectacular of the Orokolo decorative arts involves the large (9- or 10-foot) elaborately constructed and decorated hevehe masks.

Medicine. Traditional notions of medicine are related to the belief in sorcery. Medical practitioners are of two broad types: diagnosticians (locally known as "men who see sickness with their eyes") and actual practitioners (referred to as "men who treat sickness"). Treatments frequently involve "blood sucking" (removing surplus blood from areas where it is thought to cause pain and sickness), "phlegm sucking" (doctors spitting out mouthfuls of phlegm as if it had been drawn from the patient's body), and extraction of miscellaneous objects (like crocodile teeth or glass fragments) thought to have been introduced by a sorcerer.

Death and Afterlife. A death in the village generally results in the suspension of all but the most essential activities. Bodies are shallowly interred, traditionally within the village compound but now outside it, with feet facing the sea. Deaths are accompanied by considerable public mourning and a series of mortuary feasts. Spirits of the dead are thought to hover about their homes for a time, able to influence human affairs, before departing for a vague "land of the dead."

See alsoMotu


Brown, Herbert A. (1973). "The Eleman Language Family." In The Linguistic Situation in the Gulf District and Adjacent Areas, Papua New Guinea, edited by K. Franklin, 279-376. Pacific Linguistics, Series C, no. 26, Canberra: Australian National University.

Holmes, John Henry (1924). In Primitive New Guinea. London: Seely Service.

Williams, Francis Edgar (1923). The Vailala Madness and the Destruction of Native Ceremonies in the Gulf Division. Territory of Papua Anthropology Report no. 4. Port Moresby: Government Printer.

Williams, Francis Edgar (1932-1933). "Trading Voyages from the Gulf of Papua." Oceania 3:139-166.

Williams, Francis Edgar (1936). Bull-roarers in the Papuan Gulf. Territory of Papua Anthropology Report no. 17. Port Moresby: Government Printer.

Williams, Francis Edgar (1940). Drama of Orokolo: The Social and Ceremonial Life of the Elema. Territory of Papua Anthropology Report no. 18. Oxford: Clarendon Press.