views updated




Identification. The name "Selepet" is derived from the sentence "Selep pekyap," meaning "The house collapsed," an event recounted in the story of the people's dispersal from their primordial residential site.

Location. The people live in the Valley of the Pumune River, a tributary of the Kwama River, and along the windward slopes of a low coastal range to the north, located on the Huon Peninsula, Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea, around 6° S and 147° E, mainly at altitudes of 900 to 1,800 meters. They are bounded to the east and west by the more numerous Komba and Timbe peoples. Together these three peoples are separated from the other mountain peoples of the Huon Peninsula by a natural barrier formed by the 3,000-3,900-meter Saruwaged and Cromwell ranges.

Demography. The 1980 census states that 3,600 persons speak the Northern Selepet dialect and 2,700 speak the Southern. The mountain population is relatively dense: 19.6 persons per square kilometer as compared to a national average of 4.6.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language is a member of the Western Huon Family, Finisterre-Huon Stock, Trans-New Guinea Phylum of Papuan languages. It has two major dialects: the Northern, spoken along the coastal slopes and the Lower Pumune Valley; and the Southern, spoken in the Upper Pumune Valley.

History and Cultural Relations

The central location of the Selepet among the mountain peoples has been very fortuitous. The Selepet people have continually benefited by the expatriates' choosing their location as the point of entry for developing the interior. Lutheran missionaries opened a station on Selepet land overlooking the coast in 1928. They also built a school, a hospital, and a trade store, and they connected these by road to the coast, thereby creating a route for channeling European goods to the interior peoples. Fortuitously, there already existed a trade system stretching throughout the Huon Peninsula, and the Selepet people were pivotal to it. Thus they gained a commercial advantage over all the other peoples. After World War II the Australian administration established a station on the coast and later moved it near the mission station. In 1960, in order to facilitate the administration of the interior peoples, the government built a central airstrip, a subdistrict office, an agricultural station, and an English language school at Kabwum in the heart of the Selepet country. An expatriate missionary and trade stores followed. As roads were built from Kabwum into the adjacent valleys, the Selepet people benefited because they could more readily market their coffee beans, purchase expatriate goods, and supply the growing expatriate community with produce than could the neighboring peoples. The net result, however, was that by the 1970s they were generally characterized as lethargic because they did not have to work as hard as other peoples to gain prosperity. Such lethargy, however, is consistent with their belief that fertility and prosperity are gained by asking for a blessing from one's ancestors, rather than by strenuous personal effort.


In aboriginal times the people lived in clusters of related hamlets, each hamlet typically consisting of a patrilineal clan centered on a men's house. When the missionaries arrived they encouraged the people to build central villages revolving around churches. The Australian administration also encouraged the building of central villages, but subsequent overcrowding led to a decline in village hygiene that contributed to the spread of disease. It also led to a shortage of arable land near the villages with resultant intravillage feuding and the destruction of gardens. Life in the village became undesirable, and large numbers of people now live in shelters in their gardens and return to the villages primarily to meet with administrative officers or to attend church. Some larger villages have subdivided, and some leaders have talked of relocating whole villages across the coastal ridge in the unclaimed Territory overlooking the coast. Since the 1960s, 60 percent of the population have lived in seven villages within an hour's walk of Kabwum.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The people practice horticulture, with the main crops being varieties of sweet potatoes, taro, yams, and pandanus. They also grow coconut palms and sago near the coast. Wild pigs and wallabies are hunted in the coastal grasslands and smaller marsupials in the mountain forests. Pig husbandry has been practiced from aboriginal times, and more recently the missionaries have introduced cattle. They also introduced many European vegetables and other tropical fruits, so that today the people supplement their diet with maize, cabbages, European potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, oranges, and papayas. The main cash crops are copra along the coast and coffee at the higher altitudes.

Industrial Arts. There never has been a specialization of labor, so that every person can produce the necessities of life from local resources, though with differing degrees of skill and success. By knocking out all but the last node in a length of bamboo they make containers for carrying water or tubes for baking food in the open fire. Men use adzes to make wooden basins and they carve bows from black palm. Lengths of wild cane are used for arrow shafts, and points are crafted from bamboo, black palm, or animal bones. The lack of feathers and of weighted arrow points contributes to poor accuracy, but points made of bone are reputed to be more accurate because the bones of the quarry attract the bone arrow point. Women weave string bags from twine rolled from hemp, make skirts from a long-bladed indigenous grass, and plait armbands from rattan.

Trade. The Selepet people were pivotal to the trade routes connecting the hinterland and coastal peoples. In exchange for tobacco, taro, bows and arrows, dogs, and pigs, they received fish, coconuts, seashells, lime, wooden bowls, clay pots, obsidian, and boars' tusks.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, members of each sex manufactured the artifacts concerned with their roles. Men made the loincloths and cloaks of armor from the bark of an indigenous tree, items for hunting and warfare, lime gourds, and spatulas. Women made grass skirts and string bags. Today, the men clear the land and dig the soil, and the women break up the clods of soil and prepare the garden for planting. Men build the garden fences to keep out the wild pigs and generally care for the domestic pigs and cattle. Women draw water and carry anything that fits into a string bag, such as infants, piglets, and garden produce. Men carry the heavier items such as beams, planks, and grown pigs.

Land Tenure. With the exception of land purchased by the government or the mission, all land is owned by the patrilineal clans. If a man's clan lacks sufficient arable land, he and his wife often prepare their gardens on land belonging to her clan.


Kin Groups and Descent. Selepet villages consist of one or more exogamous, patrilineal clans centered on men's houses and organized into localized, agamous phratries. When membership increases, the members subdivide along lineage or sublineage lines and build a new house. The men's houses were the context for the cultic religious activities, and women were forbidden entry. Although Christianization has transferred the religious activities to the church, women still do not enter men's houses. Loyalty is primarily to one's own lineage, then to the other lineages (if any) affiliated with the same men's house, and last to the phratry. Phratry loyalty is manifested by the exclusive patronage of the businesses of one's own phratry. Members of a phratry combine their resources to build trade stores and participate in other joint ventures such as taxi trucks.

Kinship Terminology. The system is characterized by bifurcate-collateral terms for uncles and bifurcate-merging terms for aunts. Cousin terms are of the Iroquois type. The avunculate is strongly developed. In aboriginal times a boy's maternal uncle was responsible for initiating him and teaching him the secrets of the cultic religion. All affinal relationships are characterized by some measure of avoidance.

Marriage and the Family

Marriage. Marriages are generally arranged between patrilineal clans with a goal of maintaining a balance in the exchange of women. Formerly the preferred exchange was that of men exchanging sisters. Marriage has been considered final at pregnancy, and today marriage ceremonies in the church are sometimes combined with the baptism of the firstborn. With the coming of peace and greater mobility exchanges now take place without respect for phratry membership, and in some cases they occur between villages, even between people from different linguistic groups. Arranged marriages are less frequent today, because the young men meet potential mates at school or in the cities, and they are able to earn their own bride-payment through outside employment. Such independence has led to an increase in Divorce. Polygamy used to be common, and the number of a man's children were considered to be a direct reflection of his strength. One man with three wives produced a progeny of more than 250 great-grandchildren. The missionaries prohibited polygamy, but with the arrival of nationhood and the nationalization of ecclesiastical authority, some men have ignored the ban.

Domestic Unit. The men and the initiated male youth used to live together in the men's houses, while the married women and children lived in separate residences. Men who were polygamous maintained separate houses for each of their wives with their daughters and uninitiated sons. The trend to monogamy has not significantly influenced this residential pattern, although a married man does sleep more frequently in the home of his wife.

Inheritance. In aboriginal times there was little for one to inherit because the people did not produce durable goods, and the land belonged to the patrilineal clans. What was inheritable were personal adornments such as pigs' tusks, dogs'-teeth headbands, and shell money that figured in the trade system. These items also had the potential of embodying the power of previous owners. The introduction of European commodities has not significantly altered this pattern, because individually purchased items such as radios have a short life span, and larger items such as motor vehicles belong to large social units.

Socialization. Responsibility for raising children is shared by the children's parents, aunts, and uncles. Generally greater permissiveness is common in the raising of young boys. Children learn their roles by working with their parents and, in the case of initiated males, also with their paternal uncles. Young men help in building homes and fences, and they participate in marsupial hunts during times of full moon, when the forest canopy is illuminated. Girls help their mother with gardening, child care, and domestic chores. Male initiation was traditionally the most complex rite of passage; at this time the young men were circumcised, had their earlobes pierced, endured various ordeals such as prolonged fasting, and were shown the religious artifacts. Their maternal uncles also explained the secrets of the male cultic religion. When Christianity was introduced, the initiation ceremonies were replaced with confirmation classes taught by pastors who were not Selepet, thereby weakening the role of the maternal uncle as well as the societal constraints of religion. Today maternal uncles often provide for the educational expenses of their sororal nephews and nieces.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Kinship responsibilities require that material goods be shared, so that Selepet society has never had class distinctions. Persons who leave the Selepet area for employment and do not send funds back to their relatives generally do not return.

Political Organization. Although villages often consist of several clans, the clan remains the largest stable political unit, so that within a village there is no certainty of interclan cooperation. A clan was generally led by the man who was most recognized as a religious practitioner. When the missionaries appointed non-Selepet pastors to exercise religious authority, men with other qualities (e.g., medical knowledge) became leaders. Political control in villages is exercised by committees composed of the clan leaders. Marital connections between clans, however, entail mutual support in times of conflict.

Social Control. The responsibilities of kin relationships and the dependency of members upon their clan for support entails an acceptance of the clan's values. Men have traditionally regarded women as inferior, and in aboriginal times they maintained control by keeping their cultic rituals secret and threatening the women with supernatural harm.

Conflict. Traditionally, loyalty was primarily to one's clan, so that aboriginal Selepet society was highly fragmented into warring factions. With the arrival of Europeans came peace, a greater freedom of movement, and an increased awareness of other peoples, so that loyalty has been extended to increasingly inclusive sociopolitical groups. Today the people seek to negotiate rather than resort to violence.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The central concepts of Selepet religion were power and control, and these ideas were the exclusive concern of men. Power existed apart from men, so that they continually sought to increase their power, either supernaturally from snakes or by keeping artifacts formerly belonging to powerful ancestors. Men maintained control over people through the exchange system, since every gift put the recipient under an obligation to reciprocate when called upon. This obligation was true of the dead as well as the living. The body of a deceased man was buried vertically under the men's house with the top of the head exposed. This enabled people to rub his skull, remind him of his kinship obligations, and ask for prosperity. Eventually two very powerful men died, and their survivors carved wooden statues to represent them. Food was placed at the feet of the statues and the ancestors were implored to bless the living with fertility and prosperity. This custom became ritualized and spread throughout the Selepet villages. When the missionaries arrived with a superior material culture, the people assumed that they too obtained their prosperity from ancestors by the correct manipulation of secret ritual. This belief was confirmed by the reference in the New Testament book of Colossians to the secret that God kept hidden through the ages and only recently revealed to his people, which the Selepet people understood to be the missionaries. The discovery of that secret became life's greatest concern. Culture heroes supplied the people with their material culture and all the requisite knowledge. When they died, various useful plants grew from their bodies. Malevolent spirits inhabit springs, deep pools, caves, cliffs, and other unusual land formations. When encountered or offended, they cause psychological disorders and unusual diseases. Because the Christian God is a spirit, people assume that when he is offended he too causes psychological disorders and serious diseases.

Religious Practitioners. All men performed rituals, but only the most successful became recognized practitioners. In addition to serving the community by performing rites ensuring fertility, they also practiced curative rites, divination, and sorcery. Thus they were both feared and respected. When the Lutheran missionaries arrived in Papua New Guinea, they faced scores of hostile peoples speaking mutually unintelligible languages. Therefore, they attempted to unify all the hinterland peoples by teaching them a common language; the language they chose was Kotte (Kâte), one of two languages they first encountered. Since the women were automatically excluded from significant participation in the religious rites, only the men received education in Kotte to perform the new rituals and learn the secrets. This process resulted in Christianity being regarded as having a secret knowledge parallel to that of the traditional religion.

Ceremonies. The practitioners used to lead in the performance of numerous ceremonies to increase fertility. Today pastors lead in Christian ceremonies based upon the New Testament verses concerning God blessing his people. Elaborate dances used to be held to increase fertility or to celebrate a victory, but today dances are primarily social events.

Arts. There was little art apart from the highly decorated headdresses worn by the men during the ritual dances.

Medicine. Illness was thought to be caused by malevolent spirits or sorcery. Although the malevolent spirits could be tricked and eluded, people who were harmed by them were considered to be incurable. Sorcery, however, could be rendered harmless by the practitioner performing the appropriate ritual.

Death and Afterlife. Death enhances a person's function in society. Initially, a person's ghost carries out vengeance upon those who have not fulfilled their kinship obligations, but eventually the deceased are able to aid their survivors by providing fertility and prosperity.

See alsoSio


McElhanon, Kenneth A. (1968). "Selepet Social Organization and Kinship." Ethnology 7:296-304.

McElhanon, Kenneth A. (1969). "Current Cargo Beliefs in the Kabwum Sub-District." Oceania 39:174-186.