views updated


ETHNONYMS: Kelefomin, Kelefoten, Telefol, Telefomin


Identification. Telefolmin are one of a group of related peoples known as the Mountain Ok or "Min" (after the Common suffix for group names). Popular traditions derive the name from Telefolip, the ancestral village of all Telefolmin, which was founded by the culture heroine Afek.

Location. Telefolmin live in the southern portion of the Sandaun (or West Sepik) Province of Papua New Guinea atut 141°30 E, 5° S. There are two main subgroupings of Telefolmin in the Upper Sepik and Donner (or Elip) river valleys, with a small outlying group along the Nena (or Upper Frieda) River.

Demography. The total population is about 4,000, concentrated in the Upper Sepik and Donner river valleys. Since 1982 much of the adult male population has been working at the Ok Tedi mining project in the Western Province.

linguistic Affiliation. Telefol belongs to the Mountain Ok Subfamily of the Ok Family of Non-Austronesian languages.

History and Cultural Relations

Warfare with neighboring peoples was often intense, and in the nineteenth century the Telefolmin waged a successful campaign of annihilation against the Iligimin, whose lands they settled. Contacts with Europeans date from the early part of this century but only became significant after the U.S. Army Air Force built an emergency airstrip in Ifitaman during World War II. The postwar administration established a patrol post at this site, with the first mission following in the early 1950s. By 1953 an accumulation of grievances led to an attempted rebellion, which resulted in the deaths of some government personnel and the imprisonment of a number of local men. Telefolmin entered the cash economy through participation in plantation labor. Mineral exploration in the early 1970s gave rise to hopes for prosperity that grew with national independence in 1975. In 1974-1975 a new form of spirit mediumship emerged, culminating in the Ok Bembem cult aimed at reestablishing contact with the dead. Ok Bembem subsided, but it was followed in 1978-1979 by the Rebaibal, an evangelistic movement inspired by female mediums possessed by the Holy Spirit. Rebaibal resulted in the destruction of men's cult houses (with the significant exception of Telefolip). Rebaibal's goals included conversion to Christianity, closer ties between men and women, the abrogation of traditional cult practices, and the legitimation of the sale of pork for cash. This movement coincided with the introduction of cash crops and the announcement of plans to go ahead with large-scale mining in the area. With the inauguration of the Ok Tedi project in the early 1980s, large numbers of men left their villages for the high wages offered at the mine site.


Permanent villages range in size from about 60 to 300 Persons, with an average of just over 200. These villages coexist with a pattern of widely dispersed and shifting garden houses. The system is thus two-tiered, with a constant circulation of people between isolated domestic units and central village sites. Traditionally each village had its own men's-house complex as part of a regional ritual system. Churches now provide a community focus for many villages, while Telefolip retains its traditional cult-house complex. With the mining boom of the 1980s a small but growing "town" has emerged along a roadside strip near the government station.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Swidden cultivation of taro and a number of subsidiary crops (including bananas, sweet potatoes, pandanus, and cassava) provide the basis of subsistence, supplemented by pig husbandry, hunting, and casual collecting. An important feature of the traditional economy was a series of taboos prescribing differential patterns of food distribution. These taboos were abrogated in the Rebaibal movementa response, in part, to dilemmas posed by the anticipated influx of cash associated with copper mining. Traditional shell valuables tended to circulate mainly in bride-wealth and mortuary payments or in interethnic trade. Results of cash cropping (coffee and chilies) have been disappointing, largely because of poor market access (there are no road links to the outside). The chief source of cash for Telefolmin has been migratory labor, whether on plantations in other parts of the country or, more recently, at the Ok Tedi mine. Nowadays, village people (including women) raise cash through the sale of pork. Small trade stores are common, but only a few local entrepreneurs have had success in business.

Industrial Arts. Traditional industrial arts involve house building and carving. The houses are built on slender piles with elevated floors and thatched roofs, normally with a pair of baked clay hearths set in the floor. Techniques for fence building and house building are similar (walls are fences). Men make arrows that are carved and painted, as are war shields and door boards. In the past, men made woven cane cuirasses, as found in other parts of New Guinea. Most Villages have at least one or two returned mine employees who are skilled in carpentry, and many of these men earn supplementary cash by building new-style houses.

Trade. Most Telefol trade was conducted with the Faiwolmin (Fegolmin) to the south and the Atbalmin to the west, with the former playing a larger role. There was occasional trade with the Wopkaimin to the southwest, but only if Telefol traders first passed through Faiwol territory, since the direct route towards Wopkaimin country was blocked by the Tifalmin, enemies of the Telefolmin. For the Telefolmin, trade and warfare were generally incompatible, so there was virtually no exchange between Telefolmin and their enemies (Miyanmin, Tifalmin, Falamin, Enkayaakmin, etc.). After the cessation of warfare, Telefolmin began intensive trade with the Tifalmin and Wopkaimin, since the latter were on a direct route to the path of shells making their way into the Interior from the south coast via Ningerum.

Division of Labor. Both sexes participate in gardening, though to differing extents. Men are traditionally responsible for forest clearance and fencing, while women and children bear the major burden of weeding. Planting and harvesting are done by both sexes and by young and old alike. Pig rearing is primarily a woman's task, as is the collection of frogs and other small fauna; hunting is a male occupation. With the advent of Ok Tedi, however, hunting has virtually lapsed as a subsistence pursuit, while pig rearing has been dramatically intensified with the sale of pork for cash. Given the high level of male absenteeism, many previously masculine tasks are either being abandoned or are now taken up by women. Thus it has become common for women to clear their own gardens without male assistance, and gardens are only rarely fenced. Older people and women gain access to cash through pork sales, bride-wealth payments, and remittances from mine workers.

Land Tenure. Rights to garden land in named tracts of bush are conferred either by first clearance or bilateral Inheritance. Both men and women have independent land rights that must be maintained by repeated clearance and cultivation. These rights are individualized, and there are no collective blocks of land, although full siblings have similar patterns of holdings. Because Telefol agriculture puts a premium on cultivation in different altitudinal zones, most people have claims scattered in several different locations. Claims to land in respect to hunting are much more diffuse and apply to large stretches of bush vaguely associated with villages or clusters of villages. Disputes over hunting rights were traditionally a source of tension between Telefolmin and Neighboring peoples.


Kin Groups and Descent. There are named and overlapping cognatic stocks; these stocks are nonlocalized and nonexogamous and have no corporate features apart from a common tale of origin. Although village endogamy produces inwardly reticulating kin networks, there are no formal kin groupings as such. Male action sets are referred to as niinggil, notionally "brothers." Incest regulations are defined with reference to the bilateral kindred within first-cousin range. There are ritual moieties associated with the men's cult, but they operate independently of kinship.

Kinship Terminology. Telefol kin terminology is a riant of the Iroquoian type in that it departs from usual forms by differentiating patrilateral from matrilateral parallel cousins. Terms for the first ascending generation are bifurcate-collateral, with parents' same-sex siblings differentiated by seniority. Siblings are differentiated by sex and seniority and are distinguished from cousins. There are separate terms for three types of cousin: patrilateral parallel cousins, matrilateral parallel cousins, and cross cousins. All kin of descending Generations are designated by a single term, though optional distinctions can be made. In addition to these terms, Telefolmin also employ more complex terms for varying combinations of individual kin.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, marriage was by sister exchange accompanied by a small bride-wealth of shells matched by a return payment of pork. Marriages were ideally between fellow villagers, though intervillage marriages sometimes occurred. Divorce was relatively easy and frequent, with an attempt to allocate children equally to the mother and father after separation. There has been a progressive trend towards monetization of bride-wealth, while government policies forbidding coercion of brides have made sister exchange difficult to enforce. Contemporary marriages are less likely to have been arranged than in the past, often take place between Villages (with virilocal residence), and almost always include a bride-wealth ranging from several hundred to several thousand kina (one kina-approximately $1.50 U.S.) in value.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is a two-generation Nuclear family, usually allied with another such family to form a joint household; dwelling houses normally have two hearths, one for each family. The component families of a joint Household are most often related through brother-sister or brother-brother links. Despite common residence, the families of a joint household have separate sets of land rights and form independent productive units.

Inheritance. Rights to garden sites are bilaterally inherited, with an equal division between siblings of both sexes. Children may in principle inherit shell valuables and pigs, but these items tend to be dispersed to more distantly related claimants in the course of mortuary rites. No clear precedent has emerged for the inheritance of modern houses built of permanent materials.

Socialization. Early socialization is in the hands of mothers, although fathers and elder siblings (especially sisters) also play a role in caring for small children. Girls grow into adult roles early. Traditionally, boys underwent a series of initiations from the age of about 7 until their late twenties; these initiations had been discontinued for some time, but they were revived in the late 1980s. Since the 1970s a number of children attend public schools, and there are signs of increasing differentiation between school-educated Telefolmin and others.

Sociopolitical Organization

Papua New Guinea is an independent country with a Westminster form of government. Telefolmin and their neighbors are represented by elected members at national and provincial levels.

Social Organization. The endogamous village is the basic unit of social organization and was traditionally tied to the men's cult, which was structured in terms of initiation levels and ritual moieties. In contrast to other New Guinea Societies, exchange traditionally played a minor role in intergroup relations, which were instead organized through male initiations centered on Telefolip. Today, church groups are Important at the village and intervillage level. Traditional social organization emphasized egalitarian values associated with a community differentiated by ritual knowledge rather than wealth, and one issue now facing Telefol society is the accommodation of wealth differences within small communities. At present, the general tendency seems to be to emphasize conjugal ties and the nuclear family while restricting the claims of less closely related kin.

Political Organization. There are no formal political offices at the local level apart from elected village councillors and ward committee members, who have only marginal influence on village affairs. In the past prominent men (kamookim ) held some sway, particularly in fights with enemies, but even their influence was minimal. Despite this, Telefolmin displayed a remarkable degree of unity, which is largely attributable to common ritual ties to Telefolip. Telefolmin were unusual among New Guinea peoples for forbidding warfare within their ethnic group; however, they often combined en masse against outside enemies, as in the case of the extermination of the Iligimin. More recently, Telefolmin have spearheaded movements toward the Creation of a "pan-Min" political identity in negotiations with the central government concerning the Ok Tedi mine.

Social Control. There is little exercise of authority, even on the part of parents over children, and social control is for the most part informally managed through shame and withdrawal of reciprocity. Tact is highly prized, and people avoid giving offense for fear of sorcery. Intravillage disputes Generally go unaired; the parties merely avoid each other until matters cool down.

Conflict. Traditionally, warfare only took place between Telefolmin and other ethnic groups (especially Falamin, Tifalmin, Miyanmin, and the now-defunct Iligimin). Tensions between Telefol villages sometimes erupted into brawling, but more often it surfaced in sorcery suspicions. Violence between fellow villagers was and is rare. The government holds village councillors responsible for reporting trouble cases, but such reports are made only when all else fails.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Since the late 1970s the majority of Telefolmin practice a local version of Baptist Christianity. Some older men, and Especially the villagers of Telefolip, however, adhere to traditional religious practices.

Religious Beliefs. Traditional ritual knowledge is partitioned along lines of sex, age, and ritual moiety affiliation; cult secrecy is highly developed, with the result that there is great variation in belief. The division in cult lore parallels a ritual division of labor, with the Taro moiety responsible for life promoting (gardening, pig rearing) while the Arrow Moiety is responsible for life taking (warfare and hunting). The two most important cosmological figures are Afek and Magalim, the Bush Spirit. Afek founded Telefol culture and the men's cult, and she left a legacy of myths and rituals. She is closely identified with the central cult house at Telefolip, which is held to govern the fertility of taro gardens throughout the region. But while Afek died long ago, Magalim continues to play an active role in Telefol life by disrupting the expected pattern of things. Christians espouse belief in God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, who intervenes in human affairs through mediums. Although many beliefs surrounding Afek seem to have been relegated to the past, Magalim remains active in Telefol thought. He is capable of assuming many forms, including posing as the Holy Spirit, and he is often interpreted by Christians as a manifestation of the devil.

Religious Practitioners. Ritual experts officiated in the men's cult on the basis of esoteric knowledge; outside of the cult, seers or diviners diagnosed illness and sorcery. Nowadays village churches are presided over by pastors, and a number of women act as diviners and mediums for the Holy Spirit. Sorcerers are feared, are almost always unidentified, and are generally thought to belong to other Telefol villages.

Ceremonies. Traditional religion revolves around a complex series of male initiations. Senior rites were performed at Telefolip, where they have recently been revived after a long hiatus. All Telefolmin, pagan or Christian, also celebrate Christmas, which coincides with the return of mine workers to their home villages for the holidays.

Arts. Carved and painted shields and house boards are the most prominent forms of visual art. Men's arrow shafts are often intricately carved and sometimes painted, and women's net bags are locally renowned for their quality. Although some individuals are better at these things than others, no craft specialization exists apart from the sexual division of labor.

Medicine. Minor ailments are treated by heating the body with warm stones, rubbing with nettles, and avoiding foods thought responsible for a particular complaint. More serious illnesses are attributed to sorcery, violation of food taboos, cult spirits punishing misconduct, attacks by the Bush Spirit (Magalim) or, nowadays, the Holy Spirit. Such matters were usually determined by diviners; since the Rebaibal, female mediums also diagnose illness and often prescribe a course of treatment involving prayer and changes in the patient's pattern of activities. Most villages are also in close proximity to rural aid posts where routine problems are dealt with. More difficult cases are brought to the government hospital or the Baptist maternity clinic.

Death and Afterlife. Burial was by exposure on a raised platform, often in or near a garden of the deceased. Traditional ideas hold that ghosts depart for an underground land of the dead, where they have no further contact with the living. Those killed in warfare, however, were inimical to the living and returned as fruit bats to raid gardens. In addition, the bones of noted warriors, gardeners, and pig rearers were retrieved as men's cult relics. These relics were the locus of the spirits who voluntarily remained among the living to promote village welfare in return for pig sacrifices and the observance of food taboos. The Australian administration prohibited exposure burial in the 1950s, and since then Telefolmin have buried their dead in village cemeteries. Contemporary beliefs assign the souls of pagans to the traditional land of the dead, while Christians go to heaven.

See alsoMiyanmin


Craig, B., and D. Hyndman, editors (1990). The Children of Afek: Tradition, Place and Change among the Mountain Ok of Central New Guinea. Oceania Monograph no. 40. Sydney: Oceania Publications.

Jorgensen, Dan (1980). "What's in a Name; The Meaning of Meaninglessness in Telefolmin." Ethos 8:349-366.

Jorgensen, Dan (1981). "Life on the Fringe: History and Society in Telefolmin." In The Plight of Peripheral People in Papua New Guinea, edited by R. Gordon, 59-79. Cultural Survival Occasional Paper no. 7. Cambridge, Mass.

Jorgensen, Dan (1983). "Mirroring Nature? Men's and Women's Models of Conception in Telefolmin." Mankind 14:57-65.

Jorgensen, Dan (1985). "Femsep's Last Garden: A Telefol Response to Mortality." In Aging and Its Transformations: Moving toward Death in Pacific Societies, edited by D. A. Counts and D. Counts, 203-221. Lanham: University Press of America.