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ETHNONYMS: Bartle Bay, Wedau


Identification. "Wamira" is the name for both the village and its residents, and it is used by Wamirans as well as by outsiders.

Location. Wamira lies in Milne Bay Province, the most southeastern province of Papua New Guinea, at 10°1 S and 150°2 E. The village is located directly on the southern shore of Goodenough Bay, midway between the rounded mouth of the bay at Sirisiri and the long spindly tip of East Cape. The residential area stretches along the shore for about 2.5 kilometers between the Uruam and Wamira rivers. A large alluvial plain with fertile garden land lies behind the hamlets and extends into the foothills that rise farther inland to become the Owen Stanley peaks. These massive mountains create a rain shadow, and Wamiralike the 30 kilometers of coastal land to its westis uncharacteristically dry and savannalike for a tropical lowland environment. The region receives an average of only 140 centimeters of rainfall a year. Seasonal extremes in rainfall create a dry and a wet season. The dry season is Unusually long, lasting from approximately April to December. During this time it is not unusual for three months to pass with uninterrupted, scorching sun. The temperature remains fairly constant during both seasons. The mean annual Temperature is 27° C; the lowest temperature at night is about 17° C, and the highest, around noon, is 35° C.

Demography. The population, although large compared to the surrounding villages, is moderate in size. From 1896, when the earliest population figures were recorded, until today, the population within the village has remained relatively constant, hovering around 400. Since contact and the first recording of population figures, however, there has been a threefold increase in total Wamiran population. The excess population, which has increased exponentially, is drained off by out-migration from Wamira. Thus the total Wamiran Population in Papua New Guinea today is about 1,200, only one-third of whom live in the village. The remainder of the Wamirans live in other villages and many now live in towns. Due to the attraction of town life and its employment opportunities for young people, both men and women in the 20-30 age bracket are poorly represented within the village.

linguistic Affiliation. The language, which is Austronesian, was given the name "Wedau" by early missionaries. Wedau is the native language of the people who live in the neighboring coastal villages of Wedau, Wamira, Divari, and Lavora. Wedau language belongs to the larger Taupota Family of languages, which includes the three languages of Taupota, Tawara, and Garuai spoken along the coast to the east of Wamira. As one moves east within the Taupota Language Family, one encounters gradual shifts in vocabulary due to phonological and morphological changes between neighboring villages. In classic dialect-chain fashion, although intermediate forms differ only by small steps, the farther away one moves, the more unintelligible in relation to Wedau the Languages become. The missionaries mastered Wedau within a few years of their arrival in 1891. They then taught the local people to read and write, so that today nearly all Wedau speakers are literate in their own tongue. Because Wedau was the language learned by the missionaries and was used to preach in church and teach in school, it soon became the lingua franca of the larger geographical area that extends along the coast and into the mountains. Today, Wamiran school-children are taught in English by teachers from other regions of Papua New Guinea. Most younger Wamirans are fairly fluent in English, although they are often too shy to speak it.

History and Cultural Relations

The region in which Wamira lies has had a long history of contact with Europeans. In 1888, Britain annexed the Southeastern portion of New Guinea, which became the Protectorate of British New Guinea. With the passing of the Papua Act of 1905, the Protectorate of British New Guinea became the Australian Territory of Papua. First missionary contact with Wamirans occurred in 1891 when two Anglican missionaries, Albert Maclaren and Copland King, landed on the shore Between the villages of Wamira and Wedau. Soon thereafter, the mission station of Dogura was built on the plateau above Wedau. Dominating Dogura Plateau, as a majestic landmark visible from great distances, is the monumental white-walled, red-roofed Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul which, when completed in 1936, was the largest cathedral in the Southern Hemisphere. The Anglican mission has had a major effect on the villages in the immediate area. Most Wamirans express positive feelings toward the mission and demonstrate respect for most of the changes it has brought: cessation of village warfare, improved health care, and formal education. Since 1975, when Papua New Guinea gained independence from Australia, however, Wamirans have expressed regret that formerly the mission, and now the government, have not brought more in the way of development. The area has neither roads, electricity, running water, nor any means of earning cash.


Wamira is bounded on all sides. To the west and east lie the Wamira and Uruam rivers. To the north and south are the sea and mountains. Wamiran land, thus circumscribed, comprises a total of about 5 square kilometers and is roughly square in shape. The village is divided into two wards: the original old village at the western end called Damaladona or Wadubo (wadubo meaning "old"); and Rumaruma on the eastern fringe. Rumaruma originated several generations ago when the growing population of Damaladona spread out and settled land that formerly had been used for banana gardens. Damaladona has about one-third of the population, and Rumaruma the remaining two-thirds. Within each ward, settlements are scattered into seaside hamlets, of which there are a total of eighteen. The larger hamlets are further divided into named sections. Within these, people live in households of nuclear, and occasionally extended, families. House Construction was traditionally of woven coconut-frond walls and thatched roofs, although many roofs are being replaced by corrugated sheets of tin. Tin roofs are valued because, coupled with gutters and water tanks, they allow for the collection of rainwater.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The household is the main unit of production and consumption, with swidden horticulture as the subsistence base. Wamirans Divide their food world into two categories: tia (animal foods) and lam (vegetable foods). Although seasonal differences exist in the food supply, there is no annual "lean" time. The category of tia, which constitutes about 3 percent of the total calories consumed, has fish as its most stable ingredient. This term includes saltwater fish, freshwater fish, and shellfish. Wild animals, which used to be caught by communal fire drives, trapping, and spearing, are now primarily hunted with shotguns. Although fishing is still practiced extensively, hunting is dwindling in importance. The main domesticated animals are pigs, of which there are about 200 in the village. Every major feast includes pork. Two government cattle Projects were established in Wamira in the early 1970s, and beef is also prized now. Lam make up about 97 percent of the total calories in the Wamiran diet. There are numerous wild vegetable foods, such as wild yams, arrowroot, pandanus fruit, licorice root, Cycas palm fruit, wild chestnuts, and numerous varieties of green leaves and seaweed. Many large leafy trees stand within the village and produce coconuts, breadfruit, chestnuts, Java almonds, Malay apples, and mangoes. All other fruit and vegetable crops are cultivated in one of two types of family gardens: banana gardens or taro gardens. The most common garden foods include bananas, plantains, taro, yams, sweet potatoes, tapioca, pitpit, sugarcane, squashes, corn, papayas, and numerous varieties of beans, peas, and greens. Taro predominates as the staple crop of ritual significance. To enable the year-round cultivation of taro, which requires much water, the Wamirans, as well as the people in several of the neighboring coastal villages to the west, devised a means of irrigating their taro. The Wamiran irrigation System consists of some 12 kilometers of unlined earth canals and subsidiary canals. At the sites of the canal sources (one at the Wamira River and two at the Uruam River), stone dams approximately 15 meters long and 1 meter high are packed across the river to direct the water into the canals. Moreover, in precontact times, the Wamirans alone created a hollowed-log aqueduct as part of their irrigation system to transport river water from the Uruam River across a dry riverbed and onto the plain behind the village. Each aqueduct is used for only four to five years, by which time it breaks and lies dormant until another one is constructed. In the past century, new aqueducts were built in 1892, 1904, 1914, 1928, 1948, and 1977. The 1977 aqueduct was financed by the Papua New Guinean government and constructed of metal pipe. In addition to the traditional foods mentioned above, introduced foods, such as oranges, lemons, limes, pineapples, watermelons, tomatoes, scallions, and peanuts, are grown now as well and are usually sold in the market. Due to the dry climate, the introduction of cash crops has been unsuccessful.

Industrial Arts. Utilitarian goods produced by Wamirans include houses, canoes, clothing, mats, wooden bowls, coconut-shell drinking cups, lime spatulas, baskets, fish nets, net bags, drums, rattles, headdresses, various dance paraphernalia, and weapons. The aqueduct, of course, is a major technological accomplishment and a distinguishing feature of the village. It is flanked by carved wooden figures who are said to be its guardians.

Trade. In the past, interviilage trade was common. Coastal goods such as coconuts and fish moved inland, while areca nuts and certain hardwoods used for digging sticks moved to the coast. Trade also occurred along the coast, where items such as pottery, bark cloth, and food were Exchanged among villages. Today, the main form of exchange occurs between Wamira and towns like Alotau, Lae, and Port Moresby. Wamirans send people to work in towns. In return, money and purchased goods, such as food, tools, clothing, and construction materials for houses, enter the village. The money is used to purchase kerosene, matches, tobacco, and food from the trade stores in Wamira and Dogura.

Division of Labor. The village as a whole unites to work for only one activity, the erection and maintenance of the aqueduct that feeds the large, fertile plot of land behind the hamlets. This event occurs every ten to twenty years, and it results in suspicion and antagonism when men from the two wards work side by side. Within each ward, people cooperate for women's communal riverine fishing and men's hunting of wild animals. Hamlet members cooperate on a number of activities. Residents of each hamlet garden adjacent taro plots and cooperation exists among the men when they repair the irrigation canals and turn the sod to make new gardens. The women of each hamlet work together to maintain the taro gardens, digging hollows around the plants to allow the irrigation water to seep in and weeding around the young shoots. Otherwise, people work cooperatively mainly by household, with sex defining who does which task. Men build houses, hunt, make gardens and tools, and climb coconut trees. Women carry foods to the market at Dogura, collect firewood, cook, clean the house, wash dishes, wash clothes, and sweep the hamlet area. Both men and women fish, although only women do so communally. Nowadays, women's clubs are active and each ward has its own club that works on rious income-generating projects. These projects include making sweet potato gardens, sewing uniforms for the hospital, and baking and selling bread.

Land Tenure. Rights to both residential and horticultural land are passed down from father to son. Although certain food trees are owned by individuals, anyone who walks by may pick fruit from the tree. Rights to trees do not include rights to the land on which they stand.


Kin Groupe and Descent. A Wamiran is born into his or her mother's lineage. All members of a lineage claim common descent from an ancestor, although they cannot necessarily trace the links. There are twenty named lineages, each distinguishing itself from the others by its geographical place of origin. Each matrilineage has its own group of animals, usually birds, lizards, snakes, or fish, which are taboo to its members. In the past, each had its prescribed exchange partner at revenge-death feasts, but these feasts have not been practiced for decades.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Iroquois type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Lineage excgamy is prescribed. Because women move to their husband's land after marriage, matrilineal groups are geographically dispersed throughout the village. Marriage ceremonies now often consist of two eventsa traditional wedding, with the appropriate exchange of taro and pork, and a church ceremony followed by a European-style feast that includes such things as bread, butter, and jam. Adultery was, and still is, fairly common. Divorce may be initiated by either spouse and usually occurs when one simply moves away from the other.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit usually consists of a husband and wife with their offspring. Occasionally an Elderly parent or an unmarried sibling of the husband or wife lives with the nuclear family.

Inheritance. Inheritance is through the father and the mother. Residential and horticultural land and some types of garden magic are passed from father to son. Other forms of magic are passed down from mother to daughter.

Socialization. Cultural virtues valued by Wamirans include empathy, respect, politeness, and generosity, all of which are taught to children at an early age. From the turn of the century until the 1960s, schooling was through the mission, but it is now run by the government. It is not unCommon for large families to keep one or two children out of school to teach them "village ways."

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Marriage and matrilineal affiliation are the only social links that crosscut the geographically separate units of patrilocal residence and horticultural production and patrilineal political organization. Although lineage affiliation is the primary link across these otherwise separate and often antagonistic units, the links formed at marriages, which are rekindled and redefined at death, are neither strong nor numerous enough to bond the village together permanently as one unit. This is for two reasons. First, once a woman marries, she severs most ties to her natal family, including those to residential and horticultural land. She remains on her husband's land even after his death, returning to her natal land after his death only if she bore no sons to anchor her to her husband's land. The second reason is that about 82 percent of Wamiran women marry within their ward. Thus, even Marriages and deaths, with their accompanying rituals, Exchanges, and feasts, fail to bring together people of the two wards very often.

Political Organization. Leadership is hereditary, passing from a man to his firstborn son. Leaders command the Respect of Wamirans based upon observed qualities of wisdom, diligence, generosity, horticultural prowess, ceremonial skill, and their ability to organize their group to work. There is one traditional leader for the village as a whole, as well as one in each ward. Each of the eighteen patrilocal hamlets also has one acknowledged leader. The hamlet leader's primary power, which rests in (but is not guaranteed by) his genealogical Status of patrilineal primogeniture, must be continually reconfirmed. He achieves respect through his ability to organize and unify his groups and expresses his leadership through the manipulation of food at feasts. His group consists of smaller antagonistic hamlet sections, each of which also has its own genealogically ascribed leader of slightly lesser status than the hamlet leader. The presence of these aspiring competitors challenges a leader's powers and makes his task of unifying the group diffïcult. Rivalries and conflicts among minor Leaders usually threaten to erupt during the process of taro cultivation and harvest, when male powers are especially at stake.

Social Control.

Laughter at an individual's nonconformity and ostracism for more serious breaches of conduct function as the main forms of social control. In extreme cases, an Individual may be banished to his or her banana garden because of misconduct. Since 1964, local government councils have been established, which also settle major disputes.

Conflict. Prior to contact with Europeans and the cessation of village warfare, intervillage fights often resulted in cannibal raids. Today, conflict and competition surface mainly during horticultural activities, feasts, dances, and organized sports competitions.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Indigenous religious tenets are rooted in animism and beliefs in spirits and spiritlike beings. These spirits reside in numerous forms: human beings, plants, animals, rocks, rivers, etc. Since contact and exposure to the Anglican mission, many Wamirans have become Christian. They are now baptized, take Christian names, and regularly go to church in the village or at the mission station. The two types of beliefs, animism and Christianity, today exist side by side.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional village healers perform magic to help the sick, bring rain, and entice taro to grow. Black magic is practiced in the form of sorcery and witchcraft. Men perform sorcery against one another, usually in their taro gardens. Women practice witchcraft, usually aiming it at members of their own matrilineage such as Siblings or children.

Ceremonies. Feasts are held to celebrate marriages, deaths, and various stages of the cultivation of taro. Nowadays, celebrations for club birthdays (women's clubs, men's clubs, boys' clubs, etc.) are also common.

Arts. In the past, utilitarian objects, such as wooden bowls, coconut-shell drinking cups, lime spatulas, and drums, were embellished with carvings. The figures flanking the aqueduct are elaborately carved and decorated with shells. Wamirans engage in competitive dancing and perform buffoonery.

Medicine. Traditional medicines were made from plants. Many villagers go to St. Barnabas Hospital at Dogura for medications. The most common illness for which medicine is sought is malaria. Other commonly occurring illnesses are respiratory infections and infected wounds.

Death and Afterlife. Wamirans believe that upon death the human soul is released, crosses a body of water, and becomes a spirit of the dead. Initially, these spirits roam the Village, but ultimately they depart to special places of the dead. They return to advise and haunt the living, chastising errant kin by bringing misfortune, illness, and even death upon them. Death is usually believed to be the result of supernatural causes.


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