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The Dani people of Papua is one of the most populous tribes in Irian Jaya’s complex tradition and social system are interesting topics to learn.

One of the first discovered tribes of Papua, the Dani tribe Irian Jaya was originally founded from an aerial sight of Lembah Baliem by Richard Archbold in 1938. Since then, few contacts had been arranged, and now Dani is not as isolated as before. In fact, many of them traveled to the cities to find modern life and education.

The complexity of the way of the Dani people’s lives makes them interesting—to learn the diversities throughout the archipelago of Indonesia and how they have been sustaining their life with nature.

The Architecture of Honai

The Dani people of Baliem Valley construct their own house known as honai. Using self-made tools and natural products, the house’s structure is sturdy enough to keep the families safe from the weather and wild animals. The house has two stories and no windows to keep them warm from the cold at night.

They use dried leaves from dead trees on the construction of the roof. It almost touches the ground to keep the warm temperature inside. In the colder season where the temperature can go as low as 10 °C, they also dig a hole to create a fireplace inside where they can cook and warm themselves around.

The name honai is used by the locals to refer to the house for the men, while the house of the women is called ebei. Meanwhile, the house where they keep the domestic animals is known as wamei.

Some villages may have special houses for keeping the harvest and doing a mummification process. The latter can be found particularly in Kerulu and Aikima Village, as not all tribe compounds do the practice anymore. However, the construction is basically the same. In most structures, the house can stand strong for several years before they decide to build a new one when it is necessary.

The first floor of the house is used for eating and cooking, and the upper floor is where they sleep because it is considered safer. The houses are made in a compound, with an open area in the middle. Sometimes, a house accommodates up to 30 members, depending on how big the family is.

Dani People of Irian Jaya: Social System

The Dani tribe is known for having a complex social system. They live in compounds or alliances, which consist of confederations. The members can be as many as a thousand people. Together, they prepare a feast and make war strategies when needed. As the most populous tribe in the region, there are approximately 25,000 under the Dani tribe.

Each compound is led by a leader who is determined by the power, or how much wealth and wives he had. In the Dani tribe, there is no hereditary leadership so it will be different for every generation.

In marriage, the Dani tribe Irian Jaya tends to be polygamous. The marriage is often arranged or matched between neighbors. The proposing groom needs to prepare three to five pigs to serve at the grand feast of the tribe, which is held every four years. Newlyweds may live in their parents’ houses but are expected to work hard until they can build their own honai.

The way they raise children is also an interesting field to learn. The Dani women rarely scold or discipline their children, whereas the children are expected to learn by practice, not by instruction.

The Culture of Food and Feast

The staple food of the Dani tribe is sweet potato. The Dani tribe Irian Jaya recognizes around 70 varieties of the products, and some are only served to the elderly and pregnant women. They grow sweet potato in their garden, which is often the responsibility of the women to take care and harvest the plants.

Their irrigation system is remarkably well-built. They have flowing ditches around the garden to remove excess water and to keep the whole area irrigated. This distinct system is not found anywhere else besides in the Dani tribe culture.

Meanwhile, they depend on pigs as their main source of protein. However, feasting on pigs is usually celebrated at festivals or marriages. Families with pigs are considered wealthy since it has a high value.

The Legendary War between Dani, Lani, and Yali Tribe

The popular Baliem Festival is held to defend each tribe from theft or raid. Originally, it is more like a show of power between the tribes rather than killing each other. Today, the purpose of warfare is to reenact the legendary war.

Men will come to the arena with their best outfits and accessory. The three tribes—Yali, Dani, and Lani tribes—can be distinguished from their appearance. The Lani tribe figures are slightly taller than the other two tribes, with a larger genital gourd on their waist. Meanwhile, the Yali tribe has a smaller koteka or a gourd thrown to the front. The Dani tribe’s gourd can be identified because it is pulled towards the chest with a longer figure.

Besides the koteka, the men wear a headdress made from bird feathers. They may also decorate their face using animal tusks and teeth. The weapon used in the battle is a long wooden spear, sometimes measuring up to 4.5 meters. In the reenactment of the battle, the warriors might be wounded but not killed.

The festivity of the battle is complemented by a feast of pigs and other harvests. On the ritual, the tribes dance and sing together in a circle. Visitors can also find art exhibitions and stalls that sell souvenirs and crafts.

Nowadays, the festival is open for visitors. Contact us for the Baliem Valley tour!

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