As mentioned in the previous blog, polygamy was practiced in the tribe I lived in, but according to what I understood it was not an ideal. Men that took more than one wife we typically “stronger” than other men and therefore did it because they were able. But under the surface, the practice was viewed as selfish and greedy.

The strong man from the previous blog had taken seven wives; the four younger of whom were sisters, and daughters of a distant cousin. The younger two sisters of the four did not want to be married to the strong man. He was old and there were plenty of young men looking for wives. They had to break away somehow, but in a culture dominated by men, that wasn’t an easy task to accomplish.

During this time, I was well into language and culture acquisition. Daily I was growing in my grasp of the language and understanding of how things worked in the minds of the tribal people. I was working away one morning when I heard a commotion outside my makeshift office. I went out to investigate and the air was electric with tension and excitement. “What’s going on?” I asked the group of young men that had assembled. “Two of the strong man’s wives have run away to Lakami”, they informed me pointing across the river to a hunting area where no people lived. “And two fellows from here have gone after them!” They added with a cheering excitement.

I thought about this for a second and then asked, “Why are they going after them?” “Because they are going to claim them as wives!!” they declared stating the obvious. “Okay”, I thought to myself perplexed that this is how it was done. “How is this going to work out? Would this annul the “marriage” to the strong man? Was it who ever was stronger wins? What does the community think about all this? At this point it seemed like the young men giving me the play by play were cheering on their buddies that were in pursuit of the two sisters hoping to lay claim to them as brides! Wow! Better get a good seat for this action as it develops.”

The two young men found the sisters and each one claimed a bride for themselves. How they even knew the two girls had runaway is still a mystery to me. The jungle grapevine or gigazone is amazing, I guess. Anyway, the two couples lived out in the jungle and initially weren’t pursued by the strongman.

Several months went by and one Saturday morning the village gathered for a morning of “court”, a practice introduced by the Aussies back in the late ‘60’s or early ‘70’s as a time to settle differences and disputes. I always tried to participate and observe these courts as a community member. This particular morning looked like a normal village court until I observed that the two “newlywed” couples showed up! I figured it was cause for celebration until observation number two: the strongman showed up as well! Suddenly all court matters were cast aside, and discussion began about the two sisters and who had claim to them.

The air became thick and tense. The center of the village area suddenly cleared. I heard someone yell, “Don’t fight! The white man is here!” I told them to not worry about me as I didn’t ever want to be a deterrent to anything. I was just an observer and observing true to life culture was very important for understanding the people. I did have a red line I wouldn’t cross – if someone was going to die, I would intervene.

All a sudden the strong man with fighting stick in hand shot toward the young man who took the older of the two sisters. Somehow the young man also acquired a fighting stick. Everything happened so fast. The younger man allowed the older to give him two blows to the back. The thud of the heavy palm stick was deep, but the younger didn’t flinch. The older was going for a third strike but the younger was too quick and dealt a single blow just under the ribs of the older sending him to the ground in a heap.

I wasn’t sure what to do other than run to the strong man. I could see he was winded and couldn’t get his breath. I knelt beside him and cradled him in my arms positioning him so that he could breath. I was certain he would die. But then behind me I heard a voice, “Red (my tribal name), let him die.” I turned my head and looked up to see who would say such a thing. To my horror it was the strong man’s son. But he wasn’t looking at me when he said it, he was looking at the younger man. If his father died, then he would have the right and obligation of killing the young man in revenge for his father’s death. “He’s not going to die!” I stated emphatically. “I won’t let him die!” Just then the strong man coughed slightly and began taking shallow breaths.

As it turned out that day, the younger man stood up to the strong man and kept his new bride. The community got behind both the younger sisters being married to the two young men. The strong man returned to his home upriver and subsequently didn’t challenge the two couple again.

Polygamy was practiced in the tribal culture I found myself living in. It wasn’t hard to observe as there were several men in the community with multiple wives and it seemed the practice was accepted as a cultural norm without any challenge or adversity. But as I got to know the culture from the inside, I began to see a whole different view of the practice.

Allow me to give you a little background about the culture to help you understand the basis for polygamy. As an outsider to begin with, I observed the beauty of sharing like I had never seen before. People would literally give you the shirt of their back in the tribe. You could ask for anything, especially food, and it would be given to you. The contrast with my culture was staggering. To a fault, the extreme of my culture is greedy, only caring for the individual in order to get ahead and thrive. Sounds so evil, but it has contributed to innovation and the development of a lifestyle of great comfort and conveniences. Tribal culture shares to a fault, caring for the community in order to survive as a whole. Sounds amazing, but it has contributed to a lack of innovation because everyone must be equal, and no one is allowed to get ahead. Well, almost no one. There were those who took advantage of the equality and used it to leverage themselves, thus the not so ideal practice of polygamy.

There was a strong man on our river that was feared all over, not just in his own tribe. He was a great hunter and industrious. He had strong magical powers or poison that the people feared. And he had seven wives, yes seven wives giving him the ability to produce a lot of food, something dear to the heart of hunter-gatherers. If you visited the strong man’s hamlet you were lavished with food and given even more to take home. This ability to “take care” of people gave the strong man power over people as well. He could basically do anything he wanted, and people wouldn’t confront him because of that control. It came down to fear. People feared his strength, his magic (or perception of it) and they feared losing their connection to his gracious giving of food.

How did the strong man get his seven wives? The first two wives were regular marriages and the third was a widow from another area. But the four younger wives were sisters. Being the great and kind guy that he was, the strong man offered to care for the four sisters when their father, his cousin, died when the girls were still young. With three wives already, taking on the sisters was no hardship at all. But there was a sinister plan in the making. As each of the sisters reached puberty, he declared them to be a wife!

One day some of the young men and I were visiting the strong man upriver at his hamlet. We were all treated to delicious smoked bat, cooking bananas and an endless supply of sago. Visiting between us and our host was full of conversation and storytelling. When it came time to leave, each one of us left with armfuls of food. The guys decided to float back down river in order to consume as much food as possible. That caught me by surprise. Was that selfishness rearing its ugly head? The conversation as we floated along was all about how selfish the strong man was. The fact that he had taken all those young women that other young men could have had for wives was totally unacceptable to them. Discussion went on and on as we continued to float down the river. I was shocked at how much they despised the strong man and his greed.

I tried to put my thoughts together over the following days and came to some interesting conclusions about not only what I observed, but also what I learned from spending time with the people. It became very evident that polygamy was not an ideal in the culture just the same as stealing, lying or laziness weren’t ideals. But if you could get away with it, then do it! Very interesting. Sounds a lot like my culture after all!

The strong man did end up losing the youngest two wives. But I’ll have to tell you about that in another blog.

I have mentioned in previous blogs the importance of first observing behavior and then later understanding what the motivation behind a behavior might be. Sometimes the motivation for a behavior might be illusive and hard to define or understand. When that is the case, it’s important to keep one’s culture stress or anxiety in check so that bad or judgmental attitudes don’t develop causing damage to relationships.

Balance in a watercraft is very important when navigating any body of water whether by motor or by paddle. We have laws in our culture to mitigate the chance of someone drowning in the case of a capsized vessel. These laws have been put in place for our protection and safety. We sometimes kick against those laws, but deep down we know they are for our good.

What about where there are no such laws? What is in place to protect people traveling on the water? If you were to visit a tribe that lives next to a river you would observe that men stand in canoes and women sit. The men have long paddles and the women have short paddles. What motives that behavior? Safety!! Let me explain.

The typical canoe is carved from a cedar tree making it light and durable. Standard length is approximately 15 feet with a width of 18 inches. No keel is crafted on the bottom of the canoe; they are round and smooth. Balancing a canoe is learned at an early age by the boys. The boys learn to paddle by standing at the bow of the canoe while his father commandeers the rear at the stern. As the boy grows in strength, he will be given more and more opportunity to paddle from the stern. After a boy is well trained, he stands in the canoe with one foot in the middle and one foot up on the side of the canoe. Such a stance gives maximum control for steering, pushing off and avoiding logs and navigating through stronger current when necessary. Really, paddling a canoe is like riding a bike.

Girls in the tribe also learn how to handle themselves in a canoe and it is done by sitting down. Their paddles are much shorter enabling them to contribute power strokes assisting the man controlling the canoe at the back. As well, the girls will learn to place the cargo and manage any children in to craft. These responsibilities will be taught to them by their mothers.

So, what’s the motivation behind such well-defined roles in the operation of a canoe. I can’t help but think it’s safety. The men have the strength to perform their task and the women have to capacity to assist and look after the children. And it works! I can’t think of a time when a mishap took place on the river. The competence of the people to work together and stay safe in their cultural roles was amazing and effective.

In the attached photo, a woman’s paddle is featured above the man’s paddle. Notice the shape of the paddles: the woman’s paddle represents an eel tail and is design for paddling only. The man’s paddle is concave at the end represents a catfish tail. The concave pattern allows a man to push off logs with better control.