In previous blogs I’ve talked about ideals in tribal culture such as lying, stealing and the fact that these ideals are shared by all cultures around the world. What might be different from culture to culture is how an infraction to an ideal is addressed and indemnified. For instance, not stealing is an ideal that is violated universally. Depending on where you live may depend on how you are indemnified when you are violated by the stealing of personal property. Traditionally in tribal culture there was no rule of law when it came to indemnifying victims of theft. The individual had to take care of the issue with the help of close relatives if needed. If you weren’t of strong character, you just suffered the loss. If you were strong of character and body, you went and paid retribution for violations – usually resulting in a fight or beating of the perpetrator.

When the Aussies settle our area in the 1960’s they had a plan to introduce a rule of law that would benefit the community. Initially this rule of law was implemented by fear because the Aussie’s wanted to get the intertribal fighting and cannibalism stopped. They patrolled with guns and the people learned quickly what those could do. But eventually the rule of law would be implemented by appointed local men in each area called Luluai or Kukurai, who would help maintain a degree of peace and civility in each community. If a person had an issue it was run through the Luluai who would then hold a community court to come to a resolution. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it did help.

We had planted some pineapple alongside our house in the tribe and after a couple of years waiting patiently, we finally had one ripening on the stock. We made sure to wait until the pineapple turned yellow before twisting it off the plant as that’s when they are the sweetest. One Saturday I decided to harvest the fruit much to the excitement of the kids as it was our first that we had actually grown! I went outside gitty like a little child at Christmas with a plan to pick it then chill it in the fridge before eating it as a family. It was too good to be true! Nothing is better than ice cold, fresh pineapple!

I went around to the side of the house and to my horror the pineapple was gone! Had I made a mistake? Was it somewhere else? No, of course not. Someone had to have stolen our precious fruit. I zipped back into the house and made the announcement that our long-awaited pineapple was taken at the hands of thieves!

We had heard stories from the past where people had tried fencing, big black dogs and security to protect their personal property in the tribe, but we didn’t want that kind of relationship with the people. We want them to be our security. We wanted to live on the palm of their hand as they say when they look after someone.

That particular Saturday was village “court”, so I decided to attend as I usually tried to do. The opportunity was great for learning language and culture anyway. But this time I knew that I would need to say something publicly about the missing pineapple. While we never wanted to be in a position of lording it over the people, we also didn’t want to be in a position of being run over because we wouldn’t stand up for ourselves either. I was therefore prepared with my “story” and let the village leader know that I had an item that needed to be discussed.

When my turn came up to speak, I laid out a great story about how we planted our pineapples and waited and waited for them to ripen. I emphasized we didn’t want to eat them green because they had no flavor. No, we let it turn yellow so that we could enjoy the richest flavor and sweetness. They all knew what I meant. So many times, they people would eat their fruit before it was ripe for worries that someone might take it. Anyway, I concluded that someone must have taken the pineapple and we wanted to be compensated accordingly.

The gathered crowd was abuzz with discussion as to who might have taken the prized fruit. “Gather all the village boys in a line and ask if one of them took it!” someone barked out. So all the boys in attendance were lined up and asked directly if they stole the pineapple. Each one answered “no” of course. The village leader turned to me with the look of “not sure what to do now.”

As they were grilling each of the boys, my oldest son came over to me and whispered, “Dad, Isaac told me that he took the pineapple early this morning.”

“Well, then you’re gonna have to testify, son.” I replied.

“Dad, no!” He retorted back with a look of fear. “I don’t want to be a tattletale!”

“But you’re not. We need to stand up for ourselves or this will only be the beginning of what will be stolen from us. You need to testify.” I said reassuring him. He begrudgingly agreed, so I ask for another word and said that my son had something to say.

My son stood slowly looking at the ground being sure not make eye contact with anyone. “Isaac told me that he took the pineapple early this morning.”

Isaac had been in the line of boys questioned but had given a confident response saying he didn’t take the pineapple just moments before. “Is this true?” asked the leader.

The boy looked at the ground knowing he’d been caught and with the nod of his head affirmed that he was the guilty party. “Red (my tribal name), what shall we do with him?” asked the now fuming leader.

“Please don’t harm the boy.” I said immediately. “He can simply pay me cash for the value of the fruit”. Of course, the boy didn’t have any money, but his mother and uncle were quick to pay for his transgression.

We learned a couple of valuable cultural things through the whole incident. First off is that when anyone ever did anything wrong in the tribe, they always told someone without fail. There were no secrets in the village and for some strange reason a perpetrator just couldn’t keep a wrongdoing to themselves. Secondly, as bad as I felt singling out Isaac, it was important to do as we culturally built respect through the whole ordeal by standing up for ourselves and subsequently never had issues with stealing 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.

When I was a kid it seemed like everyone smoked! My dad rolled his own smokes every morning on a little hand cranked machine. In those days it didn’t matter where you were at you could smoke at home, in the office, in public places and the worst – in the car! We kids hated it when Dad would light up in the car! We didn’t dare show it but we would be gagging in the back seat every time. The only fun part about it was playing with the push in cigarette lighter; if dad wasn’t looking of course.  

It didn’t take long to learn in the tribe that the people smoked like chimneys. Seriously, both men and women smoked all the time. When they woke in the morning, they would smoke. When they walked along a trail in the jungle, they would smoke. When they went to sleep at night, they would smoke. Tobacco was readily available because it was grown right alongside their houses. When a plant’s leaves were big enough, they were picked, dried and then then rolled in a dry banana leave for smoking. I took time to observe their smoking habits, but then I began to investigate the purpose and motivation for smoking. After all, it is very unhealthy for you, so maybe I could help them understand that. 

In my quest to understand the motivation for such an unhealthy habit, I discovered three reasons for smoking: The first reason is that it’s actually healthy in the people’s minds because the smoke provides a smoke screen around them that can protect them from spirits that make them sick! Whoa! So no wonder they smoke like chimneys! If you smoke all the time, you will stay healthy. Observance matched with motivation, check. 

Secondly, smoking gives you good breath. What? There was no way this could be explained to me. I know what a smokers breath is like and it ain’t what I like to be near. But I had to understand this reasoning from their perspective. The people said that if you don’t smoke, your tooth decay will be too over powering for other people. It’s true! Smoker’s breath smells way better than rotten teeth breath! In the tribe there is no toothpaste, floss or Listerine. The people would “clean” their teeth with river sand or nothing at all. Tobacco breath is definitely more tolerable than bad breath. 

Thirdly, sharing tobacco is one of the most polite gestures you can show a visitor to your house. When the people would visit from house to house or hamlet to hamlet, they would exchange bundles or pieces of tobacco as a kind gesture to show there were no concerns or heavies between them and their visitor.  

So the next time you light up, try these three motivations to justify your habit… just kidding! Smoking is still not healthy for you, but now you can understand what motivates it in another culture. 

Ever turn your nose up at food when you were a kid? You know, mom tried something new and it didn’t look so great when placed in front of you, so you crinkled your nose and refused to eat it. Or how about those veggies you despised? I used to “hide” food under my plate thinking I was so sneaky. When we lived in the tribe, we made sure our kids ate all their food on their plates because we were living with a people that literally ate everything from the rainforest they lived in. Hunter-gatherers don’t waste food either. When they kill a pig, they eat everything but the squeal so to speak. In their minds the brains and eyeballs are as tasty as the loins. They would eat big bats and small bats, fish, tadpoles, grubs of various shapes and sizes (like chocolate to them of course), ant larva, and many types of seasonal fruit in the jungle. The people had gardens, but they weren’t prolific gardeners. They would grow many types of bananas, sugar cane, taro, some greens and various types of sweet potato. Often times wild or semi-domestic pigs would destroy their gardens and eat everything they could dig out of the ground. So, in general, hunter-gatherers will eat anything because that is how they survive.

But one time to our utter surprise a tribal lady turned her nose up at food that was offered to her. Our coworkers invited a lady into their house for lunch one day. A fairly normal meal was being prepared of canned meat, beans and elbow macaroni with cheese. The tribal lady agreed to the invitation and cautiously sat at the table with our coworker’s family. Now already the timid visitor had crossed over into our culture by sitting at the table. They don’t have chairs or tables in their homes. They don’t sit up to eat like us. Nonetheless the woman had her brave face on and proceed to her chair. Lunch was served up with utensils (another new thing instead of just using fingers) and they all began to eat. The tribal woman moved the meat and veggies away from the foreign looking whatever it was on her plate – the mac n cheese. She slowly ate the meat and veggies which she found pleasant and tasty. Our coworker noticed all was finished on the guest’s plate except of the macaroni. “Are you going to finish?” our coworker asked as politely as she could. She didn’t want to prematurely take the plate away knowing that it was a great opportunity to try some foreign food. The woman replied staring at the mac n cheese like it was from another planet, “I can’t eat that.” “That’s ok” our coworker replied with understanding in her voice, “we’ll just give it to your dog.” Without a millisecond of thought the woman stated emphatically, “My dog won’t eat that!” With a giggled response our coworker said to herself, “Yeah right, those poor starved and mangy critters eat anything!”

Plates were cleared and the disgusting mound of mac n cheese on the plate was taken to the door at arm’s length so the woman could serve it up to her dog laying out on the porch. Following with curious nudges and giggles, our coworker and her girls wanted to see if the claim would actually play out. There was no way the dog would refuse to eat – it was food! The dog jumped up ready for its master and it immediately started wagging its tail in glee as it saw what looked like food coming its way. The plate was presented, the dog rushed toward it ready to inhale the food but stopped instantly when it came within range. Tail froze. Nose went into gear and front paw razed showing the investigation pose.  The smell test engaged and instantly the dog turned and snorted to clear the disgusting smell from its nostrils as it jumped down off the porch!

Our coworkers and kids howled together in laughter! They couldn’t believe what they just witnessed. “See, I told you my dog wouldn’t eat that whatever it was!”

As the story was retold to the rest of us, we tried to figure out why the mac n cheese so repulsive to the lady and her dog. We scratched our heads and came up with a few theories, but in the end, we concluded that it was just so foreign and beyond anything that the woman had ever seen she just couldn’t make herself eat it. And apparently the same was true for her dog!

Have you come out of your Thanksgiving coma yet? Oh, my goodness, the food! And not just Thanksgiving Day food, but the leftovers seem to last forever. We do have much to be thankful for in our culture – the land of plenty for sure.

How do hunter-gatherer cultures celebrate Thanksgiving Day? Well, that’s an easy answer – they don’t. Now the explanation of that is not so easy. Let’s start with the concept of being thankful or expressing gratitude. I’m sure you realize this, but our western culture puts a lot of emphasis on expressing gratitude and we do that mainly by saying “thank you” when we receive something from another person. We teach our children from an early age to say “please” (the frontside of gratitude) and “thank you”. By far my hardest adjustment to a hunter-gatherer culture was the apparent lack of gratitude the people would express – that just didn’t align with my culture and its way of expressing gratitude. Actually, in the tribal language they don’t have words for please and thank you. They just say, “Ane pitene ape manine” or in English “I will definitely get that thing.” Whoa! I found it insulting and offensive that there was no expression of gratitude whatsoever! But it was important for me to put my culture on the back burner and try to understand the how and why of their culture. The how was the easy part – you don’t need to express gratitude. The why took a while to understand, accept and be okay with. What I learned over time was that because hunter-gatherers share and share alike, it’s just expected that I will give the extra I have – even when someone says, “I will definitely get that”. That’s a hard adjustment, but as I grew in my understanding of their culture, I realized that I could participate in their culture as well. Therefore, if I was hungry, I could simply say, “I will definitely get that pig leg, sweat potato or greens.” It was so hard to do and practice, but it worked! This way of “sharing” has helped hunter-gatherers survive for centuries because everyone was “equal”; no one starves to death. As with every culture, there is an upside and a downside to the way things are done. The downside to everyone being equal, was that while they did survive, they didn’t thrive. The culture limited the amount invention and self-promotion by doing more or making something thing better than the way it was always done. I’ll address that whole issue in a later blog.

Hunter-gatherers are very skilled at stuff and gorge – they can really pack the food away when it’s available. This is for good reason because if you go a week without killing a wild boar, you get hungry! So, when opportunity avails itself, eat until you can’t eat anymore and eat until it’s all gone. Sounds a little like our Thanksgiving dinner table! The tribal language has a saying “Ane lile ‘une henewe” which in English means, “My stomach is tight and coming out now.” This expression is only heard when a person can’t fit anymore food in their system; they are stuffed! You don’t hear this expression every day, but when you do it means there was a good pig hunt or fishing trip.

Different from our Thanksgiving dinner is the whole issue of leftovers. Not only do we stuff and gorge Thanksgiving Day, we graze on leftovers for several days after! You know, hot turkey sandwiches smothered in gravy or pumpkin pie and whip cream screaming from the refrigerator for days after. In hunter-gather culture there are no leftovers like we know it. One time we had a couple of guys over for a meal in our house. We had learned by this time that we serve up the plate of food to each person at the table – equal portions of course. We ate, chit chatted and when we had basically eaten everything, there was still gravy in the bowl at the center of the table. The look on the fellow’s faces was priceless. You could seem looking at each other thinking, “What about the gravy?” Thinking the meal was done, my wife said, “I’ll put the leftover gravy in the fridge”. Within the next heartbeat they guys stopped my wife like she was doing something illegal and said, “That’s okay, we’ll eat it!” The guys poured the gravy into equal portions on their plates and finished it off!

There are several reasons for the lack of leftovers: firstly, there is no refrigeration, so food doesn’t last. Secondly, food is all about opportunity – if you kill a pig, it’s a great opportunity to eat and the next opportunity to eat most likely won’t be later in the day! One day out hunting we killed 9 pigs and pretty much there was eating all day long and into the night! The only time I would ever see “leftovers” was when we were out at one of the bush camps. If a lot of game was harvested, the people smoked it above the fire pits in order to preserve it for a day or so.

Would you like to experience an “eating opportunity” with a hunter-gatherer people? EthnoTrax can facilitate that for you – along with the hunting party and fishing to make it happen!

Don’t knock, just walk in – open door policy

When it comes to tribal etiquette it’s a good idea not to assume that what we do in our culture is appropriate in another culture. This is very true when you want to enter someone’s house in the tribe. Now you might think, “What’s the big deal with that?” Well, it’s a big deal in any culture, but let’s talk about our culture first. When you approach a house in our culture you go to the front door and ring the door bell or knock so that the people inside can hear you. If no one responds by coming to the door you leave because not to do so would communicate ill intentions. Only if you are a very close relative might you be able to enter the house with a quick knock announcing, “I’m here, it’s just me!” But in our culture, very few people have that right. Most likely a grown son or daughter in most cases.

Tribal culture is completely the opposite. When I was learning the tribal language and culture the most useless thing I learned was, “Ane wiyeme filane nai?” Or “may I come in?” This was useless because you don’t need to announce your arrival or ask to enter a house; just go in. Tribal culture is open door meaning that you don’t ask to enter someone’s home. Initially I was apprehensive to walk in without asking, but I soon learned that to do otherwise meant ill intentions – completely the opposite from my culture!! You see, someone that wants to steal always checks to see if someone is home by asking to come in. It’s okay to just walk in a tribal home because their homes just aren’t private like ours. Their homes don’t have bathrooms, bedrooms or other private things that homes do in our culture. Therefore, just walk in and don’t feel like you’re being a criminal!


Biodegradable Culture

Tribal culture is traditional based on a biodegradable way of life. Now it’s no secret in our culture that we have some issues with our non-biodegradable waste. We have so much garage in our culture that billions of dollars are spent trying to manage all that we don’t consume! The classic example is the plastic bag. We use these and discard these on a daily basis. We have other plastic waste issues and my least favorite is what I call the “duck trap”. You know, the plastic deal around Coke bottles that’s really handy… until you drink all your Coke and you’re left with a plastic ring that’s thrown in the garbage. I always cut the things up before I toss them.

Tribal culture has a lot to offer us about waste management because their culture is completely biodegradable. Whether it’s housing materials or what they wrap their food in, when discarded everything is biodegradable. The people make a durable long lasting bag which is woven from a particular tree bark in their forest. What they do is strip off the tree bark and then peel off the inside fibers of the bark. When they have stripped off what they need, they roll the fibers together into string. From there they weave bags that are used to carry everything from babies to firewood and anything else they need to carry. When the bags become worn out and need to be discarded, the people will either throw them away or first use them to rub down a new canoe in order to water seal it. Which ever they decide, the bags will break down and become biodegradable. This is just one example of everything in their culture being biodegradable.

Now, back to the plastic bag issue. Today in the ocean there is a ginormous problem with plastic waste. I believe the reason for this is that many developing nations that now have access to plastic for carrying food or other store-bought items don’t realize that the plastic isn’t like their traditional items that are truly biodegradable. In their minds when they throw something like a plastic bag away, it’s just the same as a leaf wrapping on their food that they used to throw away. Unfortunately, the plastic doesn’t break down and disappear and therefore our oceans are full of non-biodegradable waste!! It’s really that simple.

Tribal kinship can be very confusing at times to an outsider. I imagine part of the reason for this confusion is the fact that western cultures have many relationships that are not part of our family line. In tradition tribal culture every connection was a relative of some sort. Before contact with the outside world, the only connections tribes had were with family or relatives; outside of those connections were enemies – that would eat you, literally. It always amazed me when a visitor showed up in the village, people knew exactly what to call the individual. It was either father, uncle, cousin, grandfather or my favorite Hamaru (two men that  married sisters would call each other this). We were adopted into a family line and soon were addressed by a kinship term in accordance with the family line that adopted us. I was addressed as yeti (brother), owai (grandfather), ofei (cousin), eite (father) and neise (brother-in-law). We learned in our language and culture acquisition that the tribe didn’t even have a word for “friend” because they knew how they were related to everyone they ever came in contact with. As the tribe’s horizons began to expand to the outside world, they had to build a word for friend in order for others to understand that the relationship was not through kin, but just a friend. The term they came up with is nati feni feni a’i or “our grandfathers were brothers two sides removed”!! When a non-relative would come visit us in the village, it took time for the tribal people to understand the concept of friend because in their culture they were literally related to everyone they ever knew!