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Tales out of Papua New Guinea

Stories of tribal infighting, primitive ways and cannibalism come to Forest Grove


by: COURTESY PHOTOS: CHRISTINE LEGLER - The Tari Wigmen (above) make headdresses from their own hair and hold colorful dances, says Christine Legler, who will speak Wednesday on the culture and art (right) of Papua New Guinea.The highlands of Papua New Guinea are home to a small tribe where men make headdresses of their own hair and pigs are so valuable that, until 30 years ago, women were expected to suckle the piglets if the sow died.

These are the Tari Wigmen and they are one of hundreds of fascinating tribes throughout Papua New Guinea, where Christine Legler traveled for two weeks last September, on a break from her physician’s assistant job in Portland.

“Thirty years is not that long ago,” said Legler, who will share travel stories and photos at Esoteric Stuff during this week’s First Wednesday grand opening in Forest Grove.

“It was pretty amazing,” Legler said. The Tari Wigmen “held these incredible, colorful dances with head- dresses that they’d made from their own hair, which they didn’t cut until they’d reached maturity.”

The highland tribes had the least contact with western cultures, Legler said. “There wasn’t a road up there until mining companies moved into the area about 20 years ago. The farther away you get (from Port Moresby), the more people you meet still living in primitive ways.”

She even hinted at the possibility that cannibalism, which was commonly practiced by some tribes until it was outlawed by the central government, may still happen in some of the more rural parts.

While she found the tribes fascinating, Legler admits she wasn’t always comfortable traveling in Papua New Guinea.

“Tribes still fight each other and they certainly stop cars and trucks to rob people,” she said. “It gets to be a little lawless away from Port Moresby.”

Legler was aware of the risks, but decided the possible benefits outweighed them.

“I really wanted to go because of New Guinea’s cultural background, because it’s not a developed country yet. It was a chance to see cultures in their pure state.”

Though the people of Papua New Guinea have by now adopted western clothes, that didn’t change in a lot of tribes until the middle of the 20th century. Many continue to live without running water and electricity and live by the land that they farm almost exclusively by hand. “They don’t even use animals,” Legler said.

Much of the traditional lifestyle is beginning to change as western companies discover the island’s vast natural resources. Legler said the country is rich in oil, gold, natural gas and copper and much of the land is perfectly suited for farming sugar cane and pineapple.

“Mining is everywhere in the country,” Legler said, “but like most developing countries, the environment isn’t a high priority. There isn’t a lot of coordination of communities, either, in order to withstand changes like that.

“One of the rivers was polluted by a copper mine above it discharging waste. The people were given some money from the mining company, but fishing was their primary food source and the river was never fixed.”



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