In 1944 a U.S. Army plane crash-landed into the Grand Valley of West New Guinea. The crew called it Shangri-La. There is a reason for that. The valley is at an elevation of 5200 feet. It is twenty-eight miles long and eight miles wide. It is a carpet of green, with lush grasses and groves of trees that punctuate the landscape. The Grand Valley is well watered, as the Balim, Jomo, and Kondo drainages provide a ribbon work of permanent water and fertile soil. On all sides mountains that reach as high as 15,000 feet create an almost impenetrable barrier. There is no dangerous wildlife, and there are no disease-carrying insects. The climate is almost perfect. Temperatures average between 59 and 79 degrees Fahrenheit, all the time, and there is about 78 inches of rainfall spread throughout the year. There is no rainy season, no dry season, no winter, or no summer. Those Army flyers also found out something else about the Grand Valley. Within those mountain walls lived 50,000 Dani tribesmen.
It was the turbulence that awakened her. Maria Contreras shifted in her seat, opened her eyes and yawned as she looked out the window to her right. She had experienced that turbulence before. They had just passed over the high mountain walls that bordered the Grand Valley on the west, and the plane was beginning its descent to the small airport at Wamena. As she looked out the window she could see the high peak of Mt. Sukarno to the south, towering at over 15,000 feet. Though Maria was tired from the jet lag, time zone changes, and the several connecting flights and layovers, the view was breathtaking and every bit as magnificent as the first time she came here, years back.
It took almost a month to get her things in order to leave. She had gotten another instructor to take over her classes at Central. She had written to her contacts in New Guinea the day after she received the phone call from the Lawn Man, and it had taken almost three weeks to get a reply, and to get her passport and permission to enter Dani country from the Indonesian government. Taking a flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Los Angeles, from there she took a series of connecting commercial flights to Hawaii, the Philippines, and Jayapura on the north coast of Western New Guinea. From there she took a puddle jumper to Wamena, in the central highlands. She could see from the air that Wamena had grown. There were more buildings, more roads, more satellite establishments and services. But still she could look down and see the patchwork quilt of houses, sweet potato gardens and pigpens. Though she was exhausted, her mind was swimming with a myriad of thoughts. A smile overtook her thinking about her time here. The people had been so kind to her, and they were patient with her questions. She had experienced the most freedom she had ever known. People, her people, how they had changed? Would they recognize her? Were they as nervous as she? After all, it had been over five years since she had last seen them.
Then quickly, abruptly, like thoughts often do, Maria’s shifted. Was she really looking for a solution to the Dallas killings? Or was she just running away, again? These things swirled in her mind, coming and going, like loud voices fading as echoes and then returning like some mental boomerang. Her thinking was disrupted by the sound of the plane’s tires squealing as they hit the runway. The plane taxied to the small building that served as the terminal. Soon a ramp was wheeled up to the side of the plane, the door was opened, and Maria felt the cool humid air of the central New Guinea highlands. She headed down the ramp. Others who had disembarked were being escorted away by friends and relatives who had met them. Maria looked around, but saw no one she recognized. Walking over to a group of empty chairs by the terminal, she sat down. As people slowly disappeared she waited, alone. Then she noticed a car pull up. A man emerged from the passenger side, walked around the front of the car, and walked slowly toward her. The man was tall, lean, with black skin. He wore dreadlocks that hung to his shoulders. Small white beads decorated the bottom of the locks. He wore a white, long sleeve shirt rolled up to the elbows, brown slacks, and his feet were nestled into a pair of Nikes. Almost simultaneously Maria and the man broke into wide smiles. It was a smile she recognized immediately and, for her, it was a smile she had not felt for months.
He approached her and held out his right hand. Instinctively Maria grasped his hand, greeting him in the traditional Dani way.
“Hal-loak-nak Akot Etu (‘Hello younger sister’),” the man said.
“Hal-loak-nak Oe Etu (‘Hello older brother’),” Maria replied.
“Johnnie it’s so good to see you again,” Maria said, as tears welled up in her eyes. Johnnie was his baptized name, Johnnie Walken. The last name was passed down through three generations, beginning with Johnnie’s grandfather who was given a Christian name by Dutch missionaries who had been part of the colonization of Western New Guinea just prior to World War I. Johnnie was one of Maria’s principal informants when she was doing her fieldwork five years ago. But, as so often is the case in fieldwork, close bonds and friendships develop between those involved. Johnnie became not only indispensable, but also her best friend. He taught her how to speak Dani, and was patient with her questions. He taught her many of the rules about everyday behavior that allowed her to become respected and trusted. They used to spend hours just walking along streams and through some of the standing groves, talking, comparing lives, and laughing. It was through him that she became an adopted member of the Dani tribe, and Johnnie’s sister. Johnnie Walken was the closest living thing to Maria’s brother, Hector.
“It’s very nice to see you again,” Johnnie replied. In his left hand he carried a string of cowry shells. He handed them to Maria, a traditional gift from one Dani to another. She took them and draped them, respectfully, over her right forearm.
“These are from our father,” he said. “Welcome to the Dugum neighborhood.”
The Dugum Dani was the sub-tribe into which Maria had been adopted when she was doing her fieldwork. Traditionally they were one of dozens of Dani groups that inhabited the area. These groups, by descent through the male line, constituted the territorial divisions that she had written about. The Dugum alliance consisted of many households of related people that lived, farmed, traded, and warred with neighboring Dani people.
“You know Maria, I have a college degree now,” Johnnie said proudly, “and I am quite assimilated into the culture of the tuans. Maria recognized the reference, and the joke. The word was originally used by the Dani to refer to all people who wore clothes. Since they had worn little if any clothing when first contacted, the term applied to outsiders.
“You can hug me now, little sister,” Johnnie said with his wide grin and bright dark eyes.
And Maria did. She hugged Johnnie hard as she wiped the tears from her eyes.
“Though you smile, sister, you have a heavy face. Come,” he said. “Father is waiting and he is very hungry. You know how he gets if his tummy is kept waiting. By the way, when was the last time you had raw pork?”
They both laughed at Johnnie’s satire on savagery. He helped her with her bags, and they walked to the car. Once inside, they began talking about the old days and missing time as the car made its way out of Wamena and into the Dani countryside. Though she was several thousand miles away from the place where she had grown up, Maria felt the contentment of being home.
Soon the car turned off of the paved road onto a dirt side road that meandered through the Dugum hamlets. Here and there she saw men and women working side by side in the sweet potato gardens. Many of the gardens were still surrounded by the shallow moats that they used to irrigate their crops and fertilize the soil. She saw children walking, talking, playing and tending to their family’s pigs. She also saw the ceremonial watchtowers, reflections of an older time. These towers were about twenty feet high and constructed with long wooden poles bound together with thick vines. At the top of each tower was a platform, with room for one man. The top of the platform was covered with thatch to provide shade. On a daily basis men would skillfully climb these towers. Maria had been amazed at how agile and quickly the men could scale them. Prior to the cessation of warfare, these watchtowers served as a vantage point where sentries could command a clear view of the no-mans lands, from where enemies were likely to approach. Now, the towers were purely ceremonial. In place of war the Dani now held festivals where the local clans would compete in games of skill in spear throwing, archery, and tower climbing.
“Johnnie, do you still climb the towers?” Maria asked.
“Yes. To be sure, I do.” Johnnie said. “I am still the reigning champion of the Dugum neighborhood. But last year we invited the Chimbu to our festival and I placed second to their best man. I have to go some to beat him this year.”
Maria smiled at Johnnie’s modesty. She had seen him climb five years ago and he was the most agile and fastest climber she had ever seen. If he lost to somebody, it couldn’t have been by much more than a second or two.
The car turned into a small dirt lane ending into a group of buildings. There stood a pre-fabricated house of corrugated metal, a traditional men’s house built of wood and thatch, a cooking house that consisted of an arbor roof resting on a frame of six tall poles, and a pig sty.
“Here we are,” Johnnie said.
Maria could feel the butterflies roiling in her stomach as she got out of the car. Her adopted father was an ab goktek, literally a “Big Man”. He was a man of prominence and influence, a wise clan leader who had built strong social and political alliances both within the Dugum neighborhood and in the Dani nation at-large.
As she headed toward the house the front door opened, and out stepped Um’ue, Maria’s adopted father. In traditional Big Man form, Um’ue greeted his guest in symbolic fashion. Though he was dressed in a black long sleeve shirt, white slacks, and shoes, he wore the decorations of a person of high rank and privilege. At his throat, projecting down and out from his chest like a large shoehorn, he wore a polished white bailer shell ornament. The contrast with the black shirt was striking. Under this large shell hung a bib that was decorated with hundreds of tiny white snail shells. His hair was short, mildly kinky, and most of it was gray. His posture was strong, erect and confident as he walked to Maria.
“Hal-loak-nak Abut” (‘Hello daughter’), Um’ue said as a broad smile crept across his face.
“Hal-loak-nak Opaije,” (‘Hello father’), Maria replied as she smiled and brushed her hair back over her head.
“Daughter it is good to see you,” Um’we said. “You are looking well, but I sense that you are troubled. In your letter you spoke of these killings, and of a war. You have asked for my help, and you know that I cannot refuse you. If this is true, then I must go to the spiritual ones for guidance. For war always involves the Mogats, the ghosts. The spiritual ones are the proper authority. I must go see them, but this will take some time for there are few yet alive who know these things, and they are scattered throughout the valley.”
With that Um’we put his arm around Maria, smiled and nodded. “We will sort this out, will we not Johnnie?”
“Yes father,” Johnnie said as he grabbed Maria’s luggage.
“But first, we must eat,” Um’we said. “There is an old Dani adage which says it is foolish to attempt wisdom on an empty stomach.” Um’we let the statement hang for a few seconds. Then, he quickly added,
“Besides, daughter, when it comes to hunger you know how I get.”
Maria laughed as they all went inside the house. She could smell the aroma of baked sweet potatoes and pork stew wafting from the kitchen. It was good to be home.