Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The canoe culture of the Gogodala people

IN THE local Gogodala language, Gogo is west and Dala means man.
The Gogodala people of Western province believed that their ancestors came from the west traveling by canoes.
Hence, it’s believed that when someone dies, their soul leaves the corpse with the rising sun on the day after death, at which time it would travel to the west to its final resting place.
The Gogodala are a tribe of approximately 30,000, located and scattered in over 30 villages in the Western part of the Gulf of Papua. Their territory extends from the Aramia River to the lower Fly river and is the most populous Local-Level Government area in the province.
Their villages are built on small hills or ridges which become islands in the wet season
It is divided up into West, East and Fly areas and the Gogodala occupy mostly the flat terrain and the floodplain areas.
Canoes are a very important part of the Gogodala culture. The Gogodala use dugout canoes for everyday activities such as fishing, transport, hunting, collecting firewood, carrying house posts, transporting sago and garden produce.
People also characterize themselves as metaphorically ‘being inside’, or standing inside, their clan canoe.
The network of rivers and water channels provide their means of getting around.
The Gogodala are able to trace their lineage back to their original clans and even more specifically, trace their lineage back to the canoes that they used to travel there.
Since they use a clan based system to trace their descent, their origins are traced back to eight clans that originated from Ibali, the father of the Gogodala.
It is said that Ibali gave a powerful canoe to each of his eight sons, who later went on to form the eight clans.
Within each of these eight clans, people are divided into several sub-clans, or canoes, which trace their lineage back to the primary ancestor and clan canoe.
The premise of this clan and canoe system is a marriage practice that continues to be organized along the lines of a prescribed clan exchange system, referred to elsewhere as ‘sister-exchange’.
For males in the Gogodala tribe, their lives are determined by their power or strength, which they call kamali. An entity that resides in blood, kamali is the substance responsible for bodily efficacy and health. From this notion the Gogodala derived that a persons kamali is seen through their work.
Thus villagers are characterized by how they work in activities such as house-building, sago making, hunting and gardening.
Jobs for women include cooking, fishing, making sago, sago bags, grass mats and fishing baskets, collecting firewood and other bush materials for use in the house, caring for animals and maintaining the house.
A very important form of work for the Gogodala women is the production and preparation of sago.
Women are primarily responsible for the production and preparation of sago, from cutting down the palm, to cooking and preparing the sago flour for eating.
The origins of sago are that a male ancestor brought the original sago with him and cultivated it in certain areas for others to collect. It is believed that if eaten correctly, sago gives energy, and thus it is a very important part of the their culture to consume sago.
Ancestral totems (including the snake, crocodile, pig, bird of paradise, hornbill, eel, hawk, and cassowary) were at the core of traditional religion, and clan insignia were displayed on all implements, canoes, and ceremonial objects.
In the southern region around the Gulf of Papua, rich artistic traditions abound, and Gogodala styles have been regarded as perhaps the most abstract and individualistic of them all.
Until the 1930s, Gogodalas surrounded themselves with their art, elaborately carving and painting longhouse posts and joists, ladders, canoes, canoe paddles, drums, and nearly everything else.
Light, balsa like wood and cane were the basic materials for flat, shield like masks and plaques, flat or round ancestral human figures, and three-dimensional totem effigies, all of which typically manifested the Gogodala hallmark of concentric designs incorporating asymmetric appendages.
The Gogodala make 90 foot (30 meter) dugout racing canoes with elaborate prows and painted sides. Paddles are decorated with the owner’s clan gawa tao. Canoe races symbolized the competitive rivalry but also the complementarities of clans and communities at the conclusion of the aida ceremony and at truce making.
Last year I visited Balimo in Western province to attend the fifth Gogodala Canoe Festival.
The Gogodala Canoe Festival is one of many events registered on the National Cultural Commission calendar of events.
The sixth Gogodala Canoe Festival will held in Balimo on April 23 and 24.
For further information call Senior Cultural Officer David Taim at the National Cultural Commission on 323 5120/323 5119.
How to get to Balimo; enquire with Airlines PNG.

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