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Cultural Traces Around the World

Discovering the Community Spirit of the Dani People

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The resourceful Dani people live in the Baliem Valley, located in the Western New Guinea Highlands of Indonesia. Due to the remoteness of this location, the Dani were largely unknown to the rest of the world until 1938.

For this community, spirituality is integral to daily life. The Dani believe that we have a soul inside of us, which they call “edai-egen.” Traditionally, the Dani are animistic in their beliefs and believe in water spirits and particular local gods. They also hold ceremonies to honor the spirits of their ancestors, with particular respect given to the paternal lineage. There is a concept called Atou which involves the male descendants inheriting the magic powers of their ancestors related to protecting the garden, preventing and curing disease, and soil fertilization. When it comes to tending the garden, females play a large role in the production of the sweet potato, which is a staple food in the Dani’s diet. Introduced to this area of the world in the 14th century, there is a surprisingly large number of sweet potato varieties that are cultivated.

In Dani life, the family unit is close-knit and consists of an extended family. Two or three families usually live together in housing that is surrounded by a fence. The traditional round house is called a honai, and is made with wooden walls, and a grass roof. The shape is a symbolic reminder of maintaining peace among the community members, and the building plans for each house are always checked and considered by the chieftain before being built. In these unique buildings, air vents are strategically placed in the straw roof and wooden walls provide ventilation. Typically, the buildings have no windows in order for occupants to stay warm, and during cold weather, fires are lit to maximize the heat.

In Dani society, the role of leadership of the group is held by the chief, or “Ap Kain” who leads the community. The next tier of leadership involves 3 other chiefs referred to as the Ap. Menteg, Ap. Horeg, and Ap Ubaik Silimo. These chiefs own land and fields. The chiefs are male and considered to be strong, honorable and clever.

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