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Figure 1: Mask from the lower Ramu River. Red and blue enamel paint with traces of white lime pigment dots. Eyes are shell.
Lower Ramu artifacts have similarities to carvings from the Lower Sepik River and adjacent coastal areas. Masks and slit-gong drums from the Lower Ramu are traded along the coast as far as the Murik Lakes and out to Manam Island and the Schouten Islands in the Bismarck Sea.
This mask is used in ceremonial dances. The mask is not worn directly on the face, but is part of a towering cane dance framework (tumbuan) covered with thousands of feathers.
We saw 6 frames being constructed in 1986 at Banis Pig near Bosmun. A large area (banis) had been fenced off with high woven mats (blind) in front of the men's house. Only initiated men worked in this banis. Each frame was about 12 feet (4 meters) tall and quite narrow like a bulbous spire. Brilliant red, yellow, white and black feathers were applied in flat, over-lapping layers with the same density that flowers are put on a Rose Bowl Parade float. Photos of similar tumbuans from this area show fan and cone shapes.
The tumbuans were to dance at the next full moon, about two weeks away, if they were finished. Otherwise, they would appear the following moon. The men didn't mind if we watched them work, but no photos were allowed. During the ceremony, colorful leaves, flowers, fruits and massive displays of white shell jewelry are added to each costume. A long, full grass skirt is tied along the lower edge of the cane to conceal the dancer inside.
Figure 2: Old slit gong drum (garamut in Pisin English) under a Men's Haus in Damar, behind Buliva off the Lower Ramu River.
This garamut and others in the area are gazetted by the Papua New Guinea National Museum and may not be exported. Some of the men were cranky about this. They felt it was their garamut and if the Museum wanted it, they should buy it. Otherwise, the villagers should be free to sell it if they wanted to.
The garamut is almost identical to one pictured in The Seized Collections, pp 57-59. The following information is from Dirk Smidt's description in that catalog except for the notes in ().
The garamut was collected from the village of Kayan (Kaian) near the mouth of the Ramu River which is a center of slit gong drum manufacture. From there slit gongs are traded to neighboring areas. The openwork beneath the human figure on the end lug represents an upside down animal, possibly a possum. The incised designs on the side were interpreted as animals or parts of animals. (On a similar drum collected by Peter Hallinan, the designs were said to represent human faces.)
Garamuts are kept in ceremonial houses and only men are allowed to play them. They are used for music during ceremonies and for signaling. (Sometimes when we come into a village unannounced, an old man will go and beat on the garamut to signal the people to come in from their gardens if they have artifacts to sell. The deep, resonating voice of the slit gong drum carries for miles along the river and hills.)
Garamuts are considered to have a spirit and they have names. They are powerful like masks and figures. They can kill people or make them sick. A garamut may take on other forms and walk at night. Garamuts are used in initiation ceremonies.
Figure 3: Detail of the end lug of the Damar drum showing ancestor/clan figure, possibly a possum underneath and a small bird on the right.
Next: Middle Ramu River Carvings
Figure 4: Detail of lug from another slit gong drum. This type of figure is typical of the Lower Ramu River and is often used to decorate canoe prows. It may represent a half-human/half-sea eagle ancestor from this area. The Wokam Village and Keram River figures with similar elongated, beak-like noses from the Middle Ramu may also represent a similar ancestor spirit who is part human and part eagle.
Diary entry, 1986: Lower Ramu Masks
Copyright Carolyn Leigh, 2000. All rights reserved.
When not in use, the masks are the responsibility of the village Big Men. Ron was allowed to look at one group of masks which was stored in a small shelf high up in the peak of the Haus Tambaran. In another village, all the Big Men were away and the masks were left in the keeping of young initiates. They were quite serious, but also excited to have this responsibility. We were taken along a narrow track to a small bush house beyond the village gardens. The masks were on a similar shelf, but at eye level as we parted the hanging thatch.
Masks are said to have the power to kill people and may be thrown away or sold if they are thought to be harming the village. In a third village, one clan had recently converted to a fundamentalist Christian mission. They wanted to get rid of their masks but were afraid of their power.
When we showed up, we were seen as a good solution. We would not only buy the masks for cash money, but also take them very far away where any anger they might have towards the clan would be ineffective. The masks were brought out to us carefully wrapped in burlap rice bags as we walked on the two hour trek back to our canoes. The men were very nervous and we were not allowed to take the masks out of the bags. We just felt the shapes to see how many there were.
There is very little published on the Ramu cultures and most of the people collecting the oral tradition in the field are Christian linguists. An American family was working with one language group near Buliva when we were there. They had three little girls and were concerned because they had discovered that their youngest, who was about 3, didn't understand English. All her friends and caretakers were local people and they spoke to her in Pisin or Tok Ples. The middle girl spoke all three and she acted as the turnim talk for her little sister so she hadn't needed to learn English to speak to her parents.
The toilets in this part of the Ramu were only rickety open cane frameworks built out over the river at the downstream end of the village. The linguists invited us for an excellent dinner, but the most memorable thing was that they had a proper sit-down, flush toilet complete with seat.
We were staying in a Men's Haus bossed by an older Big Man. The linguists said that he was a very powerful sorcerer who had people killed. The Haus was a simple one, but in the peak was a beautiful disk that represented the sun.
Next: Middle Ramu River Carvings
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