Anthropologist Polly Wiessner turns her efforts toward benefiting the people she studies.
The Enga tribes of Papua New Guinea have a saying, “Endakali Yangingi”—You need a person—meaning that everybody is of value and has something to give to accomplish a task, no matter how daunting or trivial.
Polly Wiessner has been one such person for the Enga.
Wiessner specializes in researching hunter-gatherers, cultural systems of sharing and exchange, ethnoarchaeology, ethology ecology, warfare, and oral history. For more than three decades, she has focused her research on populations undergoing rapid transition—from the Kalahari Bushmen in southern Africa to the Enga tribes of Papua New Guinea. She has devoted the past four years to the creation of the Enga Take Anda, or the Enga Tradition and Transition Center, in Wabag, in the Enga Province of Papua New Guinea.
When asked what drives her to such remote corners of the globe, she says it’s “long-term friendships and understanding what people in other cultures face in their lives, how they cope and adapt in this rapidly changing world” that intrigues her the most.
No stranger to adventure, Wiessner was raised in Stowe, Vt., known for its four-season recreational opportunities. Her father was one of the top mountaineers of the 20th century, introducing her to travel and instilling in her a love of hiking and skiing in the wild places of the world.
She credits her passion for writing and observation to her mother, whom she describes as “a creative and imaginative person who found something unusual wherever we went.”
Since those early beginnings, Wiessner has lived in Botswana, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Denmark, and Germany, the latter for about 15 years. She speaks six languages, professing humbly that she is by no means perfect in any of them.
“I came to the U for the mountains and for the excellent department with an orientation towards evolutionary biology,” she explains. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, Wiessner received her doctorate in anthropology at the University of Michigan. She spent 14 years with the Max Planck Institute for Human Ethology in Germany and has worked or consulted for the World Bank, European Community, and World Wildlife Foundation, as well as universities in Denmark, Germany, Namibia, and France. She came to the University of Utah in 1998 as a visiting professor and joined the faculty in 2000.
Wiessner’s story with the Enga began in 1985, when she first traveled to Papua New Guinea to begin her observations among the 110 Enga tribes. (Enga is unique among the provinces in Papua New Guinea in that it is populated by only one major linguistic and ethnic group.)
One of Wiessner’s important discoveries involves the humble sweet potato, introduced to the Enga people 350 years ago, which had a major impact on the culture. First brought to Indonesia by the Portuguese, and then to Papua New Guinea via the indigenous trade, the new crop made surplus production possible for the first time. Competition over status and wealth resulting from this surplus subsequently led to the most extensive systems of ritual, warfare, and ceremonial exchange known in pre-state societies, involving some 40,000 people.
Over the decades spent studying the Enga, Wiessner has noted a profound shift in generational knowledge of ceremony, tradition, culture, and history. The Enga’s first contact with Westerners—from the Australian Administration and Christian missions—occurred in the 1950s, and with this contact came rapid change. The history and tradition of everything from courtship, marriage, and male-female relations, to warfare and peacemaking since the introduction of guns into modern Enga warfare, to politics as played out in this emerging democratic state, began taking on new characteristics, quickly disposing of the old.
“This was the eleventh hour,” Wiessner says. “After 25 years of researching a people’s history and tradition, what does one do with the results? Most academic research is of value to science but doesn’t return anything to the people. The Enga needed to benefit from this research, too.”
Wiessner explains that the first missionaries abolished many traditional rituals and discouraged separate men’s and women’s houses, where oral traditions had been transmitted. “The Enga needed a space once again to pass on their history,” she says.
And so she set out to build a center that would restore cultural knowledge to the people while the elders could still talk about the past with their grandchildren.
“My Enga colleague and I started out in the basement room of a dank building with a phone, an iffy Internet connection, and 10 kids racing around,” she says. “We needed capital to convince donors we were for real.” Undaunted by the challenge, she sold a piece of her own land in Vermont to start a capital fund and create an NGO. From this base they were able to solicit donors and raise $1.5 million.
More challenging than raising the money, though, was designing the building and selecting its contents. After several architectural proposals, the Enga people chose a modern structure, designed by a Papua New Guinea architect and built by an Austrian contractor. “They wanted something new, something to carry their history into the future, and this center represents that,” says Wiessner.
In addition to text, the exhibits needed to include images, artifacts, and audio recordings made by elders that could be discussed and explained. Realizing how important photos would be to young people who had no access to images of life in the past, Wiessner spent two years collecting almost 2,000 old photographs from early Australian patrol officers and missionaries.
“Most young Enga are unaware of how recent the first contact with Europeans took place and how significantly this has altered their culture. They look at photos from 50 years ago and can visualize for the first time events that they have heard bits and pieces about from their grandparents,” she says. “They are often surprised by what they see.”
Wiessner describes how in the past 30 to 40 years, much of Enga ceremony and tradition has been lost. “We wanted the Take Anda to be a place where Enga culture could be kept alive by making it relevant to the 21st century,” she says.
In order to install the center’s often larger-than-life murals, photos, and artifacts, Wiessner enlisted the assistance of Utah Museum of Natural History graphic designer Dawn Farkas and operations coordinator Tim Lee. “They were the only ones interested in taking on such a challenge,” she says.
And it paid off. The result: Walls covered with poems, songs, and traditional images; artifacts from the people, spaces still to be filled by the people. “The panels are a trigger for discussion,” says Wiessner. “People come to be among the space, see images of friends and relatives from decades past, and to discuss the past and present, not necessarily to see the entire exhibit. We didn’t want to create a museum. Rather, we wanted a space the Enga could make their own.”
“The Enga have a saying,” says Wiessner, “‘You need a person.’ Contrast this with the Western ‘Money is life’ philosophy that is growing in importance in Papua New Guinea today and the creation of this center becomes even more important.”
Wiessner attended the center’s opening in September 2009. It was an occasion marked with ceremony and pomp, politics, and joyous celebration. Traditional dance and dress marked the day. Enga of all ages covered the hills beyond the Take Anda, rejoicing in the new beginning. At the center of the stage, a petite blonde woman from Vermont looked out on all the people it took to accomplish the first step in this ongoing project: The center is built; now the real work begins.
—Taunya Dressler is a writer with University Marketing and Communications and has written previously for Continuum.
24 thoughts on “You Need a Person”
I had the pleasure of working with Polly Weissner. She is a remarkable person who is doing great things
Indeed, the work of anthropologist Polly Wiessner in Enga is outstanding wherein she build a center for cultural restoration and preservation. I see her efforts undoubtedly paying off. What I want is for the Engas to progress and prosper.
Polly is a remarkable person. Hope her efforts bear fruit.
Words cannot not fully capture what she has done for my home…I have been to the museum on every trip back home and I can’t explain the feeling I get when I walk into the museum…thank you so much Polly… Felix Kipalan (from Leeds, UK)
Applause to Wiessner for the great work. May she continue to inspire people around the world.
Eine gute Idee! Lange haben Forscher und “Missionare” Kulturgüter in Ihre meist weniger öffentlichen Sammlungen fortgeschafft. Diese Dinge – auch wenn Sie nicht materiell sind – wieder zurückzugeben ist eine gute Idee. Mensch Polly, warum gibt es nicht mehr Menschen wie Dich!? Die besten Wünsche vom Ammersee Kirsten
Enga is now rapidly influenced by the western culture through different aspects, social, economical, and politically. However, politics become one of the main impacts in Enga province. Politics is an other lifeline of Enga people.
Professor Polly Wiessner, you really captured the title of your article “Endakali Yangingi” — You need a person. You are Enga people’s pride and initiated the cultural revival program through the Enga Take Anda centre. Truly “Enga needed a person” to rebuild our pride, and you did it through your research work and putting the research work into tangible resource where we the sons and daughters of Enga will see, read, and react. We are amble and appreciate your marvelous contribution. Enga people will remember you for what you have done for Enga. Lest we forget – Enga Take Anda and your research books will carry your name forever.
This is spectacular! Although I am an Engan, I have never spent enough time with my grandparents to listen to their stories of the past and took part in any traditional/cultural practices/events. And after reading this article, I am regretting big time. I should have learned as much as I could to keep my traditions/cultures so I could pass onto my children and future generations. I would like to thank the author, an outsider, for reminding us, especially Engans, about our dying cultures/traditions. We are moving forward with the influences of Western cultures, and it is hard to go back to our old ways of doing things. In order to catch up and be in line with the rest of the world, we have to learn the Western cultures, as well. But this article reminds us of how strong and powerful our traditions/cultures are. Well done and hope every Engan appreciates it.
Great effort. Her work will be remembered by the people of Enga.
My humble words of gratitude to you, for your invaluable contributions– bridging again past and present Enga. Although you are totally different person, you have authentically made it alive via your research work—- the true stories and lifestyles of our past– and we deeply applauds you for this job well done. Now that we have Enga Take Anda, your contributions will remind valuable. We also need to integrate Enga traditional past, general lifestyles, those that are valued and significant, into compulsory school curricula for students to learn. Our unique valued traditions are now under the mercy of western influences, and we don’t want to lose them anymore. One way to retain them is to include them as school curricula, and also government must promote and initiative traditional festivals annually so the people keep hold of the traditions.
You are true Engan leader. Unarguably your efforts have rebuilt and restored the Engan ways of life in an era of transition. The many publications and research you have done for Enga have indeed united us more, ’emban kalai ongom dee namb endakali yaingal nayaro lamo.’ The people of Enga humbly salute you and will happily celebrate your life in the many more centuries to come. Yakapini o. Aimos Joseph Akem, Kepelam Village, Enga
I have read the books written by Polly Wiessner about “A View of Enga Culture and From Inside the Women’s House.” I was really amazed by such a wonderful work done by this person from different parts of the world. We should say thanks to such people like Mr. Akii Tumu, Alom Kyakas, Pesone Munini, and Albert Wet Ipu for providing solid support and hospitality while collecting information about Enga cultures.
These books contained all information about Enga cultures and tradition. As far as I suggested while reading, many Engans would not know some of the practices in the book.
Thanks once again for providing literature about the dying culture of Enga. We better keep upholding the pride of Enga in this globalized arena.
This brings to the aid about my major research Title: Reviving dying Culture of Enga in the Globalized World.
Thank you, Professor Wiessner, for a remarkable job. Your gift to the Engans will be long remembered. You created history for the people and province.
Thank you, Polly, indeed, as the saying in Enga, “Endakali Yaingigi,” is a powerful statement that must be translated and replicated into action throughout Enga, first by every Engan child and second, by our Enga leaders. I’m really blessed by such a powerful statement. I wish today’s modern children of Enga would memorize and practice it in everyday living!
Polly is not an outsider, as some people think. Every Engan belongs to a certain clan & tribe. Polly doesn’t belong to any, but she’s forever an Engan ..Engans tradition will never be forgotten because of her, Akii & few others..
She has a heart for Enga. She is just great indeed.
A great human being not only in her work but she helps those who are in dire need in those foreign lands that she makes it her own.
If there is one thing that a person that bring to the world that can bring change and reflection to the people and surrounding that we live in…..Polly, you have done us proud. And, congratulations to the “Akali and Wanaku” helpers that assisted you all the way to make it happen!
We now find ourselves caught in between two contemporary cultures – the traditional and the western culture. Most young Engans today find it difficult to accept both cultures. And the odds are that they will neglect the traditional ones in favour of the western. What you have done to preserve Engan culture will be remembered by this generation and for the generations to come.
You have made us proud!
Atanakae (Adeliade,SA )
Back in the mid to late ’70s, the Education Department encouraged teachers to cover culture in their curriculum. It was recognised then that the younger generation, as time went on, would lose their language and traditions. I lived at Lapalama from 1972-1974, having spent time previously at Kumareta and some more time at Kumbareta. I have spent time at Yangis and walked as far north east as Kopaipalu. I studied Sau Enga (my major language assignment was a small book, Ditimanenya Kalai Dupa, a book about agriculture. My informant was Kakasa Lakani) and was involved in education from 1966 through to 1978 within the Baiyer and Kompiam areas in vocational, primary, bilingual, and adult literacy education. Whilst at Lapalama, I had a round house built for my kids to play in… fire and all. It became a place of meeting where we would all sit around the fire. I loved sitting around fires out beyond Lapalama and just sharing the life of the Enga people.
Upon my return to Australia, I too began to engage my past and write up the history of my ancestors. I spoke with my elderly relatives to draw the stories of my family and gathered old photos. Sadly, even then, many of the elderly had passed on and the stories lost to antiquity.
Of recent years, I have tried to follow up on what has been happening amongst the Enga and when contacted by Polly was excited to share some of my journey and the photos I took during the ’60s and ’70s. To now see what is taking place at the Take Anda I believe will help those like Samuel Nera learn something of his traditions and culture. Samuel, keep talking with your elders, ask them about the past, sit down around the fire and talk, and don’t forget to do the same with your children. I love your people.
Polly, thank you for getting in touch with me and including me in this amazing adventure.
She is an amazing person who has a heart for the Engan people she has visited.
I am happy and proud of our culture. Thank you a lot, Polly.
Thank you Professor for your tireless effort contributed to document everything. May God bless you
The missionaries who devoted their life in Enga and for those still working, I thank you for the great work done.
For you Polly words can near express the brilliance of your art, love for people and Enga culture. You are a legend and we love your willing heart in bringing such development to promote our unique culture. Wish you Gods blessing to prosper in health.
You are the person Enga needed to at least save and pass on the culture and tradition through your research and the cultural center “Take Anda” you have single-handed constructed and equipped with a lot of resourceful information of Enga’s history.
We thank you for your sacrifice that you made for Enga even when you had to go through financial, mental, emotional and physical torment just to make this initiative become a reality for the current and future generation of Enga province.
Professor Polly Wiessner you are an asset for the Enga people. Your works and sacrifice did not go to waste. The contribution you have made is more than Gold. You have documented and hence saved our culture and tradition through your initiatives.
No amount of thank you is enough but we pray that our God of Enga and God of Israel will protect and bless you more in whatever you do in the years to come.
You are the person we needed! We love you Polly!
Israel Ipatas – Port Moresby, PNG