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.