Lihir Canoes

Lihirians make several different types of canoes, ranging from smaller canoes suitable for one person, through to larger ocean voyaging canoes that can carry up to twenty people. Smaller single person canoes continue to be made throughout Lihir, especially on the outer islands of Malie, Masahet and Mahur, where people still rely upon fishing for daily subsistence.

Lihirian canoes do not traditionally incorporate sails. After the Second World War when cloth material was more available sails were incorporated and trade expeditions to the adjacent islands became more frequent, as these sails relieved men from paddling all the way to and from their destinations.

The latest changes came about when outboard motor engines were introduced in the 1960s to power large canoes. This was a common means of transport until aluminium and fibreglass dinghies were introduced in the 1980s. By the time mining operations commenced in the 1990s, the use of modern boats had completely superseded the use of large-scale canoes.

Lihirians were historically involved in an inter-island trade network throughout New Ireland (see map/insert map). Due to the central position of the Lihir Islands, Lihirians maintained relations with the surrounding island groups as they traded live pigs for shell money, known locally as. According to an old Lihirian saying, the ‘eye’ or the source of the pig is to the southeast (Tanga), while the ‘eye’ or the source of the mis is to the northwest (Tabar). This saying reflected the direction of trade, as Lihirians traded with people from Tanga to obtain pigs, and then traded with people from Tabar in order to obtain shell money.

In the past a Lihirian man needed to make many trips to Tabar in order to build up a supply of shell money and to increase his status. These trading expeditions were a rite of passage for younger men, and before setting out, younger inexperienced men were taught the requirements and art of seafaring, including the songs sung at sea to encourage the sailors. These song belong the >nau song genre, one of which is sung throughout Kabelbel.

These trips were a dangerous adventure and clan groups could not risk having all of their male leaders travelling together in case any anything unforseen happened. The crew for a journey would always be made up of men from different clan groups. Novices had to follow strict protocols. They were blindfolded for the duration of their first journey lest they see the distance and complain and discourage their fellow crewmen. They had to sit low in the hull of the canoe and drink from a coconut through a straw so they did not raise their head and risk seeing the remaining distance.

During these arduous trips, which could take nearly 18 hours of continuous paddling to reach Tabar from Masahet Island, men would call upon their clan tandal spirit (also known as masalai) for support, to assist them to reach their destination quickly. These tandal spirits can be both benevolent and helpful and dangerous and vengeful and seamen need to know how to keep these spirits onside for a safe journey.

With support from the mining company and the LSDP fund, the Association were able to engage Rebel Films for this project. David Batty lived on Masahet Island for nearly two months becoming immersed in village life as he followed the construction of the canoe. As he filmed the project from start to finish, from the selection and felling of the tree through to the launching, he became an integral part of the project.The project also provided a great opportunity for the Papua New Guinean staff working in the mining company’s media outfit to learn more about film making.

On Saturday 28thMay 2011 the canoe was formally launched at Malal village on Masahet Island. It was named Kabelbel after the local cultural group that was involved in this project. The canoe travelled around Masahet for its customary maiden voyage, stopping at different villages along the way so that clan leaders could walk out on the reef to meet the voyagers and make presentations to support the new canoe. All of this was followed by a customary feast to celebrate the event and mark the completion of the canoe.

The film was first screened in Lihir on Masahet Island in November 2012.

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