Huli Sing Sing, Papua New Guinea

Huli Wigmen

At the airstrip in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, a family group stood next to the small bus awaiting our arrival. A young boy played with a long stick, pointing it and stamping his feet. Then he raised it like a spear, bowed his legs and stood on his toes, elbows out, jabbing the air. He repeated this several times until the woman standing next to him put her hand on his head. He became a little boy again.

Oh, yes, I thought. The Huli wigmen live in this area. I remembered photos of men with yellow faces and large wigs made from their own hair. Fierce warriors, they have a history of endless retaliations for escalating insults across tribal lines. Fortunately, the fighting had recently diminished after contact with outsiders. The boy had to be imitating the older men who no doubt can still strike fearful poses. We were advised not to sneak photos so my camera remained in my bag.

My birding group settled into our rooms at Ambua Lodge, the base for our first exposure to birds that preferred the rains and cool climate of 6800 feet in altitude. It is home to many birds of paradise, a spectacular family of birds with astonishing colors and dramatic tails. We gathered around a nearby fruiting tree. Our first sighting was a yellow Raggiana Bird of Paradise with its thick and flowing reddish flank plumes. A mostly black Ribbon-tailed Astrapia hopped from branch to branch, deftly maneuvering its white tail plumes, more than five times its body length. We even saw one Superb Bird of Paradise flaring the iridescent blue “false wings” on its breast for his lady friend.

Ambua Resort

During a pause in the activity, I glanced down the narrow path between the huts. Two men stood as if waiting to pass. The younger man had on the blue Ambua staff shirt. When I beckoned for them to go on by, he shook his head. The small, weathered older man standing in front of him wore very little. His skinny, naked legs rose to clumps of weeds tied front and back. The small bilim (woven bag) slung around his shoulder and a sheathed knife on his upper body did not lend any warmth either. Fern fronds and a few small feathers sprouted from his thick hair. He looked out of place in that upscale resort, with its wide lawns, planted gardens and grass-roofed huts that masked inner luxury, including heated mattress pads. His bright eyes followed our moves. Then, apparently satisfied, he turned to walk through the garden and around to the back of the nearest hut, shadowed by the other man.

He had to be Huli. Even without the yellow face-paint and waving feathers he looked similar to those old photos. I hoped we would see more of the Huli people.

At dinner, the lodge manager announced there would be a sing-sing the next day in Tari, the closest town. Would we like to join the other guests. A sing-sing is any gathering at which singing and dancing occur. Traditionally the sing-sing would precede a battle. This one was to honor a visit by the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea. He and all the provincial governors were gathering in Tari to formalize the creation of Enga, a new province carved from a larger one. The Huli would be the primary tribe in Enga, something they had been requesting for years.

On our schedule the next day was a hunt for a special owl down the valley beyond Tari. There was no extra time to watch the celebrations. I wanted to do both. I waffled, disappointed by a previous “cultural experience” that did not feel genuine. When Phil, our guide who had lived in New Guinea for several years, admitted he would love to go, I cast doubts aside and signed up with three others from my group.

We joined four women who were on a tour that included more than birding. On the way down to the Tari Valley for the sing-sing, they told us about their visit to the Huli Wigman School the previous day.

Boys who choose to attend the school learn the traditions and lore of the tribe during the eighteen months it takes to grow a proper wig. They train the hair as it grows by grooming each other every day. Eventually they must use a headrest while sleeping to maintain the form of the emerging wig. When ready, the hair is cut close to the skull and prepared as a wig for later use.

The swelling stream of people going our direction wore regular clothes, men with shirts and pants and often another layer in the cool air. The women usually had skirts or a wrap with a blouse, many quite colorful. Most carried bilims, the ubiquitous bags carried by both men and women. As we approached the stadium, we saw a few people with bits of ferns or feathers in their hair.

First Sighting of Wigmen

We turned at the chain link fence surrounding the airstrip. After a few minutes of weaving among the growing crowd the driver stopped and waved for us to get out. I was in the back and could not see what the fuss was about but someone asked if it would be ok to take photos.

“Yes, yes,” our guide, Benson, said. “This is a celebration. They will like to have their photo taken.”

Down the middle of the dusty road, drumming and swaggering, came our first troop of Huli wigmen, yellow faces, wigs, feathers, dried flowers and all I had anticipated. The Huli are the only people who paint their faces with thick yellow pigment for dancing. In this troop were the flat decorated wigs that reached out way beyond their ears, the most formal wigs as well as more informal adornment. We happily clicked away. The men smiled and waved, enjoying the attention.

Applicants to the Wigman School must be virgins. This is not difficult because by the time the boys apply, they have been living in the men’s house under the careful eye of their uncles for months or years. The men cook all their own food because women represent a biological threat to their masculinity. Any contact with women’s fluids can be dangerous to them. While in the school the boys must not have sex.

When they leave the Wigman School, the young men have been hardened enough to withstand the corrosive effects of courtship and marriage, though they stay in the men’s house, meeting their wives in the fields for marital activities.

Usually, the young men will grow two wigs before attempting one of the ceremonial wigs. During this time, they must again abstain from sex, which made me wonder if that abstention might have added to their vigor in battle.

Our bus rounded the end of the airstrip fence where masses of people filled the road to the stadium. All vehicular traffic was barred from entry. After a word with the guard, who looked into our bus for confirmation that we were tourists, the bar was lifted. We crept past a crowd massed around six dart boards hanging on a stake fence. A couple of locals with fistfuls of darts shouted invitations to the crowd to try their luck. The first white man I had seen other than ourselves eyed one of the dartboards, a dart poised for release. Locals watched him closely but he seemed at ease adjusting his throwing stance. We passed them by before he launched his first dart and I wondered what kind of impression he made.

With the stadium bleachers in sight, we prepared to disembark.  Benson said, “No bags or purses. If you have a money belt keep it out of sight. You can leave things in the bus. The driver will stay with it.” He assured us we would not be out of sight of the bus. I complied with great reluctance, having heard stories of bus robberies. I took only the basics that I could fit my pockets, camera, water and in my zipper pocket, my passport and a bit of cash. A couple of people pulled their shirts over their money belts.


“Stay together and stay with me,” Benson said. He seemed overly protective but would have no way of knowing how much experience a guest might have had in this type of situation.

With the doors and windows closed, the driver settled in to wait for our return. Curious and on guard, we inched our way to the back of the bus and into the streaming crowd. I doubted it was as bad as Benson seemed to think but I thrust my hands in my pockets, touching the lumps of my valuables, eyes alert. We threaded through the flow to a short stone wall and scrambled up for a good view of all the activity. The airstrip was behind us, where the helicopters came and went delivering the provincial governors. A crowd of people milled around, rushing to the far fence when they heard a helicopter approach. In front of us, the river of excited people reminded me of a country fair. People were relaxed and cheerful. They greeted friends, stopped for a chat. Wide-eyed spectators like us hung on the edges. Most of the people wore plain clothes with a little something decorative to note the occasion, a feather in their hair, a bit of paint on their face, a hat with a ribbon, beads or feathers.

Mountain Orchid

It is the men who have the time to enjoy the beauties of nature. Every Huli man nurtures a particular orchid plant found at the higher altitude where they live. Many questions were left unanswered about this feature of manhood. How do they know which orchids are under special care so someone doesn’t accidently disturb it? What if it dies?

The most gloriously dressed were the men in the tribal “sing-sing” dancing troops. They milled, danced or marched, back and forth in front of us, restless for action. The men’s muscles rippled under a thin layer of ochre clay slicked with oil. Their costume and performance reflects on their clan, so they did their best to display magnificent dress and stunning vigor.

A loose group of dancers approached our perch. Most of the men held a small wooden drum in one hand and a curved drum-stick in the other. One man struck his drum and the others straightened into two columns facing each other and joined in. A-one, a-two, a-three, a-four. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. With the rhythm established the whole group of twenty or thirty men jumped and landed together, again and again, feathers waving in the air and ass-grass bouncing gaily.

Huli Dancers with Bouncing Ass Grass

The term ass-grass is the local name for the green fronds attached to the back of the dancers’ waists like a bustle. The words sound the same in pidgin, the tortured English used among the indigenous people and foreigners. Until recently, the tribes of New Guinea stuck to their tribal valleys due to ongoing animosities with their neighbors. The resulting 800+ languages have no overlap. The violence diminished as they made the transition into the present, so pidgin emerged as a common language for all.

As the Huli lifestyle changed, the government hoped to channel the fighting energies into a more peaceful outlet. The Huli dances were traditionally the prelude to battled, so a dance competition was set up for them. Tribes came from all over Papua New Guinea to vie for financial prizes. The Huli won several years in a row and the other tribes began to resent them. Fights erupted that got increasingly bitter so the competition was changed so that all competitors received the same amount of money.

Wig Back with Raggiana Plumes and Hornbill Beak

Throughout the morning we saw several troops perform this same dance. The feathers attached to their wigs differentiated the groups. All Huli wigs use the orange plumes of the Raggiana Bird of Paradise in a puffy clump on crown of the wig. In one group, the Raggiana plumes sprouted the long white streamers of the Ribbon-tailed Astrapia. Another group had attached tiny springs to the magnificent dark tail-feathers of the Brown Sicklebill to give them extra bounce. Some added a few of the long plumes that grew from behind the ears of the King of Saxony Bird of Paradise. These plumes add a special dimension to the finery. They look like little squares of plastic attached to the feather’s spine and though they are three times the length of the bird, he manages them without difficulty. (They appear in the first photo on this page.) Whatever the modification, the plumes waved dramatically as the men leaped in imitation of the respected birds.

Raggiana Bird of Paradise (DS)*

The unfortunate thing about these adornments is that while the feathers are in use by the bird, they fray and lose their quality. For a good show, wig feathers need to be fresh, which means the bird must be killed to acquire new plumage. The Huli do take good care of the feathers and pelts once they are acquired for their wigs, which is a challenge in the humid tropics. After each use, the adornments are removed and carefully stored to prevent deterioration by bugs, temperature and humidity. With care they can last years and might be handed down in the family or loaned out on special occasions to relatives.

Birds of paradise are protected now and only a few can be hunted to fulfill ceremonial needs. Now the Huli happily use dyed chicken feathers and flowers.

Several Huli saw our cameras and approached, pointing to themselves with a smile and a nod. Once we responded by taking a photo, they left with a friendly wave; no demands for money or requests for copies, unusual in my experience. Among the dancers and spectators were quite a few older men who wore unique versions of traditional garb. They used the same basic feathers, and all seemed proud to show us the details of their dress. One man took great pains to show us the cassowary leg bone he wore in his waist belt. Cassowarys are one of the large, flightless birds of the South Pacific region. The thigh bones can be 18 to 24 inches long. For practical use, the joint was left whole at one end, and the other end was cut on the diagonal. Our educator demonstrated the utility of the hollowed bone by pulling out a few bills and winking at us.

Benson stood on the road facing us and watched our backs. I assumed he was alert for pickpockets, but later realized the greater danger was from the milling crowd behind us. When something interesting approached down the road, people surged toward it to see better. Benson was worried they could push us off the wall. He slipped his walking stick past our ankles to tap the foot of someone who was too close by his standards and tell them to get back. I assumed that was what he was saying because we usually had a bit of space behind us. Benson was not from Tari. The language he spoke was probably pidgin but he spoke so fast it was hard for me to tell. Everyone else understood his meaning. As the crowd got thicker, two of the other men with the lodge moved behind us for greater safety.

Superb Bird of Paradise (DS photo)*

I thought it was just a nice coincidence that many of the dance groups started their drums right in front of us until I realized Benson was telling them to do so. They were pleased to oblige. In that situation, I was happy to trust Benson. I know asking them to play set us apart from the people in the crowd, but our white faces did that anyway.

There are two predominate shapes for the ceremonial wigs. One is the flat shape with the wide sides. We also saw quite a few of another traditional shape, one that flared upward, almost like a boat fit sideways on the man’s head. These wigs all have the iridescent breast shield of the Superb Bird of Paradise directly above the forehead of the wearer, backed with a colorful fan of several smaller feathers.

The Huli tribe was not the only one present for the sing-sing though Hulis were in the majority. Members of another tribe had a yellow and red stripe painted across the face from ear to ear. Below the stripe was all black to the sternum and thick yellow paint on their bellies. The fine feathers of the cassowary pelts on their heads flowed over their faces like long straight hair. I heard one of the women near me murmur that they were sorcerers and feared by most people. The black certainly made them appear rather sinister.

Two older men walked by with decorated felt hats. I wondered if they had not been to the wig school and made up their own approximation of the wigs. The men who do grow their wigs are allowed to trade or sell them, but I can’t imagine wearing someone else’s wig.

Women’s Group

A group of women with a sign in pidgin naming their affiliation marched past. Women were bare-breasted and unashamed until they approached us, the few white faces in the crowd. Several covered their breasts when they walked by. We had learned that the people who live on the Sepik River and spend long hours naked in the water thought it humorous that the missionaries arrived and made them cover up their breasts, but now tourists who frequent the beaches wear almost as little as the Sepik river people used to do.

My legs were tiring and I sat down on the wall for a while. Suddenly three white men dressed in suits spun off the road and made a beeline for us. Within a few minutes we learned that the man with the black hat was a missionary who had lived in New Guinea for thirty years, now retired back to Australia and the other two were friends who he had brought from home. Apparently he comes back frequently bringing others, probably a fund raising effort for the New Guinea church. He introduced a dark, pudgy man who stood at his elbow as the Reverend So-and-So who is now doing God’s work, brought out a copies of the Bible and pressed one on each of us. When he invited us for some cool refreshments at Reverend So-and-So’s house, we shook our heads in unison. I, for one, had enough distraction.

We heard a commotion behind us. The people who had been milling around in the open space ran to the fence to see the Prime Minister’s plane land. Now things would really get going, I thought.

The President

Half an hour later, a flat-bed truck approached, a dense throng pressed along the sides. The parade had begun. The woman next to me whispered that it was prime minister and the local governor who stood on the decorated bed.  The truck crept by and the dignitaries waved and smiled.

When the last of the crowd passed we jumped off our wall. One of the women needed to pee. There were no facilities so we returned to the bus for a short drive to find a place with suitable cover. On the way, I remembered other situations at which the politicians arrive to hold the crowds captive with their speeches that go on way longer than I have patience. I raised the possibility to my birding friends of returning to the lodge and they agreed. The others stayed.

After eating our box lunches in the lodge dining room, we went out with our birding group for a rainy and unproductive afternoon. It happens occasionally.

At dinner we learned that there were only speeches and no dancing in the stadium. Small wonder. Politicians don’t like to share the limelight. The women from the lodge who had stayed through the speeches said they were back on the bus before the rain reached the valley.

I made some good choices that day. The Huli were friendly and at ease, and accepted us without suspicion, enjoying a genuine day of celebration. I was privileged to share it with them.


*Photos of birds by our guide, Dave Stejskal (Field Guides) and used with permission.