Telefolmin - History and Cultural Relations

Warfare with neighboring peoples was often intense, and in the nineteenth century the Telefolmin waged a successful campaign of annihilation against the Iligimin, whose lands they settled. Contacts with Europeans date from the early part of this century but only became significant after the U.S. Army Air Force built an emergency airstrip in Ifitaman during World War II. The postwar administration established a patrol post at this site, with the first mission following in the early 1950s. By 1953 an accumulation of grievances led to an attempted rebellion, which resulted in the deaths of some government personnel and the imprisonment of a number of local men. Telefolmin entered the cash economy through participation in plantation labor. Mineral exploration in the early 1970s gave rise to hopes for prosperity that grew with national independence in 1975. In 1974-1975 a new form of spirit mediumship emerged, culminating in the Ok Bembem cult aimed at reestablishing contact with the dead. Ok Bembem subsided, but it was followed in 1978-1979 by the Rebaibal, an evangelistic movement inspired by female mediums possessed by the Holy Spirit. Rebaibal resulted in the destruction of men's cult houses (with the significant exception of Telefolip). Rebaibal's goals included conversion to Christianity, closer ties between men and women, the abrogation of traditional cult practices, and the legitimation of the sale of pork for cash. This movement coincided with the introduction of cash crops and the announcement of plans to go ahead with large-scale mining in the area. With the inauguration of the Ok Tedi project in the early 1980s, large numbers of men left their villages for the high wages offered at the mine site.

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