Wape - History and Cultural Relations

The linguistic and limited cultural data suggest that the Wape migrated from the north coast over the Torricelli Mountains to their present inland home several thousand years ago. The area was first claimed in 1885 by the Germans who were very active on the coast, but there is no evidence that they visited the Wape. After World War II, the Wape area became a part of the League of Nations Mandated Territory of New Guinea administered by Australia; the first government patrols into the area were probably in the early 1920s. The first known material on the Wape was collected in 1926 by E. A. Briggs, a zoologist from the University of Sidney. In the late 1920s and 1930s, labor recruiters and explorers for oil and gold also visited the Wape, who received them peacefully. The Wape were relatively undisturbed by Western intervention until World War II when a small military airstrip and base were established near Lumi village. This post was abandoned after the war; then, in 1947, two Franciscan priests opened a mission station by the Lumi airstrip, and shortly afterward the government established a patrol station nearby. Christian Brethren missionaries also have been active in the area and in the 1980s an indigenous evangelical church began winning some adherents. Nevertheless, most Wape continue to follow the rituals of the ancestors. Although various small-scale developmental schemes have been attempted by the missions and government, none have been very successful and the people remain subsistence farmers. To obtain cash to buy Western commodities, Wape men have relied on work as indentured laborers in other parts of the country. With this source of work no longer available, some Wape villages are being depopulated as families move to coastal towns to find work. In the 1980s an unpaved road reached Lumi from the coastal town of Wewak, but heavy rains and occasional blockades erected by angry landowners along the route make its use problematical.

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