LOCATION: Southern coast of Papua New Guinea
LANGUAGE: Motu (Hiri Motu); Tok Pisin; English
The Motu are a group who live on the southern coast of Papua New Guinea. They occupy a stretch of coastline that was the first area of permanent European settlement on the island of New Guinea. The Motu are well chronicled because of their elaborate annual trading expeditions to distant parts of the Gulf of Papua. The Motu men built large sailing boats called lagatoi, which were multihulled rafts built out of large logs that were lashed together. These rafts were propelled by crab-claw-shaped sails made of coconut fiber. A crew of thirty men was needed to sail one of these vessels. Although the annual hiri (trade) expeditions are no longer undertaken by the Motu, annual ceremonies and events commemorate the tradition.
The Motu homeland is in the Central Province of Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea has been an independent nation since 1975. It occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, the third-largest island in the world. The capital of Papua New Guinea is Port Moresby, a city that divides the traditional Motu territory in half. The first European accounts of the Motu record the same fourteen villages that are still occupied by the Motu today. The Motu coastline has two distinct seasons: a hot, dry period from April to November; and a wet, humid period from November to March. Some Motu have left their villages and moved to small settlements on the outskirts of Port Moresby. Others live in the city itself in modern homes with running water and electricity.
The language of the Motu is related to the other Austronesian languages of New Guinea and the South Pacific region. Austronesian languages are in the minority in Papua New Guinea, and speakers of these languages are usually only found in coastal regions. (The Papuan languages are the majority languages of this island nation.) During their annual trading expeditions, the Motu used a special form of their language referred to now as "Hiri Motu." Some Motu also speak Tok Pisin (an English-based pidgin language) and English.
The existing body of folklore and mythology of the Motu is being lost at a rapid rate due to urbanization and, in some cases, education. In many cases, children no longer have the opportunity to learn the traditional stories of the past. Many Motu stories tell of conflict between the Motu and their neighbors. Stories of the successes of ancestors in raiding neighboring villages are still remembered by some older Motu. Traditional myths tell the origins of the Motu, the development of fire, and the history of the hiri (trading expeditions). These myths and others have been written down and published as small booklets.
Christian missionaries have been active in the area since the earliest Motu-European contact during the 1930s. The vast majority of Motu are Christians. However, some of the traditional beliefs and ceremonies are still maintained in Motu society. The Motu believed in witchcraft and sorcery, but they did not practice it. Instead, they believed that neighboring groups had this power, and the Motu would have to enlist the services of outsiders if they wanted to inflict illness or death on one of their own.
The Motu celebrate Christian holidays. Most Motu participate in the nation's wage-earning work force. Therefore, they also recognize and, in some cases, celebrate the secular (nonreligious) national holidays. The Hiri Festival (commemorating the Motu trade expeditions) is also an important holiday. It gives the Motu a chance to celebrate their traditional heritage and enjoy their traditional dress and entertainment.
The Motu have experienced the effects of modernization more than many other groups in Papua New Guinea. As a result, many of the traditional aspects of their culture have been lost. The stages of life that were integral to traditional Motu society no longer exist. Only the payment of "bride price" (payment by the groom's family to the bride's family) still exists as part of a rite of passage. The transitions from infant to adolescent, adult, and then onward to death, are marked more in the European manner. Birthdays are celebrated by Motu who live in Port Moresby.
The choice of language for Motu greetings is the most important aspect of an interaction. Motus will usually greet each other in Hiri Motu, but also use English and Tok Pisin with some frequency. The choice of language directly reflects the nature of the social relationship between the parties involved.
The kinship terminology of the Motu is the Hawaiian type. (A kinship terminology is the set of terms that a person uses to refer to or address a relative.) In American English, one distinguishes between one's mother and one's aunts, but typically does not distinguish between maternal aunts and paternal aunts. In the Motu system, there are no distinctive words for "mother" and "aunt." Instead, both are referred to by the same term. However, the Motus do distinguish between relatives on the father's side and relatives on the mother's side.
Traditionally, the Motu built their houses in lines that were connected to each other by walkways built over the tidal shallows. A line of houses corresponded to a particular descent group—that is, a group of people related to each other by a common ancestor. Some Motu have chosen to remain in village areas such as these, but have built houses on land. Motu village houses often have corrugated sheet-metal walls, thatched roofs, and plank floors. Some of the Motu who live in traditional villages do not have electricity. They rely on kerosene lanterns for lighting and on battery-operated radios for keeping in touch with the outside world. Urban Motu live in a range of house styles. Wealthy, professional Motu have large houses with all the comforts that most Americans are accustomed to having.
The nuclear family is the basic unit of social organization among the Motu. Households were traditionally linked together by a shared walkway and a shared cooking area.
Marriage among the Motu today has changed from when Europeans first encountered them. Today, the Motu are monogamous. In precolonial times, men of status and wealth often had several wives. Motu marriages were arranged in traditional times, and there were many restrictions on potential spouses. Child betrothal (engagement) was quite common. Gift exchange occurred frequently until the final bride price (goods given by the groom's family to the bride's family) was paid and the marriage was finalized. The modern Motu are free to choose their marriage partners. Wealthy Motu families have inflated bride prices, which has lengthened the time it takes for a marriage to become finalized.
Traditional clothing for Motu women consisted of a grass fiber skirt. They did not wear any footwear or any covering on their upper bodies, which were frequently tattooed. For ceremonies and other important occasions, both men and women would oil their skin. Feathers, flowers, and the leaves of croton plants were used to decorate women's hair, and were also placed in arm-bands (worn on the upper arms). Traditional dress is still used by the Motu for ceremonial events such as bride-price payments, weddings, and canoe races. Urban Motus wear Western-style clothing.
The traditional foods of the Motu were fish, yams, and bananas. They also collected shellfish and crabs. The Motu traded with their neighbors and also went on trading expeditions to far-away villages. Nowadays, Western foodstuffs have become staples. Tinned fish and canned Indonesian curry dishes are popular foods. Rice and tea are also important foods that are purchased in shops and grocery stores, where American products such as boxed cereals, soft drinks, and hot dogs are also sold. Although village families often cook together, Motu nuclear families eat separately.
Traditional education was structured along sex lines. Boys learned adult male activities from their male relatives; females learned adult female activities from their females relatives. Nowadays, public education is available to the Motu and almost all families take advantage of it. Some Motu go on to college at one of the national colleges or universities, such as the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby.
Traditional dances were very impressive. They often were intricate group dances. Men and women wore elaborate face paint and feather headdresses. Dancing was accompanied by drumming, and sometimes, singing. The Motu use hand-held, hourglass-shaped drums called kundu . Dancing was discouraged by Christian missionaries. As a result, many of the traditional ceremonial dances are no longer performed and are forgotten. Some dances are still performed on important occasions and for tourists who visit Motu villages.
The traditional division of labor in Motu society was along sex lines. Men built houses and canoes, constructed fishing nets, fished, and participated in trading expeditions. Women made the pottery that the men took to trade on the hiri (trading) voyages. Women also cooked, fetched water, and gathered foodstuffs. Both men and women tended the garden where limited crops were grown. Today, both men and women seek wage labor outside their villages, usually in Port Moresby. Many Motu hold white-collar (professional) jobs. Traditional industries are all but lost, with only a few still remaining for demonstration at festivals and ceremonies.
Rugby is both a spectator and participant sport throughout Papua New Guinea. Motu who live or work in Port Moresby watch league (semiprofessional) rugby. Canoe races are an important form of recreation for the Motu. The canoes are modeled on traditional styles, but are constructed of modern materials.
For Motu who live in or near Port Moresby, movie houses, clubs, and pubs are places for entertainment. The national beauty pageant that crowns "Miss Papua New Guinea" for competition in larger, regional pageants is an important event for those living in Port Moresby. Motu are always well represented in this event.
Art among the Motu was limited to pottery made by women, and to the elaborate body tattoos of women. Many Pacific societies have given up the practice of tattooing. However, some Motu girls and young women are still being tattooed. Patterns are geometric in nature, with some Christian motifs having become part of the imagery.
Maintaining the distinctiveness of their culture in the face of urbanization and modernization is a challenge for the present-day Motu. The Motu language has lost some ground to the popularity of Tok Pisin among young people. Larger problems are alcohol and drug abuse, and the spread of HIV (the AIDS virus).
Groves, M. "Hiri." In The Encyclopedia of Papua New Guinea, ed. P. Ryan. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1972.
Holdsworth, David. Festivals and Celebrations in Papua New Guinea. Bathurst, Australia: Robert Brown & Associates, 1982.