Who are the Dani People of Baliem Valley?


Deep in the highlands of Western New Guinea, Indonesia, lives one of the world’s most isolated tribes – The Dani People.

The Dani remained unknown to the outside world until the 1930s. When explorers discovered a Dani tribe in 1938 they had no metal tools. They used wooden spears, bows and arrows and stone tools. The first permanent contacts were not made until the 1950s. Michael Rockefeller had been with the Dani during the last great Dani tribal war. In the 1960s the Dutch government launched a program of pacification that was continued by the Indonesian government.

Dani huts
Dani huts

The Dani have traditionally been animists who believed in local gods and water spirits. Particular attention was given to the restless ghosts of the recently deceased. A great effort was made to ensure they were placated so they didn’t cause illnesses, troubles or create imbalances, which may or may not be rectified by men with special powers.

Daily life for the Dani people has included using tools that have traditionally been made of stone, bone, pig tusk, wood and bamboo. Stone used to make axes and adze was often obtained from other groups through trading. Jale men use bows, arrows and hatchets for weapons. Hatchet also doubled as gardening tools. The Dani traditionally had no pottery or cloth, even bark cloth. Sting and material for skirts and nets were obtained from the bark of trees. Containers were made from gourds. Body armour was made from rattan. Arrows were unfletched, with notched and barbed (but not poisoned) tips. By the 1980s, cloth, metal axes, knives and shovels were widely used and thrown-away plastic bottles were used instead of gourds.

Dani men traditionally cleared the land and maintained the irrigation systems that drain off water in the wet season and supplies it in the dry season. Women plant, harvest and sell the sweet potato crop and transport items such as firewood, water and vegetables on building planks on their heads. Among the Jale, both sexes farmed while, males hunted bird and game while females trapped insects, lizards and frogs.

Dani men go around naked except for a koteka (penis gourd), and occasionally some bird of paradise feathers, cowry shells or pig tusks or a hair net as an ornament. The penis gourds are kept erect with thread that is attached to the top and looped around the waist. Jale men wear long penis sheaths and rattan skirts that look like a bunch of skinny hula hoops piled on top of one another. In the 1970s, the Indonesian government tried to eradicate the penis gourds but the effort was largely a failure.

Dani tribe
Dani tribe

Unmarried women have traditionally worn grass skirts while married women wore a skirt made of fibre coils or seeds strung together and hung below the abdomen to cover the buttocks. Older Dani women often go topless. Younger women began to cover their breasts several decades ago. Women of all ages are often seen carrying bark string backpacks with their heads in which they carry children, piglets, sweet potatoes or other items. To keep themselves warm on cold nights, Dani has traditionally rubbed pig fat on their bodies instead of wearing clothes. In an efforts to get the Dani to cover their naked bodies aid workers for the Indonesian government air-dropped dresses and trousers.

Fast forward to modern times and some Dani people are trying to enter the market economy by growing and selling rice and leading treks into the highland forests. In the Baliem Valley, Indonesian immigrants hold most of the good government positions and own most of the private businesses. Most Dani people labour at menial jobs or stick to subsistence farming, however, some of the Dani people make a relatively good living by posing in penis gourds and grass skirts for traveller photos, showing visitors their revered mummies and performing mock battles in front of visitors to the region.

More information about this experience can be found on our website. If you would like to make this experience yours then contact us so we can help you secure your spot on this amazing adventure of a lifetime – places are limited. We look forward to welcoming you on our Baliem Valley Festival tour.