Discovering Traditional Cultures: Meeting the Tribes of Papua New Guinea

04/12/2023

Papua New Guinea is known as a colourful land, rich in culture and tradition. Papua New Guinea tribes are also some of the most welcoming in the world, and one of the best ways to meet and learn more is by attending some of the wonderful festivals that are held every year. In Papua New Guinea culture, tribal gathering groups known as ‘sing-sings’ are very important, and form the basis of many national festivals.

If you’re planning to visit Papua New Guinea, watching sing-sing performances and participating in festivals provides you a unique glimpse into another world. Here are just some of the incredible cultural events that allow you to meet the tribes of Papua New Guinea.

Mount Hagen Festival

The Mount Hagen Cultural Show takes place in the Western Highlands Province each year. It was first held in 1961 in an effort to bring tribes together as somewhat of a peace initiative. Usually held at the Kagamuga Showground in Mount Hagen, the event attracts over 100 tribal groups from the Western Highlands and beyond. The festival’s primary focus is a traditional dance competition, but there’s a lot more going on than mere dancing.

Tribes wear body decorations, colourful traditional costumes and vibrant face painting
Tribes wear body decorations, colourful traditional costumes and vibrant face painting

The Mount Hagen Cultural Show also encompasses singing, music, arts and crafts and, of course, showcases Papua New Guinea’s love of elaborate tribal costumes. While the event is financially rewarding for the winners, it’s also an important cultural event. Cultural shows and sing-sings of this nature help to preserve traditions and keep younger people involved in the ways of the past. In many ways, festivals like the Mount Hagen Cultural Show help to keep ancient customs and languages alive, and it’s all on display for visitors to view and even participate in.  

Goroka Festival

As one of Papua New Guinea’s largest tribal gatherings, the Goroka Festival goes hand in hand with the country’s Independence Day celebrations. It is held every September in the Eastern Highlands Province, typically in Goroka Town. While being an important cultural event, it was actually first held in 1957, primarily organised by Australian patrol officers.

The Goroka Festival brings together more than 100 tribes, each of them showcasing their different elaborate costumes and dance performances. It’s also the largest sing-sing in Papua New Guinea, involving a range of performances, competitions, arts and crafts, local cuisine and plenty of history.

Rabaul Mask Festival

Just like all of Papua New Guinea’s festivals, the Rabaul Mask Festival is a colourful display of cultural identity. Masks, traditional dress, dance performances and more are a big part of this festival, although it is somewhat different from traditional sing-sing. While still plenty of fun, there is a strong focus on history during this festival based in Kokopo.

Ancestral and spirit masks are worn whilst performing ritual dances
Ancestral and spirit masks are worn whilst performing ritual dances

Tribes gather on the foreshore to display their traditional masks, which is always a colourful affair. Combined with music and dance, the Rabaul Mask Festival culminates in the traditional Bainings Fire Dance. Initiated men from the Bainings clans perform stunning dances while immersed in fire. They remain unharmed, but it is truly a unique experience that doesn’t occur anywhere else in the world.

Ambunti Crocodile Festival

In Papua New Guinea culture, the crocodile is considered a sacred entity. Each year in the Sepik River region, tribes gather to celebrate the relationship between man and crocodile. Sing-sing groups bring with them a range of colourful outfits, crafts, music and storytelling. Dancers perform the traditional crocodile dance, which is a symbolic performance that shows how highly the crocodile is held in Papua New Guinea traditions. The Ambunti Crocodile Festival also gives visitors the chance to explore the rich culture of the region and understand more about the significance of crocodile preservation.

For the Sepik River communities, the crocodile symbolises strength, power and manhood
For the Sepik River communities, the crocodile symbolises strength, power and manhood

 

Siwai Cultural Show

Unlike some of the larger sing-sings and festivals that have been part important for Papua New Guinea tribes for decades, the Siwai Cultural Show is relatively new. First staged in 2021, it is held annually in the Siwai District of South Bougainville. Through chanting voices, dance performances, traditional dress and, of course, plenty of colour, the Siwai Cultural Show is a powerful spectacle. Patriotism is on full display, and being such a new festival, it is full of life and energy. For those wishing to see a display that blends cultural and traditional ties with a more unified future, the Siwai Festival is a must-see.

Kenu and Kundu Festival

Each year, tribes from all over Papua New Guinea come for the Kenu and Kundu festival. Held in Alotau in the Milne Bay Province, this festival celebrates the maritime legacy of the region. Like many other festivals, tribes battle it out through dance performances, sing-sings and a rich display of traditional outfits, all of which are colourful and eye-catching.

However, where the Kenu and Kundu festival differs from others is in its showcasing and racing of war canoes. Seafarers for generations, Papua New Guinea tribes love sharing their prowess in an exhilarating race held to the sound of pounding Kundu drums.

If you’re interested in seeing Papua New Guinea culture and tradition in all its glory, contact Crooked Compass today. We’ve got a range of perspective-shifting adventures encompassing some of the most vibrant festivals PNG has to offer.