The Murik Lake People of Papua New Guinea

This is the continuation of a series of posts on Papua New Guinea. For the most part, these posts will be on the ethnic groups (or tribes as they are often called) that I visited over the approximately three months that I traveled through coastal and island PNG villages during the period of 2017-2018. Some of what I write here is based on observations and discussions that I had with local people; some is based on the many ethnographies written by anthropologists about these same people.

These posts are basically snapshots of a handful of the fascinating cultures of Papua New Guinea. I’m starting with the Murik culture because it was my first stop on my most recent trip. Second post will be a small introduction to the Sepik region.

This post is on the people of the Murik Lakes area at the mouth of the Sepik. I visited one of the five main village three times in February and March of 2018: Mendam is a small village of 400-500 people. In addition to my observations, I’ve relied heavily on the work of the anthropologist, David Lipset, who has done extensive fieldwork in the Murik region.


The Murik Lake People

The Murik people live along the north coast just off the mouth of the Sepik in the Sepik estuary. They live in five main villages in an area of mangrove lakes, swamps and sandy beaches. This area makes up the largest mangrove ecology in PNG.

The Murik, according to legend, migrated to the area from around the town of Angoram around 400 years ago. They have had extensive contact with Austronesian-speaking people along the coast and nearby islands, as well as with non-Austronesian groups living up along the Sepik River.

The population is around 3,500 in five traditional villages, although population statistics are fairly flexible in PNG. An example: in one village that I visited in another area of the Sepik four times over a one-month period, I was told that the population was 3,000, then 4,000 and finally 5,000.  So, unless these folks were reproducing rapidly, the numbers are not set in stone.

In addition to their traditional home land, some Murik live in the town of Wewak where they seek a cash income. The Murik presence in Wewak, the capital of the East Sepik Province, has been ongoing for decades. The Murik tend to live in rather rough squatter camps in Wewak, similar to people from the Chambri Lakes region of the Sepik.


The Murik people have long been in contact with the coastal Austronesian groups that settled in this area some 2,500 years ago. Trade relations led to cultural exchanges as well, as can be seen in some of the Murik dances, carvings, and marriage patterns.

First contact with foreigners was in 1616 with the Dutch captain Jacob Le Maire.

Because of the poor quality of the land, the Murik were basically left alone by colonists. However, a German Catholic mission was established around 1913. Some German troops under a rogue commander burned men’s houses and destroyed sacred objects during this period, not exactly endearing them with the Murik people.

During the Australian period between WWI and WWII, some Murik began to leave the villages for work. This generally consisted of domestic type work for the missions. The Japanese arrived in 1944 and spent a year in the Murik Lakes region.

After the war, some Murik began to seek Western-style education and employment. Papua New Guinea’s first PM was Michael Somare from the Murik village of Karau.

Residences, Village Life, Architecture

Similar to most houses in the Sepik River region, houses here are built on stilts from just a few feet above ground level to as much as about 8 feet above the ground. While at one time the ideal was to have houses arranged by descent groups, that pattern is less likely to be followed these days because of the frequent flooding of the land. Extended families usually live together until it gets too crowded

Like all groups along the Sepik, the Murik have men’s cult houses, although not every village has one. While I was visiting Mendam, I asked where the haus tambaran (the spirit house) was and was told that the village didn’t have one. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to get more details on why there wasn’t a spirit house in the village. While it’s possible that the house just wasn’t open for tourist viewing, that seems unlikely as one of the major points of interest for tourist groups is visiting the spirit houses where they have a chance to learn some local history, hear a little traditional music and sometimes by some artifacts. So, that’s something that I hope to learn on another trip to Mendam village.


Because of the geography, subsistence activities center on fishing and trade, with a little hunting. The staple is sago, which is generally traded for because of the scarcity of sago palms. In addition to sago, the other common foods are fish and shellfish that are abundant in the area. The villages also have coconut groves that can be harvested.

There is little arable land in most of the villages so the Murik don’t have much garden produce. During the dry season when the waters retreat, a few small gardens can be rapidly planted, but for the most part, the Murik are dependent on trade for vegetables. Manufactured items such as pots and plates are sought in exchange for baskets.

Because a cash economy has become so pervasive in PNG and lacking land to grow cash-crops and trees to sell to the foreign concessions, the Murik are dependent on the occasional sales of carvings and baskets, as well as remittances from family members who have moved to the cities to engage in paid labor. I was told in Mendam (as I was in all of the villages that I visited) that they welcomed tourism because it provided a cash income and encouraged the younger members of the community to keep up with the traditional culture.

In addition to food and some manufactured items, important trade items include magic, songs and dances, and designs for artwork.

Sociopolitical organization

Leadership in Murik villages generally goes to the senior men of the various descent groups. This usually means the first born, as primogeniture is the rule for the Murik. When there are disputes within the village, they are discussed in the men’s house with the senior men having the most say. If this fails, then there are village courts that can adjudicate the problems at hand.

While in the past warfare was a common solution to solving conflicts between groups, including problems between Murik villages, these days a serious attempt is made to talk things out. Still violence is an option at times. Sexual jealousy is a common cause of conflict within and between villages.

Marriage, Family, Kinship

Marriage tends to be somewhat unstable until children come along. No special rituals or rules for marriage other than obtaining the consent of parents and following the rules of exogamy. Where once they may have practiced brother-sister exchange, which is a preferred form of marriage where one family o

r group will exchange a woman (someone’s sister), now they do not bother with that. The Murik do not practice bride wealth but do have bride service, which is where a man works for a period of time for his father-in-law.

Couples can choose where to live. In the case of divorce, they may return to their parents’ houses. Children are encouraged to be independent; the eldest are expected to care for the younger ones.  And just as in the culture where I live, elder sibs tend to have fun teasing their younger siblings, at least until the parents hear the fuss that this causes.

According to Lipset, “Unlike the highlands peoples with a culture that tends to be highly misogynistic, the Murik, partly due to their geographical location, have a culture where gender is not highly stratified, but rather where men and women are interdependent and work together in a mode more like the Austronesian cultures of the offshore islands, while remaining well within the Sepik tradition.”

Magic and Religion

Christianity came to the village of Big Murik in 1911 with the Catholics. In 1951, the Seventh Day Adventists set up a mission in Darapap Village. So, while Christianity has a long history here, the traditional beliefs are still practiced. This co-existence of Christianity and traditional religion is commonly found throughout Papua New Guinea.

Magic is alive and well (and sometimes not so well) in Papua New Guinea. From villagers to urban dwellers, magic still has a strong place in the peoples’ world views. The Murik believe in many spirits that can, like human beings, be good or bad, cause illness, death and misfortune or help control the weather, make the crops grows, regulate social life, heal the sick and attract a mate. Ancestor spirits play a key role in the Murik belief system, but there are also animistic spirits that need to be addressed in daily living.

Murik stories about their identity are about ancestor-spirits who, unlike the ancestors of other groups, are not superhuman or gods, but rather ancestor-spirit men and women who are superior to regular men and women only in degree. They do not possess divine powers, but resolve conflicts and problems through essentially human means, but their spirit world is inhabited by talking animals, ogres and similar creatures. Origin legends revolve around a pair of spirit-men who are brothers.

Art and Music

Men are carvers; women weave baskets.  The women’s baskets are distinctive and rarely found in other cultures along the Sepik. As with many of the ethnic groups in the Sepik River area, the Murik have a distinctive style of carving. Masks tend to display a stylized oblong form. A carving school for youths to keep the art alive and for people who felt there was nothing in the modern world for them was started by a well-known former politician who owns a large resort in Madang and who is frequently on the Sepik River with his luxury yacht filled with tourists who want to experience the cultures of the Sepik River.

The Murik people have their own style of dance and drama. They are especially proud of their short humorous plays that they perform for visiting tourists. The actors are all male and a common theme is a misunderstanding during a traditional activity, often an initiation ritual.


As with other groups, a need for cash income leads some people away from home- temporarily or permanently.

Climate change poses another challenge. Due to their geographical location, the Murik have experience intense flooding from tidal changes. Several villages have been completely washed out in the recent past. The Murik Lakes Resettlement Project (MLRP) was started in 2003 but failed. Local initiatives followed, and a new village was built after the 2011 tsunami. Temporary solutions have yet to lead to permanent ones. This is the challenge for the Murik and other coastal dwelling people today.

Increased access to education offers the hope of employment outside the village. For villagers who move into the modern economy, there can be a disconnect with “traditional” culture. Bridging the gap is a challenge for the new generation

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Modernity and Tradition at Home and Away

As Zoey and I return home from our morning walk around the city, she’s drawn in to a number of rapid fire conversations with her kampung friends (she spends more time out playing everyday with friends now; Grandpa time often takes second place to playtime in the neighborhood). She’s smart and sassy, so much like her mother, grandmother and youngest aunt; my oldest daughter and youngest son take more after me – thoughtful and somewhat reticent in dealing with others. Zoey gets into a verbal taunt with a friend who is twice her age, and she holds her ground. She switches off effortlessly into English with me when she asks if it’s ok to play with her friends rather than come upstairs to her room to play with me. She grabs some snacks that she’s bought at the mini-market, gives one to a friend and off she goes.

A group of these little kampung urchins gather round to watch a neighbor who’s crafting a new outrigger boat. The kids still learn about traditional ways by watching the adults; none of the adults mind the audience unless they get in the way of the work. It’s a scene that’s gone on in this kampung for hundreds of years. But one of them pulls out a tablet and snaps a photo of his uncle at work, modernity is never far away or totally separated from the traditional life. The kids blend them together without a thought. Their toys include store-bought dolls and laser guns, castoff plastic plates from a recent ceremony and some oddly shaped pebbles that have washed up from the sea in a recent storm.  This kind of childhood is far from my own Chicago child life: we rarely interacted with adults, dads were at some sort of work that we only vaguely understood and moms were at home cooking and cleaning. Here it’s like Tom Sawyer and Kim all rolled into one, set against the beautiful Bali Sea in a somewhat seedy fishing kampung.

I’ve been trying to get a grasp on the issue of modernity versus tradition (if it’s really a binary thing, and it certainly doesn’t appear to be) in PNG, but it dawns on me that very similar processes are at work here. Maybe that’s what has thrown me off integrating my most recent trip to PNG into my somewhat idiosyncratic world view. I was having dinner with a few guests on the cruise ship and one of them remarked that my wife sounded very traditional.

That remark just came to mind today while I was cleaning the house and moving some of my wife’s traditional medicines out of the way. The smell of jajan (a wonderful variety of baked goods) rises up to my room from my wife’s kitchen. She’s cooking for the 40-day ceremony for my new grandson. She still makes everything from scratch even though she could more easily buy the things she cooks in a bakery or supermarket. My wife is about as traditional as you can get here, but the tablet that she uses for her regular Facebook postings is never far from reach.

Tradition and modernity are all around me, but I miss a lot of it because in so many ways, I really have (as I’ve been accused of by several former anthropologist colleagues) gone native for  the most part and so what seems strange and exotic to Western outsiders is just another regular, non-remarkable event for me that I gloss over like so many of the ceremonies and colorful cultural artifacts that bring millions of visitors to this tiny island every year.

And then there’s tourism that gets thrown in this mix. I came here as a tourist as all of the foreigners who live here did, but over the years I’ve grown to view tourism mostly through its negative aspects. But tourism is one of the economic and cultural forces that I’ve come to reconsider after my month on the Sepik River. And accordingly, I need to do so here as well. Lots of things to reconsider; that in itself is actually refreshing as the events of the last six months have shaken me out of my tropical lull and started me on taking a look at the local and the foreign in some new ways.

The movement from tradition to modernity doesn’t have a simple linear trajectory; it twists and turns, advances and retreats. Some aspects of modernity are adopted and modified to fit into the regular flow of life; technology seems to be the easiest path to be adapted, ideology the hardest. And there’s the sticky problem of the definition of both modernity and tradition. This is a current issue in many of the places that I’ve visited in PNG. What’s tradition, what’s custom, what’s good tradition, what’s bad, what’s the difference between tradition and custom. One example: are young ladies in the Trobriand following tradition when they dance topless in front of camera-clicking (and cash-paying) tourists? And if it’s tradition, is it good tradition or bad tradition. And then there’s land issues. Here the issue revolves less around land problems (a common point of contention in PNG) and more around how cultural actions are played out whether it’s in death rituals, religious rituals or the political translation and mobilization of the two.

In both Indonesia and Papua New Guinea there are serious existential concerns about the viability of traditional culture under the onslaught of 21st century modernity and globalization. However, they are opposite sides of the same coin;  Bali is concerned with too much tourism, Papua New Guinea with too little.  Finding a balance seems to be the commonsense solution to Bali’s problem, although the eyes of the powers that control such things here seem to be blinded by the color of money. It’s always the more the better. But this issue in Bali has been discussed since colonial days, and with no solution in sight, it’s easy enough to take the cynical view that nothing will change until the whole fragile system collapses under its own weight. For PNG, well that’s something for another post.

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Thinking of Papua New Guinea: Part I,

I have some time today; Su and Zoey went south to visit her sister in the hospital. There’s some time then to get back to trying to unravel what’s happened to me during my 11 weeks in PNG. I’ve started two posts, but they have both started to unravel under some invisible weight of change – it’s the change thing that has me disoriented. I’m not sure if it’s a change in ideology, in worldview, or in some ambiguous theoretical stance (although to be honest, I lost my Marxist/Freudian theoretical stance during the crazy month thirty some years ago when I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation).

So, I’ve been flopping around the house since I returned from a month on the Sepik River, taking care of my granddaughter, fixing things around the house, and worrying about my children and grandchildren. But, running in the back of all this has been the need to get a grip on what happened in PNG.

Zoey has her bilums (net bags that everyone wears and uses in PNG and in Indonesian Papua as well, although they call them nokens over there) spread out all over her room; I didn’t know if she would like them as gifts, but she stuffs things down inside and says, “I have a surprise inside my bilum, Grandpa, do you know what it is?” And then there are the masks that I brought back and have hanging on the wall and the sacred flutes that Zoey likes me to play. So PNG is in my awareness constantly.

Living on a cruise ship is, in itself, a surrealistic enough experience, but add to that the destinations – small villages (and some not so small villages) and islands known to most of the outside world primarily through guide books and the anthropological writings of Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Reo Fortune and a slew of folks who have followed up on their work. I just happened to find an anthropologist who had been through this experience years before me; another American living over in this corner of the world who had worked on the same cruise ship that I have just finished traveling on. She wasn’t an academic anthropologist, she called herself (at least on her blog) as an applied anthropologist, and it turned out she had a blog where she wrote about her life in PNG.

Unfortunately, she passed away in one of those unexplained and tragic auto accidents while she was back visiting in the US. But she has this blog that is still online and through it, I’ve started to get some feel for what it may be that I’m looking for.

A Jump Start from the Homeland

I was looking back on what I wrote above yesterday while watching the always depressing news about what is happening in Trumpland, and the realization suddenly hit me that what I’ve been thinking around – not able to get to it head-on for some reason – and what it was that startled me about being in PNG was resilience.

Kopar Village, PNG

Despite everything, all the difficulties of living in remote areas with no immediate access to education and health care and often running water, as well as the lack of direct assistance from the government, was the sense of the resilience of the people that I met over 11 weeks. They are working on finding the path that leads to a successful blending of modernity and tradition. And with that, I’ll leave more until the next post.

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