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Dispute Resolution, Headhunter Style


The Maprik live as their ancestors, in the jungles north of the Sepik River. They are among the fiercest tribes in the world, only recently eliminating headhunting. These simple carved and painted wooden "tops" are in reality a vital part of the cultural stability of native tribes high in the mountains of New Guinea. Only a scant hundred years ago, tribes in those mountains were among the wildest in the world. Known to early explorers and anthro-pologists as "head hunters" and cannibals, their existence seemed to rely on making war on neighboring tribes and celebrating victories with preserving their victims’ heads, after eating of the defeated’s flesh.

Some decades ago, an intrepid anthropologist sought to learn more about the culture of these mountain tribes. He sought to learn of their life and customs. After a weeks’ trek high into the Prince Alexander Range north of the Sepik Basin, he found the MAPRIK PEOPLE, a primitive, stone age settlement of natives who lived as their ancestors had for a thousand years with one major exception, they were no longer head hunters and cannibals.

As do most peoples and cultures throughout the world, whether primitive or civilized, they had disagreements with their neighbors over territory, hunting rights, incursions into another’s property, and so forth. In times past, such abrogation of rights meant immediate and violent conflict. The anthropologist, however, found that the cultural life in that region had changed dramatically and that this primitive, stone age, simple people had found a method of settling disputes that would well serve more advanced civilizations who too often still rely on fighting and warfare to resolve disputes.

In the inaccessible highlands of New Guinea a band of young boys decided to go hunting for food by themselves. They were excited because this was a new and daring adventure. After many hours of hunting they managed to flush their game, a large animal, which they only succeeded in wounding with their blowguns. Feeling eminent success, they heedlessly raced in pursuit of their prey. By clever maneuvering they trapped the animal and completed the kill. Only when they were preparing to carry the carcass back to their village, did the boys realize that they had inadvertently wandered into the territory of a neighboring tribe. Hunting in another tribal area is a major taboo. Visions of a triumphant return with food conflicted with fear of being caught. Believing that they had not been observed, they hurried to return to their tribal area with the spoils of their hunt.

The celebration that greeted their successful return unfortunately did not last long. They had been seen and within a few hours a messenger from the chief of the neighboring tribe arrived with a deadly message - their land had been violated and they demanded not only the return of the food, but the youths who had violated the law as well. The villagers knew this was a serious charge and that the youths would probably never return. The village chief, after hearing the youths’ story, sent a reply. No harm was intended, the animal was wounded in their area and was only chased into the adjacent area by mistake. The chief offered to return the animal and to send additional gifts to the other tribe, but the boys would not be sent.

The response was not long in coming. The boys knew the law, when they took the animal away they broke the law, and they will be punished by the law. After many discussions, the village chief sent a message back that they would not hand over the boys. He knew this response could lead to direct confrontation!

The reply came the next day - if the boys were not handed over immediately there would be conflict between the two tribes. The boys remained in their village and a second message was received, setting the time and place for the confrontation. The warriors were chosen to represent each tribe and they, in turn, prepared themselves for conflict.

On the day of the confrontation, the women of both villages scurried about, preparing a clearing for the conflict. In the middle of the area, three long sticks were arranged in a triangle, each side approximately three feet in length. Each chief selected a group of warriors from his tribe to compete, and the ceremony began. One by one, each warrior took out their personally carved and blessed Y’ALO. As the audience fell silent, the warriors in turn stepped up to a line drawn in the dirt, took the spindle of the top in his thumb and forefinger and threw his hand back, then forward, spinning the top as he threw it to the center of the triangle. The top had to land, still spinning, in the triangle and remain in the triangle for it to count. Each tribe took its turn with a specific number of tops. In the end, the tribe with the most tops in the triangle would be declared winner of the dispute, the disagreement was resolved, and would not be spoken of again. The two neighboring tribes then sat down together and had a feast, prepared by the women on both sides in anticipation of a peaceful outcome of a contentious problem.

In their language, the world Y’alo means more than "top", it also conveys a meaning of "Making the Decision." And the "Dispute Settler." A non-violent way of settling conflicts from the jungles of New Guinea can also serve as an example in the corporate offices of today.

These Y’alos were obtained directly from members of the Maprik tribe in the upper highlands of New Guinea by our representative, a native of New Guinea and long time friend of these people. Because each Y’alo is individually created by different warriors according to their feeling and beliefs, each is very different in design and execution. Curved pieces of coconut shell are intricately and individually carved according to the design in the mind of the warrior making it. A small hole is bored in the center, then a short stick is forced through the hole, and the end is shaped to a point. Paint is applied over the shell according to the desire of the warrior carver. A portion of the sale of these ethnographic pieces of tribal art go directly to the tribe.

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