In early 2012, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recognized the noken, a traditional Papua bag, as a world cultural heritage that needed urgent attention, for the culture of noken-making among Papua's 250 tribes is fast disappearing.
Neles Tebay, a peace activist and Papua community leader confirmed this trend. Neles, who recently received the Tji Haksoon Human Rights Award from South Korea, said that the noken contains a valuable cultural value, which needs to be preserved. Tempo correspondent Jerry Omona met Neles at his office in the campus of the Fajar Timur Institute of Theology in Jayapura two weeks ago, to discuss the history and future of the noken, one of Papua's cultural icons. Excerpts:
What is the significance of the noken in the life of the Papuans?
Besides being a practical bag to carry things, philosophically the noken contains 'life's items.' We refer to it as a (symbol of) fountain of knowledge and thinking. There is meaning in the way it is made. For example, when the maker washes the knotted bottom part, he or she invokes a certain prayer, to plead for the strength to have only good thoughts.
Where does it stand in terms of tradition?
Some tribes use the noken as a symbol of initiation. Among the Mee tribal people, who live in the western part of Papua, when children reach the age of eight years, the elders will present them with nokens filled with 'wisdom, religious values and spiritual strength.' This ritual is usually done in the middle of the forest. To symbolize that they have gone through this initiation process, the children get a noken and a new name, In line with his or her character.
Why is it slowly disappearing?
The raw materials to produce it, like orchids and tree barks are becoming more difficult to obtain. Today, people must go deep inside the jungle to find them. In Painai, orchids used to grow in one's backyard, but not anymore. Besides, children spend a lot of time in schools, leaving them littletime to learn how to make a noken.
What should be done to conserve the noken?
The government must secure the continuing availability of the special thread by cultivating the orchid. This could motivate people to replant orchids in their backyards, so they no longer have to go far into the jungles to look for it. The government must also stop being a 'Santa Claus' who gives out money to the people. This creates a sense of dependency, causing them to shirk from work and stop making the noken.
More on this interview is available in this week's edition of Tempo English.