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Veronika KanemIsland Conversations
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"Island Notes" composition in Cretan Flat Mandolin by Christophoro Gorantokaki @"Melody Box"

Welcome to SICRI’s “island conversations” podcast series.

The aim of these podcasts is to highlight the work of island studies scholars and practitioners who make a significant contribution to islands’ research, arts, and culture landscape.

The podcasts are accompanied by a curated transcript that is edited to read as an independent piece.

Evangelia Papoutsaki: 

Welcome to SICRI's Island Conversations Podcast series. This is Evangelia Papoutsaki, the host of this podcast and SICRI’s co-convener. Today, we have with us Veronika Kanem, a West Papuan Ph.D. candidate at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Arts, Māori and Pacific Studies in Aotearoa New Zealand. Veronika holds a Master's degree in Women's and Gender Studies from the University of Waikato, and prior to her graduate studies, she was a project manager at Livelihood Project Bintuni at Yayasan SATUNAMA in Yogyakarta, a non-profit organization that operates in the field of community empowerment through mentoring, advocacy, and training. Prior to that, she was also the program manager at the Justice and Peace Commission of Merauke Archdiocese.


Veronika, welcome to this Island Conversations Podcast.


Veronika T. Kanem. Credit: Veronika Kanem

Veronika T. Kanem: Thank you! Thank you for inviting me.


It's such a pleasure because I feel there is a connection here between the two of us. I used to work in Papua New Guinea. I had so many colleagues from West Papua so I'm looking forward to having this conversation with you on a part of that island that I didn't really have the chance to visit physically.  On that note, we would like to invite you to tell us a little bit about West Papua and the island you grew up, your family and your community background, some early memories you have of your island community and some of the cultural and social practices as you were growing up in West Papua.


Thank you. I come from Merauke. Merauke is located in the south of West Papua. If you can see the map, which is very close to Australia, and in the East, we are bordered by Papua New Guinea. Merauke is a little town, but recently, it's grown a lot. I mean, it's getting bigger because it's become a province, South Papua Province. And I'm a wife, I'm a daughter, and I'm an aunty. I was born and grew up in Merauke. My father is a West Papuan from the Muyu tribe, and my mom is an Indonesian from East Java. She migrated to West Papua in 1970 because of job opportunities.


So, I grew up in two different cultural backgrounds, and also, I grew up in a Catholic family because my father is a Catholic. My mom used to be Muslim, but because of the marriage, she converted to Catholicism. So, it's quite interesting how I grew up with two different ethnicities. It's just enriched my cultural knowledge and also my other experiences in life.

Mopah market in Merauke, photo Veronika

Mopah market in Merauke. Credit: Veronika Kanem, 2022

How was it growing up in a village with a mixed cultural background?

Merauke is in an urban area. I grew up in that urban area because of my father’s mobility history in the 1970s. He ended up living in Merauke after he got married to my mom. My father, who had left his village many years ago, had very rarely the chance to return to his village because of so many different reasons. That's why I grew up in an urban area, and I had never visited my father's village [prior to doing my research there], so there has been a disconnection between my father’s village and Merauke where I grew up. That really interested me in learning more about my father's village because, as you know, Merauke is a multicultural area. 


Let me tell you a little bit about the history after the Dutch colonial [powers] [note: The Dutch planned to make West Papua to be an independent nation. However, with the intervention of the UN, the Act of Free Choices was conducted in 1969, and Indonesia successfully administrated West Papua until today]. After the [UN]  Act of Free Choice, the state government set up a transmigration program, and Merauke became one of the transmigration destinations. That's why a lot of people moved from other parts of Indonesia to Merauke and settled there. So, I grew up [among] multicultural ethnicities and religions because, in Merauke, there are many Indonesians who live there. So, I'm an urban woman who has Muyu roots, but I had never visited my father’s village. That also lead me to learn more about my father’s culture [and this] is also one of the reasons why I undertake a PhD study. 


Did your father speak to you in his tribal language, or did you speak in [Bahasa], the lingua franca [of Indonesia].

That's a really interesting question because due to the history and past mobility of the Muyu people, and also the influence of Indonesia in West Papua, especially in Merauke, or in my father’s tribe, people moved to many different places and Indonesia language was taught in school government sectors. That's why most of us use or we speak Bahasa Indonesian.  Even my father, he very rarely uses or speaks in his traditional language. Of course, he understood it well, but even if I asked my father today, he would say, “Oh, I can't speak that language again,” because you know the past mobility of the people.  So we speak Bahasa. And my mom also introduced her traditional language to us. So, we can kind of understand what she said, and we also understand what my father said. But basically, we use [Bahasa] Indonesian with Papuan dialect in our daily conversation. Bahasa Indonesian in Papua has some of the local languages’ vocabulary infused in that people in other parts of Indonesia will not understand it.


So, it is not like in Papua New Guinea, where we have Tok Pisin or Pidgin that everyone speaks because, I guess it's the same in Papua as in PNG, [there are so] many local languages. [note: the Papua island is one of the most linguistically diverse places on the planet; PNG has over 840 distinctive languages, and West Papua has over 300; see here on Papua languages]


Yes, I think it's something like that […] basically, we use Bahasa Indonesian, but there is more [local] vocabulary [included] that other people or outsiders cannot understand us. And we also use so many Dutch words due to the colonial history. We have adopted some of these words until today.


Give us some examples of some of these Dutch words that you have absorbed.


For example, we say, Kakkerlak, is it like cockroach in English? […] these are some of the Dutch words that Indonesians also use. We also use something like Handuk [which] is a towel, and Wastafel is a like a thing that we can use for washing hands [sink], those kind of words we still use until today.


You mentioned that you grew up in a mixed household in an urban area. What was your earliest sense of self as being a Papua person or a mixed person? What was that moment when you felt that you come from a very distinctive part of Indonesia?


Honestly, I was very confused when I was little because first, my mum often took me to the market where my aunties from my father's side were selling their local produce there. Beside my auntie's stalls, there were some Indonesian traders, too, who knew my mom very well, and at that time, my auntie and those Indonesian traders had no arguments but a chat. And my auntie said, “Oh, this this little girl is from the Muyu tribe. We are very proud of her”. But the other Indonesians there said, “Yes, but her mother is Indonesian,” or something like that. But I can see how my mum play a very important role at the time, she brought me to the market very often, and brought me to see my father’s family and relatives there, and tried to connect [me] with them. At the time, I also learned about my father’s culture at the market space […] Well, I'm just very proud of being a Papuan, but I cannot deny or refuse that my mom is Indonesian, even though she lives now in Papua for many years, and she very rarely visits her family in East Java. But even my mum can speak my father dialects very well, because she's often came to market space and interacted with my father’s relatives. So, it's quite an interesting story of my mother.

Traditional Market in Waropko, photo Veronika Kanem, 2022.jpeg

Traditional Market in Waropko. Credit: Veronika Kanem, 2022

Yes, and in a way, what you're saying is just a picture of that. […] Post-Dutch [Indonesian] independence defined really the fate of Papua in so many ways. […] one island, one straight [colonial] line that divides the island into Papua New Guinea which is an independent country and the other [Papua, part of Indonesia]. [PNG] has a different colonial history with the British and the Germans, [while] the other, west part of the island, which is Papua [remains part of Indonesia] and has had so many different names. I understand now it's no longer [called] West Papua, it's Papua, part of Indonesia. You mentioned, for instance, this policy of internal migration [transmigration] that has created this mixed ethnic population, particularly in urban areas and you are an example of that.   Could you share with us some of the wider political, economic and social issues in Papua and the connection to Papua New Guinea? 


As I mentioned before, […] Indonesia authorized many people to come to Papua through the transmigration program, but also [through] individual migration because they wanted to make a better living here. And they think that there is still [a lot of] space that they can come and live here. At the time, we, as West Papuans, and also the Papuan Government, started to [get] concerned about it. Many people come here and take over the space of indigenous people. That's why they have a negotiation with the State government, and we have our special autonomy regulation in 2001 [this later was amended, see here]. At the time, the regulations were started to protect the indigenous people of West Papua. For example, I am of mixed ethnicity, and because my father is Papuan, and my mom is Indonesian, they placed me in the second class because I'm not originally an indigenous person. That's why I couldn't have a position as a leader in West, Papua. 

Anyway, they just make those to give a chance to the Indigenous people to lead the place, to make decisions in their own areas, and also to try to give more opportunity for West Papuans to get, like, scholarships, or just to go everywhere, just take an opportunity in education or in job sectors, that kind of things. 


But I would like to say that recently they divided it again. West Papua became into four new provinces. So now we are six provinces, so dividing the areas which is going to be good to be more developed. But in my personal view, as an educated woman, I think there will be more people coming to West Papua. There will be more investors [who will] come and take over the land to make, for example, palm oil plantations or palm sugar plantations. So it will be like taking control [of] all the indigenous people's land.

One of Noken stalls in Merauke, pic take
Decorated Noken from Asmat tribe, pic ta

One of Noken stalls in Merauke, and decorated Noken from Asmat tribe. Credit: Veronika Kanem, 2022

In the economic sector, I would like to say that the non-West Papuans also take control of the economic sector. [In] my previous master's study at the university [of Waikato], I conducted research in market space in Merauke. I discovered that non-indigenous traders dominated the market space, and they also had more chances to get loans or proper stalls because they had more money than the indigenous people. Most importantly, it is how the government tries to build the market space, which doesn't accommodate the local needs. They didn't bring the local customs into the development. That's a really important suggestion that I give to the local government, for example, the way local people sell their garden produce is very different. They like to display on the ground because they want to have a connection with their land, which is feeding them, […] as they said, “I like to display on the land on the ground is part of me.” But the government tried to build a stall that was one and a half meters long, something like that, [which does not] accommodate all of their garden produce. As a consequence, the stalls are not really used properly by the local women. So I tried to analyze that, and I said it's better for the local government to try to learn about the local culture and put it into the development program.


That is such an interesting observation, Veronika, about the local market sellers preferring to sell their produce displayed on the ground. And I've heard from other Papuans that there is a certain level of discrimination for the indigenous market sellers because the Indonesians often would say that they are dirty and don't [want to] buy from them. [But] they do that because [as you said it] indicates a certain level of cultural connection to the land, and that [it feels better that] the produce is displayed on the land [ground]. How do you respect that? 


This is, I think, a good connection to your PhD studies because you continue, if I understand well, on the theme of cultural practice. Could you tell us a little more about your Noken studies and what led you to choose this PhD topic on the traditional weaved bags I love so much? I couldn't have too many!


Yes, I already explained before about the market space, which became my topic when I did my master's study. So it's driven by that topic. I saw women, especially the Muyu women, in the market space. They're not only selling local produce to generate income, but while waiting for the customer, they also weave noken in the market space [note: noken is in the Unesco List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding]. So I try to bring that point into my PhD study, to understand more about the noken itself. I also try to get to know myself, my roots, and my father’s roots. That's why this PhD study brought me back to my father's village for the first time in [my] life. But I started my Ph.D. during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, I spent one and a half years studying remotely from Papua and continued it in Auckland. I started online, but I tried to be positive because, at the time, I had a chance to return to my father's village, while other students in Auckland couldn't do the fieldwork due to the border restrictions.

Jibama Market in Wamena (photo Veronika

Jibama Market, Wamena. Credit: Veronika Kanem, 2017

So you went to your father's village.


Yes, for the first time with my husband. We went there, and I conducted my research in my father's village. I spent about six weeks, I think, in my father's village and it was so amazing. But it's also so challenging.


Could you tell us a little bit about what happened there, because it wasn't just a Ph.D. [The] research was [also] reconnecting [you] with your ancestral tribal cultural roots. 


The journey from Merauke to my father's village is not like two or three kilometers. My journey was around 625 kilometres and I had to stop in different areas. For example, I started my journey at 5 A. M. in the morning, and I arrived at 1.30 pm the next day. Why it takes so much time [it’s] because not only of the distance but also of the road condition during the rainy season. We have a long queue with other cars, about two or three hours. And if I can show you the photos, it was like, “Wow, Veronika, what is this?” It's not a road, it's muddy, and it's very difficult. Even my husband couldn't believe it. My husband is Persian. He's also from a different cultural background and came to the village with me. And he experienced life in the village meeting, my father's relatives, meeting my community there, the Muyu community, and he also experienced the noken itself from the cultural perspective. For example, they welcomed me and my husband for the first time by hanging the noken bag into our necks as a welcome symbol but also as a welcome into the family. That's for my husband because he's new. So he got to experience that. I think he received about four or five noken from different family relatives, and each of the noken has a meaning for him. So, noken is a traditionally woven bag.

And it's used in different rituals and ceremonies and significant events in the community. Could you tell us some other uses [and] how it is made?


Basically, noken is [made of] plants or barks, our traditional bark, I mean from all over West Papua. We call it noken, but from my father's tribe, we call it men. I think my father’s tribe, the Muyu, and also people in Papua New Guinea, people who live in the Central Highlands, also call it men. Somehow, we have the same traditional language, and the materials that we use are the same. We use Gnetum gnemon fiber, the inner fibre that we dry and then spin, and becomes a double and solid yarn, and then they start to weave the noken. A long time ago, people only used their hands. [S]ome people, if they want to make a little noken [use] a stitch pattern [that] is different. They use a quill from wild birds or chicken or even some of them even use a coconut stick just to help them do the knitting. But recently, many [have] tried to modify their knitting tools by using, you know, a broken umbrella; they have their stick, and then they try to modify it by themselves. They are really smart. I [asked], “Why don't you buy the needles in the shop?” They said, “This is not what we want. It's better we designed by ourselves, from the broken umbrella irons [metal parts].” I said, “Oh, okay, that's also good but also to make the weaving become tidier.” They try to use a dried pandanus palm leaf to make a traditional ruler so they can have a very exact pattern. And it's really tidy.


So that's how they do the weaving, and mostly women do the weaving, but men also take part in some points. For example, [people] who live far from the forest and women who cannot access the gratum nemon fiber usually ask their male relatives who go hunting, “Could you bring me this certain type of gratum fibers [so] I can wave noken.” Some women ask their male relatives or their husbands, for example, to bring that material. Mostly, Muyu males, especially the elderly, take part in the decoration of the noken/man with wild bird feathers or cassowary feathers.  In my culture, we mostly use cockatoo bird feathers, as well as wild pigeon feathers. 


They decorated the noken or the man to welcome a significant guest only. For example, if we have a Bishop or a new priest come into the area, they will hang the noken, or if we have a governor visit or the head of the region visit, they will hang it over the neck. It's only males, especially the customer leaders, [who] can do that ceremony, not the women. Basically, women only weave the bag, but men, in some part, play important roles in decorating the noken to welcoming significant guests. 


So those noken, or men, as you call them in your part of Papua, are decorated with feathers, cassowary or pigeon, [as] you mentioned, for ceremonial purposes. But you also have the man that you use daily. 


Yes, we use it daily. The gifting part, for example, individual gifting from women or from a mother to their school children, for example. They usually have a bag tradition that before the start of school, before their children go to the city, they try to weave a noken and gift it to them so that the noken will be used for daily activities at school, put their school items or uniforms. But very importantly, it's a noken from [their] mothers. It reminds them of their village when they are far from the village. So, I have one from the research participants. She received two or three noken from her mother, her late mother. Mother already passed away, and when I tried to talk with her, she said, “Look, if I miss my mom, this is her noken, and I hold a noken, and I can even feel her present here with me.” [they] really have a strong connection between parents and their children. And that's how women or mothers gifted their bags to their children or their husbands, just to show their love affection, but also they give that to friends, or they give the noken also to a new visitor that maybe they don't know [and] they want to establish a friendship. For example, you come to Papua, and you spend some time with them, and then they really want you to get to know them, or when you return back to New Zealand, they want you to remember them through their noken. So that's a very important point. 


But I observed some outsiders, non-Papuans, who don't really understand the meaning of this. For example, they got the bag and then said, “Oh, what is this?” then they tried to give that bag to another [person] again. I saw this very often. So I thought that noken has a different meaning. They maintain their connection, they establish a new connection, and how they try to connect all the time, even with their family, who have already passed away. So, it has a different meaning.

Trans Papua Road Condition during rainy season, photo Veronika Kanem, 2022.jpeg

Trans Papua Road Condition during rainy season. Credit: Veronika Kanem, 2022

Women weave noken in Waropko traditional

Women weave noken in Waropko traditional market the market while waiting for buyers. Credit: Veronika Kanem

Hmm… so, it’s weaved in [the Papua culture] to use that metaphor of weaving the bag, but also the bag itself, it's used as a way through the Papuan culture and society. 


Yes, so that's how weave my stories. I try to analyse the social, and cultural influence of the noken itself. But I tried to think beyond the box as well, and that noken is also more than that. For example, noken tells stories of how the Muyu people connect to their ancestors, but also their connection to the forest. For example, now they have a growing concern in the Muyu area about the palm oil company that came into the lower Muyu areas and just started to cut down all the forests and replanted them with palm trees. And women just started to [say], “No, we cannot do this, because how can we harvest our Gnetum gnemon or phone Genemo (local Papuan) fibres if we lose our forests?” With this kind of story, the noken just brings me to this issue: how can women survive without the Gnetum gnemon fiber? This is very important for them; even [when] they move to many different places, they cannot replace it with another fibre. [When I asked] why, they said, “This is a gift from our ancestor, we cannot replace it. If you replace it, using synthetic yarn is not noken. This is just like [any] other needled bags. It's not noken, it's not men,” because in our language [the Muyu] we call it men. And especially the young generation, they like to replace [it with] the synthetic yarn. They don't like to use the raw materials, the natural ones, because the process of making them is so complicated. They said, “Oh, it's just to remove all my leg hair. I don't want to get a skin concern because of the spinning part.” So they try to replace the natural [with] the syndic yarn. But again, the old generation said, “That's not us because of us [… use] natural fibres from gnetum fibres. That's our ancestor's gift”


Yes, and so what you say here so clearly and beautifully illustrated [is] the symbiosis between the environment and culture practices.  So losing access to that natural environment, to the natural material, has a direct impact on losing, gradually losing the cultural practice, and eventually the significance of the meaning, and the rituals and the ceremonies that go with it.


Exactly, yes! So, I tried to look into the concerns that people have. But also, you know, we cannot deny development because the weaving technique has evolved in urban areas. And some young Muyu generation, they're picking up that very quickly, and they try to bring it into the village and introduce it to the older generation. But again, the older generation [say], “ok, we can use the modern design, but you cannot replace it. The materials we still want to use [are] the natural materials.”

Noken (men) also use as dancing ornament

Noken (men) also use as dancing ornament by male and female Muyu. Credit: Veronika Kanem, 2022

So there is an intergenerational conversation, with the young girls going to town and seeing different patterns and different ideas coming back into the village and engaging with the local community. But what you're saying is that one can change the pattern, but definitely not the material.


Yes, otherwise you will lose the meaning of the noken because the use of natural fibers connects us with our ancestors; like they said, “It's gifted from God through our ancestors, and we must protect this, we cannot replace it with others.” Those who have lived many years in Papua New Guinea also try to bring some other ideas from the bilummaking into the Muyu community. If you visit my father’s village, you can see their noken is like a bilum model, [although] actually we call it noken, we call it man. But the pattern of the knitting design is from Muyu people. They just like using it some other, I don't know how to say, like the decoration of noken has tassels, just like a bilum, [when I asked is it bilum?] but they said, “no, this is men. I made it because I lived in Papua New Guinea for some time, and I got the ideas of the model [adopted from the bilum model].”


So, just for clarification here, for our audience, that bilum is the Papua New Guinea version of this bag. Traditionally, [it] was also made of natural fiber but Papua New Guinea bilum now are made mostly with cotton and synthetic material, and it's a huge market in Papua New Guinea. You go to any market, and there will be large displays of them, very colourful, while my observation is that the Papuan bilum/men are made at least from natural material. They still retain the natural fiber and colour, and they might have patterns, but they don't have so much colour. Is that so?


Yes, exactly, especially from my father's tribe. But if you visit other parts of West Papua, for example, Wamena in the Highlands, or Jayapura or other tribes in Nabire (Central Papua) they use different materials as well. For example, people who live in Nabira or the May tribe use wild orchid bark fibres. So their noken is more like golden, it has a golden color. But they cannot be stretched, like getting bigger, because it's just a different one. They call it agira (or golden noken). And people who live in Wamema recently modified their noken using synthetic yarn with a very colourful yarn. But it's bigger. They also use it as clothing materials. Some tribes, they still stick to using natural fibers as well from plants. So, all have different raw materials, but in my father's tribe, we use the tree bark of Gnetum fibers.

Mee tribe noken (agiya) photo Veronika Kanem, 2024.jpg
The Marind Kanum noken (Toware), decorated by Cassowary bird feathers, photo Veronika Kane
The Muyu tribe Noken (men) photo Veronika Kanem, 2024.jpg

Noken from left to right: Mee tribe noken (agiya) 2023, the Marind Kanum noken (Toware), decorated by Cassowary bird feathers 2018, and the Muyu tribe Noken (men) 2024. Credit: Veronika Kanem, 2024

So it's very much what each tribe has available as a local material, natural material to make the same product, but differently. And also, I guess, in different parts of the island it is also used, perhaps, differently, it has different meaning. Perhaps in some of them?


Most of the noken have the same function, like the bigger noken they are used to carry, for example, the garden produce. They are used to carry their babies. It used to be, but recently, because of modern product influence, more women have been using sarongs to carry their babies because they think, “Oh, it's easy to wash when it gets dirt,” or something like that. So I asked a woman that I met in Merauke [why] she put her baby in a sarong, and I said, “Why don't you use noken instead of sarong?” And she said that “well, sarong is easier,  it's easy to wash”.  But sarong is also very dangerous for the baby, because it's very hot during summer, [while] noken is really comfortable for the baby, [when] we can carry them around they can adjust very good in our noken. So they have like pros and cons. But modernisation is really here in West Papua, and people try to adjust to it, especially those who live in the city or urban areas like the Muyu people who live in Merauke. For example, they started to replace the use of natural fibers because the Gnetum gnemonfibres (pohon genemo in local Papuan) didn't grow in Merauke, so they must import the fibres from very far away, from the Muyu areas.  And the cost is very high, and not many people visit the villages and come back. So yes, it's another challenge that the Muyu people face, especially those who live in urban areas.

What fascinating research you have been doing on such a significant topic, not only personally but also for Papua and the Pacific Islands. What do you think is the significance of studying such a topic for a Papua researcher?


For myself, this research is going to be the first research from my Muyu tribe, especially looking deeply into the noken, cultural influence, cultural significance, and the social significance of the bag. I tried to review some literature about Noken but since the Unesco designated noken as one of the intangible cultural heritage of Indonesia, many of the studies just centred only on the economic values of the Noken. They're not really [going] deep to analyze Noken and how this bag has a strong connection into the land and also into the people itself. So, I am trying to fill that gap, and I'm proud that this is going to be the first study on the Muyu people. I hope it can be published or accessed also by the next Myuy generation. So yes, I'm very proud of it. This is very significant, not only in the Muyu, I think, but also I added something to the women's material culture in Melanesian literature, but also in the Pacific. 


I forgot to mention about the methodology before. I try to establish my own research method and methodology, I call it noken waving. Last week I met my two my supervisors, and they suggested to try to make this as a research methodology. I just need to add some points to make it a research methodology. So, converting it as a research methodology means I contribute something to Pacific research methodologies. So I'm really happy for it.


What an amazing contribution, noken weaving as a methodology! What are some of the key points of this methodological approach?

Mama Klemansia started weaving her Noken, pic taken by Veronika Kanem, 2022.jpeg

Mama Klemansia started weaving her Noken. Credit: Veronika Kanem, 2022

Well, actually, I'm still developing [it] because it was just suggested last week, but I bring into it the metaphor [of noken weaving] as a research method. For example, before we make our noken, we need to weave in our own ideas. What's exactly this noken [and how is it going] to be used  because when we establish our ideas, we understand [better], i.e. “oh, this noken I want to give to my school children, and I need this kind of materials. I need this amount of fiber so I can decide by myself.” I tried to bring this into one of the indigenous scholars, Shawn Wilson [who] emphasized relationality. You must build your relation or connection with your own thinking, your ideas. So I thought, I grew up with the noken knowledge, even though I cannot weave myself. I'm still learning. This is also part of my father’s mobility story that made me unable to weave Noken because my mom is not an Indigenous Muyu [note: mostly Muyu girls learn weaving noken from their mothers, aunties, and grandmothers].  So, I tried to bring those things, like emphasise the relationality, bring back the noken idea, also in the gathering [recruitment of] the participants. […] It's really the same, we think [like in] the noken process. Before we invite people, […] we collect or gather the materials before we do anything. So it's just the same. 

I want to tell you that my research methodology came in the last year of my Ph.D. In the first year, I couldn't think of it. The second year, I still navigated myself [through] which methodology I wanted to use. The third year, I'm still confused! But [by] the fourth year I was like, “oh, so my research process is like how people make a Noken”! So I came up with that. And last week my supervisors suggested to me, “[p]lease grow it or develop it as a methodology because you already done it.”

That's so beautiful that it naturally emerged through your engagement on the ground with the topic, and it has similarities to a lot of other Pacific methodologies as they are emerging now from an indigenous space, like, for instance, Kakala, in Tonga, where you are coming together to weave the mats and put the flowers […] that is now being recognized as a methodology. So the weaving of the noken is a beautiful metaphor for a Papuan methodology,[for] doing research. And so your research on the Noken not only provided insights about this cultural practice but also generated a methodology.


Yes, that's why I didn't realize it! But it just came out in the last year, the final year of my PhD, and I am still developing it because, as a methodology, I need to add some things there to make it.


So you are at the last stage of your PhD thesis? What are your plans research wise for the future? How do you hope to continue contributing to Papuan and Pacific Islands research, Melanesian Islands research, but especially for Papua? I also wanted to ask you what are some of the challenges and opportunities in doing research in a challenging environment like Papua? I mean, you mentioned that it took you so long to go, for instance, to the village because of transportation and the geographical terrain, and all that. What are some of your thoughts about this.

Firstly, you know my background; I'm not like an Academician back in Papua. But I really want to contribute something to my people or give back to my people and also encourage the younger generation to experience what I experience now, especially in getting the scholarship. Just get out of the village. You still have a lot of opportunities out there. I still really want to encourage them and motivate them to take up the opportunity to study, especially women. Please don't get married too soon. But please, please go and explore the world because we have a lot of scholarships now, especially from the Indonesian Government or New Zealand and Australia. I know that English is a big concern for us, but we can sort it out, you know. That's my big plan for the future: encourage more young Papuans to take up scholarship opportunities. I will also see that I can still contribute something and do more research on the Muyu tribe, or probably another tribe around West Papua. 


We also [need] to try to document their stories for the next generation. For example, those who documented the Muyu tribe life stories are mostly [by] Dutch anthropologists. But it's already many years ago, like around the 1950s, 1960s, we don't really have updated [research] on the Muyu, the current mobility of the Muyu people, for example. I really want to do more research on my people, especially those who live along the border between Papua New Guinea, West Papua, and Indonesia. […]

Hanging Noken (men) on the neck from my

Hanging Noken (men) on the neck from my father's relative to my Persian husband as a symbol of welcome. Credit: Father Janes MSC, 2022 

I really want to update it, but I realized that it's not that easy. It's a lot of challenges that I can face, like I mentioned before. There are some areas that do not have many transportation options, and it's very expensive. Conducting research will need a lot of funds, good weather prediction, and access to transportation. And also my safety,  like going there and coming back […] safety, from the military or from my family in the village as well [I mean cultural safety].


I haven't explained it, but we have a very strong cultural influence in the Muyu community. So, this is going to be another story, but I'm thinking about my safety as a female researcher who goes back to my father's village, which is very far away from urban areas. So, those kinds of challenges are what I try to think of. But of course, I have confidence in conducting research in the future. For example, I already know some people there and have a connection. I have already met my father's relatives there. It's going to be very easy to return to the village. I hold my degree, and I know how to do research. That's also one of my advantages in the future. I can connect with other researchers who may join me in doing the research. So, there are some also possibilities in the future.

Yes, and you brought that element of gender there. You know how important it is also for women to engage in advanced research and contribute to cultural preservation. And keeping those records, as you say, is very important.


Veronika, this was a delightful indeed conversation with you. I've learned so much more about this particular cultural practice, but I also find it really inspiring to speak to a young West Papuan, Indonesian, Muyu woman who has made such a commitment to recording the rich stories around this particular cultural practice. I wish you all the best, and I'm looking forward to hearing more and reading your Ph.D. when it's published.


I will let you know when it's already published. I'm also trying to find some funds here in Aotearoa because I plan to have my Noken exhibition from my father’s tribe. That's my plan. So, with the help of some people here, we are trying to find some funds, so we'll have a Noken exhibition but also try to bring a few women from my father’s village to come here. So, they will practice the weaving practice. I'm going to do this because I try to give back to my community. Hopefully, I can get these kinds of funds to bring them here.


Well, wouldn't that be wonderful? You don't only engage intellectually with the subject matter but also engage at the practical level as well. That has so many rippling effects, introducing this cultural practice to other countries. Thank you very much for doing that.


Thank you. 


I'm also looking forward to the exhibition.


I will let you know if we are positive about that and get the funds!


Thank you very much, Veronika, for taking the time today.


You're welcome. Thank you for inviting me. I'm happy to share my research journey.

Additional Resources


MA Thesis: Indigenous women traders in the negotiation of space, place, and identity in the Merauke regency, Papua Province, Indonesia


Academic publication on Noken: An Examination of the Noken and Indigenous Cultural Identity: Voices of Papuan Women | Veronika Triariyani Kanem


Other relevant sources: 


UNESCO declaration on Noken as an intangible cultural heritage from Papua: Noken Handcraft of the People of Papua | Intangible Heritage - UNESCO Multimedia Archives


May, R., Papoutsaki, E. & Matbob, P. 2013. New Guinea - A political economy approach to a divided island.  In  G. Baldacchino,  Only a Dozen Divided: the Imputed Indivisibility of Island Spaces. Palgrave McMillan: London.


MacLeod, J. (2011). The Struggle for Self-Determination in West Papua (1969-present).


McGibbon, R. (2004a). East-West Center Plural Society in Peril: Migration, Economic Change, and the Papua Conflict.

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