Dealing with the passing of a loved one is an intense emotional process for a lot of us. A remote tribe in Indonesia choose to physically manifest their emotional pain in a unique way — by cutting off the tips of their fingers.
The Dani Tribe
An estimated quarter of a million Dani live in the remote central highland area of Papua Province, in the western section of the island of New Guinea that belongs to Indonesia. The region was previously known as Irian Jaya.
The Dani are one of the biggest tribes in Papua and began interacting with the outside world relatively recently. First contact with them was made in 1938.
Although their remoteness maintained their traditional tribal beliefs and lifestyle for generations — the Dani live in the Baliem valley in the Cyclops Mountains accessible only by plane — that has been slowly changing.
The colonial Dutch government, the Indonesian government, religion and, more recently, tourism have all influenced the Dani.
Nowadays, the Baliem Valley is a popular destination for hikers and trekkers looking for an off-the-beaten path experience.
The valley is also where the most famous festival of Papua, Indonesia takes place.
All the Papua tribes gather to celebrate the Art of War and Dance Festival. It has been described as an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Despite this slow, seemingly inevitable push by outside forces towards modern living, many Dani still live and dress according to their traditional tribal ways.
Finger Cutting Tradition
For the Dani, cutting off the tips of their fingers was part of the grieving process.
Exclusive to the women of the tribe, they would amputate the top joint of the finger upon the death of a loved one.
They would then cauterise the open wound to stop bleeding and infection, and to create a new ‘fingertip’.
The amputation was said to symbolise the suffering one experiences when a loved one passes, and originates from religious beliefs.
Before amputation a string would be wrapped tightly around the top half of the finger for 30 minutes. This acted as a makeshift anaesthetic, numbing the finger and reducing the pain.
The duty of performing the amputation would usually fall to an immediate family member, a parent or sibling in most cases.
This traditional ritual has been banned by the Indonesian government and is no longer practised.
Among the other traditional practices the Dani no longer follow is the mummification of their dead using smoke.
Tradition Versus Modernisation
The argument over the value of traditional customs and modernisation is a complex one.
While it is heartening to learn that extreme practices are dying out — in the case of finger cutting it is hard to argue the value of self-mutilation — there are worries that harmless customs could die out also.
Worries about the encroachment of the outside, modern world and the impact it may have on customs and traditions that go back perhaps thousands of years do have merit.
Outside of the remote Baliem Valley, our modern world is becoming increasingly homogenous.
One need only take a look at youth culture and how teenagers all over the world dress alike to see that we may be losing some of the cultural identity that makes us unique.
In our never-ending rush to embrace the future and live in the present, we must also be careful to not lose sight of our past.