Near the border between Irian Jaya (now called West Papua since 2007) and Papua New Guinea lives a tribe called the Sawiyano. They have been in contact with outsiders since World War II. When I was growing up there, I heard stories from the old men and women of how scared they were when planes flew over the village for the first time. Soon after, about a half-day walk away from Sawiyano territory, near a tributary of the great Sepik river, Japanese introduced a few Sawiyano to the outside world.

Eventually, the lure of steel axes and machetes led a few Sawiyano to plantations where they were hired as cheap labor. The men eventually brought back goods like matches, salt, and knives.  The Australian government came in to the area in 1965 and soon put an end to the cannibalism by placing perpetrators in jail.  A small airstrip was cleared and the first missionary arrived in 1973.  Soon after in 1975, Papua New Guinea claimed independence. The PNG government officials left the area in the early 1990s.

Some Sawiyano learned to read and write in the short-lived government school at the airstrip and missionaries also taught literacy. Through the last 50 years, many things have changed in the tribe. Cannibalism was abolished, tribal rivalries and fights were mostly stopped. Houses are no longer as high off the ground when fear of attack was prevalent.  Some tribe members adopted a new religion, others continue to follow the old ways, while some mix a new faith with the ancestral traditions.

Despite the changes, many old ways of the tumbuna (ancestors) continue, especially in regards to crafts. Food is gathered in a similar manner each day as it was 50 years ago. Some houses now have some nails but the main traditional methods are still utilized. Bilums are the traditional bags of the country and they are still made by the Sawiyano, both with natural fibers and imported thread.