The Characteristics of Big Man Political System in Papua

political development

Big man political system adopted in Papua and West Papua underlines achievement as the orientation for being a leader. The system applied by Dani tribe, Asmat tribe, Me tribe, Meybrat tribe and Muyu tribe is run by the authority with individual quality manifested through the ability to allocate and reallocate prominent source for public affairs (Sahlins 1963; Claessen 1984 in Van Bakel et al. 1986:1).

The individual achievement might make the leader manipulate his people and the available source for his personal purpose. The characteristic might lead to instability. Van Bakel et al. (1986:3) notes that the instability invites equal opportunity for all people as long as fulfilled with qualities as a leader.

Below are several characteristics of big man classified by Mansoben (1995) in the big man political system as adopted in Papua and West Papua.


Maintaining Internal and External Networking

political development

Strathern (1979:214) mentions two main arenas for a big man making his position: internal and external networking. The internal networking is where the big man attempts to earn and gain influence and power within his own clan. Meanwhile, the external networking is his attempt to gain influence by maintaining relationship with outsiders. These outsiders might include allies, ex-enemies, or other big men from other parts of area. Once a big man gains success through both internal and external networking attempts, he becomes the ultimate superior even for many years.


Being an Autonomous Leader

Political Development

Unlike other traditional political systems adopted in Papua and West Papua, e.g. kingdom system and ondoafi system, which establish work organization, the big man political system does not apply it. There is no job distribution among the leader’s assistants. These people of Melanesia are politically and economically independent. Regarding the political development,


Read (1959:425) explains that this condition might block the chance of bureaucracy principles in the big man political system. It makes the one who successfully becomes a leader in the political system is named a well-rounded political expertise man (Epstein 1972:42), while Riesman (1950) and Read (1959:425) name him an autonomous leader.


Blessed with Wealth and Generosity

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The existing ethnography studies in Papua and West Papua shows that a leader in the big man political system must fulfill some attributes that support his individual qualities. Chowning (1979:71) and most of researchers agree that these attributes include wealth. It is a factual manifestation of individual quality in economy.

However, the political development continues and wealth cannot become the only factor for someone being positioned as a leader. The other attribute, generosity, stands a chance. The generous character must be actualized through actions conducted for public purposes. The actions can be in the form of redistributing his wealth through charities and gifts in wedding parties, ritual ceremonies or other ethnic celebrations.

These gifts as mentioned by Mauss (1924:227) create an indirect bonding between the two involved parties: the giver and the receiver. It also becomes a supporting factor for the receiver to do the same thing for the giver. The response can be done directly and indirectly.

The form of the response can be a thing or service. Later, these gifts might become an investment for the giver to get more and more supporters for his personal and political reason.

In the big man political system, the relationship between the giver and the receiver is undeniably important since a big man as the giver can implausibly manipulate his wealth and qualities to gain support and sympathy from the receivers. Wealth in the system offers two main values: symbolic value and factual value.

The symbolic value depicts an authority, while the factual value represents the material itself. Thus, wealth is inarguably prominent for confirming a power (Cochrane 1970:5).


Performing Outstanding Individual Quality

The last not least characteristic of being a big man is performing outstanding individual quality. Sahlins (1968:164) mentions several attributive qualities for someone to become a leader in the big man political system, including the ability in farming, hunting, diplomacy, public speaking, the possession of magical power and leadership quality to lead ritual ceremonies and war.

Those attributes given to a big man causes a general public opinion that a big man must have all attributes mentioned. In fact, the ethnography data corroborating the political development in Papua and West Papua shows that to become a big, someone does not have to have all attributes.

There is difference between one community to another about confirming the attributes as qualifications for being a leader. For instance, within community A, attribute X is considered important, while it is not for community B.


Those are some characteristics of becoming a big man in the big man traditional political system. In Papua and West Papua, the characteristics can be undeniably prominent and cannot easily be separated from one to another as they are closely related. However, different area might have different political development, and these characteristics can be adjusted by making priorities of the quality importance depending on each situation in the area.