These Are Four Traditional Political Systems in Papua

Political Development

Mansoben (1985) classifies four traditional political systems in Papua and West Papua. At the beginning, he applies continuum model suggested by Sahlins (1963) for the existing ethnography data that corroborate the political development in the beautiful island. Then, he underlines four traditional political systems here that include big man political system, kingdom political system, ondoafi political system and mixed political system.

At one of the continuum poles, there stands ascription-based political system, and at the other pole, achievement-based political system. The leader of the ascription-based system is called a chief, while the leader of the achievement-based system is named a big man.

The information about the four traditional political systems in Papua and West Papua is briefly elaborated as follows.

Political Development

Big Man System

The main characteristic of the big man system is that the leader’s position is gained through achievement. The phrase ‘big man’ surely comes with a reason. The authority source of the system comes from the individual quality that is manifested through the ability to allocate and distribute wealth and property, diplomacy skill, public speaking skill, war leadership skill, and generosity as well as the physical quality of having a big and well-shaped body that looms among his people (Sahlins 1963; Koentjaraningrat 1970, 1984).

The second characteristic of the system is that the authority is run by a single leader autonomously. The system does not adopt work organization and job distribution. Therefore, any decision that the leader makes is always correct for all public reasons. The people of Papua and West Papua that apply the system include Dani tribe, Asmat tribe, Me tribe, Meybrat tribe and Muyu tribe.


Kingdom Political System

Kingdom political system is an ascription-based system. It is mostly about seniority that relates to both the order of birth and clan. The system has adopted function and job distribution to run the authority. Weber (1972:126) underlines that the authority implementation of the distribution to the traditional community like this is called as patrimonial bureaucracy or traditional bureaucracy. It plays a role as a political machine, a tool to run the orders of the rulers.

The bureaucracy comes with a clear job distribution and authority between the leader and the working assistants. The position of leader is ascribed, and so is the position of assistants. It is descended to the first child of the assistant or a colleague in the same clan with fulfilled qualifications.

The system is mostly influenced by kingdoms of Maluku. The organizational principles have shown the established structure with strict and centralized authorities and responsibilities. The people have known tribute system and tax collection. The authority is trade-oriented. The people that support the system are in West Papua, including Raja Ampat Islands, Onin Peninsula, MacCluer Bay (Berau Bay) and Kaimana area.


Ondoafi Political System

Like the kingdom system, ondoafi political system adopts ascription-based system and traditional bureaucracy. However, what makes the ondoafi system different from the kingdom system is territorial factors and political orientation.

The area or territory ruled by a leader in ondoafi political system is limited only to one ethnic group or sub-group, while the territory ruled by a leader in kingdom system is not limited to one group or village, but including a broader geographical area with varieties of distinctive ethnic groups.

Another difference comes from the political orientation. While the kingdom system is trade-oriented, the ondoafi system is religion-oriented. The ondoafi political system is found in the north east of Papua and West Papua, including Sentani, Genyem (Nimboran), Humbold (Yos Sudarso) Bay, Tabla, Yaona, Yakari-Skou, and Arso-Waris people.


Mixed Political System

Mixed political system has a combined system in positioning its leader, that is through both ascription and achievement. Here someone can be a community leader with his qualified individual skills, achievement and order of birth.

The achievement-oriented leader ideally appears in a certain situation, e.g. local war or natural disaster, like famine season, epidemic of a disease or cultural decadency. The leader is a situational leader as he looms in a certain situation that requires a leader with special qualities to face the challenges.

As the political development grows, the leader’s position in a combined system also comes with ascribed status. It ideally appears when there is no disturbance, no natural disaster or no local war. The safe situation invites the leaders with the local order of birth. It is ascribed based on clan position.

What makes the combined system different from the ondoafi system is that here is no bureaucracy. The people of Papua and West Papua that support the system are the people of Cenderawasih Bay, like the people of Biak, Wandamen, Waropen, Yawa and Maya.


Thus, there are varieties of traditional political systems adopted by ethnic groups in Papua and West Papua. The ethnography data corroborating the political development divide the community into two main political orientations: ascription and achievement. Most of the people have adopted one system orientation, while the others have the combined ones.