Indigenous initiation ceremonies in Catholic Papua community

March 16, 2005

Indigenous initiation ceremonies and Catholicism can happily coexist according to Dutch researcher Louise Thoonen. During her anthropological research she investigated how individual Papuan women experience and use initiation ceremonies and Catholicism to form their own identity.

Since the arrival of the Catholic mission in 1949, Catholicism has been an essential component of personal and group identity in modern West Papua. The majority of the population of the villages Ayawasi and Fef, where Thoonen carried out her research, pray daily, discuss Bible passages in prayer groups, and take part in the Sunday Mass.

In addition to Catholicism ancestral indigenous ceremonies play an important role in the social lives of the Papuan women. During the ceremonies young women are guided into adulthood; into women who share a common identity. Louise Thoonen discovered that the Papuan women blend elements from the Catholic faith and their ancestral customs to form their own group identity. Amongst other things her research provided a new understanding of initiation rituals: they are not seen as isolated events, but as part of life experiences and are embedded in the ever-changing social and religious context.

Female leader

The researcher wrote her thesis around the life story of an influential female religious leader, Maria Baru. Thoonen used her life story to show how individual people deal with initiation, Catholicism and conflicting identities.

By taking Maria's childhood and her vision with respect to the arrival of the Catholic mission as a basis and by presenting both local and missionary viewpoints, Thoonen demonstrates that the acceptance of the Catholic mission in the Northwest Ayfat region was an interactive process between members of both groups. The local population was only willing to cooperate with the missionaries if they could see advantages in this. For example for the village chief from Tabamsere, Maria's uncle Hauch Titit, the reason for accepting the mission was not related to education or to Catholicism; he sought protection against the then Dutch colonial government.
Louise Thoonen's research was financed by the Netherlands Foundation for the Advancement of Tropical Research (WOTRO).

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