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Asmat Bis Pole

A bis pole is carved from a single mangrove.
Red Mangrove Trees, 2006, digital photograph by alumroot on

Drumming, singing, and dancing are part of the bis-pole festival. Hand-held drums like this are used for various Asmat ceremonies.
Asmat culture, New Guinea (Indonesia, Papua province), Kundu drum, 20th century, wood, wicker, skin, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Hebert Baker


key idea
A place to hold the spirits

The Asmat believe that the spirits of the dead stay among the living until their deaths are avenged. Bis (ancestor-spirit) poles are made to hold the spirits of the recently deceased and keep them away from the village. Elaborate festivals accompany the making of the poles. During this time the spirits that inhabit the poles are mourned, cared for, embraced, and honored.

When a village leader decides that a bis pole, or maybe several poles, should be made, the men paint their bodies and storm into the jungle on a mock hunt. They cut down a mangrove tree for each pole, as if performing the head-hunting ritual of the past. The mangrove’s red sap is said to represent the enemy’s blood. Mock battles also take place between the men and women after the men return to the village.

The trees are placed outside the men’s house, and the leader, using an ax, roughly outlines the figures that will be carved on them. The poles are then moved inside, where the carvers set to work. The family of each deceased person has selected the carvers who will make their pole. For privacy, the poles are screened off from each other, and whenever the carvers stop for a while, they cover the pole with palm leaves. While pole carving is in progress, secret ceremonies are performed and special measures are taken to ward off danger.

When the bis poles are complete, food is collected and prepared for the festival. The poles are put on public display outside the communal house, and everyone gathers to grieve for the deceased. After the drumming, singing, dancing, and feasting are over, the poles are taken down and carried into the forest. In this way, the spirits leave the village. Traditionally, the poles were left to rot, so the spirits could enrich the soil. Today, they are often sold to museums or collectors.

February 2009