The woman of the Dani tribe of Papua New Guinea have long had a unique way to grieve the loss of a loved one – they cut off their own fingers. They call the ritual ikipalin.
The Dani tribe, which is located in the area of the Baliem Valley in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea, believe that a physical representation of emotional pain is essential to the grieving process. When a woman loses a loved one, they chose to amputate a finger to provide this physical representation. Over the course of a lifetime, it is common that all of a woman’s fingers have been removed. But physical representation of sorrow isn’t the only reason the fingers are removed.
Religious beliefs of the tribe can also play a role in this ritual. If the deceased person is considered to be powerful, it is believed they will have an equally powerful spirit. The tribe believes that cutting off the finger, if done properly, will help to chase the spirit away.
They Dani have several ways to remove the finger. One is for the woman to simply gnaw the finger until it is severed. A second option is to tie a a string around the finger to cut off circulation then simply leave the living tissue to die. Some woman choose to use tools, such as knives or axes to cut off the finger. This cutting is often completed by by a close family member, such as a mother, father or a sibling. After the amputation, the finger tips are allowed to dry, and are then burned. The resulting ashes are then buried in a special designated area.
Not all woman choose to cut off their fingers. According to Dani custom, there are several ways of displaying grief. The other way is to cut off an ear. Unlike finger cutting, this is practiced by only a handful of people.
Some Dani people chose yet another way that does not require the removal of body parts. They smear the body and face with river sludge and remain soiled for several weeks without bathing.
With the passage of time, the increased exposure to the outside world, and the arrival of missionaries, the practice of ikipalin is gradually being abandoned. While many of the older woman of the tribe today are many fingers short and continue to follow the ritual, their children may opt to hang on to all of their digits and find another method to express grief. Simple tears are becoming more popular.