Noken: Intangible Cultural Heritage from Eastern Island of Indonesia

by – It was a fine day in Jayapura, the capital city of Papua Province. Mama (a word commonly used to address a Papuan mother) Norlince and Mama Ance sat side by side in a room above the Early Childhood Education School owned by a Catholic Foundation in Jayapura. They are knitting synthetic yarn to make noken while waiting for their children. Mama Norlince knitted yellow and brown synthetic yarns while Mama Ance decided to use brown and light green ones. Their hands danced beautifully, inserting the needle and wrapping the yarn as a small-sized noken slowly took shape.

Mama Norlince and Mama Ance are part of Kelompok Noken Ania. This group was initiated by the women of the ethnic Mee from Paniai Region, Jayapura. The ability to knit noken in the ethnic Mee is passed down from generation to generation. Today, about 20 women have joined the group.

What is Noken?

Noken is a handmade knotted or woven net or bag traditionally made from wood fiber by the people of the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua. Nowadays, with the complexity as well as scarcity of the traditional material, some people of Papua often use synthetic yarn to replace wood fiber. Noken is used by men and women to carry a variety of things, including crops, fish, livestock, firewood, and even babies. It can also be used as home storage. Apart from its functionality in everyday life, noken may also be worn in the event of traditional ceremony or given as peace offerings.

How is it made?

The material used in creating traditional noken usually depends on the need as well as the availability of the natural resources in the area of the ethnic groups. Several trees that are usually used as the material of noken are melinjo (Gnetum Gnemon), mahkota dewa (Phaleria Macrocarpa), orchid, pandan leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius), etc.

The method of creating noken varies between ethnic groups in Papua and West Papua. Each ethnic group may have a unique method in preparing the material and also in knitting the fiber to create noken that represents its unique cultural identity.

However, in general, the process of creating noken consists of several steps. Firstly, the stem or bark of a certain tree is cut and then soaked in water to make the process of separating the wood fiber easier. Secondly, the wood fiber that has been separated from the stem or bark is dried.This can be done by using two methods; it can be heated under the sun or over the fire. Thirdly, the dried wood fiber is then spun to make a strong thread or string.

The coloring process of noken can be done in two ways: first, at the time of processing the material, the stem or bark of a tree is soaked in natural dye solution; second, the color which is desired can directly be applied to the thread or string. The colors used are adjusted based on the local wisdom of Papuan people. The dominant colors are red, white, black, yellow, and brown. These colors are closely related to the life of people in Papua and West Papua Provinces.

After the process of coloring the thread or string is done, noken can be created. There are two techniques that are commonly used by Papuan people: weaving and knitting. The knowledge of these techniques was obtained from their ancestors.

The Meaning of Noken for the Papuan people

For the Papuan people, noken has deep philosophical meaning. It is a symbol of the balance between the Papuan people with their physical and cultural environment. Papuan people rely on nature so that they try to be live harmoniously with their surroundings. Noken is the evidence of this harmony since it is made from natural materials. The material can easily be found and its reliability has been proven. Most importantly, when noken is damaged, the natural material of noken will be reunited with the earth and will not have a negative impact to nature.

Furthermore, noken represents the views and identity of Papuan people. As noken only carries good things, Papuan people live harmoniously with nature and only fill themselves with good things. As an identity, the form and characteristic of noken may be used to differentiate one ethnic tribe to another. That is why, noken may be seen as the social bond of Papuan people. They can identify each other whether someone belongs to the same ethnic tribe or not.

Noken also symbolizes cultural diversity of Papuan people. The material as well as the technique of creating noken varies according to region or ethnic tribe. It is known that there are many terms referring to noken in Papua and West Papua Provinces. However, the understanding and values of its meaning and functions remain the same in each ethnic tribe.

Noken as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding

Nowadays, the number of people making and using Noken is diminishing. Lack of awareness, weakening of traditional transmission, decreasing numbers of craftspeople, competition from modern bags, problems in easily and quickly obtaining traditional raw materials, and shifts in the cultural values of Noken are some of the factors that threaten its survivality. Bearing that in mind, the International Conference of Papuan Cultural Diversity within Indonesian Cultural Mosaiq held in Jayapura 8 – 11 November 2010, organized by the local government of Papua and West Papua in cooperation with several institutions recommended the nomination of Noken as part of the list of intangible cultural heritage. This recommendation was supported by Titus Christ Pekey who then became noken campaigner.

The process of inscribing noken on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage was a bit complicated but went smoothly. On December 4th 2012, UNESCO recognized Noken as Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. This recognition is not the end but a beginning. As a cultural heritage, Noken has to be preserved.

The central government along with the local government of Papua and West Papua Provinces have taken several steps in the effort of preserving Noken. One of them is the inclusion of the study of noken as local content in the primary school curriculum in Papua and West Papua. This action is taken so that younger generation will become more familiar with noken. In addition, since January 1st 2015, the local government of Papua Province instructed their civil servant to use Papuan batik and Noken every Thursday and Friday as one way to preserve their cultural heritage.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *