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The Dukduk: the Secret Society of the Tolai People in Papua New Guinea

The Duk Duk dancers, the secret society of men, 1913
The Duk Duk dancers, the secret society of men, 1913

Duk Duk – Secret societies have long been a part of many urban legends and conspiracy theories, with unknown individuals working in the shadows to shape society how they see fit. However, the Tolai people of Papua New Guinea have a different understanding of such roles.

What is the Duk Duk?

The indigenous people have what they call the Duk Duk, a secret sect that has played a prominent role in shaping their society for centuries, operating to this day.

Members of the Duk Duk play various roles ranging from judge to jury and even executioner. It is believed that the Duk Duk were possessed by spirits when they executed their tasks.

Efforts were made to eradicate the Duk Duk during the colonial period, and while they still exist, the sect no longer performs the same way it did. Instead, they serve as a tourist attraction.

Where Did the Name Come From?

Although it has never been clarified, many believe the Duk Duk got their name from either the Tolai words ‘dekdek,’ which translates to either ‘strong,’ or ‘douk,’ which means ‘cruel.’

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“Secret Society”

Western ideals define secret societies as figures working in the dark, but the Tolai people have different ideas. Rather than keep the identities a mystery, members of the Duk Duk are known among the community, including the uninitiated.

The concept of the Duk Duk being a secret society comes from the fact that rituals and ceremonies they conduct are exclusive only among the members.

When the Duk Duk administer justice in Tolai society, it is often done in the open instead of being kept a secret. However, these functions only happen when the members decide when it’s the right time for them to take action.

The Duk Duk Ceremonial Costumes

The Duk Duk have two types of ceremonial costumes. Although they primarily share the same look (a cone head and a leafy body), the biggest differences can be found in the facial features.

The faceless one is referred to as a Duk Duk, which is used to attract male spirits. The other features large eyes with a thin, crescent-shaped mouth called a tubuan, attracting female spirits.

Despite their differences, both costumes are only worn by men as women are prohibited from joining the Duk Duk.

How Do the Tolai People Join the Duk Duk?

Community members looking to join the Duk Duk will be required to undergo a series of ‘ritual grades.’

There are five rituals, and the first four are meant to differentiate the male from the males by incorporating him into the male community. The last ritual differentiates a male from the other males.

The first ritual involves taking a boy to the taraiu, the men’s ground. During the second and third rituals, they learn a human is in the costumes. The fourth ritual requires them to purchase a Duk Duk costume with a considerable amount of divara or shell money – it is at this age that most of them stop.

The final stage is meant for those who strive to become ‘big men,’ which involves buying a tubuan costume and the knowledge to construct one. 

The owner of a tubuan has the right to sponsor a mortuary ceremony, earning him prestige.

How the Duk Duk Administer Justice

To execute justice, Duk Duk members start by dancing in their costumes to invite spirits to possess them while the tribal chief carries out discussions. After the dance, shamans will confirm if the dancers are possessed, and the secret society will travel the land to execute the sentence.

Because the executioner is possessed, he holds no accountability for his actions. Therefore he would not feel guilty.

What Happened to the Duk Duk?

During the colonial era, European authorities saw the Duk Duk as a threat and took measures to abolish its practice. 

Missionaries were successful as they converted the Tolai to Christianity, erasing the ‘heathen practices’ from their culture. However, the Duk Duk survived, abandoning the importance of their rituals.

Today, the Duk Duk dance is a tourist attraction for people visiting Papua New Guinea.

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