TITLE: Tami Island Mask
TYPE: helmet mask
COUNTRY: Papua New Guinea
SUBREGION: Siassi Island
ETHNICITY: Tami (Melanesian)
DESCRIPTION: Tago helmet mask
MAKER: Unknown
FUNCTION: Adult Initiation; Spirit Invocation
AGE: ca. 1990
MAIN MATERIAL: sago palm tapa cloth
OTHER MATERIALS: rattan; wood; berry and tree sap pigments; feathers

The Tami people inhabit a small collection of islands in Papua New Guinea’s Morobe Province. They number fewer than one thousand individuals today. The Tami masquerade is part of the adult initiation (circumcision) ritual for boys and men. The tago simultaneously represents a spirit of a dead ancestor and the more recently, spirit of kani, a dragonlike monster that eats children and is invisible to women.

Tago masks are kept in bush huts off limits to women and children, who are forbidden to see tago masks and performance on some islands. On others, such as Siassi, women do attend the performance. In practice, women on all the islands all have seen tago performances and merely feign ignorance for form’s sake.

Each tago mask belongs to a family and has an identifiable design. They are acquired through marriage from the maternal uncle and passed down to the children.

The tago initiation ceremony was formerly performed every ten or twelve years, accompanied by the loud noise of a bullroarer (a carved piece of wood or rattan swung in circles on a string to make loud wind sounds). During that time, a taboo was placed on coconuts for one year and war was banned. More recently, it has been performed every two decades.