I hope that some people reading this blog have seen the 1965 documentary, Dead Birds. If you haven’t, please try to do so. It’s a very long film, in black and white. I viewed it in a college class many years ago. For me, the big lesson was that the Dani people of highland New Guinea (their territory is now defined as lying within West Papua which belongs to Indonesia) had a relatively civilized way of doing war. The men would get all dressed up with feather and shell ornaments. Then they took up their bows and shields, lined up against their opponents and shot arrows at the opposing line of men until someone was wounded, or perhaps killed.
A modern day almost-dead bird in the Gulf of Mexico. “Dying Baby Egret,” creative commons licensed content from Flickr user MarilynWelch.
Then the war stopped. Right then.
That was my interpretation of a representation: both may be quite distorted. Nonetheless, you have to agree that so-called “tribal warfare,” before the arrival of guns, was not about massive killing, much less annihilation.
But I seem to be the odd duck out. Stuart Kirsch, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, argues (in “Ethnographic Representation and the Politics of Violence in West Papua,” Critique of Anthropology 30:3-22, 2010) convincingly that the general perception of outsiders is that the Dani and other West Papuans are frighteningly violent — by nature and by culture. War is the central value in their culture. They are simply all about war.
This image justified the Dutch colonial presence: West Papuans needed pacification.
It fosters a thriving industry of extreme tourism “in which Euro-Americans pay thousands of dollars to participate in staged encounters with lost tribes.”
Now there is a new kind of war going on.
The story today is about international mining. Colonialists of our time, the multinationals have made and continue to make huge profits from exploiting the riches of West Papua. These companies, if called into question, can hire top lawyers to protect their interests. They can curry favor with politicians. They can win support from the military.
But the West Papuans, now, have more than bows and arrows, though their arsenal is still small by comparison with that of the big companies. They are organizing and enlisting international political support against the depredations of the mining companies. They are using an indigenous concept, merdeka (freedom) to express their wish for both regional autonomy and social justice.
Starting with the intrusion of the Dutch and continuing to today’s Indonesian control, many West Papuans have suffered from a politics of violence that makes the ritual warfare of Dead Birds look like child’s play.
If one were to film a documentary of conflict in West Papua today, the line-up would be very different from that depicted in Dead Birds. The mining companies would have a star role. Their employees are dressed up nicely. But they don’t stop shooting after wounding just one person.