Harvested in Shangri La


Two fascinating books deal with aboriginal life on New Guinea and the circumstances surrounding the Western world’s discovery of these peoples. In terms of the history of world populations, New Guinea’s tribes are a very recent discovery, some as recent as the 1930s when a zoologist flew over the Baliem Valley in western New Guinea and spied a large settlement. Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff narrates the horrific military plane crash toward the end of WWII in the Baliem Valley. Of dozens of passengers, three survived and clamored through the jungle where they encountered the Dani tribe, and were eventually rescued many weeks later. This was gripping for me, because my uncle Robert Crosswait was stationed at that base, New Hollandia, during the same time period. He did not return home. (Another blog post).

The other book, Savage Harvest, by Carl Hoffman is an investigation into the 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, son of Nelson Rockefeller in southern coastal Papua, Indonesia, directly south of where we live in the lowlands. Hoffman concludes that Rockefeller was likely a victim of a cannibalistic ritual performed by the Asmat tribe in revenge for the killing of tribe members by the Dutch a few years earlier.

I’d like to share with you some of the minimal contact I’ve had with the natives of our area, as long as you remember that I am not an expert and have only lived here for a couple of months. I am also very reluctant to walk up to Papuan natives and ask permission to photograph them. My fascination is with the people’s interaction with each other and the newcomers to their region; and with their art and music. I also love working with the children at the Tomawin dorm in town, and watching the non-schooled children as they gallivant around town.

A short distance down the road from Tembagapura is the Banti village. I haven’t visited yet, but the local nurses and doctors go down on a regular basis and often take ex-pat women to occupy the children during clinic hours. Many of the Banti villagers spend the day in and around Tembag; families, men and teenagers.

In the lowlands one can see many artifacts created by various tribes at the Timika Moses Kilganin airport and at the Rimba Hotel. Bisj poles are found in the Rimba hotel, and are the centerpiece of Michael Rockefeller’s quest in the book Savage Harvest. According to Wikipedia, “bisj poles can be erected as an act of revenge, to pay homage to the ancestors, to calm the spirits of the deceased and to bring harmony and spiritual strength to the community.” Another means of appeasing spirits was to take the life of an enemy and to consume his flesh, which may have been the demise of Rockefeller.

Tribes in the vicinity still go to war with each other and use traditional weapons.In Timika tempers flare when debts remain unpaid. Employees of my husband’s company are allowed to declare time off as unpaid leave because “at war”. Occasionally tribesmen come to Tembag and sell their spears, longbows, totems, drums and artwork. Sometimes our friendly local door-to-door salesman will displays his wares. We are suckers and so have purchased a number of weapons from him. Expats who’ve been here a few years warned us not to lick the tips of the arrows and spears. You know, poison and all. Thanks for the warning, because I was so tempted. 🙂

If you are at all interested in tribal life on New Guinea, please read the two books. All I have is a few photos to share, and I hope you enjoy them.