Living today

School kids in Asmat

At the time of colonization, government officials and traders arrived in search of Bird-of-Paradise feathers.  Scientists, such as the anthropologist, Paul Wirtz, or members of the Archbold Expedition and during the First and Second World Wars were Japanese, Australian and Dutch soldiers, largely in the Asmat unknown.

In 1953, Gerard A. Zegwaard Founded in the first permanent mission station in Agats, followed a year later by the first Dutch government post. Zegwaard’s publication in American Anthropologist 61, 1959, "Headhunting practices of Netherlands New Guinea", opened the door to a deeper understanding of the Asmat people and their culture. In the year of 1959, the American Crusaders Mission (Croiser Mission, OSC), took over the "proselytizing" of the Asmat.

The non-violent imperative of Christianity baptism was on the agenda and also to be an assistance to the Asmat and be an extraordinary role model of tolerance for strangers. Bishop Alphonse A. Sowada, has not only studied theology but also anthropology, made outsiders completely rethink their opinions and preconceptions of the Asmat.

Due to the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in November 1961, after his accident with the catamaran in the estuary of the rivers Siretsj and Betsj , the Asmat were assumed to have  headhunted Rockefeller and that he had fallen victim to their cultural activities. Therefore, the Asmat were no longer allowed to celebrated traditional festivals, which meant the prohibition of carvings along with the burning of any men houses that were built.

Bishop Sowada protested this injustice. He believed that with this ban on the Asmat vulture, the Asmat people had been uprooted and their identity would be lost forever. To be have a healthy perception of one’s self, a man must know where he comes from. The revival of the cultural activities was motivated by Bishop Sowada and by the construction of a museum for the Asmat people which includes an annual art competition.

In this way, we thank the afore mentioned people along with the following:
Adrian Gerbrands, VFPM van Amelsvoort, Frank Trenkenschuh, especially Jac. Hoogerbrugge with his project of the United Nations (FUNDWI), but also the anthropologists and museum directors Dirk Smidt (Leiden) and Klaus Helfrich (Berlin-Dahlem).  Also, on behalf of the great commitment to the Asmat by FREEPORT, Indonesia and  the American couple, Paul and Mary Ann Murphy we are also grateful.

Vorschule in Sawa

Not until recently has tourism (small groups of 8-12, sometimes 20 people a year) has affected the area. However, distributors supported by diverse government projects and corporate activities such as timber, oil, fish and Gaharu (a tree resin for incense), have left their mark, and brought many new people to Asmat. Around 1900 the Bird of Paradise skin and feathers, used for hat decoration, constituted the most popular trade good. In the years from 1970 to 1980 it was crocodile skins for handbags. Crocodile hunters venture through the various streams of the upper river beds for a night and can set 500 hooks for the animals.

However, the real change was brought through the schools. Missionaries built the first schools only to be taken over by the Indonesian government and expanded in every village. The mental horizon of the Asmat people, who had to remain bound by the constant wars between the village groups confined to their immediate living area, opened. The Asmat were able to move qbout quickly and safely with their dugout canoes from village to village. In Agats they marveled at the museum for the first time the ritual objects of the formerly warring villages and cultural groups.

They saw, heard and experienced civilization, outboard motor boats, power saws and large ships, loaded with logs of wood over the sea nut on the way back they returned with cargo such as gasoline, rice and other commodities such as pots, clothes, meat and fish. Living amongst the missionaries and government officials until the mid-80s, the men now marry Asmat women outside of the villages form all areas of the island of Indonesia. Asmat Women thereby acquiring rights to land in the middle of villages.

Electric generators supply power sporadically to televisions and music speakers. As a prestigious object for the property owner, they open a new atmosphere in the life of the Asmat. But the Asmat people themselves, who were in the cities of Merauke, Timika, Wamena or Jayapura for school, attended university or have lived or worked abroad not only bring a worldly perspective back with them, but also the need and desire of imitation into their villages. It is not so much that the habitat has changed, but rather the living conditions.In the larger villages there are small shops and market places where an Asmat can buy things (assuming they have money) than he actually needed. In Agats, the government seat of the independent Kabupaten Asmat and the so-called "capital" of Asmat, there are no roads. To move around on the muddy ground there are wood planks laid out like sidewalks, and houses built on stilts. Because the change of the tides is 4-5 meters, the houses and sidewalks that connect them to eachother are correspondingly high, insofar no one has fell down, even without the protection of railings. One exception to the plank technique is the main road, that has started last year, it is made of steel and concrete to ensure a longer life.