Asmat History


Oral Accounts

Asmat culture includes oral traditions or accounts that detail actions by individuals and communities. Placing specifics from these oral accounts into an historical framework remains to be completed. However, the value/need of demonstrating ancestral connections to specific areas of land remains and as documentation for land tenure projects grows it is quite possible that information in oral accounts will become easier to integrate with written information.

A Brief Summary of Written Historical Account about Asmat

Asmat culture remained isolated from the rest of the world until the end of 19th century when the Dutch entered the area. The earliest historical accounts of European contact with the Asmat date back to the 17th century when Dutch trader Jan Carstensz sailed past the coast in 1623. Almost one and a half centuries passed after Carstensz visit to the area before another explorer documented contact with Asmat culture; in 1770 Captain James Cook secured his ship the HMS Endeavor near the Casuarina Coast and went ashore. This encounter was brief with Cook's men returning to the ship after being met with loud shouts and bursts of white powder produced by crushed shell being blown from pipes. Cook's men fired their weapons during the encounter. In 1826 another similar and also brief meeting with the Dutch explorer Kolff took place.

The Dutch gained sovereignty over the western half of Island New Guinea in 1714 with the Treaty of Utrecht in which Spain relinquished claims to this land.  During the Napoleonic Wars the British managed Dutch colonies from 1811-1816. In 1828 the Dutch officially reclaimed sovereignty over the western part of New Guinea. In 1898 the Dutch created administrative posts at Fakfak and Manokwari. The first post in Asmat was created in 1939 on Flamingo Bay near Syuru and called Agats. During World War II when the Japanese arrived in 1942 the Dutch abandoned this post.

After WWII parts of Asmat were unstable and people left their villages. Approximately 6,000 Asmat exiles went north into the Mimika region. Here, Father Gerard Zegwaard msc was able to learn the Asmat language and begin communications. In 1949 Asmat refugees were led back to their villages. In 1953 the Dutch Mission of the Sacred Heart established a mission in Agats and a year later the Dutch government returned and created a new post. 

In 1962 the Dutch abandoned their claims to what had been Dutch New Guinea and the Indonesian government began functioning as the administrators of the land. Indonesian administrators attempted to eliminate critical elements of Asmat culture. The men's houses or jeu, the places where people gathered to discuss significant communal matters and sacred issues, were destroyed. People were told to curtail ceremonies as well as carving.    

During the period from 1964 to 1968 Indonesian opposition to Asmat cultural elements was most strong. After this period when opposition began to lift members of the Catholic Church began encouraging carving and celebrations. In 1973 the Diocese of Agats led by Bishop Sowada was able to create the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress or Museum Kebudayaan dan Kemajuan Asmat in Agats.

In addition as serving as a place for displaying and protecting Asmat art, the museum functioned as a place where ideas could be exchanged and leadership skills honed. The first curator was Yufenius Biaki now the Bupati or head of the local government. In Asmat: Perception of Life in Art Biaki writes the following about how he sees the museum functioning:

Local visitors of the museum are the Asmat themselves; Asmat youth are especially interested. They represent the future generations and hope of the Asmat culture and people. Therefore, it is our great expectation that they should be willing and eager to come and browse through the museum. This will enable them to breathe the cultural atmosphere and to absorb it so that eventually they can mold the art of their ancestors into their own expression of art. Here, the young people will be able to learn through interviews with the museum's personnel and through discussions with elderly people invited to the museum. p.66

Today, school children visit the museum frequently; however there are no Asmat individuals on the museum staff who hold positions in either administration, education, or program outreach.