Recorded Oral Traditions
Many American missionaries have recorded and translated Asmat oral traditions. Several of these were published in the Crosier Asmat Sketchbook series. Many were collected by Maryknoll missionary Vince Cole. We will continue to post more of these accounts on this website.
The following story was collected by Alphonse Sowada from the Sawa-Erma area when Sowada was a pastor here. It is about a man named Bisirak who frequently functions as a comic figure. Bisirak's actions often amuse an audience and trigger dialogue.
Stories of Bisirak #3: The Carrying Bag
Long long ago Bisirak decided that he needed a new carrying bag (esa). He first went to the sago area to get some sago heart for his sister. He thought that this would entice her into making a really beautiful bag for him. As he expected, his sister was thrilled at the gift and immediately began to weave a new carrying bag for him.
Once the bag was finished Bisirak was more than satisfied with the work. On his next fishing trip he placed the new bag in the front of his canoe and ordered the bag to direct his canoe. Initially he was very lucky in his fishing. Each time he shot an arrow he hit a fish. When he finally missed one shot he was angry so he threw the carrying bag into the water. Then still respecting the powers of his carrying bag, he repented and retrieved the bag.
The very next day he again took his new carrying bag on another fishing trip. He talked to it all along the way. The bag, seeing that Bisirak treated it just as a human being, decided that it would become a beautiful woman. When he reached his jungle hut he placed his carrying bag near the fireplace. Then he left to hunt wild pigs. When he came back to the hut that evening he found a beautiful woman standing there. He immediately hugged her and asked where she had come from. The woman said that she had been his carrying bag but that she decided to become a beautiful woman. Bisirak decided that she, being a woman, was by far better than she was, being a carrying bag. He took her as his wife.
When he returned to the village with his new wife his mother asked him where he had found the strange woman. His mother was very surprised when she heard the story. She, too, agreed that a woman was preferable to a carrying bag. Bisirak then asked his mother to prepare the wild pig. His mother and his new wife ate the meat. Bisirak didn't eat any of the pig meat.
Crosier Missionaries, "Some Stories from Asmat," An Asmat Sketchbook,No. 1 & 2, edited by Father Frank Trenkenschuh, 1982 edition, p. 68
Note: Often in stories if an individual experiences good fortune he or she will avoid eating meat that becomes available around the same time.