IO – One of the most important Kamoro myths is that of the dragon now usually referred to by them as the komodo dragon which Kal Muller in his book Kamoro, a Tribe of Mimika thinks may be based on the giant lizards which roamed Australia 20,000 years ago. According to this legend a great dragon once ate all the inhabitants of a village except for a pregnant woman who gave birth to a son who managed to kill the dragon and chop it into pieces. Each piece became the founder of a different race. In this origin myth the whole world descended from this dragon including the Europeans, the Chinese, the Indians and the Africans. And so, in the Kamoro cosmology we all originate from Papua.
The Kamoro have many myths that connect their cosmological outlook with their belief system and which inspire their world class wooden sculptures. On the 5th of December 2019 the Maramowe Weaiku Kamorowe or Great Kamoro Carvers Foundation held an exhibition and sale of Kamoro wooden sculptures and handicrafts at the Darmawangsa Residences in South Jakarta. The event was sponsored by PT Freeport Indonesia and hosted by the Lontar Foundation.
Who are the Kamoro?
Indonesia’s most distant eastern province is Papua. The ancestors of the Papuans first arrived there nearly 50,000 years ago, arriving in small groups from the west after crossing the whole Indonesian Archipelago in what were probably small bamboo rafts at the same time that the Aborigines were arriving and settling in Australia. During the Ice Age the southern part of Papua where the Kamoro live and Australia were connected at a time when the Arafura Sea dried up. That was more than 8,000 years ago. Since then the seas rose again and the Papuans and Aborigines evolved separately.
The Kamoro are a Papuan tribe who live in a 250 kilometer southern coastal area that lies between the Bay of Etna in the east to the Minajerwi River to the west and consists of about 40 villages of roughly 18,000 souls. Most live along the coast and half a dozen live in the mountains.
There are no written traditions left by the Kamoro but we can find clues left behind in language and culture, especially the arts. There are two main languages groups in Papua. The older Papuan language group which has been around for 50,000 years and the Malay-Polynesian group which has only been around 3,500 or 4000 years ago. The Kamoro language falls into the first and their language and culture has many similarities with the Asmats who are located to the east of them.
Kamoro carvings display a noble elegance reflecting their ancient culture as hunters and gatherers and tellers of myths and legends. One of the wooden statue at the exhibition was of Pairipipa, a Kamoro fisherman with a beautifully crested black cockatoo on his head. The gracefully curving feathers of the cockatoo’s crest formed delicate shadows on the white wall behind it.
The legend of the black cockatoos comes from the village of Ipiri. Pairipipa went out fishing but did not return. His wife and daughter looked for him everywhere but could not find him. During her search his daughter met a man who became her husband and she had a child with him. Still they could not find Pairipipa until one day her mother went out into the mangrove swamp searching for food and there she found the corpse of her husband. Above him in a tree sat an enormous black cockatoo gazing down at him. The distraught woman began to sob and in her anguish cried at the black cockatoo, “How could you be so heartless? My poor husband has lain here dead for so long – he already has a grandchild – and you knew! But you said nothing! Heartless, heartless bird! You said nothing. You did not have the heart to let me know!”
The black cockatoo was touched by the woman anguish and despair and felt pity for her – and a certain remorse. So, ever after when there has been a death or there will be a death it has accepted the thankless task of flying around Ipiri and letting the villagers know the news. Whenever, the villagers see it flying over their village they know that there is sorrowful news on the way.
There are also creatures however, in the Kamoro myths who usually symbolize good tidings. One of these is the dragon and the legend from the village of Mware about a dragon was the subject of three very fine carvings at the exhibition. There are two heads in silhouette at the top of the first carving. They face away from each other and are the heads of an older and a younger brother. Below the two heads is a board on which are carved many curving lines which represent the mangrove swamp and the many rivers and byways in the swamp. The mangrove fruit sit at the centre of the twisted lines.
The two brothers went into the swamp to search for food but did not succeed in finding anything. They were about to return home when they saw a large bird’s nest in a high tree. The older brother ordered the younger one to climb up and retrieve two eggs in the nest but the younger brother protested that it was a very high tree. The older brother insisted he climb it and hand him the larger egg. The younger brother did so but the older one accused him of keeping the larger egg and as a punishment left his little brother alone up in the tree, cutting the lianas whereby the younger boy had climbed up the tree. For several days the poor boy cried in the tree. “I am here because my brother was angry with me – and I am so cold and hungry.”
Two small snakes heard him and tried to help him but they were too small. So, they went off to call the great dragon, Mbirokateyau who came and tied his tail to a small tree and then wound his upper body to the large tree where the boy was. His body was like a bridge down which the boy could climb to safety. So, the snake and the dragon are frequently symbols of help and blessings.
There were also carvings at the exhibition of other animals, such as fish, crabs, mantas and of course the bird of paradise which is usually a symbol for creation myths.
This incredibly beautiful bird which is endemic to Papua has also become the symbol of Papua itself. In the Land of the Kamoro there are only the yellow tail and the red tail lyre bird.
At the start of the exhibition two Papuan dancers performed rituals of the spirit mask dance to call the ancestors. Two of the dancers wore the large masks which have long grass skirts covering nearly their whole bodies.
They were followed by several Papuan dancers vibrant and virile in their colorful costumes of red loin cloths and grass fringe skirts topped by black cassowary feather headdresses.
The exhibition was opened by Billy Mambrasar, one of the so-called seven wise millennials chosen by the President to advise him on government policy. Billy who is himself a Papua began by speaking about how formidable Papuan culture is and how proud he is to be a Papuan. He said, “Along the north shore area Papuans dance using their feet a lot but in the south they use their hips more and their dance imitates the movement of birds and then the movement of the crocodile. They create the most wonderful carvings.”
Yuli Ismartono, executive director of the Lontar Foundation which usually promotes Indonesian literature through translations said, “We hosted this exhibition because at Lontar we feel that the diversity of Indonesia should be promoted, especially Papua because it is remote compared to other parts of Indonesia and not many people have had the chance to see it.”
Meanwhile, Tony Wenas, the president director of PT Freeport Indonesia said, “Freeport is very happy this event could be carried out as planned. We have lived side by side with the Kamoro for 50 years. They are our brothers and sisters. Our commitment to them has been in health and education but culture is also important especially as the Kamoro have one of the richest cultures particularly so when it comes to wood carvings and art work… We are invested in their community for no company shall prevail in a community that fails…”
The exhibition was then declared open by the head of Tourism Services in Mimika Regency, Mohamad Toha, Tony Wenas and Yuli Ismartono by beating the small Kamoro drums. This was followed by Papuan singer Michael Jakarimilena who belted away with vigor as the guests took part in Papuan style line dancing together with the Papuan dancers and carvers.
Luluk Intarti of the Maramowe Weaiku Kamorowe Foundation went to the various Kamoro villages to choose the carvings and organized the exhibition and sale in Jakarta the proceeds of which go nearly completely to the carvers. For many years Luluk assisted the famous Dr Kal Muller in his work with the Kamoro.
Luluk herself was born in Surabaya and studied architecture. A year before her graduation she married and accompanied her husband to Mimika when he received work from Freeport. There Luluk eventually became Kal Muller’s assistant. She has lived in Papua for 24 years now and considers it her home. It is where all her children were born and she loves its beauty and her work there. The Foundation’s educational program manager, Lani Rohmania says laughingly, “Luluk has fallen under a Kamoro spell and is in love with them and considered a part of them – which is no bad thing!”
Another name very much connected to the story of the Kamoro is that of Dr Kalman Antal Muller who was born in Hungary in 1939 and was Luluk’s mentor. He became an anthropologist who worked as a consultant with Freeport advising them about the structure, traditions and culture of the Kamoro as information in creating and carrying out Freeport’s poverty alleviation programs for them. The modern world has been intruding on the Kamoro in the form of mining companies, logging companies and transmigration from other parts of Indonesia and they must make changes to meet those changes if they are to survive.
The Kamoro probably first came into contact with traders from other parts of Indonesia a thousand years ago and through the centuries contact with the outside world increased but it was only in the 1920s that the Dutch government set up a post in Kokonau. The Catholic church also established itself there. As settled populations are more easily educated, counted, taxed and controlled, like most governments both the Dutch as well as the later Indonesian administrations pressured the semi-nomadic Kamoro to settle. Meanwhile, many of their traditional beliefs and rituals were displaced by the Catholic Church and the government. Much of what the government and the Church did was done in good faith for example to decrease diseases such as malaria and high rates of infant mortality. At the time the average life expectancy of the Kamoro was only 30 years. Some initiations rituals resulted in severe child abuse causing death and the government whether Dutch or Indonesian were also protecting the Kamoro from the violence of such neighbours as the Asmat with their tribal warfare and headhunting traditions.
The Kamoro culture and people however suffered and they lost pride in their culture. Muller wrote that by having the spiritual underpinnings of their traditional religion cut by the Catholic Church their art, in particular their carvings lost their raison d’être. The art of the Kamoro was dying. By the 1970s the quality of their carvings had plummeted and only old men could still carve whereas the wood sculptures of the Kamoro people qualified them as one of the world’s greatest carving cultures. It was this type of art which inspired many modern painters, especially the cubists.
Kal Muller together with Freeport realized that if the Kamoro were to survive with a strong psychological base in meeting the challenges of the modern world they would need to rediscover their pride in their culture and hold it as the roots of their identity. This is what Freeport and Muller wanted to assist the Kamoro with for without this the poverty alleviation programs would be extremely difficult to implement beneficially for the Kamoro. So, in 1998 they began the first Kamoro Festival where there were dances and boat races but the highlight of which was the auction of the best carvings for prices that were sky high and that went directly to the carvers. Only the best carvings were chosen. These festivals were continued until 2005 when they had to be stopped for various reasons. Nevertheless, Muller with the help of Freeport continued exhibitions and sales in towns such as Jakarta, Surabaya and in Bali.
Today both the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Indonesian government have changed their stance and fully support most aspects of traditional Kamoro culture. In 2016 Muller retired and Luluk is the driving energy in the Maramowe Weaiku Kamorowe Foundation. She does much of the work that in her words “the man who is like a father to me” once did. And Tony Wenas very much hopes that the Kamoro auctions that for many years used to be held in Mimika Regency but had to be stopped might be started again next year. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)