Dead Birds now

I hope that some people reading this blog have seen the 1965 documentary, Dead Birds. If you haven’t, please try to do so. It’s a very long film, in black and white. I viewed it in a college class many years ago. For me, the big lesson was that the Dani people of highland New Guinea (their territory is now defined as lying within West Papua which belongs to Indonesia) had a relatively civilized way of doing war. The men would get all dressed up with feather and shell ornaments. Then they took up their bows and shields, lined up against their opponents and shot arrows at the opposing line of men until someone was wounded, or perhaps killed.

A modern day almost-dead bird in the Gulf of Mexico. “Dying Baby Egret,” creative commons licensed content from Flickr user MarilynWelch.

Then the war stopped. Right then.

That was my interpretation of a representation: both may be quite distorted. Nonetheless, you have to agree that so-called “tribal warfare,” before the arrival of guns, was not about massive killing, much less annihilation.

But I seem to be the odd duck out. Stuart Kirsch, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, argues (in “Ethnographic Representation and the Politics of Violence in West Papua,” Critique of Anthropology 30:3-22, 2010) convincingly that the general perception of outsiders is that the Dani and other West Papuans are frighteningly violent — by nature and by culture. War is the central value in their culture. They are simply all about war.

This image justified the Dutch colonial presence: West Papuans needed pacification.

It fosters a thriving industry of extreme tourism “in which Euro-Americans pay thousands of dollars to participate in staged encounters with lost tribes.”

Now there is a new kind of war going on.

The story today is about international mining. Colonialists of our time, the multinationals have made and continue to make huge profits from exploiting the riches of West Papua. These companies, if called into question, can hire top lawyers to protect their interests. They can curry favor with politicians. They can win support from the military.

But the West Papuans, now, have more than bows and arrows, though their arsenal is still small by comparison with that of the big companies. They are organizing and enlisting international political support against the depredations of the mining companies. They are using an indigenous concept, merdeka (freedom) to express their wish for both regional autonomy and social justice.

Starting with the intrusion of the Dutch and continuing to today’s Indonesian control, many West Papuans have suffered from a politics of violence that makes the ritual warfare of Dead Birds look like child’s play.

If one were to film a documentary of conflict in West Papua today, the line-up would be very different from that depicted in Dead Birds. The mining companies would have a star role. Their employees are dressed up nicely. But they don’t stop shooting after wounding just one person.

2 thoughts on “Dead Birds now

  1. Given Barbara’s thoughtful and timely post, I wanted to pass on the following message from S. Eben Kirksey , an anthropologist whose book about West Papua, “Freedom in Entangled Worlds,” is under contract and forthcoming with Duke University Press:


    President Obama’s forthcoming trip to Indonesia on 14 June presents us with an important opportunity.

    Amnesty International is currently working with Congress to pass a resolution about West Papua, sending an important message to the President before his trip to Indonesia. The resolution calls attention to the ongoing detention of political prisoners and other restrictions on their freedom of speech. Resolutions are non-binding acts of Congress and, if passed, this one would give Obama and Indonesian authorities some issues of substance to discuss in the coming weeks. After this Resolution was “dropped” in a hopper on the House floor on May 13th (a ritual that initiates the formal process of seeking cosponsors), Indonesian authorities have already begun to review the cases of some 60 Papuan political prisoners.
    More information is available at the Amnesty International action center:



    Filep Karma and Yusak Pakage are serving long prison sentences for raising a flag. The two men were jailed following a peaceful protest in Indonesia’s Papua province.

    We are calling on Members of Congress to support House Resolution 1355 calling for the release of Filep and Yusak, prisoners of conscience who are imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly.

    Ask your Representative to support the Congressional resolution condemning Indonesia’s imprisoning of peaceful political activists.


    To show your support for political freedom in West Papua, please pick up the phone and call the Congressional switchboard (202) 224-3121 and ask to speak with your Representative’s office. When you are connected to the office of your Congressman or Congresswoman, identify yourself as a constituent and ask to speak with the staff person responsible for international affairs or human rights. Once you have that person on the phone (or their voice mail), all you need to do is to identify where you live, or the place you work, and say: “Please support H.Res. 1355 from Patrick Kennedy’s office about political prisoners in West Papua.” Sometimes the person you end up talking to will wish to chat, but more typically they will be brief. If they express particular enthusiasm for the resolution, please let me know (Eben Kirksey ), as such information is helpful in planning future political actions on the Hill.

    Another way to convey your support for the resolution is through the Amnesty International action center:

    We realize that leaving a voice mail or signing an online petition isn’t enough to change the world, but it is a start. We also ask you to help educate your students, colleagues, and neighbors about Indonesia’s military occupation of West Papua and its consequences for their human rights.

    Suggested readings on political violence and political movements in West Papua include:

    Butt, L. 2005. ‘”Lipstick Girls”‘ and ‘”Fallen Women”‘: AIDS and Conspiratorial Thinking in West Papua, Indonesia’. Cultural Anthropology 20(3):412-442.

    Glazebrook, Diana. 2008. Permissive Residents: West Papuan Refugees Living in Papua New Guinea. Canberra: Australian National University.

    Golden, Brigham. 2003. Political Millenarianism and the Economy of Conflict: Reflections on Papua by an Activist Anthropologist Asia Source. 23 June.

    Kirksey, S. Eben and Andreas Harsono. 2008. Criminal Collaborations? Antonius Wamang and the Indonesian military in Timika. South East Asia Research 16(2): 165-197.

    Kirsch, Stuart 2010. Ethnographic Representation and the Politics of Violence in West Papua. Critique of Anthropology 30(1):322.

    Rutherford, Danilyn. 2005. Nationalism and Millenarianism in West Papua: Institutional Power, Interpretive Practice, and the Pursuit of Christian Truth, in June Nash (ed), Social Movements: An Anthropological Reader, 146-67. London: Blackwell.

    Stasch, Rupert .2007. Demon Language: The Otherness of Indonesian in a Papuan Community, in Miki Makihara and Bambi B. Schieffelin (eds.) , Consequences of Contact: Language Ideology and Sociocultural Transformations in Pacific Societies, 96-124. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  2. charlie

    Dear Mr.Kirksey

    please check out our new film – the first feature documentary about West Papua at


    We have our Australian premiere next week and have applied to come to numerous film festivals in the USA later this year.

    This film maybe a very useful tool for you – thoughts?


    Charlie Hill-Smith (director)


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