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Cultural Diversity in Indonesian Papua

24 November, 2010

Cultural diversity is on the agenda of the provincial government of Papua (Eastern Indonesia). From 8 – 11 November 2010 it organized an international conference on this theme. After the province developed Special Autonomy regulations almost a decade ago, this marks a second courageous attempt by Papua to regulate cultural and governmental issues largely autonomously:

Indonesia is home to over 300 ethnic groups, with some 250 living on the island of Papua. These ethnic and linguistic groups, especially those on Papua, count only hundreds of members, compared to other major groups who may number into the millions. Papua, with its very diverse ethnic groups has vast cultural diversities that manifest themselves into tangible and intangible cultural expressions. The richness of Papua’s cultural diversity is in part due to the creative energy of the indigenous Papuans to adapt themselves to both their natural and social environment which are commonly shared by this island with those in the region that comprises the area from  Maluku, Nusatenggara, the islands of New Guinea, Solomon Islands, to as far away as Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. The people within this vast region are known to share close genetic and cultural characteristics. Due to globalization, urbanization, employment mobility, and other forms of migrations, Papuans today are confronted with challenges and disappearing traits. Therefore, the Government of the Province of Papua has called for concrete actions to identify and preserve the cultural identities of the people.

From a number of sources I learned that the conference was a great success. It gathered over two hundred participants including the provincial and central governments, UN agencies, academic institutions, community groups, the private sector, NGOs, the local media and various national and international institutions from Australia, Fiji, Germany, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.

UNESCO which collaborated in the organization of the conference reported the following on its Jakarta website

Six sessions were held in this conference with active involvement of participants to discuss the opportunities and challenges in safeguarding the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of Papua, the role of local wisdom and traditional knowledge in sustainable development, economic sustainability through community empowerment, enhancement of tourism, and the cultural industries in Papua. During the conference, participants acknowledged a significant initiative of the Provincial Government of Papua for establishment of a Centre for Documentation of Papua’s Cultural and Linguistic Heritage, while the participants strongly recommended the full participation of local communities, the establishment of education programmes, and the capacity building for better preservation and promotion of the rich diversified cultural elements of Papua.

The following policy advice statements were among its outcomes:

1. Note the strategic initiative of the Provincial Government of Papua in establishing the Papua Knowledge Centre in Kotaraja which has a critical role to play in the documentation of Papua’s cultural and linguistic heritage and in the provision of advice to the Provincial Government in the formulation of cultural heritage policies and planning.

2. Commend the efforts made by the Centre for Endangered Languages Documentation (CELD) Papua at the State University of Papua in preserving and documenting languages in the Papuan provinces and encourage the CELD to continue its efforts with full involvement of Papuan communities, national and international universities, language centres and the government.

3. Strongly support the initiative of the Provincial Government of Papua to establish the Papua Research Institute (Lembaga Riset Papua) in Jayapura, as stipulated in the Governor’s Decree number 111 Year 2008 and encourage the government to facilitate cooperation between the Papua Research Institute and the Papua Knowledge Centre as well as with the research centres at Papua’s universities.

4. Encourage the churches in Papua to continue to develop the use of local and/or mother languages in their services, sermons and liturgy in order to support the preservation and development of these languages.

5. Encourage the media in Papua, including local television, radio, and newspapers, to use Papuan languages and dialects in their reporting and information programs.

6. Recommend that the Provincial Government of Papua, in cooperation with relevant stakeholders, establish education programmes, school curricula and capacity building to promote mother tongue education and “inter-generational language transmission”

These are all laudable points. The only worry that I have is about indigenous self-determination in a culturally hybrid environment. Do the above points of advice not depart too much from culturalism as apparent in past and current overviews of cultural traits and diversities in Papua? These overviews tend to pay little attention to the communication between cultures in the region. They hardly recognize the connections between of local cultures with regional, national and transnational “others”. In other words, the anthropology (and linguistic study) of Papua is generally characterised by a focus on single cultures and languages.

If one were to construct a map of the cultural variety in New Guinea on the basis of these classifications, the temptation to draw boundaries and ascribe characteristics to the evolving tapestries would be compelling. The resulting tapestry would be a useful tool to illustrate variety, but it would exoticise Papuans even more than is already happening in the individual monographs.

If applied in policies, such classifications easily lead to short-sighted conclusions about inclusion and exclusion – in terms like ‘this cultural group belongs here and this one does not belong here’. Moreover it would likely confirm much of the existing rivalries between groups that follow boundaries that are mostly just constructions by people who are keen to differentiate themselves from others within politically and economically tense situations. Conforming or even emulating such essentialism is dangerous.

Colonial classifications

Among the first attempt to classify ‘the Papuan’ on the basis of limited but growing amount of ethnographic data is Bijlmer’s study published in 1935 (Bijlmer, H. J. T.1935 Bevolking. In W. C. Klein (ed.), Nieuw Guinee. 3 Vols. Amsterdam: J. H. de Bussy, Vol. 1, pp. 219-70). Bijlmer analysed the inhabitants of New Guinea in its entirety and responded to a growing need for knowledge of the local populations by the colonial government.

As Ploeg (2002: 80) points out,

“Bijlmer’s quest for what the term ‘Papoea’ stood for turned to cultural and mental dispostions. Bijlmer discussed the ‘Papoea’s’ ability to ‘work’, that is work in colonial context, foremost as a labourer on plantations or in mines (1935:256). Another section of his essay deals with whether or not the ‘Papoea’ poses physical danger especially to European explorers (1935:253).”

Clearly Bijlmer’s study of Papuan cultures was strongly affected by then current assumptions in physical anthropology while it also responded to and largely confirmed existing prejudices about Papuans as lazy and wild and therefore hard to include as colonial citizens.

My second example is a more sophisticated attempt to determine a common characterization of ‘the Papuan’ and ‘his culture’ conducted by Gerrit Jan Held and published as De Papoea: Cultuurimprovisator in 1951. Held’s analysis, as the title of the book unambiguously evokes, focuses around the idea of adaptations of tradition as a common denominator for all Papuans. The tendency towards improvisation is, as Held suggests, the common denominator amid ‘almost discouraging diversity’ (1951:8).



By using the term improvisation Held means to depict that the Papuan incessantly combines familiar culture elements with foreign ones to achieve new complexities. The end result is neither a stable nor a structured whole, it still culture in the making (1951:51). Here Held clearly shows that he is a pupil of the famous Dutch structuralist De Josselin de Jong who focused on elements of structure.

Until the end of colonial period, this kind of scholarship continued and informed policy-making. Jan van Baal and the Bureau for Native Affairs (Kantoor voor Bevolkingszaken) played a major role in using and translating ethnographic studies into policy. The cultural and linguistic map of West New Guinea became increasingly sophisticated but persisted focusing on ethnic or cultural groups.

The tapestry of cultures in New Guinea remained a resource for efforts at filling in more detailed in a evermore firmly fragmented and compartmentalised picture of Papuan cultures. Generalisations about groups became reduced to group identity, ethnicity, and ethos, often-contradicting empirical evidence.

New Order classifications

When Indonesia began to administer the territory its New Order regime added to the essentialist view of culture a classical developmental perspective. This not only further essentialised cultures as inexorably different from each other it also added a rational civilizing ethics to these differentiations. For Papua, the differentiation was much less about the cultural diversity in Papua but essentially about the differences in stages of advancement and integration or civilization between elitist Java (and parts of Sumatra) and backward Eastern Indonesia of which Papua formed the iconic lowest and hence most troublesome bottom-end.

As a result, at the national level, the New Order cosmology began to categorise a whole group of people (Papuans) and their region (Papua) as backward and difficult to integrate. The classification of Papuan diversity in terms of similarities confined to certain bounded cultural regions is continues until the present. Most prominently, Joshz Mansoben, both in his PhD thesis (1994) and a recent article in the volume on the Ecology of Papua (2007), presents a sophisticated overview of “the variation in language, social structure, leadership systems, religion, livelihood systems, land tenure system, orientation of cultural values, and work ethic in this highly diverse province” (Mansoben 2007:108).

Mansoben begins with language variety, the most iconic and most widespread reference to Papua’s overwhelming diversity. Interestingly, Mansoben notes that “despite the high linguistic diversity in Papua, most Papuans speak and understand Bahasa Indonesia” (2007:109). I would say that it is because of the linguistic diversity making people used to learning and understanding languages different than their won, helps greatly to acquire language skills in Indonesian.

Mansoben continues: “Indeed a higher proportion of Papuans are fluent in this language than people in most other Indonesian provinces” (ibid.). In my opinion this says something about people’s eagerness to connect with a wider world, which is not only part of an age-old and very human tendency but also a current keen interest to explore modernity and learn the language of modernity.

Modern connections

With respect to modernity, the noses of most Papuans are directed towards the West, to Jakarta, and not to the Pacific. In cosmologies that map an ever wider world, Jerusalem and Mecca usually appear as sources of modernity alongside the government centre of the former colonial power (‘Belanda’) and Washington, Canberra, and so on. To engage with these centers, that is, to get access to modernity it is essential, as Papuans understand very well, to learn the relevant vernacular, as it is mainly through language that knowledge is acquired and exchanged. The necessary connections are shaped by individuals and groups and transgress, cross and blur boundaries between groups.

Numerous recent monographs and volumes stress the mobility of Melanesian people. Wiessner and Tumu (1998) for example show the ways in which Enga in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea created themselves in a culturally diverse field. In this field, mythology, trade routes, and marriage practices situated Enga among other Enga groups and regional others, thereby challenging generalisations about geographically isolated highland groups centred on them.

For Papua, Jan Pouwer and Paul Haenen stress in the volume Peoples on the Move (Nijmegen: Centre for Australian and Oceanic Studies, University of Nijmegen 1989) that the people of the Bird’s Head are very mobile. In the Bird’s Head of Papua the dynamics of migration is often closely linked with the importance attached to kain timur clotsh, a key item of exchange for marriages, compensation and offerings to spirits.

Among the Moi of the western Bird’s Head region, the exchange of kain timur leads to ongoing turmoil in the exchange of women (Haenen 1988). Nowhere and not at any time, is it possible to distinguish an ethnologically classical kind of ethnological stable marriage pattern. Haenen seems tempted to suggest that the flexibility in the circulation of women among the Moi is the result of random historical processes (1998: 476). This would indeed go to far but as a point of departure for research, I think this view is more useful than the classical anthropological suggestion that a localized groups may be typified by a certain stable kinship system.

Beyond culturalism

There are important reasons to move away from the idea of traditional systems confined to one or more groups dwelling in a certain location. This picture is true for people who indeed stay put in one settlement and do not have an extended kinship system or are not involved in complex and wide exchange systems with neighbouring groups or groups even further afield. Papuan groups can generally not be characterized as such. Hence the above-mentioned classifications need to revisited and seen in light of current circumstances.

In two recent articles (Timmer 2007 and 2008) I have begun to do this, in particular with respect to new elites that are evolving over the last few decades. These elites include recently evolved ones that have their roots not so much in structures build by the Dutch but rather in New Order Indonesian structures, allowing access to education to gear up for future jobs in the government. Some groups like the Ayamaru of the Bird’s Head have successfully tapped this resource and have thus been able to replace the traditionally powerful position of Sentani and Biak people in the Jayapura-based government institutions (see Timmer 2007). Other groups, networks or exchanges that move in ways not covered in the classical anthropological approach include the police, the military, NGO networks, labourers, and interest groups, students at university campuses, and so on.

As I have indicated above, ever since the arrival of Europeans but in particular with the advent of studies and related classifications of Papuan cultures, the people of Papua have been defined as belonging to particular groups with each having a distinct culture and ethnicity. As Nelson (2009) points out for Papua New Guinea the Europeans were also placed in groups but according to occupation and intent (missionaries, miners, planters and traders, and government officers). In Papua New Guinea they were also classified according to their nation of origin and the language spoken (Australian, German). At present Papua New Guineans are familiar with a larger variety of people and categorize them in a variety of ways.

The classification of Papuans on the other hand still follows the classic pattern as belonging to groups with distinct languages and cultures. The main point of Nelson’s paper is that besides studies of the police and that army, of the six million people in Papua New Guinea we have “almost no analyses of what are the dynamic groups other than those identified in generalities a hundred years ago. This is primitive scholarship” (Nelson 2009: 1).

For Indonesian Papua is the situation is not significantly different. There is still much work to be done for laying the foundation for policies on cultural diversity in Papua.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Yulia Sugandi permalink
    25 November, 2010 9:49 am

    Cheers for this thorough reflection. I share your concern about unidentifiable horizontal inequalities (differences between groups) and the indigenous self determination in formulating policies on promoting cultural diversity in Papua. I also concern about the dynamic inter relations between cultural agent and structure. As long as inferiority complex (that negates the rights of self determination) is labelled to indigenous papuans, then the pattern of the exchange relations would always be imbalanced. Any paradigm of social cultural change in Papua (including the language development) should be aware about the transformation of the views on perceiving the reality as well as give proper space for the local people to reconstruct their own realities. Such analytical level and action would bring us beyond focusing merely on a single group.


  1. Cultural Diversity in Indonesian Papua « Culture Matters « media/anthropology

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