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The Kamoro
The coastal people of West Papua

When asked briefly to describe the Kamoro people of Papua, celebrated photographer and ethnologist Kal Muller said: "The Kamoro people are lovers, not fighters." There are about 18,000 members of the Kamoro, one of dozens of tribal groups in Papua. They live in the southwest coastal area of Mimika regency in West Papua. Geographically, they are close to tribal groups like the Asmat, Amungme and Sempan.

Muller, who was born in Hungary, has spent decades living with the Kamoro. He compared the Kamoro with the neighboring Asmat tribe, which is well known for its outstanding carvings. He said the Asmat were much closer to the traditional way of life of their ancestors than the Kamoro. The Dutch administration and the Roman Catholic Church, which set up their Kamoro headquarters in Kokonau in the mid-1920s, forbade and discouraged many elements of the Kamoro's traditions.

"To the Asmat, the Kamoro people are like their praise pieces. The Asmat have a stronger character and are more aggressive than the Kamoro. In the past, the Asmat people hunted down Kamoro people to show off their power. You know the Asmat people have the bisj, a totem-like pole that is made every time they kill an enemy. The Kamoro have a similar carving, the mbitoro, but it is made to praise their ancestors. See the difference." Kamoro youth figure Thomas "Tom" Kamipeyau said one of the tales often told by elderly Kamoro was the story of the origin of Kokonau. The word Kokonau is derived from Koka and Nau, which respectively mean women and slaughter.

"A long time before the Portuguese and Dutch came to our island, the Asmat people came and hunted our women. They killed most of the mothers and young women while the men ran into the jungle," said Tom, who is a teacher and is currently continuing his studies at Cendrawasih University in Jayapura. "When the Portuguese people came they only met a bunch of frightened men. And they could not communicate because of the language, and only pointed in the direction of their village, saying 'koka nau', or our women were slaughtered," he said. This folktale makes it clear the nature of the Kamoro.

"The Asmat were forced to defend their survival because they were praise pieces for other, stronger tribes as well, while the Kamoro had a kind of laid-back lifestyle living off the generosity of nature," Muller said at his house in Pigapu village. Pigapu is about 30 kilometers west of Timika, the capital of Mimika regency, which is home to mining company Freeport.

"And Freeport ended up with the losers," Muller quipped. "But as the Bible says, the last shall be the first and the first shall be the last." In terms of culture, the Kamoro have got off to a late start compared to the Asmat, whose wood carvings have been displayed at museums and galleries around the world.

Muller has worked with PT Freeport Indonesia as a special consultant and sort of liaison with local communities. Despite the ups and downs of the job, Muller has shown that what he does can make a difference. One of his ideas was the Festival Kamoro, locally known as Kamoro Kakuru, which has proven to be a very effective way of introducing the arts and culture of the Kamoro to a wider audience.

The festival was inspired by the yearly Asmat auction that was set up and carried out by Bishop Al Sowada, a Roman Catholic missionary of extraordinary vision who also set up the Asmat art museum in Agats. While its main objective was to preserve the cultural heritage of the Kamoro, the festival also serves as a forum to generate income for carvers and the women who weave grass to make bags.

Besides dance performances, canoe races and cooking demonstrations of traditional food, the festival also features an auction of Kamoro carvings. During the most recent Kamoro Kakuru, held from Sept. 29 through Oct. 2, the top price paid for a carving was Rp 7 million. The highest price ever paid at the festival was Rp 11 million, and that was last year.

Although more and more Kamoro are showing an interest in carving, Muller is not sure if carving is the way to generate sustainable income for the people, as "few of the people have good taste when it comes to carving. Many learned the skills from their parents, but they still have a lot more to learn". Slightly different from the carvings of the Asmat, the works of the Kamoro range from mbitoro, yamate (a kind of shield) and wemawe (the carving of the images of ancestors in an elbows-on-knees position), to tongkat (walking stick), eme or tifa (drum), and mbiikao masks (large masks worn over the head and shoulders for ceremonies).

"It has taken time to make the Kamoro people understand that their carvings are worth something. The arrival of people from Freeport or Jakarta will help them realize that their art has value," Muller said. As a coastal tribe, most Kamoro rely on fishing for their livelihood. And nature has been very generous.

The Kamoro living on the coast travel to kapiri kame (shelters made of pandanus leaves) inland where they have easier access to sago trees and other resources from the tropical rain forest. Sago palms are scattered in the wild and the Kamoro just fell the trees and break up the pith in the trunk. A felled sago tree, if left to rot, will produce one of the Kamoro's favorite delicacies: koo, or the sago grub.

Another favorite delicacy is tambelo, a kind of mollusk found in felled mangrove trees. Both delicacies are always eaten raw. In his book, Between the Tides, cowritten with David Pickell, Muller said the Kamoro was a culture - like many others in Papua - facing a delicate, sometimes humorous, and occasionally painful process of change. The question is how this change will shape the lives and the culture of the Kamoro.

Last revised on November 26, 2010
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