National Geographic : 1996 Feb
hunting ground and build a new house." But will they ever move to a settlement? "We don't want to leave the forest," Flaya bere says. "My wife is afraid of town, and I don't like that the houses are so close together. I don't like that a stranger gives orders and tells us what to do." I wonder how long they can resist. When Wandenggei hands over more tobacco, salt, and a bag of fishhooks-in exchange for bananas and roasted sago, a breadlike staple made from the pith of the sago palm - Flaya bere looks stunned at his fortune. Wandenggei has perhaps started a conversion-not to the church but to the benefits of settlement living. POINTING the Irianese toward the prom ised land has preoccupied mission aries for well over a century. So it is something of a miracle that no more than a few have been killed by hostile tribes men or died as a result of, as one account puts it, "the rather prosaic martyrdoms of malaria." It used to be that missionaries frightened the native peoples. Now many churches are filled on Sundays. I join the congregation one day in the Baptist church in Wamena, a town of 17,000 in the central highlands. Inside an airy, whitewashed space, several hundred Dani tribesmen, crammed together on benches and on the floor, sway trancelike as a native dea con, trained by the missionaries, thunders from the pulpit. "On earth your grass may dry out," the Dani churchman, casual in an open-necked shirt, calls out. "Your river may dry out. But in heaven it is always good. There is no fight ing. You don't have to hunt or garden. Every thing good comes to you." Afterward, the men in T-shirts and split open athletic shoes and the women in their river-washed blouses stand outside blinking in the sun. Tendrils of smoke rise from hillsides being burned off to prepare the sweet potato gardens. It is planting season. Heaven will have to wait. For most of the missionaries in Irian, saving souls remains the task at hand. But in the buggy coastal swamps to the south, home to the Asmat, a handful of American priests and brothers have taken on a more ambitious mission: They want to save a culture as well. Most of the Roman Catholic missionaries belong to a small order, the Crosiers, head quartered in St. Paul, Minnesota. They came to the Asmat region in 1958, replacing Dutch priests. Gradually they developed a new approach to missionary work, inspired by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. They saw themselves not as authority figures but as counselors who, in their own way, would go native to help the Asmat hold on to home and tradition. The Asmat culture was almost destroyed in the 1960s when the Indonesian government, spurred by reports of headhunting, tore down the men's longhouses, outlawed feasts and carvings, and sanctioned commercial logging in the Asmat's forest. The Crosiers set about collecting the forbid den carvings and incorporating Asmat ritual into their services. They acted as peacemakers between warring villages, and between the government and its new subjects. Eventually the Crosiers persuaded the authorities to lift the bans on artwork and Tossed up like drift wood, a shantytown with a mosque lines a riverbank in the swel tering capital of Jayapura. This city of 310,000 looks good to hordes of unskilled laborers who come to Irian to find jobs in logging, fishing, and peddling merchan dise. Some go from rags to riches. As an Indonesian writer notes, they "arrive by ship, sleep rough in marketplaces, relieve themselves on river banks, then return home by air." When officials from Jakarta, the national capital, visitto remind their distant subjects that they are part of Indo nesia, Scouts (above) dutifullywave the flag.