West Papua is the home for over 250 different ethnic groups, all of which have their own language, culture and tradition. This number is only a sliver of the total number of ethnic groups in reality, however. Researchers find it difficult to find out the exact number of indigenous tribes due to a myriad of different reasons. One of them is the fact that there are a lot more groups which are still unaccounted for.
This eastern Indonesia region has recently become popular for its untouched, and raw beauty. A remote island, this region is understandably difficult to reach. Consisting of high lands, mountainous areas, impenetrable rainforest and beaches, the natural beauty of this region is not to be questioned. Ironically, those reasons also contribute to the challenges that many observers have to face.
Not only is it difficult to get around the region, West Papuan tribes are rarely settling down. Yes, almost all of the existing tribes adopt a nomadic way of life where they constantly on the move. Making it difficult for observers to track.
Indigenous tribes; uncivilized societies?
Perhaps one of the most offensive thing one can ever do is to refer to them as ancient. Such way of thinking is prevalent in modern society, where everyone is so quick to judge them as backwards. A different way of life does not make one superior or inferior. Living the way these West Papuan tribes do does not make them backward, nor does it make them ancient.
If anything, their steadfast nature in their tradition and what they believe in is nothing short of admirable. In the world where technology has taken over, they manage to live gracefully and make do with what they have. A perseverence at its best. Unfortunately, not everyone sees this as it is – a difference in how one prefers to live their lives.
This results in constant tension with the tribes wanting to hold onto their tradition, while the government aims to civilize them. Such attempt to convert them and coax them to adopta modern way of life has been a hit-or-miss all this time. A small number of the tribes have been successfully relocated into land with adequate facilities. They have also been given land to cultivate
But perhaps one of the most interesting stories came from the Dani people. This particular tribe residing in West Papua has long been a part of the thriving agricultural society. Even long before the Dutch discovered their existence in 1930s. The ultimate proof that they are far from ‘living fossils’ or backward, as many of the modern society think.
The Dani people are the prime example of many tribes in the West Papua region. They practice a gift exchange tradition, use tools made of stones, and fight over territories. Initially discovered by a pilot flying over their cultivated fields, the Dani tribe has been featured in several documentaries. Sadly, modern society quickly referred to them as stone-age man.
Uncontacted, by choice
The cultural diversity of West Papua makes the region one of the most complex yet mesmerizing region. As interesting as it is for anthropologists to learn, such complexity and misconception prevalent in modern society may lead to unfavorable outcome. Take a look at the Dani tribe for instance. In recent years, this particular tribe has been greatly affected by mining and budding tourism industry.
Additionally, the ongoing and relentless attempt to civilize them and modernize their distinctive highland culture also shows a worrying trend. But perhaps, the biggest and most worrying threat of all comes in the form of Indonesian military presence. Over the past few years, the number of military posted in the region has been increasing.
The military is found to be representing the interests of Indonesian government in the region. Yes, West Papua is indeed one of the richest land when it comes to natural resources. Combined with their misconception of the tribes’ highland culture, the Dani people find themselves in a difficult situation. Perhaps it’s due to their nomadic way of life. But the government treats Papua as if it’s a no one’s land.
Their misconception makes them unable to see the fact that just because they’re nomads, does not make the land uninhibited. A sad realization, indeed. A native without the right to their own land. This is exactly the reason why many tribes decide to move into the deep, seemingly impenetrable jungle. In order to survive and remain true to their belief, they decide to be what we referred to as an uncontacted tribe.
Living in remote rainforests in the region, uncontacted tribes manage to escape deep-seated racism, miners invasion, irresponsible tourism and military repression. But how long will they last? It’s perhaps a matter of time until we take over their land if we do not change our views. Uncontacted tribes know what is best for them, as modern society we should be respectful and protect them and West Papua.