Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Michael Rockefeller

An Asmat Side Trip

Baliem Valley from a distance
Baliem Valley from a distance

The Peabody Museum group set out in March 1961, weeks after Rockefeller finished his military duty.

Professor Gardner's itinerary centered on filming the Ndani tribe that lived in the Baliem Valley, in the mountainous interior of Dutch New Guinea. But en route he stopped in Hollandia, the colonial capital, where Dutch government authorities treated him to an introduction to native handicrafts. He was particularly impressed by a type of carved totem pole, known as a bis, crafted by the Asmat tribe of Dutch New Guinea's southwest coast.

Gardner and his group went on to film the Ndani. A number of photos from the expedition show a serious and pensive Rockefeller — in full beard, sweat-stained khakis and Red Ball Jets sneakers — beside tribesmen or children — naked except for penises sheathed in tapered gourds.

Hollandia, the colonial capital
Hollandia, the colonial capital

The Peabody group recorded graphic violence among tribesmen and collected samples of their weapons and tools, including stone axes. Still photographs shot by Rockefeller documented serious injuries from a battle between men of neighboring villages. The researchers were later accused by Dutch authorities of inciting the fight. They denied it.

Meanwhile, Gardner's enthusiastic descriptions of the Asmat primitive art inspired Rockefeller to arrange a side trip to the southwest coast to see about collecting art from the Asmat, which along with the Ndani were regarded as a Stone Age culture.

Like the Ndani, the Asmat had infrequent contact with the outside world. The Asmat had a reputation as being unfriendly and fierce.

Rockefeller left the Peabody group in late June for his side trip. He was as impressed as Gardner with the quality of the Asmat handicrafts, including the colorful, 30-foot bis poles and the painted heads for which the tribe was known. Bartering with steel axes and tobacco, the most valuable commodities among the Asmats, he bought a few specimens and commissioned others, including a dugout canoe and bis poles, for later pickup.

Michael Rockefeller with Asmat tribe
Michael Rockefeller with
Asmat tribe

He began daydreaming of an Asmat show at his father's Museum of Primitive Art.

Rockefeller wrote in his journal, "As remarkable as the art is the fact that the culture which produced it is still intact; some remote areas are still headhunting; and only five years ago, almost the whole area was headhunting."

Rockefeller apparently encountered no problems with the Asmat during his visit. He rejoined the Harvard expedition on July 10 but vowed to return to collect his commissions and other samples of their handicrafts for the museum.

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