As a child of missionaries to West Papua, Indonesia, I have heard many discussions about one’s interaction with indigenous people groups. Some are heartfelt and deeply thought out, some are shoot-from-the-hip perceptions that cover the gamut of opinion. Recently, catch phrases such as “White Savior Complex” have been used to describe those of us who would seek to partner with indigenous people. The concept of “helping” has become a minefield, fraught with criticism and cynicism. Although new and catchy words or phrases may be used, the concepts and criticisms are anything but new. Anyone who has worked with indigenous people for any length of time, will at some point have their motives challenged. One cannot argue that over the years there has been truth to some of the criticisms. However, I would submit that the new social-anthropologists-journalists-environmentalists commentary and yes, even well-meaning tourists, actually demean the very people groups they claim to hold in such high esteem. After over a half century of living and partnering with the Moni tribes people, I would say that this partnership can be both exceedingly simplistic, and exceedingly complicated.
It is purely a Western construct that indigenous cultures must never change and “we” must protect them at all cost. This has always baffled me. Why is it okay for Western thought and culture to change, but not the culture of the Moni? There has been much hype about the protection of women’s rights in the recent re-election of President Obama. No one would dare suggest that we return to an era where women are viewed as possessions, or subservient to their male family members, yet the current push to “leave them alone” relegates Moni woman to exactly that. Why is that okay for them, but not for me? Do the Moni really want to live as they always have? Has anyone actually bothered to ask them?
It is my belief that the suggestion that the Moni are “offended” by the helping hands offered to them is totally contrived. I would even go so far as to suggest that it demeans the intelligence of the Moni. It is a house of cards that pretends to care without actually knowing who or what they are, much less what they actually want. I can recall translating this for a Moni tribesman once when the question was posed, and he sniffed and wrinkled his nose very quickly as Monis do when they are mildly disgusted, and said, “What? Am I of a child’s mind, that I cannot distinguish these things? Does that person think that they are wiser than I? Is that why they must explain it to me? Can I not determine for myself the heart of a person who comes to our land? Is it that I am child that needs protecting?”
Several years ago a journalist came to Papua wanting to hear from the indigenous people about a Western NGO doing exploration in their areas. My brother was asked to interpret. The Moni tribe’s men and women waxed eloquent about their ancestral lands and how the spirit of their ancestors lived among the mountains and could not be disrupted … unless, of course, the company was willing to pay a steep monetary price. My brother, being very good friends with several of the village elders, asked after the meeting what exactly they were saying. They all laughed and responded, “Tuan, do you not say and do what YOU need to get what YOU want.” It would seem the tribes men were willing to play to the sympathies of a Western journalist, to set the stage for a specific outcome. When the company decided to pull out because of these factors, Western journalists and environmental groups rejoiced, and declared victory. The Moni tribes men, however, rioted and demanded the company return for negotiations.
National Geographic recently ran an article about a group of anthropologists who were studying a central highland tribe in Papua as observers and documenters. Sometime into their observation an illness swept through the village. A great argument broke out among the anthropologists. Several wanted to sit back and observe how the villagers handled illness and death, and others wanted to “help.” What was the right thing to do? Finally, one of the anthropologists decided academic research principles could go to hell, and carried the most ill woman over the trail to the nearest hospital with Western medicine.
Perhaps we should re-evaluate the social construct that is so pervasive today. Maybe we need to take a step back from all the political correctness of the day; the one that arrogantly assumes the worst of the helping hand. Rather than treating the Moni like children that must be protected, maybe we should begin recognizing that they are equal to us in their ability to think critically and determine for themselves how to interface with the “helping hand.”
AGM, November 2012
Many thanks to Amy Meredith for this contribution.
Relationship building in a different culture and actively listening to the Moni people describe what they want and need, and don’t want and don’t need, requires more time and less “action” than most Westerners are accustomed to.
I will join John and Amy in Papua in February 2013 to meet with various Papuan village and tribal leaders to discuss community development and infrastructure needs along the Sugapa-Carstensz trekking route. Somewhat reminiscent of the National Geographic article in which cave people “sent a surprising message to the modern world,” the Moni seek economic and educational opportunities, as well as health and infrastructure improvements for their local communities.
Growing up in Papua has given John and Amy an exceptionally strong love and regard for the Moni people. It is most certainly true that our February excursion is built upon strong cross-cultural relationships that began their development with the life-time service of John and Amy’s missionary parents. Only two decades ago cannibalism was still practiced (though not by the Moni) and it was (and still is) the work of Christian missionaries that has defused tribal conflicts and advocated for the human rights and dignity of the indigenous peoples. John still actively serves in West Papua, where he fiercely advocates for tribal peoples and is fueled by, as he states, “Many are starving; there is much work to do.” In addition to ministry and relief/aid services, John has mediated between the Grasberg mine and the indigenous peoples who dwell in the surrounding area, as well as in cases of inter- and intra-tribal conflict.