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Les dynamiques religieuses dans le pacifique

Gabriele Weichart
Françoise Douaire-Marsaudon

Healing Despite Christianity; Struggles Between Missionary and Traditional Conceptions of Medicine

Astrid de Hontheim

Texte intégral

Historical Basis of Missionary Presence among the Asmat

  • 1 Politically speaking, after having been a Dutch colony until 1961, West New Guinea (previously call (...)

1Both Catholic and Protestant missionaries mentioned in this article are American: the Crosier fathers and brothers and TEAM evangelicals. Crosiers, a common name to designate the Regular Canons of the Holy Cross, belong to an order founded by Theodorus de Celles and his four companions in 1210, at the time of the Third Crusade. After almost disappearing in the nineteenth century, a revitalization in the early twentieth century led to the settlement of several new communities, notably the first American community in Onamia, Minnesota in 1910. This Crosier branch had experience with missions when they were entrusted with the evangelization of the Asmat area (West Papua1) in 1947. The first missionary, Father G. Zegwaard MSC, arrived in 1953 and the first four Crosiers reached their mission field in 1958. Currently, 500 Crosiers are working in Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Europe, the United States and Brazil.

2On the Protestant side, in 1890 the Swede Fredrik Franson created TEAM (The Evangelical Alliance Mission) and 13 other missionary societies in order to recruit missionaries for China. At that time, hundreds of missionary societies were concentrating on converting the Chinese, whose numbers and relatively closed society fascinated numerous missionaries and made their conversion seem to be the ultimate goal. This state of mind also seemed to motivate TEAM missionaries when they completed their first surveys in West Papua, given the fierce reputation of coastal headhunters. TEAM started its work in the Asmat territory in 1955 and later took the local name of GKI (Gereja Kristen Indonesia). Today, approximately 750 missionaries are working in 47 countries.

3In the Asmat area, there are six Catholic denominations (two including sisters) and two Protestant societies, in addition to Pentecostals, who have arrived recently. However, only the Crosiers and TEAM have sent several dozen missionaries to the Asmat area and can be considered responsible for the major attempts at evangelization.

4In order to implement changes within Asmat society, the Crosiers and TEAM missionaries applied diversified and progressive strategies of conversion, notably cultural preservation on the Catholic side and missionary medicine on the Protestant side. We will see that despite their declared wish to respect cultural habits – at least after the 1970s – health and medicine have always been a touchy issue. Some missionaries encouraged traditional care for its positive effect on morale, but could not stand to hear about the usual Asmat etiologies. To some extent, it may appear easy to “sort” practices and customs by keeping what is felt as being beneficial and abolishing what is seen as maleficent to the people, or contrary to missionaries’ intentions in the area. However, Asmat conceptions about health could not be separated from a broader point of view involving the functioning of the human body, relationships with supernatural beings, and the place of mankind in the cosmos.

The Path to Baptism

  • 2 The link between tobacco and Christianity in New Guinea has been studied in detail (Hays 1991: 91-1 (...)

5During fifty years of missionary work among the Asmat, some changes can be expected in conversion methods. A great deal has been written about a particular Catholic missionary strategy called “Tobacco Christianity”2. Early missionaries awarded all adults who participated in baptism, Sunday worship or the school system with a pinch of tobacco. The Fathers of the Sacred Heart used this method in particular to baptize hundreds of individuals knowing that the Protestants would soon be arriving. In the village of Ayam, for example, five hundred people were baptized in haste as soon as Protestant plans to set up camp were learned of. The Bishop of Merauke, Father Hermann Tillemans MSC, was known for showing up in a given village, baptizing two or three people and then declaring the village Catholic. According to the Crosiers, there was nothing original about this; Protestants followed the same procedures (though they contest this). Catholics considered this practice acceptable; the first missionary to “put up the flag” would gain the village for his congregation in a historic race to see who could baptize more people. Protestant missionaries, however, used different evangelization strategies. Missionaries trained in missionary medicine used incentives more focused on medical care, while prohibiting tobacco and alcohol consumption.

  • 3 The Crosiers' exhibition in 1963 at Fort Wayne is telling. Destined to demonstrate to the public th (...)

6At the same time as this race to baptize the Asmat during the first two decades of evangelization, the government, in a joint effort with the missions, waged a campaign against headhunting (Sowada 1968: 192). The pernicious aura of the Asmat region certainly played a role in this eagerness to stop headhunting3. The practices of dancing, drumming, sculpting and participating in enduring rituals, thought to be closely linked to headhunting, were banned between 1962 and 1968, and the Asmat region was closed off from the rest of the neighbouring regions. To further discourage headhunting and cannibalism, the Dutch government resorted to extreme tactics, such as arbitrary arrests, indiscriminate firing on warriors’canoes, the burning of jeuw (ritual houses) and confiscation of all traditional ornaments. In reaction to these measures, the Asmat had their own ways of rejecting foreigners’ desire to make them change. In an interview, Alphonse Sowada OSC relates that punishment was not meted out to those who were actually guilty but to those designated by Asmat “leaders” to replace them in prison. Missionaries remain convinced today that enduring rituals were still held in the jungle, far from military settlements. Realizing the weak impact of the government’s and missionaries’ efforts on Asmat warrior habits, missionaries Zegwaard and Boelaars (1982: 27) deemed it more judicious to castigate not lone chiefs but entire villages. In a similar vein, the government destroyed whole villages to punish increasingly frequent headhunting raids (Frazier 1994: 51). Despite Christian and political authorities’ attempts to abolish headhunting, raids occurred in the Asmat region until 1983.

7In the early 1970s, the end of tobacco Christianity brought a drastic fall in the number of participants in Church activities and opened the way to change. This was, according to some, due to “Vatican II”, to others to “the 1974 ban against proselytism in Indonesia”, and to yet others to “Alphonse Sowada”. Alphonse Sowada OSC, the first Crosier to graduate in anthropology, was appointed as the first bishop of the diocese of Agats-Asmat in 1969. As an anthropologist and a missionary, he faced a dilemma: how to transform Asmat society without ruining it completely? The answer was obvious: agents of change (missionaries) had to preserve “culture”, particularly Asmat artistic production, which was inevitably going to disappear forever. The main goal of preserving this “culture” was to avoid the dispersion of the objects thought to be of higher quality and the loss of the traditional techniques used to make them, in other words, to preserve visible elements that would stimulate the Asmats’ memory.

8Thus, the Crosiers started to collect objects and created two museums; at Agats, in the Asmat area, in 1973 and in Shoreview, Minnesota in 1994 (today in St Paul). Auction sales were organized to benefit both museums. In a few decades, they propelled the Asmat – or in any case, objects they made – to the forefront of a worldwide sales network of “tribal” art. According to Alphonse Sowada, the neighbouring Kamoro, Mimika, Muyu, and Awyu people, whose artistic production was comparable to that of the Asmat in the 1960s, are currently nothing but destroyed cultures, as they did not have people like the Crosiers to fight for their preservation. Today, the Crosiers describe themselves as “culture rescuers”.

9The Catholic interest in the concept of culture goes hand in hand with a concept that became more important after Vatican II and appeared in Catholic mission work at the end of the 1960s: inculturation. In order to “inculturate” Asmat society, the Crosiers added some elements of Asmat culture to Christian worship, with the long term intention of founding an “Asmat Church” complete with decorated churches and Christian ceremonies using adornments from Asmat everyday life.

10The Protestants also developed a concept close to inculturation, called “contextualization”. Like inculturation, the goal of contextualization is to encourage target populations to adopt Christianity (Zorn 2001: 171). However, TEAM missionaries criticize inculturation as being “critical contextualization” because it leads to syncretism. This criticism applies to inculturation as it is carried out by the Crosiers, which puts value on the material relics of headhunting. For the Protestants, promoting syncretism is a form of heresy because its presence in Asmat society shows that Satan is still operating within it. The Protestants also accuse the Catholics of establishing a cult of the ancestors that was not present before their arrival.

The Protestant Approach: From Theory to Practice

11Protestant missionaries are somewhat skeptical of the Crosiers’ “cultural crusade”. They are not anthropologists – even if some of them say they are – but their knowledge of the Asmat language enabled them to determine which cultural practices would be compatible with the gospel. For example, one frequently hears headhunting songs in a Catholic church, but Protestants started translating them and decided that such songs do not belong in church. Even if Protestant ministers appreciate carvings and sometimes collect them, it is unusual to see any element, such as shields or ancestor bisj poles, in the church. These objects are obviously related to headhunting as they formerly reminded the Asmat to go on raids to avenge their dead (Zegwaard 1959: 1029). While Catholics are interested in culture for itself, Protestants study it in order to be able to select what is appropriate for Christianity and encourage believers to give up what does not please God.

12Regarding conversion, the most efficient strategies adopted were extensively described by the founder of TEAM, Fredrik Franson. The third volume of the principal thesis on Fredrik Franson is worth considering. Chapter 39 in particular discusses “five revised methods of missionary work,” revealing the intentions of evangelists in the field (Torjesen 1984: 789-800; Torjesen 1983: 89). The Indirect Philanthropical Evangelization Method is designed for societies considered resistant to Christianity, such as the Asmat, and envisions medicine as the main instrument of conversion. It encompasses four fields of activity: medicine, industrial schools and agricultural colonies, orphanages, and teachers’ schools. Missionaries provide the know-how and the services needed by the society in order to solicit a positive response rather than resistance when they introduce the population to the Scriptures. Franson noted promising results in a number of societies although the physical condition of his patients was sometimes too poor for them to carry on apostolic activity.

13In preparing for a mission, Protestants missionaries do not go to the Asmat area for short periods as the Catholics do, but prefer to attend courses on “missionary medicine” and to read biographies of former missionaries. Before going to university, future Protestant missionaries first reflect on which job would be useful to their vocation, and then choose to become doctors, nurses, or linguists with additional training in missionary medicine. The missionaries’wives, in accordance with TEAM regulations, are also commissioned to be missionaries. However, they are supposed to feel a calling not as a missionary, but as a missionary’s wife, and they are required to gain the knowledge necessary to support their husband efficiently.

14The importance of medicine is obvious in Protestant ministry in Asmat, even in first contacts. First contact between Protestants and the Asmat people occurred in the context of a vaccination campaign against measles carried out by the Dutch government, whereas for the Catholics it was with the arrival of the first missionary to come to Asmat in 1953, Father G. Zegwaard MSC. Above anything else, Protestant missionaries dedicate themselves to medicine and Catholics to censuses, baptism and schools, which the Protestants view as less significant. Thus, since the mid-1950s, Protestants have primarily been perceived as doctors and Catholics as priests. Another factor involved in this difference of perception of missionaries by the Asmat is that Protestant missionaries prefer to avoid cultural mixing, so they refuse to be adopted by Asmat families and to intervene in matters such as child delivery or sex education. Their role, being outside Asmat society, appears to be more precisely defined than that of the Catholics, which is more diffuse.

A way to Overcome Disease and the Enemy

15Interviews of missionaries reveal some misunderstanding regarding disease and misfortune, even complete ignorance of practices visible on the Asmats’ bodies closely related to the spiritual world. In order to understand the possible reasons for this misunderstanding, we will briefly discuss how disease and misfortune are dealt with in Asmat society.

16Abraham Buipir is a traditional healer, an eeram’ipitsj. Initially baptized by Father Zegwaard MSC in a Catholic church in 1956, he was baptized again two years later in the river by a TEAM minister, Chuck Preston. Since then, he has been called Abraham. From 1965 to 1997, he led the local Protestant Church and then resigned in favour of his sons. Because his two wives cannot stay together without fighting, they live in separate houses. Like the other Asmat Christians, Abraham takes an active part in rituals prohibited by his Church, such as the spirit masks ritual or the ancestor bisj poles ritual. American ministers, the founders of the Protestant Church in Asmat, say those who behave like this have two gods. But Abraham does not care. He simply agrees that he has two gods, and so what?

17Abraham is an eeram’ipitsj, a man who is able to do eeram. The eeram is a spell with multiple facets that can be taught during male initiation; today, it is mostly used for therapeutic purposes. Formerly eeram were also used to ensure victory in headhunting. Before the departure to the enemy village, the organizers of the headhunting raid asked the eeram’ipitsj to perform a ritual at a sacred place. There could then be no doubt concerning the raid’s outcome; my Asmat informants are unanimous that thanks to the eeram, the attackers would win.

18Eeram also ensure victory regarding health. When someone catches a disease, his double (dambú (w)), which can be found inside the human body and in the carvings done by the Asmat, escapes from the body; the healer’s job is to convince this spiritual double to return to its original home. The eeram’ipitsj obtains the double’s repatriation through a massage, done with ointments and decoctions. Some eeram’ipitsj can extract sharp objects from the body, such as pieces of bone, razor blades, and arrowheads. Stones put on the body inform the healer about his patient’s health and about his possible recovery. During the treatment, the eeram’ipitsj also recites sacred sentences (performing words have been studied in detail in de Hontheim 2009).

19The Asmat distinguish two kinds of deaths; the first one being a loss of consciousness (damur), which is death when the body is still alive, so the dead person is likely to come back to life (bojaworsit); and a second kind of death, the death of the body (darminak), which is not reversible. The Asmat people begin to cry and wail as soon as damur occurs, i.e. when the body is still alive, unlike their Awyu neighbours who do not mourn until physical death. Protestant missionaries tried to discourage Asmat from wailing directly after a loss of consciousness – e.g. after a snake bite or an arow’pok (spell of illness and death) – and encouraged them to wait until the man was “actually dead” and keep hope until the very last moment. With this terminological distinction, the Asmat people found the resurrection of Christ very common and were not surprised by this “good news” from the missionaries. Moreover, they had no interest in the creation of the world because it is not in the Asmat myths. They did not feel concerned by these two basic arguments for Christianity, which caused huge concern among the missionary community.

20A second type of healer, the damer’ipitsj is more powerful than the eeram’ipitsj. The damer’ipitsj asks for help from the spirits to complete his work. He is able to see the recent spirits of the dead and he can also perform exorcisms. He is sometimes accused of having sexual relations with evil spirits (dat) in exchange for their support. Healers can be women too; these are the eeram’tsjowotsj and the damer’tsjowotsj.

21Before going to see a healer, a patient will typically practice family medicine within their household. The most widespread technique used to chase disease out of the body consists in making vertical, tightly spaced cuts (ofe) of approximately one centimetre, arranged in lines one above the other. The skin is cut with a shell used for lime, chewed with betel nut, sprayed on carvings. The cuts are then rubbed with an ointment in order to create an infection which is believed to expel the disease. Made out of leaves, bark, wood, roots, jungle fruits or lianas, this ointment is heated before application and is replaced if the first ointment fails to work. These treatments remain visible on the neck and on the face of many villagers, whose skin is literally covered with burns and cuts, each wound having a distinct word in the Asmat language. Like scarifications done at certain moments of lengthy rituals, such as funerals or male initiation, these therapeutic cuts ofe are intended “to make the dirt flow out” and to lighten the body which has been weighed down by disease, killings or age. This is also the reason for rubbing the body with big nettle leaves, a remedy particularly efficient against tiredness, headache and skin diseases.

How to Teach Religion with Medicine

22Most missionaries are convinced that the Asmat have no real means of fighting disease except for small cuts and some burns they make on comatose people in order to pull them out of lethargy. In other words, from the missionaries’ point of view, there is no local medical specialist in Asmat. For Greg Poser OSC and many other missionaries, the Asmat people consider “sorcery” or the spirits as responsible for illness rather than malaria or other clearly identifiable diseases. This belief is perceived by the missionaries as a lack of medical knowledge. Thus this ignorance dictates wrong behaviour, some of which are incompatible with the Christian faith.

23Disagreeing with the Asmat’s view of causes of disease, Protestant and Catholic missionaries did everything they could to impose their own vision of medicine. According to them, Western medical explanations and theories constitute real progress brought to Asmat.

24The Catholic missionaries’ influence was limited by the superficiality of their medical knowledge, whereas the Protestant missionaries’ attitude pleased the Asmat, notably their coming to the field with their wives and children. When these newcomers began to cure people, the Asmat were impressed by the effectiveness of the treatments and trust was generated. Dr. Ken Dresser and Bob Frazier highlight the spectacular effect of penicillin and aspirin on Asmat health. During their first years in the swamp, when they arrived by boat in a village, everybody ran to them asking for injections. From time to time, Catholic teachers sent patients to the Protestant doctor. “The clinic attracted people like flies on honey”, according to Frazier (1994: 184), who counted more than one thousand patients per month in the 1970s. In villages reluctant to adopt Christianity, it was decided not to send catechists (as the Catholics would have done) but medical workers. However, success had its limits; when missionaries began to ask for money to pay for the drugs, enthusiasm among the Asmat died down.

25Among Protestant helpers, a close relationship between religion and medicine is emphasized from their first steps in training: at the hospital, workers are trained in “medical evangelization” and, often, church leaders are also medical workers. This training shows how Protestants build a relationship between religion and medicine and set up a kind of “medical leadership”. Again this appears to be a fundamental difference between Protestant and Catholic missionaries. For Catholics, leadership is determined by more political factors: the parish council (dewan paroki) is composed of the teacher, the village chief (kepala desa acknowledged as such by the Indonesian government), and the Christian representatives of the Asmat tradition (wair’ipitsj).

26In parallel, the Crosiers had trouble finding helpers who were able to gain the Asmat population’s trust. Catholic catechists had a tendency towards corporal punishment for late schoolchildren and tried to frighten those who wanted to go to the Protestant school. Some Catholic catechists invented stories to terrorize Asmat children. For instance, telling them that Protestant ministers were said to have a black book in which they listed the names of the Asmat destined for hell. Another mistake was to choose catechists among the Mimika people, the traditional enemies of the Asmat, and to train them quickly, in only a few weeks, before sending them to Asmat villages. In comparison, TEAM helpers, from Biak, were selected at the end of a three year-period of Bible school. Very often, catechists inspired fear and mistrust. In addition, at the beginning, some priests were thought to be responsible for epidemics that started after their departure from the village, something which does not seem to have happened to Protestant missionaries. Today, these extreme behaviours do not exist; in Asmat, the tendency is to say that “missionaries do not understand anything”.

Missionaries in the face of Thanatomania

27Regarding Asmat concepts of life and death, another interesting field to discuss is the reaction of missionaries with respect to a particular state of consciousness in which somebody dies “on command” (Dr. Ken Dresser calls it “death of fear”, or “Thanatomania” according to another doctor, Van Amelsvoort [1976]). The scenario is always the same: a man states in public that he is going to die because of an arow’pok (spell of disease and death), returns home and lies down until he dies. His family immediately starts wailing and crying before he is biologically dead; to the Asmat, this man is socially dead. This particular kind of death is “death with the body still alive” (damur), which I have mentioned previously. The almost immediate rigidity of a body in this state is said to be spectacular but I personally had no opportunity to observe it. Dave Gallus OSC highlights the power of suggestion in Asmat: if one says to an Asmat that he is going to die, he will die.

28In the Asmat area, “Thanatomania” stories are quite common, and how the missionaries reacted in such situations is interesting. Some of the Crosiers tried to persuade the Asmat to accept Western explanations, apparently more just to do something rather than intending to make them change their opinions. But once the “Thanatomania” process had started, i.e. when the person had already laid down to die, all the missionaries reacted with the same attitude: resignation. All of them, except the bishop. Unlike his colleagues, who had no idea what to do, Alphonse Sowada did his best to fight against what he called “psychological disorders” by using vigorous methods to prove that “magic does not exist”.

29A story is told in an article (Sowada, 1968: 201) and an interview of Sowada in 2001 in more detail. A 25 year-old man stopped working one day because he was a victim of an arow’pok. When his family began to wail, the bishop, called by a Catholic neighbour, ran to the bedside of the dying man. Not convinced of the strength of the spell, he slapped the man; this method had worked previously on several occasions. This time, however, it failed. The bishop then lifted the inanimate body and propped it up against one of the supporting pillars of the house. The man opened his eyes. The bishop ordered him to sit down and gave him tobacco to smoke. Afterwards, he followed him to the sawmill and told the man that his disease has been cured and that he could go to work again.

30In the same situation, the Protestants react differently: they are doctors so they treat the victims of an arow’pok as patients. Considering fear as a disordered state of the parasympathetic system, they give them tranquillizers; others improvise a treatment and declare it more powerful than the spell of death. The trust acquired by the Protestant ministers has probably contributed to the effectiveness of this treatment.

Christian Faith to Fight Disease

31With regard to health, life and death issues, it is as if the missionaries and the Asmat were living in totally different worlds. The Crosier fathers feel upset by this situation and try to accept the ways of the Asmat, for instance, by being ritually adopted by Asmat families and receiving an Asmat name, in exchange for gifts and mutual protection. Unlike their Protestant counterparts who lived with their wives and children, the isolation of Catholic missionaries was undoubtedly a motivating influence in giving themselves up for adoption. Virgil Petermeier OSC was adopted on twelve or thirteen occasions; he himself cannot recall the exact number. According to Henri Bing Miller OSC, mothers would present a breast to the travelling missionary as soon as he arrived at the dock, making clear their desire to include him in the family unit. In his memoirs, Brother Joe (1996: 17-18) tells how the people of Omandesep were so satisfied with his care that they wanted to take him away and adopt him, along with awarding him a house, a pretty wife and good food. However, despite the apparent wish of the Asmat to adopt foreigners, kinship relations are said to be “thicker” with an Asmat than with a foreigner, and therefore relationships with foreigners are considered less worthwhile.

32In medicine, the Crosiers have gained a kind of therapeutic charisma which extends to the instruments of their religion and to Christian names. This charisma was thought to possibly accelerate medical treatment and to counteract curses. As for Protestant doctors, their medical capabilities do not replace those of a traditional Asmat healer but constitute a new – “foreign” – function. In Asmat conversations, missionaries’ abilities regarding health are designated by the Indonesian term dukun (or doktor) and not by the Asmat terms eeram’ipitsj or damer’ipitsj. The foreign doctors’ ability is secondary to local medical techniques and is requested only after the patient has seen the traditional healer. This confirms the idea that missionaries are kept in parallel yet distinct worlds.

33The word dukun has a pejorative connotation because the dukun (which means “healer”, but also “sorcerer”) are sometimes thought by my Indonesian informants to have privileged relations with Satan. Some Protestant missionaries agree with this in part, persuaded that the “medicine men” or “witch doctors” tolerated by the Catholics and the cargo cults’members all appear to be Catholics. In other words, cargo cults, described as syncretic, are suspected of having success among Catholics, as Catholicism tolerates satanic practices in order to attract new Christians. By the same token, traditional healers are also accused of having a privileged relationship with Satan and are said to be Catholic. Protestant missionaries say that the main reason for this relationship is that Catholics do not have personal commitment towards Christ as Protestants do. This personal commitment requires the believer to examine his culture and to repent of what is thought not to please God, such as traditional therapeutic techniques. Moreover, guided by the missionary, the new believer, upset by dreams or by the feeling of a harmful presence, will spontaneously agree to destroy or burn material instruments of “magic”. Conversely, for Catholics, being a Christian is not enough to protect oneself against magic and only some priests preach against practices such as arow’pok.

34The Protestants think quite differently. According to some Asmat Protestant pastors, Christian faith is a powerful shield against magic and is strong enough to make evil spirits disappear. They also say that drugs, doctors and hospitals were given by God, in accordance with missionary words. Medicine, by extension, ensures victory against syncretism; we can see an example in Bob Frazier’s book, in which “a medical pin to pierce the darkness” is “the gospel”.

A Cultural Faith Basis

35Whereas the Protestants always keep their conversion objective in mind, evangelization appears to have been forgotten in the cultural preservation campaign of the Catholics. “It is necessary to let the Asmat change by themselves”, says Alphonse Sowada, unlike his Protestant counterparts for whom joining the Church implies not a progressive change but an irreversible and radical one. In other words a “complete turnaround” in all fields of the new convert’s life. The new personal commitment to God is made public by baptism and is equivalent to a rebirth; the convert is said to be “born again”. Some Protestant missionaries say that the reason for Catholic syncretism is the focus on Asmat society as a whole instead of on each individual commitment. The progressive transformation of society desired by the Catholics does not resolve the problem of conscious choice and radical personal commitment, essential in Protestant conversion.

36Against all expectations, the Crosiers stick to the purpose of conversion, and it could be one of the reasons for starting their cultural crusade. According to Alphonse Sowada, without saving the culture, missionaries could not accomplish anything regarding religion. Sowada felt a “cultural faith basis” was necessary, on which missionaries could build Christianity. It was felt that the Asmat would never understand the Bible without this cultural basis. However, Bible understanding does not appear simple, as if it resulted from a formula. From the Protestant point of view, the Bible could be understandable if translated into the local language, however a short analysis in Agats and in Sjuru shows that in Asmat people prefer to use the Indonesian language version because the Asmat version – translated by missionaries–is said to be too complex.

37In conclusion, this article has dealt with an exceptional situation; the contemporary evangelization of a population of headhunters by pioneer missionaries. It would be difficult to find two societies as different as those of American missionaries and the Asmat, particularly regarding health and medicine. Their unpredictable interactions were fascinating to follow. In addition to revealing profound differences between Catholics and Protestants, this article has attempted to lead its readers into deeper reflection on the methods employed by missionaries. After fifty years of christianization, several Crosiers admit that their attempts to evangelize the Asmat have led to a superficial Christianity, without real transformation of the Asmat religious world. Was this a consequence of their difficulties in transforming the Asmat understanding of disease, health hazards and misfortunes as intimately related to relationships with the supernatural? One Crosier missionary even said that there was basic opposition between Christianity and “the original beliefs of the Asmat, their practices, their ways of life, what they did”. Today, no Crosier claims that the Asmat are converted. Neither do TEAM Evangelicals, though they are proud of a handful of true believers. TEAM Evangelicals are criticized less by the Asmat thanks to their medical expertise and deliberate lack of involvement in Asmat cultural life, in other words because they make less mistakes in Asmat social life. However, most of those true believers have “two gods” like Abraham Buipir, and this syncretism would have been condemned by the American ministers if they had been aware of the situation.



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1 Politically speaking, after having been a Dutch colony until 1961, West New Guinea (previously called “Irian Jaya”) was officially annexed by Indonesia in 1969 by the “Act of Free Choice”– commonly nicknamed “Act Free of Choice” by the Papuans – parallel to the settlement of the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka), the Organisation for the Independence of Papua, still active nowadays. West Papua is the largest Indonesian province (421,981 km2, or 22% of the total surface of Indonesia [Cribb, 2000; 3]) for a population of around 2,500,000 inhabitants. The Asmat are themselves around 75,000 people living in a swamp of 26,700 km2 in a jungle of high trees, sago palms and mangroves on the South Coast.

2 The link between tobacco and Christianity in New Guinea has been studied in detail (Hays 1991: 91-113).

3 The Crosiers' exhibition in 1963 at Fort Wayne is telling. Destined to demonstrate to the public the evolution of the mission, the show entitled Religious Growth displayed titles such as The Timeless Spirit of Christ Encounters the New Guinea Demon World.


Docteur en anthropologie (Université Libre de Bruxelles [ULB] et Université d’Aix-Marseille 1), collaboratrice scientifique du Centre d’Anthropologie Culturelle de l’ULB et chercheur au Centre Interdisciplinaire d’études des Religions et de la Laïcité. Elle enseigne l’anthropologie de l’Océanie à l’ULB et à l’Université d’Ottawa, l’anthropologie religieuse à l’Université de Mons et l’anthropologie de la famille et de la naissance à l’EIULB. Ses intérêts de recherche portent sur les missionnaires pionniers dans le Pacifique, les contenus symboliques de l’objet d’art, l’alimentation rituelle, la construction de l’image des peuples océaniens dans la littérature et les médias et l’exorcisme chrétien, envisagé dans un cadre anthropologique, historique et psychiatrique. Elle est l’auteur de Chasseurs de diables et collectionneurs d’art. Tentatives de conversion des Asmat par les missionnaires pionniers protestants et catholiques (2007), Presses Interuniversitaires Européennes (PIE-Peter Lang).

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