The three hearths: Custom, church and state as colliding orders of time and space in Asmat, Indonesian Papua

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Powell Davies, Tom 

This study examines the intersection of ‘customary’ ritual, Catholic religion, and state-centred politics among the Asmat of Indonesian Papua, and how these processes order time and space. Asmat are famous in anthropological and museum worlds for their woodcarving, flamboyant ritual, and pre-colonial practices of headhunting and cannibalism, yet their lives have not been well-studied ethnographically. In the large dual villages of Sa and Er where I undertook long-term fieldwork, Asmat today describe the key problematic of their lives to be how to organise the relationship between ancestral custom, missionary Catholicism, and the Indonesian state, conceptualised as three ‘hearths’ around which people gather. In Asmat people’s heritage political order, people made their livelihoods from autonomous hunting, fishing, and sago processing in spatially dispersed kin groups. Inter-clan cooperation was highly prized but achieved only with difficulty, accomplished in the context of long-running cycles of ancestral ritual. Against that background, the quintessential challenge of contemporary Asmat life today is how to organise activities associated with these three institutional domains so that they are ‘mutually supporting’, rather than mutually undermining. Asmat people understand such coordination to be critical to broader communal viability, but also increasingly difficult to achieve. Instead, village life is now felt to be pulled in competing directions by the intensifying demands of church and government, in the context of dramatic macrostructural transformations in the character of the Indonesian state at the outer rural periphery associated with policies of administrative and fiscal ‘decentralisation’.

In this dissertation, I analyse how Asmat people are using the ‘hearth’ concept, a model of egalitarian social gathering, to order the activities of the church and state within their lives. I begin by examining the ‘hearth’ as a social organisational image, before tracing the historical development of the ‘hearth’ problematic. My dissertation then follows villagers’ attempts to manage the perturbing presence of Catholicism and the state by encompassing them within the timespace of ritual feasting, with mixed success. Through an extended case study of a feast house construction project, I analyse how ritual is being used to mediate these broader structural orders, but in ways that also transform ritual in turn, with further transformative effects on the broader social order. I examine Asmat use of ritual to mediate custom/church/state relations through an examination of three stages of ritual: inter-clan feast house construction processes, woodcarving and its semiotic mediation of relations with ancestral and other spirit agencies, and host/guest encounters during ritualised hospitality at the peak of feast. While Asmat villagers attempt to transform the organisation of church and state orders to fit within intra-Asmat organisational principles, these institutions are not Asmat-owned, and to varying degrees resist being treated as ‘hearths’, destabilising Asmat attempts to organise ancestral ritual, church and state as balanced orders of time and space. This dissertation contributes to anthropological understanding of how social life is constituted through processes of space and time, and to understanding how ritual mediates local kinship life and interethnic politics at a state periphery.

Stasch, Rupert
Time, Space, Ritual, Custom, Catholicism, Woodcarving, Decentralisation, Asmat, Papua, Melanesia, Indonesia, Museums
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
The Cambridge Australia Trust The University of Cambridge Fieldwork Fund The Anthony Wilkins Fund The Evans Fund The Richards Fund The William Wyse Fund The Royal Anthropological Institute Pembroke College, Cambridge