Leadership and Authority Among The Keenok, Asmat.

Johsz R. Mansoben

Abstrak :

Tulisan ini membicarakan cara-cara kepemimpinan dan pola-pola kekuasaan pada masa lampau dan masa kini pada kelompok Keenok, salah satu bagian dari suku Asmat.

Secara tradisionil pimpinan selalu berada pada pemimpin-pemimpin dari bagian-bagian je. Je adalah rumah laid-laki atau rumah bujang yang dibangun memanjang dan bersegi empat, pusat segala kegiatan-kegiatan yang bersifat religius maupun kegiatan-kegiatan yang non religius. Satu je biasanya terbagi atas dua bagian, masing-masing bagian dinamakan aipem sebutan yang dipakai oleh orang-orang dibagian pantai dan sebutan aipmu, dipakai oleh orang-orang dibagian pedalaman. Je atau rumah laki-laki biasa- nya didiami oleh kaum laki-laldi menurut kata sifatnya. Namun demikian, je da- pat juga didiami oleh keluarga-gkeluarga, hal ini biasanya terjadi apabila terdapat sedikit anak-anak bujang dalam je itu.

Pemimpin-pemimpin je adalah orang-orang yang diakui oleh anggota-anggota je-nya sebagai pemimpin berdasarkan kemampuan-kemampuan yang ditonjolkan secara pribadi oleh orang-orang itu. Beberapa pemimpin pada bagian-bagian je (aipmu) adalah juga kepala-kepala perang. Siapa saja yang menunjukkan keberanian dalam suatu pertempuran dapat memimpin perang pada kali berikutnya bila ia mendapat support dari anggota-anggotanya, hanya sedikit saja dari orang-orang ini yang namanya harum. Mereka ini adalah orang-orang yang sukses dalam mengatur dan merencanakan strategi-strategi penyerangan besar-besaran secara bertahap dan meliputi lebih dari satu kampung. Orang-orang semacam ini dapat mengurus dan membangkitkan rakyatnya dalam satu gerak. Kekerasan adalah sifat pribadi orang-orang serupa ini. Sifat ini sangat membantu mereka dalam mempertahan- kan kekuasaannya.

Pada saat sekarang cara kepemimpinan seperti tersebut diatas tidak terdapat lagi karena pembuatan je atau rumah-rumah bujang sudah dilarang dan dimusnahkan, maka dengan sendirinya hancur pula pola-pola kepemimpinan tradisionil yang bersendi kan je itu. Kebanyakan pemimpin-pemimpin perang sudah mati, beberapa yang masih hidup sudah sangat tua dan tidak mempunyai banyak pengaruh lagi. Pimpinan sekarang berada pada tangan Kepala Desa serta pembantu-pembantunya. Kebanyakan dari mereka ini adalah orang-orang muda yang telah mendapat sedikit pendidikan dari Misi pada akhir tahun lima puluhan. Dalam menjalankan kepemimpinan dan kekuasaan, mereka biasanya bertingkah seperti pemimpin-pemimpin besar pada masa lampau yang men- jalankan seluruh pemerintahannya dengan kekerasan.

When asked to identify the “leaders” in a village most Asmatters today will give the names of those village officials who together make up the pamong desa (village organization). Each village which has been designated a desa has a kepala desa (village head) and one or more assistants, a secretary



and a village policeman. The pamong desa is elected for an indefinite period under the guidance of the kepala distrik the government appointed district head. Virtually all villages are amalgamations of two or three villages. Each village will have a kepala (one of whom is designated as kepala desa) and his assistant. It is customary that either the kepala desa or his assistant will be a younger man with some schooling who can speak Indonesian with a degree of fluency. Such a person will have a greater understanding of government and its functions and thus is able to interpret instructions to his fellow villagers. More often than not the other official will be an older man who has prestige stemming from some aspect of traditional society. In Sawa-Er, for example, the kepala desa is a young man from Sawa but his assistant is a man in his late 50’s who has five wives and speaks with great authority. In Er the kepala is a man in his late 40’s who has three wives and who has a number of killings to his credit from headhunting days. His assistant, like the kepala desa, is a man in his early 30’s. In earlier times, neither of these younger men would have exercised any authority.

The practice of appointing young men as village heads was begun during the time of the Dutch administration. The concern then was to pacify the region as quickly as possible and young men who seemed to have leadership qualities and who had learned to speak some Indonesian were used as spokesmen by government officials. The authority which the men exercised did not rest on any traditional basis but emanated from outside the village. At the present time the traditional authority structure has been undermined drastically, although many features of the old structure remain.


Traditional Leadership

The Keenok had two types of dwellings–bachelors’ houses (je) and family houses which were similar to houses found in the villages at the present time. The family houses of each je were ranged on either side of the building. The je was the living quarters for men and boys but family groups sometimes lived in them as well. The Je was divided into two named moieties. The building had a number of entrances and fireplaces and these were owned by the heads of families belonging to the je. Each moiety had a leader and it seems that this position of leadership was achieved; it was not a status necessarily accorded to the oldest living ascendant in the moiety. Upon the death of a moiety leader there could be a considerable time before another man became recognized as leader, but sooner or later, a spokesman for the moiety would emerge.

Bishop Sowada, who was the parish priest in Erma from 1962 to 1965, states that there were 44 je section leaders in Sawa-Erma in those years. The leaders of one je did not interfere in the affairs of another but when there were matters of common interest to be discussed the je leaders would gather together in the je of one of their number. This man would be more vociferous and more highly respected than the others. At times, if the je leaders of Erna were to discuss things in Sona, they would walk to the other village in solemn procession, decorated in all their finery and with stone axes on their shoulders. From time to time, a song feast was held and this would take place in front of one of the je buildings. People would sit on the porch or on mate on the ground. In front were the drummers and singers and then, in a line, the je section leaders. These were the only ones who danced; the people merely looked on.

The je section leaders would take the initiative in deciding when to collect sago, when to build canoes and when particular rituals and ceremonies should be held. However, these decisions were made after lengthy discussion and only for the section of the je concerned. No je section leader could speak for the whole je or for je sections other than his own. There was no tradition for chieftainship in the popular sense among the Asmat although the position of some war leaders did approach this, as will be shown presently.

A man became leader of his je section mainly by dint of his personality and the prestige he had built up. Age was also an important factor. Young men were of no account until they had had children and had proved their courage in war. The leaders of je sections, then, were men of strong personality who could exert their will on others. Almost invariably they were men who had killed in battle and, in some cases, they were war


leaders. It seems that any man, if he could rally the support, could initiate a raid but it would be presumptuous for a man to do so who had not already displayed leadership in battle and had taken a number of heads. Numbers of men at various times led raids and therefore could claim the status of “war leader” but of these only a few achieved recognition as great warriors. These men were the leaders of the big attacks in which, at times, the combined villages took part. Their names are remembered and their feats are commemorated still in stories and songs. In Erma-Sona, over the years, there was a succession of eight such men (Sowada, 1970: 84-87). It appears that fewer war leaders in Sawa-Er ever achieved this status.

Men who were renowned war leaders were not only brave in battle and competent in planning attacks but they also had a quality of ruthlessness and it seems they were feared by their own people. A remarkable number of them had killed their own wives or brothers in a fit of rage. In many ways these men set themselves above the norms of society that others had to observe. No action was taken against such a man who had killed his wife or brother. Such men were also renowned adulterers and boastful of their conquests in this field. They practised deceit not only against the enemy but also at home. In discussing the famous war leader’s informants always stress that they spoke “with a big voice”. The war leader could shout down others and it was his opinion that eventually prevailed. They were vain, arrogant men given to much boasting and displays of aggression. These men were the only ones who could regularly initiate action beyond the limits of their je section.

On certain occasions, a leadership role was played by “experts” in various fields. Some men, for instance, are considered experts on ritual and it is these men who would direct others on ceremonial occasions and ensure that everything was done correctly. Men who are singers and drumers play the leading part on many ceremonial occasions. These are generally older men and apparently even among these experts different degrees of skill are recognized. In Er, for example, when Basirin Tur, the leading singer died, it was made known that his position would be taken by Kain Yur, although he is only one of four men recognized as expert singers. There are also younger men who are


apprentices to the experts but it is said that only the older men really understand the songs properly. Young people do not know them as they contain expressions that are intelligible only to the older people. The songs tell of early wars, feasts and mythological heroes. Story tellers enjoy high status and so, too, do master carvers and canoe makers. The early work of burning and then hacking out the log in canoe making can be done more or less by anyone but the finishing work requires great skill and this must be done by an expert. There are also men (and some women) who are recognized as curers; others, through certain spiritual powers can recover things that have been lost and can identify the thief when something has been stolen. These men, or others, can also see into the future and tell the outcome of a raid and some can work magic such that the enemy would be weakened and made more vulnerable to attack. Frequently, men with powers of this kind were war leaders. The skillful pig hunter is accorded particular status. Pig hunting is hazardous and, to be successful, the hunter not only must be skillful, but courageous as well. In Er, Bes Pysiwabis, the kepala kampong confesses quite candidly that he cannot carve, cannot sing and is no story teller but boasts that he is the best pig hunter in the village. In part, the success of this man in pig hunting is attributed to certain magical skills he is believed to possess but his skill and bravery in hunting are recognised by all. Bes was also a warrior with a number of killings to his credit.

Renown in any of these activities will earn a man prestige but this does not necessarily make him a leader. It should be added that the fact one has killed in battle will earn a man high status but, in itself, this does not bestow leadership. One of the best known carvers in Sawa is also recognized as the authority on village history. This man claims eleven kills in various wars. He is deferred to and enjoys considerable prestige but has never been considered a leader. He does not speak “with a big voice” and is not at all assertive. Rather, he seems to be a mild-mannered old gentleman, not at all given to shouting and displays of anger.



The Impact of Government

Government contact with the Keenok people is very recent. In the Sava-Erma area, warfare continued until 1957. The last major attack launched by Keenok people was probably in August, 1963, when Bu Agani attacked Weo and Pupis, killing 22 people. A police post was established in Erma in 1960, but it was not staffed permanently until 1963, when Erma was made a district headquarters.

Notwithstanding this brief period of contact, the pace of change has been tremendous. The missions established churches and schools and endeavoured to forbid polygyny. Warfare was brought to an end by force; culprits were Jailed and, in some cases, shot. Villages were tied to particular locations and the movement to alternative sites was forbidden. In 1964, the destruction of all je buildings was begun in the belief that it was in the je that headhunting raids were planned. This was true but the je was also the centre of village social life. Villages were re-planned so that houses stretched in neat rows separated by elevated walkways. All traditional ceremonial life was forbidden on the grounds that these activities took up too much time and meant that people were constantly in the jungle. This sort of life was incompatible with schooling and various village projects that were initiated. In a number of villages the cutting of ironwood for export became a major activity; in some village the Catholic mission initiated timber co-operatives. Through timber work and also by selling crocodile skins, people were able to acquire trade goods of various kinds. The desire for trade goods, including clothing, is now great indeed.

The cessation of warfare meant that the principal channel by which men rose to positions of powerful leadership was blocked. The prohibition on ceremonial life and the destruction of the je houses not only greatly weakened social life but also undermined the authority of the je seciton leaders. Many ceremonies took place in the je or in temporary feast houses and were initiated by the je leaders. The je section groupings continue to exist because of their kinship function but the position of je section leaders has been rendered largely redundant. In Sawa-Er today, few people


are able to give the names of the various je section leaders; these men no longer meet together to discuss matters of village concern.

Present-day Leadership

Virtually all the young men who today exercise leadership as village heads were educated in mission schools in the late 1950’s. In these schools they received religious instruction, learned to speak Indonesian and were also taught some reading, writing and arithmetic. Most of these men today are only semi-literate but they do have some understanding of government and how it functions. A number of them have travelled to Merauke and therefore know something of town life. They have a great hunger for trade goods, particularly clothing, and like to be seen in long pants, shoes and shirts with buttons. One man who is a kepala in Sawa-Er likes to affect a turtle meck sweater and a wind jacket even on the hottest of days; on his head he wears a fur-lined hat of the sort one associates with Russians.

At an earlier point, it was stated that traditionally, young men such as these would enjoy little status unless they had killed in war; their status as leaders would have to be earned. These young men were mere boys when headhunting ceased and they never took part in any of the wars. However, they well understand the style of leadership that used to be exercised by the great war leaders and in various ways try to emulate this style. Principally, they rely upon the “big voice” and also the use of force.

The kepala desa and his assistants are responsible for law and order In the village and it is also their responsibility to see that the village is Exept clean, that houses are kept in good order and walkways maintained. The village policeman, in theory, uses his authority at the behest of the kepala Hesa. Generally, the village policeman is the head of the local hansip Organization. Hansip is something like a home guard. Members wear uniforms out the young men who join hansip receive no training of any kind and they are not paid. It is not at all clear what the exact purpose of hansip is. According to some, hansip is supposed to set an example to others in village work projects and thus act as a kind of task force in village development.


Most hansip men do not mention this as being their function but say, rather, that their task is to maintain law and order in the village. In two villages near the coast the hansip men maintain an all night guard on the village although it is not clear what they are guarding against. Hansip men are not armed but they do have clubs or rods of thick rattan. At times they use these freely to beat people. Each village has its own contingent of hansip; each numbers from about eight to fifteen.

At each district post there is a kepala distrik, his assistants, a number of police and, in some cases, a soldier. When a serious offence occurs within the village, the culprit should be taken to the post and is then up to the kepala distrik to made a judgement. If the offence is serious enough, the offender may be jailed but if this is not warranted, he may be punished at the post. The most common form of punishment is public labour such as cutting grass or repairing village walkways. Most offences are settled locally in the village and punishments, when they are meted out, are administered by the kepala desa or hansip.

Increasingly, it seems, hansip has become the guardian of public morality. Adulterers, if they are found out, are likely to be punished by hansip and so too are young people who engage in premarital sexual relations. The police at the post are essentially responsible to the kepala distrik. Hansip, on the other hand, appear to be responsible to the local army figure who, in turn, represents a source of power independent of the civil administration. This apparent division of powers at the district level creates difficulties for the district officers. The division is reflected at the desa and village levels by the relative independence of hansip. The kepala desa and his assistants, for their part, are hardly in a position to give orders to hansip people because they have their own local head. Under these circumstances they cooperate locally with hansip and use them to back up their authority. In effenct, this means the use of a group of strong arm men who can be used as a threat or, when necessary, called upon to mete out punishements.



At an earlier point, it was stated that war leaders who achieved fame to an extent set themselves above the norms of conduct that governed other men. The abuse of power was customary and it is perhaps to be expected that Asmatters today who attain positions of authority will use this power for their own ends. Interestingly enough, however, it seems that young men who gain power as top village officials use this power not to enrich themselves materially (actually, few at the present time have the necessary economic understanding to know how to do this) but to enchance their prestige. They enjoy lording it over their fellows and, in various ways, attempt to emulate the behaviour of the former war chiefs. Orders are never given quietly but are always shouted. The kepalas like to walk up and down the walkways berating people and making threats. Frequently, when they walk through the village, they are attended upon by a small group of followers not unlike courtiers of old. In public the kepala generally carries a club of rattan; in one village the kepala desa carries a length of platted wire which may be used as a whip. The kepalas will announce not only when village work projects are to commence, but like the je section leaders of earlier times announce when people are to collect sago and when they are to return to the village. All this is not to suggest that people always do as they are told but more often than not they do comply.

It may appear that what is being described here is authority but not necessarily leadership. It is to be stressed that those who behave in this extreme way are generally young men; older men who hold the position of kepala desa or assistant tend to rely more on persuasion and less on the use of force. It is also true that in some villages, while legal authority is in the hands of young elected officials, leadership is still exercised by older men who have status as former war leaders. This seems to be the situation in Konor, for example. When there is any serious disruption in Komor, the kepala desa and his assistant tend to defer to three older men who were former war leaders. One of these three is recognized as being particularly powerful. This man was a war leader of some fame as was his father before him. The fact is, however, that most of the former war leaders of any fame are now very old or have died. In Jamasy there is one a very old man who cannot walk without assistance; in Erma-Sona there is one yet living but in Sawa-Er the last of the war leaders died this year.

The young men who were appointed to kepala positions during the Dutch administration found it impossible to exercise any authority without the support of the older men. When they tried to act on their own authority they were ridiculed by men and women alike. A common charge (which at times one still hears today) was, “You are only a young man and have never killed any one..” The situation today is very different. The old system of leadership is in decay and these new men are the only ones who can now initiate any type a communal action. They do exercise leadership. Whether or not this leadership is always willingly accepted is beside the point.

If the situation we have described does not yet hold for all Keenok villages there is reason to believe that it will do so in the future. The behaviour of these young kepalas clearly conforms to a pattern. Moreover, as we have attempted to show, the pattern is not a new one but represents a cultural continuity from the past.

NOTE: This article is one of the articles contained in the Asmat Papers. Research was carried out during nine months of field work in the Asmat Region, on the south coast of Irian Jaya. The field work was done by the Institute of Anthropology staff members, assisted by Dr.M.T.Walker, then Professor of Anthropology, University of Cenderawasih and was made possible by a grant from the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Fund, New York.


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