Papuans and the Imaginary Stereotype

You think I’m an ignorant savage, And you’ve been so many places, I guess it must be so But still, I cannot see, If the savage one is me, How can there be so much that you don’t know, You think the only people who are people, Are the people who look and think like you

That was from the Pocahontas song Colors of the Wind. Unfortunately, this song has become a part of colonial romanticization. The irony and misrepresentation of colonialism and the experiences of those victimized doesn’t just happen in a Disney film, but it seeps into daily life often.

Why is it important to understand media-specific stereotypes – especially in this case, stereotypes around the Korowai and Papuans in general? We need to remember all the narratives regarding the Korowai and the Papuans; such stereotypes have downplayed their significance where they are seen as nothing more than a mere “spectacle” as “the exotic other“, “the savage one“, “the heavily-accented comedian with a high-pitched voice“, or “not human”–this is cultural violence. It is what happens when cultural products are grouped up in the same frame as a slew of other more harmful stereotypes – all of which become justifications for systematic oppression and unjust violence against them. They are not often seen beyond their ‘exoticness’ and cultural differences, all of which are often shoehorned into the media for the sake of superficial “diversity”.

The perpetuation of said logic creates a sense of superiority on the part of the colonizers. Viewing the colonized people as a lesser, more ‘simple’ people enables them to feel righteous as they deal out injustice while plundering the colonized peoples’ land.

Subsequently, exploitation of natural resources, extinguishing individual freedoms and ignoring the concerns of the colonized peoples become normalized and blindsided.

Misrepresentation is the mother of oppression and further objectification, and by continuing to cater to said misrepresentations, it leads to even more dehumanization of an entire people. Unfortunately as of now, the western media’s portrayal of Papuans as savages is alive and well and even perpetuated by Indonesians.

Dian Yasmin Wasaraka published the book “Perempuan Perkasa”. In the book, Dian who is a Jayapura resident discusses Korowai representation in the media from the non-Papuan, city-dwelling perspective. She reveals that Google search findings related to ‘Korowai’ overwhelmingly portrays jungle-dwelling people who live in trees. She also discusses that the word ‘cannibalism’ is almost always hand in hand with any images shown of the Korowai.

These images perpetuate the view that the Korowai are barbaric, primitive savage people who live in jungles and are therefore not part of mainstream society and civilization as a whole.

A treehouse image has been framed by the BBC, National Geographic, and other media outlets as an image of the “Korowai House”. In 2018 BBC finally acknowledged that said image is not in fact a Korowai House as has been referred to previously. However, the false information has already been disseminated and one can say that the BBC’s apology has been too little too late.

In fact, those tree houses are actually created for a specific television program and are not in fact representative of the Korowai’s traditional house. Actual Korowai houses are built on the ground and are more practical in terms of sanitation due to easier accessibility. This spread of misinformation is a result of a lack of understanding regarding the Korowai.

It’s important that we let Papuans have a voice. Let them speak, and hear what they have to say. Representation would be not representative at all if it’s still controlled by the more privileged non-Papuans. We have to realize that we have been brought up with an uncritical, overly-simplified education system that does not do much to scrutinize media portrayals and even harmful stereotypes. Hence we are accustomed to being ignorant and oblivious of the power relations among different peoples and the importance of media representations. We have to realize that

there is a lot to unlearn.