This article addresses the neglected subject of political violence in the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, known locally as West Papua. It asks how this regime of political violence is reproduced in and through representations of culture, gender and difference. It argues that rumours about state-sponsored violence contribute to both the experience and expression of terror. It examines how West Papuans understand, subvert and imagine alternatives to the political and symbolic forms of violence in which they are enmeshed. Finally, it compares rumour to ethnographic accounts and human rights reports, arguing that anthropologists have both political and ethnographic responsibilities to ‘bear witness’ to political violence and the mechanisms through which it is reproduced as terror.
How should one make sense of contemporary sightings of “lost tribes” in the marginal spaces of the world system? The European myth model (Obeyesekere 1992) of the “lost tribe” is drawn from accounts of the ten lost tribes of ancient Israel. It was invoked by colonial powers and missionaries in their efforts to remake the histories of indigenous peoples, and is the basis for continuing efforts to locate descendants of the missing ten tribes. When applied to remote and relatively isolated indigenous populations, however,
the European myth model of the lost tribe obscures differences in their histories and ignores their agency in current social interactions. In the Amazon lost tribes are the product of centuries of retreat and resistance against colonizers and nation states. In Melanesia disenfranchised groups contribute to the process through which they are designated “lost tribes” in order to increase their access to resources. These intercultural encounters mark the expansion of the world system into the final corners of the Earth.