The Asmat people live in the southwest part of the island of New Guinea, which is now a province of Indonesia. There are 12 distinct cultural regions, with a population in 2000 of approximately 65,000-70,000 individuals.
First contact with the Asmat was a sighting from the deck of a Dutch trading ship in 1623. Captain Cook later landed in Asmat territory on September 3, 1770, but the fierce display by the Asmat so frightened the crew that they made a hasty retreat.
The Dutch controlled the Asmat territory from 1793-1949, but did not begin explorations of the area until the early 1900s. The first explorers sent zoological and artifact specimens back to Europe, where they were received with curiosity and enthusiasm. The Dutch eventually established a colonial post in 1938. During World War II the post was temporarily closed.
In 1953, Fr. Zegwaard, a Dutch missionary, reestablished the post at Agats, to serve as both a government center and a base for missionaries. Agats became the permanent post of the Catholic Crosier Brothers in 1958. The Crosier missionaries, who often had anthropology degrees, discouraged the traditional practices of headhunting and cannibalism, while encouraging the Asmat to retain many other traditional rituals and festivals. Some of these were eventually incorporated into the local Catholic practices.
Indonesia received its independence from the Dutch in 1949, but the Dutch retained control of the western half of New Guinea, including the Asmat region, until 1962. Then the Asmat area became part of Indonesia. In 1963, to end headhunting, the Indonesian government burned down all ceremonial houses (jeu), actively discouraged Asmat ritual and festivals, and severely limited dancing and drumming. This crackdown lasted until 1968.
The Crosier Brothers, with Bishop Sowada as their lead spokesperson, intervened to stop the destructive policy of the Indonesian government. The bishop expressed the importance of ceremony and ritual in Asmat life, declaring that “without art and ritual the Asmat culture could not survive”.
To aid in the resurgence of Asmat art and ritual, the United Nations underwrote a project from 1968 to 1974 to encourage wood carving. Later, under the combined efforts of Bishop Sowada, Tobias Schneebaum, Gunter and Ursula Konrad, the Asmat Museum for Culture and Progress was opened in the early 1980s. Today, the Museum hosts an annual woodcarving competition and auction that has stimulated artistic creativity among the Asmat, and has become an economic boon to the carvers, who are recognized throughout the world for the richness and quality of their carvings.
In 2000, the Asmat founded the Lembaga Musyawarah Adat Asmat (LMAA) to work with the Indonesian government on behalf of the interests of the Asmat people. In 2004, the Asmat region became a separate governmental administration, with its own elected head.