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Welcome to the jungle

Story retraces steps of doomed art collector

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Villagers from the Asmat villages of Pirien and Jisar work at finishing a roof.

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Villagers from the Asmat villages of Pirien and Jisar work at finishing a roof.

Visitors to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art may be awestruck by masks, shields, tools, weapons and intricately carved wooden poles symbolic of an ancient belief system.

They're part of the Rockefellers' legacy to the arts, priceless testaments to an isolated island culture and to the young collector in the family who once called them "the most extraordinary work in the primitive world."

If these artifacts could speak, they might reveal what really happened to 23-year-old Michael C. Rockefeller, Harvard graduate and privileged son of Nelson Rockefeller, whose catamaran capsized in November 1961 during an art-seeking expedition to a little-explored southwest coastal jungle region in former Dutch New Guinea.

In his cleverly titled book, Carl Hoffman, contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler and author of the critically acclaimed The Lunatic Express (2010) offers readers a lucid analysis of Rockefeller's fate.

Hoffman's third book is scholarly, featuring recent and archival photos, reference notes, and an impressive bibliography from which he liberally quotes as he focuses on the unofficial but widely acknowledged reason for Rockefeller's disappearance.

Exhaustive searches conducted by the Dutch government and the Rockefeller family failed to find any trace of the young art collector, and according to Hoffman, officially calling the disappearance a tragic drowning created a tasteful legitimacy to the museum's display of primitive art.

How else, he suggests, could an influential and philanthropic family, recognized for public service in state and federal politics, maintain its lofty position and continue to promote an attraction that in 2012 "brought in $90 million in entry fees alone."

Rumour mills, however, had long suggested there could be an unsettling reason why Rockefeller was never found, and much of Hoffman's gripping disclosures serve to separate hearsay from irrefutable evidence.

The notion that a promising son may have been speared, beheaded, butchered and finally consumed -- with skeletal parts used to fashion knives and adornments as part of a ritual grounded in some primitive people's early origins -- is understandably unthinkable.

Hoffman reconstructs Rockefeller's dangerous foray, fashioning a travelogue with anthropological and colonial underpinnings, weaving it into his own personal odyssey as he retraces that journey, seeking, in his own words, "an account of the events that had preceded the possible murder and cannibalization of one of my clan, one of my tribe, my countryman."

The result is a multi-dimensional book, even a polemic, arguing that cultural duress caused by outside attempts to civilize a primitive society must be acknowledged before casting judgment upon customs of isolated people who have still not fully embraced modernization and its new moral codes.

Hoffman offers evidence that Rockefeller likely managed to swim to shore in a region called Asmat, where the collector had once admired the local villagers' art but had also presciently written in his journal that "some remote areas are still headhunting."

Hoffman makes two journeys into Asmat, staying for a month in one village where Rockefeller had purchased some art, hoping to find witnesses who remembered the young American.

It was, according to Hoffman, "a place without things," where "a consciousness of emotional extremes" permits parents to "hold and cuddle their children" and "laugh when their children pee on them," but also to "wallop them like prizefighters."

He calls their behaviour "bipolar duality" wherein an action or an emotion requires its opposite, providing balance to villagers' lives, and learns this is why one wrongful death requires another.

This observation is crucial to Hoffman's assertion that Rockefeller was likely killed as a cultural response to the shooting of several villagers by a white-skinned, Dutch government employee in 1958.

Reports from priests and officials who spoke with Asmat villagers shortly after Rockefeller's disappearance, when compared with answers to Hoffman's own questions, support the notion of a cannibalistic tit-for-tat, but this isn't definitively proven.

As earlier observers noticed, like Hoffman did so many years later, villagers living in Asmat often change their stories, claiming to know who did the killing but unable or unwilling to point out who it was, instead wondering aloud who killed a shark or crocodile on that fateful day.

Hoffman's interpreter says in exasperation, "If I was teaching these people I would go crazy. They answer a question with a question."

While exposing the Asmat culture as potentially murderous, Hoffman argues that their stoic resistance towards outside imposition of a new morality with its own lurid history of genocide and world wars is worthy of our respect.

For this reason also, Savage Harvest is a must-read.


Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2014 G5


Updated on Saturday, March 22, 2014 at 8:00 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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