Encounters with the Dani
In 1961, the anthropologist Robert Gardner traveled to Irian Jaya (now known as West Papua) to live among the Dani of the Baliem Valley for six months and make a film about their ways of life. At the time of Gardner’s trip, the Dani were an isolated people, with little to no contact with the outside world, aside from Christian missionaries and scattered encounters. During his six months in the Baliem Valley, Gardner produced a book and the iconic anthropological film, "Dead Birds."
The journey that led to the making of this project began when I first traveled to the Baliem Valley with Robert Gardner, on his return visit to the Dani in 1988. A small team, including my partner Dick Rogers, and cinematographer Robert Fulton, set out to find Bob’s old friends Pua, Weyak, and Kurelu, who were central to his 1964 film "Dead Birds." We wanted to record what we could of the changes that had occurred in the valley since the film was made. However, it was not until our follow-up trip in 1996 that I personally felt the enormity of the impact time had revealed. -SM
Dead Birds - Pua
A sequence from Robert Gardner's 1964 film, "Dead Birds," depicting Pua, the seven year old pig farmer and protaganist of the film.
Robert Gardner with the Dani
Dani Reenactment for Tourists
Dead Birds Revisited, in Collaboration with Robert Gardner
DEAD BIRDS...Revisited was originally created as an interactive e-book combining photographs, text excerpts from Robert Gardner’s journals and film sequences from Dead Birds. The project was an early experimental multimedia piece produced at a time before interactive media was a ubiquitous facet of everyday life around the world.
Following the discovery of the Dani by Westerners at the end of the 1930s, the Dutch established their first colonial post in the remote area of the Baliem Valley in the mid-1950s. The Netherlands later offered the Dani the prospect of self-determination, but under international pressure all of New Guinea was incorporated into Indonesia in 1962. The Dani have lived mostly as a primitive tribe throughout these political changes, fighting and hunting with bow, arrow and spear. But in the last decades, international tourism and the need for survival has forced the Dani to confront modernity, albeit in their own way. Today, the Dani are participants in the militant struggle for an independent state. -SM
The Americans took New Guinea from the occupying Japanese during WII and used it as a base for their Pacific operations. Troops stationed there made pleasure flights over the Baliem Valley, sometimes swooping down very low to scare the Dani and watch them run and hide. In 1945, a plane of soldiers out on one of these daytrips crashed in the mountain pass leading out of the valley. Out of the twenty-four passengers, three survived -- Lt. McCollom, Sgt. Decker, and WAC Cpl. Hastings. Filipino paratroopers dropped into the valley to build an airstrip so a glider could land and take the survivors back to the base. The tale of the crash and the rescue was canonized in the pop culture of the time, from comic book dramatizations to newspaper and magazine stories. -SM
Dead Birds - Dani Ritual Warfare
A sequence from Robert Gardner's 1964 film, "Dead Birds."
Dead Birds - Watchtower
Excerpt from the 1964 Robert Gardner film, "Dead Birds."
Dani Clip - Pua Dressing
Dani Posing with Tourists
Filmed by Robert Gardner, when he revisited the Dani in 1996 for his follow-up to "Dead Birds."
This project of reconstruction and stitching together stories from the Baliem Valley was initiated by an invitation from Nathan Lyons to submit a proposal to the Nederlands Foto Insitut as part of the Photoworks-in-Progress series “Constructing Identity.” In my 1999 proposal, I wrote that I wanted to ‘explore the ways in which the Dani have been seen by travelers, anthropologists, missionaries, colonialists, and perhaps themselves throughout this century and, through available technology, create access to that work and a dialogue with the Dani about that representation.’ At that time, I criss-crossed Holland seeking those who had played significant roles in the shaping of the Baliem under the Dutch colonial administration, while continuing to search the extensive national archives for material that would open up the history of early explorers’ encounters with the Dani. -SM