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The Baliem Valley was a “magnificent vastness” in Rockefeller’s eyes, and its people were “emotionallly expressive.” But Asmat proved to be “more remote country than what I have ever seen.” (President and Fellows of Harvard University; Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology [155700080])

What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller

A journey to the heart of New Guinea’s Asmat tribal homeland sheds new light on the mystery of the heir’s disappearance there in 1961

A few days later, he wrote a note to his superior in Agats: “Without having the intention of doing so, I stumbled across information and I feel compelled to report this. Michael Rockefeller has been picked up and killed by Otsjanep. [The villages of] Jow, Biwar and Omadesep are all clearly aware of it.” He also notified the regional government controller.

Cornelius van Kessel, the priest Michael had been traveling to meet, had also been hearing things. He met with von Peij, sent his Asmat assistant to the village to quiz the warriors there, brought a handful to Basim to interrogate them himself, and on December 15, wrote a long report to the controller. “After my conversation with Father von Peij, the one percent of doubt I had has been taken by the very detailed data which matched with my data and inspections. “IT IS CERTAIN THAT MICHAEL ROCKEFELLER WAS MURDERED AND EATEN BY OTSJANEP,” he wrote in all caps. “This was revenge for the shooting four years ago.” Van Kessel spelled it all out. Names. Who had which body parts.

Less than a month after Michael disappeared—and within two weeks after they called off the search for him—Dutch authorities had von Peij’s and van Kessel’s reports.

On December 21, the governor of Dutch New Guinea cabled the Dutch minister of the interior. The cable is marked “secret” and “destroy,” but part of it remains in the Dutch government archives in the Hague. It outlines what the two priests reported and says:

In my opinion some reservations need to be made. No evidence has been found yet and therefore there is no certainty yet. In this connection it doesn’t seem germane to me to give information to the press or Rockefeller senior at this time.

***

Both priests had lived in Asmat for years. Both spoke the local language. And both were sure the story they’d heard was accurate. Van Kessel wanted to alert Michael’s family, even travel to the United States to speak with them. But in a series of letters church authorities warned von Peij and van Kessel that the issue was “like a cabinet of glass” and to keep silent, so “the mission will not fall from grace with the population,” and soon shipped van Kessel back to Holland. The Dutch government, engaged in a struggle with Indonesia and the United States to retain its last colony in the east, a policy predicated on presenting Papua as a civilized, smoothly functioning semi-independent entity, said nothing. When the Associated Press reported in March 1962 that Michael had been killed and eaten, based on a letter a third Dutch priest in Asmat had written to his parents, Nelson Rockefeller contacted the Dutch Embassy in the U.S., which contacted the Hague. Joseph Luns, the minister of foreign affairs himself, responded. The rumors had been thoroughly investigated, he said, and there was nothing to them.

In fact, the Dutch government investigation was just beginning. Officials dispatched a young Dutch patrol officer named Wim van de Waal—the very man who had sold Michael Rockefeller his catamaran. In 1962, van de Waal moved to Otsjanep to begin a long, slow process that would take three months.

“The Asmat in Otsjanep didn’t understand why I was there,” he told me in 2012, around the dining table in his home on the Spanish island of Tenerife, where he’s lived since 1968. He, too, was well, at age 73. “It was a complicated village, and they feel like talking about these things brings them bad luck.” Bit by bit he quizzed them about battles and raids and finally it spilled out—a story that differed little from the one von Peij had heard.

Van de Waal asked for proof, knowing the Dutch government would take no action without it. Some men took him into the jungle, dug in the muck and produced a skull and bones, the skull bearing no lower jaw and a hole in the right temple—the hallmarks of remains that had been headhunted and opened to consume the brains.

He handed the remains over to Dutch authorities, but it was now June 1962 and global politics intervened. “The political situation was becoming awkward,” van de Waal said; the Dutch were about to lose their half of New Guinea to newly independent Indonesia. Van de Waal’s superiors recalled him from the village. “I was never asked to make a report of my time in Otsjanep,” he said, and in meetings with higher officials “we never, ever, touched upon my investigation.” No records in the Dutch government archives mention it, though van de Waal’s story is corroborated in the memoirs of van Kessel’s replacement, a priest named Anton van de Wouw.

***

Home after two months in Asmat, I was still riddled with questions. The stories I’d heard were all secondhand; everyone in Asmat “knew” the men in Otsjanep had killed Michael, but none of them there or in Pirien had admitted the killing to me. Only one man, the nephew of Pep, the man who’d allegedly speared Michael, had told me a detailed version of the story, and he’d been raised in another village. Furthermore, there was a question of reliability: The Asmat depended on deception to gain advantage over their enemies, to elude and placate the spirits; accounts of their saying whatever whites wanted to hear were abundant. Maybe the priests and the patrol officer wanted to believe the Asmat had killed and eaten Michael. It certainly strengthened their case for evangelizing and modernizing them. And despite so many weeks in Asmat, I’d only visited Pirien and Otsjanep twice, once for 24 hours and once for four days, and always with a retinue of translators and hangers-on. Michael’s notes on his travels had left me with the impression that he had embraced the Asmat without understanding them, and I wondered if I’d been guilty of the same thing, trying to obtain their deepest secrets without taking the time to know them.

I decided I had to go back, and to go deeper. Back in the United States, I studied Bahasa Indonesian, which has been rapidly supplanting the Asmats’ native language. Seven months later, I returned to Asmat. I wanted a much better understanding of Asmat culture and in particular Otsjanep’s village structure: who the men Lepré had killed were, and how they were related to the men named in van Kessel’s and von Peij’s reports.

Back in Agats I ran into Kokai, who was there visiting his son. For the first time we could speak directly to each other, and I felt a veil had been lifted. He invited me back to Pirien to live with him for a month.

His house was three rooms without furniture, its bare walls gray with years of dirt, soot, grime, its floors covered with traditional handwoven palm mats, in a village without power, plumbing, even a single store. In a corner stood spears, a bow and set of arrows, and six-foot-high shields, all carved by Kokai. This time, everything was different. I spoke their language and alone, without Amates or Wilem, I had surrendered myself to Kokai’s care and the village took me in, embraced me, opened up to me.

I asked nothing relating to Michael for almost two weeks. The men were building a new jeu and I spent hours, days waiting as they drummed and sang and danced, the men draped in dogs’ teeth necklaces, boar tusks around their arms and on their heads cuscus fur headbands sprouting the feathers of sulphur-crested cockatoos. Sometimes they drummed and sang all day and all night, songs of headhunting and war, a bridge between the ancestors and the here and now.

Kokai and I would talk in the mornings over cigarettes and sago, and Kokai knew everything—hundreds of songs and stories, his family and the village lineage back generations. As the second week melted into the third, it was time to start asking questions.

One morning I took out a stack of 50 or so photocopies of black-and-white photographs Michael Rockefeller had taken in Otsjanep in the summer of 1961. The men in them were naked, proud, smiling, their hair in long ringlets, and the shells of triton hung on the abdomens of some—the sign of a great headhunter. Other photos showed elaborate bisj poles, some of which, I knew, Michael had unsuccessfully tried to buy.

Kokai and other villagers, including some in Otsjanep, identified in the photos six of the 15 men that van Kessel and von Peij named as having parts of Michael’s skeleton, which proved Michael had met those identified as having killed him—an important detail, because the Asmat preferred to take the head of someone whose name they knew. When I asked why the bisj poles were still in the jeu and not laid into the sago fields, they said it was because the bisj ceremony was still unfinished. Who had the poles been named for? They kept saying they didn’t know. It was possible, but—for a people who could remember family lineages going back generations—unlikely.

One night at Kokai’s I asked about the men killed in the Lepré raid. I wanted to know what their positions in the village had been. Faratsjam had been the kepala perang, or war leader, of a jeu. Osom, Akon and Samut had been, too. Of the five dead in the Lepré raid, four had been the most important men in Otsjanep, the heads of four of the five jeus. The strongest, most able warriors of one of the strongest villages in all of Asmat, killed in an instant. By Max Lepré, a Western outsider.

And the men who had taken their places? Fin, who had allegedly taken Michael’s skull. Ajim and Pep, who were each alleged to have speared him. And Jane, who was named as having one of Michael’s tibia? He was married to Samut’s sister, and Samut had been married to Jane’s sister. The slain and their successors: Each of these men would have had a sacred obligation to avenge the deaths of the men killed by Lepré. Otsjanep’s motive for murder felt increasingly solid. The only jeu that hadn’t lost its war leader was Pirien—the only jeu from which Lepré had killed no one, and which van Kessel and von Peij had reported had been against Michael’s killing. The jeu that would later break away.

Another night I was sitting with Kokai and another man, smoking and talking, when they started speaking so quickly to each other I couldn’t keep up. I heard the words “tourist” and “Pep” and “Dombai” and mati—dead. And then “Rockefeller.”

I froze. I was sure Kokai was telling the story of Michael Rockefeller. Finally! I didn’t want to interject, to tell him to slow down, I was afraid he might clam up. Kokai pantomimed shooting an arrow, and I heard polisi, and he was talking about helicopters coming in and people running into the jungle to hide. Not for the first time I imagined how frightening those throbbing machines in the sky must have seemed.

Without missing a beat, he segued into another story, about an event that I knew about but had never connected to Michael. From the helicopters and hiding in the jungle, Kokai talked about a cholera epidemic that had swept through Asmat. “Dead, dead,” he said, repeatedly placing one hand over the other, demonstrating the bodies piling up. “So many dead. Bensin,” the Indonesian word for gasoline.

Within a year after Michael disappeared, I knew, more than 70 men, women and children were dead in Otsjanep, their corpses rotting on platforms, as was customary in Asmat. “Now and then you could see dogs walking around with parts of a foot or hand which—after sufficient rotting—fell off the platforms,” wrote Anton van de Wouw, the priest who had replaced van Kessel. It was so bad the villagers agreed, at van de Wouw’s insistence, to violate tradition and burn the dead.

Kokai had moved from one story to the next as if they were part of the same event, and it hit me: What if the epidemic had been seen as the spirits’ punishment for killing Michael Rockefeller? Even more significant, Australian army helicopters had been dispatched to aid in the cholera fight, which meant that the only two times the Asmat had ever seen helicopters were within days of Michael’s death and as more death, faster than they’d ever experienced, swept through their village.

A month had passed and it was time to go. Everything pointed to Michael’s killing—even van de Wouw had written in 1968, after years closely connected with the village, “It is clear that [he] came to the shore alive.” Yet the sons of the men accused of killing him would admit nothing, directly. Even Kokai would say only, “We have heard this story, but we don’t know anything about that.” Fifty years had passed, Kokai called me his younger brother; after all this time, would they really just look me in the eye and lie? Were they really that scared? What was holding them back?

One day shortly before I left Pirien, a man named Marco was acting out a story, walking and stalking and mimicking the stabbing of someone with a spear, the shooting of arrows, the cutting off of a head. I heard the words “Dombai” and “Otsjanep” and turned my video camera on, but the theatrics seemed to be over and he just talked and talked, and after eight minutes, I hit the stop button.

Although I didn’t know it yet, it was perhaps my most important moment in Asmat. Back in Agats, I showed the video to Amates, who translated. What I filmed after Marco had told the story was a stern warning to the men gathered around him:

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