Dr. Kal Muller: Champion of the Kamoros

Kalman Antal Muller was born in Hungary in 1939 as war clouds were gathering over Europe. He left his native country alone at age 9 for France and Switzerland before emigrating to the USA when he was 12 to live with relatives.
Muller has roamed every corner of the globe, becoming fluent in four languages and earning a Ph.D. in French literature in the process. While hitchhiking around Africa, he put in a stint at Dr. Schweitzer’s jungle hospital and worked for the United Nations in the Congo. Currently, Kal works as a consultant for Freeport, the giant mining company in Papua, where he promotes Kamoro culture and sculpture in a program that helps alleviate poverty among the Kamoro people.

What are a few of your unforgettable childhood memories?

Making drawings of trapping wild animals for zoos.. pretending to be Tarzan… playing with my Nazi toy soldiers and Panzer tanks…climbing tall trees to my parent’s eternal worry…flying in a DC 3 for 24 hours from Geneva to New York…at the airport getting into a big Lincoln full of fascinating buttons and levers…

Of all your adventures, which ones comes to mind most vividly?

In 1966, I sailed across the Pacific, ending up in what was then the New Hebrides, Vanuatu. Over the next 3 years, I stayed with the island’s traditional tribes. I participated in the land dive on Pentecost Island – the only white man stupid enough to have ever done this. That resulted in an article I wrote and photographed for the National Geographic. I did two other articles for them on the New Hebrides, along with a lecture film for the National Geographic Society. I also spent 3 years with the Huichol Indians of Mexico, taking part in their annual peyote pilgrimages and trying out the hallucinogenic cactus on numerous occasions.

How did you become involved in Indonesia?

After visiting some 80 countries over 15 years, in 1976 I received an intriguing and irresistible assignment to write a book on Balinese culture for Editions du Pacific. On my second day into the work, I decided my wandering days were over. Indonesia was it. I’ve never regretted that decision. Later I wrote a guidebook, Underwater Indonesia, which helped bring ever-increasing numbers of divers to what are generally considered the world’s best dive spots.

What is distinctive about the Kamoro people?

They maintain a traditional semi-nomadic way of life, shifting between areas of plentiful natural resources – the sea, the estuaries, the mangroves and the tropical rainforests. The villages of Mioko, Timika Pantai and Kekwa still preserve many of their old traditions and follow the beliefs of the ancestors and other spirits. A number of villages still perform an authentic initiation ritual for boys every 5-7 years.
What is your job description at Freeport?

I advise the company when asked about Papuan social organization, differences between ethnic groups, historical backgrounds of tribal wars, natural resources and where health services are the most needed. One my favorite roles is that of an “art dealer” and promoter of Kamoro sculpture in Freeport’s Social Local Development Department. I frequently visit villages to buy art to sell in Timika and Tembagapura, as well as Bali, Surabaya and bi-annually in Jakarta.

How did you ever land such an unusual and interesting position?

By virtue of the previous work that I had done, i.e. buying and selling African art in the US in the 1960s, writing and photographing books to help educate the Papuans and anyone else who is interested in the long history and amazingly diverse cultures that exist in Papua. I was able to convince Freeport that promoting Kamoro culture could benefit the company’s public relations profile without having to “sell out” to anyone.

How do you pay the carvers?

I buy a carving by putting down an initial deposit of Rp50,000 to Rp300,000. Once the piece is sold, I pay then pay the carver “top money” which amounts to about 90% of the sale price less the deposit. On average, this comes to Rp400,000 to Rp600,000 for most carvers. Some of the larger pieces can sell for as much as several million rupiah. No two carvings are ever the same. I have about 200 carvers in the program right now.

You make your home in Timika. Recently, I’ve read about some deadly tribal clashes there…

Yes, we have more than our share of ‘tribal’ clashes. The most recent ones (some 14 dead so far, and counting) started with the murder of a highlands chief. The unofficial rumor is that he had been sleeping with his driver’s wife. The chief’s people started killing men from the driver’s ethnic group from the Kei-Tanimbar islands. Tribal clashes, which are quite common, are usually ascribed to pay back or women problems.

Do you still get questions from visitors about the Michael Rockefeller disappearance?

Yes. A new book Savage Harvest covers this story quite well. The same conclusions had already been published in the 1970s by another author. Very likely, he was killed and eaten.

What are the most pressing problems facing Papua?

Palm oil plantations, uncontrolled fishing, timber exploitation (much of it illegal), human rights abuses and lack of honest, qualified Papuan civil servants to staff all the new regencies (kabupaten). Non-Papuan Indonesians should take an interest in their Papuan countrymen and to dispel some very outdated notions of their ‘primitive’ state.

Where can people learn more about Kamoro carving?

Starting on 14 September, I and six Kamoro will be running a program at Canggu School teaching the kids carving and dancing. The school library will be open to the public on Tuesday, September 16th and Thursday, September 18th from 3:30 pm to 6 pm for viewing and purchasing Kamoro carvings.

Where can people learn more about the Kamoros?

I encourage people to come and stay in a Kamoro village. I have a program to welcome visitors, but some prior notice is needed. Visitors can see the traditional life and work of the Kamoro during these visits. For more information, contact my assistant Luluk Intarti, hp 081-240-88025, email: suko2004#gmail.com, website: kamoroculture#blogspot.com.

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Copyright © 2014 Bill Dalton
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