What Can “Oral History” Teach Us?

By Steven High, Canada Research Chair in Public History


What if the study of the Canadian past was understood as an interdisciplinary field? This paper offers “oral history” as an example of an interdisciplinary craft that has made such a transition.


When Ruth Sandwell approached me to be on a 2010 Canadian Historical Association round-table panel on historical synthesis designed to put various sub-fields into conversation, I jumped at the opportunity. It is a rare thing to have such a wide range of historians participating in a single session. Too often, round-tables bring together groups of like-minded people with predicable results. This session promised to be different. And to some degree it was. What I did not anticipate, however, was that instead of finding broad new horizons, I left feeling slightly claustrophobic. Much of the discussion, and one or two of the presentations, seemed to be aimed at shoring up the disciplinary walls still further – making them higher, stronger. Alan McEachern’s delightful presentation, for example, cleverly began with a photo of the “Canadian History” section at Chapters bookstore (such as it is). He then digitally erased those books written by journalists, Pierre Berton and others. In the end, we were left with a handful of real history books written by university-based historians. Others, it seems, were simply imposters. At this point, I had to stifle the urge to call out: “maybe we can eliminate all those who forgot to renew their CHA memberships, too.” Of course, I did no such thing. But it did cause me to imagine what it would be like if the disciplinary walls came tumbling down. What if the study of the Canadian past was understood, fundamentally, as an interdisciplinary field of study? Other disciplines have opened themselves up – why not us? As my contribution to this online forum, I would like to offer “oral history” as an example of an interdisciplinary craft that has made the transition.

My roundtable presentation began with the question – what can “oral history” teach us? In an influential essay first translated into English in the 1980s, Alessandro Portelli asked a related question – “what makes oral history different?” His answer surprised many. Oral sources are not objective, he wrote: they are highly subjective. But that is their great strength. Oral history therefore tells us “not just what people did, but what they intended to do, what they believed they were doing, and what they now think they did.”[1] Oral historians must therefore work on both factual and narrative planes, as well as on the past and on the present. Memory, subjectivity and narrative have been at the interpretative core of the field ever since.[2] We therefore try to see the past through the eyes of someone else – coming to an understanding of “their truths.” This development represents a fundamental shift in perspective. Instead of mining for data, oral historians now approach the interview as a life story narrative. We have learned that there can be a great deal of meaning in the form and structure of oral narratives, as well as in the information provided.

Oral history was not always conceived of in this holistic way. Before Portelli and the cultural turn, oral historians spent a great deal of time re-assuring other historians that oral history was a legitimate methodology. To that end, we erected impressive social scientific scaffolding to justify interviewing people – talk of “sampling” and “representivity” pepper our writings from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Often, oral narratives were cast as just another source. Our interpretations were therefore built on a wide source base, rather than a deep one.

This defensive posture was not entirely irrational. Critics of oral history, then as now, pointed to the subjectivity of the interviewee’s story, the “problem” of memory, and the difficulty of going beyond “anecdotal” evidence. How do we know what we are hearing is true? After all they could be lying or just mis-remembering. As a graduate student in the 1990s, I would occasionally be accused of “presentism” because I sought to draw connections between past and present. Some historians also felt uncomfortable with the fact that oral historians are co-creators of the source recordings, as it implicated us in unaccustomed ways.

We, as historians, do not speak of “objectivity” much anymore, but it continues to structure everything that we do. I was taught that my authority as a historian was based on the distance between myself and the subject at hand –the more the better. Accordingly, I was instructed to write in the third person and not to insert myself in the text, except safely in the preface or the acknowledgements. Even in our post-modern and post-colonial moment – the subjective, when it is acknowledged at all, is usually located in our sources and not in our own writings or our location as researchers.[3]

In recent years, a growing number of Canadian historians have grappled with the structuring power of nation. Recent workshops on “place” and “transnationalism” in relation to Canada have sought to break us out of the national boxes in which we have operated.[4] Ian McKay’s “liberal order framework” has similarly sought to problematize Canada itself – making it something more than an empty box where the stuff of history happens.<[5] All of these projects have served to challenge the supremacy of the nation, or to at least ask penetrating questions of what has often been taken for granted.

If geography and the nation state have traditionally bounded our understanding of Canadian history (many of us would probably self-identify as “Canadianists”), oral history has been resolutely internationalist in orientation and local in practice. One only has to glance at the field’s major readers and textbooks or the syllabi available online to see what I mean.[6] Students in my oral history seminars therefore read books and articles from all over the planet, and apply this shared theory and practice to their deep listening of individual life stories or place-based ones – essentially, thinking globally but acting locally. Methodology and ethics, rather than geography, have defined the field.

What is remembered and why is vitally important in oral history. Meaning and memory can be found in the words spoken, but also in the form and structure of the oral narratives as well as the voice and body. People’s relationship to their own stories – where they linger and what they skip over, helps us understand the logic of what we are hearing. The life story approach differs from traditional testimony in several important respects. First, testimony involves an eye-witness report on an event or a moment in time. Holocaust survivors, for example, are asked to answer what, when, who, and where.[7] Their recorded interviews typically begin and end in the violence perpetrated. A life story approach, by contrast, finds meaning in the context of a life lived; the “before” and the “after” are therefore vitally important; it also puts memory front and centre.[8] This expanded frame tells us more about what was lost and how this event shaped their subsequent lives – the silences, absences, activism and memories. A life story, once told, is itself an act of synthesis. Accordingly, historical synthesis need not be tied to the nation.

As a community of practice, oral historians emphasize process over product (or subject matter); and reflexivity over confident assertion. As with First Nations history, research ethics is at the core of our conversation.[9] Oral history is also an interdisciplinary field of inquiry, where community-university collaboration is becoming the norm. Certainly, our community of oral historians at Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling provides ample evidence of this broad appeal. Our affiliated members include faculty and graduate students from fifteen academic departments. There are also more than 40 community groups and artists affiliated with the Centre, engaging with the past in a diversity of ways. There are installation and performance-based artists, film-makers, historical societies, museums, immigrant groups, school associations, activists of various stripes, and larger institutions like Parks Canada. This diversity has spilled over into our teaching, with non-history majors regularly filling half the seats in the oral history seminar. In 2010-11, we are offering a new seminar in “Oral History and Performance” that is co-taught by faculty in History and Theatre.

Over time, I have come to realize that there is no ideal “location” for the historical researcher. In our Montreal Life Stories project, a five-year Community-University Research Alliance that is exploring the life stories of Montréalais displaced by war and genocide, we have team members interviewing parents, grandparents, other community members, people from outside their community, and so on. Each location leads to a different kind of conversation – not better, not worse: just different. There is methodological strength in this kind of diversity. The outcomes of this shared conversation also range from radio programs to digital stories, from theatre performances to memoryscape audio tours, and so on. Scholarly publication is a key aspect of this output, but only part.[10]

So let’s return to the question of synthesis. One of the best examples of an alternative synthesis, drawn from oral sources, is Daniel James’ path-breaking book Dona Maria’s Story.[11] At one level, it is a book about a working-class woman in Argentina who was an early trade unionist and a Peronist. At another level, it is about the promise and price of Peronist Argentina. In Dona Maria’s story, then, we find Argentina in microcosm. Of course, this is her synthesis and it is highly subjective. But this is precisely what makes it so interesting.

In our effort to understand the past, we tend to place our evidence into nicely labelled boxes. We impose order on disorder, teasing out meaning from our sources. As an oral historian, I find it equally important to understand how people define themselves and those around them. How would they organize the past and label those boxes? How would they frame the story being told? This approach to history-writing, “knowing with” rather than simply “knowing about”, places the relationship between the past and present as well as that between the researcher and researched at the centre of our analysis. Historical synthesis need not be limited to what we know about the past, but creatively engage with our subjective relationships to that past. The result is a much more personal historical writing than we are used to; one that is much more likely to cross disciplinary boundaries and even traverse community-university frontiers.

[1] Alessandro Portelli, “What Makes Oral History Different?” reprinted in Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1991).

[2] Alistair Thomson, “Four Paradigm Transformations in Oral History,” Oral History Review 34, 1 (2007): 49-70. For the Canadian context, see: Steven High, “Sharing Authority in the Writing of Canadian History: The Case of Oral History,” in Christopher Dummitt and Michael Dawson, eds. Contesting Clio’s Craft (London: Institute for the Americas, 2009), and Denyse Baillargeon, “Histoire orale et histoire des femmes: Itinéraries et points de rencontre,” Recherches Féministes 6, 1 (1993): 53-68.

[3] Collaboration in oral history, new media and the arts is the focus of a special issue of the Journal of Canadian Studies 43, 1 (Hiver 2009). One of the best reflections on personalized scholarship can be found in Stacey Zembrzycki, “Sharing Authority with Baba,” Journal of Canadian Studies 43, 1 (Hiver 2009): 219-238. Another useful source is K.T. Corbettt and H.S. Miller, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry,” The Public Historian 28, 1 (Winter 2006): 15-38.

[4] The 2008 workshop at Carleton University has resulted in the publication of James Opp and John C. Walsh, eds. Placing Memory and Remembering Place in Canada (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010). Adele Perry and Karen Dubinsky’s 2009 workshop on transnational approaches to Canadian history will also result in a publication. For more on place as historical concept, see: Doreen Massey, “Places and their Pasts,” History Workshop Journal 39 (1995): 182-192; Toby Butler, “Memoryscape: How Audio Walks Can Deepen Our Sense of Place by Integrating Art, Oral History and Cultural Geography,” Geography Compass 1, 3 (2007): 360-72; and Joy Parr, Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments and the Everyday, 1953-2003 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2009).

[5] Ian McKay, “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaisance of Canadian History,” Canadian Historical Review 81, 4 (December 2000): 617-45.

[6] Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, eds., The Oral History Reader (Second Edition) (New York, Routledge, 1998).

[7] Henry Greenspan and Sidney Bolkosky, “When is an Interview an Interview? Notes from Listening to Holocaust Survivors,” Poetics Today 27, 2 (Summer 2006), 431-449; and Tony Kushner, “Holocaust Testimony, Ethics, and the Problem of Representation,” Poetics Today 27, 2 (Summer 2006): 275-295.

[8] Three books that are particularly impressive in this regard are: Julie Cruikshank, Life Lived as a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders (Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 1990); Maurizio Catani and Suzanne Mazé, Tante Suzanne: une histoire de vie sociale (Paris, Librarie des Méridiens, 1982); and Liisa H. Malkki, Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory and National Cosmology Among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995).

[9] Ethical considerations permeate the scholarship in the field. See, for example: Valerie Yow, “‘Do I Like Them Too Much?’: Effects of the Oral History Interview on the Interviewer and Vice-versa,” Oral History Review 24, 1 (1997): 55-79; Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki, “Only Human: A Reflection on the Ethical and Methodological Challenges of Working with ‘Difficult’ Stories” Oral History Review 37, 2 (Summer 2010); and, Lenora Ledwon, “Native American Life Stories and ‘Authorship’: Legal and Ethical Issues,” American Indian Quarterly 21, 4 (1997): 579-93. For the legal issues involved in doing oral history in Canada, see: Jill Jarvis-Tonus, “Legal Issues Regarding Oral Histories,” Canadian Oral History Journal 12 (1992): 18-24.

[10] The intersections between oral history, new media and the arts are explored in: Steven High, “Telling Stories: Oral History and New Media,” Oral History (Spring 2010); Toby Butler and G. Miller, “Linked: A Landmark in Sound, a Public Walk of Art,” Cultural Geographies 12, 1 (2005): 77-88; Rina Benmayor, “Digital Storytelling as Signature Pedagogy for the New Humanities,” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 7 (2008): 188-204; Jane Ricketts Hein, James Evans, Phil Jones, “Mobile Methodologies: Theory, Technology and Practice,” Geography Compass 2 (2008): 1266-1285. Nonetheless, most oral historians continue to author in text rather than in sound: Michael Frisch, “Three Dimensions and More: Oral History Beyond the Paradoxes of Method,” in Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy, eds. Handbook of Emergent Methods (Guildford Press, 2008), 222.

[11] Daniel James, Dona Maria’s Story: Life, History, Memory and Political Identity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).

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What Can “Oral History” Teach Us? by Steven High is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Canada License.

By David Webster, Assistant Professor of International Studies, University of Regina


The Indonesian state’s narrative
The Papuan nationalist narrative
The clash of narratives and the need for dialogue
Image Gallery


After the resolution of the Aceh dispute and the independence of East Timor, Indonesia’s most serious conflict is in Papua (formerly Irian Jaya). One major stumbling block to conflict resolution is the clash of historical narratives. Papuan nationalists claim their land was “already sovereign” from the 1960s and that the Indonesian state and military have denied them the right to self-determination. The Indonesian official narrative argues that Papua exercised its right to self-determination along with the rest of Indonesia in 1945. Conflict resolution in Papua will require a dialogue between the two historical narratives in order to create a space for understanding of the other side’s case. This paper reviews each side’s narrative of the conflict’s history, using documents published by each, and assesses the clashing historical understandings.


“Indonesia’s secret war,” one writer has called it.[1] From the interior of Asia’s largest remaining rainforest, lightly-armed guerillas fight back against the army of the world’s fourth-largest country, with thousands killed in a long-running insurgency. There are no firm numbers on the death toll, but advocates of Papuan independence have pegged it at a 100,000.[2] Papuan nationalist forces are pitted against an Indonesian army that sees itself as the guardian of a near-sacred national unity. Today the conflict has mostly shifted to the political arena, but smaller-scale violence still flares suddenly – a clash between Papuan “tribal” people and Indonesian settlers; an army helicopter reportedly sent plummeting to earth; an independence leader killed by soldiers. The conflict still endures after 40 years.

Part of the problem for observers is that there are as many names as there are sides to the conflict. The colonial name was West New Guinea or Netherlands New Guinea. Indonesians demanding the colony be handed over to them called it West Irian. Then for many years it became the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya. Nationalists seeking an independent state referred to it as West Papua. In a move to conciliate rising pro-independence sentiment in 2000, the Indonesian government agreed to rename the province as Papua. Just to add confusion, the western third of the province was snipped away with questionable legality to form a new province officially called West Papua to distinguish it from the rest of the island – still called Papua.

This territory was part of the Netherlands East Indies. In 1945, Indonesian nationalists declared the Indies independent under the new name, Indonesia. Four years of war and diplomacy led to Dutch recognition of that independence in 1949, but the Netherlands kept control of its New Guinea colony. Since Indonesia also claimed the territory, that meant confrontation between the two governments. The Dutch began preparations for an independent Papuan state. Meanwhile, Indonesia under its founding president, Sukarno, began to prepare for a military invasion. To prevent that, the United States under President John F. Kennedy intervened to mediate a resolution to the dispute, and the territory was transferred in stages to Indonesia in 1962-63. Indonesian rule intensified after General Suharto replaced Sukarno as president in the mid-1960s. The handover was formalized in an “act of free choice” organized by Indonesian authorities and endorsed by the United Nations in 1969, in which 1,022 carefully picked electors delivered an unopposed verdict in favour of integration. An independence movement continued and indeed built up force under Indonesian rule. After the Suharto regime was replaced by democratic government in 1998, Papuan nationalism came out of the forests and into the open, with renewed vocal calls for independence. Although Indonesian authorities were forced to accept an independent East Timor after 1999, and inked a peace deal with separatist fighters in Aceh province in 2005, they have maintained a harder line against independence sentiment in Papua.

Indonesian and Papuan nationalists deploy very different versions of this history. The two clashing historical narratives are not simply different ways of representing the past. The different perceptions of the past are a root cause that helps to constitute the current conflict. Historical dialogue is needed if there is to be any prospect of resolving the conflict, since the perception of “sovereignty-denied” is itself a root cause of Papuan nationalist feeling and aspirations. Historians have grappled with issues of memory and history, and the way memories of colonial rule have shaped post-colonial events.[3] The issues are thornier still when, as in the Papua case, colonization and decolonization were not widely separated in time.

Conflicting narratives are rooted chronologically, and also mapped spatially. The Papua conflict found its way into one of the most famous books on nationalism, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983). Anderson briefly analyzed it through competing maps employed by the two sides, with borders enclosing a space stripped of its contents – cities, rivers, even neighbouring countries – allowing the map to become a logo, “a powerful emblem for the anticolonial nationalisms being born.” Anderson was drawing on the work of Thongchai Winichakul, who has argued that the map and mapping technologies led to the imagining of a Thai state based upon its “geo-body.”[4] Nationalist movements deployed these maps internationally, as a very deliberate diplomatic strategy, just as they each built up a competing story of the territory’s history. Different visions of space and time became tools in the diplomatic arsenals of two competing nationalist movements. They remain so today, in ways that continue to fuel conflict.

The Indonesian state’s narrative

The Indonesian nationalist narrative about Papua is a story of dispossession, Dutch colonialism and the ultimate victory of Indonesian anti-colonial struggle. The territory entered the Indonesian nationalist imagination as “the martyr place of the struggle for independence,” in the words of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president.[5] The reason was the Tanah Merah (Digul) prison camp, so remote and inhospitable that it required no walls to contain its prisoners: the landscape of Papua itself was the prison. The area had no strategic importance, but it mattered enough in the imagination to be worth an attack line in the military plan for conquering Dutch New Guinea (Figure 1).

The Dutch decision to cling to “Netherlands New Guinea” rather than allow it to become part of Indonesia in 1949 was seen by all stripes of Indonesian nationalism as a betrayal. One government publication called Dutch New Guinea “a pistol pointing at Indonesia’s chest.”[6] While Sukarno’s Indonesia was building a nationalism oriented to a glorious future global role, it also looked back to a glorious past, which was then equated on maps with the extent of Indonesian territory. This historical narrative speaks of one united Indonesian nation stretching back indefinitely in time. In one version, Indonesia is defined as the successor to medieval empires like the 14th century Majapahit. In fact the existence of Majapahit was only rediscovered some hundred years ago when researchers found an ancient poem listing its reach. Inspired by the work of nationalist historian Mohammad Yamin, many nationalists read Indonesia back in time to equate with the territories of the Majapahit empire as laid out in this poem, and these territories were said to include Papua (Figure 2).

Revived memories of Majapahit helped to build support both for the idea of Indonesia as a nation succeeding to ancient greatness, and for the Indonesian claim to Papua: the mental map of Majaphait was layered on top of the physical map of Indonesia and made to conform. Even those who did not look back to ancient glories defined the new Indonesia as simply the successor state to the Netherlands East Indies, and thus entitled to all the territories that belonged to the Dutch. The map began to define the identity of the people. A single, indivisible Indonesian nation is said to have exercised its right to self-determination on August 17, 1945, when Sukarno declared the independence of the Republic. Indonesian unity was threatened by the treacherous Dutch, who finally accepted Indonesia’s independence in 1949 but kept Netherlands New Guinea as a colony.

The campaign to complete the decolonization of the whole East Indies served as a mobilizing focus to unite the new Indonesian state. The unity of Indonesia, including Papua, was assumed and asserted through maps that showed Papua as simply an undisputed part of Indonesia. A school atlas of the 1950s, for instance, made it clear that Papua lay unambiguously within the Indonesian national space while British-controlled Borneo and Portuguese-controlled East Timor lay entirely outside (Figure 3).  Government and non-government groups produced a vast array of books and pamphlets to back the campaign to regain the last bit of Dutch colonial debris (Figure 4). Much the same style of pamphlet can be used today (Figure 5). The campaign was formalized in President Sukarno’s Threefold Command of the People (known as Trikora), a 1961 speech that (the story goes) mobilized the whole people to raise the Indonesian flag in Papua. The subsequent reunification ended what foreign minister Subandrio called “the amputation which the Dutch are performing on our national body.”[7]

These themes developed in the 1950s and 60s echoed in Indonesian government rhetoric on Papua thereafter. The use of history to build unity peaked under Suharto. Centralizing nationalist historiographies left little space for local tellings: “The history classroom functioned to suppress knowledge of difference,” as Jean Taylor has written. The key problem, in the words of historian Asvi Warman Adam, is that “Indonesian history was written uniformly by men in uniform.”[8] High-school history texts of the 1980s recounted the Papua struggle as a tale of diplomacy failing, leading to the need for confrontation to end colonialism – a campaign drawing on the whole-hearted support of the entire Indonesian people. Dutch efforts to stop this had been futile, doomed from the start.[9]

So the 1969 “act of free choice” was less referendum – a word never used – than a display of respect for legal norms, designed for international consumption. There was no prospect, in Indonesian rhetoric, that Papuans would be permitted to opt for anything other than integration. The only reason that the act was being held, officials said, was to show that Indonesia kept its treaty promises. General Suharto, who had by this point replaced Sukarno as president, announced that the act “in no way mean[s] that we shall sacrifice that population [or that] we shall abandon the fruits of our struggle for the liberation of West Irian.”[10] The map of one united Indonesia, from Sabang to Merauke, could be deployed as a powerful logo. (Figure 6). Local uprisings could be dismissed as “a Dutch time bomb” rather than an expression of local feeling. Indonesian authorities instead offered economic development as a way to win local loyalty. Foreign minister Subandrio spoke of the need to “get Papuans down from the trees, even if we have to drag them down.”[11] Two images from a book produced in the 1980s for West Irian campaign veterans underline the themes here. In one, an Indonesian soldier puts up posters in 1962 depicting anti-Indonesian demonstrations as the work of colonial puppet-masters, with half-naked Papuans forced to protest (Figure 7). Papuan agency was removed. Indeed, it was rendered inconceivable by the terms of the discourse. The West Irian struggle, a piece of nationalist historiography, erased the people from their story. The land and the struggle were what mattered.

The Papuan nationalist narrative

The Papuan nationalist version of history, by contrast, argues that justice has been denied and this confers a moral right to self-determination. It holds that the right of self-determination can only be exercised by the Papuan people. And it does that by defining Papuans on ethnic and racial lines. Instead of being Indonesians, they are actually Melanesians. This story uses ideas of race and history to define a Papuan identity, and then claims that this identity group deserves its own state. Instead of being decolonized, the narrative sees Papua as being recolonized by Indonesia. It has its own mental maps. Indonesian images abound showing the New Guinea border as if there was nothing to the east of it – as if it were the edge of the world, almost. Papuan nationalist images use the map to ignore Indonesia and locate their country in a Pacific geographical and a Melanesian ethnic context, rather than in Asia.[12]

The formative period of this narrative was the time when Papua had a separate existence from Indonesia, as a separate Dutch colony between 1949 and 1962. This is when Papuan nationalism emerged among the educated elite, who were able to mobilize larger and larger numbers under a perceived Papuan identity. They also tried to deploy this new identity as an international diplomatic tool. A key text here is a pamphlet entitled Voice of the Negroids of the Pacific to the Negroids Throughout the World, a document produced by Papuan nationalist leaders in 1961. This short publication, as its title makes clear, aimed at a global pan-African audience and made a bid to be placed among the African colonies gaining their independence around this time. It declared: “Many, many times you have heard about us from the Dutch and the Indonesians. Now we will take the floor ourselves. We are living in the Pacific, our people are called Papuans, our ethnic origin is the Negroid Race…. We do not want to be slaves any more.”[13]

The Papuan nationalist narrative stresses dates like December 1, 1961, when the Papuan flag was inaugurated. In 1999, the new Papuan National Congress issued a declaration saying: “The Papuan people have been sovereign as a people and as a state since December 1, 1961.”[14] Papua was never formally independent. Those seeking independence claimed a new sovereignty and read that back in time to imply that they were simply reclaiming a sovereignty earlier – and unjustly – denied them. In this version, Indonesian rule is invalid because it did not take into account the views of the people in Papua itself. There is a widespread perception that Papuans were robbed of their right to self-determination. In the words of one human rights worker: “There is the problem of the annexation of Papua. The people believe it was not fair. That is the source of the problems between the people and the Indonesian government, why conflict continues to happen.” Indonesia in this version is seen as an alien invader; the international community as having sold Papua against the will of its people. This version does not see the fact that a thousand-odd electors opted unanimously to join Indonesia in 1969 as proof that the Papuans wanted to be re-united with Indonesia, as the official Indonesian narrative does. Instead, it uses the episode as proof that the so-called “act of free choice” they had been promised was actually an “act of no choice.” The electors were not joyfully embracing Indonesian unity; they were forced at gunpoint to accept a new colonial ruler.

Textual representations of Papuan nationalism during the Suharto years, when the territory was a closed “military operations zone,” could only come from exiled nationalists. This group continued to stress themes of race and difference from Indonesia, to paint Indonesian rule as straightforward colonialism (or neo-colonialism), and to demand independence on the grounds that Papuans formed a nation. Stronger still was the theme of betrayal by the West, of self-determination denied. As one exile publication, the West Papua Observer, editorialized: “Before 1963 and until 1969 the Western countries told us fairy tales about their genuine wish to guide and help the West-Papuans to the day when they would become an independent nation. It proved that the West had fooled and unforgivably disappointed the West-Papuans. Now the West-Papuans have taken their fate in their own hands. Be careful in taking your stance toward our cause this time. Do not once again betray us. We will never accept it.”[15]

This theme of self-determination denied persists, and continues to lie at the root of conflict. The idea of racial difference between Melanesian Papuans and Indonesians also persists. This serves Papuan nationalism as a strong marker of identity, but at the same time affects outside images of Papuans. During the 1960s struggle between Indonesia and Papuan nationalists for global support, the Papuan attempt to identify with Africa also triggered Western images of primitivism, Congo-style internal conflict, and economic backwardness. A photo book entitled The Headhunters of Papua made the rounds in the White House, evoking racialized associations with the Stone Age and even with be-feathered North American Indians (to use the terminology of the time). Given these mental maps of Stone Age primitivism, it is not surprising that American perceptions were shot through with racially-derived ideas that Papuans were not ready for independence, and in fact never could be. They were a peripheral people, living in an earlier time. It was as if they were the Indians, who would inevitably be displaced by an expanding Indonesian new frontier. Similar racialized imagery still informs Western policy, which has exerted less pressure on Jakarta for peace with the “primitive” Papuan self-determination movement than it did for peace with the “Islamist” self-determination movement in Aceh. Calls by some Papuan nationalists to have US president Barack Obama “buy us back” from Indonesia by Dec. 1, 2009 as his predecessor John F. Kennedy “sold” it, are not likely to dent this imagery.[16]

The Papuan historical narrative has emerged in the gaps in the official version. Because Papua can make historical claims to independence based on the 1949-62 period, its nationalist movement regularly demands a setting-straight of the historical record (pelurusan sejarah). Only through this “straightening” can the “memory of suffering” (memoria passionis) be satisfied and peace be made possible.[17]

The clash of narratives and the need for dialogue

The Papua conflict is fuelled by a wide range of factors. Papuans feel at risk of being reduced to a minority in their own homeland as more and more Indonesian settlers arrive and dominate local economies. There are complaints that a resource-rich land is looted to feed the national treasury, while poverty and AIDS among Papuans are well above the national average. Human rights violations and cultural clashes continue to enflame tensions. Yet efforts to resolve the conflict through such measures as more economic development or remitting a greater share of resource wealth remitted locally have proved futile. Conflict also continues for overlooked emotive reasons, partly because the historical facts are so disputed.

Historical narratives are not just classroom stories. They can be used to justify acts of violence. Indonesian security forces continue to tag any dissident as a “separatist” and to treat that label as sufficient reason for repressive tactics. A 2005 protest in Papua demanded the end to state violence committed against people “merely because they have a different understanding of history.”[18] We often think of colonization, decolonization, and sometimes recolonization, as processes that happen in sequence. In the Papuan case, all three things were happening at once, as simultaneous linked processes. The Dutch did not start establishing a presence on the Papuan coasts until Indonesia was already on the path towards claiming independence. As Indonesia was decolonizing itself, the Dutch were colonizing much of Papua for the first time. Even after they began a decolonization process for Papua, much of the heavily-populated interior was still unknown to Dutch or Indonesian authorities. Indonesia’s success in adding Papua to its territory marked the completion of decolonization for the Indonesians, but the beginning of recolonization for Papuan elites who had thought they were about to receive their independence. On that level, it is decolonization that is the goal of the Papuan nationalist movement. This movement claims the support of the vast majority of the indigenous population (and even a few Indonesian settlers) and points to a grassroots selection process of unofficial “representatives of the Papuan nation” as evidence. In 1969, American ambassador to Indonesia Francis Galbraith estimated that up to 85-90% of Papuans, given a free choice, would have opted for independence. Anecdotal evidence suggests widespread support for independence persists, especially when couched as “the freedom option” (merdeka) as opposed to the “autonomy option” (otonomi). As long as Papuan nationalist parties are effectively barred from running in national or provincial elections, however, no statistical figures on support for independence are likely to be available.[19]

The democratic governments that emerged in Indonesia after the fall of President Suharto in 1998 offered special autonomy for Papua, a move with potential to resolve the conflict. In avoiding the symbolic aspects and refusing to engage in a dialogue of historical narratives, however, it failed to do so. Jakarta granted a greater share of natural resource revenues and political autonomy, but rejected the symbolic claims and thus ignored the emotive force behind calls for independence. The issue was still framed in terms of uneven economic development, so the solution remained development-oriented. The Papuan call for historical dialogue, in the final autonomy package, became a commission empowered to “provide clarification of Papua’s history in order to strengthen the people’s unity in the State of the Republic of Indonesia.”[20] Unity, in other words, remained sacred. In the words of one pamphlet from Indonesia’s mission to the United Nations: “Indonesia has consistently opposed the right of self-determination on the ground that it would challenge the struggle for, and the Proclamation of[,] Indonesia’s Independence[,] which already constituted the exercise of such a right for all the people of Indonesia.”[21] Nor does countervailing Papuan-nationalist contempt for the Indonesian national project advance calls for dialogue. Each side continues to view the other’s narrative as false at its core. Other tensions, over land, uneven development, and so on, contribute to conflict. Yet no proposed solution grounded in these disputes has been able to move the conflict closer to resolution. Clashing historical understandings remain one of the major barriers to conflict resolution.

The clashing narratives, for instance, wrecked any prospect that a return visit to Papua by Nicolaas Jouwe in March 2009 could lead to a peace dialogue. Jouwe was the designer of the Papuan flag, the main author of 1960s nationalist texts, a bitter enemy of Indonesian rule, yet he agreed to return for the first time since 1963. More importantly, he did so largely on Indonesian government terms, traveling first to accept an invitation to meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. “Even if we have to talk a thousand times, it is better than violence,” Jouwe told reporters. Potentially, this was a breakthrough that could see the “father of Papua” return and break bread with those who had destroyed his dream of a country. Certainly, Indonesian officials designed the visit to show a prominent historical figure endorsing integration. Jouwe instead told reporters that “Indonesia remains our big neighbor.” At a press conference where Indonesian officials had hoped Jouwe would remove his Papuan flag lapel pin in favour of an Indonesian flag emblem, Jouwe refused, instead repeating the need for a dialogue of equals. The “pincident” illustrated very different understandings by the two sides, with the differences focusing on symbols and memory.

In the dialogue that achieved a peace deal in Aceh, both sides agreed to lay aside their historical grievances and start fresh. Such an approach is not possible in Papua, where the perception of historical betrayal fuels nationalist sentiment. An acknowledgement of historical grievances will have to be included in any dialogue, as a key starting point, or else dialogue will ignore causes of conflict – a point accepted in a recent “Papua Road map” from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), but not as yet by the Indonesian government. As road map coordinating author Muridan Widodo wrote recently: “History should not be treated as a fixed position involving absolute truth and determining collective identity. Rather, history should be treated as a negotiable construction involving acceptance and compromise, and providing benefits for both parties rather than being the monopoly of just one side. Otherwise, history in Papua will perpetuate an endless cycle of violence.”[22] Perceptions of the past often inform conflict. A dialogue in which clashing historical narratives engage can, in turn, be an important tool in resolving conflict.

David Webster is Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of Regina.  In 2009, UBC Press published his Fire and the Full Moon: Canada and Indonesia in a Decolonizing World.

Image Gallery


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Indonesia, Permanent Mission to the United Nations. The Restoration of Irian Jaya into the Republic of Indonesia. New York, 2001.

Widjojo, Muridan S. et al. Papua Road Map: Negotiating the Past, Improving the present and Securing the Future. Jakarta: Indonesian Institute of Sciences, 2008. http://www.arts.usyd.edu.au/peace_conflict/docs/PAPUA_ROAD_MAP_Short_Eng.pdf

King, Peter. West Papua and Indonesia since Suharto: Independence, Autonomy or Chaos? Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2004.

Kivimäki, Timo. Initiating a Peace Process in Papua: Actors, Issues, Process, and the Role of the International Community. Washington: East-West Center, 2006. http://www.eastwestcenter.org/publications/search-for-publications/browse-alphabetic-list-of-titles/?class_call=view&pub_ID=2042

Saltford, John. The United Nations and the Indonesian Take-over of West Papua 1962-1969. London: Routledge-Curzon, 2002.

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Webster, David. “Regimes in Motion: The Kennedy Administration and Indonesia’s New Frontier, 1960-1962,” Diplomatic History 33 no. 1 (Jan. 2009): 95-128. http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/121614144/HTMLSTART

West Papua Report, published monthly by the West Papua Advocacy Team. Available through http://etan.org/issues/wpapua/default.htm


[1] Robin Osborne, Indonesia’s Secret War (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1985).

[2] This estimate, used by activists for some years, appears in such publications as Carmel Budiardjo and Liem Soei Liong (London: TAPOL, 1988), which uses 100,000 as a low-range estimate (p. viii). Papua activist groups now consistently use a figure of 100,000 in their reports. See for instance “Why the Indonesian Occupation of West Papua Constitutes Genocide,” West Papua Action Network, http://www.westpapua.ca/?q=node/69. Whether the case amounts to genocide is the topic of “Indonesian Human Rights Abuses in West Papua: Application of the Law of Genocide to the History of Indonesian Control,” Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School, 2004, http://www.law.yale.edu/documents/pdf/Intellectual_Life/West_Papua_final_report.pdf.

[3] See for instance John Torpey, ed., Politics and the Past (Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, revised edition (London: Verso, 1991), 175-8; Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994).

[5] Sukarno interview, Report on Indonesia, Nov. 1957-Jan. 1958, 21.

[6] Subversive Activities in Indonesia: The Jungschleager and Schmidt Affairs (Jakarta: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, n.d. [1957]), 76.

[7] Subandrio, An Opening Address at the UN Political Committee, on November 20, 1957 (Jakarta: Ministry of Information), 8.

[8] Jean Gelman Taylor, Indonesia: Peoples and Histories (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 362; Adam cited in Armando Siahaan, “Setting History Straight,” Jakarta Globe, 30 April 2009. http://lists.topica.com/lists/indonesia-act@igc.topica.com/read/message.html?sort=d&mid=813476589

[9] Sejarah Nasional, jilid 3 untuk SMA [National History for upper-level high schools] (Jakarta: Departamen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, 1981), 157-161.

[10] “Papuans at U.N. Score Indonesia,” New York Times, Oct. 20, 1968.

[11] Cited in Peter Hastings, “Double Dutch and Indons,” in R.J. May & Hank Nelson, eds., Melanesia: Beyond Diversity (Canberra: ANU Research School of Pacific Studies, 1982), 159.

[12] For instance the map on the West Papua Niugini/Irian Jaya home page at http://www.converge.org.nz/wpapua/

[13] Voice of the Negroids of the Pacific to the Negroids Throughout the World (Hollandia, 1961).

[14] “Bangsa Papua telah berdaulat sebagai sebuah bangsa dan negara sejak 1 Desember 1961.” Second Papuan Congress resolution, 4 June 2000. The official English version adopts the name West Papua for international consumption: “The People of West Papua has been Independent as a Sovereign Nation and State since 1 December 1961.”

[15] “Like Thorn in Flesh is Free Papua Movement to Indonesian Colonial Government,” West Papua Onserver 3 #2 (Dec. 1977-Jan. 1978), 2.

[16] E-mail circular from Moses Werror, “chairman” of the OPM, 18 April 2009.

[17] Memoria Passionis is the title of an annual series of human rights reports from the Catholic diocese of Jayapura, accessible from http://www.hampapua.org/skp/index2.html

[18] Dewan Adat Papua protest demands, 12 Aug. 2005.

[19] Octovianus Mote, “West Papua’s National Awakening,” Tok Blong Pasifik 55 no. 2 (Oct. 2001): 3-5, http://www.pacificpeoplespartnership.org/media/TBP.Fall01.pdf; US Embassy Jakarta airgram to Dept. of State, 9 July 1969, online copy posted by National Security Archive, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB128/29.%20Airgram%20A-278%20from%20Jakarta%20to%20State%20Department,%20July%209,%201969.pdf. Indonesian election law requires parties to have representation in multiple provinces in order to register, with the exception of Aceh province, where former separatists have been permitted to run and have won elections.

[20] Sekretariat Keadilan dan Perdamaian, Keuskupan Jayapura, Catatan Perkembangan Terkini di Papua : Otonomi Khusus, proses dan hasil akhirnya [Social-Political note on recent developments in Papua: the special autonomy process and final results] (Jayapura, 2001).

[21] The Restoration of Irian Jaya into the Republic of Indonesia (New York: Permament Mission of the Republic of Indonesia to the United Nations, 2001), p. 38.

[22] Muridan S. Widodo, “Negotiating the Past and Looking to the Future,” Inside Indonesia no. 98 (Oct.-Dec. 2009). http://insideindonesia.org/content/view/1269/47/
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