Saturday, July 11, 2020

MY LIFE WITH THE HEADHUNTERS


Jane Dolinger wasn't the only female adventurer during the 1950's (see previous WOM post HERE). Wyn Sargent traveled to far-off places as well. She spent a great deal of time in New Guinea where she ended up acting as a mediator between several warring tribes. She managed this by marrying one of chiefs!

These tribes were known to be head-hunters and cannibals and it is a wonder that she accomplished what she did. She eventually was forced out of the country by the Indonesian government who claimed that she married only to obtain material on primitive sex practices! Miss Sargent vehemently denied this and said it was for political reasons. The latter seems more likely.

These pages are from STAG magazine (August 1974) and are an excerpt from Sargent's book, My Life With the Headhunters. Following is an article about her "wedding" in the NEW YORK TIMES and a book review from KIRKUS REVIEWS.














She Tells Why She Married a Tribal Chief
By Judy Klemesrud | Dec. 2, 1974 | New York Times

Wyn Sargent, one of the better known brides of 1973, came to town the other day, One reason, she said, was to tell her side about her much publicized marriage to the chief of a cannibal tribe in West Irian, formerly Netherlands New Guinea.

The 47‐year‐old California photojournalist had resisted talking about her marriage in the past, she said, “because it just didn't seem worth the denials I'd have to make.” Now, with a book completed about her experiences, she has different ideas.

“The marriage was performed solely for one reason —to bring three savage warring tribes together, in peace and harmony,” Miss Sargent said, as she sat on the bed in her Americana Hotel suite.

Her marriage to Obaharok, one of the most powerful of the Dani chiefs in West Irian, was short‐lived: A few days after the ceremony, in which 25 pigs were slaughtered and 5,000 near‐naked warriors got together to celebrate, Miss Sargent was forced to leave the country by Indonesian Government officials who said she had married the Chief—who already had six wives—to get material for a book on “primitive sexual practices.”


Gives Her Side

She was also accused, she said, trying to stifle a smile, of mining uranium in West Irian, of being a spy for the United Nations and of trying to promote tribal warfare (“which is ridiculous because I'm a Quaker”).

“The real reason I was forced to leave,” the 6‐foot tall Miss Sargent insisted in her throaty, well‐modulated voice, “was because. I had taken photographs and had been outspoken about how Dani tribesmen were being beaten and tortured by Government officials.

“It's purely a racial thing,” she added. “The Dani are Negroid people, and the Indonesians don't like them for that reason; they treat them just like American whites treated the American Inilians.”

Miss Sargent, who writes of her four and a half months among the Dani in her new book, “People of the Valley” (Random House. $10) denied comments attributed to Chief Obaharok in an interview in recent issue of Paris‐Match.

The chief was quoted as saying, among other things, that at first he wouldn't have dreamed of honoring with his virility “that woman with false eyelashes who smoked long cigarettes.” What changed his mind, he said, was a promished dowry of rifles, hatchets, knives and clothing.

Miss Sargent said that while she did occasionally wear her false eyelashes in the jungle, along with lipstick and toenail polish, she did not offer to give Obaharok a dowry.

She was especially incensed at the chief's reported comment that he was impotent on their wedding night, despite the prayers of his villagers (“Make our beloved chief, so valiant by habit, draw his bow for his new wife.”)

“There was no sex between us at all,” she said sharply. “The marriage was not created for the purpose of sleeping with anyone. As l said, it was solely for the purpose of peace between three warring tribes.”

People who buy Miss Sargent's book thinking it will be filled with intimate details of Dani sexual practices are in for a disappointment; sex is virtually nonexistent in the book.

Miss Sargent, who stressed that she was not an “anthropologist” as often reported, said the Dani are not terribly interested in sex—“it's very low on their list of priorities.”

The men and women sleep in separate buildings, she said, and the women generally refuse to have more than two children because they are more interested in working in the sweet potato fields than they are in being mothers. After the first child is born, the woman generally abstains from sex with her husband for about five years, Miss Sargent said.

“This is the only culture I've ever come across where the men and women do not live together,” said Miss Sargent, who once spent three years in Borneo and described her adventures there in the 1971 book, “My Life With the Headhunters.”

“There are no feelings at all between the Dani men and women,” she explained. “You never see flirting among the teen‐agers. Romantic love simply does not exist.”

Marriage ceremonies are held every four to six years, at which time about 200 to 300 young women are married, she said. Men buy wives with pigs, she said, and the number of wives a Dani man has indicates his importance, along with the number of pigs and sweet potato fields he owns.

Her own marriage helped make “peace,” Miss Sargent said, because it brought together three rival chiefs in whose villages she had lived while studying and photographing the Dani people. It is a Dani custom, she said, that one's friends get together and celebrate on such a big occasion.


Miss Sargent said she had originally gone to West Irian at the suggestion of the then Indonesian President Suharto, who she said had been impressed with her work in Borneo, where she helped to establish a hospital and a school. She said Mr. Suharto told her at a meeting in Disneyland in 1970 that the Dani were very primitive and needed help “badly.”

Once she got there, the auburn‐haired Miss Sargent said that most of the Dani people thought that, because of the shirts, Levis and heavy boots she constantly wore, she was a man, “or at least something other than a woman.”

Did she witness any cannibalism during her stay? “No, but I talked with two men who were in a Government jail for doing it. The Dani do not eat people because they have a love for flesh; they do it mostly to humiliate an enemy.”

Miss Sargent said that after her marriage to Obaharok, wire service accounts of “the Indonesian Government's version” of the wedding were sent around the world, and that she had not been asked for her side of the story.

“It was very painful, just awful,” she said sadly. “I'm quite an old fogey morally, and I suppose that's why I felt pain when they accused me of doing primitive sexual research. The only thing that got me through my blackest hour was the words of my son, Jmy, who was quoted in a news story as saying, “My mom knows what she's doing.”

Today Miss Sargent and her 19‐year‐old son live in her native Huntington Beach, Calif., where she said she is independently wealthy with money from her family's citrus fruit business. She has been married twice in this country; her first husband died, she said, and she divorced her second husband.

At present, she said she is taking medical courses at Golden West College, a junior college in Huntington Beach, with the hopes of going back to West Irian someday and opening a medical clinic for the Dani people. She added that she was also realistic enough to know that this will probably be impossible as long as West Irian remains under Indonesian rule.

Has she heard from the Dani since her return to the United States? She smiled. “A message was smuggled out of New Guinea to me,” she said. “It said that peace prevails, and that they're waiting for me to come back. It also said that Obaharok (who ordinarily wears nothing but a penis sheath) wants a bright red shirt and a pair of long trousers. I guess there really is hope for these people.”


PEOPLE OF THE VALLEY: Life with a Cannibal Tribe in New Guinea
By Wyn Sargent | Release Date: November 19, 1974 | Kirkus Reviews

Wyn Sargent is the intrepid American photo-journalist who previously ventured into the jungle of Borneo to record the lives of the Dyak (My Life With the Headhunters, 1974). A couple of years later, in response to a personal invitation issued by Sukarno before his ouster as president of Indonesia, she went on a similar safari to the Baliem Valley of West Irian to live with the Dani, who like the Dyak, are one of the most primitive tribes in the world. War between the kains (overlords) of the various Dani villages is a part of their tradition -- or was, until Sargent arrived. ""A six-foot tall red-head in men's clothing,"" she immediately became the most sought after prize more desirable than pigs which form the basis of the economy and religious ritual. Since each village wanted Sargent -- ""Mama Wyn"" they called her -- for their very own, she took the opportunity to play Kissinger-style diplomacy among the warring factions, encouraging fraternization among the rival kains. When she wasn't Kissinger to her Stone Age charges she was Schweitzer dispensing pills and ointments for fevers, infections, etc., and obviously enjoying her Great White Mother status enormously. The problems began when Sargent began filing complaints on the maltreatment of the Dani by Indonesian officials who beat, tortured and swindled them, and kidnapped their children for Western-style education. The Indonesian officials responded by kicking her out, using the pretext of her ""marriage"" to one of the native chiefs. (According to Sargent it was strictly pro forma and celebrated to unite hostile villages, not as the government charged because she wanted to ""study"" sex among the cannibals.) Sargent has the UN to support her: it has placed Indonesia on its blacklist for gross violations of human rights. The book was written primarily to draw attention to the abuse of the Dani, and it is filled with warmth and humor. On the other hand, it is the sort of reportage that will shock academic anthropologists and officials; there is nothing detached about it; Sargent is completely involved with the Dani whom she cares for with motherly solicitude. An outspoken iconoclast, the author, despite her lack of credentials, wins your admiration.

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