Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Analysts of US imperialism describe how interlocking military, financial, and ideological operations constrain political possibilities around the world. American missionaries exercise ideological influence among many Christian populations in peripheries of large global South countries. This paper analyzes the authority of US missionaries in the Central Highlands of Indonesia’s easternmost province of Papua, a contested territory also called West Papua. Papua’s turbulent history is entangled with US anti-communism and extractive capital. In the 1960s, the US pressured the Dutch to cede Papua to Indonesia to defuse an anti-imperial war in the Pacific; then, after Suharto’s takeover in Jakarta, US mining company Freeport established in Papua what is now the world’s largest gold and copper mine. More recently, conflict intensified in the wake of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, as Indonesia’s industrial collapse sent growing extractive investments and economic migration to Papua. Today, Protestant lay missionaries manage development and education programs in a handful of districts in the Central Highlands—site of the largest concentration of indigenous population, and heartland of the independence movement. This paper draws on ethnographic research at an education installation run by an American mission family in cooperation with one of Papua’s major evangelical churches. It describes practices of training, socializing, and reporting through which missionaries scrutinize and criticize indigenous patterns of livelihood, kinship, and authority. It argues that US missionaries enact a moral scrutiny that exacerbates the fragmentation of regional politics, obscures the extractive force of US imperialism, and monitors and disciplines indigenous responses to dispossession.