I come into this episode looking forward to it as I know absolutely nothing about Michael Rockefeller! I even resisted the urge to Google his name when I saw the upcoming episode title.
We begin with some footage of the Asmat people of New Guinea. These mysterious people drew the attention of Michael Rockefeller who was the son of New York Governor and recent (at the time of airing in 1978) Vice President of the United States, Nelson Rockefeller.
Queue the stock footage of primitive people dancing and singing. Nimoy implies their lives are filled with violence and superstition. We learn that Michael Rockefeller was intrigued by these people and traveled to New Guinea to study them in 1961.
Nimoy gives us some background on Michael. He graduated from Harvard with Honors. We are told he loved traveled and people. Just six months after graduation he signed on to an archaeological expediton to New Guinea to study a tribe known as the "Dani".
Rockefeller kept a journal and wrote about how the Asmat region fascinated him. He was intrigued by the simple way of life that had remained unchanged for centuries. Michael carefully documented Asmat life and they include a few of his shots like this one.
Its clear that he admired and respected the people from these photos. Asmat culture depends almost completely on trees for everything, and believe they are descended from trees. They believe that spirits reside in trees. We see some footage of the Asmat harvest a mangrove tree and how they rub mud on it to cleanse of evil spirits. This is followed by intricate carving. Some time is spent telling about the Asmat culture and how the carving plays a role in their beliefs. We hear more from Rockefeller's journal and how deeply interested he was in these carvings. He actually began collecting some for himself. For weeks Rockefeller traveled in the region often with missionaries or other anthropologists. Over time, he amassed many carvings and dreamed of an exhibit of the art.
Rockefeller and Dutch anthropologist Rene Wassing were together on a trip to get carvings that Rockefeller had already bartered for. He had been warned of dangerous currents that arrive suddenly. Apparently his boat capsized and the natives swam for help while he and Wassing clung all night to the boat. Fearing the Natives weren't coming back, Rockefeller swam for help himself. The Natives made it to a village and the Dutch Government launched a rescue mission. Nimoy makes the point that the area was littered with dangerous animals. Miraculously, they found Wassing and the capsized boat after a day of searching.
Within weeks rumors grew that perhaps Michael was still alive in the jungle. Seven years after his disappearance a man named Milt Machlin launched an investigation into the disappearance.
Trobriand Islands. Apparently Machlin himself became intrigued and interested in the Natives of New Guinea. He spoke with a local Chief who gave him direction to the island where supposedly Rockefeller had been seen. It was a long journey, but Machlin eventually found the island which he described as "paradise". But the island was eerie, not many signs of any life. Machlin spotted a make shift shelter on the island that had been abandoned. Machlin was discouraged and gave up his search. The fate of Rockefeller was still a mystery, but was this Donahue figure lying? Machlin traced down endless leads over two months. He finally met a Dutch missionary who claimed that he heard Rockefeller had been captured and killed by Natives. Father Cornelius Van Kessel mentioned a War Chief of the Asmat called Ajam. The current Chief of the Asmat was interviewed by "In Search Of... " as he remembered Rockefeller.
"Before Michael Rockefeller traveled to New Guinea he spoke of doing something romantic and adventurous at a time when frontiers, in a real sense of the word, were disappearing. Today his tragic loss is underscored by the accelerating demise of the Asmat people and their culture."
I like this episode a lot. It wasn't really creepy, but since I knew nothing about it I found it very interesting. I'm not sure what to make of this Milt Machlin or this guy "Donahue", but I was very interested in Rockefeller and sad that he disappeared. I decided to do a little outside research after watching. According to the book Rocky Goes West by Paul Toohey, Rockefeller's mother hired a private investigator to go back to New Guinea. Supposedly he found the skulls of the only three white men ever killed by the tribe and brought them back to show the family. If it was proven one was Rockefeller or not, the family has never commented. There was another book just published in 2014, Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman. According to Hoffman, he talked with Asmat people who say Rockefeller was killed in retaliation for an incident in 1958 in which Asmat men were killed in a confrontation with Dutch travelers. As unsatisfying as this is, it may prove to be the final word on Michael Rockefeller. Good episode on an interesting topic!
You can watch this episode "Michael Rockefeller" below.