Chapter Nine: Indigenous People, Ethnic Groups, and the
At the present time indigenous societies that believe it is immoral not to share
with ones kin or with those less fortunate than oneself are . . . considered
backward, for this surely hampers capital accumulation and therefore progress
as the modern world defines it.
-David Maybury-Lewis, Indigenous Peoples, Ethnic Groups, and the
Official statements frequently justify the extension of government control
over tribal populations as an effort to bring them peace, health, happiness, and other
benefits of civilization . . . But, undoubtedly, the extension of government control was
directly related to protecting the economic interests of nonindigenous peoples moving into
formerly exclusive tribal areas.
John Bodley, Victims of Progress
There is a museum exhibit in Jakarta, Indonesia, of a
Javanese wedding; the guests are arranged around the bride and groom, each dressed to
represent a different Indonesian ethnic group, of which there are hundreds. The exhibit is
reminiscent of a early nineteenth-century painting we mentioned earlier by the British
painter Sir David Wilkie, Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette of the Battle of
Waterloo,in which all the various groups that made up the British nationstate and
empireWelsh, Scottish, Irish, Black, and so onare depicted together reading of
Wellingtons victory over Napoleon. Indonesia is one of the most culturally diverse
countries in the world. It is also one of the most officially tolerant toward ethnic
diversity. Ethnic tolerance is incorporated into education programs and "hate
speech" is a crime. But it is a tolerance with definite limits. Java is the dominant
island in Indonesia, and the museum exhibit suggests, said Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
(1993:24), that minority groups are "invited" into the nation, but only as long
as they bow to Javanese standards.
One of the casualties of the expansion of the
culture of capitalism is cultural diversity. As noted in Chapter 4, one of the functions
of the nationstate is to integrate, peacefully if possible, violently if necessary,
the diverse peoples within its borders into a common culture. At best, minority cultures
are integrated into the larger culture in superficial waysdress, art, dance, music,
and food are maintained and represented as the culture itself. At worst, however, policies
of the nationstate may lead to ethnocide, the destruction of culture, or, in more
extreme instances, genocide, the destruction of a people.
The dilemma of minority groups in the modern
nationstate is particularly evident in Indonesia because it officially recognizes
and celebrates diversity but this does not stop the nationstate from systematically
destroying the culture of indigenous peoples. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, in her book In the
Realm of the Diamond Queen, described the fate of the Meratus Dyak, who subsist on swidden
agriculture and gathering and hunting, and, while relatively isolated in the Meratus
mountains, frequently trade with other groups. Their culture requires that they frequently
move to establish new garden plots. Individuals also travel to maintain political contact
with other Meratus groups, travel being a source of prestige.
However, according to Tsing (1993:41), the
Indonesian government sees the Meratus as uncivilized, stuck in a timeless, archaic
condition outside modern history. Furthermore, the government attribute condition to their
mobility and travel across the forest landscape. From the states perspective,
Meratus mobility constitutes "seminomadism" and labels them as runaways from
state discipline and a threat to national security. For the Meratus, however, mobility is
a sign of personal autonomy.
In Indonesia, there are over 1.5 million members
of what the government calls "isolated populations." Most, like the Meratus,
live in small, scattered mountain settlements. To transform these societies into forms
acceptable to the Indonesian government, they established the Management of Isolated
Populations, a program that operates, to quote one official document, to guide "the
direction of their social, economic, cultural and religious arrangements in accord with
the norms that operate for the Indonesian people" (Tsing 1993:92). To meet the goals
of the project the government devised various strategies that amount largely to attempts
to discipline these populations and bring them under government control. One strategy is
resettlement. The government builds clustered housing and moves isolated populations to
them. The state justifies this housing by saying it is more modern, but in fact it makes
everyone visible, keeps them in one place, enables government control, and in some cases
creates settlements designed specifically for military securities. The Meratus quickly
caught on to the governments game and built their villages with clustered housing so
they would "look good if the government comes to visit" (Tsing 1993:93).
The government also initiated nutrition programs
to reorganize the eating habits of isolated populations. The Meratus were given a
demonstration in which locally unavailable meats and vegetables were prepared "the
right way." The Meratus were considered unordered in their eating habits; as one
village head explained: "[Indonesians] drink in the morning," referring to the
typical morning diet of coffee or tea and a pastry, "and then have two meals during
the day. We [Meratus] sometimes eat five times a day and sometimes once a day. Its
not ordered." (cites Tsing 1993:93) But eating habits are dictated by work schedules,
and in farming or hunting communities one can eat at very different times. For government
planners even the way food is prepared is supposed to follow national standards; one
government official complained that the Meratus butchered a chicken but cooked it without
sour spices or chili peppers. To please government authorities the Meratus leaders now see
to it that the chickens are cooked "properly when authorities visit."
The government also exercised control over
isolated populations by introducing family planning programs. Once again, there was a
distinct difference in how the government saw the program and how the Meratus viewed it.
The program was essentially an attempt by the nationstate to discipline the
population into following state-mandated views of family form and reproductive practices.
In the early 1980s the state began a program to encourage women to use IUDs or take birth
control pills. To advance the program the government encouraged a local male leader,
Paan Tinito, to enroll women in the program. He signed up women, but it became
apparent that they had little idea of what the program was about, and expressed shock when
Tinito explained to the men the purpose of contraception. The men were shocked; how could
the government possibly want them to limit the size of their population? Werent
communities already too small and weak? The program was ridiculous and there must be some
mistake. Paan Tinito responded that the government only wanted a list of women;
nothing was said about limiting reproduction. When the supply of oral contraceptives
arrived some months later, Paan Tinito brought them back to his house and hung them
in the rafters, where they stayed (Tsing 1993:109).
In developing relocation, nutrition, and family
planning programs, the nationstate was, in effect, imposing standards of social
structure and family authority. There should be a fixed and stable "village"
consisting of individual families, each with a family "head," generally a man.
For the government, to get to women one must go through men. But this is not the way the
Meratus were organized, nor was it the way the Meratus saw the situation. Their view of
the world differed significantly from that of the nationstate in which they are
subjects. The dilemma faced by the Meratus, as well as other indigenous and ethnic groups,
is whether one can be simultaneously outside and inside the nationstate. As Tsing
(1993:26) put it,
stand outside the state by tying themselves to it; they constitute the state locally by
fleeing from it. As culturally different subjects they can never be citizens;
as culturally different subjects, they can never escape citizenship.
In this chapter we will
examine the dilemma of minority culturesindigenous and ethnic groupsin the
nationstate. We need to ask why were indigenous cultures destroyed? How did their
destroyers justify their actions? What is likely to be the fate of the indigenous cultures
and ethnic groups that remain in the world? What is the cause of ethnic conflict?
Who are indigenous or tribal
peoples? They certainly include the aboriginal peoples of Australia, the Indians of North,
South, and Central America, and the peoples of most of the African continent. At the
second general assembly of the World Council of Indigenous peoples, indigenous peoples
were defined as follows (Bodley 1990:153):
people shall be people living in countries which have populations composed of different
ethnic or racial groups who are descendants of the earliest populations which survive in
the area, and who do not, as a group, control the national government of the countries
within which they live.
The difficulty with this
definition, said David Maybury-Lewis (1997:7), is that it assumes that should indigenous
people gain control of the government they would no longer be indigenous; however, it is
clear they are native to the countries they inhabit and that they claim they were there
first and have rights of prior occupancy to their lands. They also have been conquered by
peoples racially, ethnically, or culturally different from themselves; they generally
maintain their own language and, most important, are marginal to or dominated by the
states that claim jurisdiction over them. That is, indigenous peoples are defined
largely by their relationship to the state. Maybury-Lewis (1997:55) concluded that
are stigmatized as tribal . . . because they reject the authority of the state and
do not wish to adopt the culture of the mainstream population that the state represents.
They are in fact stigmatized as being tribal because they insist on being
that approximately 5 percent of the worlds population fit the description of
indigenous peoples; these are the descendants of peoples who have been marginalized in the
global capitalist economy.
of the problems faced by indigenous peoples, as we saw with the Meratus, is that their
cultures often conflict with the culture of capitalism. Consequently, the first question
we need to explore is how is the culture of indigenous peoples incompatible with the
culture of capitalism?
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