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|Indigenous Cultures in the
Development of Indonesia
Meutia F. Swasono
Many countries have different population compositions. In some countries, newcomers go beyond indigenous people, both in numbers as well as in social-economic advantages. In others the composition is balanced, while in still other countries, the indigenous people represent the majority.
Indonesia with its five large islands, Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan (Borneo), Sulawesi (Celebes), Irian Jaya (west of Papua Nugini) and thousands of medium-sized and small islands, is a country whose indigenous people represent the majority of the population. The concept of indigenous people has to be traced back in history (Koentjaraningrat, ed., 1984).1
Since the Hindu era, which marked the historical period of literacy, people from different parts of the world continuously came to Nusantara, the vast archipelago stretching from Sumatra to Irian Jaya, mostly for trade or for the spread of religion. The Dutch were leading among European traders and established themselves as the colonial power in Nusantara for about three and a half centuries. It was then called The East Indies, at first under the Dutch East Indies Companies (VOC) and later under the Dutch colonial government. After national independence in 1945, the Dutch East Indies were internationally recognised as the Republic of Indonesia.
During the colonial period the Dutch East Indies government divided the East Indies population into three categories: European/Dutch citizens; the Vreemde Oosterlingen2 (foreign easterners); and the Inlanders (indigenous people). Unfortunately the last had a ‘backwardness’ connotation.
After Indonesia’s independence, the Vreemde Oosterlingen were given the choice either to apply for Indonesian citizenship or to choose Dutch or other citizenships. Through this process, Indonesia recognises two kinds of citizenship, the warganegara Indonesia (Indonesians) and the warganegara asing (foreigners). Thus the Indonesian population consisted of the indigenous people as well as the former Vreemde Oosterlingen and their descendants who had chosen the Indonesian citizenship. Culturally the former are called the pribumi, ‘natives of the country’ while the latter are called non-pribumi, those whose ancestors came from other races and countries.3
The indigenous cultures in development programmes
The brief introduction has described the ‘indigenous population of Indonesia’ as the warganegara pribumi (native Indonesians), consisting of various ethnic groups spread all over the country. Each considers a place in Indonesia as its land of origin, where it maintains ancestors’ graves and major cultural heritage. Progress and development have increased their socio-economic and socio-cultural mobility, and some of them live in the metropolitan and large cities and small towns while some others remain in the villages and in remote places and islands, leading a variety of life-styles and living patterns. A small portion of the indigenous population who live in remote or isolated places are known by a special term, masyarakat terasing or ‘isolated people’, since they have chosen to live in the deep forest, the mountains, or the swampy areas, far from modern life (Dept. of Social Affairs 1992).4
In some countries indigenous people are considered minorities in their own motherland and become the less privileged. In Indonesia, on the contrary, all citizens, both the pribumi (including the isolated people) and the non-pribumi, have equal rights as per the Constitution of 1945. The Constitution recognises human rights and provides special attention to the poor, including the less privileged and the isolated populations.
When Indonesia proclaimed its independence in August 1945, the Government of Indonesia strove to regain the dignity of the people, to emerge in glory from the scars of colonial oppression and humiliation through national development plans and efforts. The 1945 Constitution, Article 32, states: ‘The Government shall advance the national culture of Indonesia’.5
All warganegara have full and equal rights to progress,6 and at the same time to preserve and develop their own cultures and regions. They have the rights to decide their own destiny with dignity. The goal of the government is to provide the means to strengthen their own cultural resilience so that they have the capacity to overcome helplessness and dependency. The peoples’ cultures represent identity and existence, sources of confidence, security, comforts and order, rendering participation and sharing. National development has gradually taken into consideration the needs of the diverse people, empowering their cultural potentials and overcoming cultural barriers. The development planners, after 25 years’ experience, have learnt that development implementation should not necessarily be conducted in uniformity, as that would discourage local acceptability and creativity.
There are several examples in which development programmes have paid deliberate attention to local cultures, such as the development of village life in Bali as well as in Sumatra, particularly the village life of the Minangkabau ethnic groups.7
In 1968 Indonesia started a national family planning programme. Through a process of trial and error, the government realised the significance of understanding the variety of kinship systems in the Indonesian population. As a result, several different approaches have been applied to people with unilineal kinship systems and those with bilateral ones.
People change through their cultures. Studies on cultural response and stimulus have recently been encouraged to assure that the implementation of development plans yields higher effectiveness and gains people’s acceptance and participation. Local art, as well as local cultural heritage, have long been utilised as media for effective communication. In the national family planning programme, the puppet show (the wayang performance) has been used as an effective means of delivering development messages.
Similarly, in Aceh, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, the didong art has been used to encourage positive competition among the villagers bounded in the village’s moiety, in executing the government’s development programme.8
Regarding the development of people living in remote places, the initial goal has been to raise their standard of living. One of the efforts has been the building of resettlement areas for them, to make them more exposed to educational as well as medical facilities and other resources for development.
Another effort has been shown in the improvement of the people’s houses in accordance with standards which reflect the philosophy of the indigenous people,9 whereas the former policy was to build houses in accordance with the development planners’ own (etic) view of modern and reasonably acceptable houses. This effort has not proved to be sufficiently successful, as the people often need more time to accept the modification of the house designs and structure (Swasono, et al., 1994).10
It cannot be denied that in the past, the cultural dimension had not been fully integrated in the development strategy. There were some records of development failures which were due to ignorance of the cultural potentials and barriers of the indigenous peoples. Such ignorance led to the implementation of development projects which often distorted their cultural knowledge and also created an attitude of rejection towards further development programmes.
However, the implementation of development plans which have been made on the basis of past experience, sometimes through trial and error, continues. If we accept the fact that local cultures and value systems have to be acknowledged as an integral substance of development, this means that the approach to development policy has become culturally more and more participatory and emancipatory.
The Program Inpres Desa Tertinggal (Presidential Program for Backward Villages), a national programme to combat poverty recently implemented, shows that development planners have been learning from experience. A direct attack on poverty through development from the grassroots level, the people’s self-confidence, bottom-up initiative and motivation as the driving forces behind the productivity in the poor and economically stagnant villages, have to be utilised as the operating forces to trigger development. The development planners have realised the importance of local and indigenous cultures in selecting and implementing programmes for eradicating poverty (Mubyarto, 1994).
A similar attitude has been observed in research projects, especially those proposed and carried out in the past few years. For example, in accordance with the plan for construction of highways and sub-district roads penetrating isolated areas, the Department of Public Works is now offering a research project to gain understanding of the cultures of the isolated people in the respective areas, as the basis for finding ways and alternatives to assist them in adjusting themselves to the rapid socio-cultural changes which may come about during and after the completion of infrastructural development projects such as highways, bridges and feeder roads.
In developing the standard of living of the isolated people, formerly the main policy of the government was to remove them from their old dwelling places within the forest, especially when the areas had been earmarked as natural reserves. The people were given new settlements of standardised houses and areas for cultivation.
However, recently a government agency has proposed a new approach in the development programme for these isolated and scattered people. Rather than removing them from their original places, where they have been living for centuries, and causing them to become low class people dependent on development agencies or other groups and newcomers in the resettlement areas, it would be better to give them a position as the ‘guardians’ of the forest, to prevent it from devastation. By using their cultural knowledge in preserving their environment, such a position will give them an important role to play in society which would increase their dignity among the other groups of Indonesian citizens, thus conforming to what has been stated in the Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia.
There have also been new ideas proposed concerning the people living near and on the sea. As an archipelagic country, Indonesia has many ethnic groups with maritime cultures. Some of the old policies of development suggested moving them to resettlement areas inland. A new approach proposes that they be given facilities to explore the sea and to develop sea-related activities, such as sea cultivators developing seaweed agriculture, fish, shrimp and other sea products, as well as activities in sea trade. They should be encouraged to preserve their maritime culture, the folk wisdom which they inherited from their ancestors. The government should help them with necessary facilities.
The need for understanding indigenous culture: the Mentawaian case
Although development programmes were planned after giving attention to indigenous cultures, there are still many reports revealing the failure of these programmes due to neglect of local cultures. Some other reports mention the urgent need for taking into account local cultures in future development programmes, which was not done in the past (Sumodiningrat 1995; Susanto 1994; Universitas Bung Hatta 1992).
Anthropological reports comprehending the success of culturally oriented development programmes are still insufficient. Much more has to be revealed by anthropologists to provide development planners and agencies with inputs for better planning and implementation of future development programmes.
However, the failure of programmes is not always due to the neglect of local cultures. It is because of the development planners’ wrong perceptions about progress and also because of their inability to recognise and translate the real needs of the people. The macro and centrally oriented development planners are, on the one hand, inclined to neglect local details, and on the other, are not fed sufficient information for understanding the core of the local culture and its potentialities. This often causes a complete absence of understanding of people and failure to anticipate their responses (Swasono 1994). It also prevents a good rapport with those who have to be dealt with. A people-oriented development approach starts its failure from here.
A description of the culture of the Mentawaians, an indigenous people in Siberut Island, west of Sumatra, the failure of the newcomers there and that of the development agencies in understanding the core of their culture, and the situation it creates, is cited as an example.
The Mentawaians, as an isolated people, live as cultivators in the forest in the hinterland of Siberut Island. The newcomers, consisting of several ethnic groups, mostly Moslem Minangkabau and smaller numbers of Javanese, Bataks, and others, live in the coastal areas as traders and civil servants.
The Mentawaians manage their life in two areas. The first is the uma or the main village, with its large house (also called the uma), surrounded by the people’s private or lalep houses. The second is their fields in the forest, usually located at a distance of a half-day walk from the uma, sometimes farther.
The uma is the place for religious activities, where the villagers, who are mostly related through patrilineal clans, gather for ceremonial purposes. There they show their existence as a community and fulfil their spiritual needs through the performance of life-cycle ceremonies as well as the punen (a sacred period of resting and for performing taboos). The sikerei, the traditional religious leader, leads the religious ceremonies.
It is within the uma large house that the sacred objects belonging to the clan are kept and are taken care of by the sikerei. It is also here that the souls of the deceased are temporarily placed during the death ceremonies, before the sikerei ‘sends’ them to their eternal place in the other world.
A sikerei is honoured not only as a spiritual leader but also as a traditional healer who cures many kinds of diseases based on naturalistic and personalistic aetiologies.
The sikerei also leads a life-cycle ceremony marking the acceptance of a baby into the patrilineal clan. Child-rearing is done by parents, but when the child is old enough to learn he will enter the next phase of socialisation under the guidance of the sikerei, who will teach him about his ancestors, their traditional beliefs, and the ways to cure diseases with traditional medicinal plants available in their environment.
The fields cultivated in the forest are the places where people produce their crops for subsistence. A field is also the place where a young couple goes for several days and upon returning to the uma, announces their decision to be husband and wife. It is also inside the forest that a husband and wife go for their most private relationship in their very private spot.
The sapou house in the field is the place where the birth of a baby takes place, in order to prevent other people from seeing the woman during childbirth. Only the woman’s mother and her husband are allowed to be present to help with childbirth.
Under the sapou houses, which are built on wooden piles, people breed their pigs. Until today, a pig has several important cultural functions.11
As the Mentawaians live in patrilineal clans, there is still another leader, the rimata, who manages problems concerning adat (traditional customs), adat-law, customary law and other non-religious matters. He is also the one who decides when a punen should be started and ended.
Thus the Mentawaians acknowledge two centres of life based on their cultural concept of space. Each has its own cultural meaning based on the people’s values and norms which are deeply rooted in their culture: the uma as the centre of spiritual life and the symbol of togetherness; and the field in the forest as a place for reproduction and production.
The uma represents the ‘sacred’ life while the field in the forest represents the ‘profane’. The sikerei is the religious leader in the uma where ceremonies are performed, and the rimata is the leader of the community in non-religious matters.
The design of living and the design of time in the two centres of life are also based on this cultural concept of space and time. It is in the uma main village with the uma large house where the people perform religious ceremonies, and it is in the field that they produce staple food and breed pigs and reproduce (having sexual intercourse and delivering babies). Based on their design of time in the two centres of life, there is a time for working, producing crops and breeding pigs, the ceremonial animals, in the field, for hunting and collecting forest products, as well as for gathering sago and fishing in the forest and its rivers. On the other hand, there is a time to stay in the uma main village for religious resting (punen) and for performing taboos.
In daily life, they need long blades and other simple agricultural tools for production. They need pigs, porcelain plates, frying pans, and bed-curtains as dowry for creating a family.
As they live a very simple life, with not much clothing, they have their own concept of wealth. Their household tools and possessions may be limited and simple, but they spend a large amount of money received from selling rattans and gaharu (aloewood) not on a number of economic investments available in the area but for buying adat property (long knives, bed-curtains, different sizes of cooking pans, and pigs), on dowries and for paying fines in cases of misconduct.
Their reluctance to abandon their fields far inside the forest for possible economic opportunities in non-agricultural jobs in the coastal areas has been based on their cultural division of space and the design of living and time carried out in each space throughout the year. Furthermore, their reluctance to move to the coastal areas has been stronger due to the unpleasant relationship between the Mentawaians and the newcomers, who do not understand their culture.
It is also understandable why the Mentawaians disappointed the development agencies. They did not wish to respond as they were expected, i.e. to live in the resettlement project prepared for them, which was located far away from the uma. On the other hand, they have accepted resettlement projects built near their uma.
In the same manner one can understand why until now the people have been very enthusiastic about tourism, cordially welcoming the foreign tourists who come there regularly to explore the beauty of their environment, their dwelling place and their way of life. The enthusiasm arises from their perception that the tourists appreciate their material culture and their way of life, whereas such appreciation is nearly absent among the coastal people.
Therefore, if one hears the disparaging comments of the newcomers and development agents that the Mentawaians are ‘lazy’, ‘big spenders for little fortune’, ‘unintelligent’, or ‘backward’, ‘limited in their basic needs’, all of these are actually a stereotype given to them due to a lack of understanding and misperception of their cultural values and norms, their conception of time and space, and their expectations.
Worst of all, the stereotype often induces unpleasant treatment by the newcomers on the coast.12
The Mentawaians’ problem has been caused by the newcomers’ lack of understanding of the core of the local culture, so that the organisation and application of development programmes did not cover their role and participation. In fact, the life of the Mentawaians in general should be understood from their emic view, not from the etic view of the newcomers.
The description of the problems faced by the Mentawaians shows the importance of the understanding of an indigenous culture by outsiders, ‘modern’ people so that a good relationship and social integration, which are very important for the existence of a nation, can be maintained. The function of the indigenous people has to be acknowledged and they have to gain some respect from modern society.
National unity and cohesion
In the case of Indonesia, the participatory role of the anthropological profession in development planning and its implementation has not been sufficient. The publication and distribution of their research findings, from which the development planners and the executing development agencies can comprehend the cultural potentials and barriers in development programmes, are still limited. National development would be meaningful for Indonesia only if it strengthens the unity of the diverse people of the nation.
The Indonesian motto, ‘unity in diversity’, will transform itself into strong national unity and cohesion if the cultural identities of ethnic groups are mutually respected. As an economist has put it, the understanding of local cultures is believed to be conducive to national mutuality and enhances national unity and cohesion. But he further stated that if there is a danger of national disintegration, it will come from economic inequality and social jealousy, from the growing developmental gap between Java and the outer islands, and between the less developed eastern region and the rapidly developing western region, not for ethnic and cultural reasons. One cannot, however, ignore the fact that integrally embodied in the economic development problems of Indonesia are socio-cultural ones (Swasono 1992).
With respect to Indonesian unity, the cultural dimension meets the economic one, i.e. the problem of economic inequality. Both meet the political dimension, i.e. the past history of Dutch oppression and the pancasila ideology13 as the basis for development.
There have been cases of ignorance of local cultures in the fields of development planning and implementation, and the Mentawaian case is only one of them. Similar kinds of ignorance have also been found in Marunda (the coastal area in north Jakarta), in the hinterland of East Kalimantan, in Jayawijaya (the highlands of Irian Jaya), in some of the transmigration settlements in the outer islands, in resettlement areas for relocated people, and in the Moluccas. Similarly, the Madura case (the prevention of the construction of a bridge connecting Madura island and Java) reflects the cultural (religious and aspirational) ignorance towards the Maduranese. These cases create a very ironic phrase, ‘paradise for outsiders, hell for [the] indigenous’ (Abdillah 1995).
As for the role of anthropologists, it will be their task to reveal more of the cultures of ethnic group where development programmes are to be implemented. It will also be very important to give a more decisive role to anthropologists in action programmes, so that the cultural problems that might come from the field can be identified and overcome. Through this process, the people’s resistance to change could be transformed into positive participation.
In the last 25 years, the development experience has met with obstacles and sometimes failure. This has been due partly to cultural factors integrally embedded in the development process. The academicians seem to confirm this fact, as they found it necessary to strengthen and to give new substance to the study of development anthropology.
It is important to take note of a development milestone when the Minister of National Development Planning, in his speech on 15 April 1995, introduced a new development paradigm in which he stated that progress is achieved in the form of stronger self-reliance, and this is loaded with cultural matters. Some economists even believe that genuine development should bring not only ‘economic value-added’ change but also ‘cultural value-added’ change.
It has been accepted that local cultures constitute development potential. Neglecting these non-economic factors may cause development to become more expensive, socio-culturally ineffective, economically inefficient and wasteful.
©1997 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi