By Tiatoshi Jamir
I was born on a land declared an ‘Excluded Area’: a previously colonized region. A geographic landmass formerly carved out of Assam: lodged between Myanmar to its east, Manipur to its south, bounded by the plains of Assam to the west and snow clad mountains of the sub-Himalayan region of Arunachal Pradesh to the north. Now tagged for tourism purposes as ‘The Land of Festivals,’ it is the very same homeland where Naga ancestors were once branded ‘wild’, ‘savage’, ‘primitive’ ‘uncivilized’ ‘barbaric’ and ‘head hunters’ by the colonial powers. This colonial stereotype of the Nagas continues and is reiterated in the neighboring states and Mainland India. A case in point is Manpreet Singh’s article The Soul Hunters of Central Asia (2006) published in Christianity Today that describes the Naga homeland as “once notorious worldwide for its savagery”, now “the most Baptist state in the world.”
Abraham Lotha (2007), a noted Naga anthropologist, maintains that British colonialism in the Naga Hills is a story of double domination: political and scientific. This is evident in the production of mass ethnographic materials, topographical survey reports and monographs that aided colonial administration in their attempt to control the colonized. The museum collections that began in the early 19th century conveyed a certain awareness of the Nagas to the rest of India and the West by putting them in ethnographic museums, on geographical/ethnographic maps, and in weighty books (Schäffler 2006b: 292, cited in Stockhausen 2008: 64). For a visiting European, the Naga Hills were a ‘museum-piece’ and the objects (both archaeological and ethnographic) were collected from the colonies and displayed in the West as a way to authenticate the primitive stages of human development. The region was perceived as a cultural backwater. This part of India, that was once a portion of the Hill District of Assam, later came to be recognized, after much political unrest, as the 16th State of India called ‘Nagaland’ on 1st of December, 1963.
Although I was born in a small suburban town in eastern Nagaland, I grew up experiencing a typical Naga life. As a teen, I learnt how to swing a dao (a local iron machete), how to sharpen the blade most effectively, and how to shoot a target with a gun. I slashed and burnt thick forest for cultivation, learnt the traditional skill of fire-making, carried loads of paddy on my shoulder after a bumper harvest, built traditional houses with my peers, laid fishing traps and other traditional means of fishing, read animal tracks and hunted, roamed the deep forests foraging and gathering for wild berries, fruits, and edible vegetables. Not only were these moments a part of my leisure time but I took great pride in what I learned for it was a part of my heritage. Inculcating such traditional values was not only key to one’s survival but was also considered gender assigned roles for a Naga man. Little did I realize that it was these early experiences that drew me close to anthropology, a discipline that would allow me to study about myself and our Naga culture.