21 January 2004

Tana Toraja: From Ethnogenesis to Ethnotourism

A hundred years ago, the Toraja people did not exist. "Toraja" was merely a derogatory term applied by the Bugis and Makassarese living in the lowlands of the southwest peninsula of Sulawesi (then called Celebes) to any of the many different peoples living in the mountainous regions of the peninsula and central Sulawesi. Today, Tana Toraja (Toraja Land) is an administrative district in the province of South Sulawesi, the people living there comprise one of the four official suku bangsa (ethnic groups) of the peninsula, and the Toraja are celebrated (at least amongst anthropologists, tourists, and television crews) for their fantastic architecture and elaborate funerals. People who have been born in the area of Tana Toraja now call themselves Toraja, bringing this identity with them in their migrations throughout Indonesia and the rest of the world.
So begins a fascinating paper entitled From "You, Toradja" to "We Toraja": Ethnicity in the Making, in which an anthropology graduate student, Jaida n'ha Sandra, attempts "to trace how a pejorative turned into a people." The extended quotes below are from the same article. (Read the whole thing.)

Before the arrival of the Dutch, the Muslims in the lowlands had regarded the politically fragmented highlanders as a major source of slaves, as well as coffee and other highland products.
The Dutch had been a colonial presence on Sulawesi since the seventeenth century but had mainly ignored the inaccessible and agriculturally unproductive mountain areas. In the late nineteenth century, however, they became increasingly worried about the growing Islamic influence in Sulawesi. The animist highlanders were viewed as a pool of potential Christians; the company mandate was to convert as many as possible, thereby aligning the highlands with the Dutch should lowland Muslims get too obstreperous.

Starting in 1906, the Dutch influenced the formation of Toraja in four main ways. First, they abolished slavery, bringing peace and relative safety to the area. Second, they introduced Christianity, which would later be adopted as a defense against lowland Islamic fundamentalism. Third, they furthered the cash economy by demanding taxes. And, finally, they drew a line around the Sa'dan area and named it Tana Toraja.
Tana Toraja, like Bali, has since become one of the most intensely anthropologized places on earth. The Toraja are famous for their huge, boat-shaped rice barns and their famously elaborate and gory funeral celebrations, featuring animal sacrifices and often a sizable contingent of foreign funeral tourists. Ethnic identity, however, remains a contentious issue.
The nobility ... were satisfied with their power and status under the old system. Lower class Toraja have been less conservative, taking advantage of the egalitarian mores of Christianity, the opportunities presented by education and the cash economy, and the political implications of ethnic identity to contest the authority of the nobility.... Christianity has been increasingly popular as an avenue towards modernity and gaining a transnational identity....

In the 1940s, few Toraja had ever left their village and almost none had left the Indonesian archipelago. By 1978, however, sixty percent of the population was spending extended periods outside Tana Toraja. Many never come back except for the occasional family funeral. Toraja have eagerly pursued education and now work outside Tana Toraja as government officials, professors, medical professionals, and lawyers. At the same time, they have never been above manual labor and so also work in mining and lumber operations on far-flung islands as well as in furniture and clothing manufacture closer to home.

Out-migration has led simultaneously to a greater identification with the Toraja suku (ethnicity) while at the same time facilitated alterations in that identity. On the one hand, Toraja abroad go to great lengths to retain links with family. They follow all the funerals and attendant gossip....

At the same time, there are complaints that the rituals are no longer authentic or "true". Fewer Toraja can reach a consensus on what aspects of funeral ceremonies are fixed and what can be reinterpreted. There is no longer a shared expectation and experience of ritual. As ritual defines Toraja to the outside world, it is also changing to accommodate outsiders tastes. Some students from Toraja consider having tourists at funerals a travesty and feel tourists should be treated only to staged shows of songs, chants, dances, even sacrifices that are not part of any meaningful ritual. Others feel that removing the ritual practices from the ritual, doing it at inappropriate times or in inappropriate places, is the travesty. The ceremonies should be whole or abandoned, not carved into bits for tourists' eyes. Discussion groups, seminars, and arguments abound as Toraja try to sort out how they can abide by Church authority and please the tourists while maintaining some meaning in their traditions....

For the sake of tourism, Toraja have also begun to reinvent themselves... They respond to lowland stereotypes of themselves as crude, backwards, non-religious ex-slaves by characterizing themselves as pork-eaters, pacifists, honest, delicate, quick-witted, hard working, and thrifty. At the same time, they discuss at length their own foolishness in racking up huge debts and then wasting wealth on funeral ceremonies....

Meanwhile, the nobility make use of visiting anthropologists to play out family rivalries. Adams reports how she was recruited as a pet anthropologist by one family who asked her to "write a book about the real Torajan identity and history." What this really meant was a history of that particular family. She came to realize, only later, that she was a pawn in an ancient game. She writes:

[A] rival aristocratic family from another Torajan district visited our village and my Torajan hosts introduced me as "their anthropologist" .... To this, the visitors responded that they, too, had an anthropologist live with them and write about them. After these guests departed, my Torajan family disparaged the other anthropologist's understanding of Torajan culture and proclaimed that my "book" would be "much bigger and better."
One of the most famous books on the Toraja, of course, is Nigel Barley's Not a Hazardous Sport, quoted immediately below.

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