Repatriation of Naga Ancestral Remains: An Intriguing Discourse
Dr. SalomeZhimomi (Social Anthropologist)
I was very intrigued when I read the overview of the lecture on the Journey from the Heart: Naga Repatriation and Healing of the Land published in a section of the media (August 2022). It raised some questions for me and took me back in time to my lived experiences, anthropological research in Lazami Village in the mid-90s and connection to my own cultural roots in Nagaland. To be clear, I am grateful that the Pitts River Museum has initiated a process in returning the human remains from their museum to the respective indigenous communities across the globe. I am in full support of our Nagas to having an open discussion about the Naga cultural remains of our ‘forefathers’ as we Nagas traditionally address them, and any other Naga artefacts that are still held by the Museum. This can be a great opportunity for the Naga community to come together and discuss the pros and cons of repatriating the human remains and other items, discussing our local capacity for the logistics and what we are going to do once they are returned to the community. However, from what has been made publicly available so far, it is unclear if the process is community led. Were the various Naga tribal organizations or traditional village bodies informed, or given an opportunity to be involved and consulted? Was there any open consultation on how the decision of repatriation began? Was there a community discussion as to who would be the best representative body or committee to oversee the Naga repatriation process? Can one, as an Academic, initiate the process of repatriation and be a lead researcher for a Naga community project on repatriation of the Naga cultural remains?
The process through which the project is being established and run in Nagaland raises a few concerns. According to the published materials, mainly through newspapers, it seems that what was started as an initiative by the Pitts River Museum in England, has now been turned into an academic discourse in Nagaland, led by researchers, one of whom is the lead researcher by the name of Dr. Dolly Kikon, an Associate Professor in Melbourne University, Australia. Summoned to the lectures, the Naga communities have become the mere audience of an academic discourse on themes and topics that are foreign to our own lived experiences and our Naga history. The researchers have taken the Naga repatriation process upon themselves to be the ‘experts’ and taken the lead role. Rather than Naga tribal community taking ownership of the process, allowing to have a say, and being involved in the process itself. The Nagas are being told about the repatriation project through lectures, newspaper articles and internet mostly delivered and written by the researchers themselves.
A further very concerning aspect of the process is the nature of the academic discourse used by the researchers, especially the language and terminologies used to disseminate and guide the community towards understanding importance of repatriation of our Naga cultural materials. For example, the lecture on repatriation of Naga ancestral remains is undoubtedly a very catchy topic and would generate some interesting academic discourses for rising young Naga scholars, especially through contemporary concepts on colonization, colonialism, coloniality and decolonization. These concepts can turn into never ending threads of non-tangible discourses in the intellectual world. We must be realistic, contextual and most importantly grounded in our own unique and proud history when we discuss our Naga cultural materials.
In this regard, the process as it sets out in the lecture raise some troubling issues. Are Naga people really suffering right now from the long past British Administration in the Naga Hills, or our current woes – which are pressing and grievous – the result of more recent political history? Are the Nagas experiencing some intense pain and trauma physically, emotionally and spiritually as a result of the British administrators, some of whom were British anthropologists? Are our Naga hurts more clearly attributable to the post-British period? Have our own cultural narratives reflected spiritual restlessness, requiring a place to rest, because our cultural remains are displayed in various Western museums? Is repatriation of Naga ancestral remains or historic Naga artefacts crucial for the salvation of the future generations? Were the ancestral remains considered as stolen objects (theft)? Is there a question of insufficiency in our Naga cultural knowledge due to the absence of ancestral cultural remains like skulls and other human remains?
During my research, I interviewed Naga elders including the oldest man of Lazami village by the name Mixika who was110 years old at the time(1994) and who had knowledge of the headhunting practices and my own father, Zhuikhu Zhimomi, who was a village Chief and a dobashi (interpreter)for the British administrators (London Gazette 1937, Chasie2017), I found that the headhunting practices of our forefathers were tied to our past ritualistic practices, describing how the heads of enemies were brought to the open field of the village to be showcased before the whole village community as trophies and our warriors celebrated. Let’s not forget both our forefathers and the Nagas today view ourselves as warriors with a proud history.
While the British colonial administrators clearly didn’t support the taking of heads, they certainly acknowledged the reality and uniqueness of Naga customary law. This addressed a calming mechanism regarding the Naga tribal agitation and to maintain a peaceful relationship with the Naga tribal communities. (Zhimomi 2001) As well, unlike some other indigenous peoples around the world, Nagas did not suffer genocide, brutal massacre, or dispossessions of their lands in the hands of the British administrators. The concept of trauma connected with the removal of headhunted skulls is not part of any Naga cultural narratives past or present that I am aware of. The taboos and distress, associated with viewing the dead bodies or even mentioning the names of the dead people or person – which are powerful part of the Aboriginal cultural practices in Australia – are not the same in Nagaland.
This brings me further to an area of concern about the discourse on the Naga repatriation project, which seems to involve a false equivalence of differing indigenous histories around the world – particularly of the journey of Aboriginal people in Australia. Having lived in Australia for nearly three decades, I have learned of the reality of Aboriginal people in Australia and their ongoing generational trauma as a direct result ofthe early “white” settlers, the colonists’ harsh action and brutal policies of assimilation, cultural and ethnic genocide, forced removal of children from their families and forceful removal of the people from their lands. This brutal history included the removal of the human remains and other aspects of the culture, which were expropriated overseas for various purposes, causing deep distress down the generations.
In response, the Aboriginal community initiated their own efforts to reclaim their ancestral remains and artefacts linked to the traumatic historical events that they were subjected to. The efforts by indigenous people in Australia for the repatriation of those remains, therefore, have their own unique significance in the context of their own experiences, struggles and journey toward healing from historic and contemporary trauma. Robyn Campbell, one of the South Australian First Nations representatives summed this up clearly when she said: “the first Nations people continued to suffer from the theft of our ancestors taken away from our country is a particular injustice……we have never ceded the removal of our old peoples remains… we have been made sick and worried.”
For those in Nagaland who are interested to understand this history, I can suggest some reading, which are made accessible in the public domain:
“Repatriation of the Human Remains” (The Guardian, Remains of 18 Indigenous people held by UK museums return to Australia…2020)
“healing of the Ancestral Land” (https://www.wernative.org),
“Spiritual Unrest” (Effect of Dispossession on Aboriginal Spirituality)
“apology” in regard to the “Stolen Generation” (On 13 Feb 2008, the then Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, made an apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, ATSI),
“burials”(https://www.qld.gov.au/firstnations/environment-land-use-native-title/cultural-heritage/human-remains) “repatriated human remain” (https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/nov/10/remains-of-18-indigenous-peoprestin…; Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council; https://www.adelaide.edu.au),,
“memorial park” (The Guardian, ‘It brings dignity to every one of the’: inside the reburial of Indigenous bone and restless spirits).
“brutal massacres” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_massacres_of_Indigenous_Australians
To sum up my concerns stated above, the Naga researchers on the repatriation project seem to be conflating the unique Naga history and experience with the Aboriginal experience, which also is unique. It seems key concepts from the Aboriginal experience and struggle – such as theft, unfinished business, healing of the land, apology, trauma, and ‘from the heart’ – which are foreign to our Naga people, are being imported into the Naga discourse to describe our history and experience. It is a false equivalent for the Naga researchers to import external pedagogy born out of others’ historical pain and trauma and inject that into the Naga community’s discussion of its own affairs. It is misleading for Naga people. It is also a misappropriation of other people’s intellectual knowledge and deeply disrespectful to our fellow Indigenous people in Australia and elsewhere who had suffered gravely. Just as important, it is as disrespectful for us and our own unique stories about decades of suffering and trauma that Nagas bore at the hands of the Indian military. If we want to talk about torture, brutality, and trauma, then the focus must be with our past and current experiences with the Indian. Most Nagas will have plenty of stories related to the domination of the Indian rule if we are going to talk about healing, trauma and apologies. This is not to negate the role of the British colonials in Naga history for good or for ill, but we must be wary of falsely equating our colonial experiences with those of another indigenous people, while overlooking the brutality of the post-British period.
It is surely welcoming and assuring to hear young Naga scholars who are curious and asking questions on the repatriation project such as “how do we conduct burials once the remains were brought home?”and “how might we grapple with the difference through which we gain knowledge of Naga Culture?” as reported in a section of the media. These and other queries are not just good questions but are critical to genuine, open, and honest conversations that nurture reflection and integrity in the process. It is reported that those curious young Naga scholars should do their own investigation on other people’s stories outside Nagaland. While this will benefit further understanding and perspectives, we should not neglect and negate our own cultural knowledge, our unique Naga history and our experiential struggle as a foundation. We can learn from others, but we do not have to import someone else’s narratives to make it our own story.
To me, the process of repatriation of the Naga cultural remains should be, first, grounded on a collaborative approach of the Government agency – Department of Art and Culture – and Naga communities at large. This initiative should be about the possibilities of relocating a plethora of the Naga cultural artefacts and the capacity of managing the ways in which the artefacts should be shelved or displayed to avoid decadence and damage. This certainly can be done in consultation with the traditional Naga tribal bodies – precisely those bodies which have survived our experience of the British and Indian periods, and with our Naga leaders who can give an authentic cultural guidance. This way, the stories start from “micro” or bottom-up at the grass roots and within the community and not starting top-down, from the macro level where academic researchers delivering a series of ‘lectures’, lecturing young students and Naga people on what it is we, the Nagas, are supposed to know and how we should be feeling about the past Naga historical experiences. The Naga community and the young scholars should not be steered by academic researchers with highly sensitive notions and experiences of other indigenous people, which are not equitable to our lived experiences and our Naga cultural heritage.