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Adat and Indigeneity in Indonesia

Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin

Whose Adat is it?

Adat, Indigeneity and Social Stratification in Toraja

Karin Klenke

Texte intégral


  • 1 I conducted a total of ten months of fieldwork in Indonesia (from October to November 2008, from S (...)
  • 2 By equating indigeneity with masyarakat adat in the Toraja case-study, I follow my interview partn (...)
  • 3 Definitions in international law and in the UNESCO Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (...)

1During my fieldwork in Toraja in 2009/20101, the adat elders of noble descent with whom I discussed the ongoing nomination process of Toraja as World Heritage surprised me with their enthusiastic engagement with the politics of indigeneity: Most of them were active in the local branch of the Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (AMAN, Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago).2 Indigeneity is generally understood – whether it be in the field of politics and international law or in anthropological research – as being at least partly opposed to a state, as a socially, economically and politically marginal or marginalised position in the context of a nation state.3 However, my interview partners were not marginal. They represented the government in Toraja: the acting Regent, a former Vice-Regent, the Regional Secretary, a retired high officer from the State Ministry of National Development Planning in Jakarta, heads of local government offices, and so on. They all came from the ruling families of the 32 adat districts which make up the Toraja highlands and many of them held high church positions. Why were mostly very well educated, influential and affluent noble Torajans, firmly integrated in powerful institutions, so eager to claim an indigenous identity? Their explanations – adat lay at the core of indigeneity and they, as members of the ruling local elite, had the greatest command over adat – stirred up my interest in exploring the deployment of adat in claims of indigeneity in a stratified society. Indigeneity may be the only empowering subject position, the only place of recognition possible to inhabit, for groups like the Batin Sembilan (see the chapter by Steinebach in this volume), the Orang Rimba (Steinebach 2012) or the Wana (see the chapter by Grumblies in this volume). Toraja noble elders, however, have greater agency in their engagements with the national government, an agency which they happily employed in the past and still do. Why would people who are part of the local or regional – or in some cases even of the national – elite want to claim an identity that seems to make them marginal by definition?

Indigeneity as a Relational Identity

  • 4 This statement cuts short a long and controversial discussion about the “nature” of indigeneity. S (...)

2As several writers have pointed out, the meaning of indigeneity is not based on essential qualities or inherent properties, but emerges in a process of differentiation, that is, in relation to what is understood as not indigenous in distinct historical social formations (see Cadena and Starn 2007b: 4; Li 2000:151; Niezen 2004:70; Merlan 2009:304-5).4 Even the vague attempts at criterial definitions in the sphere of international law by Martínez Cobo (1983) or Daes (1996) rely partly on a relational understanding as the processes of settlement and of marginalisation encompass “the indigenous” and its “other”.

3While I share the constructionist approach, I also endorse Li’s warning against interpretations that “seem to suggest that maximizing, goal-oriented actors switch or cross boundaries in pursuit of their ends, approaching questions of identity in consumer terms, as a matter of optimal selection” (2000:150). Instead, she argues that a group’s self-identification is rather “a positioning which draws upon historically sedimented practices, landscapes, and repertoires of meanings, and emerges through particular patterns of engagement and struggle” (2000:151). While the patterns and formations that enable the emergence of a certain articulation of indigeneity are ever changing, indigeneity generally describes the relationship between a marginalised, culturally distinctive group and a somehow culturally unmarked hegemonic other.

Emerging Indigeneity in Indonesia

4The Indonesian term for indigenous community is masyarakat adat, which means literally adat-based community. This term is confusing, since in public understanding, it is taken for granted that every Indonesian “has” adat, which is seen as the basis for one’s ethnic identification. As Indonesians are not faced with a hegemonic settler population and each ethnic identification – be it marginalised or hegemonic – is based on adat, adat cannot be immediately equated with marginality or indigeneity. As Tsing summarised: “Indigeneity is not a self-evident category in Indonesia. Almost everyone is ‘indigenous’ in the sense of deriving from original stocks; Indonesia is not a white settler state” (2007:34). No claims to rights, resources and political participation can be based on adat alone.

  • 5 See Acciaioli (2007) and Moniaga (2004, 2007) for an analysis of the emergence of masyarakat adat (...)

5The conceptual equation of masyarakat adat with indigeneity emerged from specific social formations: the experience of economic, political, social, and religious marginalisation which many groups – mostly ones living in sparsely populated, resource rich areas like rainforests – have suffered during the developmentalist New Order regime (see chapter by Arizona and Cahyadi in this volume). As so-called suku terasing (isolated tribes) and later as komunitas adat terpencil (remote adat communities), they were the target of heavy social engineering programmes aimed at “modernising” them and turning them into proper citizens: “By working to assimilate these people into normative Indonesian standards and grouping them into discipline-oriented villages, the program provided a striking and inexpensive model of how development was to operate at a national scale” (Tsing 1999:171; see also Duncan 2004). Forests inhabited by nomadic groups were opened up for resource exploitation, thus robbing these groups of their livelihoods. Such resource conflicts led to the foundation of local NGOs which, in turn, attracted the attention of international NGOs with an ecological agenda. Although ecological issues were very often not at the core of the conflicts, ecology was one of the few public spaces in Suharto’s repressive New Order regime where social protest was possible (Tsing 2007:37). Adat emerged as the most promising common political term in the ongoing discussions and struggles. It was neutral enough by its common usage in Indonesia not to stir suspicion; it bore the possibility of positioning local juridical norms and rights against the national laws, and it could easily be brought into dialogue with transnational activism, such as the indigeneity movement. During the first clandestine nationwide meeting of representatives of these groups and NGOs engaged in their struggle in Rantepao in 1993, the umbrella term masyarakat adat was chosen (Moniaga 2004), a term most groups had used for themselves instead of the derogatory komunitas adat terpencil.5

6While the term adat has not acquired political or juridical implications during the New Order, the term masyarakat adat implies the experience of marginalisation by the nation state and is associated with political and juridical claims. The political implications of the terminology are made clear by the comment the representative of Indonesia made in the UN General Assembly immediately after the adoption of UNDRIP: “Given the fact that Indonesia’s entire population at the time of colonization remained unchanged, the rights in the Declaration accorded exclusively to indigenous people and did not apply in the context of Indonesia. Indonesia would continue to promote the collective rights of indigenous peoples” (sic!) (UN 2007). While he – just like Tsing – concedes that all Indonesians are “deriving from original stocks”, there is a fine difference: For the Indonesian state, it is only marginalisation by white settlers that transforms minorities of “original stocks” into indigenous people.

7As numerous studies have shown, adat can take on various meanings and be deployed for different purposes (Davidson and Henley 2007; for central Sulawesi, see Li 2007b). In the context of indigeneity, adat also opens up various possibilities from claiming land rights (Steinebach in this volume) to the pacification of a region after violent conflicts (Müller in this volume). The deep involvement of Torajan activists of indigeneity with the structures of the nation state, with indigeneity’s “other”, thus gives rise to promising questions about the uses of indigeneity in a stratified society.

8In my reading of the noble Torajans’ activism, indigeneity is an emergent form of negotiating relationships with others – with institutions and actors beyond the state level, with the national government (never as monolithic as implied by the singular noun), with the imagined community of Indonesia as a multi-ethnic society, with regional neighbours like the Bugis and the Makassar, and also – and maybe most importantly – with Torajans of non-noble descent. What kind of agency vis-à-vis these institutions and actors is engendered by the employment of adat as indigeneity which an agency based on shared citizenship, religious or political affiliation or democratic representation does not grant?

Outline of Toraja

  • 6 When I talk about “Toraja”, I refer to these two regencies.
  • 7 The homepage of the former regency of Tana Toraja mentioned more than 600,000 migrants in 2007 (Ka (...)
  • 8 The 4% Hindu are probably mostly followers of the local religion aluk to dolo, which gradually los (...)

9The region of Toraja is located in the highlands of South Sulawesi. The fragmentation craze of decentralisation led to a split of the former district Kabupaten Tana Toraja into the regencies Toraja Utara (North Toraja) and Tana Toraja in 2008.6 The population numbers almost 430,000 people, overwhelmingly Torajans, but also Bugis, Makassar and Javanese. Due to migration of mostly landless Toraja since the 1970s, an even larger number of Torajans live outside Toraja.7 In 2005, 88.7% of the Toraja population were Christians (56.5% Protestants and 32.2% Catholics), 7.3% were Muslims and 4.0% were Hindus (BPSKTT 2007:102).8

  • 9 For an excellent discussion of the intricacies of Toraja stratification see Nooy-Palm (1979:43-57)

10Toraja was a stratified society with a ruling nobility, free commoners and slaves in pre-colonial times. The local articulations and the flexibility of this stratification varied widely between adat districts.9 Within the nobility, status was primarily dependent on a person’s descent from the clan’s tongkonan, the ancestral house. The older the tongkonan was, the higher the status of the noble clan (see Waterson 2003; 2009:123-200). The lavish funeral ceremonies, of which the length, elaborateness and grandeur depended on one’s rank, were the central social arena for claiming, reproducing, enhancing, and contesting status. The claim to high status was open to contestation and a source for intense competition among the nobility. Gender is a largely unmarked category in Toraja. While there is a gendered division of labour, it does not result in fixed hierarchies (Waterson 2009:242). The main axis of social inequality in Toraja runs along the lines of stratification, not gender.

  • 10 The name “Toraja” stems linguistically from the Bugis expression to riaja – “the people living ups (...)

11In contrast to the centralised Islamic kingdoms of the Bugis and Makassar in the lowlands, the highlands were never politically united in pre-colonial times (Waterson 2009:25).10 The relationship between lowlanders and highlanders was based on warfare, trade and marriage. Noble highland leaders sold a large number of people of lower descent as slaves to Bugis traders. It is estimated that up to 10-15% of the population were sold (Waterson 2009:82). Noble marriages and trade notwithstanding, the relationship between Torajans and Bugis was uneven: Torajans, who refused to take on Islam but held on to aluk to dolo, were seen as inferior unbelievers, their political structures lacking in complexity and sophistication. Bugis frequently raided the highlands and took Torajans of all ranks as slaves.

  • 11 A detailed analysis of the historical context of conversions and the consequences of the mission f (...)

12The highlands came under Dutch colonial rule in 1906. For administrative reasons, the Dutch divided the region into 32 adat districts, each headed by a noble leader. The internal fragmentation as such and the differences in adat between these 32 districts are central to the Torajans’ understanding of themselves as an ethnic group. The Calvinist Dutch Reformed Mission set up the first mission post in 1913 in order to create a buffer against the lowland Islamic neighbours by Christianizing the upland “heathens”. The Christian mission was unsuccessful during colonial times, but conversions sped up rapidly after independence.11 The idea of the people living in the highlands as indeed being “a people” slowly developed under the influence of the converging forces of strategic political considerations of the ruling noble leaders, linguistic research by the missionaries, a self-conscious religious differentiation from the Islamic lowlanders, and colonial administrative measures (Roth 2004). The inhabitants of the highlands finally fully identified (themselves) as Torajans in the 1930s (Bigalke 2005:149-179).

13Today, the council of the noble leaders of the 32 adat districts, the kobongan kalua, is the highest political adat institution in Toraja, while the two regional parliaments (DPR-D) are the highest political institutions in terms of the nation state. The political landscape of Toraja is thus characterised by legal pluralism and by intense centrifugal and centripetal forces that are constantly in flux.

14The highland economy is predominantly based on wet rice cultivation, cash crops, such as spices or the famous Toraja coffee, and tourism. Ownership of land is extremely uneven. This dates back to the times of the slave trade when some members of the nobility

had amassed huge acreages of rice lands seized from rivals or those too weak to resist. The coming of the Dutch, while it halted these destructive processes, also had the effect of confirming and consolidating patterns of ownership as they were at the moment of takeover.
(Waterson 2009:82)

15Landlessness, as has been said before, is one of the prime reasons for migration. The coffee plantations and big hotels are, with only a few exceptions, owned exclusively by Torajans or at least by holdings with prominent Toraja participation (Aditjondro 2010:66-76). Toraja has no history of resource conflicts with the state or state-supported companies.

16The region was included in Indonesia’s Second Tourism Development Plan from 1974-1978 and saw an amazing increase in the numbers of domestic and foreign tourists from the late-1960s until the mid-1990s. Since 1994, visitor numbers have dropped sharply from more than 261,000 to only about 32,000 in 2005 (BPSKTT 2007:212-213) and are hardly recovering at all, a fact of great concern for the regional and local administration and the Torajans working in the tourist business.

17The position of the Toraja nobility in colonial times was challenged by the formal abolition of slavery and other rank-related rights through the Dutch administration, although the Dutch still relied heavily on the nobility as their local counterparts (see also the chapter by Thufail in this volume). Christian theology which posits that all men are equal before the Lord (although with a Calvinist twist in Toraja) threatened noble hegemony as well, as did the postcolonial state with its democratic constitution. In the post-Suharto years, the nobility succeeded in expanding their adat-based political hegemony into the sphere of representative democracy and state administration: High positions, such as heads of government offices, have always been held by noble Torajans, but the new policy of putra-daerah (“children of the region”), which gives preference to local candidates, has further consolidated the access of noble Torajans to high positions – often to the distress of Torajans of non-noble descent.

18Stratification has been of high significance in many regions of Toraja up to the present day, but the meritocratic orientation of the migrant population poses new threats to the adat-based privileges of high-ranking Torajans. Toraja migrants of lower descent are now able to amass riches outside the highlands. They wish to transform this wealth into social capital via big houses and grand funeral ceremonies, or into powerful political positions such as the regent. Contestations of rank and status, therefore, do not only occur on a horizontal axis between competing noble families, but also on a vertical axis. Stories abound concerning successful Torajans of slave or commoner descent whose ambitions in the field of politics or ritual are stymied by the firm grip the nobility still has on adat regulations and by the influence the noble leaders command over the voting behaviour of the descendants of their former slaves. While I cannot judge the empirical basis of these stories, their existence and the excitement with which they are told point to the intense contestations under which the system of rank finds itself.

19Although adat is a given in research on Indonesia and a cornerstone of Toraja identity today, Torajans have only “had” adat for about 100 years. In pre-colonial times, aluk to dolo was an encompassing system regulating the relationships among humans, between humans and their natural environment, and between humans and the deities and ancestors (see Waterson 2009:297-351). In contrast to religion (agama), aluk to dolo was unseparable from other aspects of life. One of the most important tasks of the missionaries was, therefore, to carefully filter Toraja (ritual) life and belief in search of incompatibilities with Christianity, since “heathen” magical beliefs lurked everywhere. All rituals bordering too closely on or even trespassing over the line between “just culture” and “magic” were not allowed for Christian Torajans. This process gradually led to an almost complete loss of all “magical” rituals aimed at enhancing fertility, while the funeral rites, of which only some aspects were forbidden and some re-interpreted, were continued. The mission process, thus, not only brought the concept of a separable sphere of agama as “religion” to the highlands, it also instilled the idea of a complementary secular sphere of adat.

20After this glimpse into basic features of Toraja life, I will scrutinize the historical trajectory of adat in different fields: the mission process, the development of tourism in the 1970s, the UNESCO World Heritage nomination and, finally, AMA Toraya.

Adat and Tourism

21Communal ancestral houses and lavish rituals had been seen as proof of the backwardness and irrational wastefulness of outer island inhabitants from the perspective of modernisation and development in the 1950s and 1960s (Adams 2006:101). Against this backdrop, some ethnic groups ranked higher than others: With Javanese court culture in the centre, cultural sophistication was seen as gradually declining in concentric circles, positioning outer island inhabitants at the fringes of and nomadic rainforest-dwellers beyond the limits of cultural worthiness. TV coverage of a Toraja funeral ceremony in 1978 which had cost US $ 225,000 stirred debates about whether these rituals were proof of the vitality of “traditional cultures” or rather a symbol of the lack of economic reason of the highland population (Volkman 1984b: 191). It was the economic promise of tourism which brought new recognition to these “backward” structures and practices.

Pana, a hamlet which is not officially recognised as a “tourist object”, boasts of the global tourist attention it nevertheless attracts.
Photo: Karin Klenke 2008

22Tourism loomed large in the modernisation scheme of the New Order regime, as it was hoped that it would not only attract an international public and, thus, foreign money, but also national visitors for the sake of postcolonial nation-building. Since cultural tourism relied on what is called today “traditional cultural expressions”, an understanding of adat in the form of seni (arts) and budaya (culture) was supported. Kipp called the resulting effect of these efforts “showcase cultures” (1996:108), decontextualised and often reformulated or invented little gems of folklore which had to be visually consumable, as most tourists do not speak Indonesian or local languages.

23As one of the regions included in the Second Tourism Development Plan in the 1970s, Toraja was to be developed into a cultural destination. Many Torajans were excited about the recognition their cultural expressions attracted and published booklets, brochures and books which focus on Toraja culture in this folklorised sense. One example is “Dances in Toraja” by Beatrice Bulo (1989), who served – among other influential positions in the civil service – as the head of the local Department for Tourism and Culture. The book starts with forewords written by several high-ranking government officials at the regional and local level. The Governor, Mr. Amiruddin, writes:

I have the pleasure in contributing this brief foreword to the publication of “Dances in Toraja”, the product of a creative mind of a native writer in her attempt to participate in developing preserving (sic!) the local culture which is a source and foundation of national culture. This coincides with the Indonesian government’s policy on intensifying the tourism sector. At the time when national development, which includes the tourism sector, is being intensified the role of textbooks on culture and tourism is becoming more important and should be effectively utilized. As the Governor of the Province of South Sulawesi it is my earnest hope that the publication of this book will encourage and challenge other native writers to explore and expose the local culture of South Sulawesi, a potential element of the National culture and National development.
(Bulo 1989: vii)

  • 12 The importance of tourism in and for Toraja has been reflected in a number of anthropological anal (...)

24As elsewhere in New Order Indonesia, everyday life in Toraja had to be carefully reflected as to which of its aspects could be transformed into a “culture of spectacle” (Acciaioli 1985). Death rituals were marketed as archaic and exotic remnants from the past and are even today an indispensable part of every highland tour package. Elaborately carved tongkonan of the nobility became an icon of Toraja-ness and disseminated into Makassar architectural style and even onto the 5000 Rp banknote.12

25Tourist attention was, however, not given to humble slave funerals or plain and uncarved tongkonan of Torajans of lower descent. While adat, of course, encompasses the life of all Torajans, it surfaced as purely noble budaya (culture) and seni (arts) in the field of tourism. Toraja adat elders were quick to grasp the advantages of tourism for their own endeavours. Old feuds and competitions could be fought anew in the field of tourism.

  • 13 Money provided by the state and foreign NGOs went into the renovation of noble tongkonan, while 60 (...)

26When tourism development accelerated in the 1980s, the Northern nobility under the leadership of the adat district Kete Ke’su’ succeeded in securing “tourist object” status almost exclusively for Northern sites (Adams 2005). The sites certified attracted government money, tourism development projects and visitors.13 Luxury hotels sprang up, mostly built by noble Torajans from within or outside of Toraja.

27The state’s interest in tourist revenues did not always coincide with the interest of the nobility in promoting their status via tourism. The Regent of Toraja, a Bugis, issued a statute in 1985 that for touristic purposes, all Torajans living on the main roads had to decorate their houses with carvings. The call to carve houses irrespective of the rank of the inhabitants transformed carvings from a marker of social status into a mere decoration or a marker of an encompassing Toraja identity and was fiercely protested against by noble Torajans (Adams 2006:107). Noble tourist culture was contested from below as well: Tour guides of lower descent resented the teachings of noble adat elders about the meaning of carving motives – mostly related to highland flora and fauna – as an expression of rank and suggested instead that they were proof of the Torajans’ early environmentally conscious attitude (Adams 2006:98-9).

28Tourism development started at a time when the central government still had a firm and defining grip on the outer islands. Entering the national public sphere via budaya and seni, therefore, helped to counter the image of the backward mountain dwellers living in communal houses and wasting money on useless rituals: Torajans had something valuable to offer to the young nation, even if it were external actors – the tourists – who attributed this value to Toraja culture. Tourism also helped to redefine the hierarchical relationship vis-à-vis the historically hegemonic Bugis: When Joop Ave, then Minister of Culture and Education in Jakarta, called Toraja the touristic “prima donna” of South Sulawesi and declared that Makassar was the entry port to Toraja, he summed up the symbolic impact of Toraja tourist hegemony in South Sulawesi (Adams 1997:163).

29While not intended by the state, budaya and seni relied on selected and isolated elements of adat, which are a privilege of the nobility. It brought the greater share of recognition, money and status to the upper stratum of Toraja society and opened new realms of agency for noble Torajans. Their networks and entanglements connected Jakarta, Makassar and Toraja and encompassed the spheres of adat, state administration, private business, and early NGOs. Involvement in tourism development, a long experience with the tourist gaze (and the acute awareness of and pride in the constant and intense anthropological attention they attracted and still attract) have deeply shaped noble Toraja reflections and understandings of themselves. The idea that adat contains something like budaya (culture) or seni (arts) evolved from these encounters with institutions and people that looked for “culture” in what was once aluk to dolo and later adat to Torajans.

Adat and the World Heritage Nomination

30The UNESCO World Heritage nomination, the early history of which is insightfully told by Adams (2010), grew out of the historical rivalry between the adat districts of Kete Ke’su’ in the North and Sangalla in the South, which dates back to mythological times. The noble clan of Kete Ke’su’ started the initiative in the early-1990s in order to secure their status. One family member, a skilled carver and heritage educator, worked in the Department for Monument Preservation in Makassar; and a distant family member was the right-hand man of Joop Ave, the Minister for Culture and Tourism – a happy coincidence which made the project promising. In the mid-1990s, the Indonesian government put Kete Ke’su’ on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage list. In 2001, an ICOMOS delegation saw Kete Ke’su’ authentic and outstanding enough to become a World Heritage Site (ICOMOS 2001:87-90). After some backlashes, the nomination was reformulated as Cultural Landscape, encompassing several sites including Kete Ke’su’. In 2005, the Department of Culture and Tourism produced a nomination document, which has not yet been submitted to UNESCO.

31The material structures which constitute the “Tana Toraja Traditional Settlement” are the richly carved tongkonan with the accompanying rice barns (alang), ceremonial grounds (rante) with menhirs (simbuang) commemorating noble burials, and hanging graves (liang) or rock graves with wooden effigies (tau-tau). As in the field of tourism, the structures nominated for consideration as UNESCO World Heritage are exclusively a materialisation of Toraja noble rank.

32According to UNESCO (2008), the outstanding value of a site is based on authenticity and integrity, which, in turn, are guaranteed by customs, knowledge, economic uses, and spiritual practices. The continued existence of a “traditional way of life” is, therefore, a prerequisite for a successful nomination. The seemingly disparate elements of the Toraja nomination are bound together by adat. Although not named specifically – as UNESCO World Heritage does by definition exclude intangible phenomena – adat is clearly the thread that weaves the material structures into a thick fabric of culture which fulfils the UNESCO criteria of authenticity and integrity (see also ICOMOS 2005). In contrast to the folklorised and de-contextualised adat as budaya and seni in the realm of tourism, adat in the World Heritage context appears as a holistic entity which guarantees the authenticity of the sites by its timeless character and the integrity of the traditional lifestyle. The nomination document stresses accordingly: “Tana Toraja Traditional Settlement is a living tradition. It is a heritage that has been handed over from generation to generation for at least 700 years or even longer back to prehistoric time” (Department of Culture and Tourism 2005:27).

33The authenticity and integrity of adat was enthusiastically endorsed by the adat elders from the nominated sites. They explained the rightful nomination of their own site with their strict adherence to adat and never hesitated to cast serious doubt on the authenticity of the neighbouring district’s material structures or lifestyle. Local adat, my interview partners said, not only proved its strength and authenticity by the preservation of tongkonan, but also by adherence to social stratification. In order to contest the authenticity of Kete Ke’su’s, an adat elder from a rivalling district pointed out to me that the nobility in Kete Ke’su’ had actually begun to eat together with their slaves and thus their nomination could not be justified. Kete Ke’su’ elders, in turn, tried to cast doubt on the integrity of another site by questioning the rank of its ruling family:

  • 14 Esolon is the Indonesian term for the ranks of civil servants, with esolon 1 being the highest ran (...)

In the South, it has become very difficult to determine if their esolon 114 is still actually true. Like the person you have been talking about: His father definitely was esolon 1, but is it true that he himself is still esolon 1? We don’t know…. That is because there are some who say “My father was esolon 1 so I must be esolon 1 as well”. But you cannot take that for granted! It also depends on your deeds, on your thinking, on your character and the like.
(Interview Bapak T., December 2 nd 2009)

34Kete Ke’su’s nomination and the exclusion of others were in turn defended by an adat elder from a neighbouring district:

Further to the North, in Tondon-Maranthe and Sa’dan-Balusu, everything is already modern, because commoners and slaves are now allowed to slaughter as many buffaloes as they please during funerals. The people do not adhere to the rulings of the nobility anymore. Kete Ke’su’as the centre of Toraja, however, still follows the adat. ^
(Interview Bapak Viktor, February 9th 2010)

35In contrast to the field of tourism, adat in the context of World Heritage is not decontextualised and folklorised as “culture” and “arts”. While in everyday life, adat is understood to be flexible and, hence, able to deal with and integrate transformations and new challenges, in the context of the UNESCO nomination, it emerges as a holistic, unchanging and timeless foundation of Toraja life.

36With UNESCO, a powerful institutional player from beyond the confines of the nation state had entered the field in which Torajans negotiate relationships. To secure “outstanding universal value for humankind” – the definition of a World Heritage site – for one’s own district would be an extremely powerful argument in any local status competition. It would also symbolically reverse the ethnical hierarchies in South Sulawesi. No one, my interview partners frequently mentioned gleefully, had ever considered Bugis culture worthy of international recognition! The same held true for the position of Toraja in the ethnic mosaic of Indonesia: Borobudur, the world-famous monument with UNESCO World Heritage status, was definitely beautiful, Bapak Viktor told me. However, it was also dead, because there was no thriving community which would fill it with life. It was just like a dusty museum, not based on living adat. While the adherence to adat, to ancestral houses and elaborate ceremonies had once been a sign of backwardness in the development-oriented nation, it now propelled Toraja to the forefront of international cultural politics. However, Torajans were still painfully dependent on the state for submitting the UNESCO nomination.

37UNESCO’s insistence on authenticity and integrity (2008:21) also offered a powerful argumentative resource for social stratification. The material structures to be nominated relied existentially on stratification and any substantial change would endanger the authenticity and integrity of the sites. The idea of adat as a guarantee for authenticity and integrity, therefore, emerged from a specific formation of state, local actors and UNESCO as a transnational player. It consolidated the nobility’s hegemonic position with new arguments of authenticity and integrity and, thereby, moved it from the political field into the realm of culture and heritage. Somehow, stratification became an authentic and interesting cultural feature in need of protection by UNESCO.

Adat and AMAN

  • 15 “Toraya” is the Torajan word for Toraja.
  • 16 His term ended in 2005.
  • 17 AMAN membership is not based on a representative system, which means that several groups from one (...)
  • 18 Ibu Den Upa Rombelayuk, the wife of the late Bapak Sombolinggi, who facilitated the first meeting (...)

38As mentioned at the beginning, many of the adat elders I knew from the World Heritage nomination and as representatives of different government offices were active in AMAN. Bapak Palimbong, the head of AMA Toraya (Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Toraya)15, had already taken part in the legendary first meeting and demonstration of masyarakat adat in Jakarta in 1999. At that time, he was in charge of the arts section at the local Department of Culture and Tourism. The late Bapak Sombolinggi, a high noble Toraja elder and head of the NGO Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (WALHI, Friends of the Earth Indonesia), which had facilitated the first meeting of masyarakat adat in Rantepao in 1993, had invited him to join the meeting in Jakarta. Bapak Palimbong found the motto of the demonstration – “If the state does not acknowledge us, we will not acknowledge the state” – too extreme, but realised the importance of the movement. Based on his initiative, AMA Toraya was founded in 2000, six months after the first AMAN congress in Jakarta. Bapak Palimbong became Vice Regent of Toraja in 2000.16 Toraja noble elders quickly became involved in AMAN on different levels (see Tyson 2010). Membership in AMAN, however, is a contested issue in Toraja, as nobles from competing adat districts claim to be the only officially recognised AMAN representative and try to prevent others from gaining access to the structures and resources.17 While some Torajans of high noble descent hold prominent positions in the AMAN headquarters and in indigenous peoples’ organisations on the national and international level,18 Bapak Palimbong and his group are quite reserved when it comes to the sometimes radical stance of the national headquarters of AMAN. However, they are regular participants in the seminars and workshops that are offered on the international level funded by UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) or AIPP (Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact) in Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia (see chapter by Sanmukri in this volume). They attend seminars in ecological agriculture, take part in gender training workshops or send their sons and daughters to seminars for future indigenous leaders (mengkader pemuda/pemudi adat) in order to prepare them for a possible leadership role in their respective adat district.

The late Bapak C. L. Palimbong, head of AMA-Toraya until his death in 2010 delivers the opening speech at the official ceremony for AMA-Toraya’s 11th birthday
Photo: Karin Klenke 2010

39The intertwined structures and personnel of AMAN and the local administration brought almost instant success to local AMAN endeavours:

  • In 2001, the DPR-D officially recognised the kobongan kalua, the representative body of the 32 adat districts as the most important self-governing body in Toraja.
  • Also in 2001, the DPR-D passed the “back to lembang” regulation: the reorganisation of territories at the village level into lembang, pre-colonial units based on adat. The lembang regulation has detailed guidelines which – among other aspects – state that only members of the highest social strata may be elected as heads of lembang (kepala lembang). While this was (somehow paradoxically) seen as a step furthering democracy on the grass-root level, the effects were not completely positive, as de Jong describes: “The key positions in the lembang administration are filled only by members from the highest class, and they make decisions which are largely in the interests of this class. As the lembang representative body includes the same people as the adat committee, it becomes difficult to function as a controlling committee that represents the best interests of all layers of society. In fact, the interests of the executive and the legislative are largely intermingled, paralysing the controlling function of the legislative committee” (2009:279).
  • In letter No. 222/II of 2005, the Regent formally recognised the 32 adat districts and the legitimacy of their representation by the noble adat leaders in the kobongan kalua. He further obliged himself to consult with the kobongan kalua before he granted any concessions for the exploitation of natural resources and officially recognised the masyarakat adat of Toraja as the most important partner for the state administration in governing and developing the regency.

40Some AMAN members pursue personal interests in the field of folklore: The late Bapak Palimbong was an ardent collector of Toraja culture in a folklorised sense and the founder of the Yayasan Torajalogi (Society for Torajalogy). He made an – as he called it – inventory of Toraja arts (kesenian) and published four books: one on Toraja carving motifs, one on the legend of Lakipadada, a third one on Toraja proverbs, and the last one on the tongkonan as a political institution. His dream was to create a huge outdoor living history museum, where visitors could watch people pursue an authentic Toraja lifestyle without electricity and the amenities of modern life.

41Bapak Palimbong’s numerous activities notwithstanding, the most important AMAN activities within Toraja were the return to traditional political structures and the (re) consolidation of noble hegemony. On March 20, 2010, I witnessed the Hari Kebangkitan AMA Toraya ke11, the festivities for the 11th anniversary of the founding of AMA Toraya. The perfectly choreographed event took place at the tongkonan of the regional secretary of Kabupaten Toraja Utara, who was Bapak Palimbong’s deputy in AMA Toraya. The event was exclusively for the heads of the adat districts with their delegations and the sub-district head (camat) from the sub-districts (kecamatan). State and adat leaders often came from the same noble family, but were sometimes even one and the same person. Many candidates who ran for the position of regent in 2010 were present as well. Bapak Dalipang, the acting-regent of Toraja Utara held a speech, as did Ibu Den Upa Rombelayuk, who was introduced as a Toraja delegate from the AMAN headquarters. In his speech, Bapak Palimbong stressed that the masyarakat adat in Toraja is the nobility, because they know, guarantee and pass on the adat. The rest of the Torajans are masyarakat kecil (“little people”), as he called them. This might be true, as no “ordinary” Torajans I talked to had ever heard of AMA Toraya before and found it to be a typical noble project.

42In the context of indigeneity, adat does not surface as budaya or seni, such as in tourism (except for Bapak Palimbong), or as a timeless and unchanging way of life, such as in the World Heritage nomination. It is now the outspoken claim to local political hegemony. How did indigeneity emerge as a promising political identity for the Toraja elite? In my interpretation, decentralisation and democratisation have not only loosened the grip of the central government on outer island politics. When local politics became the hotspot of decision-making and economic potentials, being associated with the state alone did not offer great advantages. Positioning oneself additionally in a strategic opposition to the state opened possibilities to directly ally with transnational institutions and tap the political, economic, legal, and educational resources they offer. While Toraja elders depended on the state for a successful World Heritage nomination, they are now free to interact with institutions like UNDP or AIPP without interference from the central government. As the example has shown, this does not imply a rejection of the state, as most of the local protagonists are intimately engaged with state structures.


43As the examples have shown, adat has been framed in very different ways in Toraja, but the framing has tended to privilege the same stratum of Toraja society. Toraja nobility has had the defining power over adat, from a de-contextualized and folklorised adat as arts and culture, the timeless authenticity of adat in the World Heritage context and now adat as traditional political structures in the local indigeneity movement. Processes of exclusion and inclusion have been largely the same in all three fields of inquiry. The social formations which once gave rise to the idea of adat as budaya in the context of tourism in the early 1970s have almost been turned upside down in the context of indigeneity: The firm grip of the central state has been loosened and power and money have been transferred from the centre to the former periphery. In Toraja, the changing political landscape on the national and international level has transformed adat from a marker of localized backwardness and lack of sophistication into a signifier of global connectedness and modernity.

44While Toraja is an interesting example of a creative and selective local engagement with a global discourse, it is also a frustrating example for actors who are committed to democracy, participation and the strengthening of civil society. Sangaji (2007) reports similar stories from Central Sulawesi, where the power vacuums created by rapid decentralisation have been occupied by people who strategically position themselves as indigenous. Torajans undoubtedly count as indigenous according to the AMAN’s definition of masyarakat adat: “Komunitas masyarakat adat are groups that possess a genealogy in a specific geographical area, as well as a distinct system of values and norms, that have command over land and natural resources and that live their lives in accordance with norms and institutions of their adat” (AMAN 2012e, translated by K. K; see the chapter by Arizona and Cahyadi in this volume). Sangaji points to the weaknesses of the vague AMAN – and indeed all – definitions of indigeneity, that allow a usurpation of the idea and the movement by people with aims opposing the AMAN endeavour:

The acting district head of North Toraja, Bapak Y. S. Dalipang, is ushered to his seat at the official ceremony to celebrate the 11th anniversary of the founding of AMAN.
Photo: Karin Klenke 2010

By foregrounding distinctiveness (ketersendirian) and making no reference to progressive values such as justice and democracy, it suggests that the movement may not be concerned with social stratification within adat communities themselves. This glossing allows for the resurrection of feudal elements, which continue to find resonance with certain segments of Indonesian society.
(Sangaji 2007:321)

45As the evolving historical trajectory of the uses of adat in Toraja has shown, the nobility was able to bring to bear adat in the context of very different transnational discourses because of its polyvalent character. By aligning their cause with the state – be it in matters of tourism, World Heritage or indigeneity as a special articulation of non-radical regionalism – noble Torajans were successful in securing state support for causes that also stabilised their hegemony within stratified Toraja society. Adat has proven to be a perfect mediator for the respective interests of state, nobility and international discourses. Its new emergence as masyarakat adat or indigeneity is due to a specific constellation of these three actors: a central state that has given away power to the periphery, a ruling nobility in search of new legitimizing discourses and transnational institutions that focus these peripheries as sites of promising democratic political projects.

46Indigeneity is generally credited with having the potential to re-define or ideally even reverse the relationship between centre and periphery. The Toraja case, however, points to a more complex situation. Toraja actors in the field of indigeneity skilfully use the state as a resource to articulate their political claims vis-à-vis Torajans of lower descent. Inequality is re-inscribed in a space in which it is not assumed to exist according to a nostalgic concept of indigeneity: within Toraja society itself. Far from enabling “the subaltern to speak”, indigeneity in the Toraja case serves as a means to again silence those who find it difficult to make political claims. Several writers have pointed out that the idea of indigeneity is also a sentimental reflection of – or relational to – the uneasiness of the West with modernity (Niezen 2004:70). Anthropology should not fall prey to this romanticised notion, but needs to keep on asking the same old questions: Who is speaking? Who are the locals in “local”? And who is included in and excluded by the “we” that claims culture – or adat?


1 I conducted a total of ten months of fieldwork in Indonesia (from October to November 2008, from September 2009 to April 2010 and again in May 2011) as a researcher with the Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin led project “Transcultural authorship, copyright and film. The case of funeral rituals among the Toraja in Sulawesi, Indonesia”. The project was part of the German Research Council (DFG) funded Interdisciplinary Research Unit “The Constitution of Cultural Property” at Göttingen University. I would like to thank Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, Stefanie Steinebach and Jovan Maud for their comments and criticism of earlier versions of this paper.

2 By equating indigeneity with masyarakat adat in the Toraja case-study, I follow my interview partners who used the terms interchangeably.

3 Definitions in international law and in the UNESCO Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People have deliberately been vague and non-binding, giving priority to self-identification (see the chapters by Göcke and Cabrera in this volume). They all stress, however, that indigenous people are not hegemonic (Martínez Cobo 1983:379).

4 This statement cuts short a long and controversial discussion about the “nature” of indigeneity. See Kenrick and Lewis (2004) and Mackey (2005) for an (at least strategically) essentialist understanding. Kuper (2003; 2005:204-218) staunchly rejects even the idea of indigeneity.

5 See Acciaioli (2007) and Moniaga (2004, 2007) for an analysis of the emergence of masyarakat adat as a political category in Indonesia.

6 When I talk about “Toraja”, I refer to these two regencies.

7 The homepage of the former regency of Tana Toraja mentioned more than 600,000 migrants in 2007 (Kabupaten Tanah Toraja 2007).

8 The 4% Hindu are probably mostly followers of the local religion aluk to dolo, which gradually lost its appeal after independence. It was successfully registered as a variant of Hinduism at the Indonesian Department of Religion in 1969 (Waterson 2009:356).

9 For an excellent discussion of the intricacies of Toraja stratification see Nooy-Palm (1979:43-57).

10 The name “Toraja” stems linguistically from the Bugis expression to riaja – “the people living upstream”, and does not refer to shared cultural features but to a geographical location.

11 A detailed analysis of the historical context of conversions and the consequences of the mission for the local religion aluk to dolo is provided by Waterson (2009:297-430).

12 The importance of tourism in and for Toraja has been reflected in a number of anthropological analyses. The early development of tourism is discussed by Volkman (1982; 1984a; 1984b; 1987). For an intricate study of the mutually constitutive fields of tourism and “culture” in Toraja, and the Indonesian state as an important actor in shaping the local understanding of Toraja culture, see Adams (2006).

13 Money provided by the state and foreign NGOs went into the renovation of noble tongkonan, while 60% of the entrance fees to officially registered tourist objects go to the noble clan which is responsible for the oldest tongkonan in the hamlet.

14 Esolon is the Indonesian term for the ranks of civil servants, with esolon 1 being the highest rank.

15 “Toraya” is the Torajan word for Toraja.

16 His term ended in 2005.

17 AMAN membership is not based on a representative system, which means that several groups from one masyarakat adat or ethnic group can register with AMAN. See Acciaioli (2007:299-303) for further explanations.

18 Ibu Den Upa Rombelayuk, the wife of the late Bapak Sombolinggi, who facilitated the first meeting of masyarakat adat groups in Toraja in 1993, was one of the heads of the founding board of AMAN and head of AMAN’s committee for indigenous women. Their two daughters both worked for AMAN and are now transnational activists with the Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact (AIPP).

Table des illustrations

Légende Pana, a hamlet which is not officially recognised as a “tourist object”, boasts of the global tourist attention it nevertheless attracts.Photo: Karin Klenke 2008
Fichier image/jpeg, 769k
Légende The late Bapak C. L. Palimbong, head of AMA-Toraya until his death in 2010 delivers the opening speech at the official ceremony for AMA-Toraya’s 11th birthdayPhoto: Karin Klenke 2010
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Légende The acting district head of North Toraja, Bapak Y. S. Dalipang, is ushered to his seat at the official ceremony to celebrate the 11th anniversary of the founding of AMAN.Photo: Karin Klenke 2010
Fichier image/jpeg, 957k


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