Monday, 21 May 2012

Cultural theft vs. the gift of other eyes

Some years ago a plainsman came to the village of Khonoma in Nagaland. He made the acquaintance of an old woman who was a healer and a herbalist. Badgering her for many days and offering her a sum of money that was very large for a simple village dweller he made her part with the secrets of her herbal knowledge.

In a separate incident, a female research scholar from a state in eastern India gleaned a lot of information on Naga women. This took place in the nineties. The focus of her study was the physical and mental problems that Naga women endure in the midst of a political conflict. The scholar sent out questionnaires to several educated people in Nagaland without revealing her intentions. She then used that information to promote herself as an expert on Naga women and was invited to international seminars where she represented the case of women in conflict situations with special reference to the women of Nagaland. By virtue of the knowledge she received from the questionnaires, she made herself an authority on Naga women.

In yet another case, a woman from Vancouver has been regularly traveling to Nagaland to bring back Naga artefacts to sell at a huge Vancouver fair each year. Museums in Europe pay high prices for Naga artefacts sold by non-Naga traders. Cultural theft of Naga lore, that is the treasure of native wisdom, and theft of Naga crafts is happening at many levels.

Cultural theft is a big issue that has not been addressed yet in Nagaland because people are not aware that theft is taking place. Even today, Nagas readily part with their handicrafts and information on their culture because they do not realise that it is being traded for money in an economically global world or for intellectual rewards in the academic world.

It was saddening to see that a writer from another Indian state was used by the department of Art and Culture to write a volume of Naga folktales. The said volume was published by a Delhi-based publishing company funded by the government of Nagaland. I consider that as cultural theft aided by our own government. It is ludicrous to think that a writer from North India could do a better job of writing down the folk tales of the Nagas than the Nagas themselves.

It is equally preposterous to conclude that a non-Naga scholar could represent Naga women and advocate their pain better than Naga women scholars. These are thefts going on without checks. The whole question of cultural theft came to me when I was invited to an exhibition on the Nagas entitled, Jewels and Ashes. It is being held from January to June 2012 in Vienna's Museum for Volkekunde. It is a remarkable collection of Naga jewellery, and material objects of the Nagas by Austrian anthropologist Christoph von Furer Haimendorf. The anthropological collection was done in the late 1930s as well as after the Second World War. Haimendorf was well known to the native population and he paid handsomely for the items he was buying from the villagers. At the exhibition, Haimendorf's collection was supplemented by other museum collections in recent years.

Could the items in the exhibition be considered items of cultural theft? I asked myself. The answer was no. The original collectors had taken immense care to set up an archive for the Naga collection. In the intervening period, the cultural objects have been given legitimacy and new status and identity in Europe. The caretaking of these items by the museum made spiritual repossession possible by its former owners. Added to that, they have increased in value by being imbued with the gift of other eyes. Viewed by other eyes and deemed valuable and artistic by other eyes, they have received new life and become more than just cultural objects.

I observed that the museum's attitude to the objects was completely different from the previously mentioned cases of theft: for the museum, the exhibits are culture-carrying artefacts which should be displayed properly so they can point back to the culture they came from. It elicited deep appreciation in their Naga owners and reinforced the desire to protect the cultural treasures that they still have. It also eliminated the sense of shame that frequently plagues cultures that have been colonised in the past. There are several things that the Vienna exhibition achieves. The foremost is giving visibility to a remote mountain region as Nagaland was referred to at the 2008 basel exhibition. The interest taken in Naga culture by European audiences is becoming contagious. It greatly helps Nagas to try and understand their own cultures and look with new eyes upon their culture. It is an action that participates in a significant way in putting back value into that which was devalued by colonisation.

Cultural theft in the Naga case, has all been about people taking our knowledge and the opportunities that go with it. Beginning with the Naga exhibition at Museum der Kultur in basel, that is being turned around to some degree. The basel and Zurich exhibitions of 2008 gave great visibility to the Nagas. And now, the Austrian media has featured the 2012 Vienna exhibition prominently, with carefully balanced interviews and good reporting. It prioritised the opinions of the owners of the cultural objects and the knowledge that goes with them.

On the items in the museum, some are objects of art carefully wrought by hand. To me it means that people had the time to sit and create things with their hands, that there were long periods of peace where they could exercise the expression of their creative talents. This is such important information because it disproves the stereotypical image of the Naga as the incessantly feuding, bloodthirsty, barbaric head hunter, primarily preoccupied with battlesport. The objects in the museum which have come from a region which is stereotyped even among the Nagas themselves (as the last region of headhunting and barbarism), actually show great artistry and craftsmanship. I love that the exhibition opens up these other  levels of Nagahood. It challenges the onlooker to look at the Nagas beyond the confines of stereotypes. There is more to them than the headhunting. There is more to them than a long drawn out political conflict. There is more to them than the festivals that draw in tourists once a year.

This challenging of stereotypes is another point that distinguishes the exhibition from cultural theft. In the cases of cultural theft, the thief perpetuates the stereotypical ways of looking at Naga culture. It allows room only for the thief's representation and makes no room for the voice of its authentic owners. Fifteen years ago, I was acquainted with a group in Meghalaya who were intending to patent both their botanical wealth and their folklore. Nagaland has no such strategy yet, but the threat of theft is more than real. Closing our cultural borders to outsiders is a strategy that will seem strange to us. But there are few alternatives for protecting our knowledge from those who are using it unscrupulously. In a manner of speaking, they are stealing from our children because they are staking claim to knowledge that legally belongs to our children.

Cultural theft is a generational crime. It is not much different from stealing a priceless heirloom that has been in the family for generations. But it is worse than that because it is actually stealing from the future and creating confusion about ownership. It is an insidious crime because it uses the assistance of government machinery to legitimise it. In the name of research, non-Naga scholars are continuing to commit cultural theft. Naga culture needs all the protection it can get so that the next generation is not doomed to having their culture dictated to them by an 'expert' from another state.


Originally published at The North-East Blog and Eastern Mirror Nagaland

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