The Indonesian Melting Pot – The Typological Debate

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What we know about a foreign culture is largely determined by the questions we ask

When it comes to defining and classifying ethnic groups, there are basically two schools of thought. One school holds that each group, tribe or people should be treated as a unquie case, and that a complex, holistic view of the group’s culture should be sought. Only when enough Indonesian cultures are documented, according to this view, can any meaningful typologies or comparisons be made. There is much to recommend such a cautious approach. Of course, the problem is that ethnographic information is by its very nature never complete. What we know about a foreign culture is largely determined by the questions we ask. An opposing view therefore says that we should begin by establishing certain general guidelines for classifyng Indonesian ethnic groups, then work to refine revise them.

One important distinction, which has been developed in the work of Clifford and Hildred Greertz, focuses on the two main agricultural patterns found in Indonesia: Ladang and sawah. Ladang agriculture, also reffered to by the Old English word “swidden” and by the descrptive phrase “slash-and burn,” is practised in marginal or heavily forested terrains, generally outside of Java and Bali. The ladang farmer itilizes fire as a tool, along with his axe and bush knife, to clear a forest plot. By carefully timing the burn to immediately precede the onset of rains, the farmer simultaneously fertilizes and weeds the land.

Depending on local soil conditions and tastes, the main staple corn planted might be a grain like rice or corn, a tuber like yams or taro, or a starch-producing palm like sago or lontar. Rice is the preferd crop in the western island tubers and sago palms predominate in the eastern and southeastern archipelagoes. Besides these, farmers also plant a great variety of other food crops, thereby in effect recreating the symbiotic system of a tropical forest found in nature, while also providing a more varied diet for themselves. After several years, homever, the land in these areas, never rich to begin with (most nutrients are provided by ash from the burn) is depleted and new plots must be cleared.
For obvious reason, the swidden method can support only a small population. In Kalimantan for instance, home of the notorious Iban and Dayak tribes, the average density is less than 10 person per sq km. The size and complexity of social organization within such ladang comunities. Nuclear families are generally autonomous, labouries exchanged with fellow villagers or kinsmen on a carefully calculated basis, and warfare, headhunting and slave raiding traditionally kept villages isolated and distant from one another.

While these semi-nomadic swidden farmers now comprise less than a tenth of Indonesia’s total population, they are scattered throughout more than two-thrids of the nation’s land area. Most Indonesians, by contrast, inhabit the narow palins and coastal regions of the major island, where the principal farming method employed is sawah or wet-rice paddy cultivation. In fact, two-thirds of Indonesia’s population (over 100 million people) live in Java and Bali, which between them comprise only about seven per cent of Indonesia land. Here the average rural population densities can soar as high as 2,000 people per sq kilometer (5,000 per sq mile) – by far the world’s highest! Sawah cultivation is a highly labour-intensive form or agriculture that can be successfully practised only under very special conditions (richsoil and adequate water supply), but one which seems capable of producing seemngly limitless quantities of food. The sedentary farmers who plant wet-rice paddies actually reshape their environment over a period of many generations clearing the land; terracing, levelling and diking the plots; and contructing elaborate irrigation systems. The permits miltiple-cropping and extremely hight yields, for the productivity of sawah plots responds dramatically to added care in all phases of the crop cycle: seed germination, transplanting, weeding, water control and harvesting.

As a result, this system has both required and rewarded a high degree of social cooperation. Particularly in Java and Bali, populous villages, have long been linked with towns – economically and culturally – through a single, hierarchically defined framework that has somehow directed and coordinated manpower to maintain the fragile irrigation work. The food surpluses produced by these peasant villages, have in turn permitted the cultivation of an urban opulence and refinement unheard of in other areas.

As might be expected, the sawah societies of Java and Bali are strikingly different from the ladang communities of the Outer Island. The Javanese, for example, put great emphasis on cooperation and social attitudes. Village deliberations are concluded not by majority or autoeratic rule, but by a consensus of elders or esteemed individuals. Rukun (harmony) is the primary goal, achieved through knowing one’s place within society and acting-out the assigned role . To be sopan-santun (well-mannered) is the rigid social norm-realized in a masterful display of elaborate etiquettes involving body language, emotional control and subtle games of deference and pride. In its most extreme form, as practised within the inner circles of the Javanese and Balinese courts, these etiquettes developed into something more than just a convenient social mode-they became a richly elaborated theatre of status rituals and insignia.

The distinction made here between wet-rice and swidden communities is of course simplitic in the extreme. Not only are many other means of food procurement practised in Indonesia – hunting, trapping, fishing and foraging to name but a few of the alternatives – but in fact each area and each people seem to have developed their own way of doing things.
In several fertile highland plateaus of Sumatera, for example – home of the Batak, the Minangkabau and teh Besemah peoples who were traditionally swiddeners, wer-rice has been grown now for several centuries and yet the villages often maintain what appear to be archaic forms of ladang community organization. Indeed, there is no single way of adapting to a wet-rice cultivation system, and even on Java and Bali many variations are found.

Moreover, those who practise some form of ladang will normally supplement this with food from other sources. tribes such as the Punan of central Borneo and the elusive Kubu of eastern Sumatera will often hunt pigs and other wild game using ingenious traps, snares, nets and blowpipes with poison-tipped darts. Fishing is often acomplished by soaking a section of deris root in a stream, thereby stunning the fish, who float to the surface to be handily collected. And a daily gathering of wild fruiuts, nuts, vegetables, shellfish, snails, frogs and snakes provides side dishes to be eaten with the staple starch of tubers or the sago pith of certain palms.

These hunter-gatherers are often extremely shy because they have long been abused by their more sophisticated neighbours. In the past, however, highly valuable trade products such as aromatic woods and resins, barksm spices, plumage, birds, beeswax, rhinoceros horn and bezoar stones were collected by forest dwellers to be exchanged for metal tools, beads, glass ornaments, earrings, and the like at river tranding posts. Exotic items such as these once formed a substantial part of the trade tha linked remote Indonesian ports to the luxury market of China and India in ancient times, via a complex chain of transaction. Then of course there are the sea-gypsies or orang laut who live on small, single family boats, fishing along the coasts and estuaries and gathering edibles from the strand. They dry fish, dive for pearls and collect swallows’ nests from caves at certain rocky shores, to be bartered for iron harpoon heads and rice at coastal ports.

Colourful sea gypsy crafts now have a fairly limited range of movement, but these aboriginal mariner tribes are found all throughout the coasts and island of the Indonesian archipelago – from the Mergui chain just off the coast of Burma, through the Riau Archipelago opposite Singapore, all the way around the coasts of Borneo and Sulawesi to the Sulu chain in the southern Philippines. The lifestyle of these orang laut must not be terribly far removed from that of many early Austronesian settlers – those hardy navigators who sailed across great distances  thousand of years ago to populate the islands of the archipelago.

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