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From Totems To Newsletters, Kinship Is At The Core Of Indigenous Communities

The concept of kinship is central to tribal societies. It determines many aspects of how the particular community navigates with its structure and identity. From birth to death, Adivasi/indigenous communities rely on the bond shared between its members. The focus is on community living rather than the individual. While such structures of kinship may have some undesirable consequences related to personal freedom, in many cases, communities have thrived because of this. Increasingly, the Khuigai Kamei tribe of Manipur have found novel ways of guaranteeing the age-old structure. Members are respecting their totems, coming up with newsletters, and maintaining a community 'banking system' to ensure that there is much brotherhood among the people.

A memorial stone acts as a reminder of the common ancestry of Khuigai Kamei tribe.

The Khuigai Kamei community are one of the many Naga tribes of North-East India. Among these people, every clan has a totem. As a symbolic object, the totem is a reminder of a clan's ancestry and through it the whole community can be imagined as one. This totemic reference is seeing a revival of late. One of the ways through which the totem is brought to the fore is through memorialization. In 2017, the Khuigai Kamei clan of Lamdan Village, Manipur erected a memorial stone. On the stone, the image of a wild pigeon is engraved, memorializing their common ancestry. Now this practice is not particularly modern for the Nagas. In Manipur there is a village called Makhel. It is believed that the whole of the Nagas lived in this village at one point of time in history, and when the community expanded and departed to settle elsewhere, they erected stones to memorialize their common ancestry. These stones are still in existence today, and it serves as the locus of Naga history. Although this practice is not modern, modernity has given this practice a certain adrenaline and visibility through professionalization of arts and crafts.

Guangmei Kamei, a resident said, “For us this memorial stone is a very important. Our society is an oral society and our ancestors have always empathized of erecting stones as markers of our past. We don’t have written script so these carry with them stories. And they stand as testaments to our society. Even today most of our people are barely literate and people who can read and write have moved to the towns and cities. The chances of them coming back to the village are very less. So this stone one day will remind their children of our common ancestry and origin.” The Khuigai Kamei clan is also making use of print capitalism. Every year the whole clan have an annual meeting. On this occasion a newsletter is published and circulated among the members. The newsletter contains brief annual report of the activities and achievements of the clan. Reports on activities like clan participation in social and cultural events in Manipur, career counselling, academic achievements, observation and fasting and appointment of new members are mostly documented. In addition special remembrance notes for the people who had died in the passing year are part of the newsletter.

What distinguished tribal economy from other modern economy are monetization and banking. Until the exposure of the tribals with the modern world, tribal economic dealings were limited to bartering. With the monetization of the economy, bartering has taken a back seat. The Khuigai Kamei clan also has a financial self-help group. Each year a certain amount of money is collected from the clan members and the money is loaned out for a certain amount of interest. The revenue generated is also reserved for loaning out again, thus widening the scope for more revenue. At the end of every

financial year, the money is tallied and the whole clan can either divide the revenue generated or organize a big feast. Maringgai K., a former financial secretary, said “This system works like a bank in a very basic form. For every hundred rupees, we charge three rupees interest. Normally the loan period is for a year, after which the borrower returns the money and interest. At times if the principal amount cannot be returned, we charge the interest and give grace period. But unlike banks we cannot loan out huge amounts. However, it is an easy process for villages to borrow money for emergency purposes or even cultivation purposes. During my tenure, a lot of people came to borrow money during plantation seasons. Money to till the paddy field, to buy vegetable seeds and fertilizers, and to send money for children staying outside are the common purposes for which people approach us.”

The Rongmei Nagas are not the only one who dearly hold on to their kinship. The Peitei tribe in Manipur has also been holding on close to their kinship and tradition. Among the Peiteis, the Guite clan holds the position of the village. This tradition has been followed even today and the clan perform the duty to care for the welfare of the village folks. Thian Guite explains, “The Guite chiefs of all the village meet once in a year. In the meeting, they organize a sacrificial ritual to ask forgiveness for the wrongdoings and seek blessings for the coming year. The clan also have a welfare society that looks at the need of the people. The society functions on membership and donations. And the society helps out people in need of money, rice or clothing. It also takes care of students who are struggling to pay fees, or people struggle with health issues. Through these ways kinship is maintained and traditional roles are performed.”

The tribals today are the crossroad of modernity. As for now they seem to be adopting modern means to strengthen their bonds. But there is also an under current wave that is creating ripples. Families are moving out to seek better opportunities to better their lives. There is no harm in moving out to the city and town, but what remains to be seen is how this kinship will hold on. Perhaps the next generation holds the key to main kinship.

About the author: Boniface G Kamei belongs to the Rongmei Naga tribe of Manipur, India. He is currently a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad.


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