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Nagas: The Artistic Communitarian Society That Has Been Unjustly Represented Through Ages

It appears that two imageries dominate the discourse on the Nagas in popular media: one, the popular hornbill festival; and two, the imagery of head hunting. If one is allowed to exaggerate a little, these imageries invoke the colonial description of the tribes as people with unalloyed pleasure for dancing, singing, drinking, sex, blood and violence. Of the two, the imagery of head hunting was arbitrarily used by the colonial officials to describe the Nagas. The usage has been so extensive that this image has become ingrained in people’s perceptions and the Naga identity canvas is not complete without it. Colonial ethnographers made extensive use of head ‘hunting’/ ‘head-hunter’ to describe the Nagas. JP Mills, TC Hudson and JH Hutton are some of these ethnographers. Contemporary works, like that of Paul Hathaway, the author of From Head-Hunters to Church Planters, invoke the imagery of head hunting. Also, the pronouncement of the Naga regiment, an infantry regiment of the Indian Army, is not complete without the keyword head-hunter. Now this is not to say that the Nagas have not asserted the head hunting practice. The recent Oting firing in Mon, Nagaland provoked many Nagas to argue for the head hunting practice, as a possible response to state's (mis)conduct. This repeated reference has made Lorine, a postgraduate student, say, "We have been branded as head-hunters so much that at times I feel that it has overshadowed our history and there is nothing left for us to say about our history and culture. It in a way leaves a vacuum about our history." It is from this perspective that I have engaged with people on the question of why the Nagas should not be called head-hunters because this question has been long overdue.

Source: Google Images

Porhonga Jishing, the village chief of Lolashonyu Village in Nagaland, said, “When people call me head-hunter I never take pride in it. I would rather like to clear them that it was not our tradition but an act or a tactic to take power over another. The practice was a necessity then. It was before our forefathers converted to Christianity. In the old days, it was considered as a sign of bravery and our tribe practiced this to scare off the enemies from our land. The tradition of head hunting is very evil and scary. And we should not boast about being head-hunters because it was a necessary/situational practice during periods of war, to have power over our enemies. As humans and as Christians we have progressed from our past practice, and so if we still feel respected or have a feeling of achievement from the past glory of head hunting then it is completely wrong.” When asked how the Nagas should be known Jishing replied, “We were known for our hard work, honesty, language, craftsmanship, handloom and handicraft. We are artistic people and we take pride in these arts and we value and preserve them. People should identify us through these practices.”

Esther Doumai, a researcher in oral history, gave a similar view. “Head hunting was not a random and mindless act of killing. It was more of a necessary code given the socio-political setup then. Wars were waged and there was no political umbrella body to dictate terms of war and peace. But this is not to say that warfare, feud and head hunting were the only ways of life. There was more to the Naga life. There were peacetime festivals and feasts. For instance, the feast of merit was an important cultural practice that promoted communitarianism. Only few people could host such a feast because it was an expensive affair, and people who had toiled hard for good harvest for years could organize a feast to share food and drinks with the whole village community. A person who could organize the feast was given an honour both in his lifetime and also after death. To put into perspective, headhunting was just an aspect of life then, it was not a defining feature because practices like the feast of merit were equally desirable or even more to the people, for the honour it brought in death.”

Likewise, Alo, a young computer student, said, “I am not conformable when people use the word head-hunters to describe the Nagas. Although I won’t deny that some Nagas take pleasure and valorise our head hunting practice. But such practices happened at a specific historical context. The usage was derogatory then and today its usage makes my skin crawl because for me it will always mean savagery, and people with little or no knowledge will consider us barbaric. And this is not an exaggeration.”

Rhulia Nukhu, a working individual, gave a slightly different interpretation. “I feel good that people outside know my roots. Headhunting gives us a sense of being fierce, brave and territorial oriented. Head hunting was practiced in the past and it was done for survival. But I want people to know or remember our cultural history as community oriented, generous and colourful people as shown in our traditional attires and regalia.”

Source: Google Images

The common threads from these comments are that head hunting was a historical practice, however, it was an act of necessity and something which the Nagas did not practice as part of their daily discourse. Head hunting as a practice has ceased but other cultural practices continue which should be the foundation for identifying the community. As much as people have characterized the Nagas as head-hunters, the Nagas wish to be known otherwise, as an artistic communitarian society.

Here as part of the conclusion, I would like to argue as to why the Nagas should not be called head-hunters. To begin with, we must reflect back at the rationale behind why the colonial state used the term head-hunter to describe the Nagas. The rationale was to establish a dichotomy between the colonizers and the natives, the former as civilized and the latter as savages. This very rationale was used as a justification for colonial intervention and to bring the rule of law among the natives. The term is also misleading as it eclipses many aspects of the Naga society. The constant reference and representation of Nagas as head hunters has painted a picture where the readers/viewers think that the life and society of the Nagas revolves around this sole aspect. It also undermines the democratic set up of many tribes and also the institutions that have the legitimacy to declare war and peace. For instance, among the Ao Nagas, the institution of Putu Menden decided on war and peace with villages and tribes, with the consent of the people. Further it eclipses the concept of forgiveness. Not every discord ended with decapitation. Among the Angamis, a person was forgiven if he accepted his adversary as the father. Among the Mao tribe, if a person offered a lock of hair, his life was not taken. Therefore, the term head-hunter being synonymously associated with the Nagas is unfair and alienating.

About the Author: Boniface Gaigulung Kamei is a Research Scholar at the University of Hyderabad.


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