top of page

Reclaiming Our Identity

Naga headgear is decorated with hornbill feathers and is worn by men during ceremonial dances. Photo: Penou Hiekha

Nina ha ete Kyong kae? (Are you a human/person too?) This is how I identify a community member or a fellow countryperson. Then comes, Nino enti yanla, ento jipo la? (Which village and which clan are you from?) Three questions asked, and the individual’s lineage or ancestry would be established.

I was born into the Lotha-Naga community. The Lotha-Naga people today number at least 200,000 and reside in the state of Nagaland, Northeast India. Thousands of years ago, the Naga ancestors migrated to and settled in their present homeland, which now lies in Nagaland state. Today, Nagaland is home to sixteen Naga ethnic communities, including the Lotha-Naga. Many Naga groups also live outside of Nagaland, spread throughout northeastern India and northwestern Burma. The Nagas have linguistic roots that belong to the Tibeto-Burman languages and have cultural resemblance to the many ethnic nationalities in Southeast Asia.

A mountain view near Zubza village, Nagaland. Most areas across the Naga homeland have similar scenery. Photo: Riathung Ngüllie

Our world lay untouched by external civilization for generations, guarded by a supreme being who dwelled high in the sky. Many spirits existed, both benevolent and unforgiving in nature, and life after death continued in “The Land of the Dead.” Then, British explorers stumbled on us in the mid-nineteenth century, and that allowed colonization by the British. The gun was followed by the Bible, and our insular spirit world broke open to a radical mix of traditional and modern beliefs.

When the British arrived, they began administering various regions, using modern education and imposing their religion to colonize the native population and administer them more easily. They allowed American missionaries to evangelize our people. Colonial administrators and settlers saw the Naga people and their traditions as “unrefined,” “savage,” and “paganistic.” For example, a New York Times article dated November 6, 1931, gives credit to the late Baptist missionary Rev. Dr. William Ellsworth Witter as the man who “codified [a] savage tongue”!

The erosion of the spirit world and of the culture and traditions associated with it proceeded gradually. Our way of life lost its purpose.

The concept of heaven and hell entered our worldview with the arrival of Christianity. Together, colonialism and the imported religion uprooted many of our fundamental traditional beliefs. Like the British administration, Christian missionaries discouraged the practice of traditional lifestyles and customs, which were seen as evil and taboo. It was believed that religion and Indigenous beliefs were two distinct and incompatible worlds. The erosion of the spirit world and of the culture and traditions associated with it proceeded gradually, and with that erosion our way of life lost its purpose. The practice of headhunting, which outsiders decried but which actually was a sacred ritual that involved the whole community, became obsolete toward the start of the twentieth century.

Lotha-Naga men’s traditional attire on display at the Naga Hornbill Festival in Kisama. Photo: Penuo Hiekha

Later, the post-colonial era gave rise to internal ethnic conflict. Our peoples wished to be left alone the way they were before the British arrived but were met with violent force by the newly independent nations of India and Burma. Bloody armed conflict affected generations of Naga people and is still ongoing today.

Meanwhile, local converts who had adopted Christianity tried to evangelize their fellow community members and those deemed to be pagans. In 2022, Nagaland celebrated the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity, as most Nagas today register and identify as Baptist Christians.

As I was growing up as a second-generation Baptist Christian from my clan, the information I was given left me with unanswered questions. In childhood, I would move between the old world and the new through traditional stories and tales, often told by my late mother. Whenever I mentioned something about the future, she would chide me, making reference to the presence of Sukhyingo (god of destiny and fortune in the Lotha-Naga traditional belief and folklore): “Don’t mention such a thing or Sukhyingo will hear you and life and fate won’t be favorable,” she would whisper with an air of caution. Furthermore, whenever I asked my mother questions about some cultural beliefs and practices, she would narrate a story about a boy who was eaten by a tiger painted on the wall for asking too many questions! Centuries ago, tigers and spirits shared the story world of many Naga communities.

My unanswered questions fueled my curiosity even more. I would listen to the stories, legends, and folklore narrated by my community Elders and clan members. In addition to oral narratives, only a few internal resources were available for reference, as most literature about us was written by British colonial administrators.

Indigenous Peoples have not been allowed to tell their own stories.

Stories recorded in colonial and post-colonial times offer a one-sided narrative. Indigenous stories have often been told, retold, and mistold by outsiders across the world and have for long been taken by and credited to outsiders, who were often deemed to be the experts! This process allowed a unilateral narrative of history, often captured through colonial and majoritarian lenses. Indigenous Peoples have not been allowed to tell their own stories.

Today, Naga stories have only begun to be understood, and this presents both challenges and opportunities. A counter-narrative of our stories and histories has started to be told and campaigned for by the Indigenous Peoples themselves.

The members of the incoming generation still question their identity and face cultural loss. Certain traditional practices still survive in some rural Naga villages, and others are re-enacted with the celebration of the annual Hornbill Festival. Naga people, across what for us are the artificial boundaries of India and Burma, attempt to display their traditions and cultures, but the Nagaland state government capitalizes on Naga identity, seeking to attract tourists to the Naga’s cultural celebrations at the festival, by profiting from the Naga cultural celebrations at the festival.

A young Sumi-Naga couple displays their cultural wear at the Hornbill Festival. Photo: Penuo Hiekha

Is the Naga identity surviving only in our dress, headgear, colored patterns, traditional foods, and other cultural features, or is there more to it? Is there a flicker of hope for reviving such a rich and complex culture, with its many diverse strands?

After reading Albert Maori Kiki’s Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime, I realized that the Naga’s journey is somewhat akin to what Albert narrates about his people in Papua New Guinea. While most civilizations and nations adapted to changing circumstances over centuries, the Naga needed to do this in only a few decades, with disastrous consequences.

An elderly Naga woman on her way to the local market to sell vegetables in Kohima, Nagaland. The bamboo basket on her back, often used to carry daily essentials, and the cars parked on the street show both the traditional and modern ways of living in Nagaland today. Photo: Erika Vega Anaya

Can Indigenous Peoples today stand up to the challenge of modernity imposed by giant corporations, businesses, and governments? We already see the devastating results of modernity and globalization on many Indigenous nations across the globe. Indigenous Peoples are the minority in many areas around the world. The assimilation of voiceless minorities threatens global cultural diversity, as nation-states see the homogenization of race, language, and culture as the basis of national identity.

I still hear our log drums beating. The beats arouse my spirit, which yearns to follow the values and goodness my ancestors believed in and practiced. I understand that my ancestors followed a way of life that was very humane and authentic to the human being. They served the larger community rather than asking to be served. They left no one behind.

Sumi-Naga women dressed and seated in their traditional attire at the Hornbill Festival. Photo: Penuo Hiekha

The traditional customs and practices of the Naga people encouraged both common individuals and men of wealth to serve the community with compassion, and by doing so, one could attain greater prestige. Sharing one’s wealth with the larger community was seen as meritorious and noble, a way to continue the Naga cycle of community giving and living.

I remember how my late mother, despite her rudimentary education, saved the best parts of a meal so that there would always be warm food to eat should a stranger or relative come unannounced to our door.

I learned from my uncles to take care of the fragile, be they human or other living beings; to leave no one behind; and to not uproot any plant—or, if I did, to plant something else in its place with great care. Community Elders and members of my people’s many clans taught me to only take what I need, restrain from greed, and think of the future generations that are coming after us, for it is our responsibility to leave a resource-full environment for them to thrive in after we are long gone.

My spirit yearns to follow the values and goodness my ancestors believed in and practiced.

In the ancestral past, the drums beat for celebration. Now they must beat differently to reclaim the best of humanity within. The drums have to beat against the destruction and pollution of nature, illegal mining, alcoholism, and modern corruption. Today, the struggle and the slogan of the battle within is to reclaim one’s identity, to reclaim one’s culture, and to reclaim the skies, rivers, waters, trees, and mountains.

Indeed, we see native settlers, Indigenous Peoples, Tribes, First Nations, Aboriginals, and Adivasis (native inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent) across the world’s boundaries reclaim their stories, rights, histories, lands, waters, and forests. By doing so, they are calling for the basic human values: to care, serve, and look out for the weak, the vulnerable, and the needy. Only by doing so, we usher the best identity in us all.

So, I ask you today, what kind of human are you?



About the author:- Riathung Ngüllie holds a graduate degree in social work from Loyola College, Chennai. His involvement with diverse Indigenous migrants in South India has only aroused his thirst to learn about and stand for the rights of ethnic communities around the world and to have the heart to do the right thing.

Note:- This article was first published on


bottom of page