“Palaver not finished,” a friend from Zimbabwe used to say if he had something important on his mind but noticed that people were moving away from him. He is now dead and gone and still leaves behind unfinished palavers. I think this piece also deserves a ‘palaver not finished’ label. I have called it cultural theft some years ago. The activity that is rampant in Naga society today. I am compelled to return to it again because things have not gotten any better.
Palaver not finished. Cultural theft is happening not just at the academic level; it is now happening at the level of our subsistence. To illustrate what cultural theft is, let me narrate an incident. An American group was touring Nagaland. We met briefly at one of Kohima’s lodges. Their guide, a young non-Naga from a neighbouring state, stood in front of a row of photos of Nagas from Mon and Tuensang and rattled off information on the tribe as though he were a native! He rendered the whole thing with such aplomb that the tourists were satisfied and thanked him. The whole performance made a host of questions pop up inside me. Do our young people even have half the information that this man has on our people? To be a tourist guide armed with cultural information on the Nagas was a job opening for many young Naga graduates. But it seems to be slipping from our hands without our awareness. That employment seems to be going to other states who are more smart at recognizing the value such knowledge can give them.
I don’t think it will be possible to stop others from peddling the information they have on our culture. But let us think up smarter ways that will make the native tourist guide more attractive than the guide from outside the area. Schools must include in their syllabus whole subjects on Naga Tribes, their distinct cultural practices, their costumes and the meanings behind them, tattoo patterns and symbols, food habits and agricultural systems, in brief, the world-view of each tribe in a format that is interesting and easily accessible for our students. The brochures given out by the Department of Tourism do not have space to carry this information. In any case it is not the department’s responsibility. It is something that schools should teach punctiliously. We have had endless seminars on the crisis of Naga identity: including subjects on Naga culture is going to give our youngsters a clear picture of what their identity is. I laud the SCERT’s efforts in creating a textbook on Naga Heritage which will introduce aspects of Naga culture into the schools. They need all the support we can give.
Some days ago, a link to a tour being arranged by University of Cambridge to the Northeast received much flak. The tour was titled, “The tribes and wildlife of Assam and Nagaland.” The blurb outraged people who were angry that Naga tribes were classed with wildlife. At least one comment stated that there were tour operators who were trying to promote Nagas as former cannibals.
How can we stop this kind of misinformation and continuing exploitation of the exoticization of the Nagas? We cannot. But we can counter it by making sure the right kind of information is dispensed to young Nagas so that they have all the facts right.
In the recent past I thought a forum to stop cultural theft would be the ideal answer. Not many of us have the foresight that the Khasis had in the nineties to protect their botanical wealth and their folklore from being patented by outsiders. I’m sure this is something still possible to organize. But in its absence, arming our children with education on our Naga history, and our rich traditions and, very importantly, imparting to them the sense that such education is a very precious legacy that they have inherited – this will itself be a guardian against cultural theft. They will then become the owners of their cultures, they will automatically shield it from wrong usage. In many cases, children are not getting cultural education from their parents in families where both parents are working and have no time. In any case, the patterns of our lives are too modernized today to have room for that. The school is our best hope. Palaver not finished.