Tribal Vertigo: Exploring the Origin of Tribes Among Nagas

Tezenlo Thong

The term “tribe” has never been used in a positive sense. It is, from the very inception, laden with a pejorative overtone.
For instance, Western social theorists have used tribe to refer to the earliest stage of human social development that is primitive, savage and far from sophisticated. Today, in international political discourse, the word “tribalism” has come to mean chaos, lawlessness or destabilization. Unfortunately, tribal situations, such as we have among contemporary Nagas, do not offer any positive image as a refutation against the stereotype. Lately, tribal consciousness has become all the more manifest and detrimental among the Nagas. Therefore, at this crucial juncture in our history, when almost everything in our social relationship is tied to the reality of the existence of tribes among us, we need to reexamine the origin of tribes and its negative impacts on us.

At the outset, let me assert that the term “tribe” did not exist in the dictionary of Nagas. If any Naga community has it today, like many other words, the term is likely to be a later formation. I do not believe that a vocabulary equivalent to the concept of tribe as we know today existed in any Naga language in the pre-colonial period. The term “tribe”, which has come to be used very frequently amongst us and without serious thoughts on its ramifications, is an externally imposed category with specific intent and purpose. It is, among many others, a colonial construct imposed on us. Put it differently, tribal consciousness among the Nagas or any “tribal” peoples is one of the lingering colonial legacies still with us. It derives not only its terminology but also its divisive, demoralizing and denigrating force from colonialism. As for the Nagas, six decades after the departure of the colonizers, “tribalism” still lives on among us and casts negative impacts on our relationship. It continues to create among us opposing ideas of “our tribe” and “their tribe” or “them” and “us.” Tribalism or tribal favoritism has come to color or taint everything among the Nagas, be it employment, economic and development opportunities, politics or aspiration for political emancipation.

Scholars believe that the term “tribe” has no consistent meaning; rather, it carries misleading historical and cultural assumptions. For these and other reasons, some indigenous scholars resist the use of the word. John Bodley, a well-respected anthropologist put it well when he said, “In the modern world, the term tribal is even more problematic because…. [‘Tribes’] often were created by colonial governments as political units, with ‘chiefs’ appointed for administrative purposes. In some areas, tribe is used as a self-designation by indigenous peoples, although other may reject it as derogative or divisive.” J.P. Mills, who was once a colonial administrator over Nagas, came close to, at least implicitly, saying that Nagas did not have tribes. He said, “The Naga social unit is not the tribe, but the village. Confederacies of villages may be formed, but they are usually ephemeral…. Few villages have real chiefs.” The word “tribe” has colonial derivation, which was projected into our psyche and is now deeply engraved in our brain. We then play out this imagery in our day-to-day relationship, which is destructive for a healthy and peaceful co-existence. Let us, therefore, do away with this falsified imagery of tribe/tribalism and construct a model that would help us unite and stand together. Because tribe is just a mental representation or symbol, a terminology and concept that we think is real - but is not.

Classification or categorization of the “Other” was a common attribute of classical colonialism, because being able to classify under a certain taxonomy or rubric, among other things, made colonial control and manipulation easier. The naming of the Nagas as “Nagas” and then segmenting us into different “tribes” is foreign to us both in concept and in terminology. Unlike Nagas, Western culture has the practice of naming every thing, such as hurricanes, warships, military operations, etc. Naming, therefore, is very much a Western cultural phenomenon, a child of the European Enlightenment, because naming name and describing “it” gives power and control. If you have the name and the ability to explain it, you have “knowledge” over it, and you become an “authority”. Wherever colonizers went, they named or renamed names, classified, categorized, divided and ruled over the natives. Hence, the old cliché, “divide and rule.”

I’d love to be able to speak with someone in my native language and share my cultural distinctiveness, such as my “tribal” food, with another person of the same ability and taste. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, once I begin to privilege and favor someone because we speak the same language or we belong to the same “tribe”, the harmony or goodwill of my larger community is undermined and betrayed. Most Nagas profess to be Christians, but it is obvious that we have not been truly converted from our tribal biases and prejudices. That is why we keep on seeing ugly expressions of tribalism that deeply hurt our social relationship and reinforce and sustain the colonial image that Nagas are wild, violent and barbaric.

When we Nagas set out of our homeland, we are treated as Nagas, not as someone belonging to this or that tribe. We are not discriminated against as a member of a particular group. Rather, each of us is perceived and treated as a Naga. This experience should help us to carry ourselves and our image both within and outside the state as Nagas, not as a member of a specific tribal group. For Nagas, as a minority and “tribal” people, our problem is not only political. We have numerous other issues that we need to confront unitedly, not as several fragmented and undermined forces. Whether it is in relation to political, social or economic issue, it does not serve us and our cause well when we engage in tribal consciousness or tribal favoritism and carry that mentality with us in our day-to-day dealings and association with one another. What good does it do if one tribe prospered and another one suffered? Such power and economic disparity will only bring communal misery and accentuate tribal hatred and division. In order to live in a more peaceful and equitable society, we need to march and prosper together as ONE Nagas, not as Naga tribes or Naga factions.