The Flow of Milk: Nursing Prescriptions, Clanship and Locality in Nage Society

Article excerpt

The Nage people of central Flores comprise numerous clans (woe), preferably patrilineal groups which in many cases are associated, as it were totemically, with natural species and other natural phenomena (Forth 2009a). For the most part, these are trees after which the clan is named, and where a clan bears such a name its members are prohibited from burning the wood or using the timber in construction. The present discussion concerns what can be conceived as the inverse of Nage plant totemism--a practice where Nage clanship finds expression not in plant prohibitions but in the prescription of particular plant foods. In accordance with the clan affiliation of newborn infants, new mothers are obliged to consume specific plant foods (in just one case combined with an animal food) in order to promote the flow of their milk. Whereas Nage plant totems are partial in the sense that not all clans possess such totems, nursing prescriptions are observed by all clans and so apply to everyone. At the same time, by no means all individual clans possess distinct nursing prescriptions, or clan 'galactogogues' as they can also be called--in spite of the fact that Nage speak of the prescriptions as properties of clans rather than of more inclusive or exclusive forms of social grouping.

By contrast to food prohibitions, which are a common entailment of clan totemism, a prescription of different foods among social segments or sub-groups appears ethnographically unusual; hence one purpose of this article is to introduce a practice which seems not to have been reported before. However, the paper concerns more than a peculiar dietary usage, for the practice and the way Nage represent it hold wider implications for the nature of clans and concepts of clanship in this part of eastern Indonesia. What are represented as clan specific nursing prescriptions may appear ethnographically odd, yet they are in fact comparable to other practices found worldwide that have previously been treated under the heading of 'couvade'. More specifically, they can be understood as a way men express and affirm their fights in children born to women deriving from other clans, a significance of special import in a society in which there is a demonstrable tension between claims of the spouses' clans to both the children of a marriage and the person of the other spouse*


Although the name 'Nage' became applied during the colonial period to a far wider territory, in a stricter ethnolinguistic sense it refers to what, since Indonesian independence, have been called the 'three Nage desa'. These are three modern administrative units that include Nage in their names (viz. Nata Nage, Nage Sapadhi, and Nage 'Oga) and whose inhabitants consider themselves a cultural and linguistic unity. More recently, owing to population expansion, two of the three have been divided, thus giving rise to additional 'desa' (Forth 2009a). Nevertheless, Nage still employ the names of these three communities to identify their demographic and geographical core. As in previous writing, I refer to the region they occupy as 'central Nage', and it is specifically to this part of central Flores that the present analysis applies.

Called woe, Nage clans typically comprise segments inhabiting two or more villages (bo'a). Woe can also refer to a segment of a clan localized in a single village* A localized segment can be conceived as a 'house' (sa'o), usually an unnamed group occupying one or more actual dwellings, which exercises rights to land and other property mostly independently of other segments of the same clan. Some 'ancient houses' (sa'o waja), or what I have elsewhere called 'cult houses'--that is, houses built in a particular form and owned primarily by the leading segment of a clan--have names; however, most houses are simply distinguished with reference to founding male ancestors. Sometimes members of the same clan resident in the same village are recognized as composing distinct 'houses', usually just two, but more often they form just a single group. …