Tree Totems and the Tamarind People: Implications of Clan Plant Taboos in Central Flores

By Forth, Gregory | Oceania, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Tree Totems and the Tamarind People: Implications of Clan Plant Taboos in Central Flores


Forth, Gregory, Oceania


The search for a unitary theory of totemism was rightly abandoned decades ago, and the topic itself was virtually abolished when Levi-Strauss (1962) declared it an illusion. If Levi-Strauss buried totemism, its fate has been further sealed by what, to extend the mortuary analogy, may be called the 'secondary burial' recently accorded it by historian Robert Jones (2005). Nevertheless, ethnography continues to attest to the common occurrence, in culturally diverse settings, of an association of social groups and categories with animals, plants, and other natural phenomena. Referring to difficulties in the use of 'ritual' as an analytical category, Humphrey and Laidlaw thus remark how, with 'totemism' and 'taboo' as well, 'a whole literature exists dissolving such categories', yet 'they go on recurring faute de mieux' (1994:67). Making a similar point, Roy Willis had earlier noted how totemism, despite being declared dead, 'obstinately refuses to "lie down"' (1990:5). He then went on to speak of a 'totemic revival' and a new enthusiasm comparable to the interest in totemism in 'the great days of Frazer and Durkheim'.

Whereas Willis construes totemism fairly broadly and focuses on relations between humans and animals, the present essay, drawing on fieldwork conducted among the Nage people of eastern Indonesia, concerns instances of plant totems. In a somewhat classical vein, the human constituents in this case are moreover clans, and the totemic relationship consists principally in a naming of clans after trees and a concomitant tabooing of the identically named species. How far Willis's totemic revival has been sustained during the last two decades is uncertain. Yet, with the continuation of ethnographic research, particularly in non-western parts of the world, there are still new things to be learned about totemistic symbolism. Indeed, in the case of the Nage, a people who in their entirety bear the name of the Tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica), political developments in the last one hundred years, thus since the days of totemism's early anthropological reign, appear to have lent Nage totemism a new lease on life, and to have done so particularly in respect to one seemingly new totemic relationship.

My intention, however, is not to resurrect 'totemism' as a general or definitive category of cross-cultural analysis. To the extent that it can have comparative value, the term is best employed as an 'odd-job' word denoting a variety of relations between social groups (and especially social sub-groups or segments) and natural kinds or phenomena. Although quite consistently linked with taboos on associated plants, Nage tree totemism is, as I show, a partial and historically derived phenomenon, and not an expression of a completely general, unitary, or systemic principle of social or conceptual order. It represents, in other words, a tendency to link plants and people in particular ways, and is not the totalizing form of analogical classification that Levi-Strauss proposed in his otherwise essentially correct deconstruction of totemism as a form of religious thought and practice. Rather than an exception to a more traditional Nage totemism, or a modern transformation of a compromised system of totemic relations, the hypothetically most recent instance of Nage plant totemism, referred to just above, provides a special confirmation of this view.

CLANS, PLANTS AND TABOOS

The population of roughly 50,000 cultivators and livestock breeders who have come to be known as Nage reside in the central part of the eastern Indonesian island of Flores, on the northern side of the volcano Ebu Lobo. The Nage people comprise a number of clans called woe: non-localized, normally patrilineally constituted, and preferentially exogamous groups, some widely spread over the whole region while others are confined to just one or a few villages. The present paper focuses on what I distinguish as central Nage. This is the region roughly coinciding with the 'three Nage desa' (Forth 1998:3-4), modern administrative units subsuming a number of traditional villages and other settlements, each of which includes 'Nage' in its name. …

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