Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Repatriation: The Naga process-learning from Mon district

(From previous issue)
In response Dr. Kikon said, “The catalogue about Naga ancestral human remains stored in the museums is all written by the white man. It could all be wrong.” She also addressed the question about how the Naga ancestral human remains were taken away to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Many reports in the catalogue of the remains were written by colonial administrators, indicating that Naga human remains were obtained under duress. For the colonial administrators and collectors, the story about the origins of the Naga human remains did not matter and was merely a side note to the larger colonial expedition.
The Naga collection at the PRM comes from at least 21 different collectors and it is not only human remains. Heads and other body parts probably belonged to deceased family members and would not have freely been given to the colonial administrators and researchers. “We have never heard of any Naga practice where people give away the remains of their loved ones like parents and grandparents to others”, she said.
On bringing back the ancestral remains, Konyak elder, Rev. Y. Chingang Konyak said, “The laws of warfare during the pre-Christian days were different. The headhunting practice, wherever it prevailed, decreased after Christianity. We spent years in the villages to convince people to stop it. During those days, we got the villages to bury human remains. I am okay if the human remains from the museums are brought back. I am also okay if they are not brought back. It is for the younger generations to decide, not me.”
Many Konyak elders and community members repeated the importance of tracing the origins of the ancestral remains and how the PRM acquired them. There was a common consensus among the Konyak Naga members that the ancestral human remains should be brought back to the Konyak homeland. A KBBB member, Rev. A. Peihwang Wangsa elaborated:
“Whatever the reason maybe, the British took away human remains from our villages. If they had buried them without our knowledge, it would have been good too. If we did not know that our ancestral remains are in the museums, it would have been fine. However, now that we know that they exist and are stored in boxes, the guilt will always remain as a tribe or even as Naga people if we do not bring them back. I think it is good that we bring them back now. I don’t think we should create another museum like the British. I think we should bury them peacefully and lay them to rest.”
Listening and Learning: A Pathway Forward
The Mon visit allowed the team to listen and learn from the Konyak people. While acknowledging voices of criticism, support and opposition to the process, the team recognizes that the repatriation of Naga ancestral remains is a commitment that will take many years. At this consultative stage, the process is grounded on community engagement and dialogue. Meeting with the Konyak elders, leaders, and community members highlighted the interdependence of Naga history, collective responsibility to learn about our past, and the importance of forging a shared future.
RRaD team member, Kuvethilu Thuluo, assistant professor of History, Mount Olive College, reflected on how fondly the Konyak Nagas remember their brothers and sisters living on other sides of the border and how open the Konyak people are to repatriation. She expressed hope that this journey will bring reconciliation and healing to the Nagas more generally, just as the Konyak people are showing us how to embrace the process.
An important lesson that the team learnt was to question the dominant perception of Nagas as head-hunters. Not all Naga ancestral remains in the PRM and other museums are war trophies. This dominant trope continues to influence understandings of the Naga past and their funerary practices, turning them into a simplistic colonial narrative of Naga people as ‘head-hunters’. This only reinforces a Eurocentric lens to understand Indigenous peoples’ histories, including the Naga people’s past.
The Naga process of repatriation requires a commitment that spans generations and invites all Nagas to practice humility as they learn to listen to one another. For the Konyak people engaged with the repatriation dialogue, the process is not about lingering on colonial concepts and getting stuck in intellectual debates. Instead, they remind us to reflect on the tragic consequences of colonisation that divided the Konyak Naga homeland, and how to reclaim the dignity and integrity that colonialism has taken away.
(Concluded)
Kuvethilu Thuluo
Manngai H. Phom
Rev. Dr. Ellen Jamir
Dr. Dolly Kikon

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