About 6466 Naga items, human remains in UK museum
Dr. Dolly Kikon stresses on decolonising Naga indigenous research and scholarship
Dimapur, July 27 (EMN): Colonisers who raided, invaded, burnt, and punished Naga people were exalted as Naga experts for more than a century, and although it came late, it is now acknowledged that many artifacts collected by colonial officers like JP Mills and JH Hutton were carried out under duress and often against the wishes of the Naga people, said Naga Anthropologist Dr. Dolly Kikon on Wednesday.
Kikon, who teaches at the University of Melbourne, Australia, was speaking at the XIV Morung lecture on “Naga ancestral remains, repatriation and healing of the land”, an initiative of The Morung Express which was held at Room 03, Full Nagarjan in Dimapur.
The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, she informed, possesses the largest Naga collection in the world, housing approximately 6466 items comprising human and non-human remains like textiles, baskets, and jewelries.
While not denying that some of the items were gifts and tributes, there are also many items including the Naga human remains which they collected after “punishing the savages, imprisoning them, and burning down Naga villages”, it was informed.
According to Kikon, this was theft of Naga cultural artifacts and heritage after inflicting physical violence to the extent of causing death and destruction of property in the Naga ancestral land.
“Colonisation is a totalising experience. It takes over our soul, body and land. Colonisation legitimises invasion, occupation, and exploitation of people and their resources. It is deeply violent. But we must acknowledge today that colonisation of the mind is the most brutal of all. And a critical tool of colonisation is research that appropriates indigenous stories, histories and sources to elevate the colonisers as experts. This colonial methodology is visible across the indigenous worlds including research on the Naga people, and by the Naga people themselves,” she said.
“So far, there are no text from the Naga people’s perspective that goes with the honours accorded to Hutton, Mills, and Haimendorf. Instead, we are called to be like them; we are trained to carry out research expeditions on our ancestral lands when their names are celebrated uncritically and honoured,” she pointed out, adding that it troubles her.
The Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR), she informed, is the facilitator for the ongoing dialogue on the repatriation of Naga ancestral human remains; and FNR members and the Naga elders from the respective tribes who are part of the ongoing dialogue will be best placed to share the process on the ground.
During the lockdown in 2020, the Pitt Rivers Museum decided to take down the Naga human remains from the public display.
“These human remains of our ancestors were exhibited in the museum for more than a century. Categorised as ‘insensitive displays that highlighted the violent history of colonialism and imperialism’; this was part of the museum’s larger goal of decolonising the museum. The official statement from the museum noted that the collections perpetuated colonial stereotypes and racism,” she informed.
Kikon said that this aimed to start a process of redress and healing, which included mending a fraught colonial past that was difficult and painful.
“Today, there is an urgent priority for the Pitt Rivers Museum to portray cultural objects in an ethical and sensitive manner. And the most important place to start this process, according to the museum team, is by initiating conversations with communities and prioritising reconciliation and co-curatorship with source communities,” she added.
‘Decolonise Naga indigenous research’
While maintaining that producing meaningful education and scholarship in Naga society is about ‘centering the inter-generational Naga indigenous world around us’, she said many in the Naga research world were fed with healthy doses of colonial ethnographies written by JP Mills and JH Hutton, Haimendorf and others.
She called upon Naga scholars and allies to devote their time to decolonising Naga indigenous research and scholarship instead of getting drowned in a colonised mindset.
“The blind celebration of colonial ethnographers like JH Hutton, Haimendorf, and JP Mills, even to the extent of honouring them with annual lectures in Nagaland underlines our colonised mindset. Naga people will not celebrate the perpetrators who killed our brothers at Oting in 2021. We have never celebrated the perpetrators who inflicted violence on Oinam, Kohima, and Mokokchung. So, I wonder, why do we exalt those who relegated us to intellectual primitivity and colonised us,” she lamented.
“As Naga people, we must see the significance of the initiative for repatriation in the larger scheme of decolonisation and healing. We have learnt from our fellow indigenous communities around the world that all repatriation movements pay attention to decolonisation, reconciliation, and healing. We realise that this undertaking is a collective and shared one – and we must learn from those who have gone before us,” she added.
Kikon said that she imagines the Naga ancestral human remains as prisoners of colonisation in foreign lands, cut off from the people, and denied the right to be laid to rest.
“However, aspiring for their return to land also means our (the living) journey to return to land and community where they were born and were custodians of the land,” she said.
Responding to questions on reactions through anger and colonial perpetuation of stereotypes, she underlined that anger does not bring any good. She observed that inequality in the Naga society was real and that there was a divide between the rich and the poor.
“We embrace the truth telling not in anger but in truth,” she said. She said that anthropologist who visits Nagaland gets disappointed when they find Naga people using phones and are clothed.
“They go to the extent of travelling to Mon and Tuensang but only to be disappointed,” she added.