Material Culture, Oral Traditions and Identity

among the Naga in Northeast-India

OhrschmuckZ9601kleinConcluded research project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation SNF/FSN 2006-2010

Naga is an ethnonym for a group of local cultures settling in the hilly borderlands of Northeast India and Myanmar. During the British rule in India a number of detailed monographs were written by colonial administrators and large archives and object-collections were established in British museums. For a long time these remained to be the only sources on the Nagas, as the region was prohibited area after Indian independence in 1947. In the 50 years of isolation that followed, the lifestyle and culture of the Nagas changed significantly; the Nagas turned from a headhunting society with a rich material culture and a diversified corpus of oral traditions, into a ‘modern’ society marked with the political struggle for independence and having enthusiastically adopted Christian religion.

In 2001 Nagaland was partly reopened to foreigners on the basis of restricted travel permits. This provided anthropology with an interesting challenge: to compare two strictly separated periods of time linked by a combination of field research with archival work in ethnographic collections. This research arrangement will probably be exemplary for future ways of studying ‘traditional’ societies, once the actual objects of investigation have ceased to exist. In regard to the history and culture of the Nagas, change and continuity in their identity are an issue of great importance. Such processes manifest themselves both in material culture and in oral traditions. This research project was the first to include current field research for a scholarly analysis of the interrelation between identity, immaterial ideas, their materialisations, and their dynamics of change . It is hoped that the Zürich Naga project will stimulate the wider purpose of a truly comparative anthropology of the extended Himalayan region.

Besides many articles, the results of this project were published in the edited volume Naga Identities: Changing Cultures in the Northeast of India / Naga Identitäten: Zeitenwende einer Lokalkultur im Nordosten Indiens (Snoeck 2008) and in a large exhibition about the Nagas at the Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich (2008). In follow-up projects by some team-members historical photograph collections were put online (the Fürer-Haimendorf collection at SOAS) and the Naga Music Archive (Thomas Kaiser) was integrated into the newly established sound archive of the Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich. An MA-thesis about the Naga tiger men (Rebekka Sutter), and two PhD theses, one about Naga textiles (Marion Wettstein), one about historical photographs of the Nagas (Alban von Stockhausen) have been accomplished.

Head: Prof. Dr. em. Michael Oppitz
Team-members: Thomas Kaiser, Rebekka Sutter, Alban von Stockhausen, Marion Wettstein