New Internationalist

Lessons of the past for young Adivasi

Culture is a tricky thing. How do we define it? Who decides when customs and traditions, even ancient, cherished ones, can be dispensed with? These and many other similar questions have been debated by the Adivasi groups we (ACCORD, an NGO in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu) work with for the last 25 years. Yet, culture was not a priority, it was neither life threatening, nor in clear and present danger (we thought). And so land, human rights, health, education and housing took priority.

A quarter of a century later, we realize with dismay that the Gudalur Adivasi kids who go to local schools are losing their language, customs and traditions. My husband, Stan, adores kids and is a born teacher. While taking  a class for primary school teachers-to-be, school leavers of around 18 years old, he asked them about their backgrounds, tribes  etc. He returned home the first evening really saddened by the fact that some kids didn’t know their fathers had been in jail, fighting to save their land. When asked what Adivasi (original settlers like aboriginal people) meant, they said poor, primitive, at the bottom of society, uneducated, illiterate – almost identical to what their parents might have said 25 years ago, before they began organizing themselves to create an identity they could take pride in. Had we come full circle? Was it all in vain?

So Stan began talking about Adivasi culture and philosophy, that Adivasis constituted eight per cent of India’s population, the fact that they shared an ethos with indigenous groups all around the world. That indigenous people are unique because they mostly practise equality which is brought about by design, not chance. He talked about how some tribes in Africa distributed their goats and cattle when someone lost theirs to death, disease or drought and how these values were inculcated in them through rituals and everyday practices.

The young people began discussions about each other’s customs. The youngsters doing the course were Paniyas, Bettakurumbas and Kattunaickens. They exchanged stories of how equality and sharing was instilled even in little children in their individual tribes. We non-adivasis were constantly stunned by the fact that Adivasi kids never fought for a sweet, however tiny. They always shared it solemnly and equally, a truly amazing sight to see.

At the end of the first week, Stan then gave them a weekend assignment. They were to go home and ask their parents and grandparents to tell them stories of the past. The stories about customs, traditions and food, or just stories, were to be recorded and shared when they returned.

The group came back on Monday morning brimming over with information. The stories they told were charming and had a logic of their own, often hard for outsiders to comprehend. But what turned the tide for us was when a visiting trustee of a donor agency asked them what they planned to do after the training was over. On the first day, when Stan had asked them a similar question, they had said maths, history, english. A week later they announced to the visiting trustee: ‘We are going to teach all the kids what Adivasi means and that our people are spread out all over India and all over the world. That our parents and grandparents fought to retain our ancestral land and that Adivasis were the first people to rise up against colonialism. They fought the British in the 1700s and could not be subjugated. That’s why they remained proud and independent.’ The outburst left everyone stunned.

Stan returned home beaming, grinning from ear to ear. One of the best weeks of his life. The lessons had been well learned.

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  1. #1 Jan Nerurkar 16 Sep 12

    Thanks again Mari! Reading your article brought tears (of joy) to my old and tired eyes. Knowledge of one's past history allows one to shape the present and imagine a better future. Keep up the good work.
    BTW Minna's husband is the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India!

  2. #2 Prabir KC 16 Sep 12

    Wow! You are right. Schools- even some of the ?good ones- do that. Santal children who can not speak their language properly- the same for Bengali children actually. And lost when it comes to more complex things like songs, stories and history. Piali says to add that she liked this piece too!

  3. #3 Dhuni Soren 16 Sep 12

    Well written but it is sadly true. The new generation of Adivasi youths and in particular educated ones hardly have any idea of their past customs, traditions and culture. The reasons for this is not only the young men and women but their parents and grandparents.who have failed to pass their past glories by traditional oral methods to new generation and the the educated who have migrated to towns and cities have no access to written materials as these are not available.

  4. #4 Betty 17 Sep 12

    Indigenous knowledge is passed from generation to generation, usually by word of mouth and cultural rituals, and has been the basis for agriculture, food preparation, health care, education, conservation and the wide range of other activities that sustain societies in many parts of the world.
    It would be great if their history and culture could be recorded in combination of text, audio, still images, animation, video, or interactivity content forms.

    Please Google : - Ask First – A guide to respecting Indigenous heritage places and values
    Tom Harley
    Australian Heritage Commission

  5. #5 david cohen 17 Sep 12

    Mari's blog on Advasi children stands as a moving and inspiring story. It's also what a caring and inspired teacher can initiate.
    Stories of food, history, music, poetry, dance and just stories have a power of their own.
    There is also a caution. A globalized and secularized world does not have to be insipid and homogenized. The children have to learn their math, science, IT, language skills so that they have the fullest opportunities. How to do it with Stan's inspiration sets a high bar.
    Yet I have seen people from Bangladesh and modernized assimilated Jews in my country work hard to balance culture, history and language so that it part of younger people. It creates a community of its own that is neither isolated nor insular and stays rooted. That is our challenge.
    David Cohen
    Washington, DC

    David Cohen,
    Senior Advisor, Civic Ventures
    Senior Congressional Fellow,
    Council for a Livable World
    E-mail address:[email protected]
    address: 1400 I St. NW
    Washington DC 20005

  6. #6 BEULAH 17 Sep 12

    Lovely story Mari. My grandaughter was delighted when i read this and immediately asked about her routes.....
    Here in malaysia the tribals seem to have totally lost heir identity and perform for the tourists only. They are known as asli's.

  7. #7 Tah 18 Sep 12

    Very well written. I remember stories of Adivasi kids, going to school and having their names changed by the teachers, in an attempt to make them blend in with the majority.

  8. #8 Sabita Banerji 18 Sep 12

    This brought tears to my eyes, Mari. What a wonderful, heartening story. Stan is amazing. Wouldn't it be wonderful if someone could capture the stories those kids are retelling from their parents and grandparents? Perhaps on a website so that 'adivasis' all over India - and indeed of all continents - could add their stories? Thank you for a wonderful blog.

  9. #9 Lukesh Hembrom 27 Sep 12

    Thank you ma'am for conveying such a beautiful incident. You know at this point of time what we lack is the right information about what we are? who are we? where are we coming from? When this all question will be answered a single individual will be proud of herself/himself. Till the time they are not proud of what they are! the problem be there which was 25 year ago. This can be only happen with right kind of information about yourself...

    This is to all be proud of what you are. The acceptance will only come to when you will proud of what you actually are? And don't be shy of sharing your custom and tradition with others.

  10. #10 Rahul 18 Jun 14

    ’when land, human rights, health, education and housing took priority’ to me in actuality the culture was being destroyed that time only. Culture is essentially all these things (land, human rights...) combined and can not be looked as a separate entity.

  11. #11 Brian Gash 04 Dec 14

    Hi Maria
    I am Lucy's Dad. I met Stan here at our house. Lucy has come to India but We have no news of her. Do you know where she is please? We are thrilled that she is back to meet you & for The wedding of Mahesh.
    Thank You
    Brian & Mary

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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