Naga Tribal Adornment:
Signatures of Status and Self
by Christine Brown

NAGA Tribal Adornment:

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A new exhibition of Naga jewelry, textiles and artifacts, drawn from the Harry L. and Tiala Marsosang Neufeld collection, will be on display at the Bead Museum from September 21, 2003, through May 31, 2004. A catalogue written by Ayinla Shilu Ao, a journalist and niece of the Neufelds, with photographs by Robert Liu, has been published in conjunction with the exhibition. The exhibit is curated by Harry and Tiala Neufeld, Ellen Benson and Christine Brown.


As indicated by its title, the exhibition explores the means by which individual Naga men and women manifest the status they have attained within their society either by virtue of their birth into a particular lineage, village, etc., or through the accomplishment of certain tasks (e.g., head-taking, feasting). The exhibit presents items of personal adornment which denote individual accomplishment (status) and which commemorate rites of passage in the lives of Naga people (self). The exhibition presents a stunning array of objects made by the Naga from natural materials they have hunted or gathered, from imported materials they have traded for and made into adornment, and from items they have woven or produced themselves. Many of these items are no longer made or worn in the traditional way and some are no longer used at all.

The cultural and political history of the Naga is extremely rich and complex and cannot be dealt with in a substantive way in an article such as this. The following provides an overview of present-day Nagaland and a brief look at two historical factors that had a direct impact on the role of adornment in Naga society. This is followed by a discussion of two aspects of Naga culture which underpin and illuminate the role the objects on exhibit played in the lives of the Naga people who wore them: status and trade.

The article contains several references to, and quotations from, the Julian Jacobs book entitled The Nagas: Hill Peoples of Northeast India. This book, published in 1990, was the product of a 5-year research project conducted under the auspices of the Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University in England. It portrays Naga society as it was during the British colonial era in the last two decades before Indian independence.

Geographical, Ethnographical and Political Overview
The territory occupied by Naga people is located in northeastern India. This area is connected by a narrow corridor of land that extends from the main body of India around the northern border of Bangladesh. The area is bordered by China to the north, Myanmar (formerly Burma) to the east, and Bangladesh to the south. The majority of Nagas live in the Indian state of Nagaland ( current population 2 million). Nagas also live in two other states in northeastern India (Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur) as well as parts of western Myanmar.

The Nagas of today are a blend of early aboriginal populations (referred to as Australoid) and Mongoloid peoples that migrated from China 10-12,000 years ago. Nagas, for the most part, have brown skin, straight black hair and an epicanthic eye-fold. They “speak as many as thirty diverse and sometimes mutually incomprehensible tonal languages that all belong to a large language family called Sino-Tibetan...” (Pg. 20). More than 90% are Christian. (Pg. 154).

Two aspects of Naga political history are of direct relevance to this exhibit: (1) British commercial and political interests in the Naga Hills dating from the 1830s through Indian independence in 1947; and (2) the arrival of American Baptist missionaries, initially in the 1830s, but in substantial numbers in the 1870s. Naga culture was forever altered by interaction with these two groups. Of particular relevance to this exhibit, the practice of head-taking, which was central to the Naga notions of fertility and status, was outlawed. Naga cosmology (until then encompassing a variety of spirits and gods) was replaced by Christian beliefs. Such things as drinking rice beer, conducting Feasts of Merit, and singing and dancing were prohibited. As these prohibitions became more entrenched, Nagas began to lose interest in their traditional ornaments.

Status - The Means to Achieve It
and Ways to Express It

Prior to the 1830s. there were two types of status in Naga society: ascribed and achieved. Ascribed status is that which is conferred on an individual by virtue of his or her birth into a village, clan and (in the case of boys) morung membership. “The ornaments and particularly the cloths of the Nagas reflect... social organization and social status. The design and colors of cloths symbolize ascribed status such as village, clan, and morung membership...”. (Pg. 65)

Achieved status is that which is earned by an individual in one or more prescribed ways, usually by feast giving and, in former times, head-taking. The giving of feasts is the means by which a man or woman converts his/her material wealth (cattle, rice) into social rank. Different types of feasts can be given (life-cycle and agricultural-cycle feasts and feasts of merit. “The Feasts are ranked in importance and scale, each stage carrying rights to new kinds of personal adornment and house decoration... “(Pg. 77)

Head-taking, which is no longer practiced, nevertheless played a very important role in Naga social life. Head-taking was a highly ritualized undertaking that was integrally linked to Naga notions of fertility. Heads thus obtained “played a central role in all kinds of Naga rituals”. (Pg. 120) Men who succeeded in obtaining heads earned the right to wear special head-taker ornaments and, in the case of some groups, to have special designs tattooed on their bodies.

“Although there are some Naga ornaments which are of no particular significance and which can be worn by anyone as and when they like, most Naga ornaments have a particular meaning, and they are therefore ‘powerful’. Not surprisingly, the right to wear them is strictly controlled.” (Pgs. 103-4) A wide variety of materials and objects were used and different groups accorded different degrees of importance to a particular item. However, certain items seem to have widespread importance including: hornbill feathers and skulls, different types of shells, various types of teeth and tusks, brass torques and bracelets, etc.

Among some groups of Naga, tattooing is also an indicator of membership and status within groups. For example, among the Konyak tribe, “the presence or absence of a tattoo on the back of [a girl’s] knee, signifies married or unmarried status.” (Pg. 112)

Trade As a Means of Acquiring
Objects of Status

Trade plays an important role in Naga life--both trade among different groups of Naga and between Naga hill people and non-Nagas living on the plains. It was through trade that the Naga obtained Venetian and Czech beads, cowrie shells, chank shells, brass wire, metal sheets, and other ornaments manufactured elsewhere for the Naga market, Jacobs quotes a British administrative report from 1887 which described beads and ornaments being brought into Nagaland and traded for “fowls, pigs, and dried fish”. (Pg. 39). Those Naga who thus obtained beads and other types of adornment would, in turn, trade them to other Naga groups. In addition, different groups of Naga specialized in the production of certain items used by other groups. These items, including conical cane hats and spears, would be traded for such things as salt, husked rice, mats, etc.


The complexity found in every aspect of Naga culture is reflected as well in their personal adornment. The range of natural and manmade materials used, the symbolism that is an integral part of Naga jewelry, textiles, and tattooing, the wide variety of objects worn as adornment, and the individual style and taste brought to bear in the making of these objects is truly breathtaking. It is the hope of the exhibit curators that the Harry L. and Tiala Marsosang Neufeld collection will foster an appreciation of the complexity and richness of Naga culture and the beauty and symbolism of Naga adornment.

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