Signatures of Status and Self
by Christine Brown
PUBLICATION ORDER FORM
note: requires Acrobat
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
- 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)
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...
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.
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.
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 girls] knee,
signifies married or unmarried status. (Pg. 112)
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.
Tribal Adornment: PUBLICATION ORDER FORM
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