Old image of Naga Warriors from 1903

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The unfinished business of colonialism

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How do you return ancestral remains looted during the height of the British Empire in a way that brings genuine healing? A project involving Naga artefacts is underway to do just that.

During the lockdown of 2020, Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford undertook a major reform, pledging to overhaul insensitive displays that highlighted the violent history of colonialism and imperialism. The museum recognised that its collections have propagated harmful colonial stereotypes of cultures and chose instead to ‘be part of a process of redress, social healing and the mending of historically difficult relationships’.

In order to portray cultural objects in an ethically sensitive manner, its staff recognised that decolonising the museum and prioritising reconciliation and co-curatorship with source communities was a matter of urgency. It was in this spirit of reparation and healing, that we – as Naga anthropologists – started a dialogue and reflective journey with the museum.

We were aware that it has the largest collection of Naga material culture in the world, including the human remains of our ancestors. With an atmosphere of openness, respect and a desire to include Naga community members – elders, researchers, church and civil society – through collaborative discussions, we devised an exploratory research project.

Bureaucracy of Empire

Our aim is to address issues surrounding the repatriation of more than 200 Naga ancestral remains housed in the museum. Their descriptions, spread over pages of Excel sheets, offer a glimpse into the machinations of the British Empire – its conquering, administrating, collecting and ruling – a process that remains undiminished and indeed unfinished.

We are deeply aware that the process will generate grief, anger and trauma for the Naga people. For more than 100 years, museums across Europe have displayed Naga objects as exotic and primitive, taken as souvenirs and under duress during colonial expeditions – a fact that exposes the harsh realities of imperialism and their contemporary resonances.

The Naga ancestral remains collection in the Pitt Rivers Museum consists of human skulls and bones, and human hair attached to cultural items including basketry, spears, shields and ornaments. The provenance of these remains is unclear.  Some clearly state that they were confiscated by British administrators from Naga villages, while others were taken as loot in the violence that ensued. The labels have limited information and much of people’s histories and their encounters with colonialism has been undocumented and erased.

As we continue our research and dialogue, we encounter a history of colonisation and loss. There is an immense task at hand for the Naga people to reflect on the future of their ancestral remains in the Pitt Rivers Museum and other institutions in Europe and beyond.

A wide angle shot of the Pitt Rivers Museum, with its high roof and multiple cabinets full of artefacts

Culture burnt to embers

The British started administering the Naga Hills, as it was known then, in 1832 to protect the burgeoning tea trade in Assam, a product consumed by millions in Britain and its Empire. In 1865, an article in the Pioneer justified British rule over these ‘savage’ tribes because they were a danger ‘to the cause of tea’. While the lucrative tea trade had to be protected at all costs, it also allowed the British to engage in civilising missions.

This included inviting the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society (1871-1955), who were operating in Myanmar amongst the Karen people, to enter the Naga Hills and begin the process of conversion. Thus started the colonial strategy of the Bible and the flag – Christian conversion, alongside steady territorial gains, so that by around 1912 the Naga Hills District became a province of Assam and remained so until Indian independence in 1947.

This period was particularly violent. There were military raids to suppress recalcitrant Nagas, which included the burning of villages and the loss of lives – not to mention the vast troves of material culture burnt into the embers of history. When British colonial power was largely consolidated, visual depictions often portrayed the Nagas as exotic but now ‘tamed’ under the British Raj, who were viewed as humane, orderly and enlightened.

Divided and ruled

The Naga Hills is now the state of Nagaland, formed in 1963 after an armed insurrection demanding sovereignty led by the Naga National Council. It later fractured into several groups, dominated by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim and its different factions. This insurrection was led by the Nagas’ desire to be left alone and not be included in the Indian Union. British bureaucracy had fragmented the Naga ancestral homeland and this continued when the Indian and Burmese governments began their rule.

When India became independent in 1947, Naga areas were split between India and Myanmar, with the boundaries marked arbitrarily, based loosely on British demarcations. Not only did this separate the Naga lands, but the division of the Nagas internally into Nagaland (where majority of the Nagas live), Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam is a legacy of British colonialism, perpetuated by the Indian state to divide and rule – with continued violence inflicted with impunity.

The injustice and colonial violence that divided the Naga ancestral homelands did not appear in the administrative, missionary and ethnographic writings of the time. In contrast, our ongoing dialogue and research framework with the Pitt Rivers Museum must ensure the Naga people’s voice is now central to the way we engage with the collection.

Row of Naga women wearing traditional yellow head bands
Naga women in traditional dress at the annual Hornbill Festival, held in Nagaland in the first week of December.

Re-crafting the story

Given that the Naga collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum has remained largely inaccessible to the Naga community, the experiences of colonialism are often treated as archival data where issues of ethics and community consent have been ignored. We believe that re-crafting the story of the Naga collection rests with the Naga community.

Any repatriation of Naga ancestral remains must recognise the complex geo-political boundaries of the Naga ancestral homelands in contemporary India and Myanmar. One of the first questions we encountered was to whom do we repatriate the ancestral remains?

We have contacted various Naga communities to discuss these issues. Some were open to bringing ancestors back so they can be reburied, while others were more apprehensive. What sort of burial will they be given? Would it be a Christian one? How do we ascertain if pre-Christian rituals would be more apt, and how might these traditions, now largely suppressed, enable the dead to be honoured?

Would it be more appropriate to collectively mourn ancestors through the creation of a national memorial? Some tribes were more direct in their responses. If these remains were part of war and their heads taken as trophies (before the British looted them), then there is a tradition of not asking for them back.

Towards apologies and justice

The answers to all these questions are still uncertain. This is just the beginning of our quest to understand the untold stories, events and memories that remain buried.  We have inherited the cultural trauma of colonialism that previous generations rarely spoke about. Would a demand for a public apology from the British Government, as some of the communities have voiced, begin to heal the wounds of colonialism?

The work ahead of us is daunting, but as a research team, we are committed to documenting the stories of the Naga ancestral remains and the journeys they have undertaken from their homes in the Naga areas to entombed spaces inside museums. Like vast jigsaw puzzles, there are still many pieces to fall into place.

Reconciliation and healing of the land are not simply tropes that need to be discussed. They must be embedded in a process where the community takes ownership and custodianship, and, through that, offer a more humane approach towards decolonisation and justice.

Picture credits: Naga warriors – Nastasic/Getty; Museum – Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford; Naga women – Matthias Kestel/Getty