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INDIGENOUS BELIEF SYSTEMS REVISITED
May 7, 2012 · by Bekabuluh · in Travel/Photos. ·

A Karonese woman in traditional wear. Source: unknown.
Two years ago, I found a photograph of my grandfather’s funeral, which had taken place before I was born. In the photo, my family and relatives are dancing around his body, which lies in a bed covered with cotton and plaited pandanus mattresses.

I was puzzled. It looks nothing like any funeral procession I have ever witnessed. I know that the indigenous Karonese of North Sumatra practice a local belief system called Pemena, similar in concept and rituals to southern India’s Senata Darma, thus often referred to as Karo-Hinduism. Alas, the word had remained unfamiliar to me until these last few years, after I heard my Moslem and Christian family members and relatives mention it in an unenthusiastic tone, time and again.

A different tone was heard last month, at a discussion themed “Indigenous Religions/Beliefs and Their Position in Indonesia.” It was one of a series of discussions held during the 4th Congress of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (KMAN IV) in Tobelo, the capital of North Halmahera District, North Maluku, April 19-25, 2012.

Some of the participants said that even though they were Moslems or Christians, they had high hopes that one day the state would truly recognize indigenous belief systems.

“In 1954, the government categorized followers of local religions as groups that needed supervision and guidance. In 1965, a law on the prevention of blasphemy was passed, and in 1978, a ministerial instruction which includes a statement that local beliefs are not religions was issued,” Dewi Kanti, an adherent of western Java’s Sunda Wiwitan belief, said.

The ratification of these legal products disregards and even systematically attempts to wipe out the existence of local religions. Kanti said that many Sunda Wiwitan followers became victims of character assassination propagated by the government and society by means of legal products, accusations, and punishments.

“My father was paraded around and disgraced in the village because he was Sunda Wiwitan,” said Kanti, who was one of the key speakers at the discussion. “Many accuse us of fire worship. One priest even said we were spreading feudalism and traditionalism. When we organized a ritual to pay gratitude to mother earth, we were banned from ever doing it again for a period of seventeen years.”

Another key speaker, I Gede Ardika, former Minister of Culture and Tourism, said that local belief systems hold values, manifested in the followers’ way of thinking, speaking, and acting — in short, their identity. Later, Julianus Mojau, a priest and the Rector of Halmahera University, made a statement that to have a belief system is to have a culture, and the other way around.

“In local pre-Aufklarung communities, there is no separation between belief system and culture,” he said. “Every belief is born out of an individual cultural process, and every culture is crystallized into a belief.”

Mojau also categorized local belief systems as familial religions, because anthropologically they were initially the religion of a family or kin within a certain cultural community.

“Every familial religion has an educational aspect to it; it has the ability to form a strong identity within a community,” Mojau said. He gave an example of the belief in the O Gomanga of the Tobelo-Loloda-Galela ethnic group, which engenders a system that enables the people to live a socially and ecologically balanced life.

Mojau added that local belief systems are similar to the six religions officially recognized by the state. They both share formative aspects, namely myths, rituals, and ethics, and should therefore be treated the same way.

Another speaker at the discussion was Christopher R. Duncan, who wrote a doctoral dissertation focusing on the reasons behind the Forest Tobelorese’s decision to convert to Christianity preached by missionaries from the American-based New Tribes Mission. He said that as a democratic country, Indonesia should guarantee its citizens’ freedom of religion and belief.

The Indonesian Constitution mentions that the state guarantees its citizens the freedom to choose and observe any religion or kepercayaan — a word either meaning “belief” or alluding to local religions. But the reality is far from this. Duncan said that during his research in Halmahera, he found out that some Tobelorese refused to subscribe to any official religion.

“But when their children had to go to school, it became a precondition that they became registered as either Christian or Moslem,” he said. The participants agreed that the same thing has happened in other places in Indonesia.

Duncan also noticed the irony in how the discussion was organized by the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy. In its structure, the directorate that handles issues regarding local belief systems is placed under the said ministry’s Directorate General of Cultural Values, Art and Film. This raises the question: Is it possible that the various delicate aspects of local belief systems are nothing but tourist spectacles to the Indonesian government?

A photograph may say a thousand words. But if it speaks in a language very few, if any, understand, what should one make of it?

I am worried that my surprise when seeing the photo of my grandfather’s funeral is similar to how a tourist sees an “exotic” dance in a postcard. The way indigenous communities see their ancestors’ belief systems is obviously different from the way the Indonesian government sees them. This is why the participants finally realized that a space for respectful discussions between the two is needed.

“It would be a great thing if we could reflect on the long history of this country, to see what went wrong and correct it,” Dewi Kanti said.

http://bekabuluh.com/2012/05/07/indigen … revisited/

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