Understanding tribal social structure and knowledge systems


Looking at several tribal communities and situations in more detail:
i. Verrier Elwin laid a wonderful if idiosyncratic groundwork for understanding central Indian tribes anthropologically. The Baiga (1939) is a detailed groundbreaking ethnography of shifting cultivation, defending this system (‘slash and burn’) against the colonial and mainstream prejudice against this. The Muria and their Ghotul (1947) is about the little known indigenous education system, youth culture and custom of love affairs before marriage in one of the most traditional Gond subtribes (in Bastar). Elwin also collected several volumes of the myths of tribal peoples in central India. He showed how Adivasis both are and are not Hindus – their identity is distinct, they don’t depend on brahmins, have their own priests and shamans, yet they have their own myths about Shiva, Rama and other Hindu deities – myths that have a tribal life perhaps even before the Sanskrit epics and puranas codified mainstream versions. Around the same period (1940s-70s), W.G. Archer also edited volumes of songs and myths of the tribes now in Jharkhand state. His Hill of flutes focuses on Santal love life.
Piers Vitebsky’s Dialogues with the dead (1993) and Living without the dead (2018) show 30 years’ ethnography with Lanjia Sora focused on shamanism, mainly done by women; and how this tribe’s mass conversion to Christianity has witnessed massive shifts in social and knowledge structures, and loss of memory not just of the ancestors, but of traditional agriculture and language.
Another contemporary view, showing these vast shifts is Madhu Ramnath’s work, by someone who probably knows tribal India better than anyone. His book focuses on the informality of life, intimate knowledge of the forest and hunting, love affairs and shamanic sessions as group theatre, and the forces forcing change.
My own work started with reverse anthropology, understanding the social structure of the power system imposed over tribal peoples from British times, from the administration (including forest and police officials) to missionaries (who started schools) and anthropologists, on the understanding that we can’t understanding tribal people unless we understand what ‘our own culture’ has imposed on them. For several years I focused on mass displacement, and the cultural genocide following from forced dislocation from lands that have cared for and depended on over generations. In the last 6 years I’ve focused on understanding ‘tribal education’ and its focus on boarding schools and imposing mainstream languages in a way that leads to linguistic genocide. By contrast, there are several smallscale schools we’ve visited that retain tribal languages with impressive cultural sensitivity.
If there’s time, we can also look at situations of tribal people in Northeast India and the Andaman Islands.

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