Seeking Wisdom in Tribal Storytelling

There was a beautiful girl called Ramenhawii who was famous for her very long hair. All the young men in the village desired her but none could win her favour. One day she was washing her hair in the river, a fish swallowed her hair. A strand of the hair found its way to the plate of the king of the valley as he was being served dinner by the palace cook. Filled with curiosity at the sight of the beautiful hair the king ordered his guards to look for the owner of the hair as he wished to make her his queen. After a long search, the guards at last found the place where the girl lived but they were unable to approach her as she lived protected by barricades around her.

“Oh! Please tell us at least your name” implored the king’s guards.

She replied: ‘No name, no name have I, I live on pure water, I live on pure vegetables.’

Mizo tale of “Ramenhawii.”

“If the end of nineteenth century underlines the distressing effects of industrial revolution and colonialism, the end of twentieth century witnesses the emergence of two paradoxical processes: (i) globalization: a process that cuts across the boundaries of nations, cultures and societies privileging a move towards larger integration of the world and facilitating interdependence moving towards a global culture; and (ii) resistances to globalization: in the form of a vehement articulation of the local  for preservation of indigenous cultures and identities,” writes Kailash C. Baral, Director of Northeast Campus of the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (CIEFL) at Shillong in his essay Globalization and Tribes of  Northeast India . There is no escape from the emerging reality that the ‘Global Village’ is a community stripped of all heterogeneity of cultural and traditional flows of life – life here is equated with economic aspirations of market that sell a pipe dream of prosperity while hiding the bleak future. And such realization cannot be disposed off anymore as alarmist.

The tribal communities and indigenous cultures stand at this juncture as beacons of warning against globalization and alternative views towards life. This is hardly surprising as tribal population, estimated to be more than 150 million by Survival International (and half of that living in India, 84 million to be precise- four times more populous than Australia), are marginalized people living at the fringes of modern life, mostly in forests or otherwise inhospitable ecologies that are threatened by Globalized economics of resource plunder every day. This marginalization from mainstream education, health-care and livelihood opportunities is seen as rank exploitation because the economic prosperity progressively depends on ‘en-cashing’ resources at a tremendous cost of their misery and loss. But the same marginalization in a way keeps intact these indigenous cultures and their vast repertoire of ‘low-emission’ life skills and natural wisdom which the global modern have lost track of.

In India, significant environmental movements like Chipko started from the basic perception of an immediate loss and threat to living security by Garhwali womenfolk of Reni village, Hemwalghati, in Chamoli district in the state of Uttarakhand. This was a livelihood movement to start with and conservation as a scientific idea thrown in later. “Maatu hamru, paani hamru, hamra hi chhan yi baun bhi… Pitron na lagai baun, hamunahi ta bachon bhi (Soil ours, water ours, ours are these forests. Our forefathers raised them, it’s we who must protect them), sang old Garhwali songs.  A similar such battle is fought by the Dangria Kondh tribe of the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha against British mining giant Vedanta.

As opposed to libraries and documentaries of the contemporary societies, the tribal wisdom of environmental consciousness and harmonious living principles are passed on through oral communication like storytelling, songs, folklore and customs of festivals. In late August 2012 the Traditional Knowledge and Healthy Ecosystems Summit was hosted by the Snoqualmie Tribe of Washington. The summit, which was held in the breathtaking Columbia River Gorge near Stevenson, WA, brought together indigenous leaders, tribal members, tribal resource managers, academics, and students to share information about the importance of traditional knowledge in natural resource management and in everyday ways of life. Of special significance were the knowledge keeper circles, in which elders from regional tribes shared their wisdom and memories through storytelling. The Columbia River, which is vital to many tribes in the area, featured prominently in these stories. Other highlights included speeches by Dr. Daniel Wildcat, author of and Larry Merculieff, with the Alaska Native Science Commission.

Acoustic Traditional , a Bengaluru based NGO, is working towards the promotion of oral storytelling and tribal folklore, especially of mountain and forest-based communities. In year 2010, 2011 and 2012 Acoustic Traditional has organized storytelling sessions, which they call confluences, by tribal and indigenous communities in Gangtok, Bengaluru and Darjeeling respectively. By own admission in its website, ‘It aims to encourage the preservation of the various myths, legends and stories that have been an integral part of a tribal group, vis-a-vis their cultural, environmental, spiritual and scientific heritage and also to creatively engage mainstream communities, through storytelling, in view of building a collective that supports the need for such preservation.’

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In a cold afternoon of late January 2013 while and I was walking down from Jalapahar hill in Darjeeling and noticed Acoustic Traditional’s ‘The Lost Stories’ banner, it is this environmental subtext that excited us. In Climate Himalaya , community capacity building is one focus area and the instant connection between community wisdom and storytelling was recognized by both of us. Interestingly we met Salil Mukhia, the founder director of the organization in a dimly lit cozy office and the discussion that followed over steaming cups of tea was inspiring.

Now why do people in the US and India, two countries at vast distances and apparently with different histories seem to resonate with the idea of Tribal storytelling, I wondered. And why rivers, mountains, forests and people figure so prominently in these stories, I wondered again. Is it the tell-tale signals of humanity desperately looking for the answers to questions the present paradigm forces us to face? Or is it a resurgence of a lost cult of naturalism that, we feel, is our final solution?

Whatever it is, the tribal stories reveal the profundity of a natural value based life that no one can seriously dispute.

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All opinions are solely those of the author. Reader's discretion necessary for using any of the contents of this website. (c) Pabitra Mukhopadhyay 2011
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