Life and landscape of dreams personhood, reversibility and resistance among the Nagas in Northeast India
Heneise, Michael Timothy
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Ancestral knowledge exerts itself in the daily lives of the Nagas in Northeast India, whether through passed down clan genealogical knowledge, or through dreams and waketime omens. The Angamis, one of the Naga tribes, articulate a close relationship between the ancestral spirits they meet in their dreams, and ruopfü, one’s always-perceiving soul or life-being, complicating the boundary that would separate dreaming and waking states. In mediating these two states, the Angami ruopfü therefore has a powerful ability to inhabit these two spaces simultaneously, thus allowing for their reversibility. These processes of inhabiting the ‘real’ in waking and dreaming, occur in the midst of significant political turmoil, and this thesis examines the ways in which dreams index terrains of clan and state power in relation to a broader cosmic struggle. Moreover, as a guiding principle of personhood, dreaming, and reversibility elucidate the ways in which Angamis explore, understand, and generate alternative futures. I begin the discussion in the domain of the kitchen hearth. Within this gendered space characterised by a continuous rhythm of quotidian practices and attentiveness to dreams and omens, a significant political counter-narrative to the enduring pattern of clan patriarchy emerges. This tense symbiosis is characterised by a relationship of nurturance, but at the same time resistance to patriarchal meddling in domestic affairs. I then describe how this tension mirrors a power dynamic perceived by many in their dreams in which the clan collectively confronts morally ambivalent spiritual forces that inhabit spaces outside of delimited clan domains. This recalls earlier times when public life centred on the propitiation of powerful spirits in order to preserve harvests, and protect clan settlements in times of war. With the advent of Christianity, public discourse is transformed not solely via the iconoclastic demands of the American missionaries, but through a spatiotemporal reorientation of public life towards regularised church membership, and the development of missional institutions. Traditional public rituals, and ritual objects gradually faded, but informal inspirational practices such as divinational healing and dreaming, rooted as they were in the domestic sphere, remained integral to community life. In contemporary Nagaland, Christian charismatic groups have reconsidered the efficacy of traditional practices, and the inspirational potential of dreams, and opened spaces for supervised spirit mediation. These practices, however, have the potential to disrupt the church, and the community, and community elders are alert to their potential dangers, often seeking to defuse spirit mediated charisma as it emerges. The elder generation frequently cites the role of divination in spurring upheaval, and within living memory a young Naga prophetess, inspired by powerful dreams, succeeded in mounting a tribal uprising against British rule in the region. The power of visions and dreams to inspire political movements has not been lost on more recent Naga political groups, and in the final chapter I draw parallels between the nature of charisma to inspire political agency, and the function of the oneiric in normative patriliny, especially in public events, and ultimately in the construction of nationalist ideology. Finally, though the material and social circumstances separating public and domestic spheres in Angami life-worlds continually produce divergent political imaginaries, reversibility reveals how these formations emerge, how they coexist and continuously shape daily life, and how they produce the potentialities for unified political resistance.