At the edge of mangrove forest: the Suku Asli and the quest for indigeneity, ethnicity and development
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This thesis explores the emergence of indigeneity among a group of post-foragers living on the eastern coast of Sumatra. In the past, despite the lack of definite ethnic boundaries and the fluidity of their identity, they were known as Utan (‘Forest’) or Orang Utan (‘Forest People’). Since 2006, however, many Utan have adopted the new ethnonym of Suku Asli (‘Indigenous People’) and begun claiming their position within the Indonesian State as an integrated and distinctive ethnic group – a group, that is, associated with a unique ‘tradition’ (adat) and a particular ‘indigenous’ identity. As Suku Asli, they have been trying to integrate this identity and protect the ‘ancestral’ lands with which it is thought to be intimately associated. The emergence of this identity does not reflect only their own aspirations but, also, their entanglement with a number of government development programmes or interventions aiming to transform the lives of local ‘tribespeople’. Throughout these contexts, the most important change has been the development of their indigeneity – an indigeneity which, in the context of Indonesia, is ‘imagined’ and recognised in a very particular way by the State. It is on the basis of this indigeneity that the Suku Asli have begun to re-configure their traditional identity and their place within the Nation State. Focusing on some of its most important manifestations and embodiments, the thesis attempts to chart the emergence of this indigeneity and relate it to the entanglement of the people and the government. Treating indigeneity as a perspective that is created between the locals’ traditionally fluid identity and the government development programmes, I describe some of the ways in which ‘tribespeople’ come to embody, resist and transform the government image of ‘indigenous people’ and accomplish their ‘modernisation’ – a ‘modernisation’ demanding, first and foremost, a distinctive and well-bounded indigenous identity.