Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Paper on Parade: Politics and Headhunting among the Formosan Sejiq

I got hold of a copy of Scott Simon's Politics and Headhunting among the Formosan Sejiq: Ethnohistorical Perspectives, from Oceania. This paper is a fascinating exploration of the political meaning behind headhunting among the Formosan aborigines, in this case, the Sejiq.

In his abstract Simon lays out some major themes of the paper....
 Memories of headhunting, and ritual re-enactments of those former violent practices, are still politically meaningful in contemporary Oceania and Southeast Asia. The case of the Sejiq of Taiwan illustrates how such practices were transformed and eventually terminated as a result of colonialism and the incorporation of formerly stateless peoples into new political institutions. Headhunting was once an expression of the sacred law of Gaya, as both a reinforcement of territorial boundaries and a way of settling legal disputes within communities. It expressed tensions in a ‘reverse dominance hierarchy’ by which some men tried to consolidate political power, but were usually deterred by a strong egalitarian ethos.
Simon did 18 months of fieldwork in Taiwan among the Sejiq, and is thoroughly versed in the earlier anthropological literature of the Japanese anthropologists who worked in Taiwan during the colonial era. They were completely embedded and entangled in the Japanese colonial state, he notes, but the excellence of their survey work was recognized even by their contemporaries.

What is headhunting? The paper introduces the local term mgaya, related to Gaya, sacred law. Mgaya, Simon says, means something like bringing into being the sacred law. Headhunting, he argues, must be understood in terms of politics, ritual, and violence. Without ritual headhunting is mere homicide, while it is not warfare, for which there is another word and another understanding.

A few paragraphs are then spent outlining researchers' attempts to understand headhunting. Originally posited to be an attempt to gain spiritual power (mana) which would protect the community and help agriculture, headhunting was next viewed from a psychosocial perspective. Why do people participate in headhunting? Well, one answer went, it helped mediate between headhunters and neighboring communities, creating a link between those not-quite-human people next door, the foreign and the outsider, by bringing in the Outsider in the form of a head which is talked to, fed, and otherwise interacted with. Simon concludes with the explanation of Rosaldo, who saw headhunting among the Ilongot in the Philippines as a way that men vent emotion.

Simon contends that such explanations really do not explain headhunting at all, since they fail to answer basic questions like who hunts heads, how they organize themselves, and how they convince others to participate. He writes:
Rosaldo’s psychological approach is also limited. It may explain why individuals participate in  headhunting rituals, but says nothing about how the rituals are organized or contribute to political power. Nonetheless, I find three things compelling about their explanations. First of all, the Ilongot have an egalitarian ideology. Secondly, young men and older men experience headhunting differently, with the older men leading the expeditions. There is thus a form of power of older men over younger men; and younger men get access to women through participation in headhunting. Finally, as Renato Rosaldo argued (1980), the meaning and possibility of headhunting depends on the historical and political context.
Some scholars have taken an explicitly political approach to headhunting. Simon instances the Indonesian island of Sumba, where headhunting was an attack on slavers. He also points to Kenneth George's work on Sulawesi, where headhunting was a form of resistance by inland peoples against powerful coastal states. Moreover, states themselves recognized the political dimension of headhunting, banning it whenever they gained control over tribal areas. The advantage of this view is that it asks questions of headhunting in a political and collective way. However, as Simon points out, overwhelming evidence shows that headhunting existed long before states did. It thus cannot be a political response to state power. Moreover, if headhunting represents resistance to state power, why in headhunting rituals do headhunting peoples so easily replace heads with symbolic objects, such as coconuts or dolls?

Simon answers this question by looking at modern headhunting festivals....
On the surface at least, headhunting rituals at the Ancestor Festival seem to be a paradigmatic example of elite appropriation of government funding. The event is held only if local leaders of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) succeed in applying for government grants, and most villagers take no interest in it. In fact, at one such festival in a Truku (Sejiq) community in 2000, I was struck by the fact that the event was held primarily to attract tourists and that, with the exception of the organizers, Truku participation consisted merely of eating barbecued meat and drinking on the sidelines. Although they seemed to enjoy the feasting, they described the formal event as a failed attempt to attract tourists; and laughed at the organizers, whom they imagine to enrich themselves through such projects.
The anthropologist Michael Rudolph argued that modern rituals have become legitimizing or authenticating strategies for the new local elites who have access to state backing and funding, Simon observes. The work of Rudolph and other researchers shows how the creation of (new) elites in formally egalitarian communities has resulted in new and powerful social tensions. Such elites, as the Dutch realized when they appointed elites in the aboriginal communities back in the 17th century, are powerful tools for incorporation of aboriginal peoples into modern societies. "Aware of the violence and cultural loss that has accompanied political rule by outsiders," Simon writes, the new elites "create rituals that emphasize difference between the Sejiq and the politically dominant Han Taiwanese, but recreate a time in which the Sejiq were the holders of political sovereignty with a monopoly on legitimate violence."

A rich array of evidence shows that pre-state Taiwanese aboriginal societies were egalitarian societies, which means that there was no permanent class or office of power. Power was not distributed equally -- men had more than women, and men with better skills had more power than those with inferior skills. Such societies are marked by a major source of tension -- the desire of males to accumulate power, and the desire of society to prevent that and maintain egalitarianism, manifest by "leveling mechanisms" that implement a reverse dominance hierarchy by reducing or preventing the accumulation of power by potentially powerful individuals. Modern aboriginals who laugh at the new elites and their pretensions to power are engaging in one such leveling mechanism.

Headhunting exists at the nexus of the tensions and mechanisms surrounding political power, contends Simon....
"...headhunting, as a ritualized form of homicide rather than a random act of violence or organized warfare, reflected inherent political tension in societies where a reverse dominance hierarchy was challenged by ambitious individuals who sought to monopolize ritual and augment their political power. Yang Shuyuan (2005) illustrates this, in a study of Formosan Bunun headhunting, as a process of oscillation between egalitarianism and nascent social stratification when military leaders and shamans used head-hunting rituals to consolidate power. In Boehm’s terms, this is oscillation between a reverse dominance hierarchy and an orthodox dominance hierarchy."
Because headhunting is dangerous, young males had to be given incentives for participation. In many headhunting societies, including the Sejiq, headhunting was a prerequisite for marriage and full adult participation society. Headhunting is thus a collective and political act, socially sanctioned and defined by rituals and vows...

Part II tomorrow!
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Anonymous said...

Thanks for your interesting article. A few images can be seen here:

vin said...

Fascinating. And thanks. Eagerly awaiting Part II.