Stories of Indigenous Resilience

On Decolonizing Emotional Well-being

Muduga Tribe (Attapadi, Kerala) Photograph by Yathi Viswam

July 17, 2021

By Karolin Susan

Having been exposed to a predominantly western culture meant, eating rice and eating them with one’s hands would always invite glares, instilling feelings of powerlessness, inferiority, and a covert submission to the label “uncivilized”; I’d always think to myself if only people knew how good the food tastes, has to be that extra sodium doing the trick (?). As a result, I remember feeling extremely liberated eating at home or among other Malayalee uncles and aunties, and just like that, our biryani felt appetizing too. I’m astonished that an involuntary function, as small as eating food with one’s hands, had the promise of unifying me with the rest of the Malayalee expatriates in the Gulf. It is our cultural identity!

Likewise, for an indigenous community, a cultural practice is a homogeneous identity; It is an heirloom handed down from generation to generation, a legacy of the collective self. Sadly though, Vulnerability (or words synonymous with it) has been the single most used term, particularly when describing the people that belong to the indigenous community. This kitschy mix has stirred the world at large to disregard the resilience, intellect, and dignity the indigenous tribe justly personifies as well.

“The lives that we haven’t experienced are a mere tale of fiction to us” – Benyamin, author of Aadu Jeevitham

Of India’s population, around 70-80% of them live in a rural setting. This means that quality health care of any kind is a far-fetched dream. The National Mental Health Survey (NMHS) estimates 150 million people needing mental health attention, with 10% enduring Common Mental Disorders (CMD) such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Depression, emotional stress attributed to urbanization and poverty, and risk of death by suicide, coupled with substance abuse disorders. Adding fuel to the fire is the higher risk of CMD among women, particularly among widowed, separated, women-migrant without emotional support, victims/survivors of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), and sexual abuse. Healthcare facilities are also cost-prohibitive; Consequently, oftentimes, mental health care isn’t one’s priority, which makes them seek other cost-efficient and accessible means, such as at times justifying it with beliefs of evil spirits residing in the individual, seeking functional support from lay Parapsychologist and other local aid. Given the statistics and the varied cultural differences, as a result, approaches in psychotherapy have to be reviewed and models of support have to be drawn from the cultural strengths of the Indigenous community, unlike its Western place of origin.

How is resilience sustained by the indigenous community?

Upon reading numerous articles on the indigenous population in India, quite sadly there weren’t accessible mentions/research around the individual and social resilience embodied by the indigenous population amidst severe tragedies, descriptions surrounding their gaze into their identity were at times amiss, or least superficial. Greg Bankoff, a lecturer who has worked extensively with the Philippine communities exposed to natural calamities, sheds light on this matter arguing, Many of the vulnerabilities that the colonial observer witnessed were the result of their two cultures meeting: conflict, disease, and population displacement. This myopia caused highly adapted, locally appropriate coping strategies to be overlooked.”  It is almost that the rest of the world (India) cannot recognize them apart from the word vulnerable. This ‘vulnerable image’ of the other is further accentuated by movies that reflect an insensitive or a powerless image of their collective/individual self, popular literary works, and the use of terminologies in describing people of an unknown land as noble savages, brutal savages, cultureless, drunkards, broken, cursed, strange, inferior brutes, intellectually backward, etc.

Given the premise of living, stress arises as a result of the psychological or physical demands placed on an individual, wherein the individual notices a discrepancy in their resources derived from the biological, psychological, or social system. In response to the stress, the individual copes with it in multiple ways, mostly either via an Emotion-focused coping (the individual tries to reduce intense and/or uncomfortable emotions through substance use, religious rituals, self-disclosures, etc.), and Problem-focused coping techniques (the individual manages stress using problem-solving methods).

Coping sans a colonial lens…

The Gujjar tribe (Himachal Pradesh) Photograph by Rajeev Kumar

A grandma from the Apatani tribe of the North East chooses to be unperturbed by modernity, cultural identity markers she held onto for a long time as a matter of pride and dignity is changing with the times; She is concerned, she chooses to lead the way continuing to draw worth and courage from her jewelry. She says, “my ear plugs, nose plugs, and my tattoo makes me feel beautiful. I don’t want to look like any other tribe.” You see, these ornaments aren’t worn to merely attract attention toward herself, it gives her and the people of the Apatani community an identity that is truly theirs to claim and theirs to tell. 

In the Irula tribe village, their place of residence is situated in closer proximity with each other, there is much reliance and trust in fulfilling each other’s needs and wants. Upon visiting my village in Kerala and reading around the indigenous communities’ way of living, I am constantly reminded of this quote I read somewhere, ‘Carrying each other’s burden as though it is your own.’ I recognize their innate and peculiar value of coexistence, thereby a resilience embedded as a result of the faith in the other, that if I have you by my side, “We can reach the heavens and touch the sky.” (Dion, 2002)

Tribes in Southern India follow a certain ritual during the death of a member of the community. Two such tribes Toda and Irula celebrate death with dancing, although an opportunity for relatives and other members of the community to gather around. They believe they are sending the loved one with pompous and Sunday-bests to the other side of the world, this doesn’t imply that mourning isn’t regarded or dismissed, neither can it be clubbed with a hedonic approach. This only means that the ending is a myth and life always manages to sustain itself like the M of a hum.

Usha*, a friend from the Palmaner village in Andhra Pradesh, single-handedly raising her boys as her husband fails to be a supportive parent, copes by self-disclosing anxious feelings with me and other women. Growing up in church, gossip was only seen as meaningless chatter to violate someone else, but what we don’t take note of is its validating experience for the individual, to be heard, comforted, emotionally valued, and much more, conveying that one’s subjective reality is accounted for.

Irulars worship the spirit of the forest, mannu (soil), air, and the ancestors. They believe that the Earth is a gift from the Gods, therefore I must live harmoniously with the creatures that inhabit it. I’m recalling a time where there was a news headline doing the rounds of a certain community in Rural India, making temples for the Corona Devi. In the light of them honoring the magnanimity of nature and their Pantheistic belief, is not ludicrous. Instead, it is a plea out of utter despair, concern for the larger community, and an act of reverence for the Earth. Further, this reverential act is accelerated during a harvest season. Before the plowing of land, they have a little ceremony, they then plow the field with the help of the oxen, scatter the seeds across the soil area and do a dance so the seed is dug deep into the soil by the stomping of the feet during the dance routine. Their ceremonial lifestyle adds greater meaning to their work, incorporating joy, motivation, and loyalty to employ for the Land, thereby appreciating the fruit of their labor. In a nutshell, they are self-efficient producers along with the land.

In the indigenous community’s vocabulary, Fate is not an abhorrent word; Within the word they find a sense of acceptance of reality beyond one’s control, that there are indeed limitations to human minds. This perspective also gives one comfort and security, bestowing meaning to our suffering. As Victor Frankl (from his book Man’s Search for Meaning) would say “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” Certainly, without a doubt, the flip side of this fateful coin is also a loss of agency.

Biram’s brother from the Kalbelia tribe, as the tribal name signifies “those who love snakes”, breaks into an abrupt dance while making a charcoal pile to sell at a wholesale market; His signature disco moves, prompt his body to glimmer of hope and tenacity from the scorching heat of the Rajasthan sun, while members of the tribe giggle along.

Padaung women of Myanmar adorn their necks with brass rings. This way of being could be impressionistic to the rest of us as masochistic. Nevertheless to the women of Padaung, pain makes them feel belonged to their tribe; To them, it doesn’t feel strange wearing the coil unless they remove it; Further symbolizing a commitment to a future that doesn’t sacrifice their tribal history.

The Mi’kmaq tribe of Eastern parts of Canada uses “Apisiktuaqn” when disputes arise within communities and families; Apisiktuaqn is a verb that refers to “a sacred process reserved for times when peace and friendship are disrupted.” This sacred ritual is a process starting with acknowledgment of the offense, followed by restitution (an action appropriate to compensate for the offense), and the process of reconciliation of both the parties. The elder of the community would then advise that the offense was not to be discussed again in the future, to safe-keep dignity and harmony. This peculiar spirit of reconciliation is another crucial cherry on the resilience cake. 

As preferred by the Siddi community, seclusion is a sanctuary, redeeming the many selves of the individual and the community, against land-battles, ancestral racial and intellectual discrimination. Migrating to the city is a threat to them, Ramnath Siddi says “it can get lonely.”

I realize something unanimous across most indigenous communities is the larger thread that runs through their ethos – humans are ethnocentric (tribe-centric view), cosmocentric (reunion of a person to the cosmos), and ecocentric (human and nature contain equal value), as opposed to the embodiment of anthropocentric alone (humans are the base by which all morals are evaluated); And rightly so, despite great odds, a strong undercurrent of perseverance to attain equilibrium with polarising worlds remain uninterrupted by civilization.

“’I am because of who we all are”Ubuntu, a term from the Xhosa tribe of Africa.

Like my South Asian cultural identity marker of using my fingers and hands to relish the gastronomic experiences, these stories of Cultural identity are the preservation of both the independent and the collective self; They refuse to merely exist, only to be annihilated. They are an act of self-assertion for human rights and liberty, to live in a way that exhibits one’s values, bringing restoration to one’s mind, body, and soul – an affirmation of identity and transmission of culture. However, reconciliation is a myth if the humane living of coexistence, harmony, and sustainability is a responsibility that belongs only to a small set of the collective. Nonetheless, this article is only a very partial re-telling of resilience beyond an individualistic lens.

“How do you empower the young in a world where people think they are less than human? The question keeps me up at night. The quest for equality drives me to help empower the youth. As a Siddi man, I feel it’s imperative to build the youth’s confidence, so they can navigate the world without fear. I want them to know what it feels to be a part of the Siddi Tribe. Through our Siddi traditions, we can free ourselves, we can be free from discrimination, free from caste, free from hate, free to be Siddi.”Ramnath Siddi, a social worker from the Siddi Tribe.


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