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Introduction: Theoretical Issues in the Study of Reservations and Resettlement

Reprinted from “Resettlement of Peoples in Indonesian Borneo: The Social Anthropology of Administered Peoples,” G. N. Appell, Editor. Borneo Research Bulletin 17:5-9, 1985.

G. N. Appell
Brandeis University

In 1980-81 my wife and I and three daughters undertook field work in Kalimantan Timur. During that time we visited nine resettlement sites on the Sibuku, Sekatak, Bengara, and Batayau Rivers. We were struck by the similarities of these both in terms of housing styles and layout to Indian reservations that we have visited in Canada. I was also struck by the similarities in purpose and social form of these resettlements not only to Indian reservations in Canada but also to the Indian reservations in the late 1800’s in the American West.

The consequence of resettlement, as was the case in Canada and the United States, has been that the ethnic groups involved were being deprived of access to their traditional areas of village settlement upon which they depended for economic survival. We also found that the economy of the resettlements was such that many of the people perceived that there would be a shortage of food in the future. The administration of the resettlements involved various forms of corruption, including the misuse of government allotments so that the full amounts were not reaching the resettlement villages areas. The ethnic groups were also being converted to Islam or Christianity. As a result, they were being discouraged from continuing their ceremonial life, including their funeral ceremonies, their traditional patterns of courtship and marriage, and their traditional form of dwelling, the longhouse. Anyone who has read accounts of the reservation process in the American West, such as in Tibbles (1957) will recognize familiar patterns.

To cap it off we experienced a symbolic statement that I find hard to interpret fully. We attended a wedding, and, as we arrived at the house of the bride, we found on the doorstep her father, a former headhunter, dressed in a loincloth, with tiger teeth in his ears, and wearing a blue, double-breasted, pinstriped suit jacket. I was suddenly transported back to drawings and pictures of Indians and early reservation life in western America before the turn of the century.

In discussing this with a colleague, Barbara Nowak, who had worked in a resettlement area in Malaysia, we discovered that she had had similar experiences. As a result of this discussion there arose the idea of organizing a symposium to look at reservations as a social type, as a distinct social form.

The Reservation as a Social Type

The concept of a reservation as a method of dealing with ethnic minorities seems to arise in all parts of the world at various times without any common historical, geographical, or cultural roots. It seems almost as timeless a social type as the nuclear family or the community. And it is an enduring type of social form that in the modern world is finding increasing use in certain regions. Yet we know little about the reservation as a social form in terms of its defining features, how it functions, or how it is articulated to the larger society. Thus, it is important to reach some generalizations and theories about the reservation area as a social system for several reasons.

First, from the view of the development of anthropological knowledge, we have an opportunity to witness first-hand the processes which lead to the development of reservations and the consequences of these, processes and consequences which have formed a major part of the expansion of Western culture and the industrial economy for the past two centuries. It is important that these processes be fully recorded and analyzed, not only in terms of their intrinsic interest but also so that we have the data and insight to reinterpret historical accounts of these processes which in the past were not witnessed by trained social scientists.

Second, by understanding these processes and the management of administered peoples we can perhaps develop better approaches to the problem so that impact of resettlement on minority ethnic groups is minimized. At this point it would be useful to put forward a tentative definition of what constitutes a reservation. It is important to do this so that we do not get misdirected in our analysis by what we find under the “reservation” label here in America or founder on names such as “resettlement areas,” “re-education centers,” and the like, which may in fact hide the critical defining features.

The reservation, as a social type, is an institution that involves the relocation of a minority ethnic group to an area chosen by the government so that the group no longer has access to its traditional lands for economic exploitation, and as a result of the institution or administration of the reservation, the ethnic group is prevented from practicing its traditional culture. There may be good and sufficient reasons given for the establishment of a reservation, such as the providing of modern welfare services, the protection of the ethnic group from predatory or unscrupulous representatives of the dominant society, etc. Nevertheless, the reservation social type has certain social consequences that need examination. We should also not be led astray in attempting to isolate the defining features of a reservation by developments that may take place once the reservation system becomes a mature institution in any society. I refer here to the manipulation of the reservation system by ethnic minorities to advance their own interests. For example, there is the recent case of a previously unrecognized Indian community in the southwest United States applying successfully to the federal government for federal land to form a small, residential community. But this was well after the loss of their traditional culture.

There are a number of critical questions that need investigation in developing a theory and understanding of the reservation as a social form, some of which will be addressed in the following papers. These questions include:

What are the common features of the social structure of the reservation? Are there developmental stages to the reservation social structure? What are the social roles found on the reservation and which of these are occupied by members of the dominant society? Does the dehumanization of the ethnic minority by the dominant society always precede the creation of a reservation? What methods are used to obtain control over the administered population and how is social control maintained? Does the development of the local political administration or the social conditions that precede the establishment of the reservation foster the development of corrupt administrators and predatory traders? Is this a function of the developmental stage of the reservation social structure?

What is the function of the juxtaposition in the same social environment of indigenous symbols with symbols of the dominant society in terms of dress, dwellings, and behavior? How do the traditional methods of conflict resolution fit in the new social situation? Are there more conflicts and conflicts of a type not previously dealt with? As a result are the indigenous conflict resolution mechanisms overwhelmed? What new mechanisms grow or are instituted in their place?

Do all reservation systems result in the breakdown of the cultural ecology of the subject population and the restructuring of the indigenous system of economic exchanges? How does the dominant society’s educational system affect the adaptation of the reservation population? What are the health consequences of the reservation experience? Does the reservation experience produce a common psychological adjustment? Does the reservation facilitate or hinder the adaptation of the minority group to the dominant society and its economic system?
Under what conditions does the reservation become a total institution analogous to a prison, as Robertson (1970) has claimed? How do the administrators of an ethnic group report on their success or failures to their superiors? What statistics are used to justify their administration?

Many of these questions are addressed in the following papers.

Bibliography: Robertson, Heather. 1970. Reservations are for Indians. Toronto: James Lorimer & Co. Tibbles, Thomas Henry. 1957. Buckskin and Blanket Days. Memoirs of a Friend of the Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.