Paths and rivers. Sa'dan Toraja society in transformation by R Waterson
Paths and rivers. Sa’dan Toraja society in transformation
Leiden: KITLV Press, 2009
xxxii, 510pp. ISBN 978-90-6718-307-9, €34.90
Reviewed by V.T. King, University of Leeds
Roxana Waterson has been contemplating Sa’dan Toraja society and culture for over 30 years since she first embarked on field research in the village of Buttang, Malimbong sub-district, in 1978-79. She has also been fortunate in having had the opportunity to undertake return visits in 1982-83, 2002, 2004 and 2007. It helps explain why she has produced such a large and detailed book, ambitious in its breadth of coverage, comparative scope and historical depth. It requires careful reading in that it represents her mature reflections on this largely Christian minority of South Sulawesi which has become increasingly integrated into the national and global economy. The Toraja are well known beyond the rather particular and often narrow gaze of anthropologists, ethno-historians, missionaries and administrators. With their stunning and rugged mountain homeland, elaborate and distinctive house architecture, effigies of the dead placed in sculptured cliff-face balconies, and lavish funeral rites with animal sacrifice they have also been an object of the tourist gaze and a very prominent element in Indonesia’s tourism promotion campaigns for the past three decades. Indeed, Tana Toraja was progressively opened up and displayed to a trans-national audience following the exploratory visits of small numbers of intrepid European and Australian adventure and backpacking tourists from the early 1970s.
This exposure to international tourism, as well as Toraja conversion to Christianity and the access to education which this gave them, their encounters with neighbouring (and dominant) lowland Muslim populations, and their involvement in long-distant labour migration, have not only served to change and shape Toraja society and culture in particular ways, but also, one might say, to ‘construct’ a Toraja identity. Their high profile in the Indonesian national media and in the tourism literature has also served to insert certain dominant images of them into the popular imagination. Whether or not this helps explain the high level of scholarly interest in them in that tourists and anthropologists increasingly end up in the same places, there have certainly been considerable numbers of researchers who have followed paths and rivers to what was once the remote highland outposts of Torajaland, among them Kathleen Adams, Terance Bigalke, Elizabeth Coville, Eric Crystal, Hetty Nooy-Palm, Albert Schrauwers, Dimitri Tsintjilonis, Toby Alice Volkman, and Shinji Yamashita. Given this intense outsider interest, it is hardly surprising that increasing numbers of local scholars have also turned their attention to their own communities providing local perspectives on what they value in their own culture and history. Finally, and in spite of the relatively brief period of Dutch colonial administration, there is a substantial European historical-archival and linguistic literature, much of it of high quality and compiled and written by Christian missionaries (most especially Hans van der Veen, Albert Kruyt and Nicholas Adriani). With this wealth of material, and indeed, the archaeological, anthropological, historical and literary studies which have been undertaken on other neighbouring South Sulawesi communities such as the Bugis, and which serve to place the Toraja in a broader regional context, it becomes even more understandable that Waterson has had to spend many years in reading and distilling other people’s experiences and understandings and her own field material. She admits frankly that ‘For years this book obstinately refused to take shape’ (p. xiii). I sympathise.
In summarising what the book is about it is best to return to Waterson’s own words in the explanation which she gives for her choice of title. She takes two images which have ‘salience’ for the Toraja themselves: paths (lalan) and rivers (salu). These, she says, assisted her in thinking and writing about ‘continuities and differences, about the endurance of place and the flow of time, about the inroads made by outsiders into the highlands, as well as the outward journeys undertaken by Toraja migrants seeking their fortunes’ (p. xiv). Paths, of course, connect and separate and they do so in both a geographical sense, as part of a used, lived in and seen physical landscape and conceptually in terms of life-courses, history and ritual arrangements. In related images rivers ‘flow’ as do genealogies, discourses, stories, appropriate actions, behaviour and decisions. What Waterson wishes to capture in this concern with movement, connection and separation is ‘that sense of open-endedness, of incompletion, of endless possible choices of routes to follow’ (p. xv). She also emphasises, in this long excursion into Sa’dan Toraja history, and in recording their experiences of others and their changing views of themselves, that although there have been dramatic cultural transformations over the past hundred years, ‘it is remarkable how certain distinctive elements of a pre-colonial cultural order have retained their vigour’ (p. xiii).
For those who are familiar with Waterson’s interests in her earlier publications there are clear connections and developments between them and what is explored in this latest book, particularly in the attention given in Parts Two and Three to ‘house society’, genealogy and kinship (and their representations), social rank and status, male-female relations, mythical narratives and symbolism, and then in Part Four Aluk To Dolo (‘Way of the Ancestors’) and especially mortuary and house ritual. What is new here, among other things, is the extent to which and the ways in which she places the Toraja material in a larger body of anthropological work and the meticulous examination of changes and continuities. It is also striking how much Toraja religious life was (and for those elements which remain are) tied in with the physical anchors of house and landscape. What is also especially pleasing in the first part of the book is the discussion of the interrelations between ‘social memory’ and ‘history’, an examination of the deployment of myth and genealogy in competition for and statements about precedence, and the effort to situate the Toraja historically and culturally in a broader Austronesian context, in relation to their neighbours, and in their encounters with the Dutch and the independent Indonesian state. There is also an interesting discussion of the changing religious landscape and conversion to Christianity in a national political context as well as ‘the dynamics of the [surviving] ceremonial economy’ in Part Four.
This is a finely crafted, sensitive and thoughtful ethnography which will stand the test of time. It tells the story of how an ethnic identity emerged and developed as the Toraja chose (though not always with complete freedom) particular paths and rivers. But for me some of the story, and particularly the huge impact that tourism has had on the Toraja (or at least some of them), appears to be missing in Waterson’s account. Or perhaps that story has already been told too often and does not need repeating.