Among the Makassae in East Timor
Shepard Forman, president of The LAFF Society, presented this paper on his experiences as a young research anthropologist at a meeting of the Timor Studies Association in July in Brasilia. An excerpt appears in the current issue of the Society’s newsletter, Fall 2018.
Good morning. Bom dia. Rau de nokurao?
I want to thank Kelly and her colleagues for inviting me to participate in this conference and apologize for not being there with you. I very much wanted to participate in person, to meet you, learn about your work, hear your reflections on mine, and think together about the future of academic and public policy research in Timor-Leste.
I am pleased, though, that my wife, Leona, and daughter, Alexandra, are there. Our Timor experience was and remains a family enterprise. The family conditioned the nature of our fieldwork in Quelicai, which in turn has had a profound effect on our lives and work ever since.
East Timor/Timor-Leste has been a central part of my personal and professional life for the past 60 years. I was first introduced to Timor by my Brandeis University professor, James Duffy, who in the late 1950s was writing a book, Portuguese Africa, and asked his students to do some comparative research on other areas of Portuguese Colonialism. It was my first intellectual exposure to the idea of an indigenous people ensnared in the vicissitudes of colonialism, and that history and reality connected in some indefinable way with my own.
As a first generation American, born to Jewish parents whose families fled the pogroms of imperial Russia, I grew up fascinated and concerned with my own marginality and how groups of people became excluded from or, in our case, more fully integrated into national political, economic and social systems. It was this question, I believe, that led me to pursue graduate studies in Anthropology after a fellowship year in the Brazilian northeast, again witnessing the slow and torturous integration of peasants into that agrarian society over time.
I did my Ph.D at Columbia University where, in the old four-field method, a concentration in cultural anthropology demanded qualification in archaeology, paleontology and linguistics. Cultural anthropology itself was breaking loose from an ethnographic tradition in which the village was seen as a bounded space distinct from the broader social, economic and political contexts in which it was embedded. History and modernization theory were redefining community studies as loci for testing hypotheses about the nature of tradition and social change.
When the time came to submit a topic for my dissertation, I remembered my early encounter with East Timor and thought it would an ideal place to examine the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. I drafted a semi-informed proposal and wrote to Lisbon in pursuit of a visa, which was ultimately denied. Goa had recently become a part of India and the wars of independence were just commencing in Portuguese Africa. From Lisbon’s perspective, it was no time to stir up trouble in the “terra longiquinha,” that far off little land.
I rewrote my dissertation proposal focusing on the social and environmental parameters of economic decision-making in the traditional raft fishing economy of the Brazilian northeast and began my career teaching anthropology and Latin American studies, while undertaking post-doctoral studies in economic development. Ten years after my initial request to the Ministério do Ultramar, while teaching at the University of Chicago, I received an out-of-the-blue phone call from the Portuguese consul in Chicago asking if I was the same Shepard Forman who had sought a visa to do research in East Timor, asking if I would I still be interested in going. Post-Salazar Portugal was clearly contemplating the future of its last colony.
By then, I was no longer a young, solo anthropologist but the father of a toddler daughter and infant son and married to a woman pursuing her own studies and career. We talked, the questions were multiple and complex, but we agreed that I would accept the invitation to meet in Lisbon with Rui Cinatti, the poet-anthropologist and gatekeeper to Timor, learn what I could about living conditions for a young family among one or more of the 26 ethno-linguistic groups outside of the island’s colonial enclaves and make an informed decision about the viability of us doing field research there.
I spent a week in Lisbon, passing time at the colonial archives while in pursuit of the elusive Professor Cinatti who finally invited me to his office where he was far more interested in showing me his own research and writing than inquiring about my own. I was puzzled, frustrated and ready to go home, when two days later, I received an invitation to dinner. I recall a small, dimly lit restaurant in Lisbon, good food, maybe too much wine, a reading of Cinatti’s poetry, and a ride back to my hotel in his jalopy of a car. Arriving at the hotel, Cinatti leaned over, opened the passenger door and offered the following advice before driving off into the night: “There’s a mottled shell you’ll find on the beach. It’s highly toxic. Don’t let your children play with it. Watch out for the baneleke, the green pit viper. If bitten, seek medical help immediately, although it will probably be of no use. And stay clear of local politics!” A few weeks later, I received my visa.
I rewrote my original proposal, this time focusing on the relationship between indigenous and colonial systems of exchange as a way of understanding the structured pattern of relationships between ranked groups. My friend David Maybury-Lewis responded to it with critical advice: “It doesn’t matter what you propose to study, Shep. Once there, you are going to find a web of kinship, marital exchanges, death and mortuary rituals, that comprise the indigenous belief and social system. Where it intersects with the colonial system is an interesting question, but you’ll discover soon enough that it’s not the primary one.” How right David turned out to be.
With a generous grant from the US National Science Foundation, we departed from Chicago on July 8, 1973, our son Jacob’s 2nd birthday, which exempted him from a passenger fare on India Airlines. The route to Dili, was not certain at the time, so we chanced Tokyo to Bali to Kupang, where after 3 days we managed a flight to Dili. The next weeks were devoted to arranging residence papers with the Portuguese authorities, seeking field location advice from Timorese and our newly acquired friend, Betsy Traube, and procuring transportation to survey the island for suitable field sites.
After travelling west to east, north to south in vehicles borrowed from the administrators or rented from Chinese merchants, we settled on Quelicai, snuggled in the east-central Mate Bian range, and 19 kms from the Portuguese army base in Baucau with its canteen and doctor, and the international airport with periodic flights to Darwin.
From a research perspective, Quelicai fit the requirements of my proposal. The second largest ethno-linguistic group in Timor, the Makassae were the last of the major ethno-linguistic groups to be “pacified” and maintained a strong self-identity. The Quelicai post was small and remote, its relative unimportance in the colonial scheme of things evident in the recent appointment of a young, freshly minted, native Makassae administrator from Ossu. A seasonably passable road, completed only in 1958, dead-ended at a Church and school beyond which rose the imposing Mate Bian range where the Makassae lived, worked their terraced rice paddies and root gardens, and conducted their daily and ritual lives largely beyond the reach and interest of the colonial authorities.
There, I thought, it should possible to disentangle the parallel native and colonial systems of exchange and social hierarchy, to better understand how they intersect. In many ways, that proved to be true. The few connecting pathways—language, religion, administrative oversight, taxation—were narrow and markedly superficial. A few “assimilated” Makassae lived and worked within the Quelicai nucleus as teacher, nurse and segunda-linha, the much-disparaged and unarmed native police force. Apart from the weekly market and an occasional dispute that required a rare appeal to colonial administrative justice, the lives of the Makassae were lived entirely up-mountain. Portuguese incursions into their mountain redoubts were easily demarcated at the annual census-taking, or when the Administrator from Bacau came to take the mountain air. Or, frankly, they could eventually be ignored, as I by and large chose to do as my shifting research interests led me daily up the rocky paths to observe the Makassae themselves.
The colonial authorities of course imposed restrictions on where we could live, insisting we would be more comfortable (and within view) if we domiciled within the sight lines of the administrative post. For the first three months, we actually lived on the veranda at the back of the post itself, where an unoccupied jail cell at one end served as our bedroom, and a bathroom provided us with an essential amenity at the other. A table and a few chairs afforded an alluring view of the male and female Mate Bian peaks and a piece of land approved for our house site at the outer reaches of the post and just within the suku of Lacoliu. Arrangements were made with the liurais of Lacoliu and Makolako to provide materials and labor for the construction of what would be our residence for the next twelve months.
We went about the business of settling in, learning the language, observing agricultural practices, comprehending the barter economy, documenting the complex and difficult process of house-building and ensuring the basics for our well-being. A series of young guides led me up the mountain paths to diverse lineage sites where dominant gravesites provided first hints of the centrality of ancestors in the Makassae belief system. References to Mate Bian “where the souls danced” intrigued me, as did a discussion of the need to propitiate a spirit that inhabited an extinct volcano that we had inappropriately ascended with our children while early accompanying the post administrator on the annual census-taking.
Eventually, I contracted an elderly teacher who I thought could best introduce me to Makassae beliefs and practice beyond the everyday activities I was able to witness. Nanai’e Nau Naua, who I later learned was the keeper of myths and traditions in his own agnatic lineage, came to our house each morning for language lessons that included kinship terminologies for living relatives and the nomenclature of marital exchanges and associated gift giving. Over time, we took long walks into the hills where I would inquire about patterns of land use and inheritance, agricultural rituals and Makassae beliefs about propagation of the land. It soon became clear that marital exchange, social obligations and reciprocities were integral to lineage structure and alliances, but my inquiries and Nanai’e’s responses were strictly limited by the Makassae taboo against naming the dead outside of ritual contexts. I was ethically bound to respect the restrictions placed on fieldwork, but increasingly frustrated by my inability to penetrate the Makassae belief system and question the profound connections between ritual, belief and practice.
About 8 months into our stay in Quelicai, now settled into our house, our obligations to the house-builders fulfilled, our garden planted, our chicken coop full, our pigs fattened and our goat giving milk, we took leave of Quelicai to lecture at ANU and take care of some nagging health issues. Our trip coincided with the Passover holiday and Derek Freeman invited us to join him at a community seder hosted by the Israeli Embassy in Canberra. When we returned to Quelicai, there was a noticeable change in atmospherics as though by coming back we had demonstrated a commitment and purpose that the Makassae seem to welcome. Nanai’e himself was more open and inquisitive and invited me to accompany him to a barlaque and a “gift to the grave” ceremony.
At one point he spotted on our table a copy of the Haggadah that we brought back from the seder and was immediately curious about the cover drawings of Hebrew scribes who barefoot and draped in simple cloths seemed to remind him of himself and other Makassae elders. He asked me what was written in the two distinct Hebrew and English scripts. I told him the book was written in our ritual and everyday language and used to transmit the history of our people across generations. Excited, Nanai’e cut short our lesson and hurried back in the direction of his ancestral hearth, returning the next morning with a group of elders.
Examining the Haggadah, the elders asked for further explanation and wondered whether I could write a “Haggadah” for them so that they could pass the myths and traditions on to their children. Recalling my training in phonetic script, I said that I could but would need to learn from them what should be transcribed. Led by the senior Koo Rubi, they agreed that I would need to attend their marriage and mortuary rituals, record the origin myth and map a genealogy from Uru-uato, the Moon-Sun supreme deity, across generations to Nanai’e and his only son. They would speak the names of the spirit ancestors until they determined it was time to placate them and secret their names again with the sacrifice of a ram whose horn turned twice. Nanai’e was to be my teacher, and I would teach his son how to read the phonetic script.
What followed was a fieldworker’s dream come true. Now Nanai’e could openly relate the origin myth, recounting how a wren flew down from the top of Mate Bian to the sacred site of Turanaba’a, kicked back the flood waters, broke his leg, turned to rock and nestled in a branch of the giant banyan tree. Uru-Uato’s hermaphroditic son followed the wren down the mountain, split into a brother and a sister who incestuously bore a baby boy and baby girl. They procreated as their parents had done and gave their son to the childless founder of Ka’o Si, Nanai’e’s house of origin. From there, Nanai’e explained the formation and structure of his agnatic lineage, carefully reconstructing his genealogical and affinal ties to other lineages through ancestors who moved down the mountain side in a process of fission and alliance that gave rise to the present clusters of Makassae descent groups.
Production and reproduction were intricately interwoven in a Makassae life paradigm expressed through the idiom of exchange. Wife-takers’ bride payments of water buffalo, horses and swords (the means of production) were reciprocated with wife-givers gifts of boiled rice and pork, bead necklaces and woven cloths (symbols of reproduction). Annual “giving to the grave rituals” culminated several decades after death in the Umu Gini, or “making of the dead,” when the soul of the deceased was dispatched to Mate Bian to dance forever among the ancestral spirits. The exchange of gifts at this quintessential ritual mirrored the exchanges among wife-givers and wife-takers, cementing lineage alliances across generations.
One day, I spotted a woman leading a goat to a neighboring descent group and, determined to test my understanding with Nanai’e, I tried to explain her relationship to the family of the dead man she was going to honor and why the gift had to be made. I described what I understood to be the relationship between life and death, production and reproduction, that is the essence of Makassae belief, ritual and everyday conduct. I unfurled the genealogical chart we had constructed and tentatively traced for Nanai’e the lineal connection between that woman and the dead man’s family, all the way back to Uru-Uato.
Just as I felt the need to question more, Nanai’e declared I knew all that I needed to know, and announced it was time to secret the names again. On the day of the ceremony, our gardener led the ram and me to Turanaba’a where a large group of men were gathered, preparing for the sacrifice. The elders sat on the imposing tombstone and called for me to join them. I hurried over and sat down in an available space when Koo Rubi unceremoniously shouted for me to get up and change places. I had inadvertently sat on the stone marking Uru-Uato’s son’s burial place. The faux pas seemed to pass without further recrimination as Nanai’e proceeded with his improvised incantation:
“This stranger came and we were obliged to speak your names so he could write them in his notes and books. I told this American, ‘Ours are sacred. We cannot speak them idly. After speaking them we must secret them again. We must make them sacred again.’ Therefore, this American brought this ram to our hearth to secret your name. Now we put your word in its place again. Your name is sacred again, and also your person.”
Days later, a banaleke appeared wrapped around a chair in our house and was unceremoniously dispatched by our gardener. The elders declared it unprecedented. The snake was a messenger sent to remind me that I had sat in a sacred place and required another sacrifice, this time of a pig, to propitiate Uru-Uato’s son. A date was set for the sacrifice, but before the time came, a fire broke out in one of the lineage houses and spread quickly across the mountainside, destroying dozens of others and, in Turanaba’a, the sacred houses of the founders. A divination was required, according to Nanai’e, to determine the cause of the blaze, ostensibly a spark from a cooking pot left unattended while the occupant went to market. I attended the divination with some trepidation, fearing the ancestor’s displeasure would finger me as the cause. But as Nanai’e laid out a circle of 26 stones, none was named for me, and the young rooster that had not yet sung, died across the very stone named for the lineage house of the unattended cooking pot.
I was spared, but the fieldwork was not. The names were secreted, as were the rituals to which I was no longer invited. We spent our days completing household questionnaires and recording losses from the fire—a sword, a lipa, a spoon, a sack of rice stored for sowing. At the same time, local politics were heating up around the three newly formed political parties. Ramos Horta, speaking one Sunday at the Quelicai market, tried to rally the Makassae in support of Fretilin, at one point decrying the presence of CIA agents in their midst. The accusation fell on un-comprehending Makassae ears, but reminded me of Cinatti’s admonition to keep clear of local politics. We anticipated our descent from Mate Bian and our return to the United States, where I took up a new post as Professor of Anthropology, Latin American and Southeast Asian studies at the University of Michigan.
I began an ethnography on the Makassae and published several articles about their way of life and the belief system that guided it. I sorted materials that I immodestly hoped would become the Makassae Haggadah. I suspended work on both after Indonesia invaded East Timor. Mate Bian, the last region to be pacified by the Portuguese, also became the center of East Timorese resistance. It bore the brunt of intense fighting beyond the terror that all of East Timor experienced. The last message I received from Quelicai, in late January or early February, 1976, was from Nanai’e. Written in Makassae in the phonetic script I taught his son, it read: “There is no food. We are all dying. Please help us!”
I sent food and seed, not sure to where, and appealed to the International Red Cross for information. The ethnography and Haggadah seemed purposeless, and I turned from academia to activism, joining the Ford Foundation as Director of programs in Human Rights and Governance where I hoped to have more practical influence. I gave testimony, along with Betsy Traube, at a US Congressional hearing, engaged the media, worked with the UN East Timor negotiating team, lobbied ambassadors to the UN and provided what support we could to Ramos Horta and the international resistance.
In November 1999, I was asked by the UNDP Administer to introduce his staff to the Timorese leadership and spent several weeks viewing the horrific post-referendum destruction from the UN encampment that weeks before had itself been under siege. My son and I were privileged to be Jose Ramos Horta’s houseguests in Dili for Independence in 2002, and Leona and I stood proudly with the Timorese delegation when the flag was raised at the UN later that year. I returned to Timor in Timor again in 2006 to help Horta devise a plan for economic development and youth employment.
On those last two visits, in 2002 and 2006, I had occasion to return to Quelicai. Visibly, little seemed change, save for some urban growth with a number of houses now encircling ours. Rice was being harvested, and I wondered if the ritual sewing and threshing had returned to the terraced paddies along with the Makassae who en masse had fled into the mountains or were dislocated to coastal encampments during the Indonesian occupation. I imagined returning for a longer time, spreading my genealogies across the floor and determining what had happened to each descent group after the invasion and during the occupation—an ethnography of occupation, if you will—and comparing ritual practice between then and now. Most of all, I regretted not completing the promised Haggadah.
As for the ethnography of the Makassae, the draft chapters no longer made sense to me, and I believe I now understand why I never finished it. My diaries and correspondence from the field reveal how I as a person—my background, beliefs and behaviors—and the presence of our family became a part of the place and circumstances I had set out to “objectively” study. In a book in press, Christopher Shepherd examines how we, the anthropologist and other outside observers, not only alter the social environment in which we locate ourselves, but also affect the beliefs, perceptions and animistic outcomes of the people we set out to neutrally observe. 0ur family misadventures—ascending the sacred volcano, sitting on Uru-Uato’s son’s gravestone, killing the messenger snake—disquieted the Makassae’s notion of their relationship to their ancestors. Our presence disturbed the nature of things and has to be part of the story. An ethnography of “them” evades the essential question: what is fieldwork after all? At Chris’ urging, Leona and I are undertaking a new project, an ethnography of Us among the Makassae.