The concept of a “tribe” reflects how some Indigenous groups think of themselves in some parts of the world. At the same time, this term has also been used by researchers (such as anthropologists and sociologists) as well as state forces who wish to categorise groups into ethnic hierarchies that reflect colonialist ideas. Western governments rely on the label ‘tribe’ to classify groups unfamiliar to them, especially during political conflicts. In its latter use, when the term is imposed rather than fitting the subjective reality of individuals, this classification can be problematic. My post focuses only on the latter categorisation not on Indigenous or other people who identify with a tribe.
When the term “tribe” is imposed, especially during times of political conflict, war and colonisation, it is often muddled up with notions of culture, language, religion and ethnic identity. The notion of tribe hides these overlapping but distinct social relations. It makes social groups seem as if they fit into neat groups, but in reality, the imposed concept of tribes has led to many policy problems.
Let’s take a look at the complex identities of the Tausug and how the notion of ‘tribe,’ as imposed by Spanish and American colonialists, at different points in time, is problematic.
Case study: the Tausug
In the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, in the Southern Philippines, someone can be called a “Moro” (originally a derogatory colonialist term) which essentially means “Muslim,” but they may not speak the same language and they may not belong to the same ethic group. In the same region, someone can call themselves Tausug, which is an ethnic group, but it also refers to the language, and sometimes it also means someone is Muslim.
Anthropologist Thomas Kiefer carried out ethnographic research amongst the Tausug in the 1960s. He noted how even amongst this one ethnic group, there were rivalries and conflict within and across villages. Groups would band together for one particular conflict based on personal loyalties, and in the next conflict people who fought against one another would be fighting side by side. This was due to cultural norms about honour, and because the very notion of what it means to be Tausug is fluid.
Kiefer’s work demonstrates how identity categories are relational and situational. In Tausug culture, people’s allegiances shift as they follow a particular leader.
This confused the Spanish and American forces that invaded Tausug lands at different points in history. This confusion continues to play out in the present day amongst the separatist movement that seeks independence from the Christian-led Philippines Government. The Tausug don’t follow identity allegiances or political ideologies as we think about them in Western countries. The idea that all Tausug belong to the same tribe obscures these nuances of culture, politics, religion and identity.
Colonial forces expect groups to mirror cultural and national allegiances as they experience them. In this imposed view, the term “tribes” positions groups simply as a small-scale version of patriotic bands of people who belong to a micro-nation. This doesn’t always fit. Ethnic groups all over the world follow different notions of belonging and they don’t always conform to Western expectations of culture, ethnicity or nationality.
Categories of identity matter to individuals for obvious reasons: they help anchor us to the groups we belong to, and they signify shared practices or traditions. Yet identities also matter because governments organise social policies and social resources in relation to social categories.
In order for a community to get funding for new development projects, or to get access to health care, or to claim land rights and other sovereign entitlements, governments expect groups to follow certain patterns of belonging. Governments also want to be able to track progress of particular social groups, so they impose categories like ethnicity, culture and tribe.
Saying that someone belongs to a specific tribe is one way that aid agencies and governments have allocated resources. Tribes are also a primary vehicle for governments, non-Government organisations and international forces to provide political resources to some groups over others during times of crisis and conflict. Sometimes this leads to problems when the categories available don’t reflect how groups are actually self-organised.
Rather than trying to impose Western or other colonial hierarchies, it’s better for governments and aid organisations to get a handle on how local groups organise themselves. We’d like everyone to fit into notions of “us” and “them,” but as we see with the Tausug and other groups across time and place, the idea of us/them is sometimes porous, transient and dependent on factors other than nation, culture, religion or tribe.
A version of this post was first published on Google+ on 24 February 2014.