Thank you, The Morung Lecture, for the invitation to deliver a lecture on the Naga ancestral remains, repatriation, and healing of the land. I am honoured to be in the presence of an amazing audience this afternoon.
Thank you for taking the time to reflect together on this new exploration about Naga ancestral human remains, the meaning of repatriation, and the healing of the land.
Pitt Rivers Museum – Decolonising and Reconciling with Communities
On September 22, 2020, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (England) opened their doors to the public after being closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the closure, they undertook a comprehensive review of their programme and approach to exhibiting cultural objects from all over the world. The Pitt Rivers Museum decided to remove any human remains from their exhibition and renewed their efforts to work with different communities to return ancestral human remains taken during the period of Britain’s imperialism.
The Pitt Rivers has officially and explicitly stated they are “committed to change.” By this they mean that they are open to reconciling with different communities all over the world from where various cultural objects and human remains have come to them. They aim to explore how healing may be achieved through working closely with these communities.
‘Insensitive Displays’ of Naga Ancestral Remains
The Naga ancestral human remains are part of this endeavour. For more than a hundred years, human remains of Naga ancestors and sacred cultural objects collected by British explorers, administrators, military officers and anthropologists were taken from the Naga homelands and placed in museums, libraries, and private collections across the world.
Categorised as ‘insensitive displays that highlighted the violent history of colonialism and imperialism,’ this is part of the museum’s larger goal of decolonising the museum which is aimed towards starting a process of redress and healing, including mending a difficult and painful colonial past, and prioritising reconciliation, and co-curatorship with source communities (in the case of the Naga ancestral human remains, the Naga people). The Pitt Rivers Museum possesses the largest Naga collection in the world. There are approximately 6459 items comprising human remains and non-human remains (like textiles, baskets, musical instruments, wood carvings, hunting and farming tools, and jewelleries).
Today, as Nagas continue to seek reconciliation and healing from a history of violence and militarization, the unconditional return of our ancestors’ remains is highly significant. The act of ‘bringing them home’ means they can be safely returned to their homeland. This undertaking is a profound collective act through which the Naga people will have an opportunity to heal and facilitate a dialogue to address a violent historical past and to mend broken relationships.
Role of FNR (Forum for Naga Reconciliation) and its offshoot RRaD (Recover, Restore and Decolonise)
Since the Forum for Naga Reconciliation’s (FNR) ongoing work with communities and groups on reconciliation and healing are a response to historical violence, the PRM reached out to FNR urging the forum to facilitate a process of community dialogue to decide the ‘future care and/or return’ of Naga ancestral human remains. As part of this facilitating process, the FNR formed a research group called, Recover Restore and Decolonise (RRaD) to study and network with indigenous experts, conduct participatory action research, generate public awareness and develop a strong and viable case to make an official claim to the University of Oxford. This process will go through several steps, and will take several years before the remains are returned to the Naga people.
When we started the initiative two years ago, and reached out to Naga elders, researchers, and the traditional bodies, the majority of the respondents affirmed the dignity and sacredness of Human remains but the question of ownership over the ancestral remains, and the process of repatriating them was raised. The Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR) has made it crystal clear that it is the Naga people who have the ownership of the process, as well as the remains. FNR is only a facilitator.
“When we started the initiative two years ago, and reached out to Naga elders, researchers, and the traditional bodies, the majority of the respondents affirmed the dignity and sacredness of Human remains but the question of ownership over the ancestral remains, and the process of repatriating them was raised. The Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR) has made it crystal clear that it is the Naga people who have the ownership of the process, as well as the remains. FNR is only a facilitator.”
However, the beginning was not easy for the FNR members and the research team. Since the whole process was new, we observed a lot of fear and uncertainty in the response of the people towards the initiative. It required a lot of re-thinking, re-conceptualizing and re-negotiating the process. We are grateful to all the Naga respondents who spoke their heart and blessed us. It was also a process of learning from various indigenous communities across the world who were involved in repatriating their ancestral remains to their respective homelands. For instance, we learnt the complexities and understandings about the ‘importance of consent taking.’ An indigenous elder from Hawaii expressed the challenges that exist in the process. For the Hawaii indigenous people, they proceeded with repatriation first and focused on the consent later. This approach had its own challenges on the ground. In the case of RRaD, we decided to go to the Naga people to seek a collective consent first, and only after that, follow with the repatriation process.
We drew strength from FNR members like Naga elder Niketu Iralu who believed that the repatriation of Naga ancestral human remains was an opportunity for the Naga people. In an interview with the Naga research team , he noted that the process will help us ‘…to look at our colonial history critically apart from the romanticism of the earlier narratives.’ He further notes that our ancestral remains allows us to investigate the pre-colonial history of the Naga people, and to critically address our colonial past. The disruption between the pre-colonial and the colonial past of the Naga people, according to Nikitu Iralu, has created a vacuum in our society. The initiative of Naga ancestral human remains in that context, can work as a bridge and usher us towards reconciliation and healing across the Naga homeland. The healing of our land and our people may validate the future Naga generation with hope and purpose grounded in their history and people.
Role of Naga Anthropologists
It is in this backdrop, and in the spirit of dialogue and decolonization that my fellow colleague Naga anthropologist Arkotong Longkumer, in our role as researchers, started a conversation with the Pitt Rivers Museum. As indigenous anthropologists, Arkotong and I came together in this journey because the initiative resonated with our vision and values. We identified themes of decolonisation, healing, and reconciliation that powerfully encompass global indigenous values in the 21st century. We are deeply committed to open the space for a wider participation, one that enables and walks together with the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR).
Arkotong and my role are that of researchers, and our aim in this initiative at the moment is to address issues surrounding the repatriation of around 214 ancestral human remains currently housed in the Pitt Rivers Museum. Their descriptions, spread over numerous pages of excel sheets, provide a glimpse into the expanse of the machinations of the British Empire – from conquering, to administrating, to collecting and to ruling– a process that remains undiminished and indeed unfinished.
As Naga anthropologists engaged in this introspective engagement of reparation and healing, we are aware that the process will generate deep emotions including grief and anger, as well as open historical trauma for the Naga people. For more than 100 years, museums across Europe have displayed Naga objects as exotic and primitive, taken away as souvenirs and artefacts under duress during colonial expeditions. This fact exposes the harsh realities of imperialism, and their contemporary resonances.
We see this initiative as an intellectual pursuit, where all of us can create new forms of indigenous knowledge that allows us to seek interventions. What do I mean here?
Narrating my Personal Experiences
Let me share a personal story. As a Naga student, I grew up hearing how the authoritative book on my tribe- the Lotha people, was written by a British colonial administrator named James Philip Mills (J.P. Mills). When I started my journey as a researcher around 20 years ago, one could see this book in many educated Naga homes. Many elders told me to refer to J.P. Mills to learn about my people. The book is the voice of a British colonial administrator and what he observed and thought of the Lotha people. J.P. Mills also wrote ethnographies of the Ao Nagas and the Rengma Nagas. One of his famous works also includes The Pangsha Letters (it was a military expedition that J.P. Mills took in 1936 to rescue captive labourers in the Naga Hills). He went on this military expedition with his close friend and another ‘expert’ on the Nagas, the Austrian anthropologist Christof von Furer – Haimendorf. The Pangsha text notes that Haimendorf was also an excellent photographer.
Besides J.P. Mills, another colonial administrator by the name of John Henry Hutton (J.H. Hutton) also extensively wrote about the Naga people. In 1921, he wrote two monographs, one on the Angami Nagas and the second one on the Sumi Nagas, which earned him a doctoral degree from Oxford University. Besides their writings on the Naga people, Hutton and Mills also collected artifacts including human remains and trophy heads across the Naga Hills.
Today, the Pitt Rivers Museum officially acknowledges that the largest Naga collections at the museum were donated by J.P. Mills and J.H. Hutton. Both were trained as anthropologists, who returned to the academy after they retired from their respective administrative positions in the North Eastern frontiers of India. After his retirement, J.P. Mills closely worked with Haimendorf at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and Hutton became a professor of anthropology at Cambridge University. Archival notes at the Pitt Rivers Museum tells that Mills and Hutton played a central role in mentoring anthropologist Christof von Furer – Haimendorf as an expert on the Naga people.
Where are the Naga Stories – Our Stories?
As a Naga scholar today, I strongly feel that producing meaningful education and scholarship in Naga society is about centering the inter-generational Naga indigenous world around us. This is not an easy task. How can we get a sense of indigenous values for communities who are experiencing intergenerational trauma due to militarization and conflict? What kind of stories and lived experiences matter for us? Indigenous cultures across the world, including that of the Naga people, believe that oral traditions and past are kept alive within the community – in the body, heart, and spirit of its members.
However, many of us in the Naga research world were fed healthy doses of colonial ethnographies written by Mills, Hutton, Haimendorf, and others. I am sure many of you can resonate with me. Colonizers who raided, invaded, burnt, and punished our people were also exalted as Naga experts for more than a century. It is now acknowledged that many artefacts collected by colonial officers like Mills and Hutton were carried out under duress and often against the wishes of the Naga people. Of course, some of the items were gifts and tributes, but there are also many items including the Naga human remains which were collected after “punishing the savages”, imprisoning them, and burning down Naga villages. This was theft of Naga cultural artefacts and heritage after inflicting physical violence to the extent of causing death and destruction of property in our ancestral land.
The Impact of Colonization– Soul, Body and Land
I am sharing these accounts with a reflective spirit of tracing the impact of colonisation. Colonization is a totalizing experience. It takes over our soul, body, and land. Colonization legitimizes invasion, occupation, and exploitation of people and their resources. It is deeply violent.
But we must acknowledge that the colonization of the mind is the most brutal of all, and a critical tool of colonization is research that appropriates indigenous stories, histories, and sources to elevate the colonizer as an expert. This colonial methodology is visible across the indigenous worlds including research on the Naga people.
A colonized Naga mind sees knowledge, value, and any kind of intellectual meaning making as grounded and exalting the superiority of the coloniser’s race and their history. For instance, this might mean a blind devotion and celebration of a colonial administrator like J.H. Hutton who led military expeditions to invade Naga villages. Henry Balfour, fellow anthropologist and the first curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum described J.H. Hutton as the greatest authority on the Naga Hills. Hutton explicitly states how his training as an anthropologist assisted him in his “professional service” referring to his work as a colonial administrator serving the British empire. Even at the time of his death, his obituary reads how Hutton applied his anthropological knowledge to the practical business of the government.
“A colonized Naga mind sees knowledge, value, and any kind of intellectual meaning making as grounded and exalting the superiority of the coloniser’s race and their history. For instance, this might mean a blind devotion and celebration of a colonial administrator like J.H. Hutton who led military expeditions to invade Naga villages.”
As Indigenous People with an oral tradition, so far there are no texts from the Naga people’s perspective that goes with the honours accorded to Hutton, Mills, and Haimendorf. Instead, we are called to be like them, we are trained to carry out “research expeditions” on our ancestral lands when their names are celebrated uncritically and honoured.
Calling on Naga Scholars and Allies devoted to Decolonizing
As a Naga anthropologist, in the spirit of decolonization, this is something that deeply troubles me. I call upon Naga scholars and their allies to devote their time to decolonizing Naga indigenous research and scholarship instead of getting drowned in a colonized mindset. The blind celebration of colonial ethnographers like Hutton, Haimendorf, and Mills, even to the extent of honouring them with annual lectures in Nagaland underlines our colonised mindset.
Naga people will not celebrate the perpetrators who killed our brothers at Oting in 2021. We have never celebrated the perpetrators who inflicted violence on Oinam, Kohima, and Mokokchung. So, I wonder, why do we exalt those who relegated us to intellectual primitivity and colonised us? The African proverb “Until the lions have their storytellers, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” aptly names our existing experiences with colonization. And this is most insidious, as I noted earlier, in the field of education and scholarship.
Join Us on this Transformative Journey
The role of Return Restore and Decolonise (RRaD) team in the Naga Ancestral Human Remains initiative is not limited to calling for decolonising Naga scholarship. Since this initiative started, we are learning to unlearn as well. This has been a transformative journey, and we stand here as fellow researchers with the larger indigenous research world – thinking together how to communicate and value community centred knowledge and engagement. We are also learning about the deep meanings of decoloniality. For us, decoloniality involves recognizing the Naga people’s history as one of colonisation and loss. With the process of repatriation, Naga people have a remarkable opportunity to reflect on the future of the Naga ancestral human remains at the Pitt Rivers Museum and other museums in Europe and beyond.
The initiative to back our Ancestral Human Remains is not about completing decolonisation. It is only the beginning of thinking together how research, writing, and documenting are carried out with respect and accountability; actions and collaborations that shape a holistic intellectual indigenous knowledge system. Our indigenous knowledge rests with us, our land, and our elders. What have we kept alive so far? What have we lost? Why do we seek to heal our land?
As Naga people, we must see the significance of the initiative for repatriation in the larger scheme of decolonization and healing. We have learnt from our fellow indigenous communities around the world who have carried out similar processes, that all repatriation movements pay attention to decolonisation, reconciliation, and healing. We realise that this undertaking is a collective and shared one – and we must learn from those who have gone before us.
In Solidarity with Fellow Indigenous Researchers
Along the way we have found support and guidance from a native Hawai‘i activist (Edward Halealoha Ayau) who has been working for over 30 years with various museums and institutions to repatriate iwi kūpuna (ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains), moepū (funerary possessions) and meakapu (sacred objects). Similarly, – Return, Reconcile, Renew (RRR), an Australian research team has provided us with databases and mentoring with regard to the repatriation of ancestors, a process they have begun in the context of Aboriginal Australians. We also learnt from Reverend Dr. Garry Deverell, an indigenous seminarian, priest, and member of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council. These partnerships highlight the strength of Indigenous peoples’ networks and the willingness and courage they demonstrate through the sharing of knowledge and solidarity.
The realities of colonialism are widespread. But the movement for justice and decolonisation persists. Cultural objects belonging to source communities stolen during British colonialism have received significant attention in recent times. The controversy over the Benin Bronzes and the decision by Cambridge and Aberdeen Universities to return them to Nigeria has generated important debates regarding restitution and the broader questions around colonialism. Like many of these instances demanding restitution, the Naga people’s case requires that we understand the immense violence and trauma we continue to experience because of colonization.
Reconciliation and healing of the land are not simply tropes that need discussion. They need to be embedded in a process where the community (us- you and me together) takes ownership and custodianship, and through that, hopefully, there is a more humane approach towards decolonisation and justice.
“Reconciliation and healing of the land are not simply tropes that need discussion. They need to be embedded in a process where the community (us- you and me together) takes ownership and custodianship, and through that, hopefully, there is a more humane approach towards decolonisation and justice.”
Naga artefacts such as textiles, beads, baskets, spears, including human remains have been exhibited across museums in Europe for more than a century. Those of us who had the opportunity to travel overseas were amazed at our heritage and history being showcased to the world. Some of our Naga artists and scholars over the years have been invited by museum curators to catalogue textiles and other material objects. These are meaningful collaborations, and I hope many more Nagas – artists, writers, and researchers – can connect with our Naga heritage that are spread across museums in Europe and beyond. However, it is easier said than done, given the challenges of securing resources to travel overseas and the stringent visa regulations. But there is more to this- Such invitations force us to encounter a Naga past that decentres our existing ideas of who we are as a people today. In particular, the relation between the Naga people and colonization sharply comes alive.
In 2017, Naga photographer Zubeni Lotha’s exhibition ‘Looking at the Tree Again’ interrogated the representation of Naga people in early Anthropology.1 She called us to introspect the colonial construction of our identity and history. Both Naga accounts and images, Zubeni asserted, are perpetuated time and again. She powerfully notes that Naga culture did not come into existence because the colonial anthropologists documented them. Taking the image of a Peepal Tree from a Lotha village in Wokha district, she shows the tree as a social space where children play and how the tree/s also symbolizes our present and social worlds as Naga people. She notes that Naga culture is a “lively culture that people are living and taking forward to the future.”
In 2016, fellow Naga anthropologist Tiatoshi Jamir called us on a journey to decolonize archaeological practices in Northeast India.2 He reminds us that tags such as “Land of Festivals” that defines the state of Nagaland today was known as the land of primitives and savages not long ago. Tiatoshi invites us to develop, and incorporate a community centered research approach, one that is grounded on dialogue, trust, and transparency. Providing an example from his life as an anthropologist, he describes how the excavation works he has undertaken across the Ao Naga homeland was made possible because of the support and guidance of the communities. He cautions us about universal tags in the field of archaeology like the Neolitic, Broze, or Iron Age. Mainstream archaeology, according to Tiatoshi, is colonizing because it prevents establishing connections with our indigenous present. Thus, he calls the excavation sites tracing our Naga pre-colonial past as “ancestral sites.”
Such initiatives that are taking place among Naga people resonate with the ‘healing of the land’ journey, a sentiment that surfaced in our many conversations with Naga individuals and communities since the initiation of the ancestral human remains dialogue. Engaging with the ancestral remains and putting them to rest means a renewal of the land, our history, and an understanding of the tempestuous historical moments that have come to define the Naga people. This is a task that not only requires reflection about the past, but also a hope for a future that younger generations can inherit, a land where our ancestors are laid to rest and through which healing and reconciliation can begin.
Let me share the story of a similar process in Australia taking place, a continent where indigenous people have asserted their sovereignty and their indigenous rights.
Uluru Statement from the Heart – Recognizing Indigenous Sovereignty
In 2017, Aboriginal leaders in Australia appealed to the national parliament for constitutional changes and structural reforms. This came to be known as the Uluru Statement from the Heart.3 The document called for the recognition of indigenous sovereignty as co-existing with the sovereignty of the Crown (a reference to the settler colonial history of the continent). Indigenous sovereignty, the statement underlined, is both spiritual and one that is tied to the land. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was founded on three themes: Voice, Treaty, and Truth. It called upon the parliament to address indigenous governance, self-determination, and justice. The document underlined the aspirations of the indigenous people and the reforms they sought as sovereign nations of the Australian continent and its adjunct islands. In 2022, under the new labour government, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s first official act was to endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The Naga human remains at the Pitt Rivers Museum storied away in perpetuity belong to our ancestors – our fore bearers, warriors, weavers, foragers, singers, friends, brothers, and sisters –people who never ceded their land or sovereignty. These remains invite us to introspect and connect with our culture, land, and past.
 https://indiaifa.org/events/ifadelhi-looking-tree-again-%E2%80%93-exhibition-photographs-zubeni-lotha-march-28-2017.html (Last accessed 23 September, 2022)
 https://savageminds.org/2016/10/24/decolonizing-archaeological-practice-in-northeast-india-towards-a-community-based-archaeology-at-chungliyimti-nagaland/ (last accessed 23 September, 2022)
 https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement/view-the-statement/ (last accessed 23 September, 2022)
A Time of Reckoning
This is a time of reckoning. I believe that the voices of the Naga people – young and old – will come together in this repatriation journey to reflect, dialogue, and initiate for the return of our Naga ancestral human remains. May this be a journey from our heart founded on hope for healing our lands and to build a movement for a better Naga future. A future founded on peace, solution, and justice.
We cannot let our links to land and history disappear. For decades, we have witnessed an unprecedented rate of unemployment, addiction, domestic abuse, mental health crisis, and school dropouts in our society. Today, we witness an increasing outmigration of Naga youths in the hospitality sector and professional fields across our homelands. The sorrow, anger, and frustration in the hearts of our young Nagas – the inheritors of our collective future – is not because there is no love in our hearts anymore for our people and our land.
These developments tell us about a crisis – a deep structural violence – a culture of militarization and impunity where the medium of communication is often a language of hurt and rage. This is the magnitude of our problem today.
When a Naga parent or a loved one, unable to put food on the table or pay for education, weeps and says, “I don’t know what else I can do?”/“Moi najane aru ki kuribo?”, the torment is an incarceration of our collective values. It is an impediment to our collective aspiration for a fair and just future. We cannot aspire for a better future as a people when our existing culture is not a gift but a string of tattered dreams, heartbreaks, and hunger for our future generation.
A Journey of Truth-Telling
This anguish of helplessness calls us for a journey of truth-telling about who we are as Naga people, our history, and what the future holds if we fail to come together. And this journey begins with the realisation of our realities today. What has become of us and our history, to the extent that our ancestral remains are now private property and exotic exhibitions in museums far away, while our emerging Naga future generations live in poverty and deep inequalities around us?
I imagine our ancestral human remains as prisoners of colonization in foreign lands, cut off from their people, and denied the right to be laid to rest. However, aspiring for their return to land also means our (the living) journey to return to land and community, where they were born and were custodians of the land.
Summing it up – Fog Lifting off our Eyes
When the pandemic shut down the world two years ago, Naga migrants came back home – they went back to their villages, towns, and cities – they returned to their people. Where else could they go? Many of you volunteered in different ways with your time, labour, money, and expertise. Naga volunteers, teachers, professionals, missionaries, students, and members of tribal council came together. We witnessed what it meant to work towards a shared destiny. There is something sacred and spiritual about homecomings. Yes, many young migrants have returned to their places of work across India and beyond, while some have stayed back to start new ventures.
What I want to underline here is the act of homecoming, the process of return, the feeling that we belong to a community that we are one people – it is like the fog lifting off and our eyes meeting the radiant blue skies, the clear horizon, and the mountaintop full of promise. When we understand our past, recognise the present reality, and strive to work together, we begin to build our future. This is when the work of decolonisation begins for us as responsible thinkers and members of the Naga nation. After I delivered the first lecture on the Naga Ancestral Human Remains in Dimapur on July 27, 2022, we distributed a survey form seeking reflections from the audience. It was predominantly a young crowd. The RRaD team? wanted to hear from them- Why should Naga People work Together in Recovering the Naga Ancestral Human Remains?
Their response was overwhelming. They responded that this collective activity of repatriation and reparation will:
- Enable a dignified homecoming and provide an honourable memorial to our ancestors
- Identify and address the burdens of violent British colonialism on Naga people by telling our stories and reclaiming our history
- Create a process of healing from the burdens of violent British colonialism and facilitate mending of broken relationships
- Create space for cooperation and dialogue among the present generation of Nagas as they participate in recovering of ancestral remains
- Strengthen a common and inclusive Naga history that will provides clarity of the colonial rule during the British times
- Initiate a cycle of healing and restoration so that the younger Naga generations can shape a future with love and respect for one another
The responses resonated with love and hope. We have it, beloved Naga people, we have it in us to love and care for one another, to dream for a Naga future where we will cherish one another, respect our elders, and be responsible for the land and the forests our ancestors walked, nurtured their bodies, and lived.
It is with this care and love; I call upon the Naga people to join the journey to bring back our ancestral human remains back to their land and their people. Back to us and our hearts. Beloved Naga people, our ancestors are done entertaining the world for more than a century, they are done being exotic show pieces and decorations on museum walls, they are done being misrepresented as primitives and savages. May this be a journey of our hearts!