Contested identities of indigenous people: Indigenization or integration of the Veddas in Sri Lanka

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<ul><li><p>Contested identities of indigenous people:Indigenization or integration of the Veddas in</p><p>Sri Lanka</p><p>Chamila T. Attanapola1 and Ragnhild Lund2</p><p>1Administration, Faculty of Humanities, Norwegian University of Science and Technology2Department of Geography, Norwegian University of Science and Technology</p><p>Correspondence: Chamila T. Attanapola (email:</p><p>Traditionally, the identity of indigenous people was defined in relation to closeness to nature and</p><p>use of wildlife resources. Such an identity has been put under pressure due to development</p><p>programmes, neo-liberal policies and increasing market economy, forcing these people to redefine</p><p>their identity within new socio-economic and geopolitical contexts. Based on ethnographic</p><p>research, the situation of the Vedda people in Sri Lanka is analysed. First, we unravel how they</p><p>define their identity through a meaningful relationship with the place in which they used to live</p><p>prior to their displacement because of a large scale development project. Second, we analyse how</p><p>the Veddas (re-)negotiate their identity in a context of limited access to land, lack of education,</p><p>unemployment, and an increasing demand for indigenous tourism. It is found that the Veddas</p><p>redefine their identity by pursuing two survival strategies: tourist development and</p><p>re-indigenization, and integration into mainstream Sinhalese society. Both strategies pose chal-</p><p>lenges and opportunities.</p><p>Keywords: indigenous identity, re-indigenization, integration, Sri Lanka, Vedda</p><p>Introduction</p><p>Indigenous people have been historically linked to land as their main source of survivaland as an essential element in the preservation of their culture and distinctive identities.Indigenous people are known variously as ethnic groups, ethnic minorities, and in thecase of South Asia, adivasi. They are normally associated with a definite geographicalarea, and have a distinctive culture that includes a wide spectrum of ethnic ways of life,including language, customs, traditions and religious beliefs. They are often character-ized by having livelihoods that are closely connected to nature, lower levels of educationand technological development, and being less integrated into the market economy.However, indigenous people are not monoliths and their levels of deprivation andintegration with mainstream society vary greatly (World Bank, 2010). As they developtheir identities based on meaningful relationships with land and the places in whichthey dwell, work on and move about in during everyday life (Bolanos, 2011), itbecomes necessary for them to redefine their identities when their relationship with theland is disturbed (Relph, 1976; Bhabha, 1994; Rose, 1995).</p><p>The strong perceptions of the ethnic identities of indigenous people are not neces-sarily respected or recognized by state administrations, which may try to play down thedifferences in order to integrate them into mainstream society (Pholsena &amp;Banomyong, 2004). Even though indigenous people are marked by their distinctiveculture, often the contextualized and nuanced differences have not been taken intoconsideration in some of the national studies on indigenous people. Rather, they arepresented as exotic (especially women) or blamed for being backward. The identities</p><p>bs_bs_banner</p><p>doi:10.1111/sjtg.12022</p><p>Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 34 (2013) 172187</p><p> 2013 The Authors</p><p>Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 2013 Department of Geography, National University of Singapore and</p><p>Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd</p><p></p></li><li><p>and culture of indigenous people can thus be an object of exotification and commer-cialization, rendering their communities as living museums (Xu &amp; Salas, 2003).</p><p>Recently, a discourse has emerged on how indigenous has become a marker ofstrategic importance for people to justify their claims to their rights, as well as claimingan identity with a new strategic meaning (Bijoy, 1993; Rao, 2003; Bauer, 2010; Idrus,2010; Bolanos, 2011; Lund &amp; Panda, 2011). Some scholars have termed the ability ofindigenous people to strategize on their ethnicity professional primitivism (Bastin,2003), referring to activities whereby they make a living from their cultural identity,such as through tourism. This generally happens in areas where indigenous people havebeen denied their access to ancestral lands and resources, as has been documented forall continents (Bauer, 2010; Erazo, 2010).</p><p>In this article we discuss the ability of indigenous people to (re)define their culturalidentity as part of a survival strategy. We aim to unravel how they strategize to surviveby claiming identity as Veddas in marginalized positions. When previously culturallydefined boundaries of land have become politically contested territories due to coloni-zation, modernization, neo-liberal policies and market adjustments, their practices andidentities change. The Veddas in Sri Lanka have faced deteriorating livelihoods andrelative deprivation compared to dominant ethnic groups in the country throughouthistory, and particularly during the twentieth century when large-scale irrigation,colonization schemes and conservation projects were implemented (Lund, 2000; 2003).We ask how the Veddas themselves define and redefine their identity within a rapidlychanging socio-economic and geopolitical context, which play a decisive role in thisprocess, and also how important the Veddas ability is to (re)negotiate their culturalidentity as part of a survival strategy.</p><p>By describing the case of the Vedda communities in two villages, Dambane andHenanigala South,1 we will first present how indigenous groups, including the Veddas,define their identities through a meaningful relationship with the place in which theyused to live. A brief methodological section follows, before we describe how indigenouspeople have been understood in Sri Lanka and how the Veddas themselves perceivetheir identity. The empirical investigation of the two villages shows that they handletheir identity differently. In Dambane, Veddas (re)negotiate their cultural identitythrough professional primitivism, which is understood as encompassing processes ofre-indigenization. In Henanigala South, Veddas attempt to integrate into mainstreamsociety, but with great difficulty as they are marginalized in almost every aspect of theirlives.</p><p>Identity re-indigenization through professional primitivism or integration</p><p>Identity is not only changeable over time and through space but is also potentiallyvoluntaristic in that individuals may work out new forms of identification and differ-entiation within and against the social relations of their everyday lives (Katz, 2003).According to Pratt (1998), a place-based identity results when powerful meanings ofthe landscape influence people to the extent that their behaviours and self-identity ortheir collective group belonging become equated with a particular locale. Processesof colonization and modernization have changed the habitats and daily lifestyles ofindigenous people and marginalized them in many societies. They have becomepoorer and landless, their traditional culture is under threat of becoming extinct(Lund, 2003), and they are forced to adopt new livelihoods and lifestyles in order tosurvive.</p><p>Contested identities and professional primitivism of Veddas 173</p></li><li><p>Several scholars have documented how indigenous people transform or strategizeon their identity. Scotts (2009) seminal study on indigenous people in Southeast Asiaexplains the capabilities of indigenous people and documents that they always haveknown how to strategize on their identity. He argues that highland indigenous peoplesin Southeast Asia have been able to efficiently manage their linguistic variety, swiddenagriculture and ethnic identity by avoiding state control over agriculture and labourthroughout history.</p><p>Tookers (2004) study of Akha people in northern Thailand also shows that duringthe 1980s, increased capitalist penetration, including the introduction of cash cropproduction and wage labour in agriculture, establishment of settlements and urban-ization, media and new political structures, have changed their everyday practices andlivelihoods. Akha identity is presented as hybrid, consisting of elements of Christianity,mainstream Thai culture and political structure, and to some extent traditional Akhaethnic cultural practices that are relegated only to special occasions and social domainsand observable in dress styles, ritual practices and language use. Similarly, Escobar(1995) points out that many traditional cultures survive through their transformativeengagement in modernity in Latin America. Indigenous people recognize the mar-keting opportunities and value of their culture rather than perceiving them as authen-tic survival from their past. Such adaptation to modernity creates a new senseof indigenous identity, which is a combination of the traditional and the modern.Indigenous people reinsert traditional cultural elements into a new setting (re-indigenization). By exploring the case of the Ecuadorian coastal village Macaboa,Bauer (2010) studied how an indigenous community was successful in resisting priva-tization of land by emphasizing their indigenous identity through rights to land. Suchre-indigenization was necessary to mobilize the community and to convince the stateof the communitys right to access their land and maintain their livelihoods. Other-wise, the communitys struggle against capitalist land buyers and the state would justbe articulated as a class struggle alone, which cannot be won in an era when capitalismand neoliberal policies dominate every aspect of peoples everyday life. Thus, anemphasis on indigenousness becomes important. Similarly, studies of BrazilianAmazon Ribeirinho people (Bolanos, 2011), Alaskan Natives (Dombrowski, 2007),Indian adivasi people (Rao, 2003; Lund &amp; Panda, 2011) and Australian aboriginals(Tonkinson, 2007) show that re-indigenization is a strategy to claim indigenousrights.</p><p>The Veddas in Sri Lanka have been perceived as the others since colonial times. Intheir search for true Veddas in Ceylon, anthropologists Charles Gabriel and BrendaZara Seligmann came across professional primitive men who presented themselves asVeddas (Bastin, 2003). Recently, wealthy peoples desire to experience exotic places andpeople, authentic cultures, and search for adventure have increased the demand forindigenous culture; hence, indigenousness has obtained a market value. Sri Lankapromotes ecotourism (also called indigenous tourism, ethnic tourism) as a developmentstrategy, which allows tourists to have exotic cultural experiences through visitinghistorical and ethnic villages, minority homes, engaging in ethnic events and festivals,watching traditional dances or ceremonies, or just shopping for ethnic handicrafts(Assenov &amp; Ratnayake, 2008; Yang et al., 2008). When traditional artefacts and access tothe practices of everyday life of people are sold, indigenous identity is produced andconsumed as a commodity (Guneratne, 2001; Hunter, 2011; Yang, 2011). As profes-sional primitivism has become a way to earn a living, indigenous people continue to liveas primitive, backward and exotic (Bastin, 2003; Yang, 2011).</p><p>174 Chamila T. Attanapola and Ragnhild Lund</p></li><li><p>Against this background, we use the concept professional primitivism about Veddaswho live in the traditional way and engage in income generating activities for touristpurposes. With reference to the village which has actively engaged in tourism,Dambane, we ask whether professional primitivism is voluntary or a must within thesocio-economic and political system they live in. This means that they re-indigenizetheir culture by returning to traditional ways of life and embrace traditional culturalidentity in the new market economy. Alternatively, as in Henanigala South, which is arelatively new settlement, people respond to the transformations brought about byprocesses of modernity and the new market economy by trying to co-opt to the waysand means of majority ethnic groups. Such an approach leads to cultural hybridization,which may be seen as a response and an adaptation to modernity by encompassing bothmodern and traditional ways of life.</p><p>Researching the Veddas</p><p>This article is primarily based on information gained during field visits to Dambane andHenanigala South in February 2011. The day before our visit, a leading Sri LankanNewspaper carried a story with the headline Veddahs reduced to research objects!(The Island, 2011). The article described the extreme poverty and marginalization ofthe Vedda community in Henanigala South, a part of Mahaweli development area. Wewere somewhat disinclined to revisit this village after reading the article because wedid not want to intrude on the lives of the Veddas by questioning them about sensitiveissues. However, during earlier visits (1991, 1999, 2003, 2006), one of the authors haddeveloped a good rapport with the Vedda chief and people, and found that they werevery interested in giving voice to their story of displacement (Lund, 2000; 2003).Hence, we decided to visit the two Vedda communities, to collect their narrativesabout their identity within the present sociocultural and geopolitical environment inSri Lanka.</p><p>Dambane and Henanigala South villages are located 26 km apart in Uva Province inSri Lanka, c. 200 km east of Colombo (Figure 1). At present there are about 350 familiesliving in Dambane village who identify themselves as Veddas (pers. comm., Vedda chief,Dambane, 21 February 2011). The families live under the guidance of their chief. InHenanigala South there are about 500 families (The Island, 2011). Compared to the restof the population in the country, the Veddas are economically very poor and live underharsh conditions without access to basic needs such as clean water, roads and properhousing.</p><p>During our visit in 2011, we conducted informal and in-depth interviews in com-bination with observations and photography. In addition to talking informally withseveral villagers in both the communities, we formally interviewed the paramountVedda chief who resides in Dambane and seven villagers there (three young men, eldestson of the chief, the daughter of the chief who lived in a neighboring village and twoother Vedda women). In Henanigala South, we interviewed a group of senior elders, theold and new chief, and seven other villagers (three young women and four men,including the grandson of Henanigala Souths old chief).</p><p>The re-visit provided the opportunity to build on old relationships. Young membersof the two Vedda communities volunteered to take us around their villages, showed usimportant places and invited us to their homes for interview. Through observations itwas possible to gain insights into how tourist practices in Dambane were organizedand how the Vedda identity was used in this regard. Observations and interviews in</p><p>Contested identities and professional primitivism of Veddas 175</p></li><li><p>Henanigala...</p></li></ul>


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