In 1980-81 my wife and
I and three daughters undertook field work in Kalimantan Timur.
During that time we visited nine resettlement sites on the Sibuku,
Sekatak, Bengara, and Batayau Rivers. We were struck by the similarities
of these both in terms of housing styles and layout to Indian reservations
that we have visited in Canada. I was also struck by the similarities
in purpose and social form of these resettlements not only to Indian
reservations in Canada but also to the Indian reservations in the
late 1800’s in the American West.
The consequence of resettlement, as was the case in Canada and
the United States, has been that the ethnic groups involved were
being deprived of access to their traditional areas of village settlement
upon which they depended for economic survival. We also found that
the economy of the resettlements was such that many of the people
perceived that there would be a shortage of food in the future.
The administration of the resettlements involved various forms of
corruption, including the misuse of government allotments so that
the full amounts were not reaching the resettlement villages areas.
The ethnic groups were also being converted to Islam or Christianity.
As a result, they were being discouraged from continuing their ceremonial
life, including their funeral ceremonies, their traditional patterns
of courtship and marriage, and their traditional form of dwelling,
the longhouse. Anyone who has read accounts of the reservation process
in the American West, such as in Tibbles (1957) will recognize familiar
To cap it off we experienced a symbolic statement that I find hard
to interpret fully. We attended a wedding, and, as we arrived at
the house of the bride, we found on the doorstep her father, a former
headhunter, dressed in a loincloth, with tiger teeth in his ears,
and wearing a blue, double-breasted, pinstriped suit jacket. I was
suddenly transported back to drawings and pictures of Indians and
early reservation life in western America before the turn of the
In discussing this with a colleague, Barbara Nowak, who had worked
in a resettlement area in Malaysia, we discovered that she had had
similar experiences. As a result of this discussion there arose
the idea of organizing a symposium to look at reservations as a
social type, as a distinct social form.
The Reservation as a Social Type
The concept of a reservation as a method of dealing with ethnic
minorities seems to arise in all parts of the world at various times
without any common historical, geographical, or cultural roots.
It seems almost as timeless a social type as the nuclear family
or the community. And it is an enduring type of social form that
in the modern world is finding increasing use in certain regions.
Yet we know little about the reservation as a social form in terms
of its defining features, how it functions, or how it is articulated
to the larger society. Thus, it is important to reach some generalizations
and theories about the reservation area as a social system for several
First, from the view of the development of anthropological knowledge,
we have an opportunity to witness first-hand the processes which
lead to the development of reservations and the consequences of
these, processes and consequences which have formed a major part
of the expansion of Western culture and the industrial economy for
the past two centuries. It is important that these processes be
fully recorded and analyzed, not only in terms of their intrinsic
interest but also so that we have the data and insight to reinterpret
historical accounts of these processes which in the past were not
witnessed by trained social scientists.
Second, by understanding these processes and the management of
administered peoples we can perhaps develop better approaches to
the problem so that impact of resettlement on minority ethnic groups
is minimized. At this point it would be useful to put forward a
tentative definition of what constitutes a reservation. It is important
to do this so that we do not get misdirected in our analysis by
what we find under the “reservation” label here in America
or founder on names such as “resettlement areas,” “re-education
centers,” and the like, which may in fact hide the critical
The reservation, as a social type, is an institution that involves
the relocation of a minority ethnic group to an area chosen by the
government so that the group no longer has access to its traditional
lands for economic exploitation, and as a result of the institution
or administration of the reservation, the ethnic group is prevented
from practicing its traditional culture. There may be good and sufficient
reasons given for the establishment of a reservation, such as the
providing of modern welfare services, the protection of the ethnic
group from predatory or unscrupulous representatives of the dominant
society, etc. Nevertheless, the reservation social type has certain
social consequences that need examination. We should also not be
led astray in attempting to isolate the defining features of a reservation
by developments that may take place once the reservation system
becomes a mature institution in any society. I refer here to the
manipulation of the reservation system by ethnic minorities to advance
their own interests. For example, there is the recent case of a
previously unrecognized Indian community in the southwest United
States applying successfully to the federal government for federal
land to form a small, residential community. But this was well after
the loss of their traditional culture.
There are a number of critical questions that need investigation
in developing a theory and understanding of the reservation as a
social form, some of which will be addressed in the following papers.
These questions include:
What are the common features of the social structure of the reservation?
Are there developmental stages to the reservation social structure?
What are the social roles found on the reservation and which of
these are occupied by members of the dominant society? Does the
dehumanization of the ethnic minority by the dominant society always
precede the creation of a reservation? What methods are used to
obtain control over the administered population and how is social
control maintained? Does the development of the local political
administration or the social conditions that precede the establishment
of the reservation foster the development of corrupt administrators
and predatory traders? Is this a function of the developmental stage
of the reservation social structure?
What is the function of the juxtaposition in the same social environment
of indigenous symbols with symbols of the dominant society in terms
of dress, dwellings, and behavior? How do the traditional methods
of conflict resolution fit in the new social situation? Are there
more conflicts and conflicts of a type not previously dealt with?
As a result are the indigenous conflict resolution mechanisms overwhelmed?
What new mechanisms grow or are instituted in their place?
Do all reservation systems result in the breakdown of the cultural
ecology of the subject population and the restructuring of the indigenous
system of economic exchanges? How does the dominant society’s
educational system affect the adaptation of the reservation population?
What are the health consequences of the reservation experience?
Does the reservation experience produce a common psychological adjustment?
Does the reservation facilitate or hinder the adaptation of the
minority group to the dominant society and its economic system?
Under what conditions does the reservation become a total institution
analogous to a prison, as Robertson (1970) has claimed? How do the
administrators of an ethnic group report on their success or failures
to their superiors? What statistics are used to justify their administration?
Many of these questions are addressed in the following papers.
Bibliography: Robertson, Heather. 1970. Reservations are for Indians.
Toronto: James Lorimer & Co. Tibbles, Thomas Henry. 1957. Buckskin
and Blanket Days. Memoirs of a Friend of the Indians. Lincoln: University
of Nebraska Press.