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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Articulating Indigenous Identity in Indonesia: Resource Politics and the Tribal Slot


It was the official line of Suharto’s regime that Indonesia is a nation which has no indigenous people, or that all Indonesians are equally indigenous.1 The internationally recognized category “indigenous and tribal peoples” (as defined in International Labour Organization convention 169) has no direct equivalent in Indonesia’s national legal system, nor are there reservations or officially recognized tribal territories. Under Suharto the national motto “unity in diversity” and the displays of Jakarta’s theme park, Taman Mini, presented the acceptable limits of Indonesia’s cultural difference, while development efforts were directed at improving the lot of “vulnerable population groups,” including those deemed remote or especially backwards. Expressions of the desire for development made through bottom up planning processes and supplications to visiting officials were the approved format through which rural citizens communicated with the state. National activists and international donors who argued for the rights of indigenous people were dismissed as romantics imposing their primitivist fantasies upon poor folk who want, or should want, to progress like “ordinary” Indonesians. Nevertheless, a discourse on indigenous people took hold in activist circles in the final years of Suharto’s rule, and it has increasing currency in the Indonesian countryside. With the new political possibilities opened up in the post-Suharto era, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on how Indonesia’s indigenous or tribal slot is being envisioned, who might occupy it, and with what effects.

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