Oral Histories Weave the Nation’s Identity


By: Ratih Hardjono

A traditional leader in the Banggai district of Central Sulawesi explained to me that the village next to his was not an indigenous village, yet the village had been there for more than 150 years.

This particular village, deemed as “non-indigenous”, occupied a different social status in the area. However, this was never stated openly and was always part of a strong undercurrent in all the discourses that took place in the area.

It was as if the real explanation was locked inside a fortress to which the entry was hidden somewhere in its thick walls. The challenge was to understand this subtle and yet profound world view of indigenous and non-indigenous villages.

One possible entry to understanding the difference between indigenous villages and non-indigenous villages in the area today requires going back to the boundaries of the local sultanates that were autonomous entities 400 years ago, long before the Dutch colonial powers arrived. History in Indonesia did not just begin with the arrival of the Dutch.

The oral history regarding the village labeled “non-indigenous” carries a dark history. It was not clear whose version of history it was, but it certainly was predominant in the area. This oral history had designated the village as a cultural and social fringe area.

Oral history is still a powerful recorder of past events in many areas in Indonesia, and many communities are still guided by this spoken tradition. Many modern Indonesians regard oral history as simple mythology, ignoring the fact that oral history is very much alive in the memory of a community and forms the community’s perceptions and attitudes toward their surroundings. What makes deciphering oral history complicated is that its keepers are not focused on a time line, but rather on the event itself and the people involved. When asked when events took place, the answer is always “a long time ago”.

The fact remains that until today, the “non-indigenous” village still holds an inferior social status compared to other villages. One clear indicator is the meaning of the name of this particular “non-indigenous” village, which in the local language means “stack of corpses”.

When outsiders enquired about the name, the explanation given was that 50 years ago there was a malaria pandemic that killed hundreds of villagers and the corpses were stacked in the location of the village today. As a result, according to the oral history, the majority of villagers left the original site and established a new non-indigenous village in order to move away from the curse experienced in the previous location.

This is not the full account, however, because the village in question had been there since last century with the same name. More importantly, whose curse was it that caused the plague and made so many villagers move and create a new village 50 years ago? It remains unclear.

What is interesting, though, is the fact that many of the “non-indigenous” villages later on embraced different faiths than traditional indigenous villages. The new village established from the “stack of corpses” village is today a Christian village in an area where more than 90% of the people are Muslims. To label communal tensions in the area as religious tensions is to totally miss the point, although it may play a small part. The fact is that the difference goes much deeper.

When confronted with this, the traditional leader admitted that the difference was not religious, but stemmed the fact that the people from the “stack of corpses” village were descendants of refugees from the Tobelo War. The people of his area were descendants of the Matindok Sultanate, one of the four major sultanates in the Banggai district.

The Tobelo War took place in the 1830s, when the local sultans demanded their freedom and rebelled against the sultanate of Ternate, who reigned supreme at the time in most of the eastern parts of Sulawesi and Ambon. The sultanate of Tidore was backed by colonial powers and was able to force smaller sultanates to succumb to it.

The people from the “stack of corpses” village did not support the rebellion against the sultanate of Ternate. Although not conveyed openly in the communal discourse today, this was certainly a crucial factor of difference between it and other villages designated as indigenous.

Another factor in relation to the Tobelo War is that the local sultan who rebelled was then banished and never returned to his people. Today, the descendants of the banished sultan and his inner circle still exist and still carry with them the painful history of their forefather’s defeat. These descendants are proud that their ancestors fought the sultanate of Ternate.

Descendants of these historical events, like the Tobelo War, have become keepers of their local oral history, which is still significant in the cultural discourse taking place today in their communities.

Religious aspects blanket past historical events with communities in the area embracing either Islam or Christianity at different times. In the Banggai district, Islam is said to have come with a Javanese aristocrat, Adi Cokro, arriving in the area at least 200 years before the Tobelo War.

And being a representative of the sultanate of Ternate, Adi Cokro managed to unite many of the local sultanates and formed the sultanate of Banggai. However after 20 years in Banggai, Adi Cokro returned to Kediri, East Java and a long series of rebellions against the sultanate of Ternate began. The most famous being the Tobelo War.

Christianity entered the Banggai district long after Islam had settled in the area. It appears that Christianity in Banggai was embraced by communities that were not part of the small sultanates in the area. These communities were either people who had to move away because of local wars or communities who lived in isolation in the mountains. This explains the dotted Christian villages across the Banggai district, and to a certain extent, many other places in Central Sulawesi.

Benedict Anderson wrote that a nation is a community socially constructed, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. Indonesia as a nation was socially constructed in 1945, built on the weaving of many oral histories strewn across the archipelago.

Oral histories are the imaginations of the holders of this history, but that does not matter because the holders of this history believe it to be true. The memory of history among local communities is still a powerful force to be reckoned with.

No one so far has managed to rival former president Sukarno, who convinced these local sultanates to surrender their power to the new Republic of Indonesia in 1945. What Sukarno managed to do was to convince the local holders of oral history to submit their oral histories as a chapter of a larger oral history with the title “Indonesia”.


Footnote: This opinion article has been displayed in an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Saturday, 20 September 2012; and in paper edition is available at page 7. It is also able to be searched at: www.thejakartapost.com [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: 30 September 2012].

The writer, a former journalist, is the secretary-general of the Indonesian Community for Democracy (KID). She was a recipient of the nieman fellowship for journalism at Harvard University — class of 1994.



  1. Dear, bu Ratih.

    Menurut UUD 1945, Presiden Indonesia adalah “orang Indonesia asli”. Agak aneh sebenarnya, karena nenek moyang bangsa Indonesia adalah para pelaut bangsa Autronesia dan mereka adalah pendatang. Menurut para ahli sejarah kuno, orang Indonesia asli adalah manusia-manusia purba seperti Phitecantropus Erectus atau Megantropus Paleo Javanicus. Manusia-manusia purba ini tidak bertahan hidup dalam konteks “survival of the fittest”.

    Jadi, kita ini orang Indonesia asli atau pendatang, bu Ratih Hardjono?


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