History of the Development of Fellowships for the Documentation of Oral Literature and Traditional Ecological Knowledge

George N. Appell, Ph.D.
and
Laura W.R. Appell

 

Laura and I lived with the Rungus Momogun, a people of northern Borneo (now Sabah, Malaysia) from 1959-1963. We were learning their language and their way of life. As the traditional religion and language of the Rungus people was exceedingly complex, we had always planned to return to them to further our study once we had written up our research on their social organization. But over the years when we tried to return to visit our Rungus friends and continue our work, we were denied entry. However in 1986 we were permitted to return to the Rungus and visit our friends there.


On reaching the village where we had done our work, we discovered that Rungus society and culture had undergone major changes. During that period of 23 years, Christianity had largely replaced the original religion. The religious performances that once were addressed to various gods and spirits to cure illness, to achieve success in agriculture, and to promote fecundity both for families and for the village were then seldom performed if at all. It was during these ceremonies the rich, complicated poetry and oral narratives were performed or sung.


In the past, when there was a death, friends and neighbors would come to spend the night sitting with the body of the deceased and retelling myths and legends. These were to keep people awake so they could keep the predatory spirits at bay. But burial customs had changed, and these myths and legends were seldom retold any longer.

 

The old adat of marriage had largely disappeared. Where before the Rungus culture stated that extramarital sexual relations were prohibited, there were now unmarried women with children, and some Rungus women had become prostitutes. We were particularly struck by the depth of change when in 1987 one of the old headman asked if he could see our data on the traditional adat of marriage as he could no longer remember what it was.


By the late 1980s the Rungus language was also being rapidly eroded. In some families, children were now being spoken to in Malay so that they would be prepared for entering school. Most of the young men and women had by then a primary education, and many had some experience with secondary education. As a result the formal, intricate language used frequently at times of bride-price negotiations and atwedding was rapidly being simplified. Those individuals in their middle age frequently did not understand lexical forms found in the traditional oral literature.


It became clear to us, given our now limited time in the field, that we could not ourselves complete the work of collecting the vast body of oral literature locked in the memories of the elders of the Rungus and related ethnic groups. We concluded that a local team was needed. Furthermore such a team could do a better job of recording this oral literature since they would know who were the major repositories of this beautiful oral literature. A local team could also get access to certain texts that would not be available to outsiders because they accompanied rituals that the government had forbidden.


Therefore, we formed the Sabah Oral Literature Project to accomplish the collection of oral literature. This was to be managed locally with Laura and I overseeing the work and giving direction to it. Thus, we trained local personnel to collect and preserve the oral traditions of their own ethnic group as a means of obtaining a fuller inventory of oral literature. We also developed a phonemically based orthography so that members of our local team could transcribe the recorded texts. And Laura and I started preparing a Rungus Cultural Dictionary to preserve the language and disappearing forms. It was our hope that eventually this work would result in a growing appreciation of the creative imagination of the Rungus and their allies within their own communities.


This project was also designed to provide a model for the rapid collection and preservation of the oral literature for other regions of Sabah and other areas of the world. It was hoped that this project would demonstrate to local people how they can rapidly move to collect and preserve their oral heritages before they are lost.

 

The material from the Sabah Oral Literature Project has been extensive and unique, more so than we will ever be able to translate. But it is now archived for the Rungus people themselves and other researchers in the future.


As the work of the Sabah Oral Literature Project progressed and our methodology had been proven successful, we considered making our methodology available to other indigenous societies experiencing rapid social change. We were deeply concerned over the tragic loss of the exquisite oral literature and ecological knowledge of these societies. Could this approach also be one way to bring recognition for the contributions and creativity of these societies that have been so marginalized and disrespected? Therefore, in 2008 Laura and I established a Fellowship program in the Firebird Foundation for the collection of oral literature and traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous peoples around the world. The fundamental goal of this program was to be of service for indigenous peoples in their efforts to record their arts and sciences. The Fellowship program thus has been providing financial support for scholars and members of threatened cultures who want to collect oral literature and traditional ecological knowledge.


Cultural loss accompanies social change everywhere. “Modernization” and interests in the resources of indigenous societies have produced forced social change. This has been done through government programs or by other agencies, local and foreign, who had become imbued with the ideology of progress or profit. All too often in this process indigenous societies experience indignities to person and belittling of traditions by change agents. They often approach these peoples with the misconception that they are dirty, stupid, lazy, and too communal lacking the virtues of individualism. However, it is not solely agents of social change that are at fault in extinguishing the culture of indigenous peoples. The loss is also a product of schooling and more recently access to the internet so that the younger generations in many instances have been ignoring their traditions or discarding them. Thus, our Fellowship program was in response not only to the tremendous loss of the cultural arts and knowledge of indigenous societies, but also to help develop respect for a society’s creativity and hard won knowledge of its environment.


We have experienced first hand this plight of indigenous peoples during field research in Canada, Malaysia, and Indonesia at various times over the past 50 years. Indigenous peoples have been physically brutalized, culturally oppressed, and subject to ridicule of their life ways. All too often their way of life was being attacked as worthless by a variety of change agents including missionaries, government personnel, members of the Peace Corps, teachers, etc. (Appell 1975, 1977, 1985a, 1985b, 1985c, 1985d, 1985e, 1985f, 1991, 2002). As human beings cannot function without a cultural operating system, to destroy what is in place not only lowers the self-esteem of the population so that they become behaviorally impaired (Appell1986), but it also deprives them of the critical knowledge and arts to be successful in their environment.


These acts of physical and cultural brutality are certainly immoral, frequently illegal, and they always vitiated the development of a healthy, productive society. In short, we were observing the social construction of dependent peoples. Thus, it was hoped that by these Fellowships and the work involved, social support would be provided to cultures and the people in societies being faced with radical socialchanged. It would help to counter the forces of dehumanization that occur in all instances of forced change. We believe that this work of collecting oral literature and traditional ecological knowledge will not only be a contribution to the societies themselves, but it would also be a contribution to knowledge and understanding of the range of the human condition.

 

Appell, G. N.
  1957 Report to the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories on the Anthropological Field Trip to the Mackenzie District, Under License to Scientists and Explorers No.664 and Permit to Archaeologists and Ethnologists No.189. Duplicated
     
  1975 The Pernicious Effects of Development. Fields Within Fields No.14:31-41.
     
  1977 The Plight of Indigenous Peoples: Issues and Dilemmas. Survival International Review 2, 3:11-l6.
     
  1985a Preface: The Uses of Anthropological Inquiry. In Resettlement of Peoples in Indonesian Borneo: The Social Anthropology of Administered Peoples. G. N. Appell, ed. Borneo Research Bulletin 17:4-5.
     
  1985b Introduction: Theoretical Issues in the Study of Reservations and Resettlement. In Resettlement of Peoples in Indonesian Borneo: The Social Anthropology of Administered Peoples. G. N. Appell, ed. Borneo Research Bulletin 17:5-9.
     
  1985c Resettlement of the Bulusu' in Indonesian Borneo: Social Consequences. In Resettlement of Peoples in Indonesian Borneo: The Social Anthropology of Administered Peoples edited by G. N. Appell. Borneo Research Bulletin 17:21-31.
     
  1985d Introduction. Integration of the Periphery to the Center: Processes and Consequences. In Modernization and the Emergence of a Landless Peasantry: Essays on the Integration of Peripheries to Socioeconomic Centers. G. N. Appell, ed. Studies in Third World Societies Publication No. 33. Williamsburg, Virginia: Studies in Third World Societies.
     
  1985e Land Tenure and Development Among the Rungus of Sabah, Malaysia. In Modernization and the Emergence of a Landless Peasantry: Essays on the Integration of Peripheries to Socioeconomic Centers. G. N. Appell, ed. Studies in Third World Societies Publication No. 33. Williamsburg, Virginia: Studies in Third World Societies.
     
  1985f The Bulusu' of East Kalimantan: The Consequences of Resettlement. In Modernization and the Emergence of a Landless Peasantry: Essays on the Integration of Peripheries to Socioeconomic Centers. G. N. Appell, ed. Studies in Third World Societies Publication No. 33. Williamsburg, Virginia: Studies in Third World Societies
     
  1986 The Health Consequences of Development. Sarawak Museum Journal 36:43-74.
     
  1991 Dehumanization in Fact and Theory: Processes of Modernization and the Social Sciences. In Social Science Models and Their Impact on the Third World. John A. Lent, ed. Studies in Third World Societies Publication No. 45. Williamsburg: Studies in Third World Societies.
     
  2002 Our Vision of Human Rights is Too Small! Anthropological Perspective on Fundamental Human Rights. In Contemporary Anthropology: Theory and Practice, S. M. Nurul Alam, ed. Dhaka: University Press Ltd.
     
Appell, G. N., ed.
  1985 Resettlement of Peoples in Indonesian Borneo: The Social Anthropology of Administered Peoples. Borneo Research Bulletin 17:3-21.


November 22, 2014

 

 

 

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