Marlon Brando (19242004) and John Wayne (1907-1979) were two of Hollywood’s biggest legends starring in many iconic films.However, politically they were polar opposites.
Wayne was a conservative Republican, Brando a Democrat, at least officially. His interest was not really in party politics but was more of an activist in race and equality-related issues. In 1973, Brando famously rejected an Oscar awarded for his epic performance in The Godfather. He used the platform to protest the way Native American Indians, the indigenous inhabitants of the United States, were portrayed in films, and even more so the way they were treated in real life.
In his speech, he wrote, “We were the most rapacious, aggressive, destructive, torturing, monstrous, people who swept from one coast to the other murdering and causing mayhem among the Indians […] we don’t like that image of ourselves […] we like to see ourselves, perhaps as John Wayne sees us”.
Wayne, basically the US President Donald Trump of Hollywood, who routinely slaughtered American Indians in his movies, believed in white supremacy. He said, “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land […] and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” Keeping land that belonged to your ancestors for 15,000 years is selfish? Right!
Every year since 1994, Aug. 9 has been observed as “International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples”. The United Nations says there are about 370 million indigenous people in 90 countries. They make up “less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures”.
So, indigenous people are a minority who are at the same time a majority. How cool is that? In theory at least. Look at Indonesia.
The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs estimates Indonesia has 50 to 70 million indigenous people — between 14 to 19 percent of indigenous people worldwide, and between 19 and 27 percent of Indonesia’s population.
Ironically, indigenous Indonesians today suffer a similar fate to the Native American Indians, whose lives were adversely affected, even destroyed by European colonization of the Americas. Similarly they experienced criminalization, exploitation and violence related to land use for commercial purposes: plantations, factories, etc.
There are many reasons why we should pay attention to the fate of indigenous peoples in Indonesia, apart from their ancestral rights.
The first is just their sheer numbers, which is between our two largest ethnicities, the Javanese (around 40 percent) and the Sundanese (around 15 percent).
Second is the environment, as the anthropologist Kelli Swazey pointed out in May this year, “biological and cultural diversity are inexorably linked”.
She said, “For the Bajau, the marine environment is not just the source of their sustenance, it’s the home of ancestors, animal counterparts, ever present in their everyday lives and activities”.
In her fascinating TED talk, she recounted how the Bajau people in Sulawesi “are grappling with the impacts of coral reef extinction, environmental degradation, and discrimination”. Their victory over these obstacles is not just important for them, but for the nation. How so?
Indonesia is home to 1,128 ethnic groups that the government recognizes. Imagine if all of them have their own way of living and system of beliefs that support biodiversity and the ecosystem.
The third is poverty. For indigenous peoples, their environment is directly related to their livelihoods. For decades, they have lost out to capitalists who have taken their land away at the behest of the government.
There are so many examples. The one I am most familiar with are the farmers of Kendeng, Central Java, who tried to prevent the construction of a cement factory to protect the karst mountains that were the source of the water supply for their only livelihood, farming. Ultimately, they lost (see “Samin, Semen and the Kartinis of Rembang”, The Jakarta Post, March 30, 2016).
And of course many of us are familiar with illegal loggers who cut trees to sell because they have to pay for school of medical expenses of their families (see “ASRI’s chainsaw vs stethoscope program”, the Post, March 21, 2018).
Funny thing is, the government recognizes the land rights of indigenous people, but it invariably prioritizes corporations’ access to land. Don’t blame it on President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration! For more than half a century, the government’s economic development has trampled on customary laws, and has relied on exploiting natural land and sea resources, often at the brutal expense of the indigenous peoples who have lived in those areas before Indonesia was a nation.
Indonesia is a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples but the government argues all Indonesians, with the exception of ethnic Chinese, are indigenous. So they say, there’s no need for a special law for the 19 to 27 percent mentioned above. I’m scratching my head here.
For decades the Indonesian state did not acknowledge adat (customary) land rights as most of the country was classified as state forest. Doesn’t this smack of colonization to you?
Only about five years ago the Constitutional Court historically ruled that adat forest was no longer part of state forest — but indigenous people still face a load of complex red tape in getting recognition as masyarakat adat and rights to their customary forest.
More legal inroads are expected; an indigenous people’s bill has been in the House of Representative for about a decade.
So we’re still a nation trying to decide on our stance toward our indigenous people. What will it be, John Wayne or Marlon Brando? I reckon Brando is way sexier, not just for the indigenous people, but for all of Indonesia and ultimately, the world.