Interview with Rukka Sombolinggi

Interview with Rukka Sombolinggi

Rukka is the Secretary General of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), the world’s largest Indigenous Peoples organization at the national level.

Rukka is known for her fiery oratory and her longtime dedication to the Indigenous rights movement. Her parents hosted a meeting in 1993 that is often cited as its genesis in Indonesia. Before joining AMAN in 1999, Rukka worked for JAPHAMA (Jaringan Pembelaan Hak-hak Masyarakat Adat), a network of Indigenous Peoples’ defenders and one of the main groups that convened the first congress of Indigenous Peoples in Indonesia in March 1999.

Rukka joined UNDP Regional Indigenous Peoples Program at UNDP Asia Pacific Regional Centre in Bangkok, Thailand as Program Specialist in 2007, and returned to AMAN in early 2011 as Project Manager. Later that year, she was assigned as the Chair of the Organizing Committee of the Fourth Indigenous Peoples Congress in Halmahera, North Maluku, which gathered more than 1,000 Indigenous representatives from across Indonesia. From 2009 to 2012, Rukka was a member of the Executive Council of Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact/AIPP representing Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia and Timor Leste. She has written the Indonesian Chapter of the Indigenous World, an annual global report on Indigenous peoples by the International Work Group on Indigenous Affairs based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

It would seem that nobody has reflected on, discussed and fought for Indigenous rights in Indonesia more than Rukka Somobolinggi. Indeed, Indigenous advocacy has been her life's work, and it’s in her blood; her parents hosted the meeting that birthed AMAN and her sister is the current representative for the Torajan chapter. We felt during our discussion her deep passion, understanding and connection to the cause and her expertise is reflected in her openness and willingness to share it. Luckily for us, Rukka is also Torajan.

Indigeneity in modern Indonesia has been a struggle for definition, and therefore recognition, let alone for land ownership. In this interview Rukka gives us a comprehensive explanation of the notion of indigeneity in Indonesia, and she details the past, present and future of the Indigenous struggle in the Indonesian archipelago. From pre-european colonialism, to independence through, the New Order to the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous communities across the archipelago have survived independently of any centralised power and external intervention.

She also discussed with us the goals and methods of AMAN, from facilitating Indigenous land claims to youth media training and outreach. AMANs mandate is about providing a platform for the empowerment and dignity of Indigenous institutions, culture and custom, never to dictate or impose structure or ideology.

The feeling we get when talking with Rukka, is that discussing the history of AMAN with her is also to discuss an important aspect of Torajan culture and politics. With a better grasp of the social, historical and political context of Toraja, where the material we are working with comes from, we hope to better articulate our ideas and represent our friends in Toraja more respectfully.

Rukka: Hi my name is Rukka Sombolinggi, I’m Torajan. I was born and grew up in Toraja, I left my homeland to go to university when I was 17 year old. I’ve never lived there for a long time since then. I’m 47 now, nearly 48, more than half of my life I’ve spent outside of my homeland. 

Sam: Where do you live now?

Rukka: I live in Bogor now, near Jakarta.

Sam: We’re hoping that you would speak with us about Masyarakat Adat and about AMAN, and about yourself and how you relate to Torajan.

Rukka: In Toraja we have 32 communities, we call them Lembang, and Sangalla [where DSTV is from] is one of them. Sangalla is my community, my fathers community. The body of my father, we buried him a few years back, is resting in Sangalla. You may have visited his grave, it is called Suaya, the biggest stone grave site in Sangalla, up in the mountains.

Sam: I’m sure we have, we spent a lot of time in Sangalla, especially in Tumbang Datu and Salu Allo.

Rukka: My grandfather's house has now become a museum in Buntu Kalando. If you are coming to Sangalla from Makale, following the traditional road, you will pass the museum and the burial site Suaya, they call it the ‘Grave of the Kings’. That’s where my ancestors are buried. I’ve known of DSTV for quite a while, they are doing remarkable work. They are especially well known for documenting buffalo fighting! It’s very good that we have archives for these kinds of things, they are very well known. I think they don’t know me very well, but I think they are close to my brother.

Sam: I’ll have to ask them about you next time I speak with them. Since this interview is recorded please respond in any language you feel most comfortable with, or whichever you think is best for you.

Rukka: Whichever will make your life easiest, because Indonesian is my second language, just like English. My language is Toraja, which I don’t think you can speak, so we might have problems communicating for this interview! So maybe it is easiest for you to speak in English, it’s the same for me if we speak in either Indonesian or English, so it’s up to you, whichever! I know that Torajan, especially proper High Torajan for rituals is difficult to translate, even we Torajans cannot translate literally, even if we know the meaning of the language. There are many terms that cannot be translated into Indonesian or any other languages. Language is a reflection of a way of life, of vision, of values, it comes with the culture. Likewise, many Indonesian and English terms don’t exist in Torajan, sometimes we have to translate a sentence with a paragraph. That’s the nature of language. 

Our mission at AMAN, we try to restore the political sovereignty, the economic sufficiency and prosperity, and the dignity of Indigenous peoples across the archipelago.

Sam: What does indigeneity mean for you and for Indonesia?

Rukka: This is a fundamental topic, as it reflects the history of Indonesia, the history of colonisation of Indigenous peoples in Indonesia. We have this back and forth with the Indonesian government about this definition, because when you define an Indigenous peoples then that comes with a set of responsibilities and obligations for the State. The government of Indonesia, from their perspective, they always say there are no Indigenous people in Indonesia or we are all Indigenous, therefore all international human rights for Indigenous peoples don’t apply to anyone. Their intention is to make sure that they are not obliged to follow the responsibilities of a nation state according to international norms and standards in terms of Indigenous peoples’ rights. 

The history of colonisations has an effect on the definition. If you look at the many studies of Indigenous peoples, the Blue Water thesis is commonly referred to. This thesis suggests that Indigenous peoples are those who have been colonised by Europeans, excluding a lot of Indigenous peoples in Asia and Africa, because they were not invaded or colonised by Europeans. Therefore, there are very clear identifications for Indigenous peoples in North America, in Canada, the United States and Mexico, as well as in Latin America, there are clear cut historical identifications. 

When we go back through the histories of the conquerors we also find the phrase “Doctrine of Discovery”. This term originated from the “Papal bull”, the order from the pope giving the right to the Portuguese and Spanish explorers back in the 15th century, 1493 I think, to split the world in two and conquer any “empty” land, that hasn’t already been claimed by Portugal or Spain. Beforehand, they had been complaining to the pope, because apparently the Portuguese were nasty, invading land that the Spanish had already conquered. That’s the backstory, the pope settled this dispute by dividing the world in two. That’s why Africa was divided in two and why America was originally considered as belonging to the Spanish. They also considered the people who lived on those lands as “pre-human”, therefore not entitled to their land. That’s the basic history of European colonisation of Indigenous lands. Later, we have the French, the British, the Dutch, but that’s the second wave of colonisation and imperialisation of the globe. Our sisters and brothers in North America have managed to reverse some of this history, for example Columbus Day is now celebrated as Indigenous peoples day. 

In terms of Indonesia, the first colonisation of Indigenous peoples in Indonesia was not by Europeans, but first by traders from what we call Pedagang Gujarat. Then, because they controlled the resources, some of the local chiefs, the local elites, established what we call Kerajaan, the kingdoms, then the sultanates came after. Then Europeans arrived later. So when we talk about the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’, the one that reached this archipelago, what we now call Indonesia, was the second wave Doctrine. This refers to the Dutch, the Spanish, the British, the Portuguese, though the Portuguese and Spanish were less and less consequential in terms of the areas that they covered. The Dutch were the ones that came here, and they used their own term, ‘Domein Verklaring’, which means that all the lands that don’t have title on it belong to the Dutch state. 

In the modern history of the Indonesian state, they translate this idea of ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ and ‘Domein Verklaring’ into what they call “Hak menguasai negara”, the right of the State to control. So the Indigenous peoples in Indonesia are today the survivors of the Gujarat Indian Muslims, the Kingdoms and Sultanates, the Dutch, and now still exist within the modern Indonesian nation state. 

The claim of Indigenous peoples in Indonesia that “we have existed on this land as the first who inhabited this land”, that’s based on our history. So it’s very unique to Indonesia, because what we claim is based on the land that we control since time immemorial, that’s how we identify ourselves in Indonesia. Indigenous identities and claims reflect the different historical situations in countries in Latin America, in Asia, in India, in Bangladesh, in Thailand, in the Mekong regions, it depends on the “outsiders” or external powers that we have encountered throughout the centuries. In Indonesia what we claim is based on our territory, like Toraja. I am Indigenous to my land in Toraja, but I am not Indigenous to the land where I live now. 

The collective rights of Indigenous peoples is what we are fighting for. As individuals, we are of course entitled to our rights as citizens of Indonesia. But what is lacking and absent now is the recognition and the protection of our collective rights as Indigenous peoples. The collective rights of Indigenous peoples actually were recognised in the constitution, the founding fathers of this country recognised the pre-existing nations when Indonesia was declared a modern nation state. We always call Indonesia a nation-state, because Indonesia is actually hundreds, maybe thousands of nations. This is where the struggle is today, this dynamic between the collective rights of Indigenous peoples and the rights of the nation-state. 

How do we identify ourselves? Well, for example, as a Torajan, we fought our battle back in the 16th century, when there was a big movement, what we call To Pada tindo. This means “man with one dream” with one clear shared vision. “Tindo” means dream, “To” means people. This was before the Dutch arrived in Toraja, against the Bone Kingdom. Afifah where are you from?


Afifah: I am partly from Bone.


Rukka: Yes, this is your history and my history, this is our history. So the Bone invaded Toraja, they tried to conquer Toraja. But our leaders resisted and they managed to kick the Bone forces out. So, first there was a treaty between the Toraja and the Bone, a peace agreement. In the past we called peace agreements Dipato’doi rara, meaning “sealed by bloods”. Blood from a man, dogs and a rooster, so three kinds of blood. That was a sacred agreement between the Toraja, the Topada Tindo, and the Bone Kingdom. After many years of war, everything was so chaotic, only a few leaders remained and lots of Torajan people had died, so they had to reorganise people into what was called “Manglili”. This means you identify and define your territory that you own as a community. 

So that's where, for example, my community Madandan, that’s the community of my grandmother from my father's side. So my father is from Lembang Sangalla and thereabouts, and Madandan is where my grandma comes from. For example, Madandan is named “Panglili na Karasiak”, because the leader, one of 117 To Pada tindo leaders, is the one who marked the boundary and said this is my territory, Madandan. Panglili Na Karasiak means Madandan is the territory that is marked by Karasiak. That's when we were more or less established as a nation, 1 Toraja with 32 communities. 

Before that we didn’t use the name Toraja, it was the name used by others, not the name that we choose. We identified ourselves as our community. For example, I would say Rukka To Madandan, or Rukka To Sangalla. Historically, we also believed that we came directly from the sky in a boat. That's why our house is shaped like a boat. Boat in Torajan is Lembang. So the term for community in Toraja is not the same as in Indonesian. When I meet a Torajan outside of Toraja, I’ll first be asked my name, then I’m asked “To Lembang Apa komi”, which means where do you come from, what is your community? So I will say “my name is Rukka and I belong to Lembang Madandan or Sangalla or Kesu”, and so on because my family belongs to more than 10 communities. I'm a bit of a hybrid. If you translate that saying into English it means which boat do you belong to, because lembang means boat, but it's the term that we use for community. 

Our Indigenous history was already clear before the Dutch even entered the picture. When the Dutch arrived in Toraja, they tried to identify groups, because in an effort to control, they wanted to group the communities. That's where the thirty two communities in Toraja come from. That's still the basis of our identification, how we identify our community, from those 32 groups, we still use them now. It's all based on the sacred treaty agreements from the past. Anyone is welcome to challenge this system, but they will have to face three spirits, who seal the agreement. These spirits are so sacred. This is why people don't have the guts to challenge it. We still have ongoing discussions about how we should best go about these 32 communities ,or more, because some claim that there are more. But the history of Toraja is completely different from the history of other Indigenous peoples in Indonesia, and even just Sulawesi. 

The history of Sulawesi, my island, our island Afifah, is so varied and different for different communities. When we look at the reality of Indigenous peoples in Indonesia, it’s like peeling an onion. There are many different layers to find the core. It gets even more complicated when you start to compare communities. For example the Berambang Katute when they fought outside powers, they were eventually defeated, but the history of Toraja is different because we kicked the Bone out of our land, so these are histories of the winner and the loser. But even if they lost, it does not necessarily mean that they lost the land or they have lost their rights over their land. And that's why indigeneity in Indonesia is very complex. This archipelago is a melting pot of lot’s of different cultures and imperialisms. Maybe we're lucky in Toraja, because we are up in the mountains and far away from where trading took place, where the real battles for power took place in the past. If Toraja were located in Makassar, the history, and our situation would be completely different. 

The United Nations claim there are about three hundred and seventy million Indigenous peoples across the globe, but because of all the different political situations and different histories, there is no definition at the international level. This was part of the agreement in 2007, when the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it was agreed that there is no definition of Indigenous peoples. Why? Because a definition will not do justice, definitions tend to put things in a box that will exclude those who are not in the box or those who most need the protection that don't fit in the box. That's why there is no definition at the international level. However, within the agreement was what we call shared common characteristics, and that's what we use in Indonesia. 

The Indonesian Constitution only mentions recognition of Indigenous peoples. There are two terms they use: “Masyarakat Adat” and “Masyarakat Tradisional”. What we use now are the latest interpretations of the Constitution by the constitutional court. In 2013 they issued what they called the four common characteristics of Indigenous peoples. Those are: the territory, a shared history, shared knowledge and skills, and a customary law within Indigenous institutions. These are the four core characteristics to identify Indigenous peoples in Indonesia. The question then becomes, how do we put that on paper? 

This is where technology is very important, because we are using technology to advocate for our rights. We have recently started a process called Indigenous mapping. When we do Indigenous mapping, we don't just mark the boundaries of a territory as one community, we also write down what we call social information. That's the history, documentation of institutions, of customary law, unique knowledge systems and innovations of a community. We focus especially on history, because history is very important and will help validate a claim. So far, we have mapped over 10 million hectares. Our Indigenous maps have been received by the Indonesian government, and so far we have also had some customary forests returned by the government. Although it is very small, only sixty thousand hectares, it's a historical achievement for Indigenous peoples in Indonesia, because our rights have never been given to us on a silver plate. We have always needed to fight for them, the government will never give up easily on us. That's what the situation is right now, very long and complex.

“If the state does not recognise us, we will not recognise the state.” This was the ultimate expression of the feeling of frustration and oppression of Indigenous people by Indonesia, symbolised in this one slogan.

Sam: We would love to learn a bit more about this historical mapping of territory and land. On what documentation is it based? Are they based on maps that existed beforehand or stories or oral histories for example?


Rukka: Firstly, mapping is always done by the community themselves, because they are the ones who know the boundaries and who know their own history. Especially when it comes to land tenure and allocations and everything, that’s all so sensitive. So this is a fundamental principle: a map is only drawn by the Indigenous community in question. 

The role of AMAN (The Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago) is to facilitate and host the map. We only bring the technical expertise and other technical aspects to mapping, as the government will always say “we cannot accept these maps, they are not up to our standards”. So, we are always updating our standards and equipment. They say “you have to use this kind of GPS” and we say “OK, we'll do it”. They always add new conditions, but we always keep up. Our role at AMAN is to try and make sure that Indigenous peoples can keep up with the technological requirements of the government. We train and provide our mapping facilitators, of which there are thousands. They know how to map, they know how to use the GP, they know how to digitise. These things require a set of exact skills. That's what we bring. 

We also train the young people in the community, men and women to do the special mapping. They are the ones who do the hard travelling, because sometimes it's not fair to expect elders to travel long distances. The young people in the community will travel to the boundaries and get the coordinates and write them down. 

History, however, belongs to the elders, they are the history keepers, the secret keepers. They will be the ones who tell the history of the community, the history and knowledge that can be told. What is important for us is that we fulfil what we call the four indicators, the four characteristics of Indigenous peoples. However, we never go into too much detail about history and knowledge, because we are advocated for the protection of our knowledge, our history. As long as we can explain the timelines of our histories and the basic customary laws, the basic knowledge and the basic structures of tenurial spatial planning. 

That's how we do the mapping. It is always the elders who validate the history and the younger generation who mark the boundaries and get the GPS coordinates, then we put this information on a computer database and to be presented to the community gathering assembly, what we call Kombongan. Mapping is not just about producing maps, but it is also the dialogue, it is also the transfer of knowledge, sharing of responsibility between the elders and the young people and the whole community. That's how it is done.


Sam: Can you tell us a bit more about Kombongan, please? Is that something that comes from Toraja, or is it commonly practiced across Indonesia?


Rukka: Kombongan is a Torajan term. It means people get together and make decisions. It's the decision making process. We can decide to change anything as long as we are together as a community. It’s basically like, what’s called in international law the right to self-determination, the collective rights of Indigenous peoples to decide about our life.


Sam: So it's a word that comes from Toraja but is now used generally?


Rukka: It’s a Torajan term and remains Torajan. There are different terms for the decision making process in different languages. So Kombongan is just the Torajan term, an example of a decision making process. Kombongan can occur at many levels, it can be at the family or clan level, at village level or regional level. Kalua’ means broad, so Kombongan Kalua’ is the decision making process which participated in by all thirty two communities that make up Toraja. The principle in Kombongan comes from the idea that we can break the hardest stone, as long as we do it together, if it is the collective decision.


Sam: Perhaps you could tell us more about how AMAN has worked in Toraja specifically. What’s the dynamic between the AMAN organisation and Torajan institutions? 

AMAN means Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara Archipelago, so we don't say Indonesia to recognise the history that we were already here before Indonesia, and we will still remain here if Indonesia collapses.

Rukka: The members of AMAN are communities, not individuals. So the member of AMAN is Toraja, the 32 Torajan communities, each of which have their own Indigenous institutions. That’s how they decided to become a member of AMAN, through Kombongan. Then they decide who will become, not the representative, but the main contact for AMAN. AMAN is not an umbrella organisation, but it is the national organisation where we have the national governing body, of which I am the secretary general. 

We have regional chapters at the provincial level. For example, in Sulawesi Selatan [South Sulawesi], there are two regional chapters; AMAN Sulawesi Selatan and AMAN Tana Lulu. Indigenous territory and Indigenous cultural territory are not based on national administrations. We have twenty one regional chapters and we have 114 local chapters. Local chapters are sometimes at Kabupaten [administrative district] level and sometimes larger. Even though Toraja has been divided into two Kabupatens [Tana Toraja and Toraja Utara], we only have AMAN Toraya that gathers all the 32 communities, because many Indigenous communities in Toraja are cut into two by this division. 

If Toraja were to be divided into local chapters, it would be at least three. The north: Tondok di Indoi where the leaders are called Indo or Ambe, Mother and Father, Tondok di Puangngi which is the three communities of Sangalla, Menkendek and Makale in the south, and then Tana di Ma’dikai in the west of Toraja because the leaders, the chiefs are called Madika. The National Boundaries Administration does not deal with Indigenous administrations this way. So the membership includes 32 communities and they have their representative. The head of the Toraja chapter is actually my sister, she would know more than me about AMAN Toraya. We also have what we call the local councils, that's where the representatives from these communities meet. AMAN's role is to empower Indigenous institutions. We are actually trying to restore what we call the original authority, which is Indigenous authorities that have been torn apart or destroyed by Indonesia. 

That’s a part of the history of Indonesia that is important to acknowledge, that Indonesia as a nation has actually embraced the ways of the colonisers. We always say we kicked out the Dutch and the Japanese colonisers, but the practises and mentalities of Indonesia remain like them. Like they have copied and pasted the way of the oppressors. And this is why Indigenous peoples are standing up and saying no, this is our right. After Indonesia declared its independence, there was no process to identify, acknowledge and recognise who are the real owners of every piece of land in Indonesia, including Indigenous people. The whole country, the whole territory of Indonesia was considered empty land and automatically belonged to the Indonesian state. Even in the Dutch era many of Indigenous peoples' rights to land were recognised. Not in Indonesia, so Indonesia is even worse than the Dutch, because until now, they say, no, this all belongs to the state. ‘Domein Verklaring’ was the doctrine of discovery in the Dutch era, in Indonesia it’s called Hak menguasai negara. That’s their way of saying “why would you have collective rights over this land? It all belongs to the state”. There is no recognition of the original owners of the land, especially land that was used by the Dutch companies in the past. That's what happened in the eastern part of Sumatra. During the Dutch era, it was used for tobacco plantations by the Dutch, who rented that land from the Indigenous peoples. But after Indonesia got independence, they immediately called it ‘nasionalisasi’, they took over all the companies that belong to the Dutch and turned them into state owned companies without acknowledging the original owners of this land, the Indigenous peoples there. 

These problems still exist today because of that process. Then, in 1979 Indonesia first adopted Undang-Undang Desa [Village Law] uniformly in every village, which directly destroyed the Indigenous authority, institutions and customary law. Therefore, it has been our mission at AMAN to empower Indigenous institutions, we are fighting for the recognition and the authorisations of Indigenous authority, including customary law, and we are also ensuring that all cultures and practises against any human rights, must be changed. Because you cannot maintain your rights or your collective rights if even one does not enjoy the same rights, such as women, the disabled or the young. 

We have been encouraging internal reform in Indigenous traditions and practises. It’s not always easy, as hard as you fight the state, you must fight within yourself, but it's always worth trying, that's what we have to do, especially for women. It's very clear, across Indonesia and all over, the world is not fair for women. Same thing in Indigenous traditions and cultures in many parts. Going back again to your question, we've never been against Indigenous institutions, we are working to empower them, to strengthen them. That’s why when we do community mapping, it's not about desa [village] administrations, but one community, for example, modern, then modern them, only one community. For example Madandan is one community, but is divided into two districts, Toraja Utara and Tana Toraja, two sub districts and four villages. We don't consider the villages, we consider them as one community. 


Sam: What are some of the objectives for AMAN Toraya?


Rukka: Our mission at AMAN, we try to restore the political sovereignty, the economic sufficiency and prosperity, and the dignity of Indigenous peoples across the archipelago. Each of the local chapters have their own priorities based on their situations. For example, in Toraja they are focussed on the recognition of Indigenous territories and maps. They have been very successful in getting recognition from local regulations by the local parliament in Toraja Utara. 

Back in 2004 they managed to get recognition from the Bupati [regent] of Tana Toraja, the Bupati made a decree on the recognition of the 32 Indigenous communities in Toraja. But then there’s another problem created by the Indonesian state, they divided Toarja into two regencies, so we no longer use that bupati decree because now we have two Kabupatens [regency]. So we had to start all over again to get the recognition at the local level. They got this recognition only last year and they managed to do the mapping and the 12 communities in Toraja Utara have now also been recognised officially. So that's what they are focussing on. 

Now they have problems with customary forests across Toraja. They have finalised the submission to the minister of Environment and Forestry to return the customary forests in Toraja Utara, all the documents have been done. This is a problem we are facing across Indonesia. 

We are also facing Coronavirus now, so our main objective is to make sure of food sovereignty, that we have enough food, because we realise that the global economy is collapsing, the market is collapsing. So we have to make sure that we reclaim our local economy. In Toraja, the young people, the young generations are farming, have developed a chicken nursery, like a chicken farm. They have been doing many different things, they've been harvesting. Young people, and lots of women, they're all becoming very active now.

They have just recently established the local youth chapter of AMAN Toraya during the pandemic. AMAN has three branches of organisations. Indigenous women, Indigenous youth and a legal branch. This has been very good because they've been the ones who have been able to work. We try to make sure that if the crisis resulting from coronavirus is prolonged then at least Indigenous people will survive. They are also focussing now on Indigenous schools.


There is no platform across the nations for the people of this country to have that intercultural communication. We are in our own shell, as we like to say “a frog under a coconut shell”; very loud but all alone. We don't have it in the curriculum. We are taught that there's only one history of this country, that there is only one culture. Everything is uniform.

Sam: We obviously have issues with our own colonial history in Australia and the definition of indigeneity seems to be very different here than it is in Indonesia. I wondered if you can comment on AMAN’s relationship with other Indigenous cultures and Indigenous organisations around the world.


Rukka: Well, that's the beauty of the UN, where we have the platform to come together. The history and foundation of AMAN is actually the result of the global work of Indigenous peoples. This is another story, when our Indigenous leaders started to fight for their rights back during the Suharto era, it was difficult to talk about human rights. The only platform for advocacy back then was environmental. So the leaders in the 70s, 80s and early 90s used the network of Friends of the Earth International. In Indonesia, they were fighting the Suharto regime by saying we are the victims of deforestation, of logging companies, we are the victims of mining companies and their pollution of our rivers. But when they were asked “why are you protecting this? Why are you protecting the forests? Why are you opposing mining?” they would always say that it's the legacy inherited from our ancestors, which is our collective right. So we decided to get together to stand and fight for this. 

In 1993 the U.N. declared the International Year of Indigenous Peoples, then the International Decade of Indigenous People. The global network that emerged from this helped communities and advocates in Indonesia realise “This is us, this is not just environmentalism, this is about people with common characteristics, this is us.” So they regrouped and decided they needed to fine-tune their advocacy. So different leaders met in 1993, at my parents house in Toraja, in Madandan, they met and they defined themselves, their mission and their vision for Indigenous peoples across the archipelago. 

This was the moment when they decided to translate the term Indigenous peoples into Masyarakat Adat. Then, they decided to create a network and organise themselves, empower themselves within their own communities, but silently, because this was still during the Suharto era. They learnt how to organise from others. They learnt from the Philippines, from the Cordillera Peoples Alliance. They learnt from the groups in Alice Springs. They also learnt from Mexico, from Brazil, and Panama, the Sami in Norway. We learnt from different places. That's how we started to connect with them. 

When Suharto stepped down in 1998 during the student movement, momentum gained for the Indigenous peoples. These communities decided that this was the time to be visible now, to use the momentum. They decided to hold the very first Indigenous Peoples Congress across the archipelago. AMAN was established in March 1999. The Congress was attended by Indigenous leaders from across Indonesia, from Aceh to Papua, and they established AMAN 22 years ago. They famously declared “If the state does not recognise us, we will not recognise the state.” This was the ultimate expression of the feeling of frustration and oppression of Indigenous people by Indonesia, symbolised in this one slogan. 

From there, we continued to strengthen and widen our network with Indigenous peoples across the globe. In Asia we are part of the Pan-Asia Indigenous Peoples Organisation, AIPP. At the global level, I was personally the one who first attended the UN Working Group for the UN draft declaration back in 2001 or 2002, I can’t quite remember. I didn't speak English back then. I only knew “yes” and “no”, but I could read slowly. Thanks to international advocacy I learnt English at nearly 30. So excuse my English if I missed anything! 

AMAN means Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara Archipelago, so we don't say Indonesia to recognise the history that we were already here before Indonesia, and we will still remain here if Indonesia collapses. This also reflects the sentiments of places like Papua, Aceh and Maluku who totally refused Indonesia. The common ground is Nusantara Archipelago. That's the history of AMAN’s name. Much of the organisational foundations of AMAN we learnt from the Philippines. As a cultural movement, we learnt so much from the Aborigines, we also learnt from Latin America. We learn about legal empowerment, representation and the recruitment of leaders from the Sami in the Nordic countries, Norway, Sweden and Finland. They were actually the ones who trained our first Indigenous lawyers on human rights. We've been benefiting from our Indigenous sisters and brothers from all over across the globe. We learn about media and communications from that organisation in Alice Spring, CAAMA, have you heard about the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association?


Sam: The research that we're doing at the moment is in preparation for a collaborative installation that will be exhibited at CAAMA. 


Rukka: Oh, wow, that’s so exciting. So what will happen?


Sam: Well, the idea is a video installation based on the archive of DSTV footage and it's put in the context of the CAAMA archives. So it's a kind of comparison of two different digital media Indigenous archives.


Rukka: Well, maybe you can also look into some of our archives because DSTV is only in Toraja. I remember, in early 2006 I moved to work in Bangkok. Back then I worked with the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) regional centre, on the indegenous people's programme. At the time we were trying to mainstream Indigenous programming and we had a necessity for developmental communications, for empowerment communications, to bring it in the Indigenous perspective. We created what we call communication for empowerment of Indigenous peoples. 

When we first met in Sarawak, Malaysia, we had someone from CAAMA come in and help us. We had a digital TV platform coming in, radio coming in, a newspaper, newsletter, a website, even a satellite base in Canada. We all came together to discuss how we could go about the communication for empowerment of Indigenous people? We had a strategic meeting for like three days non-stop, and came up with a platform for the Southeast Asia region that we're still using. AMAN has been able to benefit from them, back then we had that concept already at a regional level, but we wanted to do this on an Indonesian level. So we got AMAN to study the communications of empowerment of Indigenous people in Indonesia, and that's how we built our communications and empowerment program with AMAN. We train young people to do videography, filmmaking, photography and journalism. We have built our own community radio, our own website, our own database systems and archives. We learnt so much from CAAMA. I really want to go to Alice Springs one day, I would be so thrilled to see them. CAAMA has been one of the inspirations for AMAN, so I would like to say thank you to them. 

Part of our Indigenous youth organisations, we have something called the smartphone movement, they use their smartphone to capture situations. We use it for everything, we use it to promote our culture, promote our works, and also we use it to report any human rights abuse or any land grabbing going on. So, if you need access to any archives, just let us know. We do also have some archives for rituals, although very basic, because they are mostly using very simple smartphones. We have embraced what we call communication for empowerment, in many ways thanks to CAAMA.


Afifah: You speak a lot of the youth and I'm very interested in this as a youth in Indonesia myself. The discourse about systemic racism in Indonesia is rarely discussed. Nationalism, on the other hand, is very strong, very acute. We grow up around it and we are told to bolster the diversity of our nation, but we are rarely spoken to about the rights of Indigenous people in Indonesia. What's your take on that? How does AMAN communicate their mission to young people who are not part of the AMAN community, who are not a part of Indigenous communities?


Rukka: Oh, Afifah, I think we would need a full day for this discussion. You’re really on point, because this is the reality of communications. So when we talk about media, on any of the platforms that we have, even the old media, the research in 2011 mentioned the presence or the visibility of Indigenous peoples in the media is always about bloody conflict or human rights. This comes down to the perception of the journalists, not necessarily properly addressing or properly portraying the situations of Indigenous peoples. 

Because journalism thinks that the bloodier, more brutal, and more people who die, the more it sells.

I think traditional conventional journalism in Indonesia plays a role in that. Also, the audience, they love to hear about something very mystical or something irrational. The media makes up a lot of things. Afifah, maybe you remember on Trans TV the “Primitive Runaway” show? We filed an official complaint to the media council; they did change the title to “Ethnic Runaway” but with the same concept.


Afifah: I remember it. It was dehumanising.


Rukka: It’s positioning Indigenous cultures and people just as pre-human. We've heard from members of AMAN, when this TV show arrives there and tells the community to act like this and that, it’s all directed. That shapes the perceptions of the public, especially the younger generations. 

Bhinneka Tunggal Ika [“Unity in Diversity”, the national motto of Indonesia] has never really been the spirit of this country in terms of actions and policies of the government. Bhinneka Tunggal Ika is our strength, according to the founding fathers of this nation. But there is no education about different cultures across Indonesia. During the Suharto era, he introduced the term SARA; Suku, Agama, Ras dan Antargolongan, meaning that you are not supposed to talk about it. It's actually not about protection, but it is to make sure that each of us will stay in our own shells and we will never go out and communicate. There is no platform across the nations for the people of this country to have that intercultural communication. We are in our own shell, as we like to say “a frog under a coconut shell”; very loud but all alone. We don't have it in the curriculum. We are taught that there's only one history of this country, that there is only one culture. Everything is uniform. I think that's so damaging to this country, and we can see the result now. People are becoming so intolerant of others, we hate each other. That's because Suharto forbade us to acknowledge our differences. For example Afifah, how am I going to love you as my fellow citizen if I don't know about you, if I am not given the chance to ask what do you want, what are you, what is your vision, what are your aspirations, your cultural traditions. 

The evaluations of our communications seem to say we’ve been communicating within an echo chamber, we are actually communicating just amongst ourselves. We established our communication platform in 2012, but even before we were giving our young people  communication tools and skills. Now we have our own communication platform, but everybody's using Facebook. But apparently our communication is very much intra-communication. 

We've been trying to reach the young people in the city and we are launching what we call “Manusia Nusantara”, or the “humans of the Archipelago”. We try to present the stories of Indigenous peoples in a more popular language that others can understand. We try to invest in influencers, the future decision makers and students in universities. We invest so much in young generations. We are targeting our communication to millenials and Gen Z. My friend has just started to teach me how to communicate with millennials and young people. We are doing what we call a “Q&A with Rukka” to reach especially non-Indigenous people, the young generations in the city. There are a lot of things going on in the village that we don't we don't know how to communicate. I mean, there is a lot of potential support I think in urban areas. 

In Indonesia decisions and policy are made by public outrage. If you want to influence decisions, you have to make sure that one million people shout at Jokowi, so that he will listen. That's what we are going to do. If you have any friends interested, if you have any ideas, please help us, because we really need help on this. Our young people in the communities are doing so much at the moment. They managed to break the taboo that the only worthwhile life is in the city, go to school and work for a company. In the last 10 years, we have seen what we call a homecoming movement. Young people going back to the village, they manage and protect the village. 

This is how Indigenous peoples have survived during this pandemic, thanks to our young people and our women. If you look at the situations of Indigenous peoples here in Indonesia and in other countries, especially in the Amazon, in Africa, it has been so different during this pandemic because we are more prepared. That's what is going on now. Our Indigenous youth movement is now going organic. It's been a very long process, going back to nature is not just about rehabilitating the soil and the plants, you first have to rehabilitate the mindset. 


Afifah: I read this article Indigeneity and the State in Indonesia: The Local Turn in the Dialectic of Recognition, from Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs.  They discussed many discourses surrounding original people in Indonesia. One discourse suggests that the majority of people in Indonesia, pribumi, are Indigenous. And the article used the example of Muslim conservatives using similar discourse against Ahok in 2017 in regard to the blasphemy he committed; that the Indigenous majority was threatened by the minority. What do you think about this? Where should the boundary be drawn between pribumi, the majority, and Indigenous people? Many Indonesians identify themselves through their ethnicity, like me, I identify myself with my ethnicity. People assume that everyone in Indonesia has their adat, but that's not the reality. Could you tell us your thoughts on this?


Rukka: This is one of the problems, these researchers, they don't have enough information. They build their hypothesis and analyse based on existing materials. But these don’t necessarily reflect the realities, even researchers have their own bias. In that sense, I cannot say I disagree with that article, but I don't fully understand the point of view of the article nor does it reflect the situation. 

Using the term "pribumi" itself is so demeaning the word ‘pribumi’ is a very racist term. In 1993, the ‘pribumi’ was refused by Indigenous leaders from across Indonesia to be used as a word to describe Indigenous peoples. It has a derogatory meaning, it’s so racist, the word has been used to oppress Indonesian people. During the Dutch era, the Chinese and the Japanese had higher political and social status than us, the ‘pribumi’. It's no longer relevant to use that term. ‘Pribumi’ is used by politicians for their political gain. Why? Because when you say ‘pribumi’ you are targeting and excluding the Chinese descendants, only the ethnically Chinese population, not the Arab descendants or anybody else. It’s basically used only for the political purpose of the elites, because they are targeting their political opponents with Chinese ancestry. They don't realise that the Chinese descendant population, their fathers, mothers and grandparents have also contributed to the foundations and deliberations of Indonesia. 

This is because there's nothing written about this history, no stories told, and nobody is willing to look into it because they are so caught up in this political situation. So, I can't really comment on that article. The journalist is a good friend, and we always have conversations about this. But his mind is his mind, I have no control. I've said everything I know, think and feel to him. But I can’t change his way of thinking. But I cannot judge him for that.

Afifah: Sorry in advance, Rukka. However, I want to emphasize that the writers do not use the term "pribumi" loosely, but rather refer to original people and the majority. I initially have such a notion of pribumi since I don't know the roots of the term. Thank you for clarifying the significance to us, having no understanding that it alludes to ‘pre-Earth’, and is dehumanizing.


Rukka: It is dehumanising and racist. I think also one of the problems is they're very reluctant to use the term ‘Indigenous peoples’.


Afifah: Is it too political?


Rukka: They say “it's so political”, but what is not political? When you say ‘pribumi’ it's political, you say ‘original people’, it's political, whatever you use it's political. We need to understand the politics of using these terms. They’re always saying that using the term ‘Indigenous peoples’ can trigger disintegration, but come on, I mean get real!! If you go across Indonesia today, you find that most Indigenous peoples will not say they don't want Indonesia. Of course, if you go to international forums on human rights, Indonesia will always have a problem with the representatives from Papua and from Maluku, because they are telling the true story of their people and that's what the Indonesian government doesn't want to hear, nor do they want others to hear. So, they’re using this context to camouflage the situations in Papua and in Maluku, by saying that there are no Indigenous peoples in Indonesia, that the idea of Indigenous peoples threatens to disintegrate the country. But that's the current political situation! When it comes to human rights obligations and the Human Rights Forum, naming and shaming is still a very relevant tactic used by Indigenous peoples at the international level, because the government continues to deny us, because they don't want to fulfil their obligations. So, there is no term that is not political in my opinion.


Afifah: Thank you, that’s very enlightening for me.


Sam: Yes, for me too! Thank you so much for your time and for your help!


Rukka: No problem! I am always happy to talk about anything Indigenous or masyarakat adat. That's my obligation, the call of duty!