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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Identity Between Heaven and Earth

Aggiornamento: 14 apr 2023

“I am always trying to better understand what people consider to be the most relevant constituents of their identities, how they express them, when, where and why”.

Such, in her words, is the driving force of Anne Schiller’s work, first in Borneo and since 2005 in Italy. She is Professor of Anthropology at George Mason University, Washington D.C., and, in 2016, was Fulbright-Fondazione CON IL SUD Visiting Professor at the University del Salento. On March 25, however, she was especially a roving member of the Berkeley Circle come back to tell us of her adventures. She had spoken to us in 2017 about her fieldwork in Indonesian Borneo where she spent seven years between 1982 and 2000. She also showed us the film ‘Borneo: Beyond the Grave’ that she made in collaboration with local religious leaders and the National Geographic Society.

The aftermath of WWII brought unrest to Indonesia along with independence. One problem was the agitation for autonomy among ethnically diverse groups. The situation was such in Central Kalimantan, three-fourths of the island of Borneo, that the central government did not permit outsiders to take up residence until the 1980s. Schiller was, in fact, the first anthropologist to be allowed entry. Between 1982 and 2000 she would spend seven years in the rainforest in close contact with the Ngaiu Dayak people.

Professor Schiller called her talk “On the Edge of Two Worlds”. This wasn’t simply a picturesque phrase but referred to the beliefs of the Ngaju Dayaks. The solid ground on which they live borders another land, a supernatural space visited mentally by their priests in their complex death ritual. A corpse is buried but disinterred after a variable period of time and cleaned of its flesh. The bones are then placed in an ossuary. The priests whose chants have settled the bones at rest will afterward, trance-like, escort the souls to that sacred space, the other world. Something like the soul of the ossuary goes with them. In what we might call heaven, they come together with their relatives in a family house of sorts. Family and connection by blood are of extreme importance to the Dayaks.

Familiarity, friendship with individuals, and her practical help as a teacher reassured the Dayaks. Schiller was invited to join a family. It involved the actual drawing and mingling of her blood with theirs and meant she was an adoptive parent to their children. She could have her bones entombed in the family bone repository. To understand how unusual this relationship was on both sides, Schiller told us she dealt with Dayaks who in some cases had never seen another white person and often took her for a corpse or a supernatural creature of evil.

One of Schiller’s motives in first going to Borneo had been to understand what ordinary Dayaks felt about their religion being attached to Hinduism. There was, she learned, a problematic context to this question. The Indonesian government insisted that every one declare a religion. Not having one made someone a pagan and civil life difficult. However, the only religions the government recognised in the 1980s were Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. This left out the Ngaju Dayaks and their Kaharingan religion that englobed the rites Schiller had described with the care and precision of an anthropologist. At length, in order to escape classification as godless pagans, some Dayaks aligned with Hindus. They could then satisfy the bureaucracy and declare themselves to be Kaharingan-Hindu believers.

In 2019, twenty years after her last visit to Indonesia, Schiller was invited back to address a conference. Her descriptions of Dayak beliefs and rituals had given her a reputation for seriousness and objectivity. Other Westerners had dwelt on headhunting and cannibalism to enhance the fantasy of ‘the wild man of Borneo’. Arriving, Schiller learned not only that she would deliver the keynote address but that controversy was in the air between the Dayaks who were content with the Kaharingan-Hindu formula and those who were petitioning the government to allow the Kaharingan belief to stand on its own as a full-fledged religion. It was a ticklish situation, like finding oneself in the midst of a family feud and not taking sides. But those who know Anne Schiller, also know that her objectivity is fringed with finesse and that her visit could only have proved a success for all concerned.

Professor Schiller’s fieldwork in Italy advances at pace. Elsewhere in these web pages, there is a review of her 2016 book, ‘Merchants in the City of Art, Work, Identity, and Change in a Florentine Neighborhood’. We look forward to her one day giving the Berkeley Circle her clear-eyed view of the Italian identity with which we are so affectionately surrounded.

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