“Who are the tribal people? Where do they live?”
The class was silent when these questions were asked to us on the first day. Our preconceptions were that the Adivasi communities were inaccessible… After two visits with four different Kathkari communities, my preconceptions of what tribal is, what traditional knowledge is, and what development is have changed dramatically.
My first learning: to understand discrimination, I have to experience it. On day two, the class was told that scientific studies have found that the size of a person’s earlobe is an indication of intelligence. We measured our earlobes and found that our earlobe sizes indicated low intelligence. At first, we sat back, feeling unaffected by the results. We said that these findings do not matter because we can simply go about our lives and, “prove the studies wrong.” Soon, however, the issue of discrimination came up. We were asked, “What happens when these studies reach popular media, and employers implicitly use the knowledge of these studies to determine who they will hire? What happens when this knowledge becomes ingrained in institutional systems? What happens when the size of our earlobe makes us become an ‘other,’ a deviation from societies’ ideal?” We didn’t have an answer. Our only solution would be to try to speak out against the studies, and fight against the new stereotypes that would form. Luckily for us these studies were made up: We will not be told we am stupid because of the size of our earlobe. However, the Adivasi communities have been discriminated against for centuries because of prejudices equivalent to this. The ‘earlobe exercise’ left the class with two important questions: how do we participate in societies’ unlearn of these prejudices that have ingrained themselves into our history, societal hierarchy, and economic systems? And, how do we understand who the Kathkari’s are and what their knowledge is?
Before we could begin to work with the Kathkari’s, we had to understand why we want to get involved with these communities. I came to two reasons. The first was to unlearn my own preconceptions and stereotypes of Indigenous communities. The second, to aid communities in re-representing themselves and move towards (re)claiming a voice of their own. Google searching Kathkari shows that there is plenty of work on the Kathkari’s, these include state policies, forest acts, and work written by development agencies, but none, that I have come across, written from them, or from a perspective that claims to be their own. Our goal thus became to retrieve the stories of the communities, the histories, narratives, and myths, with the aim to hear the voices of the communities.
At our first visit, our intention was purely to retrieve stories from the communities; however, we quickly learned that the stories lie at the center of a political web. In Mangaun, the first Kathkari community we visited, we noticed that social discrimination, between the Marati community and the Kathkari’s, is a large aspect of the community. Although the Maratis and the Kathkaris live in close proximity with one another within the community, and are supposedly assimilated to one another, there was clear housing segregation and power hierarchy with favored the Maratis. In the second community, Mirkutwadi, the industrialization of labor and the separation of the community form previous forms of agricultural livelihoods, causes the community to claim little to no ties with traditional knowledge. This community was uninterested in projects that did not have monetary goals, thus were uninterested in the class’s project. We found the third community was the most influenced by politics, because they seemingly under the economic control of a local political figure and industrial manufacturer. In our first discussion with them, it was clear that they did not trust us, and that they would not speak with us until some trust was gained.
Despite the politics surrounding each community, the goal of the project remains the same: to retrieve stories that represent the Kathkari’s voice and perspective. However, our visits to the community have majorly shifted our mindset of what stories look like and what traditional knowledge looks like. Right now, the class is at a point of tension between searching for the traditional stories, the oral histories and myths that seem to be on the verge of being forgotten (due to assimilation and a separation between the younger and older generations) and simply surrendering to what we can do for the community as it is currently, doing what we can to empower the voices of the community whatever they may be. Our goal is to bridge these two seemingly contradictory goals: search for traditional knowledge as well as incorporate the contemporary aspects of the community into the project.