A Portrait of State as a Schoolteacher: Discourse on Indonesian Indigenous Community in a Children Book

International documents call them ‘Indigenous People’, ‘Indigenous community’, or ‘Indigenous society’, in itself can be seen as a practice of exclusion (Mills 2004: 57), where powerful parties exclude or include other groups of people, with manufactured reasoning or characterization of the subjected groups. The Indonesian government applied this type of exclusion for their ‘indigenous community’ by using a straightforward term: masyarakat terasing, ‘isolated communities’. It is then followed by the construction of a set of characterization for these groups that underpin policies to impose official ideas, institutions, and lifestyles on them.

Depiction of the so-called masyarakat terasing reflects a ‘basic discourse’ that “construct radically different Others and Selves, both as concerns the degree of Otherness and the spatial, temporal and ethical articulation of identity […] argue very different policies to be pursued.” (Hansen 2006: 95). The basic discourse of masyarakat terasing appears in various types of media and shared by enormous amount of people. The images of masyarakat terasing printed in policy statements distributed within the governmental body tasked to take care of them (Department of Social Affairs), range from printed and audiovisual mass media (Duncan 2001), to exhibition events (Acciaioli 2001).

This essay will attempt to unpack the basic discourse of masyarakat terasing. I will examine the characterization of masyarakat terasing, their meeting with the modern state apparatus (teacher, school and book), and specific elements of modernity the state tries to impose. These will be examined through a children book, written by a relatively well known Indonesian poet, Mansur Samin (1994). The title of the book, ‘Kuto Anak Dusun Terasing’ [Kuto, A Boy of Isolated Hamlet]. In order to support this approach, different method of media analysis namely, focalization, intertextuality, and image analysis, will be used. In doing so, I will show a strong relationship between the story and a government policy document originally prepared for resettlement project of the masayarakat terasing.


Once they were backward….

According to the children-book the member of masyarakat terasing are simply backward, before the state intervention. Carrying the masyarakat terasing discourse, in the first page the author stated openly “…Lubu tribe is backward people.” (p.1). And all through the book he described the characteristic of masyarakat terasing, one after another according to the widely shared construction of the community. This serves as a unification of different communities into a single bundle, which is required to attach a radically different characterization to them. Hence, the book has constructed the Other.

The author carefully inscribed the characterization of masyarakat terasing to reach a striking similarity with the government’s indicators of them. In a policy statement, namely Sejarah Perkembangan Pemberdayaan Komunitas Adat Terpencil [the history of empowerment progress of Isolated Adat Community] (2003), Department of Social Affair listed several criteria for this type of ‘community’, prepared for resettlement project of masyarakat terasing. This set of constructed criteria can be summarized into: a) similarities in physical appearance, socio-cultural life, and housing. b) Live in isolated places hardly accessible, nomadic, or scattered in small groups. c) Practice hunting, gathering, and shifting cultivation. d) Live unhealthy life for themselves and for their surrounding environment. e) Isolate themselves to outsiders. f) Their social, ideology and technological system remain traditional and static. All of these can take place possibly because these community, g) cannot be accessed by the development service (ibid. 4-5).

Going back to the story book, its cover illustrated a boy wear a loincloth exhibiting his upper arm muscular shape, a sign of masculinity and power—or success—while his other arm carry a schoolbook. The boy stand out in foreground, most likely as a sign of progress because of the book he held, while in the background a man (also wears loincloth) hoeing in burdensome gesture, and a woman bowing deep to plant seeds to the groundIt emphasized the difference between the younger schooled generation and the older farming one: the life of the former is easier and perhaps better than the later. Yet, before the coming of the school, who are they?


Starting the story, the author introduces Lubu people, the community: “The town people call them Pagur people…they seldom take shower. They wear loincloth. They do shifting cultivation and tapping sugar palm[1] sap”, and they live in “small huts with palm leaves roof” (p.1). This passage show how the author worked to construct ‘a radical Other’ (Hansen 2006).

First, considering focalization (Meijer 1993), they become a single passive object being labeled by the ‘town people’. This is exactly the way the government view masyarakat terasing, ‘an object out there different from us’. Moreover, within the whole story they were allowed to speak by the author only when they say something in accordance with the mainstream. There is no voice for differences, unless to be beaten or changed. Second, by bringing into the story the anonymous ‘town people’, it shows that there is temporal, spatial, and ethical gap between them and masyarakat terasing, and already the hierarchy established between the one who see and those to be seen, between those who tell and to be told. Third, the description shows surprising similarity with the abovementioned government’s criteria of masyarakat terasing: no shower means unhealthy life, wear loincloth means static socio-cultural life. Again, these aspects being put in a bowl, in this case the backward masyarakat terasing, to construct a radical Other.

The mode of comparing masyarakat terasing as radical Other against the Self (mainstream society represented by the author) is consistent throughout the book, ending with submission of the former to the latter. It started from a stark different before the schooling (state intervention), then recognition of subordinate position of the difference by the representative (characters) of masyarakat terasing, and finally transformation of the subordinate into the mainstream modern way of life promoted by the state, in this story represented by a teacher (Pak Abdi) and the school. When they are compared to the rest of the people the description of three Kubu children (Kuto, Nihu and Sabe), it goes as follows: “They live five years in Dolok village. Yet, their daily habits are not easy to change. They keep their hair long. Infrequently take shower. Do not wear shoes. They wear tree bark.”[2] (p.2). This description is in stark contrast with the pictures of the school teacher, Pak Abdi. While not compared in written form but pictures of the teacher illustrated him with tidy shirt and hair, and his intellectual look strengthen with glasses can be seen in page 7, 18, 56, 84. Only in one occasion his glasses were off, when he involved in physical work (p.37).

 Here comes the state: teacher, school and books

The state appeared in the story as the main setting (i.e. school), and the main character (i.e. Pak Abdi, the teacher).[3] The school supposes to teach them how to integrate with a new way of life brought by the state (i.e. modernity). Here state development comes as “action, intervention, aimed at improvement”, suggesting that the party who bring the intervention to the subject(s) knows the appropriate end of the improvements (Gasper 2004: 29), and it cover the whole range of aspects of the subjects live. The result is adaptation of the ‘culture’ the state brings, in this sense it falls into the category of ‘culture’ as everything (ibid: 197), from material culture to ideology of the subordinate subject. It is here when all their idea and ways of doing are collapse against those that the state advises them to embrace. For example, while doing an exam, “Kuto realize, he is now fighting against his own stupidity.” (p.13). And Kuto was not alone, the rest of the ‘community’ regret themselves for not having a good (schooling) education that limited them in physical work as to earn for livelihood (p.24). Substituting the physical work is the scientific knowledge, which assumed to be absent within the community, acquire from the teachers wide knowledge, and reading books.[4]

“How did you know rat extermination technique, son?” ask the man.

“From reading book, sir,” answered Kuto. (p.47)

Universalizing values often follows many development intervention of the state, to fill gaps between the developed and less developed societies. The author did this by narrating a story from his former experience in other place. Lending the teachers voice he recalled that once there was very dull boy who work so hard in school, and “[B]ecause of his persistence [in studying] the boy then became a clever student. His dreams eventually came true. His life became happy.” (p.9).

The school also teach Indonesian mainstream school manner, of course imported from different, considered more developed place. It happens more to the beginning of the story that, “Without any greetings, Kuto enter the classroom, and sit carelessly in the back row.” (p.6).

Nationality is another important idea to be introduced to masyarakat terasing. Fear of communism adherence, “pre-colonial views in Javanese kingdoms where nearby forests were the refuge of people fleeing state control” (Duncan 2001: 54-55), and constant need of the ‘governmentality’ to govern and regulate its subject (Li 1999: 296), are among the strongest reason for this ideological injection. In Indonesia, among the common practice believed to be effective to implant nationality is through flag-raising ceremony. In many place until today, every Monday morning, and in several other national commemoration days, all formal institution have to undertake the ceremony. In theory, during the ceremony everybody in the institution will stand in straight lines of columns to salute the national flag while it is raised and national anthem sung. The logic of this nationalist view written in this story as

“[R]aising national flag ceremony is important in order to understand the meaning of [our national] independence, so that we can pay respect to our national heroes’ service as well. [Therefore] next Monday, we should do the ceremony in the schoolyard.” (p.8)

The teacher also introduced a crucial aspect of modernity, the technology. He describes the importance of transportation technology to the pupil in order to widen their horizon beyond their imaginative enclosed community, to see a ‘civilized’ society (p.13-14). However, a conversation between the teacher and pupil, was not merely describe isolation, but also a complete ignorance:

“Have you ever seen a car?”

There was no replay (p.14)

Thus, an immediate intervention is required; they must see and experience this technology, hence the teacher should bring the pupil to a town. Ignorance of its existence, however, is not the only reason, but also the meaning, or rather the function, of having the technology must be introduced. Here the imposition of economical end, the paramount impetus of the Indonesian government of the time, stepped in. The teacher explained the economic risk for not having transportation access: the intermediaries can make up price to their advantage. This then consequently provoked one of the pupils to ask why they do not have road access. The reply was ‘blaming the victim’ rather than the lack of state provision: the students have to study harder so that they can all become engineer capable of building road, “and connect our village to the town” (p. 61-62). The pupil were also told to save, to consume self-production commodities (substitution of import product), and not to rent money from intermediaries (imply the promotion of formal banking system); all are among the most popular government promotion at the time.

Technology for rapid economic growth was Indonesian New Order favorite and a good part of the story dedicated to this objective. Other technologies that the teacher surprisingly able to teach are, weaving and coloring technology: from making the mill-bucket until the coloring ingredients (p. 33-34); irrigation and small dam; he knows more than the people that its walls has to be sloping and its line has to be straight (p.21-23); sedentary agricultural technology: rice growing technique (p. 16). The last technology reflect the long known dislike of Indonesian government toward shifting cultivation, it is a strong believe that shifting cultivation always cause deforestation (p.17, see also Persoon 2002, 2004).

In addition to what have been mentioned before, the picture superiority, benevolence, and paternalistic state also appeared in different nuances. The idea of the state gazing down toward its subject represented in the sport competition between schools: “On the tribune, there was Bapak Camat and other officials from Kecamatan.” (p.51). Their control of security, a very important issue of the Soeharto government, emerge when Pak Abdi made very clear explanation that it has to be the police job to arrest criminals (p.61). The characterization of Pak Abdi shows how benevolent a state could be. He is as a good gentle and patient teacher to the pupil, and engages to solve all problems in the village as far as the story could tell. As a result, the people pay so much respect on him, so paternalistically that the head of the village have to do a traditional gesture of self-subordination as seen in illustration on page 18.

In the end…

What is it to be, or imagined to be, achieved from this intervention? In reality, as I have mentioned, this intervention manifested in a resettlement program of masyarakat terasing.[5] Persoon (2002) summarized the aim the resettlement program elements of imposition as:

“Permanent farming (instead of shifting cultivation), nuclear and permanent housing (instead of nomadic and permanent housing), adherence of the official religion (instead of natural religions or paganism), decent clothing (instead of loincloth), decent cultivated food (instead of foods from the wild), modern health care (instead of medicine men) and modern education (instead of no education at all).”

In our story, two elements are missing: the official religion and modern health care, yet the similarity are too close to ignore. The missing elements are not there probably because they are relatively succeed to spread (see Duncan 2002), or considered come in bundle with other elements.

Now, for the sake of the story, let us turn to the final message of our main character, mentioned in his farewell speech before his departure to another unknown place.

“You are the hope of the nation. Upon your shoulders, there is responsibility to develop our country toward progress. Indonesian natural resource is abundant, it is you, we hope, that will be able to manage it. You have to become experts in the future. I have taught you to believe in your own capability. I have trained you to take care of our beautiful environment.” (p.83)

Indeed, by the end of the story, they all pursue to university education, and acquire title before going back to their village: to teach at school, to run paper industry, owner of handicraft industry, lead a state-owned gold mining industry that happen to be nearby their village (p.86-91).


[1] Arenga pinnata/saccharifera (Stevens, A.M. and Schmidgal-Tellings, A.E. 2004: 267).

[2] Note that tree bark mentioned by the author is in conflict with loincloth the boy wore on the book cover illustration. Obviously, the illustrator did not consult both the book and author.

[3] There is also ‘center-periphery’ issue in the name of the teacher. The former teacher was hot-tempered and hit Kuto which eventually got him expelled from the school. His name was Togar, a name come from Batak, geographically near the story setting in Sumatra Island. While Abdi is Sanskrit name, popularly used in Jawa.

[4] Discussion on the viability of local/indigenous knowledge is vast enough to mention here to mention but very few, see Linda T. Smith (1999) Fals-Borda et. al. (2003).

[5] For various studies on this program see Duncan 2001, 2004; Eindhoven 2002, Hoshour 2000; Li 1999; Persoon 1998, 2002, 2004.

Table: state intervention through ‘the school’

Before school School introduced Expected result
Long hair,

Infrequent shower, no shoes, sit careless, wear tree bark (in written) or loincloth (in pictures.

Live in scattered huts

Tap sugar palm

Shifting cultivation


Short hair, shoes, tidy shirt and hair, and glasses (only illustrated in pictures). Know-it-all, gentle [excellent manner] and patient.

The importance of road access and cars, for openness and economic benefit.


Rice farm irrigation, rat extermination (for rice). [implied promotion of sedentary farming].

Industrial technology to produce clothing; mill-bucket, coloring, etc.

Economic man:

Rational choice to reject intermediaries, to save and consume own product [promotion of formal bank and import substitution product]


national heroes, national ceremonies, police

‘To develop our country’

Teach at school

Pursue formal education up to university

Manage natural resource by becoming experts, run paper industry, own handicraft industry, lead a state-owned gold mining industry


Acciaioli, Greg (2001) ‘Archipelagic Culture’ As an Exclusionary Government Discourse in Indonesia, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, vol. 2(1). Pp. 1-23.

Direktorat Pemberdayaan Komunitas Adat Terpencil, Dirjen. Pemberdayaan Sosial, Departement Sosial R.I. [Directorate of Development of Social Prosperity of Geographically Isolated Customary Law Communities, Indonesian Department of Social Affair] (2003) Sejarah Perkembangan Pemberdayaan Komunitas Adat Terpencil, Departemen Sosial R.I., Jakarta

Duncan, Christopher R. (2001) Savage Imagery: (Mis)representation of the Forest Tobelo of Indonesia, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology vol. 2(1). Pp. 45-62.

Duncan, Christopher R. (2004) From Development to Empowerment: Changing Indonesian Government Policies toward Indigenous Minority, in Christopher Duncan (ed.) Civilizing the Margin: Southeast Asian Government Policies for the Development of Minorities, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.

Eindhoven, Myrna (2002) Translation and Authencity in Mentawaian Activism, Antropologi Indonesia vol.69. pp. 24-34.

Fals-Borda, Orlando and Mora-Osejo, Luis E. (2003) “Context and diffusion of knowledge, a critique of Eurocentrism”, Action Research Journal Volume 1(1), Sage Publication, London/Thousands Oaks/New Delhi. Pp. 29-37

Gasper, Des (2004) The Ethics of Development: from Economism to Human Development, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, UK.

Hansen, Lene (2006) Security as Practice: Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War, Routledge, London.

Hoshour, Cathy Ann (2000) Relocating Development in Indonesia: A Look at the Logic and Contradiction of State-Directed Resettlement, doctoral thesis, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Li, Tania Murray (1999) Compromising Power: Development, culture, and rule in Indonesia, Cultural Anthropology vol. 14(3). Pp. 295-322.

Meijer, Maaike (1993) Countering Textual Violence: On the Critique of Representation and the Importance of Teaching Its Methods, Women Studies Int. Forum, Vol 16(4). Pp. 367-378.

Mills, Sara (2004) Discourse, Routledge, London.

Persoon, Gerard A. (1998) Isolated Groups or Indigenous Peoples: Indonesia and the International Discrourse, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 154(2). Pp. 281-304.

Persoon, Gerard A. (2002) Isolated Islanders or Indigenous People: The Political Discourse and its Effect on Siberut (Mentawai Archipelago, West-Sumatra), Antropologi Indonesia vol. 68 pp. 25-39.

Persoon, Gerard A., et al. (2004) The Position of Indigenous Peoples in the Management of Tropical Forest, Tropenbos International, Wageningen.

Samin, Mansur (1994) Kuto Anak Dusun Terasing, Sinar Grafika, Jakarta

Smith, Linda Tihuwai, (1999) Decolonizing methodologyresearch and indigenous peoples, Zed Books Ltd., London/New York

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