standard Live worlds, live words: Indigenous language of the Bajo

Elena E. Burgos-Martínez is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University writing from her field site on Nain Island in the province of North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Here she is living amongst the indigenous The sea nomads (Bajo) of Nain Island Bajo people who live a nomadic lifestyle on the sea, making them highly attune to environmental change.

It is indeed a sturdy boat, all mangrove wood, coconut carcases and a couple of coats of paint for a more metallic display of hues. It is ready to perform to perfection, or so they say. Nothing knows the sea better than what has been made to dwell in it, archetypes of material resistance against the changing nature of the ocean. Resistance through the incessant crunching, stumbling of waves and more waves. Then a puzzle of underwater currents dancing through complex networks, cabbeling and swirls, a twitch of tides, an (un)fortunate turn and a deck of torn mangrove wood, scarred coconut, pierced aluminium and fo’c’sle scatters in floating harmony, the changing nature of Davy Jones’s locker finally sets in… At sea stillness is constantly negotiated. Just let it in.


View from one of the Bajo houses on stilts. On the horizon: Manado Tua, an ancient and dormant volcano and inhabited island.

Fieldwork is all about unleashing, unpacking, undoing and then doing again. Fieldwork belongs to the depths and there is no place for dry feet. The changing nature of our research, of our focuses, interests, of our resilient selves needs to be considered and acknowledged since the beginning. It is very likely that some of your background literature, methodological framework, methods and hypotheses will end up scattered all around you, just like lingering spume marine. Flexibility and adaptability are crucial skills and can lead to a more adequate and complete perception and understanding of the field. But nobody said these were easy matters and they often require the constant challenging of our own assumptions and those of others. By implementing a highly participatory form of research that involves social actors and other professionals around a more grounded approach can be assured, always keep one foot on the ground… and another in the water.


In Nain Island at my informant’s house. Participant Observation as methodology becomes more of an ‘observed participation’, you do fieldwork and it does you in return.

For my fieldwork I am looking at how changes in the environment are reflected in the language(s) development of local marine communities and the impact of this on socio-ecological attitudes that feedback by mitigating and/or accelerating environmental change. My main research site is Nain Island where I am spending 14 months living with a settled community of Bajo. Pulau Nain belongs to the province of North Sulawesi and it is located at the heart of the Celebes Sea and not far from the Molucca Sea. Regular visitors include scalloped hammerheads, pilot whales, occasional typhoons and many others. However tourism has not reached Nain (yet?) due to the dangerous underwater currents that surround Nain Island. In front of the Bajo settlement a vast extension of seaweed guards the bamboo pile erected houses. At the back, three other communities of non-Bajo fishermen live, face by face with some of the most beautiful and challenging coral reefs the Coral Triangle offers. However, experienced divers rarely travel here; the only diving spot near this island has been catalogued as extremely ‘difficult’.


View of the Bajo settlement ‘Kampung Bajo’ in Nain Island.

Occasionally I travel with other groups of nomadic Bajo around the ‘nearby’ islands of Montehage, Nain Kecil, etc., aiming to produce a multi-sited ethnography in which the central methodology consists in entering the field as a student of Bajo language. My research requires a good grasp of how language is practiced and how it develops through and in between generations for a more adequate sense of how ‘the environment’ enters language and vice versa. The Bajo are fantastic language teachers, excellent story-tellers, and skilful constructors of coastal narrative on stills. And walking those multi-layered, complex passages, bridges, connectors without losing one’s balance hasn’t proven easy either. Perhaps losing one’s balance is just a matter of ego-centric coordinates and cardinal relativism; the first steps towards new forms of resilience, and the unmaking side of doing fieldwork.

But above all, sit tight and do not take yourself or ‘the others’ too seriously.

For some ethnographic fun read ‘Joking Relations’ from Marcel Mauss (PDF can be downloaded here:

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All photos by Elena E. Burgos-Martínez. Images in this post must not be re-produced in any way without written consent of the author.

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