standard ‘A season of flags’ on Nain Island: Bajo culture meets politics

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 Bajo people who live a nomadic lifestyle on the sea, making them highly attune to environmental change.

The definition and contrast of concepts such as ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ do not apply in the same way across the globe. Dualities such as the environmental vs. the social, the material vs. the biological are not pieces that fit in all socio-ecological puzzles. Environmental change is perceived by the Bajo as part of the defining flux of interactions that grants social cohesion on the island and, thus, it is expected and desired.

Their social environment does not differ from the ecological one since they constantly interchange (e.g. an animated nature of ‘iblis‘ that requires collective Bajo knowledge to be understood and acknowledged). This world view relies on interactions between social and ecological forms of knowledge that cannot be isolated to a particular location.

The crucial role of the Bajo themselves and ‘the outsiders’ (other local groups,) in the process of the evolution of their cultural identity, cannot be underestimated either. National and local TV, NGOs and governments in Indonesia, and abroad, have often depicted the Bajo as ‘people of the outskirts’, in need of social and economic aid and victims of their own customs and environments.

But the Bajo are far from passive actors as they have accommodated and adapted foreign concepts (such as ‘natural disasters’, ‘risk’, ‘development’ and ‘poverty’) and stereotypes (such as their ‘sea-bound, and thus, unstable character’) to their constantly evolving ways of life. These ‘inside/outside’ interactions have shaped the Bajo’s own modernity, where cyborg-structures (social, linguistic, architectural and conceptual) are indicative of their complex socio-ecological resilience.


Examples of ‘cyborg-houses’ with combination of organic and non-organic elements of the same environment. © Elena Burgos-Martinez

A timely example of this comes with the third general elections in the history of Indonesia that will take place in April. For Nain Bajo, it is the second time that political parties arrive to the most populated island in the region to seek votes. Last December a ‘head of law’ (‘hukumtua’) was elected for the first time, following official procedures and under the supervision of the Bupati Minahasa Utara (regional government) who urged Nain Bajo to take an ‘active part’ in national politics if they wanted access to socio-economic benefits and consideration.

Their assertions assumed Nain Bajo lacked political structure and national maturity, overlooking Bajo standards and values and classifying decades of social cohesion as ‘undeveloped’. Nevertheless, little changed for the Bajo and the ‘new’ hukumtua took the role of a mediator between local governments and Nain Island, especially when January flooding and incessant tropical storms brought about the opportunity to provide aid for the poorest families on the island.

Meanwhile, confrontations, robbery, illness, death, adoption and all forms of socio-ecological re-furbishing followed the same processes as before: often dealt with by a ‘dukun’ (spiritual healer/diviner), ‘rahasia’ (when space-groups such as neighbours and family are the only ones entitled to intervene) and the elders who possess the knowledge of ‘ilmu Bajo’ (the science of the Bajo). These sophisticated structures constitute the politics of Nain Bajo which rely on collective understanding, participation and the familiarity of the strange. Whereas imposing other legal procedures would require funds and resources (material and linguistic among others) that would compromise the Bajo’s cohesive environment.

Many parties arrived to Nain Island in March, bringing all sorts of merchandise (t-shirts, pamphlets, cards, labels and flags) and strategically designed campaigns for ‘the poor’. Signing up to support a party takes a symbolic turn when the house’s roof or door has to display the party’s flag. For each flag displayed, each house gets Rp 4000 and all sorts of merchandise. At the same time, each attendant to campaigning events earns Rp 20,000 if it’s already signed up as supporter. Nain Bajo’s landscape soon becomes crowded with colourful flags at the same time as strong circular winds coming from the East and North hit the island for days and days. Many Bajo affirm this climatic twist is due to the presence of flags. For the Bajo everything that’s present belongs to the environment and has a function to fulfil, and so if there are flags there is wind.


A season of flags. © Elena Burgos-Martinez

Flags, ‘iblis’, falling rocks, incessant rain, these are environmental features of change, of adaptation, of further profit and suit Nain Bajo’s strategic normality. Shortly after campaigns end, all merchandising is turned into awning, fishing gear, clothing, pillow cases, etc., as it is expected from foreign elements entering the Bajo realm, a re-furbishing in purpose and in concept and the immediate return, exchange and sharing that feeds a particular form of social cohesion for the Bajo.


The hardships of fieldwork. © Elena Burgos-Martinez

In my next post I will be exploring the economic systems of Nain Bajo and taking a non-essentialist approach to language evolution in order to tackle the ‘cyborg environments’ that protect cultural identity in more detail.

Reading intrusion of the month: Tania Murray Li’s ‘The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics’ (2007).

For further info about Elena’s research contact her at

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