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We Come From Within the Land

Gerard Tiwow in Minahasa traditional attire.

We, Minahasan, view everything that nature provides as historical sites that must be protected by all means. Minahasa is the name of the union of nine Tribes that inhabit the northernmost tip of the Minahasa peninsula on the island of Celebes, Sulawesi, Indonesia. We are currently facing many threats to our territories. Our water resources are heavily polluted, our springs are experiencing drought, our forests are being cut down en masse, mountains, and hills are being demolished for mining activities and construction, and our historical sites are in danger of being erased entirely from the memory of the people.

In Minahasan cosmology, we believe that we come from within the land. In our creation lore, the first woman was named Karéma. She prayed to God for a companion, and a second woman named Lumimuut emerged from a rock. This cosmology signifies that we come from within the land, and the land itself is us. There’s a pokéy (saying) that is often recited during specific rituals: mamuali wia un tana’ mawuri wia un tana’ (from the land we become, and to the land shall we return). We have a millennia-old practice of putting a newborn baby’s umbilical cord inside a kuré’ (clay pot) and burying it in acknowledgment of our unity and connection with our ancestors. We also acknowledge that there is a living being, or at least a living energy, within the land.

Today, the Tombulu’ People are facing a land loss problem, especially the loss of natural landscapes and forests. Most of the hills have been lost for extraction of minerals, which are very abundant. The Tonséa’ People have suffered deforestation of hectares of land for mining exploitation activities.

North Sulawesi Province has become one of the priority development areas for the central government of Indonesia. Airports, roads, dams, and other infrastructure are being built at a very fast pace to boost our regional development. We are pleased that the central government has made an effort to build infrastructure for the people here and to boost the economic growth of our province. However, the development is a double-edged sword; with its benefit also comes the negative impact that has challenged Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

National strategic construction and land privatization are also impacting our lands. People of Kayawu and Tara-tara from Tombulu’ are losing their land for the construction of a private road. The people of Kinangkoan in the Tonséa’ Tribe almost lost countless waruga (ancient stone sarcophagi)and natural water springs for dam construction and a toll road, both of which are part of national strategic construction. Most historical sites, such as waruga have been demolished for construction work, in some cases, destroyed beyond recognition.

There have been other conflicts. Tontémboan farmers of the Kélélondey farm clashed with the Indonesian Army when hectares of their farms were suddenly occupied by the military for training grounds. People of Kalaséy and Séa’ from the Bantik and Tombulu Tribes often clash with the Indonesian Police and the government because of the installation of the police training area and the building of a government-sponsored university that stripped them of hectares of farm fields.

In the pre-colonial era of Minahasa, there was a form of collective land ownership named kalakeran, or kalakezan. Each awu (family) and taranak (clan) shared the same land, and they took turns with the agricultural activities. Most importantly, the land was not to be sold or traded. However, the colonizers erased this practice almost entirely. We believe that the land is our living space, a space where we live and give us the life that we have. Losing land is the same as losing our life; our land is our identity, and natural and man-made historical sites symbolize our civilization. If we lose them, there will be no trace that we ever existed.


All photos courtesy of Gerard Tiwow.

I left my community in 2011 to study in Bogor, West Java. Early on, I did not identify as a land defender but as someone wanting to connect with my Minahasan diaspora. In 2019, I moved to Jakarta. I continued to engage with my fellow Minahasan People and helped develop a sanggar (art community). During my time there, I gained more insight into the current socio-economic and cultural state of Minahasa. My brothers and sisters shared stories of how they lost their lands because of modernization and urbanization.

I returned to my hometown in 2021 and joined Tou Mu’ung Wuaya, an Indigenous school that protects our Indigenous knowledge, systems, and practices, which includes the importance of protecting our land property and rights as Indigenous people. I am also connected with Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara Sulawesi Utara (North Sulawesi Chapter of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago). During my engagement with the Alliance, I learned how to take action to protect our land. I am fortunate to have mentors who give me valuable technical and practical knowledge on how to advocate for current development challenges that Minahasans face in our territory.

Our community works in three ways: the first is by becoming a part of the system and making change from within. The second is through advocacy and formal negotiation to find a point where the counterpart’s interest does not interfere with our rights as the stewards of the land. Third is confrontational action, where we hold demonstrations to fight for our rights and existence. My brothers and sisters on the frontlines often have their human rights violated by police or the military.

When several hectares of farms that fed three villages were submerged, and countless waruga were intentionally demolished for the construction of a dam, we were enraged and demanded that the central government, through the then-Ministry of Public Works and the provincial government, rehabilitate the demolished waruga with proper and just compensation for the people who lost their farmland. This action was a success. The government redesigned the concept of the dam into a cultural park, and the demolished waruga are being restored.

Also in progress is the drafting of a regional Indigenous Peoples law (Peraturan Daerah Masyarakat Adat) in the Southeast Minahasa Regency. This law will protect the human rights and land rights of the Tonsawang, Pasan, and Ponosakan Tribes. Despite some resistance, the law is near ratification. This effort is a part of our vision to change the system from within.

In my hometown of Tomohon, there are ongoing Indigenous youth initiatives. Weresi Un Zano (Cleaning the Water) is working to clean up the rivers and springs, plant trees, and take action to ensure our water resources will not be compromised. We realize that we are unable to put a complete stop to mining activities, road construction, and land privatization, so we are working to ensure that the mining activities do not expand further, that roads are built with respect to our sacred forests, and that land privatization is taking measures to not tamper any further with the rights of the Indigenous people.

My Cultural Survival Youth Fellowship project is a pilot project that aims to restore the Indigenous identity of our people. The majority of our people can no longer speak their native language, and as we know, language is a fundamental aspect of one’s identity. The loss of historical sites also causes people to question their true identity. Through workshops, seminars, and cultural events, we actively involve community members, especially youth, in learning and using Indigenous languages, fostering pride and connection to their heritage. Working closely with Elders and language experts, we gain valuable insights into linguistic nuances and cultural significance, which guide our language revitalization efforts.

Alongside language revitalization, we conduct activities to document oral histories, record traditional arts, and create digital archives, ensuring the preservation of cultural knowledge. We advocate for the integration of Indigenous languages into formal education, developing resources and materials for language learning, and promoting awareness and appreciation among younger generations. Through advocacy, awareness raising, and ongoing monitoring, our project contributes to the sustainable preservation of Indigenous languages and cultures, empowering communities to reclaim and celebrate their heritage for future generations.

Gerard Tiwow (Minahasa) is a 2023 Cultural Survival Youth Fellow from Tou Mu’ung Walak (district), Tombulu’ pakasa’an (Tribe), in the city of Tomohon, Indonesia.


Gerard Tiwow in Minahasa traditional attire.

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