Nias - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In South Nias there are two hereditary classes: nobles ( si'ulu ) and commoners ( sato ). Slaves ( savuyu ) were bonded laborers, captives, or ransomed criminals. Children of a nobleman and a commoner woman (in a secondary marriage) are ono ba zato (child by a commoner), an intermediate rank that is not heritable. A council of elders ( si'ila ) is appointed from the commoner class. In the north and center there is an analogous hierarchy of ranks rather than classes, with greater social mobility and emphasis on achieved status. Hamlet or village chiefs are called salawa; satua mbanua, village elders, are men who have demonstrated superior qualities and mastery of custom by staging feasts of merit ( ovasa ). Ordinary villagers are called ono mbanua. There are further informal gradations of status subject to continual revision. Status is validated and raised in feasts of merit. Influence is won by gaining credit in the system of festive payments. This system is insulated from other forms of exchange (e.g., mutual aid, bride-wealth) by elaborate rules and different systems of measurement. In parts of North Nias, however, the size of bride-wealth was formerly integrated with social rank in a single scheme of "steps" ( bosi ).

Political Organization. Nias is a kabupaten (regency) of the North Sumatran province of Indonesia. Its thirteen subdistricts ( kecamatan ) contain an average of fifty villages each. Many areas had traditional federations of villages ( öri ), which legislated on rates of exchange and interest on loans, and within which headhunting and war were prohibited. The öri were renamed negeri after independence and dissolved in 1967. Prior to the Dutch "revival" of the öri system, there was no political unit above village-level in the center; nor was there a paramount chief until the Dutch imposed one. Leadership in the village was informal and unstable as the prominent men of each lineage vied for supremacy. In the south the traditional ruler is the senior nobleman, the balö zi'ulu, who rules in concert with his councillors or elders. The status and functions of traditional chief and government headman overlap to some extent.

Social Control. Serious crimes are now dealt with by government authorities. In disputes over matters of custom (e.g., bride-wealth, adultery, land borders), long debates, led by elders and chiefs, have the aim of restoring social harmony and reaching a settlement, rather than simply imposing a penalty. Fines, in pigs and gold, include a meal for participants. Offenses against church rules (e.g., polygyny, funeral feasts) are punished by expulsion from the church and denial of the sacraments.

Conflict. Prior to colonial government, warfare and headhunting between villages (or between öri) were endemic. Heads or human sacrifices were required for funerals and certain feasts of merit. The slave trade with Aceh led to increased insecurity.

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