Hill Tribes

ETHNONYM: Scheduled Tribes

This inexact term was long applied by British and American travelers and colonial authorities to the indigenous inhabitants of upland areas in South and Southeast Asia (and sometimes in other parts of the world). Although it would seem clear enough what a "hill tribe" is, the term finds little favor among modern anthropologists. First of all, it seems to have tones of racial inferiority; thus the term has never been applied, for example, to the Highland clans of Scotland, even though they do fit the usual mold of hill tribes. Second, Western writers have been inconsistent in their identification of hill tribes, usually defining them as somehow in opposition to other social categories. In the Indian subcontinent tribes or hill tribes have long been depicted as distinct from castes; in Southeast Asia they have often been presented as distinct from rice-cultivating peasants in the plains and alluvial valleys. The Nilgiri Hills of south India, to take a specific example, are home to several small, more or less indigenous groups, most notably the Todas, Kotas, Kurumbas, and Badagas (all dealt with elsewhere in this volume). British writers and administrators there during the nineteenth century always identified the Todas, Kotas, and Kurumbas as hill tribes or aboriginal tribes; whereas the Badagas, who had come up to the Nilgiri Hills from the Mysore Plains a few centuries before, were usually written about, even in legislation, as being something other than hill tribes. Yet they had lived within a few miles of the Kotas and Todas for centuries, and they were at a very similar level of economic development to the Kotas. The Nilgiri case leads to the conclusion that hill tribes are simply the indigenous communities that live above an elevation of 1,000 meters.

In traditional societies like those of India and Thailand one can still find discrete cultural units conventionally called tribes. These tend to be endogamous social units, occupying a distinguishable rural territory, bearing a tribal name and a distinct material culture, and often speaking their own language. But the same features characterize many dominant castes in South Asia as well (e.g., the Rajputs).

In this region the old categories will not simply disappear as anthropologists develop more useful ways of categorizing human societies. This is because the legal formulation in India soon after independence of two broad social categories, Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, has by now touched hundreds of millions of people who thereby have become eligible for special treatment by various branches of the government, in an effort to ameliorate the socioeconomic backwardness of these groupings. So valued have these government benefits become that the Indian authorities today find themselves unable to abandon the granting of special benefits, two generations after they were first instituted. There are even groups like the Badagas, who were never called hill tribes nor treated as Scheduled Tribes, who nonetheless today are clamoring for classification as Scheduled Tribes for the most obvious of reasons. The Badagas actually became a Scheduled Tribe in 1991.

Although many of the earlier accounts depicted hill tribes as "animists," or believers in spirit entities who did not follow one of the great South Asian religions (e.g., the Hill Pandaram), subsequent research has described hill tribes that are Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and even Christian (the Mizos, Garos). Along with these differences in belief, the hill tribes show a great variety of economic adaptations: while agriculture is preeminent among most, there are some who are pastoralists (such as the Todas), some who are artisans (Kotas), and some who are itinerant peddlers, magicians, and entertainers.

More than 500 named tribes can still be recognized in the countries of South Asia. Details about tribal demography are elusive. Most national censuses have not attempted (or at least have not published) a detailed tribe-by-tribe enumeration since gaining their independence. One has to go back to the British census of undivided India in 1931 to find the last set of reliable figures on individual tribes and castes throughout the entire region. But at that time, sixty years ago, the total population of the subcontinent was less than 400 million, compared with more than one billion today. Presumably the tribes have increased proportionately.

The future of the South Asian hill tribes is an uncertain one: while very few groups show any signs of dying out, most are in the process of rapid cultural and economic change that will eventually alter them, or their social boundaries, beyond recognition. Whether the government of India continues its special benefits for Scheduled Tribes into the indefinite future is one very big factor. Another is the alienation of "tribal" land—its seizure by immigrant settlers or timber merchants—which has long been reported in many hill areas, perhaps most notably in Andhra Pradesh. In general virtually all hill tribes are now changing greatly through the impact of Hinduism or Christian missionaries, as well as the effects of modernization, secularization, and sometimes industrialization. These factors, among others, are tending toward a weakening of tribal languages and tribal identity.

See also Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes


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Fuchs, Stephen (1973). The Aboriginal Tribes of India. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Fürer-Haimendorf, Christoph von (1982). Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Helm, June, ed. (1968). Essays on the Problem of Tribe. Proceedings of the 1967 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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Singh, K. S., ed. (1983). Tribal Movements in India. 2 vols. New Delhi: Manohar.

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