Natasha Tontey — Jun 30, 2021
For Indonesians, North Sulawesi has always been known for its sea and forest. The Minahasan people are also known for their local eating habits, which are often categorized as bizarre. These eating habits, along with the commodification of game meat1 including rodents, wild boars, monkeys, bats, even cats and dogs, have made many people question the ethics of Minahasan culture. Many environmentalists and wildlife rescue groups think that eating game should be prohibited. »This tradition is no longer ideal, it causes the loss of biodiversity,«2 says one conservationist. This opinion perpetuates an assumption that the damage to biodiversity emerges solely from the tradition of the Minahasan indigenous community. However, what is also missing from these assumptions is that eating game indicates a strong relationship between people and the forest, beyond the meat’s commodification and marketization. The Minahasan people believe that forests are the source of life, the property of no one. Forests are a common resource. This goes back to the Minahasan philosophy Mapalus, a well-structured tenet of mutual assistance.
Based on a kinship structure, Mapalus is understood as a way of thinking collectively. It is applied to all lines of Minahasan life: relationships and interactions among humans, nonhumans, as well as with ancestors. Technically, Mapalus comes from the Minahasan words Ma and Palus. Ma is an active verb to indicate an activity, while palus means to fulfill each other, or filling a glass with water. Contextually, the water symbolizes that our activities are complementary and reciprocal; always an act of fulfilling each other. It must be mutual. Reciprocity here is a manifestation of adat (customary law).
In an attempt at nation-making, the »founding fathers« of Indonesia constructed something that is understood as Indonesian identity. Gotong royong (a term translated as mutual aid or mutual assistance in Indonesian, which is rooted in Malay and Javanese language) is brought forward as a national identity. This term becomes the backbone of what many understand as Indonesian philosophy. However, gotong royong, as a nation-making mantra, is hardly understood by the Minahasan people. Although it seems similar, Mapalus as a system of thinking that is structurally and culturally embodied in the Minahasa community has a fundamental difference from gotong royong. In practice, Mapalus can indeed reductively be categorized as mutual aid. However, Mapalus as a philosophy of life has its origin as a structured system and mechanism in agricultural life of Minahasa society, therefore the feature of this word is more complex than what Indonesia tries to construct with their umbrella term gotong royong. In this sense, Mapalus can also be understood as a group of people that work collectively for some specific form of labor. For example, the agricultural system in Minahasa is divided into several Mapalus groups; i.e. Mapalus milu (Mapalus corn) and Mapalus beras (Mapalus rice). This group formation occurred because there was a division of resources and labor in agriculture; for example, after the corn harvest, Mapalus milu will work in the paddy fields with the Mapalus beras, and Mapalus beras will also work in the corn field as a mutual action. This is a form of agricultural reciprocity. Therefore, Mapalus is not just a word to explain mutual aid, but also a cultural way to think systematically.
In addition, the principle of solidarity reflected in Mapalus is manifested in the community as well in the economic system of the Minahasa community. This economic principle is also known as tamber, especially for Toulour3 people. Tamber refers to an activity of gift-giving without any expectation of reciprocity. A person will give a gift to others, or warga sewanua (village), voluntarily without obligation. Thus, to return to the prejudice toward the Minahasan habit of eating game meat, it needs to be analyzed from this complex relationship with nature according to the Mapalus concept, while at the same time addressing the commodification of cultural activities. Mapalus as a notion of solidarity between humans and non-humans can be applied to globalized knowledge.
See Theodora Sutcliffe: »Indonesia’s Best–and Goriest–Cuisine,« in: BBC Culture, April 20, 2016. Available online at http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20160419-indonesias-best-and-goriest-cuisine (accessed November 18, 2020).
Eating Snakes, Rats, and Dogs in Minahasa: Indonesian Bushmeat, YouTube video, 19:44 min., uploaded by Vice Asia, October 25, 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=iesrnwTzqr4 (accessed November 18, 2020).
Interviews with Fendy E.W. Parengkuan, a Minahasan historian and lecturer who works and lives in Tondano (modern name for Toulour) on January 4, 2020, and September 8, 2020. In direct translation, »Toulour« means »water person.« Toulour is one of the nine subethnicities of Minahasa that participated in the stone pact of Watu Pinawetengan.
Natasha Tontey is an artist and graphic designer based in Yogyakarta. She is interested in exploring the concept of fiction as a method of speculative thinking. Her works have been shown at transmediale for refusal (2021), Asian Film Archive (2021), Kyoto Experiment (2021), Other Futures: Multispecies Experiment (2019), Polyphonic Social by Liquid Architecture (2019), and The Wrong Biennale (2019), among others. Tontey received the HASH Award 2020 for Net-Based Projects in the Fields of Art, Technology, and Design by ZKM | Karlsruhe and Akademie Schloss-Solitude.
© 2023 Akademie Schloss Solitude and the author