Among the Batek, “man and woman are equals … there is no men’s or women’s work,” declared Kirk Endicott, an anthropologist who sees many advantages for that Malaysian Orang Asli society in retaining its traditional culture.

Endicott and Robert Welsch, both professors from the anthropology department at Dartmouth, discussed the issues confronting indigenous societies that face pressures to assimilate into modern society. In their joint lecture at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire, Endicott and Welsch emphasized the many advantages that minority, indigenous peoples such as the Batek have in retaining their traditional cultures and ways.

The Keene Equinox, the college student newspaper, reported on March 31 the substance of the lecture by the two scholars the previous Wednesday, March 23. Titled “Tribal People: The Dilemma of Change,” it was the third annual James D. Ewing World Affairs Lecture at Keene State. Endicott, a prominent authority on the Orang Asli societies of Peninsular Malaysia, described how the traditional Batek ways “have many virtues that modern societies do not have.” But they also have many difficulties, he said, comparable to those of many American Indians. For instance, some of them have been herded onto reservations by the government of Malaysia, much as the American Indians were in the United States.

Orang Asli SocietiesBut the Orang Asli, such as the Batek, Semai, and Chewong, gain advantages by rejecting a settled life over other societies that have accepted modernization. According to Endicott, the Batek people who do not assimilate “do what they want every day … they have no bosses.” Welsch emphasized the rewarding and meaningful nature of traditional life, in contrast to the assimilated life.

One of the problems for indigenous people who do accept assimilation is that they remain at the bottom of the social hierarchy in their countries, and despite accepting the majority cultures, they still experience a lot of discrimination. Welsch described a problem for the Ningerum of Papua New Guinea, a society he has studied, that has assimilated more than the Batek have. They have more of a “culture of desire … they accumulate and want stuff,” and in contrast to the Batek, the Ningerum are more prone to violence.

The essence of the matter is that each indigenous group has to decide how much they want to adopt the ways of the contemporary national society that surrounds them. Welsch pointed out the benefits that some American Indian tribes have gained from opening casinos on their reservations. But both professors emphasized the importance of indigenous societies retaining their traditional cultures as they evaluate assimilation.

The newspaper quoted one undergraduate student who expressed support for the idea that indigenous peoples may be better off preserving their traditional cultures. Fortunately, the newspaper also described the important work that the Orang Asli Archive at the college library is doing by preserving the documents and cultural materials of the Orang Asli societies. The Archive is a major source of information about the cultures of the Batek, Semai, Chewong, and other Orang Asli peoples, and access to that primary source material may help preserve their cultures. Keene State College was thus a logical venue for this important lecture.