Indigenous Peoples’ Spirituality and the Land

By Rev. Yangkahao Vashum

In the tribal society, the land is owned by the community in general. For example the land tenure in Naga society is well reflected in the report that follows: In Nagaland, each tribe had a well demarcated territory within the villages inhabited by that tribe were located, with well-defined boundaries. Though the practice of each tribe differed, the village land was generally classified as (a) common village land, (b) clan land, (c) individual land, and (d) morung land.

The village council was responsible for the management. Clan land was mostly jhum land owned by a particular clan certain areas, usually terraced land were owned by individuals. Some portion of the village land was designated for morung where the young boys slept there. 1) Similar system is also found among the Khasi-Jaintias of Meghalaya. The land is classified into Ri Kynti (clan land) and Ri Raij (community land). 2) The principle behind this land system is to ensure that no one in the village is made landless and poor. In the past, landlessness and beggars were unknown to the tribal society.

The cited report is expressive of the land system among the tribals in the Northeast India in general. In most cases, it is the community or the village that owns the land. The village chief holds the nominal ownership of the land. 3) The village chief is normally assisted by the village council, the people’s representatives. However, the ultimate power rests in the hands of the people as a whole, who empower the chief and the council to carry out the tasks on behalf of the village.

Although the land is in the hands of the people, like the Hebrews, the indigenous believe that “the earth and everything in it belongs to God.”(Ps.24:1). The Creator is the ultimate owner of the land. Therefore, land is a gift of God to the people. Secondly, for the indigenous people, land is life. Land is central to their lives. Their whole life activity revolves around the land and its surroundings. It is central to their identity, history, spirituality, economy and their very survival. Land is life because the land has her own distinct life; the land is never a dead object. It is a living entity endowed with spirits. “In a non-literate society the land is their scripture through which they read about the spirits and God and create myths and songs.” 4)

Thirdly, the importance of land to the indigenous people lies in the fact that even the Supreme Being is understood in relation to the land. A number of the Northeast Indian tribes including the Aos, Sangtams and Chang Nagas call their Supreme Being, Lijaba. Li means “soil” and Jaba means “enter”, meaning “the one who enters” or “indwells in the soil.” 5) It is the belief of the people that Lijaba enters into the earth with the seeds and rises up again along with the crops. Hence for the people, the blooming flowers, trees bearing fruits and rice signify the presence of the Creator. Thirdly, the tribal people’s notion of time and history are related to the land. Their yearly calendar and agricultural activities are based on the cycle of the earth. All the festivals, dances and songs of the people are connected with land.

Moreover, their religious activities are all centered on the land. R. R. Shimray poignantly puts it, “Every mountain, every range, and every ridge has a legend and every peak a tale to tell.” 6) Fourthly, tribals believe that it is the land that owns the people and not the other way round. The people know that it is the land that gives them their identity. Land is therefore highly respected. Fifthly, people’s ethical life is again closely related and based on the land. As long as one lives on this earth, one is expected to live an honest and truthful life. Honesty, truthfulness, sincerity and faithfulness are highly valued virtues among the tribal people. First, they believe the Supreme Being is everywhere and knows everything.

And so they live in the constant awareness of the presence of the Supreme Being. Secondly, they also believe that land is older than human beings and therefore the land is wiser than the humans. One of the tribal wisdom says: “The land never lies; do not lie to the land.” Swearing in the name of the Supreme Being and the land is like an anathema. Only for resolving serious cases such as land or boundary disputes, when every possible effort fail, people resort to swearing in the name of the Supreme Being by eating a lump of soil. Normally, the one who gets sick or dies prematurely is declared the guilty one.


1) Planning Commission, The Report of the Working Group on the Land System Among Tribals in the North Eastern India, May 1984.

2) R.T. Rymbai, “The Traditional Ecological Concepts of the Khasi-Pnars,” in The Tribal Worldview and Ecology, Tribal Study Series no.2, ed. A. Wati Longchar and Yangkahao Vashum (Jorhat: Tribal Study Centre, 1998), 16.

3) There are tribes like the Kukis of Manipur and the Sumis of Nagaland where land holding is in the hands of the village chiefs.

4) Thanzauva, Theology of Community, 130. For a detail discussion on tribal concept of land refer to Yangkahao Vashum, “Theology of Land: A Naga Perspective,” in The Tribal Worldview and Ecology, Tribal Study Series no.2, eds. A. Wati Longchar and Yangkahao Vashum (Jorhat: Tribal Study Centre, 1998),69-94.

5) A. Wati Longchar, “A Creation-Poem of the Ao Nagas: A Theological Exploration,” in The Tribal Worldview and Ecology, Tribal Study Series no.2, eds. A. Wati Longchar and Yangkahao Vashum (Jorhat: Tribal Study Centre, 1998), 16.

6) Shimray, Origin and Culture of the Nagas, 6.



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