Ata Tana 'Ai

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Ata Tana 'Ai

ETHNONYMS: Ata 'Iwang, Ata Kangae, Ata Krowé, Krowé


Identification. The Ata Tana 'Ai are a branch of the Sikkanese peoples of eastern Flores. The ethnonym "Ata Tana "Ai" means "People of the Forest Land," an appellation used both by the Ata Tana 'Ai themselves and by other people of eastern and east central Flores.

Location. The Ata Tana 'Ai inhabit a region known as Tana 'Ai in the eastern part of the administrative regency of Kabupaten Sikka on the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia. The eastern wall of the Tana 'Ai valley is a range of mountains that runs north and south across the island and rises to the peak of Ili Wukoh (1,446 meters). To the west, Tana 'Ai is bounded by a series of high, broken, and rugged ridges that rise to Mapi (called "Ili Egon" by the central Sikkanese), an active volcano with an elevation of 1,704 meters. Almost the whole of the Tana 'Ai region lies in the catchment of Napun Geté ("Big River" or "Big Valley"), a river that rises at the southern watershed of the island and flows northward to empty into the Flores Sea. Climax vegetation is principally deciduous, with eucalyptus forests altered through the horticulture of the valley's inhabitants. The climate of Tana 'Ai is mild, with distinct rainy and dry seasons. Rains usually begin in November or December. The heaviest rainfall, often accompanied by storms, occurs in January and February. Rainfall decreases steadily from March to May and is rare between July and the beginning of the first intermittent and light precipitation in mid- or late October. In each year between 1977 and 1989 the valley received in excess of 125 centimeters of rain.

Demography. The national census of 1980 put the total population of the regency of Sikka at 219,650. This number includes approximately 175,000 people who speak Sara Sikka, the Sikkanese language. The population of the Tana 'Ai region is approximately 8,000 people.

Linguistic Affiliation. Sara (way, language) Tana 'Ai is a dialect of Sara Sikka, an Austronesian language that Wurm and Hattori (1983) include in the Flores-Lembata (Lomblen) Subgroup, Timor Area Group of the Austronesian languages of the Lesser Sunda Islands and Timor. At least three dialects of Sara Sikka can be recognized: (1) that spoken by the people in the region of Sikka N atar, the village of Sikka on the south coast of Flores, from which the administrative regency takes its name; (2) Sara Krowé, which is spoken in the central hills of the regency of Sikka; and (3) Sara Tana 'Ai, which is spoken by approximately 6,000 people.

History and Cultural Relations

The mythic histories of the ceremonial domains of Tana 'Ai recount the arrival of ancestors who founded the Tana 'Ai clans (sukun ) and established Tana 'Ai society by the delegation of rights to land and rituals to later ancestors. Direct contact with Europeans came later to the Ata Tana 'Ai than to other peoples of the regency of Sikka. Dutch records to the year 1905 rarely mention the Tana 'Ai region, and Dutch colonial officers began making irregular patrols in the mountains only in the 1930s. Sovereignty over Tana 'Ai was, until the Dutch confirmed the present boundary in 1904, a point of dispute between the rajas of Larantuka (East Flores) and Sikka. Until the 1970s, the principal medium of contact between the Ata Tana 'Ai and outsiders was the Catholic Church, whose mission was staffed primarily by European priests. Since 1970, the regency government has established roads, markets, and schools in the interior of the region.

The Tana 'Ai region is wholly contained within Kecamatan (district of Talibura). The northern region of the district includes, in addition to those of the Ata Tana 'Ai, communities of speakers of Lamaholot, the language of Larantuka (Kabupaten Flores Timur) to the east of Sikka. The Ata Tana 'Ai and Ata Sikka call the Lamaholot speakers of Kabupaten Sikka "Ata Muhang." Despite differences of language, relations of the Ata Tana 'Ai with the Lamaholot-speaking people of the eastern slopes of the Ili Wukoh Range are generally closer than with Sara Sikka-speaking peoples to the west. Ata Tana 'Ai trade regularly with the people of Watubuku on the south coast of East Flores and occasionally cooperate with communities of western Larantuka in the performance of rituals. Some intermarriage of Ata Tana 'Ai with people of Sikka Natar has occurred since the Ata Sikka began opening coconut plantations on the south coast of the Tana 'Ai region in the 1930s.


The Ata Tana 'Ai live in single-family-house compounds (mobo ) constructed in gardens scattered throughout the forests of the valley and the surrounding mountain slopes. Clans and clan branches construct lepo, which are larger and more permanent houses of a distinctive architectural style. Hamlets of lepo, called kloang, are traditionally the only permanent multidwelling settlements in Tana 'Ai and are ceremonial centers. Since the 1960s the government has encouraged the construction of villages according to a standard layout, and today most Tana 'Ai families or extended families maintain houses in these villages. The density of settlement is greater in the valley of Napun Geté and less on the upper slopes and escarpments of the mountains.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Ata Tana 'Ai are subsistence horticulturalists, hunters, and gatherers. The economy of the Ata Tana 'Ai is based on the shifting cultivation of rice, maize, and yams. Domestic animals include pigs, goats, chickens, horses, and dogs. The principally vegetable diet is supplemented by the meat of animals sacrificed on ceremonial occasions and by deer and wild pigs hunted in the forests. The forests of Tana 'Ai provide opportunities for gathering wild fruit, vegetables, and materials for building. The Ata Tana 'Ai carry out shifting cultivation with a tool kit consisting of short steel machetes, small iron knives, and dibble sticks. Men use spears and bows and arrows in hunting. Both men and women manufacture a variety of baskets for domestic purposes. Women weave cloth on backstrap looms from thread spun from cotton grown in local gardens. Household utensils, such as metal pots, plastic containers, and Florenese ceramic pots, as well as clothing and items required by schoolchildren, are obtained in the local markets.

Trade. Men of Tana 'Ai maintain trading relationships with men of East Flores, the north coast, central Sikka, and, in some cases, with people of the islands to the east of Flores. A principal trade good is gin or palm wine made from the lontar (Borassus sp.) palm, for which Tana 'Ai men exchange pigs, goats, rice, and bamboo and timber for the construction of houses and fences. In recent years most families have derived some cash income from small-scale and occasional trading of copra, coffee, spices, eggs, and chickens in the weekly market on the north coast.

Division of Labor. Whereas the classifications of Tana 'Ai culture associate women with the domestic spheres of house and garden and men with the wild sphere of the forest, there is considerable equality between men and women in laboring for subsistence. Both men and women participate in all the work required for horticulture, although men are expected to provide the labor for the heavy work of clearing the forest and construction of sturdy fences to protect crops from deer and wild pigs. Men, women, and children share the work of burning newly cleared fields, weeding, planting, and harvesting. Men hunt in the forests, often in groups, whereas women weave textiles. Men construct houses and granaries. Men and women share the routine domestic chores of house maintenance and caring for domestic animals. Women usually cook the meals but no opprobrium is attached to a man cooking. Older children, especially adolescent boys and girls, provide care for infants and young children of the household or hamlet and fetch water from springs and streams for their household.

Land Tenure. Arable land, whether under cultivation or reserve, is divided into fields, which are distributed among the houses of the community. Houses hold rights to their land corporately and by virtue of belonging to clans whose rights to the land are traced in the mythic histories to the founding of the domains. The founding ancestors of each clan were granted land by the ancestors who founded the domain as a whole.


Kin Groups and Descent. The social world of the Ata Tana 'Ai is constructed of smaller groups subsumed within larger groups. An individual's primary group of reference is the lepo, a word that denotes both a physical edifice and a social unit of a particular kind. The principle governing lepo membership is that each Ata Tana 'Ai belongs to the lepo of his or her mother. The membership of the lepo is thus a matrilineal descent group that consists of consanguineally related women and their brothers. The core of the lepo is a group of consanguineally related women in whom is vested commonly shared rights to garden land and ceremonial wealth, and whose decisions regarding the distribution of these resources within the lepo cannot be gainsaid.

Kinship Terminology. The Ata Tana 'Ai say that among a person's kin are those with whom he or she is mein ha (one blood), and others who are méin pé-péhan (different blood). All the members of a lepo (a person's mother, mother's sisters, mother's sisters' children, mother's brother, brothers, sisters, sisters' children, and, for a woman, her children) are of the same maternal blood, which defines house membership. Kinship traced through men entails relationships of different blood. Thus a person's father, father's siblings, father's siblings' children and, for a man, his children, are conceived to be of different blood.

The classification of cousins is ambiguous in one respect. Mother's sister's son and father's brother's son, and mother's sister's daughter and father's brother's daughter, are classed as brother and sister, respectively. Father's sister's son and mother's brother's daughter are voue wari, the term used without reference to birth order and otherwise used to denote elder and younger siblings and parallel cousins of the same sex. Wué wari cousins can marry. However, a man's father's sister's daughter and a woman's mother's brother's son are both winé and nara, respectively, and wué wari too. While there is no proscription of the marriage of father's sister's daughter and mother's brother's son, such marriages do not occur.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is monogamous with the exception of the tana pu'an, the "source of the domain," who is permitted more than one wife. Marriage is not marked ritually and, unlike the practices of neighboring peoples, the Ata Tana 'Ai do not exchange bride-wealth and counterprestations on the occasion of a marriage. The lepo are the exogamous alliance contracting groups of Tana 'Ai society. Residence is initially with the woman's mother; after the births of children, a couple normally opens its own garden and thereafter resides independently. There is no formal means of divorce. The dissolution of a liaison is most frequently initiated by the husband, who signals his desire by leaving his wife's house.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is the mobo, which is a lifetime garden house in which most families reside. A mobo consists of a woman, her unmarried and recently married children, her husband, and, occasionally, infirm parents or husband's parents who are not attached to a clan-branch house.

Inheritance. Land and ceremonial wealth are transmitted from mother and mother's sisters to daughters and sister's daughters within the lepo. Because these resources are held corporately by the lepo, there is no inheritance, in the strict sense of the term, of these resources. Domestic animals, textiles, and personal possessions are inherited by a woman's sisters and daughters. Coconut palms, areca, and fruit trees planted by a man in his lifetime are divided among his children and sisters' children. A man's personal possessions (horses, spears, bows and arrows, and knives) are distributed among his mé pu (children and sisters' children) on the occasion of his second-stage mortuary rite.

Socialization. Responsibility for child rearing is exercised by women and men within the lepo, with parents sharing primary responsibility. Young children frequently spend time in the households of their mother's sisters and brothers and in the lepo of their clan or clan-branch, where they are cared for by the senior woman of the group. Children are generally treated indulgently and are reprimanded verbally. The practice of strict discipline in both state and Catholic primary schools is, in Tana 'Ai, increasingly at odds with the traditional indulgence with which the community treats its children.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Tana 'Ai is divided into seven socially and politically independent ceremonial domains or tana. Each domain consists of a number of clans (sukun), usually five, of which one is pu an (source, original). The source clan consists of descendants of the founding ancestors of the domain. Each clan consists of a number of lepo, which are ranked according to the precedence of their founding within the clan. One of the elder men of the pu'an house of the clan serves the community as its tana pu'an, in whom is vested ultimate ritual responsibility for the well-being of the domain. All rights to land, residence, exploitation of resources, and ritual status of clans and houses within the domain derive ultimately from the source of the domain as descendant and heir of the domain's founding ancestors. While the Ata Tana 'Ai express a preference for clan endogamy, the alliance system of a domain functions in such a way that only one-third of marriages are endogamous and two-thirds are between men and women of different houses and different clans. In cases of interclan marriage, upon the death of the man, one of his daughters, who is a member of the house and clan of his wife, is returned to his clan in a transaction known as the "return of ama 'lo'en" (father's forelock). The purpose of the return of father's forelock is to return a man's blood to his clan in the person of one of his daughters. A man who has married out of his house and clan is viewed as "lost" to his sisters; his daughter, by returning to her "source," replaces her father in his clan and there founds a lepo in aliiance to his sisters' house, a new house that is ranked as the "most recent" in the hierarchy of precedence of houses within the clan. The complex network of alliances, reciprocal obligations, and enduring material exchange relationships between houses of different clans, which is formed over time through father's forelock transactions, is fundamental to the coherence and dynamics of the Tana 'Ai social order. Just as the statuses of the clans of a domain are defined by the precedence of their founding in relation to the "source" clan, so too are the houses within a clan ordered in terms of their precedence with respect to the oldest, or "source," house. This precedence is defined in terms of the temporal order in which the father's forelock transactions that founded them occurred. Within both the domain and clans, rights, wealth, and authority are delegated from older and more "central" groups to more recent and more "peripheral" groups.

Political Organization. In contrast to many of the societies of eastern Indonesia, Tana 'Ai never had an indigenous raja, nor did the Tana 'Ai domains constitute local secular states. The pattern of a diarchical division of power and authority between a secular ruler and a ritual authority, common to other eastern Indonesian societies, is reflected in a division by which women, as the heads of clans, exercise secular authority over domestic and horticultural matters and men, as the ritual specialists of the domain, exercise sacred authority, principally in the execution of ritual. In the thought of the Ata Tana 'Ai, the feminine and masculine domains of authority are complementary and mutually dependent. Women govern within the lepo and men, exercising the delegated authority of their sisters, are the principal medium of relations between lepo and clans, all of which are conceived primarily as ritual in nature. In other terms, the shared hegemony of men and women in community affairs can be categorized as between the pragmatics of subsistence, which are the realm of women, and the pragmatics of alliance and ritual, which are the realm of men. When dealing with secular matters, men are conceived as acting as the delegates of their sisters and clan or lepo mothers. Authority generally is conceived as being delegated from the feminine categories of the universe to the masculine, and from "sources" or "centers" to "peripheries," where women are paradigmatic of sources and men of peripheries. Thus the source of the domain is the chief ritual authority of a domain whereas the senior woman of his lepo represents the authority by which he delegates authority to others. In the political life of the Ata Tana 'Ai, which is principally acted out in rituals, there are those who possess the "right to speak" and those who possess the "right to sit." The former (such as clan ritual specialists and young men) are apparently more active in community affairs, but the latter (such as the source of the domain and senior women) possess greater authority. In Tana 'Ai, women rule within autonomous social units and men, in whom is vested authority for the conduct of the external affairs of the group, are the "glue" that binds the confederation of diverse clans and houses into the larger domain.

Social Control. The mythic histories of Tana 'Ai recount rebellions against the sources of the domains, but the recent history of Tana 'Ai has been pacific. Conflicts between individuals most frequently arise from quarrels over rights to plots of land, the boundaries between gardens, the killing of domestic animals found in the forests, and the taking without permission of fruits from cultivated trees and palms. A conflict between members of a lepo is referred to the headwoman and principal male ritualist of that lepo for adjudication. The elder ritualists of a clan settle disputes between people of different lepo within the clan. Men who are expert in the rituals of the domain convene to adjudicate disputes between people of different clans.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In Sara Tana 'Ai, the phrase Nian Tana hero Wulan (Land, Earth, Sun, Moon) is a synecdoche for the whole of the world and denotes as well the deity of the Ata Tana 'Ai. The universe consists of a division between two major realms: the earth, which is classified symbolically as female, and the firmament, which is classified as male. The terrestrial realm consists of seven levels or layers, whereas the firmament encompasses eight, an idea expressed in ritual language as Nian tana pi pitu // Lero wulan tédang walu (Land and earth of seven levels // Sun and moon of eight layers). In the myth of creation, the earth and firmament were originally connected by a golden umbilicus. In those days there were neither births nor deaths. Because the sun was near the earth, crops could not grow and the ancestors had nothing to eat. An ancestor cut the umbilicus of the earth and sky and the sun then drifted upward and the earth sank downward, cooling the land sufficiently for crops to yield fruit. With the separation, humans began to die and the sexual congress of men and women became necessary to produce new people. The separation is one element of a complex myth that charts the origins of a thorough system of dual symbolic classification by which the Ata Tana 'Ai represent relations of the cosmos and human beings and the constituent groups of society.

In addition to ancestral spirits, the forests are home to antipathetically malicious and dangerous spirits known as nitu noang. Nitu noang are the aboriginal inhabitants of Tana 'Ai who were banished to the forest, diminished by the ancestors who began cutting trees to make gardens. Only powerful ritual specialists know the names of the nitu noang, by which knowledge they can be controlled.

Religious Practitioners. In addition to a source of the domain, each domain includes ritual specialists responsible for the conduct of a number of different ceremonial cycles. Ritual specialists are men who are gifted in ritual language and who possess the recondite knowledge of the proper performance of ritual. They are able to summon ancestral spirits and to negotiate with them for assistance for the living.

Ceremonies. Individuals carry out small rites of sacrifice before entering forests for hunting or gathering. Individual mobo and lepo conduct the "cooling" of new dwellings. Lepo are responsible for burials. Clan branches conduct second-stage mortuary rites. Clans conduct 'lo'é 'unur, the third-stage mortuary rites, and gareng 'lamen, the male initiatory rite of circumcision. Annually ritual specialists of the lepo conduct the rituals of the horticultural cycle in each of the lepo's gardens. At least once a generation, the entire population of a domain gathers under the leadership of the source of the domain and the senior ritualists of the clans to conduct gren mahé, the culminai rituals of the ceremonial system and the only occasion on which the deity is invoked directly by human beings.

Arts. The Ata Tana 'Ai practice no graphic or plastic arts, except for carving and decorating implements used in gren mahé. Houses and ritual sites are unadorned. The principal medium of creative artistic expression is a complex and highly developed ritual language. Ritual language, which employs a recondite lexicon and special grammar, is marked by an aesthetic poiesis by which lines of four words form couplets or quatrains in which each word in one line is paired semantically and in parallel with the word in the same position in the complementary line.

Medicine. Illness and misfortune are the result of individual acts contrary to hadat, the classificatory order encoded in the parallelisms of ritual language, the largely unarticulated organon of tradition, mores, etiquette, and proper relations that guides and legitimates relations of individuals to others, groups to groups, and human beings to the world of nature, ancestors, spirits, and the deity. Acts not in accord with hadat lead to confoundings of categories with consequences detrimental both to human beings and to the world itself. Curing, which is the correction of such acts, is accomplished by a simple rite in which the curer seeks, in ritual language, the "source and origin" of illness in the past acts of the afflicted person. Having detected the cause of illness, the curer prescribes a simple sacrifice to correct the past wrong action, thereby effecting a cure.

Death and Afterlife. The living and their ancestors are bound together in a relationship of mutual dependence and service. The living perform the rituals by which ancestral spirits advance through three stages of the afterlife. Ancestors reciprocate by providing the living community with the power of fertility and animation on which life depends. The spirit of the newly dead, nitu maten, is "hot" and must be "cooled" in ritual. The cooling of the dead takes place in three stages. The first is burial, before which the nitu maten is confused, volatile, and potentially dangerous to the living. Between burial and the second-stage mortuary ritual of likon, the spirit paces the boundary between the house yard and the forest, and, by its presence, guards the members of the house from harm. After likon, the spirit reenters the house. Several years later, the final mortuary rite frees the spirit from its house, whereupon it takes up residence in the forests of the domain as a guna déwa spirit. Guna déwa no longer possess individual identity but can be summoned by their descendants when their assistance is required.

See also Ata Sikka


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Wurm, Stefan A., and Shiro Hattori, eds. (1983). Language Atlas of the Pacific Area. Part 2. Canberra: Australian Academy of the Humanities.