Between Cultures – Dr. Temjenwabang, Head of Department of History

Do we go the traditional or modern way? This is an issue that has long arrested the people of Nagaland from colonial times to the present. Give or take a few, we have our elders who cry out for cultural recovery and the younger generation who find it difficult to connect to traditional values of the past. 

What happens when we are faced with two opposing cultures? Dr. Temjenwabang, Head of Department of History, speaks out on where our cultural future might be headed. 

Between Cultures

What is culture? Culture has been defined generally as the totality of the way of life evolved by a people in their attempts to meet the challenges of living in their environment, which gives order and meaning to their social, political, economic, aesthetic and religious norms and modes of organization, thus distinguishing a people from their ‘neighbors’. Culture should not be interpreted merely as a return to the customs of the past. It embodies the attitude of a people to the future of their traditional values faced with the demands of modern technology, which is an essential factory of development and progress.
A few years ago, when I was undertaking a field research, I came across a group of youths enthusiastically practicing a traditional dance, accompanied by a song for an event. Impressed, I appraised the boys and girls for the wonderful performance. But when I asked them how they connected to this art, I was rather dismayed by their reply, “we loved and enjoyed the dance and the song but we actually know nothing about what they mean”. As the interaction continued, I heard comments that our cultures and traditions are old-fashioned, hence irrelevant to this ‘new’ age.
I am sure many of us do not agree with all these opinions because some of us are living examples of what our culture and tradition did for us when we were young. They have developed and moulded our attitudes and characters to be productive, useful, purposeful and progressive as well as appreciative of the ways of our ancestors. In a way, upholding these ancestral values may have had an effective influence in enabling us avoid immoral living and corruption, laziness and conning. More so, hunger for wealth, power and glory was unknown in our cultural and traditional ways of life. By saying this, I don’t intend to suggest that we should all shift our environment to a traditional setting in order to lead a life of goodness. Nor do I suggest that we should have our young generations brought up in the villages so that for the rest of their lives they can have had a mental background of the fields and trees and wide skies and the smell of the earth and the riches of cultures and traditions.

Regardless of where we are, it only takes ‘responsibility’ to keep us connected with our cultural and traditional values. The Jews did it! During World War II, over six million Jews faced genocide. But they were never erased from the face of the earth! And they will never be as long as they keep their skullcaps and long flowing gowns and as long as they adhere to the Halakhah (divine commandments). It is only when we don’t see a trace of our culture anywhere anymore, we stop to exist. So if we do not feed our young generations with our cultural and traditional values and practices, our future will lose its identity and we may begin to wonder if we are Americans, Koreans, Japanese or just a nation of faceless people adopting and blending into any ‘other’ culture we encounter.

Many of our youths today proudly announce they cannot speak their mother tongue, neither do they know where they come from. When I was hanging out at a café in Kohima, I asked an acquaintance of mixed Ao and Angami parentage living in Dimapur about his original village. He said that he was from Dimapur! On another occasion, I shared a dining with an Ao girl. The lunch was rice, pork curry and rosep. When I offered her rosep, she refused saying she does not eat local or traditional food! These encounters gave me an appalling idea of how many parents bring up their children in ignorance of our cultural tradition. Remember, we may be over-flooded with multi-cultural influences, but we should also keep in mind that the blending of one culture with another has the potential of killing off aboriginal cultures. Nagaland has very unique cultures and ways of life, and these are already at high risk of being erased by and assimilated into multi-cultural entities.

It is sensibly logical to assume that for any nation, culture is the fountain spring of all policies whether educational, social, political, or economic. Strategies of development often depend on the understanding of the culture, the adaptation of its elements for social, political, educational and economic development. I have not traveled far and wide but from what I have observed over the years, I am amazed to see and hear that the people of several countries in Asia like Indonesia, China and Japan treasure, preserve, practice and promote their cultures and traditional values. As for our fate, the state of recording and preservation of our rich and diverse cultural heritage is quite disappointing. I have come across many initiatives of self-reliance and self-sufficiency by organizations, but never on the preservation of our culture and traditional practices.
Our traditional cultures and indigenous systems may be lost, if not regularly (and with passion) practiced, properly recorded and preserved, and proudly and widely promoted. A well planned cultural programme is the need of the hour in order to preserve such an essential part of our history for future reference, because culture, I repeat, as a force, has both its own social, economic and political consequences in the life of any nation. Let us take this as a challenge and therefore an important and absolutely necessary mission to learn in order to preserve, and hand down such an important inheritance to the youngsters. After all, they must carry an identity. The same goes for our intellectual properties; for example, traditional medicine can be developed into patented commodities.

Without culture, a nation is as good as extinct. I still remember a saying, “the only way to wipe out a people from the face of the earth is to take away their culture”. Today, we now find ourselves caught in between cultures. Most young Nagas find it difficult to adapt to these cultures, let alone stick to one. And the odds are that they will neglect the traditional ones in favor of the ‘other’.

“Degree of Thought is a weekly community column initiated by Tetso College in partnership with The Morung Express. Degree of Thought will delve into the social, cultural, political and educational issues around us. Tetso College is a NAAC Accredited UGC recognised Commerce and Arts College. For feedback or comments please email:

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