To my knowledge, literature devoted to North-East India and the Himalayas makes little mention of either trans-ethnic descent groups or trans-ethnic patronymic groups. Hutton and Mills mention people from distinct Naga tribes who consider they belong to the same clan.1 In the Meghalaya-Assam borderland, Morningkeey Phangcho and myself recently collected a series of data that point to the existence of such entities across three ethno-linguistic groups: the Khasis, Karbis and Tiwas. We came across two forms which consist of the two facets of a single phenomenon:
-firstly family names (whether patrilineal or matrilineal) that people consider similar or equivalent to each other although they assert that these names refer to different ethnicities. Lists of equivalences make it possible to translate from one ethno-linguistic universe into the other. “Equivalent names” often show some similarity (e.g. Ingti-Mithi-Mukti) although this is far from being the rule (Be-Kholar-Lamare).
-secondly, we found identical or very similar sounding names whose ethnicity is perceived differently according to respondents and/or situations; respondents generally claim that these names belong to their own ethnicity (e.g. Umbah/Pumah, Amsong/Mynsong). Such disagreements are typical of local semantic struggles (where other fields such as toponyms are also concerned). Nevertheless, they pertain to the value of some parts of the system of equivalence without questioning the system itself.
In all cases, patronymic (or matronymic) groups that are considered equivalent are exogamous – and nowadays it seems to be the only practical aspect of this custom. What must be underlined here because it runs counter to common sociological beliefs is that people who assert different ethnicities might be affected by incest prohibition. Informants describe these facts in terms of surnames, the English word “title” being as much used as its local equivalents. These patronymic groups correspond, though not exactly, to the anthropological concept of a clan or lineage, and consequently, the association of several groups might be seen as a phratry. Nevertheless, even without considering patronymic groups as descent groups, the mere fact that they are shared by several “tribes” remains problematical as long as most (but not all) informants define the “tribes” as exclusive sets of titles. Hence a mutual determination between descent groups and ethnic groups doesn’t seem at odds with the existence of clan equivalences, thus with the existence of a kind of relatedness among clans from different ethnicities.
The hypothesis of an encompassing system not affected by ethnic discontinuities must be explored further. A major clue in favour of this thesis came out as I tried to explore the possibility of some correspondences between the intra-ethnic exogamy and the trans-ethnic exogamy. To my surprise I found a close congruence between the exogamy circles from one ethno-linguistic domain to the other (see diagram). With a few exceptions, groups that are exogamous within one ethno-linguistic sphere will remain exogamous when “translated” into another sphere.
The equivalence rules found in North-East India need to be compared with similar facts that have been reported in other regions of the world such as Altai (Teleut, Telengit, Kizhi)2, Western Siberia (Nenet, Khanty)3, North America (Iroquois nations)4, the Horn of Africa (Rendille, Garre…)5 and first of all Yunnan and Northern Myanmar6.
This could significantly help in understanding them. Trans-ethnic entities provide inspirations to – once again – reconsider the congruence between cultural, social and ethnic entities. And to start with, we have yet to explain in greater depth how trans-ethnic institutions emerge.
3 Toulouze, Eva. 2003. “The Forest Nenets as a Double Language Minority.” Pro ethnologia 15:96-108. Verbov. 1936. “Лесные ненцы.” Советская этнография 2:56-70. Thanks to Eva Toulouze for her translation and clarifications of Verbov’s article.
6 Sadan, Mandy, and Francois Robinne. 2007. “Reconsidering the dynamics of ethnicity through Foucault’s concept of‘Spaces of Dispersion’.” pp. 299-308 inRobinne F. Sadan M. (eds.) Social Dynamics in the Highlands of Southeast Asia. : reconsidering Political systems of Highland Burma by E.R. Leach, London: Brill.