Book Review: Ritual Retellings: Luangan Healing Performances through Practice

Ritual Retellings: Luangan Healing Performances through Practice. Isabell Herrmans, New York: Berghahn, 2014, 304pp.

In Ritual Retellings, Herrman invites the reader to move into a longhouse, a single-room dwelling in which many families live, and be at the center of ritual events as they unfold in response to the uncertainty and contingency of everyday life among the Luangan of central Kalimantan, Indonesia, in the mid-1990s. The Luangan of Sembulan, the sub-village in which Hermann conducted the majority of her fieldwork, managed to stay for the most part intentionally invisible to then President Suharto’s New Order regime. Luangans were are at the margins of New Order society, and their ritual practices marginalized them further. While the “fluid and flexible” sociocultural and ritual practices of the Luangan were interpreted by Suharto’s New Order regime as evidence of “disordered backwardness,” Herrman presents Luangan ritual practices as evidence of their “active adaptation to the contingencies and exigencies in a complex social, natural, and cosmological environment” (p. 26).

The Sembulan long house was one of the few still regularly used in central Kalimantan at the time, most having been condemned as primitive by government rhetoric. The Luangan, as swidden farmers, were as likely to stay in their field huts as they were to stay in their single family dwellings in the village. For those without single family dwellings, or who were visiting kin, who were ill, or were anthropologists, the place to be was inside the 30-meter house. Not coincidently, within this heart of Luangan social life, healing rituals were performed by healers, called belian.

The heart of the book, as the title suggests, examines rituals, both smaller rituals for individuals and families, as well as rarer, large-scale ones for entire communities. All rituals were acts of agency, experiments in sense-making given the “unpredictability of life” (p. 82) in which belians mediate dialogues between spirits and humans in efforts to maintain relationships and affect the uncertain outcomes of events in the ever fluid present.

Among the central Luangans small rituals for healing, life-cycle junctures, and moments of personal or family crisis were frequent events, with belians adapting practices to meet the present need and context. Previously unknown spirits demanded a hearing. Crucial community leaders fell desperately ill. Emotions of anger and fear sparked brutality. As such crises evolved, Luangan belians stepped in, drawing on symbols, practices, and spirits, striving to affect outcomes. The multivocal ritual performances are also representing a history of Luangan cultural practices and spirit relationships that itself acts as a stabilizing force in the face of everyday uncertainty.

As chapters unfold in the book, Herrman increasingly focuses on how, in the sea of uncertainty that is everyday life, Luangan rituals reinstantiate the centering relationship of humans and spirits. For example, bathing rituals, for those threatened by suffering and alienation particularly at life cycle disjunctures, overall emphasize meaningful integration into the larger community. The grand community rituals that are held rarely involve dialogues between community members and spirits who are temporarily embodied in the belians: community members try to persuade the spirits to provide things like heat for crops and husbands for widows, and spirits in turn want offerings. In these community rituals, belians also retell origin myths, recreating the story of the initial relatedness between humans and spirits, thereby reiterating the community members’ “commitment to relatedness” (p. 250). Herrman concludes that Luangan ritual performances are meaning-making social interactions, instantiating relatedness to others within the community as well as to spirits.

One of the more difficult tasks that Herrman undertakes is the problem of describing rituals in a way that conveys the dynamic contingency of ritual practice in addressing the uncertainty of everyday life. Her solution is to include her field notes in italicized text in describing the unfolding case studies. For students, examining these field notes and case studies and then reading her broader analysis would be a useful exercise in understanding the craft of translating fieldwork into ethnography. Similarly, students studying ritual healing will find insightful the descriptions of how belians respond to emerging crises with ritual adaptions.

Herrman’s book is the result of repeated and abiding work with Luangans. Herrman’s fieldwork, conducted with her partner Kenneth Sillander, spanned two decades, with the majority of the fieldwork conducted prior to the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime. The fieldwork began with six months of traveling between Luangan villages and settlements in 1993. Then, for 12 months of fieldwork in 1996–1997, they settled in the long-house in Sembulan, returning for short visits to the area during the regime-changing year of 1998, and again in 2007 and 2011.

An ethnography is an opportunity to eavesdrop on someone else’s fieldwork and think through anthropological scholarship and theory with that fieldwork evidence in mind. Yet the hazard of ethnography or with any book is that readers can develop questions beyond the scope of the current work. Herrman is uniquely situated to discuss whether and how Luangan belians—the bricoleurs of healing ritual practices—were impacted by the national and state-level changes subsequent to the fall of the New Order government in 1998, and it is hoped that this will be included in her future writings.

Ritual Retellings contributes to the rich ethnographic tradition of scholarship in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. She situates the Luangan ethnographically, detailing comparisons with other peoples in Kalimantan as well as with peoples in Malaysia, the Phillipines, and elsewhere in Indonesia. For ethnographers and scholars of Southeast Asia, this book is an important addition to the literature.

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