Naga tribes in the 1920s: Explore SOAS’s digitised J.P.Mills archive

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An old Naga man sits on his knees on a grassy patch under a canopy, completing a circle with other villagers. As he smiles coyly into the camera, the dobashi (interpreter) beside him appears serious. They are waiting for their cases to be heard by an official who would soon be visiting their village in the Naga Hills, administering justice based on the tribal customs.

In another village close by, a man poses beside a carved ‘Y’ post usually put out after buffalo sacrifices during Feasts of Merit. The man belongs to one of the smallest Naga tribes, the Rengmas that have a unique cultural identity and several sub-groups.

In a third sepia-tinted picture we see a muddy slope dotted with hay-thatched huts. A few people walk uphill.  It is a village in the Mokokchuck district of Nagaland, native to the Ao Nagas, one of the largest ethnic tribal groups of the region.

These images provide a wonderful insight into the distinctive and unique cultural identities of the Naga tribes. However, they are just three of 1500 in J.P. Mills’s massive collection of black and white photographs, taken for his ethnographic studies carried out in the Naga hills.

Born in 1890, the Oxford-educated James Philip Mills was only 23 when he joined the Indian Civil services. During World War II he was appointed as the subdivisional officer of the Mokokchung district. Keenly interested in ethnography, he conducted and published several monographs on the various Naga tribes in the 1920s and 1930s.

At the time, the north-east region of the Indian sub-continent was undocumented. Mills’s exploration not only made him an expert in the Naga tribal culture but brought forth important perspectives about a region that colonial administrators had ignored for far too long. Mills also worked substantially in the Chittagong Hills, travelling on foot for nearly two months to produce detailed monographs about the tribal people he met. His work led him to become the Adviser to the Governor of Assam for Tribal Areas and States in 1943.

J.P.Mills archive, SOAS

Retiring from the services in 1947, Mills was a Reader of Anthropology at SOAS for the next 8 years and also served as the President of the Royal Anthropological Institute from 1951-1953. His elaborate work captures the cultures and lifestyles of various Naga tribes, from sports to dances, livelihoods to family lives,  clothing to folk tales, political hierarchies to social customs and much more.

Most of his work can now be accessed through SOAS Special Collections. The 1500 black and white photographs that make up  25 albums have been digitized and can now be viewed through this virtual archive alongside the detailed descriptions of the subjects in the photo, its socio-cultural context, dates and the location of the respective image. The archive also holds some of Mills’s field notes, research papers and academic journals. The photographs documenting almost 50 tribal groups from the Ao Nagas to the Konyak Nagas are still considered authoritative for the study of the region. Some of these photographs are also exhibited at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

India, like most other countries in the Global South, has been a popular site of cultural enquiry for Europeans, especially during colonial times. The work of white academics and researchers have often been criticized for showcasing tribal cultures of the Global South in a ‘primitive light’ as they exercise their own ideas of ‘western modernity’ and often engage in a kind of salvage anthropology, perhaps encouraged by the ‘white saviour complex’.

Mills’s position as an administrator and his gaze as a colonial ethnographer too in some ways projected the Nagas as the ‘savage other’ who need to be civilised and also objectified them in the process.

Mills, SOAS Special Collections, Naga tribes

Deobojyoti Das, an academic from Birbeck with a PhD from SOAS, studies this in detail in his paper titled ‘The construction and institutionalisation of ethnicity: anthropology, photography and the Nagas’. In it, he notes that ‘in the Pangsha letters, J.P. Mills writes that the expedition to punish headhunting villages in the trans-frontier was also envisioned to collect Naga artefacts for Belfour’s museum in Oxford.’

However, Mills’s work also showcases refreshing honesty, perhaps a consequence of his lucid, descriptive and narrative style of documenting. The readers and viewers of his work are made aware of his status as an outsider and the fact that he is merely documenting what he sees with minimal assumptions. In one of his field reports in the Chittagong Hills, he notes, “A casual visitor like myself can only record what the eye sees; beliefs and social systems must remain hidden from him”.

J.P. Mills’s ethnographies hide some fascinating insights into the Naga culture. It has been a starting point for several other academics, like the Austrian anthropologist, Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf who established the Department of Anthropology in SOAS in 1950. His work and style provide a good base to debate the ‘gaze’ of the academic in the scholarship of anthropology, especially in the Global South. Thus this digitized ethnographic archive is an interesting resource to delve into — to decode complex and contentious ethnographic histories and understand the tribal cultures of the Indian subcontinent through visual narratives.

To view J.P. Mills collection in SOAS Digital Archive, click here.

Devyani Nighoskar is a 24-year-old SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her M.A in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. You may check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo

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