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Preserving Tribal Culture: The Photovoices Project in Boti Village


Photo by: Tae Neolaka ©
Click on the map above for a larger view.

We drove up through the jagged Karsk mountains that make up the central part of the Indonesian Island of Timor – the dry season having left the vegetation brown and wilted under the unremitting glare of the equatorial sun. We were headed to the village of Boti, high up in the mountains in central Timor adjacent to the protected area of Gunung Mutis.


Sometimes called "Indonesian Amish"

Sometimes called by westerners the "Indonesian Amish," Boti is a rare place in the world that has formally rejected change, practicing an animist religion based on worshipping nature every nine days and adhering to ancient traditions in farming, weaving and protecting the natural environment.


A Ceremonial Welcome

Ann McBride Norton, Photovoices Director, and her husband, Ed Norton, a conservationist working in Indonesia, are given a traditional Boti welcome and presented with gifts of "Ikat" scarves in the village of Boti.
Photo by: Photovoices Staff ©

Entering Boti we found the ritual platforms in the King’s compound covered with thatched roofs surrounded by huge old-growth trees and lush vegetation, in stark contrast to the bleak surrounding countryside. We were greeted with ceremonial gifts of Boti Ikat, an intricately hand woven cloth of rich natural dyes and geometric patterns used by the people as sarongs. A welcoming chant by the village priests echoed of a distant millennium. As part of the ceremonial greeting, the men in our group were given the dubious honor of chewing betel nut - which through constant use turns teeth a deep red.


The King Grants Permission for Photovoices

We had all wondered whether the King – dedicated to preserving traditions -- would grant his approval for the Photovoices project and the introduction of the modern camera to record Boti culture, religion and daily life. In our opening remarks, we made clear that we would certainly understand if he would say no.


Photovoices Indonesia Coordinator Saraswati becomes an honorary member of the Boti village royal family.
Photo by: Pah Neolaka ©

Somewhat to our surprise, the King enthusiastically embraced Photovoices as a way for the people of Boti to tell their own story. In accepting the Photovoices concept the King said, “television cameras have come here, people from a newspaper and magazine have come here to try to tell the story of Boti but only people who live here really understand our lives from inside. Having cameras will allow our people here to say for themselves what Boti is all about."


Sad Farewell to Boti

At the final photographic exhibition and closing ceremony in Boti, Saraswati’s voice broke with emotion as she gave her farewell speech and then everyone there-–all of us with Photovoices, the King and Queen and the villagers gathered around-–found our eyes were filled with tears as we said goodbye.


~Ann McBride-Norton, Founder and Director Photovoices International


“I only gave the people a three-day workshop but the results are comparable to those of professional photographers.”

~Tantyo Bangun Editor-in-chief National Geographic Indonesia

Future of Boti Culture: Will it Survive?
The current king of Boti stands with a portrait of the previous king.
Photo by: Toto Rahardjo ©

Revered King of Boti Died in 2006
For many decades, Boti village was led by Nune Benu, a wise and revered King who died in 2006. The people of Boti still feel great grief and deep sadness at the loss of their beloved King who was famous in the area for his deep spirituality and extraordinary wisdom.

The old King has been replaced by his son, Nama Benu. In addition, the other members of the King's family, including his mother, hold a special place of honor in Boti culture.

During Grieving Period, Many Traditions Suspended
The grieving time for the old King has not been completed because the people of Boti in this small, poor mountain village are still mourning and also have not yet been able to save enough money to hold the King's cremation and the ceremonies that accompany it.

According to adat (traditional) Boti rules, until the King's cremation has been carried out, many of the core traditional practices are banned, including the playing of the gamelan at which the Boti people are skilled musicians, singing traditional songs and practicing some of the important cultural and spiritual rituals.

Photovoices to hold Follow-Up Project in Boti
Because of this, the younger people are beginning to forget some aspects of the culture and a few are starting to turn away from the old beliefs. Photovoices is continuing the project in Boti with a Timor anthropologist who speaks a local language similar to that in Boti in order to understand the culture and religion on a deeper level. After the King's cremation and when all of the traditional practices are allowed to resume, Photovoices will conduct a follow-up project to document the full cycle of Boti life and, if necessary, use the photographs and stories to help reintroduce the old ways to the younger people in Boti, a special village in a rapidly changing world.

Boti Ritual for Birth of a Baby Documented by Village Photographers
Boti rituals involving the birth of a new baby were allowed to take place during the mourning period for the old King and the village photographers faithfully recorded each step as the ceremonies unfolded. These photographs can be seen in the Boti gallery.