Chapter 9. We Are Children Of The Land: A Keo Perspective

Philipus Tule


This paper explores traditional forms of land tenure in the Worowatu subdistrict of the Keo region in Central Flores, Indonesia. The focus is on the communal attachment of community members, Muslims and non-Muslims, indigenous people and newcomers, to their inherited clan land (tana ko’o ’ine ’embu). [1] The organisation of land tenure is tied to a number of traditional offices, reaching down from the ‘Lord of the Land’ (’ine tana ’ame watu) and the ‘Overseers of the Land’ (’ine ku ’ame lema) to the ‘individual cultivators’ (nio tiko éu tako).

Keo people believe that individuals do not own the land, rather the land owns them, in the same sense as a mother can be said to own her children. This philosophy is reflected in a number of traditional expressions. ‘Mother land, father stone’ (’ine tana ’ame watu) is the title for a Lord of the Land, and ‘mother plain, father field’ (’ine ku ’ame lema) is how the lower ranking Overseers of the Land are referred to. This sense of being children of the land leads Keo people to regard land certificates issued by the Government for any clan land as invalid and as not binding in any way.

Every individual community member can gain access to ancestral land by observing various rituals and social-political obligations. Incorporated members within a clan, such as war migrants (tama dia kono ondo) and invited warriors (kéu mére kambe déwa), are also given land to cultivate and settle on (tau koe nua kadi ’oda) on the proviso of observing a particular, local charter of propriety (adat). If migrants violate this adat charter, their land rights can be cancelled.

The paper will also explore land disputes. Disputes over land rights frequently require resolution, and may concern such issues as the extension of land boundaries (pi singi rete ra’i) or the right to claim the office of Lord of the Land. The people of ’Udi and Worowatu, for instance, once struggled to prevent the usurpation of their authority over the land by the neighbouring villages of Witu and Giriwawo. They had to fight, since they believed that if they were to lose their authority over the land to which they properly belonged as the Lord of the Land, they would lose their sense of identity and their rights to speak out.

The Keo region is located in the south of Central Flores, an island in the Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT) Provinces of Indonesia (see Map 1). As a distinct ethnic or cultural group in the context of Central Flores ethnography, the name Keo still retains currency on Flores largely by virtue of its former recognition as a separate administrative sub-unit (Onderafdeeling NageKeo ) within the system of Dutch colonial government, even though NageKeo was later merged with the Nage region (Forth 1994a: 95). [2] In the modern administrative structure of the Indonesian State, Keo society incorporates Mauponggo, Keo Tengah and Nangaroro, three subdistricts (kecamatan) within the district (kabupaten) of Ngada with a total population of 46,313 people and a territory of some 300 square kilometres (BPS, Ngada 1995: 131).

Map 1: The Keo Region of Central Flores

Map 1: The Keo Region of Central Flores

Source: Antropologi Indonesia, 56 (XXII): 70

While Keo is identical to its neighbour Nage in many details of culture, language and society, these two regions do display a number of general differences as compared with the neighbouring regions of Ngada and Ende. In terms of religion, nearly 93 per cent of the Keo are Catholics, and the remainder are Muslim fishermen and traders who live along the south coast between Maumbawa and Nangaroro. Catholicism was introduced to Keo in the 1920s, when Fr. Y. Ettel (SVD) started to visit several government schools and baptise students in Tonggo, Wajo and Sawu (Muskens, 1974: 1171). Most of the Catholic Keo nese are subsistence farmers and stock raisers. Today only a few Keo people practice their earlier, local religion in its entirety, but many do retain some elements thereof in their beliefs and ritual practices.

[1] This paper is based on the author’s ANU PhD thesis (Tule 2001), which was published in 2004. Note that the term’embu refers to male ancestors.

[2] Forth has explored some of the various meanings of the term ‘Keo’ (1994). I prefer to understand Keo as the name of a territory that was merged with the Nage region by the Dutch (1923). The name Keo may have originated from a village named Keo Belo, or Nua Keo, near Maukeo and Mauponggo. Keo came to be used as a designation for the whole domain, comprising 10 subdistricts, unified into Kerajaan Kota Keo under Muwa Tonga. The 10 secondary districts were Tonggo, Riti, Lewa, Wajo, Wuji, Pau Tola, Kota, Sawu, Lejo and Worowatu (Forth 1994b: 309-10).