The Differences that Make Us the Same: Ethnicity as a Framework for a Multi-Religious Minahasan Cultural Identity

The invited speaker who graced the weekly Wednesday Forum held for students, professors, academicians and other interested individuals on November 25, 2009 was Ms. Kelli A Swazey, a Ph.D candidate from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii in Manoa.

During the forum, Ms. Swazey explained the ethnicity of being a Christian Minahasan. Like in other areas in Indonesia that were reached by Christian missionaries during the early colonial period, the region of North Sulawesi known as Minahasa is strongly associated with Christian heritage. The perceived link between Minahasa and Christianity is not only defined by population but through a sense that Minahasan culture and Christianity are so intertwined that to be a Minahasan, one must be a Christian by birth. As a result, non-Christian inhabitants in the region have been historically marked as ethnically different.

The changes of demography and the effects of decentralization policies took place had led local politicians to employ the concept of regional culture and ethnic identity while having both Muslim and Christian inhabit one area that clearly maintains the distinctness of their religious identities. This local frame of representation is used to counteract the alignment of ethnicity with religious identity, and it has allowed a space for the development of Minahasan identity with non-Christian inhabitants.

However, instead of focusing on the similarities, this new ethnic constellation focuses on the way Christians and Muslims in North Sulawesi “differ intelligibly.”? Expressing their religious difference in specific ways, like demarcating the boundaries between religious populations in North Sulawesi, are then defined by their difference from other ethnic groups in Indonesia without effacing their religious identities and access to religiously affiliated political networks.

Mr. Swazey enthusiastically presented her research finding for more than an hour. During the open forum, several questions were addressed to her, for example, if she talks about the intercultural study on Minahasa, what about the relationship of the Protestant Christians and Muslims with other adherents, like Catholic Christians? Another person from the audience asked about the origins of the Minahasan construction, whether it was intentionally invented by the Dutch or not. Dr. Bagir, a CRCS lecturer, asked about the Minahasan cultural identity that was politically attached to several official government symbols, why did it happen? In her closing remark, Ms. Swazey concluded that there is a tendency for the local political arena to align cultural identity with religious affiliation.

Kelly Swazey is currently a fullbright Hays DDRA recipient. In 2008 she earned her master’s degree from the University of Hawai’ at Manoa. She wrote a thesis entitled: Carrying God (Re) creating Nation through Christianity: Minahasan culture and identity in transnational churches in New England. Her area interest is including culture of Indonesia, Anthropology of Christianity, Religious Relations, and Nationalism and ethnicity.


This post is also available in: Indonesian


Leave a Reply