The Keeper of the Kris

**This is a special feature from the September 2010 issue of Anthropology Now. In “The Keeper of the Kris,” Janet Hoskins reviews Ann Dunham Soetoro’s book, Surviving against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia.**

If she were alive today, Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham Soetoro, would be 67. The president’s mother was portrayed in Obama’s presidential campaign as both a “free spirit” and the “moral bedrock” of her son’s idealism. A cultural anthropologist who worked for the Ford Foundation in Indonesia, Ann Dunham increasingly emerged as an object of media scrutiny and contradictory assessment. Dunham was praised for her dedication in getting up at 4 a.m. to tutor her son in English subjects while he attended Indonesian public schools. At the same time, she was vilified for “abandoning” him when she returned to do fieldwork, and he remained with her parents in Hawaii.
As someone who has shared many of the same times and places as Ann Dunham, and has also lived as a single mother with two young children, balancing the demands of academia with family, my sympathies in these controversies were always with her. Through a strange sort of professional kinship, I felt that I knew what she must have gone through, and wondered if we had, in fact, met when I spent three months in Java in 1979 or visited Ford Foundation offices in Jakarta in the mid 1980s.

I was captivated when Duke University Press published Dunham’s dissertation on village industry in Indonesia, 17 years after it was completed and 14 years after its author died. Many who read the book will be drawn to it primarily because it was written by President Obama’s mother. What does this sober and detailed analysis of census data, economic surveys, and local tax records tell us about this woman, about Indonesia, and about the values she taught her son? The book is dedicated to “Barack and Maya, who seldom complained when their mother was in the field,” but readers will find little information about Dunham’s children or her own life. Surviving against the Odds, however, tells us a lot about Ann Dunham as an anthropologist who combined moral commitment to help the powerless with pragmatic policy solutions.

Dunham was an early advocate of microcredit, which provides capital to small-scale village industries. In Indonesia, microcredit built on the traditional rotating credit associations (arisan) is found throughout the country. She wrote before there was widespread disenchantment with the Green Revolution. She worked in Indonesia during an era of optimism about rural development, which proceeded with some success, despite the human-rights restrictions of the Suharto regime.

Dunham frames her study as an account of craft industries and “non agricultural activities” in Java, aiming to fill a gap in the literature that had tended to portray most village dwellers as paddy farmers and little else.

Her account of the work of Indonesian blacksmiths illustrates both these themes. By documenting the development and expansion of blacksmithing, she provides a subtle critique of earlier views of Javanese society as “large, dense, vague, dispirited communities” of “flaccid indeterminateness,” caught up in a stagnant pattern of “agricultural involution” (Geertz 1963: 102–3). Clifford Geertz had argued that the Javanese economy, faced with external pressure from the economic demands of the Dutch colonial regime and internal pressure from rapidly increasing population, intensified existing forms of agriculture rather than changing them. Even more labor was put into paddy-field cultivation, increasing the per-hectare output while maintaining per-capita output, and there was little incentive to innovate or diversify economic activities. Dunham notes the perhaps obvious, but often-overlooked point, that villagers “tend to specialize in the activities that they see as most profitable” (2009:2). They are, therefore, quite entrepreneurial in their orientation, and eager to expand once they have some access to the capital to do so. Dunham’s study joined a branch of economic anthropology that portrayed peasants as exercising a fair degree of agency and fully capable of seizing opportunity and embracing change when it suited their needs.

Dunham notes that many Indonesian academics and officials have “rather tragically” (2009:13) accepted the argument proposed by Geertz and his Dutch predecessor Boeke that peasants will never be motivated to significantly improve their lot because their needs were limited to the desire to fill their bellies and to continue to occupy their traditional lands. She refers to Geertz as “Boeke reincarnated” for perpetuating colonial-era myths about Javanese society— that rice and sugar cane were not ecologically compatible, that Javanese society was static. She criticized his pessimistic assumption that the Javanese economy has missed its chance to “take off” into prosperity. Geertz had also described village industries as “now only of marginal importance” because the artisans were less interested in increasing efficiency or profits and more in “reliable, riskless sources of supplemental income, in return for irregular application of otherwise idle, unskilled labor” (Geertz 1963:70).

Reacting to this earlier portrait of village Java, which veers dangerously close to the stereotype of the lazy native, Dunham’s argument is developed in counterpoint. She shows how metalworkers are highly skilled craftsmen who seized earlier opportunities to expand (notably by producing goods from scrap metal during the Japanese occupation), and who built modest but increasingly profitable industries at the price of greater stratification and inequality in the village setting. Javanese peasants routinely practice “occupational multiplicity,” combining farming with small-scale craft production, and balancing the risks of both activities while taking advantage of seasonal lulls. She cites the banking surveys she carried out showing that the average family had three or four income sources, and those who had more diverse sources tended to earn more (2009:34). “This book differs from most studies of small industries,” she notes, “in emphasizing their long-term stability and comparative advantage within the context of the rural market” (2009:39), a thesis she demonstrates in chapters on socio economic organization, description of a blacksmithing village, as well as the implications of government intervention and development.

The most ethnographically vivid chapter provides a portrait of Kajar, which she describes as “a wonderful and mysterious place” (p. xxxii), where magic voices echo underground, occasionally erupting as springs or wells to relieve a drought (2009: 85). Kajar lies in a somewhat isolated, traditional area, Gunung Kidul, where older architecture is still common, although over the 14-yea span of her fieldwork, tiles have replaced earthen floors. The people who live in Kajar say that they are destined to be blacksmiths because a stone near the spring bears a naturally etched image of a Kris, a serpent-shaped blade of great supernatural power.

Dunham explores both the practical aspects of blacksmithing and its mystical legacy, enhanced by detailed portraits of a few master smiths (empu), whose careers she traces with particular care. The spring at Kajar is the location of a ceremony to ask for rain, symbolically tying the power of metalworking to the control of the seasons. This is perhaps the reason why Kris makers are understood to be masters of ilmu kebatinan, “the science of the inner self.” The Kris is seen as an inanimate being, and the metal smelter must first become acquainted with the spirit (roh) within the iron through the practice of meditation. If a smith does not get acquainted with this spirit, or fails to pace the production of the Kris over the year, he risks production failures, work accidents, blindness, paralysis, or even death. The most delicate state of Kris preparation is in the formation of the pamor, the pattern of nickel decoration on the blade. The pattern is traced by the smith, and sensed through meditation, but not visible to the naked eye until the Kris is soaked first in sulphur, then in lime juice, and finally arsenic. The process resembles that of developing a photograph from a negative. The blade is first dark, then whitened by the lime, and finally revealed in its full, intricate complexity on the day of its final bath, which is followed by a consecration ceremony (2009:111). The rituals of metalworking are kept secret, and women are normally excluded. Dunham notes that she was allowed to observe the rites because “Western women are treated as honorary males” (2009:289).

Kajar’s association with traditional mysticism (abangan culture, in Geertz’s term)meant that members of this village were targeted by anti-communist groups in 1965– 66, narrowly escaping execution. A cooperative formed at the time, however, managed to circumvent government monopolies and demands for “restitution” (fines paid to corrupt officials). Dunham’s account of these village-level strategies offers one of the more biting portraits of the abuses common during the Suharto era. Despite little in the book that is overtly “political,” there is evidence of Dunham’s affection for local people and alienation from exploitative government officials.

We understand Ann Dunham’s vocation as an anthropologist and defender of the powerless when we read her son’s account of the ideals she carried with her on her first trip to Indonesia. He remembers arriving as a six-year-old boy, traveling with his mother to rejoin her new Indonesian husband, Lolo Soetoro. “Walking off the plane at Djakarta, the tarmac rippling with heat, the sun bright as a furnace, I clutched her hand, determined to protect her from whatever might come” (1995:32). Just a few minutes later, hints of what “might come” appear. His mothers asks a question about Sukarno, the founding president of the republic and a revolutionary hero, recently deposed in massive waves of violence that made the rivers run with blood. His stepfather, who is described as having “possessed the good manners and easy grace of his people” (1995:30), does not answer, but points instead to a statue of Hanuman, the monkey god, saying “When he fights the demons, he is never defeated,” and then jokes and trades knowing glances with the soldiers surrounding them at the airport.

His stepfather, it becomes clear, shared the vaulting idealism of the Sukarno years, but then accepted the fact that he was conscripted to serve under Suharto’s increasingly authoritarian government. For a year he fought insurgents in New Guinea and later worked as a geologist for the army. “Guilt is a luxury only foreigners can afford,” he tells his young wife, and dismisses
her request for details (Obama 1995:46). At home, the young Barack is given a set of exotic pets, including an orangutan and two baby crocodiles, and is told to witness the bloody beheading of a chicken being prepared for dinner. At first it was “one long adventure, the bounty of a boy’s life” (1995: 37), filled with boxing lessons, angry spirits, tragic droughts, and sudden floods. But conflicts soon emerge between his mother’s “soft heart” and his stepfather’s lessons in “how to be a man.” His stepfather had been “pulled into some dark, hidden place, out of reach, taking with him the brightest part of himself” (1995:42). The force that has taken him away “yanked him back into line just when he thought he had escaped” (1995: 45) is “Power”—by capitalizing this word, Obama implies its force and intensity—the Power of Suharto’s Indonesia, which is“undisguised, indiscriminate, naked, always fresh in the memory” (1995:45).

Obama describes his mother as deeply attached to Indonesian culture and many people there, but increasingly alienated from her husband and fearful that her son will also succumb to this “Power.” She became a lonely witness for “secular humanism” (1995:50), and struggled hard to imbue her son with Midwestern ideals of honesty, integrity, and social service. Barack resisted these lessons. “My mother’s confidence in needlepoint values depended on a faith I didn’t possess” (1995:50). But he realized why she turned to praising the struggle for success that his African father made, in contrast to the soft, complacent corruption of
her then still-present Indonesian husband. This launched him on his own journey to seek out his father’s family in Africa and to come to terms with the significance of his biracial heritage.

Ann Dunham’s dissertation was finished almost thirty years after her first arrival in Indonesia, so there were many layers to her relationship to the country that are not narrated in “Dreams from My Father.” A foreword by her daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, includes her own memories of accompanying her mother to visit blacksmiths, potters, weavers, and tile-makers when Barack was in Hawai’i going to high school. In 1980 Dunham divorced Lolo Soetoro, but she didhelp him to travel to Hawai’i to seek medical care when he developed a fatal liver ailment in 1987. She worked for a series of development organizations, and from 1981 to 1984 served as a program officer for the Ford Foundation, work that required a balance of idealism and realism as she dealt with issues of rural poverty, social injustice and gender. Her colleague at the Ford Foundation, Mary Zurbuchen, describes her as more of an “academically informed development specialist,” while Robert Hefner prefers to call her a “socially engaged scholar” (2009 AAA panel). Both agree that she was both a practitioner and researcher, and that for her, the intersection of academic concerns and practical ones was always most important. Ann Dunham hoped that her research, grounded in quantitativ and pragmatic considerations, would help improve people’s lives.

Had she lived, Ann Dunham would be enjoying not only the immense satisfaction of seeing her son achieve a history-making position as president, but also a sense of accomplishment from having correctly identified promising forms of rural development, as well as successfully campaigning to have them implemented. Over the past fifteen years Suharto has fallen from power, Indonesia has become a more democratic nation, and it is even a somewhat more prosperous one.

Ann Dunham’s snake-bladed Kris, made for her by one of the master smiths, is discussed and pictured in the book as a sort of “biographical object” (Hoskins 1998). Th black forged iron has a dark patina and is a weapon capable of killing. Yet it is also ornamented with a wonderfully delicate nickel lamination, a work of art as well as a spiritually charged cutting instrument. Keeping the Kris by her side, Dunham maintained a tie to Kajar, where she was initiated into the mysteries of metal smelting. She was also holding onto a tool of power in very Indonesian sense, which could stand up to the wider “Power” of government planners and international development agencies. A powerful Kris can be used to intimidate an enemy in a bloodless act of self defense that asserts the agency of the bearer, at the same time drawing on the store of power contained in its ceremonial use. Ann Dunham used her anthropological knowledge as a practical weapon and a spiritual talisman, hoping that through it, and by imparting its values to her children, she could bring into being the changes she deeply wished to see in Indonesia and the world.

Ann Dunham Soetoro. Surviving against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia. Edited and with a preface by Alice G. Dewey and Nancy I. Cooper, as well as a foreword by Maya Soetoro-Ng and an afterword by Robert W. Hefner. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2009. 374 pp., 20 pages of black and white photographs, 16 pages of color photographs, 4 maps, 10 pages of Dunham’s handwritten fieldnotes and letters from the field.


Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hoskins, Janet. 1998. Biographical Objects: How Things Tell the Story of People’s Lives. New York: Routledge Press.

Obama, Barack. 1995. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. New York: Three Rivers Press.

About the reviewer:

Janet Hoskins is professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Her books include The Play of Time: Kodi Perspectives on Calendars, History and Exchange (University of California Press 1994, winner of the 1996 Benda Prize for Southeast Asian Studies) and Biographical Objects: How Things Tell the Story of People’s Lives (Routledge, 1998). She spent two decades doing ethnographic research in eastern Indonesia, and is now studying Caodaism and other indigenous Vietnamese religions from a transnational perspective in Vietnam and California.

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