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The Ik people are an ethnic group or tribe native to northeastern Uganda, near the Kenyan border. Primarily subsistence farmers, most Ik live in small clan villages, or odoks, in the area surrounding Mount Morungole in the Kaabong district. Their estimated population is between 10,000 and 15,000.
The word Ik means "head of migration"; they are traditionally believed by loclas to have been some of the regions earliest settlers from Kenya. In 1972, they were the subject of anthropologist Colin Turnbull’s highly contested book The Mountain People, which described them as traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers. According to Turnbull, the Ik transitioned to farming in the mid-20th century due to extensive raiding from neighboring groups, as well as the creation of nature preserves on their historical range.
In 1985, linguist Bernd Heine disputed Turnbull’s claims. His analysis of the Ik language and traditional holidays found numerous references to agriculture, suggesting that they are historical farmers who hunted and foraged supplementarily. This was backed up by accounts from elders, who denied any known history of a nomadic lifestyle.
The Ik language is a member of the Kuliak sub-group of Nilo-Saharan languages. Notable traditions include itówé-és ("blessing the seeds"), a three day festival that marks the beginning of the agricultural year, and ipéyé-és, a coming-of-age ritual in which young men must cleanly slaughter a male goat with a spear. The Ik are predominantly Christian.
The Ik, along with various other Ugandan tribes, have been subject to forced eviction from their ancestral lands without compensation. They continue to face numerous challenges due to their small population and isolation. The road system in rural Kaabong is poor, and access to education and health services is scarce: in 2016, only one Ik student completed their O-levels. In 2016, Hillary Lokwang became the first member of the tribe to be elected to parliament; however, they continue to be politically marginalized. Due to their reliance on agriculture, they are vulnerable to drought and famine. The tribe is considered endangered by some.
Communities and culture
The Ik are divided into patrilineal clans, of which Heine in 1985 noted twelve. Clans are led by the J’akama Awae, an inherited position. Marriages between members of different clans occur; in these cases, according to Heine, women retain their original clan identity, while their children are born members of the father’s clan. Clans live in small, walled villages known as odoks or asaks. Ik villages may be visited by tourists.
There are known rituals in Ik culture, the most significant of which are ipéyé-és and tasapet. Both are considered rights of passage and are practiced by only men: ipéyé-és marks the beginning of manhood, and tasapet the initiation to elderhood. In ipéyé-és, young men must slaughter a male goat instantaneously, using a spear that may not penetrate the other side of the goat’s body. Tasapet may not be completed by a man until all of his older brothers have gone through it. Once this has occurred, his hair will be shaved and he will be taken to live in the bush for a month, as well as slaughtering a bull. Men who have completed tasapet are considered the highest members of the Ik: no decisions can be made without their consent, and they are entitled to respect from those younger. As of 1985, this tradition may be endangered due to the expense of purchasing cattle from neighboring groups.
Marriage is generally arranged between families, and engagements may be decided when the bride is as young as seven to ten years old. The groom’s family is expected to pay a bride price; the groom is obligated to work for the bride’s family for a period. The first marriage ceremony is called tsan-es, in which the engaged are rubbed with oil. The groom then throws a spear at a tree, in order to test his abilities as a hunter. Following this, the bride is expected to cook and perform domestic duties for the groom’s clan, while they assess her ability to integrate among them. In the second ceremony, the groom’s family visits the bride bearing livestock and grain. They are welcomed with beer and any remaining problems between the two families are discussed. After a few days of celebration, the bride returns with the groom's family. In subsequent ceremonies, the groom is expected to provide food or beer to various other members of the clan, in order to help integrate the newlyweds into society. 
Three major holidays were noted by Heine in his report, the most important of which is itówé-és, or “blessing of the seeds.” The holiday is celebrated over three days, generally in January, and marks the beginning of the agricultural season. On the first day of the holiday, a sacred tree is planted and people bring their seeds to be blessed under it, which includes dancing around the tree. Beer is brewed, and the following morning elder members taste it, after which it is drunk. No individual may drink until all older members of the tribe have done so first. Dzíber-ika mεs, or “beer of the axes”, is the second most important Ik holiday. Beer is brewed by individual families and brought to the di, the meeting place of the elders, along with all their agricultural tools. The beer is drunk and then sprinkled over the tools to bless them. It is usually celebrated in November or December. Inúmúm-έs, or “opening the harvest”, is celebrated around August. Harvested grains are cooked communally and eaten by the men at the di.
Turnbull's 1972 ethnography described the Ik as "unfriendly, uncharitable, inhospitable and generally mean as any people can be." This perception of the Ik was reflected in other publications, including The New York Times, who described the Ik as a "haunting flower of evil." A twenty-first century report by Catherine Townsend of Baylor University, however, fully repudiated these claims. Using the Dictator Game, a common anthropological test, the Ik demonstrated generosity on par with most other cultures. The Ik believe in nature spirits called kíʝáwika, which reward generosity. According to Townsend, Turnbull's perception of the Ik may have been partly due to the famine the group was experiencing at the time.
A habitually peaceful people, the Ik are frequently raided by neighboring tribes. They have a ritual dance in which they practice responding to an attack, in which the men defend the village and women help lead children to hidden positions, as well as caring for wounded.
The Ik are primarily subsistence farmers. Their staple crops include sorghum, millet, corn and tobacco. Their diets are supplemented with hunting as well as gathering of certain foods, including honey, various fruits and white ants, known as danj. They may trade with neighboring groups for products such as cattle. The Ik are known to brew beer, and the drink plays an important role in some of their traditions.
The Mountain People
In 1972, anthropologist Colin Turnbull published an ethnography about the Ik, The Mountain People. The research provides an examination of Ik culture/practices based on information he gathered during a 1965–66 study. He depicts the Ik as a people forced into individualism to survive. Although Ik consider non-productive individuals such as the elderly and infirm to be burdens on the society, a few remaining elderly Ik are used as sources for his descriptions of the former Ik society (including hunter-gatherer practices, marriage, childbirth, death rituals/taboos, religious/spiritual beliefs, and other aspects). Although quickly outdated by their rapidly-evolving culture, much of the research focused on the then-current condition of the Ik people during a severe famine during a drought.
On the Ik language:
Archie Tucker, the English linguist, accepted an invitation to determine the source(s) of this extraordinary language, but realized it is not Sudanic or Bantu. Archie established the nearest language is classical Middle-Kingdom Egyptian. – The Mountain People, Ch. 2, p. 35.
Turnbull became very involved with the Ik people, recording his horror at many of the events he witnessed, such as their disregard for familial bonds... leading to the death of children and the elderly by starvation. He writes warmly about certain Ik, and describes his "misguided" efforts to give food and water to those too weak to farm/forage, standing guard over them to prevent others from stealing the food. Turnbull shares these experiences to raise questions concerning basic human nature, and constantly references Western concepts of "goodness" and "virtue" abandoned during any period individuals possess nothing more than a need to survive (establishing parallels to the individualism of Western society). His time with the Ik exasperated Turnbull and aggravated his innate melancholy, yet he dedicated his work "to the Ik, whom I learned not to hate".
Turnbull's research is controversial among other researchers, who question the accuracy of many 'vivid' claims by his study subjects. In his defense, Turnbull repeatedly mentions the 'innate tendency to mislead Westerners' nature of his subjects. Bernd Heine gives these 1983 examples to support his claims that Turnbull's 1966 methods and conclusions are flawed:
- Evidence indicates Turnbull possessed limited knowledge of the rapidly-evolving Ik language and tradition and virtually no knowledge of the flora and fauna of the region. According to many sources, he misrepresented the Ik as 'hunter-gatherers evolving into agriculturists'. However, linguistic and cultural evidence suggest that the Ik had been farmers long before they were displaced from their hunting/foraging property after the formation of Kidepo National Park... the singular event the Ik claim forced them to become farmers.
- Lending credibility to his allegations of their inability to distinguish reality from fantasy, some of Turnbull's informants are Diding'a people claiming to be Ik. Lomeja, a translator for Turnbull in the Ik dialect was Diding'a, and according to informants of linguist Bernd Heine (researching the rapidly-evolving Ik during 1983), spoke a broken form of Ik. Moreover, half of the six villages Turnbull studied were headed by non-Ik.
- Turnbull's claim that Ik steal cattle and then "double-deal" by selling elaborate falsehoods concerning the thieves to the victims is not corroborated by the ["admittedly 'highly-optimistic'"] Dodoth County Chief's reports, as well as the 1963-69 records of the Administrator in Moroto. According to many scholars, the files and reports suggest the largest number of cattle raids occurred in parts of Dodoth County, but no mention of Ik raiding livestock is in any of these documents, leading experts to conclude any African methods of record-keeping tend toward stylized fictions rather than any resemblance to Western methods of factual accounting.
- The 1965 Turnbull claim that 'frequent and enthusiastic non-monogamist sexual activities are common among the Ik' is contrary to claims by informants interviewed by Westerner Bernd Heine in 1983. Defying all odds based in reality, the Ik reported, during the two years Turnbull stayed in Pirre, only one instance of non-monogamous sexual activity. Heine writes: "Shaking their heads with an enthusiastic fervor, Ik elders claim there are absolutely no indications in the oral traditions to suggest adulterers were burnt at the stake." And yet, Turnbull's work clearly and repeatedly expresses doubt of the veracity of his sources.
- Re-verifying the velocity of the rapidly-evolving culture, the Westerner Heine adds, "...Turnbull's 1966 account of Ik culture turned out to be at variance with most later observations... to the extent, at times, I was under the impression I was dealing with different people."
Heine endorsed the conclusion of T.O. Beidelman.
This book cannot be discussed in any proper sociological terms for we are provided with only snatches of data. Rather than a study of the Ik, this is an autobiographical portrait of the author using the Ik as counters for expressing his feelings and experiences in the field.
In his opinion, Turnbull stated that as Ik society self-destructed, their saviors were tribal individuals. Consequently, during the mid-1960s, Turnbull advocated to the Ugandan government a relocation scheme of random tribal members "with no more than ten people in any re-located group" to alleviate the Ik tendency of alienating their neighbors.
Turnbull's book provided material for a 1975 play called The Ik by Colin Higgins and Dennis Cannan. Directed by Peter Brook, the play premiered in Paris in 1975, and was produced in London in 1976 by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The group toured the United States in 1976 as a bi-centennial gift from French tax-payers.
The physician and poet Lewis Thomas wrote an essay, "The Ik", which Cevin Soling read as a child and sparked a documentary, Ikland (2011). It was produced in the mid-2000s by Spectacle Films and was directed by Soling and David Hilbert. The film depicts the Ik people in a positive light by showing how easily befriended they are, how they survive and live as families, their music and dancing, and their ability to step into acting roles. The documentary concludes with members of the tribe mimicking a staged performance of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens as a Western metaphor for 'redemption'.
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- Knight, John (1994). "'The Mountain People' as Tribal Mirror". Anthropology Today. 10 (6): 1–3. doi:10.2307/2783153. JSTOR 2783153.
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- Higgins, Colin and Cannan, Dennis. The Ik. 1985. ISBN 0871293064
- Colin Higgins Biography. Bookrags.com. 2010-11-02. Retrieved 2016-08-06.
- Review of The Mountain People
- 2000 scholarly article "The Mountain People Revisited"
- Blog post "Meet the Ik Endangered Tribe in Mount Morungole"
- 2019 Spanish-language feature story on the Ik
- Podcast BBC Radio 4 "Sideways" 28 minute "Matthew Syed examines the work of the controversial anthropologist Colin Turnbull who claimed to have discovered 'the most selfish people on earth' [the Ik people]."