Recent analyses of the ‘revitalisation of tradition’ have rekindled earlier discussions of the ‘creation of customary law’ in colonial states. For Indonesia, critics have deconstructed a ‘myth of adat’, arguing that adat law was an invention of the adat law scholar Van Vollenhoven and his followers. The assessment of that period also shapes interpretations of developments in Indonesia after 1998. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that in some respects the critique of colonial scholarship was misconceived, and that these misconceptions hamper a proper understanding of the current revitalisation of adat in Indonesia. Many interpretations of colonial legal science and practice have become anachronistic and stereotypical. We argue that most interpretations were and are largely based on a legalistic conception of ‘law’ and ‘customary law’, that authors selectively generalise interpretations from specific contexts, and that they do not take into account what such interpretations say over legal realities beyond these contexts. Lastly we think that the target of the critique is somewhat misconceived as it is directed at those scholars who were aware of the danger of legal ethnocentrism and criticised it, while not looking at those colonial scholars and courts, who grossly misinterpreted local normative systems in terms of Dutch legal categories. We argue that some assumptions and propositions of these earlier and contemporary critical deconstructions are in need of re-evaluation. Given its presence in current analyses, reconsidering Van Vollenhoven and his followers is more than a return to a history long gone by. We substantiate our propositions with a discussion of the history of the village commons, ulayat, in West Sumatra, which has always been a central illustration in all discussions of adat law.
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