In early 1999 the West Province of the island of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) erupted in violence. Longstanding enmity between migrants from the island of Madura, near Java, and indigenous Dayaks culminated in street battles that continued for months. Some reports at the time couched accounts of the violence in terms of the “wildmen of Borneo,” describing “screaming tribesmen” engaged in “displays of ritual savagery” in areas beyond the reach of Indonesia’s weakened central government.
According to many Dayaks, however, discriminatory government policies—in particular those associated with former president Mohamed Suharto’s now-collapsed “New Order” regime—were precisely what helped set the stage for the riots in West Kalimantan and, later, Central Kalimantan. Yet notwithstanding Dayak peoples’ heavily mythologized past as the “headhunters of Borneo,” inter-ethnic violence in Kalimantan has remained localized and not broken out in all provinces where both indigenous people and migrants live. Attacks by some Dayaks against some settlers are only one part of a larger struggle for social justice, political power, and wider recognition of the value of Dayak culture. Many Dayaks are working to effect peaceful change by cultivating intra-ethnic solidarity. The emergence of new Dayak-led religious and cultural organizations and other indigenous-administered programs may have important political and cultural consequences for Kalimantan’s indigenous peoples. The following case studies illustrate three efforts: Native religionists who draw on the symbolic capital of their traditional faith to attract regional development and instill local pride, a policy-oriented organization that crosscuts allegiances to particular Dayak subgroups, and the first official “Dayak culture village” for indigenous tourism.
The Dayaks of Kalimantan
“Dayak” generally refers to indigenous non-Malay peoples of the island of Borneo. Indigenous peoples of Indonesian Borneo increasingly refer to themselves as Dayak, signaling important developments in the realization of a common ethnic identity. Kalimantan’s Dayaks sometimes also refer to themselves as the “people of tradition.” Their traditions, however, like their languages, vary widely across the island; members of subgroups continue to point to variations in rituals, languages, and other cultural practices to underscore their distinctiveness from one another.
Most Dayaks live in villages of a few hundred people close to a river. These sites are often separated by hours or days of travel. In some communities, villagers live with members of their extended families in freestanding homes. In others, they inhabit a traditional long house, an enormous wooden building that accommodates hundreds of residents. The primary occupation for most Dayaks is shifting cultivation, in which they clear forests to plant crops, then move on when the soil is depleted. Most Dayaks are now Christians, a small number are Muslims, and others remain committed to Native belief systems and continue to perform traditional rituals. Regardless of their faith, indigenous notions of customary law, passed down through generations, remain fundamental to most Dayaks’ lives.
Traditional Religion & Dayak Identity
In Indonesia, a nation of profound diversity, religious tolerance is a major concern. Belief in God is the first tenant of the Pancasila, the official document of the nation’s ideological underpinnings. Five official religions exist in Indonesia: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. All citizens are expected to register their adherence to one of these (Islam claims the loyalty of approximately 87 percent of the population). Yet in addition to these world religions, many unrecognized local systems of belief and ritual exist.
Several Dayak groups are known for their elaborate mortuary rites. One of the most extraordinary of these is tiwah, a ritual of exhumation and reinterment enacted by the Ngaju Dayaks of Central Kalimantan. Tiwah is the most complex of the rituals associated with a traditional Dayak religion that is embraced by a small but vocal minority of the Ngaju. This Ngaju configuration of beliefs and practices is called Kaharingan.
In 1980, in response to a campaign for official religious recognition that Native activists had waged for decades, the Indonesia Department of Religion declared Kaharingan to be a variety of Hinduism. One striking development in Hindu Kaharingan since then has been the rapid growth of its administrative bureaucracy. The Great Council of the Hindu Kaharingan Religion, which maintains its headquarters in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan’s capital, now supervises indigenous religious affairs. Yet the organization’s reach extends far beyond the city. Many of its efforts are directed at the codification of doctrine and preparation of “how-to” guides for the enactment of rituals such as tiwah.
The goals of tiwah are varied, but the most critical is to transport the souls of the dead to the Prosperous Village, located near the zenith of a cosmological upper world. The souls of sacrificial animals and even of servants are also transferred there for the ancestors’ benefit. In the past, some families sacrificed slaves or took heads as a means to provide the deceased with servants. Ancestors’ bones are also subject to treatment. They are exhumed from the grave, cleaned of remaining flesh, and deposited in permanent above-ground repositories.
The performance of death rituals varies among Dayaks by locale. Today, however, there is an enthusiasm for standardizing these rituals and organizing adherents in other ways, which can be attributed to the growing influence of the Great Council. One of its strategies is to downplay ritual differences among Dayaks on different rivers and thereby build religious solidarity and a sense of shared cultural identity. Council members hope to instill pride among adherents of Kaharingan, which was long denigrated as primitive superstition. In asserting control over the enactment of tiwah, the council has strengthened its own authority, as well as called attention to the circumstances of its congregation, mostly composed of the region’s poorest, most isolated citizens.
When Kaharingan was declared Hindu 20 years ago, many adherents and non-adherents predicted it would only be a short while before its local characteristics disappeared entirely. To the contrary, Kaharingan has not disappeared. In fact, some Dayaks have even converted to the faith as a way to express their Dayak identity. The Great Council has sought to foster continued dynamism in various ways. For example, Indonesian students are required to take classes in religion during every stage of their educational career. To ensure that there are sufficient Kaharingan teachers for interested students, the council has established a college with a program in religious education. The council also hopes to promote tiwah as a regional attraction and a magnet for infrastructure development. Mantikei Hanyi, a sponsor of a tiwah in 1996, said: “This province needs tiwah. The government knows it. What will tourists come to Central Kalimantan to see if not the orangutan reserve and tiwah?” Dayak religious activists have discovered that even as they operate within the parameters set by the Department of Religion, their program of Kaharingan religious reform has won positive publicity for adherents of Central Kalimantan’s local faith, and has assisted their efforts to objectify Kaharingan as a resource for cultural preservation and mobilization.
The East Kalimantan Dayak Association
In December 1999, East Kalimantan’s largest indigenous interest group, the East Kalimantan Dayak Association (Persekutuan Dayak Kalimantan Timur, or PDKT), held its second major conference since its founding in 1993. Participants convened in Samarinda, the provincial capital and association headquarters. Inside the conference facility a banner trumpeted the meeting’s theme: “Dayak People of East Kalimantan Awaken and Unify to Engender a Prosperous Future.” Dayak businessmen in silk batik shirts or Western-style suits sat side-by-side with young activists sporting T-shirts printed with the logos of non-governmental organizations. Some participants wore traditional headgear or decorated bark-cloth vests. The more than 200 Dayaks who assembled for the conference had been selected to represent the province’s 12 major subgroups. Over three days they collaborated to shape the association’s policies for the next five years, in particular its stance on issues such as reparations for Dayak lands that had been seized by the government for logging companies and plantations.
The PDKT was founded to cross-cut loyalties to particular Dayak subgroups. In the eastern province, as elsewhere in Kalimantan, a growing number of organizations raise funds on behalf of individual subgroups. The PDKT, however, draws its membership broadly and has even considered extending non-voting affiliation to Dayaks in neighboring provinces. The organization has three primary goals, according to a PDKT report:1 It seeks to make indigenous peoples more aware that, as citizens, they have certain inalienable rights; it attempts to foster a sense of “brotherhood, family, and oneness among Dayaks”; and it works to optimize the role of Native peoples in provincial development.
The association’s secretary, Rama Asia, reflected on the need for such an organization in his conference address:2
Dayak peoples of East Kalimantan are composed of various subtribes spread out across a geographical region that makes it difficult to interact with one another. These geographical circumstances caused a gap in connectedness between Dayak subgroups, and it was perceived that the Dayak presence in this region didn’t seem solid enough. Added to this was the fact that those from outside the community discriminated against Dayaks. ... Also, development [policies] of the “New Order” didn’t seem to change the well-being of the Dayaks to any significant degree. The majority of the Dayak peoples are still left behind, in fact there are those who are not yet “free.”
The rhetoric of freedom speaks to a concern shared by many of Kalimantan’s indigenous peoples, namely that independence in the Outer Islands meant little more than exchanging Dutch colonial masters for Javanese officials in Indonesia’s central government. Dayaks suspect that government and businesses groups intentionally neglect the development of indigenous human resources in Kalimantan even as they rush to do business there, ensuring a continuing shortage of skilled Dayak labor and a continuing demand for immigration by members of other ethnic groups. The Indonesian government recently passed legislation for political decentralization and increased autonomy for provinces and districts, and the opportunities these moves present have spurred the PDKT to assume a more public profile. The organization’s recently commissioned Dayak anthem captures its commitment to activism: “Dayak peoples of East Kalimantan, arise and build a prosperous future. Go forward and never retreat. In the spirit of Indonesia’s reformation, what are we waiting for?”
Tourism and Dayak Culture
The practice of head-hunting is not condoned in official Dayak religious doctrine today. But the image of the Dayak headhunter continues to be reinforced in the tourist industry. One popular travel poster depicts indigenous people in traditional dress—including rhinoceros hornbill feathers, beads, and loincloths—clustered around an orangutan skull. Others emphasize some people’s artificially extended earlobes, which often stretch past their shoulders. Several years ago, Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism ranked East Kalimantan as Number 15 on its priority list in its long-range plans to expand tourism activities throughout the archipelago. One venue specifically targeted for tourism is the Kenyah Dayak village of Pampang, about 30 kilometers north of Samarinda. All Indonesian youngsters learn English, but in Pampang, it assumes particular importance—English is the language of international tourism. On their day off from school, most of Pampang’s youngsters trade their school uniforms for dance costumes and perform in a “culture show,” often accompanied by their long-eared, heavily tattooed grandparents.
Pampang’s first settlers arrived in the early 1970s, after hard times led them to take the arduous journey from the region near Indonesia’s border with Malaysia. Their farms were failing, they could not afford many basic foodstuffs at astronomically inflated upriver prices, and they had virtually no access to health care or education. They eventually reached Pampang, an uninhabited area that had first been spotted years before by a Dayak working for a timber company. The trek down muddy paths cut through the rainforest and over dangerous river rapids to Pampang would likely take even present-day migrants more than a month. Today, 700 people live in Pampang.
In the early 1990s, Pampang’s leaders, in conjunction with the provincial office of the Department of Tourism, decided to promote Pampang as a “culture village.” But, despite a flurry of interest, little changed. A long dry season in 1994 caused a severe water shortage, and the river on which Pampang’s residents depend was dangerously low. The two-kilometer path into the village from the end of a feeder road was in such disrepair it was often impassible; tourists could only make the trip if they were willing to walk through mud. A meeting hall was built to serve as a “long house,” but deteriorated rapidly.
In 1994 the traditional law chief finally told his village’s story to the public in a newspaper interview, and Pampang’s fortunes started to change. Army troops widened and improved the road and helped enlarge the long house. In 1998, Pampang’s residents began offering regularly scheduled dance performances. Some villagers now sell beadwork and other handicrafts. Most of the dancers are schoolchildren, and their parents are enthusiastic at the prospect of their involvement. Dancing for visitors, they say, will not only help these children secure comfortable lives, but will also make them understand that Dayak culture is a source of art and beauty.
Plans are in the works for further infrastructure development in Pampang. But fostering tourism in Dayak areas involves negotiation more than structural challenges. One question, for example, is whether the Dayak can achieve this development without compromising their traditional culture. Dayak educator Rina Laden3 expressed her concern that “What I have seen happen to the Dayak tribe is an inclination to exhibit their physical characteristics—the long ears and the tattoos—without raising their [human resources] quality. [What is needed] is the development of human resources, not the exploitation of their bodies.”
A Collective Effort
In the face of rapid political, economic, and social transformations in Indonesia, some tension is to be expected between groups attempting to preserve diverse identities and traditions. Through the Great Council, the PDKT, and the cultural village project in Pampang, Dayaks cultivate solidarity and lobby for collective goals. They hope these strategies will enable indigenous peoples to preserve their identity and make a place for themselves in a world that continues to know them through mostly stereotypical and distorted portrayals.
1. PDKT. (1999). Rancangan Pokok-Pokok Program Kerja. Samarinda: PDKT.
2. PDKT. (1999). Laporan Pelaksanaan Kegiatan.
3. Rina Laden is a Dayak professor, activist, and consultant to Pampang.
Anne Schiller is a professor of anthropology at North Carolina State University. She conducted fieldwork among Dayak peoples in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, from 1982 to 1984, 1991, 1995, and 1996, and in East Kalimantan from 1999 to 2000.
References & further reading
Adhiati, M., Sri, A. & Bobsien, A. (2001, July). Indonesia's Transmigration Programme-An Update. Down to Earth. http://www.gn.apc.org/dte/ctrans.html.
Dove, Michael (1997). Dayak Anger Ignored. Inside Indonesia 51, pp 13-14.
Human Rights Watch (1997). Communal Violence in West Kalimantan Report 9, no. 10. New York: Human Rights Watch.
Petebang, Edi (1999). The Role of Adat in the Dayak-Madurese War. Kalimantan Review English Edition, p 31.
Schiller, Anne (2001). Pampang Culture Village and International Tourism in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Human Organization 60:4, pp 414-422.
Schiller, Anne (1997). Small Sacrifices: Religious Change and Cultural Identity Among the Ngaju of Indonesia. New York: Oxford University Press.
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