When asked about my favourite part of Indonesia, I invariably reply West Sumatra.
The Minangkabau culture, predominant in the central west part of Sumatra, is noted for its matrilineal family structure, which is one reason for the spread of Padang restaurants throughout Indonesia ~ the menfolk leave to seek their fortunes elsewhere and are much less insular in outlook than other ethnic groups. This could be one reason why the ubiquitous “Hello mister” is rarely heard, although western visitors are much rarer than, say, in Yogyakarta or Bali.

I recently got to reminiscing about a visit made in July 1992 with Son No.1 to the island of Siberut, a night’s boat journey from Padang, the capital of the province. At that time, there were major concerns about the rapacious deforestation of the island and the effect on the indigenous hunter-gathers, the Mentawai, aka the Sakuddei.

One of the first Europeans to comment on the Mentawai Islands was Sir Thomas Raffles. Visiting in the last century when he was vice-governor of Benkulu, he wrote, in a letter to the Duchess of Somerset in 1821, “I made further discoveries in these Islands, where I found a population more likeable still and, if possible, still more ingenuous. If I continue in this direction, I may expect somewhere to find the Garden of Eden, and descendants of our first parents.”

For the past century, attempts have been made to ‘Christianise’ the Mentawai. More recently, the Indonesian government has attempted to ‘Indonesianise’ these gentle people. The avowed intent was to ‘modernise’ this ‘primitive‘ culture, although the real reason was surely to exploit the cheap timber and to exploit the potential for a palm oil industry, requiring thousands of non-Mentawai immigrant workers. When we visited, there were strong rumours that Suharto’s youngest and most-hated offspring, Tommy, the convicted criminal with murderous intent, was the malignant figure behind this rape of the fragile environment.

After 1950, when Indonesia gained independence, an all out assault on the old Mentawai culture began. Families were ordered to move from the jungle, from their communal homes, or ‘uma’ and into small modern houses with tin roofs; conversion to Islam or Christianity was ordered by Sumatran government decree and women were forcibly sterilized by doctors. It can only be described as an attempted genocide.

Most damaging to the culture as a whole, the shamans, who both symbolize and hold the secrets of the spirit traditions, were persecuted. Until the late 1990’s a shaman encountering government officials was likely to have his head shaved to symbolically diminish his status; his rituals were banned; army units were sent into the forest to confiscate his ‘magic boxes’; he was forced to wear clothes and uma (village longhouses) were regularly burned down. Even tattoos, symbols of strength and power, were outlawed.
From an article (not now online) by Alex Dick-Read.

Mentawai shaman rite © Remi Benali

Update July 2013

Some of the links on my original Jakartass post are down, so the above has been edited slightly.

One link in particular, about NGOs concerned with the plight of the Mentawai people, was to Native Planet who are “dedicated to the self-empowerment of indigenous peoples and the preservation of world ethnic cultures.

For whatever good they may be doing, they seem to be more interested in promoting themselves than in “empowering” the indigenous folk of the Mentawai islands.

This sentence smacks of cultural imperialism: “Enjoy our first-person accounts and exotic images of an unassimilated Indonesian Mentawai clan.

Although I’m not a surfer – I can barely stand on my own two feet, let alone on a board – I have followed with interest the work of locally organised expat group, SurfAid who are more modest about their tremendous achievements, particularly in the realms of health and hygiene.

However, on my first visit to Siberut in 1992, I got into conversation in the uma of a couple of elders who’d recently returned to the island from Padang on the mainland where they had been the ‘performers’ for the ‘distinguished’ guests of the local politicos. It was then that I came to the realisation that whereas they could survive the urban environment I come from, I couldn’t survive for long in theirs.

Later, following the tsunami which hit the islands in 2010, I noted the following: Most of the 400+ deaths were of coastal dwellers, poor immigrants mainly from the mainland of West Sumatra. The Mentawai indigenous forest dwellers have developed their ‘lifestyle’ over 4,000 years living inland in the uphill forests where they have achieved a level of harmony with their environment. When the earthquake hit, they headed for previously determined ‘safe’ areas.

A selection of Mentawai YouTubes.
Originally posted on Jakartass..


About Jakartass

A Brit Abroad
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