I imagined meeting primitive folks – uneducated, old-fashioned, and traditional – when I sailed along the Siraraget River to the Mentawai tribe’s habitat last August. I departed from Jakarta with Rengga and Andrew. We were all freelance photographers.
Our guide, Yen, said that the Mentawai tribe still perform their ancestral rites. Their belief was Arat Bulungan. Arat meant tradition in Mentawai language, and bulungan (derived from the word bulu or feather) meant leaf.
Sailing the Siraraget River was the only way to reach Ugai Village, the outermost village of the Mentawai Tribe on Siberut Island, West Sumatra. Our boat sailed against the river current. The river was about ten meters wide, its water brownish, and had mangrove trees on its left and right. On our way, we crossed path with a Mentawai woman trying to catch fish with a traditional net. Her boat was a very plain dugout canoe. Her bare chest was adorned with a beaded necklace that matched the short covering her lower body. After greeting us, she continued to fish.
We had been sailing the river for two hours. The sky began to darken even though Ugai Village was still three hours away. Yulius, our boat driver, put on his head lamp and constantly looked up. “Look at the road,” he said. “Look up. There is some sort of river path, isn’t it?” he continued. I stiffened. He was so intimate with nature to the point of understanding it.
Our boat docked in Ugai at 20:51. Yen shouted in a language unfamiliar to me, it must be Mentawai language. Soon after, we saw lights emerging from inside the forest and coming towards us. We heard children giggling. They carried our bags for us. “Let these children carry our things. It is usually like this when there are guests,” said Yen. “Just prepare some tips for them,” he explained.
We walked towards uma Aman Tonem. Uma is a traditional house of the Mentawai tribe, our accommodation in Ugai. We walked through a forest with muddy trails. There was no light.
“Aloita!” a voice roared all of a sudden. Aloita was a welcoming greeting for Mentawai people. A topless aged man wearing a beaded headpiece approached us. We saw faint lines of tattoos on his chest. He extended his hand. “Aman Tonem,” he introduced himself.
Yen explained that aman was a nickname for firstborns in Mentawai, while Tonem was that aged man’s name. Aman Tonem was a sikerei or a shaman. He regularly healed people using traditional practices.
We gathered in uma Aman Tonem. There was only one lamp fueled with diesel; we had no idea when they had started using it as lights. Quite a few Mentawai people had already gathered in uma Aman Tonem.
“Yohanes.” “Ricky.” “Petrus.” “Antonius.” “Semangat.” “Roy.” They introduced themselves. I was curious about their names because I did not think those originated from Mentawai language.
Several women brought food from inside the house. We all ate together warm rice, fish from the ocean, and sauce. Modest. Delightful.
Aman Tonem’s house was a stage house. The roof was made from dried Metroxylon sagu leaves. The floor did not touch land, a distance of around one meter separated the two. We slept on the floor covered with mats made of pandanus leaf, a mosquito net protected us. The mosquitos there were ferocious. In the 90s, many Mentawai people caught malaria. Mentawai people started using mosquito nets following the government’s health program.
We explored the Mentawai habitat in Ugai the next day. The word aloita was repeated each time we crossed paths with the locals. I saw stage house made of woods and zinc roofs. That stage house was quite big. There was a cross symbol on top of its main door. “A lot of Mentawai people are Catholics,” said Yen. “Some are Muslims. Their mosque is in Butui, a neighboring village.”
At that moment I understood that the names of the people who had previously greeted us must have been influenced by the expansion of religion in Mentawai.
That morning we followed Aman Tonem and Aman Poli to the forest. They planned to make a kabit, which was a loincloth made from bark fibers, a mandatory clothing for sikerei. Aman Poli chopped down a tree the size of a man’s leg. They both then scraped the trunk until thin. The barks were beaten many times until the originally rough and rigid barks eventually became softer and suppler. And then, they washed those barks in the river.
“It is finished, we only need to dry it in front of uma,” said Aman Tonem.
On our second day in Mentawai, it rained in the afternoon in Butui Village just south of Ugai Village. We took shelter in front of one of the locals’ house. All of a sudden adhan, an Islamic call for prayer, reverberated through a loudspeaker. The adhan came from the house on the opposite side. That house resembled a pendopo in Java. Its fences were slices of bamboos and rattans. Its roof resembled rumah srotong, the traditional house of people in Central Java.
Fernando was the muezzin of that mosque. He converted in 2014. He was one of the caretakers of the Islamic foundation in Mentawai. His clothing style was that of Muslims in Indonesia: sarong and long sleeve shirt. Fernando lived in a government social housing program.
Nature, Not Money
Mentawai people consumed sago as their staple food. Each Mentawai man and woman had a role in the process of making sago. After sago palms were chopped off by men, the women prepare the sago leaves. These leaves would be used to wrap sago when it is roasted.
On another occasion, I followed a Mentawai woman to find out how she catches fish. They were topless. Tassels of banana leaves covered their waist to their knees. They walked along a creek with a leggei, a sort of fish net made from rattan. They would put the fish they caught inside the bamboo stripped onto their lower back. They only caught few small fish at the time. They did not want to push themselves and returned home.
Mentawai people had their own methods of hunting difficult animals, such as birds and other fast animals: with arrows. Aman Tonem demonstrated how he created anesthetics for his arrows. He shaved a tree bark thinly with a machete; it resembled pencil shaving wastes. The shaved barks were then ground with doro (cabai rawit or bird’s eye chili) and baklau (some sort of galangal roots and yeast), which were two common Mentawai plants that contained poisons. This mixture was then squeezed using wood tongs. The result was greenish liquid that they would store inside a bamboo. Aman Tonem took several arrows. He smeared the liquid to the tip of those arrows using goose feather.
Martinus visited uma Aman Tonem. Martinus was a sipatiti, a tattoo artist in Mentawai. He came to tattoo Andrew’s leg. Legend said that Mentawa tribe’s tattoos were one of the oldest in the world. For the Mentawai tribe, tattoos signified balance, which was why the patterns would always be symmetrical between the right and left side of the body. These patterns symbolized stars, rocks, animals, and hunting equipment.
Mentawai tattooing was very traditional. They only used black ink made from a mix of sugarcane water and leftover wicks from oil lamps. The tool was made out of wood on which they attached a needle; back in the day, they had used a thorn as the needle. The needle could only be used once. The tip was dipped in ink and then placed on top of the skin. The needle was then tapped lightly and repeatedly with wood. Andrew scowled in pain while holding back the pain.
Martinus was a convert. It had only been two months since he became a Muslim. However, he still tattooed anyone who wanted one. Martinus said that he did not want to let go completely his traditions.
The Farewell Ceremony
This was our last day in Mentawai. Aman Tonem prepared a pig in front of uma. He flapped a leaf while reciting incantations and then placed it on top of the pig. Suddenly, a sikerei stabbed the pig with a sword. After it died, he took the pig’s heart. Aman Tonem looked carefully at the pig’s heart, his eyes seemed to be looking at something far away. “The pig’s heart is good. It is a good sign,” he said. “One of you will come back here in the future,” he continued with a smile.
The pigs were then chopped into small pieces and boiled inside a cauldron with coals.
That evening, people gathered at uma Aman Tonem. We were seated next to sikerei. The Gajeuma, a Mentawai drum, appeared to be hit without any particular rhythm. But, if we actually listen carefully, there was a pattern. The three dancers’ stomps filled the silence between the gajeuma beats.
The dancers were sikerei. They wore short skirts made of leaves that covered up to their knees. The leaves were woven using tree roots or rattan. Their dance was called turuk. The movements resembled those of birds, snakes, or monkeys. Turuk dance had its own philosophy. Yen said that the dance moves represent love. The dance of eagles and monkeys represented peace between tribes. Even though different, they were able to live together in nature. Turuk was usually performed during ceremonies to welcome guests or as a farewell dance.
The show ended. The pork was shared and eaten together. Mentawai Muslims were not offered pork. They all understood.
Mentawai People are Not Outdated. It is Us.
My trip to Mentawai made me ask a lot of questions. What is the definition of modern people? Could we, the educated and who live with modern technologies, be called modern and developed?
Mentawai made me feel ashamed. Their way of life shocked me to the core. They did not discriminate their people who no longer embrace Arat Bulungan. They stood side by side and lived together in peace. Their wealth was nature, not money. We want to earn a lot of money. They only want to take a fair amount of what they needed from nature and then take care good care of it.
Mentawai people do not wander. They do not wish to go to our city where it is easy to find educated people. It is us that look for them. We want to go to Mentawai and learn about their life. Every day, more and more people visit their habitat. It cannot be stopped.
Currently, the West Sumatera Provincial Government is building a Trans Mentawai Road project. Trees have been cut as far as the eye can see near Aman Tonem’s house. “It will be paved with asphalt,” he said. Tourism changed the “home” of Mentawai people.
And then I thought of Aman Tonem’s hunting trip. I saw him walking on red soils that would be turned to asphalt road. People from big cities wanted to “develop” the Mentawai tribe. But to them, “development and progress” meant being fair to Mother Nature. Modern thinking for Mentawai tribe is to respect people’s rights and beliefs. They do not understand the official version of human rights but they have already integrated it into their lives. And then there are us, people who are always busy bickering on different skin colors, how to pray, and other trivial things while slowly destroying nature.
Translated by Shofa Fathyamala