Mentawai Shamans

 

Deep in the Indonesian jungle, the Mentawai eat sago, wear hibiscus flowers and practice shamanic rituals, in a silent fight to preserve their ancient traditions.

The Mentawai tribes remain one of the most isolated tribes in the world. However, in the wave of Indonesia’s relentless modernisation they struggle to keep their culture alive. With most of the Mentawai community forced to abandon their traditional way of life through government intervention in the 1950s and 1960s, only a few shamans remain a traditional life in the jungle. Local shamans, known as Sikerei, are the backbone of Mentawai culture. Some of them refuse to leave the forest and take pride in living sustainably while preserving  their culture and traditions.

Island of Spirits 

Siberut island is situated along Indonesia’s famous “Ring of Fire”, one of the most seismically active regions on the planet. It is an island entirely covered in thick tropical, swampy, malarial forest that was separated from the mainland for more than half a million years. There are seventeen endemic mammal species (39 percent), which on a per-unit area ranks it with Madagascar. The whole island is protected as a UN biosphere reserve. 

Although the forest cover data indicate that over 60 percent of the habitat is intact, in recent years larger-scale forestry operations have taken hold. 

Keeper of the forest

As a “rimata”, Dason is the keeper of traditions, the spiritual leader, a master of shamanic ceremonies and the soul of his clan. With humour and lightheardness he maintains the harmony within the community. 

ABOVE: Mentawaians have a strong spiritual relationship with the forest believing that the spirits of humans and the rainforest are interconnected. As Dason leads us trough the forests he takes a moment to explain “Sabulunganan”; a complex belief system to honor the spirits of their ancestors, the ocean, rivers, sky, forest, and all that is natural within.

Arat Sabulungan, the animist belief in the harmony of all natural elements, was banned in Indonesia during the regime of Suharto. There was a policy of “modernising the Mentawai” and forcibly relocating their villages from the forests to coastal areas. Behavioural change programmes were set up to teach the Mentawai to “assimilate to a developing Indonesia”. Environmentalists say that these programs really masked plans by Suharto’s family members to open the forests to logging companies from Jakarta.

Shamanism and Magic

Health is a state of harmony, and for the Mentawaia this is holy. Within their culture, doctors and priests are one. This because the spirit is directly responsible for the health of the body. These healers fly on the wings of trance, to maintain balance in the spirit world. 

ABOVE: A night full of Magic and singing with Dason.

Beauty for the Soul

 The Mentawai believe that everything has a soul – man, animals, plants and even objects. The people and their souls need to be in good relationship with each other. All souls wander around, having their own experiences, both good and bad, as a kind of invisible double. Souls are believed to have the capability of separating themselves from their possessors. That is why a person must take great care to lead an attractive life so it’s soul would want to stick around. Not only by fulfilling important tasks or having good experiences but also by maintaining beauty in physical appearance. Typical tattoos as well as painting one’s body or filing their teeth are special enhancements to appease the soul. The beauty of the group’s communal house is also a factor, flowergardens  and carved wooden figures are famous for decorating. An attractive life includes beautiful rituals and festivities, some of them lasting sev­eral months. If the soul feels neglected there is a risk it will desert its owner and move in with the ancestors, meaning the death of the owner. In other words, beauty is a precondition for life.

Uma, the heart of Mentawai culture

 The uma is the centre of social, religious, and political life and it is here where every village member of the egalitarian Mentawai society is able to contribute to meetings about matters affecting the community. 

 ABOVE: Cookie remembers living here with 5 families, now he is the only one left. His family was forced to abandon their traditional life trough governement intervention in the 1950’s – 1960’s. Cookie refused to leave. He has around 20 pigs, 10 chickens, a cat and a dog as his only companions. Although he admits it can be lonely sometimes, he refuses to leave the rainforest, and his Uma,  as this is the only life he knows.

The Uma is build on sticks and has tree rooms that run the entire length. Pigs are free to roam underneath, foraging for food. To enter the Uma, one must climb onto a trunk (gorat) into which steps have been cut. It leads up to a platform (kakareat) where chickens are kept in hanging wicker baskets. The central room (tenganuma or balagau) is the main site for rituals and shamanic ceremonies, which can last several days.

ABOVE: At the heart of the uma is the ossuary beam (lelengan kalabaga) where the hunting trophies are displayed. 

 For the Mentawai, every living creature, plant or object has a vibration that resonates with all the others vibrations of the world.

 For the Mentawai, every living creature, plant or object has a vibration that resonates with all the others vibrations of the world. As a result, hunters and fishers thank their preys before taking their lives and implore them not to upset the vibration harmony with the other souls. The skulls of monkeys, sirauma, and other wild animals are hung and arranged as though to look toward the forest outside, their original home. In the same hope of appeasing sacrificed souls, the skulls of pigs and other domestic animals are hung across from the wild ones, looking toward the interior of the house, the hearth.

Poison or Omai

To survive in the jungle, the Mentawai rely on a formidable weapon: the omai. This poison is brushed onto arrowheads and is capable of knocking out a wild boar in just a few minutes. 

ABOVE: The kerei are responsible for the process of poison making. As healers, teachers and caretakers of indigenous knowledge, local Shamans are the backbone of Mentawai culture. They have the responsibility educate their community about ‘Arat Sabulungan’ – a belief system that links the supernatural powers of ancestral spirits to the ecology of the rainforest.

ABOVE: With a brush the Kerei  applys poison to the arrowheads. The arrows are then dried above a fire. The poison is so potent, it can parralize the respiratory muscles of an animal the size of a boar immediately.

“The Mentawai never harvest a plant or take the life of an animal without asking for their spirit’s forgiveness”

— Micheal Brent, Au Pays des Hommes-Fleurs

Sago, the tree of life

The sago is a central element in the Mentawai culture. Without it,  surviving in the jungle would be impossible. Every part of the Sago tree gets used. It is a nutritional staple, it yields flour to feed the animals it and is used in construction. By letting the tree ferment, sago worms can be harvested, a local favorite.

ABOVE: Sago worms live in the fermented Sago trees. These meaty worms are a local delicacy and a healthy source of protein.

Before cutting it, you have to speak to it and explain what is happening. The sago has a soul that you must appease with the help of other plants.

— Micheal Brent, Au Pays des Hommes-Fleurs

A culture under pressure

The indigenous people of the Mentawai Islands are said to have existed there for nearly 4,000 years. One of the last remaining hunter-gatherer groups on Earth, the Mentawai hold extraordinary knowledge of their natural environment, with their subsistent way of life having prospered without interruption for over a hundred generations. Yet, in a rapidly globalizing world, their culture is currently under pressure.

In the 1950s, the government began introducing development programs designed to integrate the Mentawai into mainstream society. This policy resulted in the suppression of the Mentawai’s traditions. In the decades to follow the majority of the Mentawai increasingly lost connection with their ancestral ways.

ABOVE: With extraordinary strength and resilience Cookie takes pride in his traditional way of life. Showing joy in simple things and facing difficulties with humor. But at his age life in the jungle becomes increasingly difficult. Cookie estimates that he must be at least 80 years old. At his age, even the smallest tasks take a lot of energy.

“I am Sikerei. I possess the knowledge of our ancestors. Our children must have the opportunity to learn a Mentawai education. It’s so important. It’s vital that we are able to teach our children the songs, dances, medicines and taboos, before it’s too late.” 

— Sikerei, Aman Masit Dere

ABOVE: Enjoying a treat for breakfast, freshly caught shrimp. His old age is showing and we wonder how he can manage to survive in the jungle alone.

With only a few of the Mentawai Shamans remaining a traditional life in the rainforest, a fascinating culture slowly disappears. 

PUBLISHED BY

PUBLISHED BY

Kevin De Vree and Nele Ruyters

Travelled to this area with a local Mentawai teacher. These photos are now being used to teach local children, who are living in a government settlement,  about their cultural heritage.

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