Enlivening a Fading Culture: A Dayak Experience in Borneo


By Jiten Yumnam

In a July end afternoon of 2017 at Linga Ambawang village along the Samak River in West Kalimantan in Indonesian side of Borneo Island, around one hundred Dayak children and youths conglomerate inside the traditional school, built similarly to Dayak’s long house, to learn indigenous traditional knowledge from their elders. The Dayak people, with several sub-tribes, are spread all over the Borneo Island and mostly settled in Kalimantan in Indonesia and Sabah and Sarawak State of Malaysia. The indigenous school, built with wood, cane and bamboo adorned with Dayak peoples’ art work and musical instruments, was recently established by Dayak youths with support of their community elders.

The cheering of “Aros, Aros” permeates the air in union when Dayak children greets their elders in union as one enters the indigenous school. An enchanting experience is how the indigenous children greets their elders and follow the dance steps of their elders and youths like Ms. Modesta Wisa, a Dayak young lady from West Kalimantan and Atama Katama, another Dayak from Sabah, Malaysia, who presented graceful dance steps, passed on by their ancestors through generations. The graceful dance of the children along the beating of drums enlivens the long house for a while. The ancestors’ spirits must be delighted with such initiatives to orient children with indigenous cultures and to keep traditions alive.

The village chief of the village, Mr Noeldi, shared that the indigenous school is at an early stage, just six month old and expressed his confidence that initiating something small is a good beginning to promote their peoples’ culture and traditions. He believes by maintaining consistency, the initiatives can be strengthened further till the traditional knowledge system is fully protected. The traditional school can rekindle indigenous children and youths connection with their land and territories for generations.

Ms. Modesta Wisa, one of the youths involved in setting up the indigenous school, shared that the school is a dream coming true for her and that the initiative comes from her peoples’ heart and passion and support. Similar initiatives are taken up in other places like Adat Radang, such as knowledge on caring for their land, environment, traditional craft, arts and promoting indigenous language.

A village leader, Mr. Tomo opined that loss of land and forest, already widespread in Kalimantan, has been uprooting the Dayak people especially the youths from their land. With traditional territories usurped by multinational companies, like palm oil, rubber plantation and mining companies backed by the Indonesian State, it is high time for all generations to revitalize the intrinsic survival role and importance of defending land and forest. Revitalizing and transmission of traditional knowledge such as imparting to younger generations is a crucial step towards sustainably manage their land, forest and rivers and to resist the corporations from continuing plunder and expropriation of their land and forest.

The originality of knowledge that comes from traditional knowledge, customary laws, rituals, dances, knowledge about indigenous plants and food, traditional healing etc are a real value for indigenous communities. Most indigenous resources are mostly oral, which can also be a challenge in their preservation and promotion. Mr. Atama Katama, a youth leader from Sabah State, Malaysia shared indigenous youths need to learn and cherish their cultures and traditional of way, intrinsic in defending their rights over their land and their future survival.

In a faraway village tucked between forest and hills in the Central Part of Kalimantan in Borneo islands, a small team of Dayak youths shared traditional songs and dance to a group of young Dayak children, again a conscious initiative to keep their traditions and cultures alive amidst the strong waves of globalization that swept cultures and peoples from survival. In Mansio Village in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, a traditional healer’s home and courtyard in the village, is busy with indigenous youths preparing to learn traditional dance and songs and knowledge. Few children arrived first, but later more children joined in as the music and the songs permeate the village. The teaching and learning process is a direct display of an inter-generational learning of traditional Dayak knowledge. An indigenous martial art, Mallingkaba was also shared by the youths along with the traditional healer. Young children between the age of four and eleven were taught with indigenous martial art by young persons between Fifteen to Twenty years of age. Young boys and girls are both taught in mixed or segregated way depending on their role and responsibility. And when the sharing needs further skills and improvement, the traditional shaman was requested for his knowledge, intervention and guidance. For a moment, when the collective learning begins, the village is filled with the voice of the children with their song and dance and most importantly their laughter and expression of delight and happiness in their tender faces. The village is suddenly transformed and the parents and other elders of the village join in to appreciate the learning processes. An indigenous learning in its best form, indeed!

The best of learning happens when generations from the community is involved and there’s much hope these conscious efforts will help enliven the Dayak culture and traditions. The learning of traditional dance and songs happens in a relaxed and conducive environment, where there is joy and laughter all around, and where there’s strong sense of assuming collective role and responsibility in keeping traditions alive towards ensuring the survival of their people. The willingness to learn and the conscious craving to embark on learning in context of a rich but a degrading culture in what makes the entire learning process and initiative special and unique. The inculcation of Dayak youths and kids with traditional knowledge and to respect their elders’ will help them reconnect with their land and cultures. As some of the traditional songs shared is about the glory of the Kalimantan and the peoples care of their land, one could feel there’s much hope Dayak peoples vision and hope for a socially, economically and politically liberated Kalimantan is still possible. One is hopeful the positive energy that prevailed during the learning process transcend in the coming generations to keep the people, traditions and land alive for long and for the Dayak to survive as peoples with rights and dignity. The sharing of knowledge across generations is indeed, a beautiful experience and moments to cherish. The initiatives are a conscious initiative of Dayak youths to promote their traditional knowledge amidst the increased changes in the traditional cultures among the Dayak peoples due to increased loss of their land to a plantation based economy, increased pursuance of extractive industries and rapid globalization of cultures and traditions.

Ms. Wisa, at the sidelines of her imparting traditional knowledge in indigenous schools, shared West Kalimantan has seen fast infusion and introduction of palm oil plantations, which destroyed the forest and other traditional livelihood source of her people. She expressed that defending the land and forest in Kalimantan along with imparting indigenous knowledge among the Dayak youths is one way of defending indigenous peoples’ way of life and cultures and in asserting their self-determination over their land, lives and cultures. Ms. Wisa is fully conscious that the increased loss of her land and forest is worsening the loss of their culture and rituals and traditional knowledge dependence on existence of forest and subsequently the role of women such as in Bamboo, Cane and craft works. Passing on the traditional knowledge and practices such as traditional medicine also depends on protection of their land and forest resources. She seems to find solace in fostering inter-generational and inter-age connections, elders, women, youths and children.

A visit at Kampung Raba and Tapis Village in interior West Kalimantan is simply a testimony of the ruthless destruction of forest land by the ever expanding oil palm plantations and companies like Hilton and the negation of community rights over their land and forest. Mr. David Dumas of the village shared how the palm oil companies have destroyed the forest land of their village and indigenous way of life.

The palm oil companies also deceived villagers and incited much conflict among villagers. Similarly in Tapis Village, village elders complained that oil palm companies like Hilton, Agrina and SGC unleashed plunder of their forest by unleashing forest land acquisition in the most exploitative means. The sharing in the two village reflects not just the traditional wisdom and sustainable land and forest management of indigenous communities, but also the role and pattern of the Indonesian State and the Corporate bodies in deceiving indigenous peoples and also pushing them to the brink of survival and annihilation of their cultures, tradition and value system. The Indonesia State is also preparing to mine Bauxite in a sacred hill within their village land in Kampung Raba and peripheral village. The Dayak people in both Malaysian and Indonesian side of Borneo confronts increased onslaught on their land and resources and more of state repression in the Malaysian side. Indigenous youths are increasingly conscious of the unfolding realities within their midst and preparing to undertake all efforts and means to both address and respond to such persisting and emerging realities. The promotion of indigenous way of life, of sustainable management of their land and resources with their traditional practices surely will contribute in fostering sustainable development in Borneo.

Indeed, losing indigenous peoples land and resources will also lead to loss of cultures, traditions and value systems within the community. Indigenous youths like Atama and Wisa endeavors to promote cross cultural exchange and sharing among the Dayak youths in Malaysian and Indonesia side of Dayak territories and also to learn the challenges to their land and territories, of environmental destruction, of increased assault on their land, of increased corporate expansionism and imperialist globalization, the infusion of foreign capital and the impacts on their land, forest and resources and the negative impacts on the culture of indigenous youths. Dayak youths today are consciously endeavored to inculcate strong leadership to understand, tackle and respond all challenges impacting their cultures and way of life.

Indigenous communities also need to respond to other factors that also threaten their cultures, such as the introduction of larger economic and political forces that forced indigenous children, youths and women to move away from our traditional land and cultures, such as migrations to outside the territory for education, for work and for other reasons etc. Visionary initiatives and practical approach of Dayak youths is simply exemplary and a lesson for all indigenous communities beyond frontiers for similar initiatives in other indigenous land and territories, such as in Manipur and across India’s North East towards asserting indigenous peoples self-determination over their land, life, natural resources and future.

The article was originally published in the Imphal Free Press.


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