“In the same way, I turn my back on such hopeless questions as how many tribes there are in Borneo, or worse yet, what ethnicity might be, essentially and universally. Instead, I show how ethnicity appeared in the thoughts and actions of longhouse-dwelling people, and how it was constituted by, and constitutive of, their communities.” Peter Metcalf – The Life of the Longhouse
Where do you come from? It is the simplest of questions yet loaded with possibility; the stuff of small talk but with the biggest of expectations and implications. In most cases, the answer is fluid: in Europe, we might call ourselves Asian; in Asia, Malaysian; in Malaysia, Sarawakian; the answer focusing in proportion to the distance from home and cultural commonalities, until eventually we are recognized as Anak someone or Binti someone else. In Malaysia, which features high on every index of ethnic, linguistic or cultural diversity, the question is key; even more so in Sarawak, where ethnic rivals bio- diversity, distinctions which have drawn in academics and anthropologists from far and wide to study the various peoples of Borneo with ever increasing precision. But the answer is rarely simple; even Peter Metcalf, one of Sarawak’s most renowned and dedicated students, declares: “The tangles of ethnology in central Borneo, however, would strain the patience of a saint.”
Yet, the drive to untangle these tangles endures. Malaysia as a whole is definitively multi-cultural, often described in terms of the trinity – Malay, Chinese and Indian - of whom two make up nearly 40% of the 7 billion humans that crowd this planet, and that is not even counting those in diaspora.
But Sarawak itself has taken it one step further, not just in the sheer number of names but also in their uniqueness, with well over 40 ethnic groups, for at least 35 of whom there is no other place than Borneo that is home. The language is rife with terminologies, grouping together or dividing up as fashion and administrative necessity dictate. But unlike the big three, the reality is that even the Iban, Sarawak’s most populace indigenous group, may not be well-known, even on the Peninsula, while some smaller groups are almost unknown, even on their home state’s turf. Many Sarawakians, for example, would be hard pressed to describe the differences between the Penan and the Punan with any degree of accuracy, let alone the Punan Bah. In a state where unusual ethnicities are common, what is it like to be one of the less known; to be Tring or Tagal or Tabun; Sekapan, Kejaman or Lahanan? If your people number in the thousands, do you revel in your rarity or, rather, long for safety in numbers?
Let’s face it, many Sarawakians could not tell you how many indigenous groups there are or even recognize all the names on the list, let alone provide one. Jayl Langub – Lun Bawang ethnically, anthropologist professionally and the expert charged with producing just such a list for the Sarawak Museum – declares somewhat sheepishly, however, that he is not comfortable with these classifications, despite the fact that they are his profession’s stock in trade. As he puts it: “(The system of classification) is a tool that anthropologists use but invariably, once they are there, they explain that the tool is not comprehensive. But” he laughs, “it’s the best tool that we’ve got.” He recounts the story of Charles Hose, the grandfather of official ethnic classification in Sarawak, who attempted to classify all non-Kayan and non-Kenyah residents of the Baram watershed as the ‘Klemantan’, a term which has no recognition among the residents themselves but yet still persists in anthropological literature to this day.
In a state where unusual ethnicities are common, what is it like to be one of the less known; to be Tring or Tagal or Tabun; Sekapan, Kejaman or Lahanan? If your people number in the thousands, do you revel in your rarity or, rather, long for safety in numbers?
However, the tool, no matter how flawed, is undergoing a perpetual process of refinement, building on Hose, pigeon- holing people according to language, location, cultural practices, common historical experience and a shared cosmology. It is the money you use to deal with other people.” The terms are often put in place by outsiders – neighbours, officials, rulers, anthropologists, ethnologists – Historically, Sarawak people would most likely have described themselves in terms of their river. The word Iban, for example, simply meant person and individuals would have identified themselves as ‘Iban Skrang’ or ‘Iban Saribas’, explaining in some part why certain Bidayuh dialects refer to the Iban as Skrang, for example in Penrissen, and others as Saribas as in nearby Padawan.
The idea of the ‘Iban’ as a homogenous ethnic group is relatively modern, post-dating the Brooke-era notions of Land and Sea Dayaks. In fact, as Metcalf describes, ‘before colonial annexation, longhouse communities were sovereign entities, and all relations with other communities were foreign relations’ – the idea of the collective ending at the edge of their communal boundary – and, more tellingly, ‘multiple ethnicities are represented even within longhouse communities’.
The idea of Orang Ulu too is a new one, encompassing numerous indigenous groups in a regional collective, some of whom accept the new nomenclature and some who do not. “Some people are not comfortable with the term Orang Ulu.” Again Jayl smiles with typical wryness.
“Personally I am OK with it because that is really where I am from – the headwaters on the border between Sabah, Kalimantan and Lawas.” For his personal experience, the name is so accurate as to make it meaningful, but in general, being described as ‘Upriver People’ tends to suggests that someone else is further down, the distance from others integral to the definition. However, in spite of the difficulties, ethnicity still exists even outside the mind of the academic or the administrator. Ask anyone what they are and they will almost certainly have an answer, though admittedly not always the same one for every occasion.
Jayl Langub – Lun Bawang ethnically, anthropologist professionally is the expert charged with producing the list of indigenous groups for the Sarawak Museum
The idea of Orang Ulu is a new one, encompassing numerous indigenous groups in a regional collective, some of whom accept the new nomenclature and some who do not. “Some people are not comfortable with the term Orang Ulu.” Again Jayl smiles with typical wryness. “Personally I am OK with it because that is really where I am from – the headwaters on the border between Sabah, Kalimantan and Lawas.”
Berawan funeral rites as described by Peter Metcalf in Death be not strange.
Among the things that interested me about the Berawan were their funeral rites, which involve what anthropologists call “secondary burial,” although the Berawan do not usually bury the dead at all. Full rites consist of four stages: the first and third involve ritual preparation of the corpse; the second and fourth make up steps in storage of the remains. The first stage, lasting two to ten days, consists of rites performed immediately after death. During the second stage, the bereaved family stores the corpse in the longhouse or on a simple platform in the graveyard. This storage lasts at least eight months and sometimes for several years if the close kin cannot immediately afford to complete the expensive final stages. Third, if the corpse has been in the graveyard, the family brings it back to the longhouse, where it is kept for six to ten days, while the family lavishly entertains guests who have been summoned far and wide. Finally, the remains are removed to a final resting place, an impressively proportioned
Sigar Malang is Berawan. Born in Long Terawan, one apparently of seven communities in Tinjar and Tutoh where the Berawan originate, he now lives in Kuching with his Bidayuh wife and two children. According to Metcalf, ‘their autonym comes down to us in the colonial records as “Berawan,” although the name they use among themselves is Melawan, and Sebop people say Belau’un.’ The external confusion begins. Officially, they are often described as a subset of the Kenyah, but Sigar shakes his head. “We don’t even speak their dialect,” he says emphatically.
In fact, for him, the language is a mark of distinction. After all, he says, only a small percentage of people speak his language, which apparently shares linguistic similarities with Philippine dialects, while he has mastered nine – necessity creating knowledge. For him, being Berawan is a proud lineage – one of art and music and culture. His own grandfather, an accomplished carpenter, has work in the Sarawak Museum. He is reticent at first, unwilling to appear boastful, but when pressed, he admits that the Berawan were known for their bravery, triumphing regularly at the Baram regatta throughout the 1960s. His new life in the South, however, seems far removed from the Berawan heartland of the Baram. Many of his new neighbours have never heard of them.
Are they Iban, they wonder? But the awareness is growing and the Berawan now have their own association and the “Pesta Gelimeh”, a festival of Berawan culture. But the distance is significant. His own children do not speak Berawan, living away from the longhouse. ‘It depends on their exposure,’ he admits. He makes a point of bringing them home every two years but the connections he describes are less cultural and more community. The greatest hallmark of Berawan culture, he shares, is their respect for the older people. He talks of his family tree, the memory of hearing the sape played from one end of the longhouse to the other, his grandmother who always referred to Kuching as Sarawak, and the carpentry skills passed from grandfather to father, now lost to a lack of materials. One day, when he retires, he will return and complete the connection. “I was brought up there. I know everyone very well,” he says. Hajjah Dora binti Haji Mohamad Leong, on the other hand, personifies the Sarawak melting pot. With a Kiput mother and a Chinese father who ‘masuk Kiput’, she was born into the mixed community of Long Lama where her grandfather was an upriver agent. Now married to a Sarawak Malay, with his own mix of German, Indian and Arab, she remains staunchly linked to her Kiput heritage, taking to heart the words of Adenan Satem who once told her: “Jangan malu si mada diri sendiri berbangsa Kiput” (Don’t be embarrassed to tell everyone that you are a Kiput). Her Islamic identity is openly displayed in her home, full of family photos of their Haj. But, for her, the two identities co-exist, neither diminishing the other. Her own great-grandfather was one of the first Kiput converts to Islam and as their cosmology divided, so too did the community with the Christians settling around Kuala Tutoh and the Muslims at Padang Kerbau Marudi and Lubok Nibong. Again, Metcalf sums it up by saying: ‘longhouse communities do not stay glued together; their histories are full of rivalry, collapse, and dispersion.’ So, conversion has seen the start of a new branch of culture, as in most Sarawak communities. Gawai may be gone but now they have Kiput Hari Raya and so new traditions are born from the ashes of the Adat Lama.
The family photo of Abu Bakar Bin Matussin (Tamah Usang Bakan) and Halimah Binti Drahman (Tinah Usang) are from the mother's side at Long Lama, Baram. The Kiput costumes are worn for special occasions like Gawai, Christmas, and weddings.
Hajjah Dora binti Haji Mohamad Leong, personifies the Sarawak melting pot. With a Kiput mother and a Chinese father who ‘masuk Kiput’, she was born into the mixed community of Long Lama where her grandfather was an upriver agent. Now married to a Sarawak Malay, with his own mix of German, Indian and Arab, she remains staunchly linked to her Kiput heritage.
For Dora too, language is key. Her children, however, all speak Kiput, despite their mixed household and Kuching home, highlighting the mother in mother tongue. “Women have more responsibility to pass on the culture,” she believes. “They are closer to the children.” Her son remembers listening to his mother’s Kiput stories. “It’s in my blood,” he says. “So it is very important to me.” Perhaps this is ultimately why ethnicity resonates. It is the passing of material from one generation to the next and its loss would signify a loosening of those family ties. As a language is lost, then so too are the links to your grandmother’s own tongue. The world of academia, despite its critique of and clumsiness with ethnicity, only serves to heighten the experience. Without Metcalf, shares Sigar, there would be no documentation of the Berawan journey into death. While their own stories are unclear and full of emotion, Metcalf gave him factual details – a framework on which to hang his own origins. Sigar would like to start a museum, a place to preserve all their artifacts. “It is a dying culture, in a sense,” he admits sadly. As he wisely notes: “Time is an issue.”
So, ethnicity, however difficult, deftly straddles the institutional, the academic and the personal. It can be a source of division but also of political power. It answers questions of origin: where did everyone come from and, in some cases, who was here first? For the Bidayuh, with disparate dialects sharing minimal linguistic similarities, they choose to band together. For the Berawan, against the backdrop of the ongoing battle for their ancestral lands in Mulu, Sigar says: ‘In the olden days, people were happy to be described as Orang Ulu. But now that the name is established, it is important to be Berawan again.” For the personal, while people may defy pigeonholes, they sometimes enjoy the comfort of conformity. For each small person on this planet, there is solace in being part of a greater whole – family, community, clan, culture. With that sense of belonging comes a place in the grand scheme. For not only does culture bind us together, but it also sets us apart. “If I do not preserve the culture,” says Dora, “it will be gone and then nobody will know what Kiput is.” From Chinese to Indian to Malay to Berawan to Kiput, ethnicity is an aspect of remembrance – the museum in all of us.
KIPUT STORY FROM DORA
Once, there was no such thing as Kiputs...
They came from Lio Mato, which means the place that was washed away. The flood was a curse on our community, and we needed to form a new one. But the curse followed us. Our rice turned into dung and we faced famine. When we moved downstream, we were attacked by wild boar. Then we came to Long Laput and there we bathed to wash away the curse. As we blew into the water, a noise was made and so the name of Kiput was born.
Mixed race but with very ‘orang puteh' face, Karen Shepherd has always found the idea of ethnicity both fascinating and uncomfortable in equal measure. Unable to speak more than a few words of any Chinese dialect without howls of hilarity, laying any claim to a Chinese heritage has always been difficult but yet important - a link to her mother, grandmother and beyond. Now, with a Dayak husband, the cultural connections expand. Members of the Human race, unite!