26.7.11

Dayak, the Native People of Borneo

Traditionally, Dayak agriculture was based on swidden rice cultivation. Agricultural Land in this sense was used and defined primarily in terms of hill rice farming, ladang (garden), and hutan (forest). Dayaks organised their labour in terms of traditionally based land holding groups which determined who owned rights to land and how it was to be used. The main dependence on subsistence and mid-scale agriculture by the Dayak has made this group active in this industry. The modern day rise in large scale monocrop plantations such as palm oil and bananas, proposed for vast swathes of Dayak land held under customary rights, titles and claims in Indonesia, threaten the local political landscape in various regions in Borneo.

Further problems continue to arise in part due to the shaping of the modern Malaysian and Indonesian nation-states on post-colonial political systems and laws on land tenure. The conflict between the state and the Dayak natives on land laws and native customary rights will continue as long as the colonial model on land tenure is used against local customary law. Underlying the world-view is an account of the creation and re-creation of this middle-earth where the Dayak dwell, arising out of a cosmic battle in the beginning of time between a primal couple, a male and female bird/dragon (serpent). Representations of this primal couple are amongst the most pervasivel motifs of Dayak art. The primal mythic conflict ended in a mutual, procreative murder, from the body parts of which the present universe arose stage by stage. The practice of Kaharingan differs from group to group, but shamans, specialists in ecstatic flight to other spheres, are central to Dayak religion, and serve to bring together the various realms of Heaven (Upper-world) and earth, and even Under-world, for example healing the sick by retrieving their souls which are journeying on their way to the Upper-world land of the dead, accompanying and protecting the soul of a dead person on the way to their proper place in the Upper-world, presiding over annual renewal and agricultural regeneration festivals, etc.Religious differences between Muslim and Christian natives of Borneo has led, at various times, to communal tensions.Muslim Dayaks have however retained their original identity and kept various customary practices consistent with their religion.


An example of common identity, over and above religious belief, is the Melanau group. A few practise a distinct Dayak form of Kaharingan, known as Liko. Liko is the earliest surviving form of religious belief for the Melanau, predating the arrival of Islam and Christianity to Sarawak. Social cohesion amongst the Melanau, despite religious differences, is markedly tight.


Despite the destruction of pagan religions in Europe by Christians, most of the people who try to conserve the Dayak's religion are missionaries. For example Reverend William Howell who has contributed to the Sarawak National Gazette. His contributions were also compiled in the book The Sea Dayaks and Other Races of Sarawak.


Kinship in Dayak society is traced in both lines. Although, in Dayak Iban society, men and women possess equal rights in status and property ownership, political office has strictly been the occupation of the traditional Iban Patriarch. The most salient feature of Dayak social organisation is the practice of Longhouse domicile. The Iban of the Kapuas and Sarawak have organized their Longhouse settlements in response to their migratory patterns. Iban Longhouses vary in size, from those slightly over 100 metres in length to large settlements over 500 metres in length. Longhouses have a door and apartment for every family living in the longhouse. Dayak headhunters

Headhunting was an important part of Dayak culture, in particular to the Iban and Kenyah. External interference by the reign of the Brooke Rajahs in Sarawak and the Dutch in Kalimantan Borneo curtailed and limited this tradition. Apart from massed raids, the practice of headhunting was then limited to individual retaliation attacks or the result of chance encounters. Early Brooke Government reports describe Dayak Iban and Kenyah War parties with captured enemy heads. At various times, there have been massive coordinated raids in the interior, and throughout coastal Borneo, directed by the Raj during Brooke's reign in Sarawak. Metal-working is elaborately developed in making mandaus (machetes - 'parang' in Indonesian ).


The combination of these three factors (short, cutting edge up and protrusion) makes for an extremely fast drawing-action. There are various terms to describe different types of Dayak blades.

Dayaks in Indonesia and Malaysia have figured prominently in the politics of these countries. Organised Dayak political representation in the Indonesian State first appeared during the Dutch Administration, in the form of the Dayak Unity Party (Parti Persatuan Dayak) in the 30s and 40s. Feudal Sultanates of Kutai, Banjar and Pontianak figured prominently prior to the rise of the Dutch Colonial rule.


Political circumstances aside, the Dayaks in the Indonesian side actively organised under various associations beginning with the Sarekat Dayak established in 1919, to the Parti Dayak in the 40s, and to the present day, where Dayaks occupy key positions in government.


In Sarawak, Dayak political activism had its roots in the SNAP (Sarawak National Party) and Pesaka during post independence construction in the 1960s. Under Indonesia's transmigration programme, settlers from densely-populated Java and Madura were encouraged to settle in the Indonesian provinces of Borneo. In 2001 the Indonesian government ended the gradual Javanese settlement of Indonesian Borneo that began under Dutch rule in 1905.


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