The Mentawaian tribe (Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia)

The Mentawaian tribe lives on a very distant corner of the globe: Siberut Island. Siberut is a 12-hour night boat ride away from Sumatra, Indonesia’s biggest island, and forms part of the Mentawai archipelago. Surfing is a big business in Mentawai as the islands have supposedly the best waves on earth and most visitors come for the surfing and not the Mentawaians. I stayed one week with a Mentawaian family in their “uma” (house) and could, apart from getting very sick in the jungle, learn about their way of life and beliefs.

The Mentawains can only be found on Siberut Island and very little is known about their origin. It is assumed that they emigrated from Sumatra to Nias Island and made their way to Siberut from there. The Mentawains have their own language, traditional laws and regulations, and many of them are skilled boat builders and hunters. After the independence from the Dutch, the Indonesian government banned many of the Mentawains’ customs, such as their body tattoos, sharpened teeth (many of them still have their teeth filed into points) and long hair. Although the ban has not been enforced, some villagers have adopted modern fashions nowadays. Traditional clothing is a loincloth made from the bark of the breadfruit tree for men und a bark skirt for women. Mentawains traditionally wear bands of red-colored rattan, beads and brass rings.

Traditional villages are built along riverbanks and consist of one or more “uma”, communal houses. Several families can live in the same house and, the houses stand on wooden piles and are windowless. Discussions affecting the community take place in the uma and important men make most of the major decisions.

The Mentawaians’ native religion involves the worship of nature spirits and a belief in the existence of ghosts, as well as the soul. The chief nature spirits are those of the sky, the sea, the jungle and the earth. The sky spirits are considered the most influential, and there are also two river spirits. All inanimate objects have a “kina” (spirit), which gives them life. The worship of the soul is of big importance, being vital to good health and longevity. The soul is believed to depart the body at various times during life before its ultimate escape at death. Sickness, for example, is the result of the temporary absence of the soul and dreams signify that the soul is “on vacation”. My Mentawaian family tried to cure my sickness with plants from the jungle, chanting and rubbed my body with a chicken before sacrificing it, trying to chase away bad spirits. The same day I arrived their 2-week-old baby had died, and in their belief there was a bad spirit over their house. When the soul leaves the body at death it is transformed to a ghost, and Mentawains try to avoid these ghosts, whom they suspect of attempting to rob the living of their souls. To protect themselves, they place fetish sticks at every entrance to the village and monkey head skeletons inside the house opposite the entrance.

It has been the missionaries who had the most influence on the Mentawai people, creating fundamental changes in their culture. After the Protestants, Catholic missionaries arrived and also Islam began to make inroads during the Dutch era. Today more than half the population claims to be Protestant, 16% Catholic and 13% Muslim, while the rest have no official religion.

Staying with the Mentawaians is definitely a highlight of a trip to Sumatra, as many of their traditional beliefs, habits and “looks” (their sharpened teeth, body tattoos, hunting with bow and arrow) can still be witnessed.

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