Enlivening a Fading Culture: A Dayak Experience in Borneo
By Jiten Yumnam
In an afternoon of July 2017 in Linga Ambawang village, located along the Samak River in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, around one hundred Dayak children and youth gather inside the traditional school to learn indigenous knowledge from their elders. The Dayak people, with several sub-tribes, are spread all over the Borneo Island and most have settled in the Kalimantan in Indonesia and in the Sabah and Sarawak State of Malaysia. The indigenous school, made of wood, cane, and bamboo, decorated with indigenous arts and musical instruments, was recently established by the Dayak youth with the support of their community elders. It was an enchanting experience how the children greeted their elders while following the steps to a dance led by Ms. Modesta Wisa, a Dayak young lady from West Kalimantan and Atama Katama, another Dayak from Sabah. They demonstrated graceful and rhythmic dance steps, which was passed on from their ancestors through generations.
The cheering of “Aros, Aros” filled the air when Dayak children greeted their elders in union. The graceful dance of the children to the beating drums enlivened the whole stretch of the school. Beautiful initiatives like these introduce our younger generations to indigenous cultures and orient them to keep our traditions alive. There was much hope in the collective voices of the children expressing appreciation in their learnings and in the initiative, itself. The ancestors and spirits of the land must be enchanted and delighted with such initiatives.
The village chief, Mr. Noeldi, shared that the indigenous school is at an early stage at just six-month-old but expressed his confidence that despite being small, it is a good beginning to promote their peoples’ culture and traditions. He believes that by maintaining consistency, the initiatives can be further strengthened until their traditional values and knowledge is fully protected and in the safe hands of the coming generations. The traditional school can rekindle and nurture indigenous children and youth’s 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 come true for her and that the initiative came from her people’s heart and passion that was made possible with the community’s support. Similar initiatives are being taken up in other places like Adat Radang, where knowledge on traditional craft and arts, caring for the land and environment, and promoting indigenous language are taught.
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 continuously usurped by monopolist, multi-national palm oil and rubber plantation companies, mining companies, and the state, it is high time for all generations to revitalize their intrinsic role as defendants of their land and forest. Revitalization and transmission of traditional knowledge by imparting them to younger generations is a crucial step towards sustainable and responsible management of their land, forest, and rivers and towards resistance against the companies’ continuing plunder and expropriation of their land and forest.
Speaking about the unique initiative, Atama Katama, a youth leader from Sabah, shared that indigenous youths need to learn and cherish their cultures and traditional ways, which are important in defending their rights over their lands and their future survival. Most indigenous resources are passed on orally, which can be a challenge in its preservation and promotion. Traditional knowledge on customary laws, rituals, dances, indigenous plants and food, traditional healing, etc. is very valuable for indigenous communities. As globalization in these changing times is becoming detrimental to the preservation of such knowledge, the sharing and exchange among the Dayak people, including the youth, is needed to enliven the cultures and mitigate the threats and challenges.
In a faraway village tucked between the forest and hills in the Central Part of Kalimantan in Borneo Islands, a small team of Dayak youths performed traditional songs and dance to a group of young Dayak children; another conscious initiative to keep their traditions and cultures alive amidst the strong waves of globalization that sweeps indigenous cultures and peoples off survival. In a courtyard by a traditional healer’s home in Mansio Village in West Kalimantan, indigenous youths are busy learning traditional dance and songs. At first, only a few children arrived but later on, more children joined in as the music and the songs played across the village. The teaching and learning process is a direct display of inter-generational learning of traditional Dayak knowledge. An indigenous martial art, Mallingkaba, was also shared to the youths along with the traditional healer. The elder children, aged 15 to 20, taught Mallingkaba to the younger ones, aged 4 to 11. Boys and girls were taught together and separately depending on their role and responsibility. The traditional shaman occasionally intervened when requested to share his knowledge and skills. When the collective learning began, the village was filled with the voices of the children from their songs, dances, and most importantly, the laughter and the expression of delight on their tender faces. The village is suddenly transformed and the parents and the other elders of the village also joined in on the learning activity. Indigenous learning in its best form, indeed!
As some of the traditional songs shared is about the glory of Kalimantan and the peoples’ care of their land, one could feel there’s much hope and that the Dayak’s vision of a socially, economically, and politically liberated Kalimantan is still possible. One is hopeful that the positive energy that prevailed during the learning process will carry through the coming generations and keep the people, their traditions, and their land alive for long and help the Dayak survive as peoples and as a proud nation. The sharing of knowledge across generations is indeed a beautiful experience and a moment to cherish. These activities are a conscious initiative of the Dayak youths to promote their traditional knowledge and practices amidst the increasing changes in their traditional cultures brought about by the land losses due to a plantation-based economy and rapid globalization.
Indigenous youths like Atama and Wisa attempt to promote cross-cultural exchanges and sharing among the Dayak youths of Malaysia and Indonesia and also to learn the challenges in their land and territories concerning environmental destruction, increased assault on their land, increased corporate expansionism and imperialist globalization, the invasion of foreign capital and the impacts on their land, forest, and resources, and its negative impacts on the culture of indigenous youths. Dayak youths today are inculcated to be stronger leaders to understand and respond appropriately to the challenges affecting their cultures and way of life.
Ms. Wisa shared that West Kalimantan has seen the fast intrusion of palm oil plantations which destroyed the forests that were the traditional source of livelihood and culture for the Dayak people. She expressed that defending the land and forests of 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 self-determination over their land, lives, and cultures. Ms. Wisa is fully aware that the increased loss of her land and forest to palm oil plantations exacerbates the decline of their culture, rituals, and traditional knowledge which are dependent on the healthy survival of forest, including the women’s bamboo, cane, ad craft works. She works with Dayak organizations to ensure the protection of their peoples’ land, forest, and water, and the sustenance of their culture. Indigenous schools are needed to ensure the full embodiment of indigenous cultures and traditions.
The best learning happens when many generations from the community are involved and there is much hope that this conscious effort will help enliven the Dayak culture and traditions. The learning of the traditional dance and songs happened in a relaxed and conducive environment; there was joy and laughter all around and there was a strong sense of collective role and responsibility in keeping the traditions alive and in ensuring the survival of their people. The best of learning also happens in natural settings: in the forest and in the traditional long houses, far away from the crowded classrooms with rigorous strictures and compulsions on young minds. The willingness to learn and the conscious urge to embark on learning in the context of a rich but declining culture is what makes the entire learning process special and unique. The inculcation of Dayak youths and kids with traditional knowledge and to respect towards their elders will help them reconnect with their land and cultures.
Initiatives of the youths like that of Wisa, much concerned with the changing cultures of Dayak people, deserve much appreciation and support. She initiated the indigenous school for the Dayak children to impart their tradition, culture, and heritages, that would make the Dayak people a proud people with dignity and respect, and most importantly, a people fully able to assert self-determination over their land, resources, and their future. While involving herself in teaching Dayak dances, songs, and crafts, she also encouraged her friends and community elders to take responsibility and to also contribute in fostering Dayak culture and traditions. She seems to find solace in fostering inter-generational and inter-age connections among 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 of companies like Hilton and the negation of community rights over their land and forest. Mr. David Dumas, one of the villagers, shared how the palm oil companies have destroyed the forest land of their village and their indigenous way of life.
The palm oil companies also deceived the villagers and incited conflict among them. Similarly, in Tapis Village, the village elders complained that oil palm companies like Hilton, Agrina, and SGC plundered their forest through unleashed land acquisition with the most exploitative means. The sharing in the two villages reflected not just the traditional wisdom and sustainable land and forest management of indigenous communities, but also the role of the Indonesian State and the corporate bodies in deceiving indigenous peoples and pushing them to the brink of survival through annihilation of their cultures, tradition, and values. The Indonesian Government is also preparing to mine Bauxite in a sacred hill between their village land in Kampung Raba and another peripheral village. The Dayak people in both the Malaysian and Indonesian side of Borneo faces increased onslaught on their lands and resources and state repression especially in the Malaysian side. Indigenous youths are growing increasingly conscious of the unfolding realities and are preparing to undertake all efforts and means to respond to these emerging realities. The promotion of the indigenous way of life, of sustainable management of land and resources using traditional knowledge and practices will surely contribute to fostering sustainable development in Borneo.
The passing on of traditional knowledge and practices such as on traditional medicine also depends on protection of their land and forest resources. Indeed, losing our land and resources will also lead to loss of cultures, traditions and value systems within the community. Indigenous communities also need to respond to other factors that threaten their cultures, such as the introduction of larger economic and political forces that force indigenous children, youths, and women to migrate outside their territories for the sake of education, work, and other reasons. The visionary initiatives and practical approach of the Dayak youth is simply exemplary and gives a lesson for all indigenous communities beyond frontiers to conduct similar initiatives in other indigenous land and territories, such as in Manipur, that are directed towards asserting self-determination over their land, life, and future.