The Life of the Mentawai Tribe
The Mentawai are the native people of the Mentawai Islands in West Sumatra province, Indonesia. They live a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the coastal and rainforest environments of the islands.
I always try to get off the beaten track when I am traveling so when I was in Indonesia I chose to go visit the Mentawai Islands off the Sumatra coast. As usual, I was not disappointed. A 10 hour night crossing by boat will get you to Siberut which is the largest island of the 4 groups of Mentawai Islands.
As I didn’t have any time commitments, I decided to go to the main village and organize my trip from there. It took 2 days to get in contact with the tribe and the family that would host me. I then shopped for supplies and gifts for the family.
The boat ride up river to reach the tribe took around 6 hours. I will always remember my arrival to the community as the Mentawai people appeared from the forest wearing only loincloth and ink. That was really quite the scene. They helped me carry my things and the supplies I brought to their Uma – a hut built with bamboo, wood and grass – where I would live with them for the next 5 days. Each Uma is decorated with skulls of the various animals they hunted.
For the Mentawai, or ‘Flower People’, every part of their environment has a spirit. They never take the life of an animal or harvest a plant without asking for forgiveness from its spirit first and explaining their reasons for doing so. Falling a tree is preceded by prayers and small offerings.
An entire family resides within one Uma, each member having specific chores to do and duties to fill. The men hunt while the women and children gather. Wild pigs, deer and primates are the main animals hunted; yams, various fruit and sago worm are regularly gathered. Sago, a type of flour resulting from ground palm medulla, dominates the Mentawai diet as it is the base of many traditional foods.
I was fortunate enough to get invited to go monkey hunting with the men one day. The hunt began with the Shaman asking the forest spirit for a successful hunt. Dogs are used to spot the monkeys which are then shot with bows and poisonous arrows. The poison comes from a local leaf which has been mashed and mixed with water. We did not shoot anything on that particular hunt but I did enjoy the adventure in the deep forest, learning about their hunting techniques.
The Mentawai tribes maintain a unique and stunning look. They adorn themselves with necklaces, wear flowers in their hair, sharpen their teeth with a chisel for aesthetic reasons, and are well known for their decorative tattoos. The Shaman, or Sikerei, does the tattooing with a needle and a piece of wood which is used as a hammer. Tattooing on the islands is used for identity purposes but also reflects a personal or communal relationship with nature.
Despite changing times, the Mentawai continue to live a traditional lifestyle. Globalization has impacted their way of life bringing shops, technology, and travelers to the tribes but so far they have managed to balance change with tradition. The Mentawai still depend on nature for their overall well being and the passing of traditions on to future generations has not been disrupted. As tourism grows it provides greater livelihood opportunities. My hope is that it doesn’t influence their way of life too greatly so that other visitors may continue to experience an authentic Mentawai culture, as I did.
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