ETHNIC GROUPS ON FLORES

PEOPLE OF FLORES

Flores (east of Komodo) is a wonderful island with volcanos, coral reefs, rough roads, spectacular countryside and friendly people who are noticeably blacker—more closely related to the people from Papua New Guinea—than the people on islands to the west. The rugged topography of the island has divided its population into numerous ethnic groups, most of whom are Christian. "Flores" is Portuguese for “flower,” a name from the island’s colorful coral reefs.

Over 350 kilometers long, Flores is one of the three largest islands in Nusa Tengarra along with Sumba and Timor. A mountain range runs from east to west across the island, roughly dividing it into north Flores and south Flores. There are 14 active volcanos. Only Java and Sumatra have more. The wet season on most of the island is from December to April, with the dry season occurring from May to November. Rainfall rarely exceeds 200 centimeters. The west part of the island tends to be the wettest part and the north coast tends to be drier than the south coast.

Flores is home to the greatest concentration of Catholics in Indonesia. There are about 1.2 million of them. Catholicism arrived on Flores in earnest in 1914, when priests from the German-based Society of the Divine Word systematically moved from the coasts to the mountains and had great success converting almost everyone to Catholicism. An earlier effort by Jesuits largely failed. Pope Paul VI visited in 1967. Pope John Paul II came in 1989 and conducted mass in Maumere stadium. Local priests and nuns are very involved in running the island’s affairs.

Flores is one of the poorest islands in Indonesia. It doesn’t have any natural resources. The prosperity of many farmers depends on prices of its main cash crops, cacao and cashews. Sukarno was exiled here and wrote movingly about the common values of Catholics and Muslims. On Flores some people still perform headhunting dances. High quality ikats are available. The main ethnic groups are the Manggarai (in the Ruteng area), the Ngada (Bajawa), the Ende and Lio (Ende), the Sikkanese (Maumere) and the Lamaholot (Larantuka).

The Ngada are a group that live in the highlands around Bajawa in central Flores. There are only around 60,000 of them. Their villages feature groupings of ngadhu, three-meter-high parasol-like structures, and bhaga, miniature thatched roof structures, which together symbolize the presence of important ancestors. In a traditional village high-roofed houses on low stilts are built around an open space with ngadhu and bhaga. The Ngada are mostly Christian but a number of their traditional beliefs endure. Sometimes buffalos are sacrificed during the planting season to ensure a good season. Special ceremonies are held to mar births, marriages, death and house building. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Ata Sikka

The Ata Sikka live in the east-central mountains and coastal areas of Flores. Also known as the Ata Bi’ang, Ata Krowe, Sika, Sikka, Sikkanese, they have traditionally been farmers and fishermen who built their villages on ridge tops and were ruled by Catholic rajas until the 1950s. Their villages were once centered around villages houses that contained elaborate carvings, ceremonial drums and gongs and were where male circumcisions were performed. These houses are mostly gone as are traditional residential houses. Much of their land has been deforested and degraded by the overproduction of copra plantation agriculture. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Ata Sikka Catholicism incorporates many traditional pre-European beliefs such as a pantheon of coupled male and female deities. The Ata Sikka link the Christian God with traditional concepts of a “sourcefather” and “father of generation” and view the Virgin Mary as his complementary female force. In the old days boys were ritually circumcised and then required to live in the man’s house. ~

Illnesses are believed to be caused by sorcery and attacks by witches and evil spirits. Cures some involve recalling souls, confronting witches and removing objects from the body. After death corpses were traditionally wrapped in cloth or mats and buried in the ground. Coastal dwellers used coffins shaped like boats and placed a coconut or another object above the grave. After death, the Ata Sikka believe, the soul often is transported to an underworld where it is repeatedly is reborn after undergoing certain ordeals. ~

The Ata Sikka have some interesting marriage customs. Until the practice was discouraged by the church the preferred union was between a boy and his mother’s brother’s daughter. Marriages have traditionally been sealed by the exchange of bride wealth from the grooms’ family for reciprocal gifts from the bride’s family. The bride-wealth was traditionally expected to be in the form of “male” goods such as elephant tusks, horses, gold or silver goods. The reciprocal gifts were expected to be in the form of “female” goods such as cloth, pigs, rice, furniture and household utensils. The marriage was formally announced by the pinching a pig until it squeals, with the marriage itself often taking place several years later with a Catholic ceremony. A marriage is often initiated or is part of an elaborate exchange of debts and goods, with the most valuable goods being elephant tusks, which may not be bought or sold but only ceremoniously exchanged. A record of the exchanges often corresponds with the formation of alliances in the community. ~

Ata Tana ‘Ai

The Ata Tana ‘Ai live in eastern Flores and are regarded a branch of the Ata Sikka. Also known as the Ata ‘Iwang. Ata Kangae, Ata Krowe, Krowe, they live primarily in the mountains and practice slash-and burn agriculture, growing rice, maize, and yams. They also raise pigs, chickens and goats, hunt deer and wild pigs in the forest, and collect wild fruit. They trade bamboo, timber, rice and meat for palm wine, gin and consumer goods and foodstuffs. Some raise coffee, spices and copra as cash crops. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Families are defined as a mono, a group that lives in a traditional garden house and is typically made up of a husband and wife and unmarried children and the couple’s parents if they are unable to take care of themselves. Marriage is not marked by any special ritual and there is no bride price or exchange of gifts. Social organization is within clans and large groups called lepos, which are ranked against other lepos. Clans are traditionally headed by women, with men serving primarily as ritual specialists. ~

The Ata Tana ‘Ai believe in a universe with two major realms that were once connected by an umbilical chord: 1) the earth, which has several levels and is regarded as predominately female; and 2) the firmament, which has eight levels and is regarded as male. They also believe in ancestors spirits and dangerous spirits of the forest. Sacrifices and rituals have traditionally been conducted before hunting or entering the forest. The Ata Tana ‘Ai have a highly developed ritual language that is recited at funerals and circumcision and other important life events. ~

Bonerate

The Bonerate live on the island of Bonerate in the middle of the Flores Sea between Flores and Sulawesi. Also known as the Orang Bonerate, Salayar and Selayar, they are regarded as skilled boat builders and were once involved in slaving and piracy. Bonerate men still spend a lot time at sea. The Bonerate are Muslims but not particularly devout ones. Ramadan is the only time mosques see many people and many people believe in spirits and ghosts. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Bonerate is a relatively inhospitable island without much water. The Bonerate raise corn, cassava, pumpkins, watermelon and other foods in the short rainy season. Sometimes water supplies run so short they have to drink relatively brackish water found near the coast. Most protein is derived from fish, and marine worms and crustaceans. Their boat building is done with remarkably low technology methods and tools that were adaptable when they switch from primarily making sailboats to motorboats. ~

In marriage, a lot of emphasis is placed on the groom marrying above his station to improve the status of his family. Marriages have traditionally been arranged and sometimes wealthy families of the bride give money to the groom’s family to help them pay off the bride price. Relations between husband and wife and men and women in general tend to be very egalitarian. The arts focuses on war dances accompanied by flute music. Occasionally there are trance dances with possessed women dressed as sea captains, babbling a language interpreted by ritual leaders. ~

Endenese

The Endenese live in central Flores. Also known as the ‘Ata Ende, ‘Ata Jao and Orang Ende, they have traditionally been divided into two groups—the coastal Endenese and the mountain Endenese—and have practiced slash and burn agriculture to raise dry rice, cassava and maize. The climate in the area they inhabit is too dry for wet rice. Coconuts are sometimes produced as a cash crop. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Mountain Endenese used to live in villages organized around a set of altars called tubu musu ora nata. Today few villages have these. Livestock—mostly in the firm of pigs, goats and chicken—is raised mostly for consumption and gift-giving purposes. Families with water buffalo, cattle and horses are regarded as relatively rich. Conflicts are often over land ownership with the person who can speak most fluently about its history given the rights to it. ~

Marriages tend to be viewed as means of firming up already established alliances of families. A big ideal is made about the groom marrying his mother’s brother’s daughter. A bride-price is usually paid. If the groom’s family can not come up with the payment the groom may live in the bride’s family’s house after marriage and fulfill a bride service. Marriage ceremonies and funerals often feature a traditional dance called the gawi naro performed along with spontaneous songs “ad-libbed” by a singer at the center of circle of dancers. ~

Traditional religious beliefs endure, with recognition of a supreme being named naggae, ancestors spirits, animist spirits and witches. Sick people that believe they are victims of witchcraft are sometimes treated in special ceremonies. Agricultural activities are sometime marked by ritual yam eating. ~

Lamaholot

The Lamaholot live in eastern Flores and on the islands of Adonara, Solor, and Lembata. Also known as the Ata Kiwan, Holo, Solor, Solorese, Solot, they are farmers and fishermen who hunt whales, manta rays and occasionally dugongs. Most are Catholics; a few are Muslims. In the old days ritual wars were fought to supply heads for ceremonies [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Maize is the staple crop, supplemented dy rice, tubers and vegetables. Copra, tamarind and candlenuts are raised as a cash crop. Shark fins, bird nests and deer antlers are collected and sold to traders for the Chinese food and medicine market. Wealth and power is mainly in the hands of a few landowning clans that used to own slaves. ~

Marriages are conducted in accordance with Catholic and Muslim rules with an elaborate series of exchanges set by social class seen as alliance builders. The nature of the exchanges varies quite a bit from region to region. Religious beliefs are also similar to those of the Kedang. Views about the afterlife are similar to those of the Alorese. Important rituals are held in a clan house to mark the erecting of a house or the launching of a boat. ~

Manggarai

The Manggarai live in western Flores. Also known as the Ata Manggarai, they live in circular villages that enclose a central square and ceremonial house and have traditionally raised maize and rice in slash-and-burn fields. Their society has traditionally been divided into three groups: nobles, commoners and slaves. Although slavery no long exists to have a slave as an ancestor equates to low status. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Some are Muslims. Some are Catholic. And some hold on to traditional animist beliefs. The latter group worships ancestor spirits and believe in a supreme god named Mori Karaeng. Religious practitioners known as ata mbeko preside over ceremonies, act as healers and are asked to predict the future. In the old days buffalo and pig sacrifices were important but they are not practiced much anymore. ~

Manggarai villages are organized around a compang, a raised stone burial platform surrounded by a stone wall. Facing the platform are traditional houses where important ceremonies and meeting of elders are held. They also hold important objects such as buffalo-horn-shaped headdresses and cacci whips. ~

Many Manggarai live around Ruteng. They wear distinctive black sarongs and raise black haired pigs and miniature horses. They practice a former of martial arts called caic in which combatants with welder-mask-like helmets and rawhide shield beat each other the with one-meter-long whips. ~

Manggarai believe that the spirits of the dead, called poti, stay where they used to stay when they were alive, especially near the bed, after death. After some time, the poti move to wells, big trees, or crossroads near the house. They watch their grandchildren, but don't disturb the living people. Five days after death, the poti go to Mori Karaeng, the place for the dead. Manggarai people believe that everything in Mori Karaeng is opposite of that in the world of the living. Manggarai break dishes and glasses on the fifth day after death so that the poti has dishes and glasses in good condition in Mori Karaeng.

Palu’e

The Palu’e is a small group that live on the island of Palu’e, which is 15 kilometers off the north coast of Flores. It has little drinking water and embraces Rokatenda, an active volcano that fills the island with steam- and gas-emitting fumaroles and erupted violently in 1928, killing several hundred people. The Palu’e are also known as the Ata Nuha, Ata Nusa, Ata Pulo, Hata Lu’a, Hata Rua, Orang Palu’e. Their name is believed to be derived from the Bugi word for “conically-shaped headdress” ( palu-palu). [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Palu’e speak their own unique language and number about 15,000. They have traditionally lived in fortified ridge-top villages for protection from interdomain warfare, piracy and slave raids and farm tubers, mung beans and maize and have been reluctant to grow rice because of an ancient proscription against it. In some places they gather water for crops by collecting steam from volcanic furmoles. Heat from the earth is used like an oven to cook some food. Tapping of the lonta palm is another source of fluid (there is ancient prohibition against distilling the juice). ~

The Palu’e were once famous for their boat-building skills. They built the boats on mountains and ceremoniously dragged them down the slopes to the water. But a lack of trees on their island has curtailed boat construction in recent decades. ~

Palu’e Customs

Palu’e life is defined by taboos and prohibitions, which are passed orally through the generations, warfare involving land disputes, and water buffalo sacrifices. Like other groups in Nusa Tengarra, the Palu’e exchange “male” and “female” goods to seal a marriage. The birth of a child is marked by the ceremonial cutting of a forelock and a symbolically marriage on the third day after birth while tribe prohibitions are recited. For boys there used to be a special ceremony for when they donned their first loincloth. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Battles over land were often timed to coincide with auspicious days on the ceremonial calendar. Men traditionally fought using speaks, flintlocks, bows and arrows and bush knives and women participated by throwing stones. A truce was often declared by some priests after a few minor injuries. Military forces on Flores were often called in before a battle started and the disputes were settled in a court. ~

The religious beliefs and water buffalo sacrifices of the Palu’e are somewhat similar to those of the Toraja and are rooted in myths about ancestors arriving by boats from a distant places long ago. Water buffalo are sacrificed by special priest to bring prosperity. The ritual is often accompanied by the recitation of myths and the ceremonial inauguration of boats. The dead are buried near their homes. If the body has been lost at sea, the trunk of a tree is buried in their place. Many of these ritual were observed by anthropologist decades ago and it is not clear how closely they are adhered to anymore. ~

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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