BORNEO ETHNIC GROUPS

INDIGENOUS ETHNIC GROUPS IN SABAH

The largest indigenous ethnic groups of Sabah's population are the Kadazan Dusun, the Bajau and the Murut. The largest ethnic group of Sabah, the Kadazan Dusuns form about 30 percent of the state's population. Actually consisting of two tribes; the Kadazan and the Dusun, they were grouped together as they both share the same language and culture. However, the Kadazan are mainly inhabitants of flat valley deltas, which are conducive to paddy field farming, while the Dusun traditionally lived in the hilly and mountainous regions of interior Sabah. [Source: Malaysian Government Tourism]

The second largest ethnic group in Sabah, the Bajaus make up about 15 percent of the state's population. Historically a nomadic sea-faring people that worshipped the Omboh Dilaut or God of the Sea, they are sometimes referred to as the Sea Gypsies. Those who chose to leave their sea-faring ways became farmers and cattle-breeders. These land Bajaus are nicknamed 'Cowboys of the East' in tribute to their impressive equestrian skills, which are publicly displayed in the annual Tamu Besar festival at Kota Belud.

The third largest ethnic group in Sabah the Muruts make up about 3 percent of the state's population. Traditionally inhabiting the northern inland regions of Borneo, they were the last of Sabah's ethnic groups to renounce headhunting. Now, they are mostly shifting cultivators of hill paddy and tapioca, supplementing their diet with blowpipe hunting and fishing. Like most indigenous tribes in Sabah, their traditional clothing is decorated with distinctive beadwork.

Indigenous Ethnic Groups in Sarawak

Collectively known as Dayaks, the Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu are the major ethnic groups in the state of Sarawak. Typically, they live in longhouses, traditional community homes that can house 20 to 100 families. Other indigenous groups include Kenyah, Kayan and about 10,000 Penan people.

The largest of Sarawak's ethnic groups, the Ibans form 30 percent of the State's population of 2.5 million. Sometimes erroneously referred to as the Sea Dayaks because of their skill with boats, they are actually an upriver tribe from the heart of Kalimantan. In the past, they were a fearsome warrior race renowned for headhunting and piracy. Traditionally, they worship a triumvirate of gods under the authority of Singalang Burung, the bird-god of war. Although now mostly Christians, many traditional customs are still practised. [Source: Malaysian Government Tourism]

Peace-loving and easy-going, the gentle Bidayuh are famous for their hospitality and tuak or rice wine. Making their homes in Sarawak's southern regions, they are mostly farmers and hunters. In their past headhunting days their prized skulls were stored in a 'baruk‘, a roundhouse that rises about 1.5 metres above the ground. Originally animists, now most of the 200,000 strong population have converted to Christianity.

Some 130,000 or 6 percent of the population of Sarawak are Melanau, believed to be among the original people to settle in Sarawak. Their language has different origins to the other ethnic groups of the state and today they are found mainly along the rivers and coastal plains of central Sarawak. Originally animists most have converted to Islam although some of the inland communities are Christian.

Twenty-seven of the inland tribal groups of Sarawak are collectively called Orang Ulu or upriver people. A total estimated population of around 100,000 people belong to tribes varied in size from 300 to 25,000 individuals. Arguably Borneo's most artistic people, their large longhouses are ornately decorated with murals and superb woodcarvings; their utensils are embellished with intricate beadwork. Traditional tattoos are a very important part of their culture; aristocratic Orang Ulu ladies also cover their arms and legs with finely detailed tattoos.

The aboriginal Penan people are also included as Orang Ulu by government census but the Penan are traditionally nomadic people living in small family groups constantly moving from place to place within the rainforest. Today most of the estimated 16,000 Penan people have settled in longhouse communities where their children have the chance to go to school. Like the Iban and Bidayuh, most of the Orang Ulu have converted from animism to Christianity or Islam.

Bisaya and Bidayuh

Bisaya is a general term to describe people living in central Borneo reached by the rivers in Sabah and Sarawak. Also known as the Beseya, Bisayah, Jilama Bawang, Jilama Sungai, they tend to be culturally diverse and live among other groups. Most are Muslims who practice wet rice agriculture and raise a variety of fruits and vegetables. They are skilled woodcarvers but never learned to smelt or forge metal or weave cloth.

Bisaya prefer to marry close kin. Only sex and marriage between parents and children is forbidden. Other kinds of unions are okay. Polygyny is allowed but rarely practiced because of the expense. Sometimes marriages are arranged for children as young as eight. The “crocodile” is the mai ceremony.

Peace-loving and easy-going, the gentle Bidayuh are famous for their hospitality and tuak or rice wine. Making their homes in Sarawak's southern regions, they are mostly farmers and hunters. In their past headhunting days their prized skulls were stored in a 'baruk‘, a roundhouse that rises about 1.5 metres above the ground. Originally animists, now most of the 200,000 strong population have converted to Christianity.

Bajau and and Samal

The second largest ethnic group in Sabah, the Bajaus make up about 15 percent of the state's population. Historically a nomadic sea-faring people that worshipped the Omboh Dilaut or God of the Sea, they are sometimes referred to as the Sea Gypsies. Those who chose to leave their sea-faring ways became farmers and cattle-breeders. These land Bajaus are nicknamed 'Cowboys of the East' in tribute to their impressive equestrian skills, which are publicly displayed in the annual Tamu Besar festival at Kota Belud. The Bajau are also known as Badjaw, Bajau Laut, Bajo, Kuwa’an, Pala’au, Sama, Sama Dilaut, Turijene

The term Samal is used to describe a diverse group of Sama-Bajau-speaking people who are found in a large maritime area with many islands that stretch from central Philippines to the eastern coat of Borneo and from Sulawesi to Roti in eastern Indonesia. Also known as Sea Gypsies, Badjaw, Bajao, Bajau, Sama, Samah, Samal Moro and Turijene in the Philippines, and Bajo, Luwa’an, Pala’au. Sama Dilaut, Samah, and Turijene in Indonesia, and he Bajai Laut or Ornag Laut in Malaysia they are generally associated with the Sulu islands, the southernmost islands of the Philippines. Samal is sometimes treated as the plural of Sama. Most Samal are Muslims. The Samal in Malaysia live primarily in along the coast of eastern and western Sabah.[Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]

The Samal traditionally spent so much time on the water that it was said they only came ashore to die. Some still live in traditional outrigger houseboats that can be moved to different points, bury their dead on sacred islands and exchange services for spring water at coastal settlements of other groups. Now most are land based. The boat-based groups are found mainly in the Sulu islands and southeastern Sabah.

The Samal are a highly fragmented people who are unified by their traditional seafaring ways and Sama-Bajau languages. They usually identify themselves with their dialect and the area they are based and have links to their country that has domain over their base islands and the dominant ethnic groups on their base islands— the Tausug and Maguindanao in the southern Philippines, Malaysians and Bruneians in western Sabah, and the Ternatans, Bugis and Makassarese in eastern Indonesia. Notable Samal groups include the Abak of Capul Island, northwest of Samar; the Takan of Basilan Island and coastal Zamboanga.

There around 700,000 Sama-Bajua speakers. Those in the Philippines referred to as Samal are the largest groups. There are maybe 300,000 of them. There are also 130,000 Yakan; 30,000 Jama Mapun. There are maybe 80,000 in Sabah and between 150,000 and 200,000 in eastern Indonesia. The largest Samal communities in Indonesia are in Sulawesi. They are also found near Balikpapan in East Kalimantan and islands off the east Borneo coast. Other are widely scattered on islands between the Moluccas and Timor and around the islands of Nusa Tengarra (the islands east of Bali).

History of the Samal

Based on linguistic evidence, the Samal are believed to have originated in southwestern Mindanao and the northeastern islands of the Sulu archipelago, and began dispersing in the A.D. 1st millennium. According to legend the event was triggered by the loss or abduction of a princess. Most moved southward and westward and appear to have been motivated by Chinese trade and the purist of maritime resources. Early groups carved out ecological niches for themselves, with some falling into land-based groups while others being part of sea-based ones.

The Samal’s place in the world and their migration patterns were affected by the rise of the Tausug dynasty in the 13th century, the founding of the Sulu and Brunei sultanates of the 15th century and the bech-de-mer trade and competition from Bugis and Makassarese trades. Bech-de-mer (sea slugs) are a Chinese culinary delicacy and purported aphrodisiac.

With the rise of the Tausug port of Jolo as a major entrepot for slaves, the Samal in some areas became actively engaged in piracy and the slave trade and conducted regular slaving raids until their operation was shut down by the Spanish in 1848.

The secessionist conflicts in the Sulu archipelago in the 1970s resulted in the dislocation of thousands of Samal. Many fled to Zamboanga, Taitawi and the Subutu group or crossed the Malaysia border into eastern Sabah. At the same time large numbers of Tausuh moved from Jolo and Siasi, centers of Islamic extremism, onto the former Samal islands of Tawitawi and Sibutu, forcing more Samal to migrate westward to Sabah, where they became regarded as refugees.

Samal Religion

Most Samal are Sunni Muslims of the Shafu school. Every Samal parish contains a mosque, which is a center of worship and community activity. Mosque officials are appointed by parish elders. Religious officials known as paki preside over various ceremonies and serve as religious counselors. Allah is called Tuhan.

Pre-Islamic beliefs about spirits and ghosts remain. Most spirits are regarded as malevolent. Mediums, diviners and herbalist-healers are consulted for health problems. The sick are treated with trance dances performed by cloth-waving shaman.

Islamic burial customs are practiced. The deceased are buried under grave of crushed coral and sand with their heads facing Mecca. Sometimes they are buried on special islands with betel nut boxes. For seven nights after the burial family members gather and read passages from the Koran. During the month of Shaabam God, the Samal believe the souls of the dead return to earth and at this times graves are cleaned and special prayers are said.

Samal Marriage

Samal marriages are generally between kindred of around the same age, preferably between patrilineal, parallel cousins, and may be partially arranged by parents with the help of a go-between. The marriage may by initiated by an elopement or in some special cases by an abduction. In all cases a bride price is paid, with a particularly high one being paid in the case of an abduction.

Weddings have traditionally been the biggest and most grand Samal gatherings. The ceremony is presided over by an imam or group of religious officials, who witness the transfer of the bride price. In a traditional weddings of boat-dwelling Samal the groom is doused with seawater, the bride's face is painted with chalk and her eyebrows are shaped into triangles, girls dance on boats and men throw bananas at each other. The climax of the ceremony is when the father of the bride takes the finger of the groom and places it in the head of the bride and then her breasts. These days the bride often wears a white dress and the groom an Arab headpiece from Mecca. Sometimes newlyweds are pushed out to sea on a boat.

Newlywed couples may live with the bride’s or groom’s family and are expected to set up their own households by the second or third year of marriage, often with the house near the bride’s family cluster. Polygyny is allowed but rarely practiced. The frequency of divorce varies with the group, but is said to be common among some groups.

Samal Family

Samal households are defined as a group that eats together and is usually comprised of a nuclear family with a few additional relatives. The division of labor is pretty equal with men specializing in boat building and iron works and women specializing in pandanus mat weaving and pottery making. Both men and women engage in trade. Among nomadic groups men have traditionally done the fishing while women engaged in inshore gathering.

Family members are expected to attend funerals, children’s weddings and thanksgiving rites; lending and borrowing of property, food or money; and exchanging visits and hospitality. Children are highly valued. They undergo a ritual hair cutting and weighing ceremony. Both sexes are circumcised. Girls are circumcised between the ages of two and six in small private rituals attended only by women. Many children receive some kind of training in the Koran. Reciting the Koran is a greatly valued skill.

After puberty girls are expected to stay close to home. They assist in household chores. Boys are given more freedom. They often help their fathers fishing. Children attend school but generally only for a couple of years. Three days after a child is born his father swims with him to introduce him to the sea.

Samal Society

Samal social and political organization varies with the group. Some groups are egalitarian. Others, often the larger ones, have a hierarchal structure with nobility and commoners, and in the past slaves. These days hereditary privileges are largely a thing of past but titles still carry prestige.

Political organization begins at the cluster level and may advance to the parish and district level among larger groups. It is manifested primarily through the establishment of networks and coalitions between Samal groups and with non-Samal groups and governments in the countries that have jurisdiction over them. Many Samal groups are subordinate to dominate Tausug, Maguindanao and Bugis groups. In the past some groups were treated as the property of local sultans.

Mosques are a center of social, community and religious life. Clusters and parishes are generally led by elders, cluster leaders and religion leaders. Incidents of armed conflict are relatively rate, although raids and vendettas sometimes occur. Disputes are settled with the help of cluster, parish and villages leaders. Incidents involving different groups are often settled using Islamic law.

Samal Settlements

Samal villages generally consist of closely-clustered houses situated along well-protected stretches of shoreline. They are often built directly over the sea in channels or tidal shallows, often behind a fringing reef. Household are often grouped in clusters of related kin with their own chief. The houses are often built near of nipa near mangrove forests, where residents work as thatch- and woodcutters. Large clusters are often organized around a mosque. Schools, mosques and clinics are usually located inland. Some villages are entirely on land and even built somewhat inland.

Houses are raised on piles one to three meters above the high water mark or the ground and are usually comprised of a single room attached to a kitchen, often a room without a roof where various chores are performed.. Those of poor people are typically constructed of split bamboo and have thatched roofs. Many are poorly constructed and too small to allow a person to stand up straight. Those belonging to wealthier families have timber walls and floods, corrugated metal roofing and have additional sleeping rooms. House built over the water are connected by catwalks.

Nomadic groups traditionally have been made up of communities of scattered marriage groups that return regularly to common anchorage sites. These groups were formed around family alliances of two to six closely related boat-dwelling families. who share food, pool labor and fish and anchor together and are intermarried and make regular visits to other groups. The boats they live on vary in size. The small ones are generally dugout vessels with double outriggers. Larger ones lack outriggers and have a solid keel. Both types have a roofed living area made of poles and kaang matting and a portable earthenware hearth used to prepare meals. Typically one nuclear family lives on each boat.

Samal Life

Samal arts includes dancing, singing, and music produced xylophone, drums and gongs. Gongs are used to provide the melody and they are often played by women. Their main dance, the daling-daling is performed mainly at weddings. and often involves the exchange of verse between men and women. Among the Samal crafts are dyed pandanus mats, food covers, ornaments made of shell and turtle shell, weaving and textiles, and decorative wood carving, often featured in houses, burial markers, boats and machete handles.

Samal textiles feature rectangular design elements and figurative motifs. Some men wear square head clothes known as destar. Nomadic Samals wear no clothes before the age of 10.

Samal girls often look like ghosts. They put white cake on their faces called borak which is made from rice, fruit and nuts. What does it do? It moisturizes the skin of course.

Samal Economics and Piracy

Samal have traditionally made their living from fishing, farming, seafaring and trade, and sometimes piracy and smuggling. The nature of their work is often defined by where they live and who their neighbors were. Some Samal in the Sulu islands run guns between Borneo and Muslim insurgencies in the southern Philippines

Samal fish using traps, spears, hand lines, long lines, drift nets and explosives. They catch dolphins and other sea mammals and sea turtles and collect shellfish, crustaceans, turtle eggs, sea urchins, pearls, mother-of-pearl, and edible algae and sea weed. Drift netting is often done with the fall tide, especially during new and full moons. Most fish are dried and salted for sale in markets. Many earn money from shark fins. Coconuts are a major cash crop for land-based Samal. They also grow dry rice, maize, beans, sugarcane and other crops.

Property rights are exercised in connection with fishing grounds and reefs and farms and residential land. Among nomadic groups overlapping fishing grounds have generally invited cooperation rather than fueled feuds. Inheritable possessions includes livestock, farm land. fishing boats, jewelry and gongs.

Most groups practice some kind of farming. Different groups specialize in producing different crafts such as pandanus mats, pottery, roofing, weaving, blacksmithing, and making shell bracelets, tortise shell combs and other items. Boat-building is an especially valued skill. The Sibuti Samal are known as being the best Samal boat builders. Trade is important to the Samal, who have traditionally relied on it even for necessities. They traditionally traded with all comers and exchanged products they gathered from the sea for things like grain and fruit. They also acted as middlemen for trade between other groups.

The Sulu islands between the Philippines and Sabah is ripe with pirates even today. It is not unusual for boats to go missing on perfectly fine days. Many of the pirates have normal day jobs when they are on land.

In Sulawesi Samal still dive for trepang, pearls and other marine products. When Chinese and Bugis introduced compressed air, which allowed them to dive longer they failed to explain about the bends properly. In one area alone more than 40 men were killed and a large number were crippled for life. Today they swim sometimes using homemade wood and glass goggles and handmade spear guns and little else.

Rungus and Tidong

The Rungus live on Sabah. They show goodwill by shaking hands and then placing their right hand to their chests. They eat papaya , hinava (a kind of local picked fish), Sabah vegetables, dry rice, and do a traditional bamboo stick dance, sort of like the one Filipinos do. Dancers jump up and down while the sticks are clapped together without getting their feet whacked. They also do a dragon dances and play nasal instruments.

The Rungus live 230 kilometers from Kota Kinabalu, They drink large amounts of Mentako, a transparent liquor similar to Japanese sake, and lihing, a sweet rice liquor. Usually one man pour single shots and passes them around. People spend much of their cracking open and chewing betel nut.

The Tidong live in northern Kalimantan and Sabah. Also known as the Bolongan, Camucones, Nonukan, Tarakan, Tedong, Tidoen, Tidung, Tiran, Tiroes, Tiroon and Zedong, they are believed to have originated from the interior of Borneo but now have largely been acculturated the through contact with the Tausug and Bugis.

Sulu Pirates

See Indonesia, Philippines

Samal arts includes dancing, singing, and music produced xylophone, drums and gongs. Gongs are used to provide the melody and they are often played by women. Their main dance, the daling-daling is performed mainly at weddings. and often involves the exchange of verse between men and women. Among the Samal crafts are dyed pandanus mats, food covers, ornaments made of shell and turtle shell, weaving and textiles, and decorative wood carving, often featured in houses, burial markers, boats and machete handles.

Samal textiles feature rectangular design elements and figurative motifs. Some men wear square head clothes known as destar. Nomadic Samals wear no clothes before the age of 10.

Samal girls often look like ghosts. They put white cake on their faces called borak which is made from rice, fruit and nuts. What does it do? It moisturizes the skin of course.

Samal Economics and Piracy

Samal have traditionally made their living from fishing, farming, seafaring and trade, and sometimes piracy and smuggling. The nature of their work is often defined by where they live and who their neighbors were. Some Samal in the Sulu islands run guns between Borneo and Muslim insurgencies in the southern Philippines

Samal fish using traps, spears, hand lines, long lines, drift nets and explosives. They catch dolphins and other sea mammals and sea turtles and collect shellfish, crustaceans, turtle eggs, sea urchins, pearls, mother-of-pearl, and edible algae and sea weed. Drift netting is often done with the fall tide, especially during new and full moons. Most fish are dried and salted for sale in markets. Many earn money from shark fins. Coconuts are a major cash crop for land-based Samal. They also grow dry rice, maize, beans, sugarcane and other crops.

Property rights are exercised in connection with fishing grounds and reefs and farms and residential land. Among nomadic groups overlapping fishing grounds have generally invited cooperation rather than fueled feuds. Inheritable possessions includes livestock, farm land. fishing boats, jewelry and gongs.

Most groups practice some kind of farming. Different groups specialize in producing different crafts such as pandanus mats, pottery, roofing, weaving, blacksmithing, and making shell bracelets, tortise shell combs and other items. Boat-building is an especially valued skill. The Sibuti Samal are known as being the best Samal boat builders. Trade is important to the Samal, who have traditionally relied on it even for necessities. They traditionally traded with all comers and exchanged products they gathered from the sea for things like grain and fruit. They also acted as middlemen for trade between other groups.

The Sulu islands between the Philippines and Sabah is ripe with pirates even today. It is not unusual for boats to go missing on perfectly fine days. Many of the pirates have normal day jobs when they are on land.

In Sulawesi Samal still dive for trepang, pearls and other marine products. When Chinese and Bugis introduced compressed air, which allowed them to dive longer they failed to explain about

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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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