Dayaks are a collection ethic groups that have traditionally lived in the forests in both the Malaysian and Indonesian sides of Borneo. They are distinguished from the Malay population in that for the most part they are not Muslims and distinguished from the Penan in that have traditionally been settled while the Penan were nomadic.
The Dayaks are former head hunters and the original "wild men of Borneo." They continued to practice headhunting after it was outlawed by the Dutch in the 19th century. Up until World War II most of them were river-dwelling head hunters. Now many have been Christianized and forced into settlements. Even though they were the original inhabitants of Borneo they are now greatly outnumbered by Malays and Indonesians. It is believed that most Dayaks lived along the coast until they were driven inland after the arrival of the Malays.
Although they reside in longhouses that traditionally served as a means of protection against slave raiding and intervillage conflict, the Dayak are not communalistic. They have bilateral kinship, and the basic unit of ownership and social organization is the nuclear family. The various Dayak peoples have typically made a living through swidden agriculture.
During World War II the Japanese occupied Borneo and targeted the so-called Kapit Division in southern Borneo, which had many Dayak members. This ill-treatment sparked the Dayaks to join with the allied forces against a common enemy. A group of American and Australian military leaders trained the Dayak in guerrilla warfare in the jungle. During the ensuing years the Dayak managed to capture or kill 1,500 Japanese and fed the Allies vital intelligence about Japanese held oil fields.
Dayaks speak a great variety of related languages and dialects and have a great deal of cultural variation but little political unity. Because of this anthropologist have had great difficulty figuring out how to categorize, distinguish and group the various groups.
James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: With respect to the dialects, though the difference is considerable, they are evidently derived from a common source; but it is remarkable that some words in the Millanow and Eayan are similar to the Bugis and Badjow language. This intermixture of dialects, which can be linked together, appears to be more conclusive of the common origin of the wild tribes and civilised nations of the Archipelago than most other arguments; and if Marsden's position be correct (which there can be little or no reason to doubt), that the Polynesian is an original race with an original language, 1 it must likewise be conceded that the wild tribes represent the primitive state of society in these islands. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]
Dayak Religious Beliefs
In regard to religion, Dayaks tend to practice either Protestantism or Kaharingan, a form of indigenous religious practice blending animism and ancestor worship classified by the government as Hindu. Through its healing performances, Kaharingan serves to mold the scattered agricultural residences into a community, and it is at times of ritual that the Dayak peoples coalesce as a group. There is no set ritual leader, nor is there a fixed ritual presentation. Specific ceremonies may be held in the home of the sponsor. Shamanic curing, or balian, is one of the core features of these ritual practices. Because illness is thought to result in a loss of the soul, the ritual healing practices are devoted to its spiritual and ceremonial retrieval. In general, religious practices focus on the body, and on the health of the body politic more broadly. Sickness results from giving offense to one of the many spirits inhabiting the earth and fields, usually from a failure to sacrifice to them. The goal of the balian is to call back the wayward soul and restore the health of the community through trance, dance, and possession. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006]
Dayak "psycho-navigators” use visions and dreams to help them find their way in the forest. Dayak shaman practitioners of the "Old Snake religion” describe a hidden highland lake where enormous aging pythons enjoy dancing under the light of the full moon to honor the forest god Aping. Many Dayaks are Christians who have incorporated animists concepts onto their belief scheme. Missionaries went through the trouble of backpacking in paints and brushes to make hellfire scenes on the sides of longhouses. On the positive side missionaries have helped the Dayak clear landing strips which can be used for medical emergencies. [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York, ♢]
In the 1840s, Henry Keppel wrote in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: “Her Fanshawe and a party of Cruisers, returned from a five days' excursion amongst the Dyaks, having visited the Suntah, Stang, Sigo, and Sanpro tribes. It was a progress; at each tribe there was dancing, and a number of ceremonies. White fowls were waved as I have before described, slaughtered, and the blood mixed with kuny-it, a yellow root, which delightful mixture was freely scattered over them and their goods by me, holding in my hand a dozen or two women's necklaces. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]
"Amongst my Dyak inquiries, I found out that the name of their god is Tuppa, and not Jovata, which they before gave me, and which they use, but do not acknowledge. Tuppa is the great god; eight other gods were in heaven; one fell or descended into Java, — seven remained above; one ef these is named Sakarra, who, with his companions and followers, is (or is in) the constellation of a cluster of stars, doubtless the Pleiades; and by the position of this constellation the Dyaks can judge good and bad fortune. If this cluster of stars be high in the heavens, success will attend the Dyak; when it sinks below the horizon, ill luck follows.; fruit and crops will not ripen; war and famine are dreaded. Probably originally this was but a simple and natural division of the seasons, which has now become a gross superstition.*-*
The Dayaks consider orangutans to be the equals of humans, and they are treated with the same respect as neighboring tribes. The Dayak believe that loners belong to the tribe of the gibbons and gregarious people are kin to the orangutan. The Dayak practiced tattooing as a religious art but the practice has been banned by the Indonesian and Malaysian government.
In the 19th century, Brooke government on Sarawak described war parties of Dayak tribes such as the Iban and Kenyah people taking enemy heads and keeping them. Yet later on, with the exception of massed raids, the practice of headhunting was limited to individual retaliation attacks.
Henry Keppel wrote in“Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: Some of the Singe Dyaks succeeded in taking the heads of a few pirates, who probably were killed or wounded in the forts on our first discharge. I saw one body afterwards without its head, in which each passing Dyak had thought proper to stick a spear, so that it had all the appearance of a huge porcupine. The operation of extracting the brains from the lower part of the skull, with a bit of bamboo shaped like a spoon, preparatory to preserving, is not a pleasing one. The head is then dried, with the flesh and hair on it, suspended over a slow fire, during which process the chiefs and elders of the tribe perform a sort of war-dance. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]
James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: “The Kayans of the north-west coast of Borneo have one custom in common with the wild tribe of Minkoka in the Bay of Boni. Both the Kayans and Minkokas on the death of a relative seek for a head; and on the death of their chief many human heads must be procured: which practice is unknown to the Dyak. It may further be remarked, that their probable immigration from Celebes is supported by the statement of the Millanows, that the Murut and Dyak give place to the Kayan whenever they come in contact, and that the latter people have depopulated large tracts in the interior, which were once occupied by the former. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]
Carl Bock wrote in “Headhunters of Borneo” (1881): ““The barbarous practice of head-hunting, as carried on by all the Dyaks tribes, not only in the independent territories, but also in some part of the tributary states, is part and parcel of their religious rites. Births and “ naming,’’ marriages and burials, not to mention less important events, cannot be properly celebrated unless the heads of a few enemies, more or less, have been secured to grace the festivities or solemnities. Head-hunting is consequently the most difficult feature in the relationship of the subject races to their white masters, and the most delicate problem which civilization has to solve in the future administration of the as yet independent tribes in the interior of Borneo. The Dutch have already done much by the double agency of their arms and their trade to remove this plague-spot from the character of the tribes more immediately under their control.”
The Dayak perform elaborate death ceremonies in which the bones are disinterred for secondary reburial. The Ngaju Dayaks in the Mendawai area of Kalimantan keep alive their ancient burial rituals called Tiwah. Participants wear bizarre masks, sing, stage mock attacks. They exhume the bones of the dead, anoint and touch the bones and re-intern them in family sandung. (House-shaped boxes on stilts). In the old days headhunting was often include in the ritual.
Tiwah ceremonies are held in certain areas maybe once or twice a year with really big ones every five year or so. Numerous families participate and sometimes more than 150 bodies are exhumed. Feasting sometimes lasts for a month. The climax is when the bones are taken from the grave washed and purified. Water buffalo, pigs, chickens, and other animal are sacrificed for the journey to afterlife. To ensure a pleasant afterlife, relatives of the deceased fill boats with food and rice wine and carved servants to accompany the dead in the afterworld.
The ijambe of the Ma’anyan and Lawangan Dayaks is similar. The bones however are cremated and the ashes are placed in small jars in family apartments. In the Wara ceremony of the Tewotan, Baya, Dusun and Bentian Dayaks, a medium is used to communicated with the dead.
The Dayaks have traditionally believed that the black hornbill carries the human soul to the afterlife. Hornbill beaks and skulls are still immersed in water overnight, with the Dayak believing that whoever drinks the liquid will gain special powers. Some Dayaks keep young hornbills as pets and release them when they become adults to mate.
Character of the Dayaks
Harrison W. Smith wrote in a February 1919 National Geographic article, “s with most of the Sarawak tribes, personal cleanliness is the rule, The Dayaks have been known to comment on a white traveler to the effect that, although he seemed to be otherwise all right, he did not bathe as frequently as they considered necessary.
James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy” in the 1840s: “There are twenty tribes in Sarawak, on about fifty square miles of land. The appearance of the Dyaks is prepossessing: they have good-natured faces, with a mild and subdued expression; eyes set far apart, and features sometimes well formed. In person they are active, of middling height, and not distinguishable from the Malays in complexion. The women are neither so good-looking nor wellformed as the men, but they have the same expression, and are cheerful and kind-tempered. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]
“In character the Dyak is mild and tractable, hospitable when he is well used, grateful for kindness, industrious, honest, and simple; neither treacherous nor cunning, and so truthful that the word of one of them might safely be taken be- fore the oath of half-a-dozen Borneons. In their dealings they are very straightforward and correct, and so trustworthy that they rarely attempt, even after a lapse of years, to evade payment of a just debtor On the reverse of this picture there is little unfavourable to be said; and the wonder is, they have learned so little deceit or falsehood where the examples before them have been so rife.*-*
“The temper of the Dyak inclines to be sullen; and they oppose a dogged and stupid obstinacy when set to a task which displeases them, and support with immovable apathy torrents of abuse or entreaty. They are likewise distrustful, fickle, apt to be led away, and evasive in concealing the amount of their property; but these are the vices rather of situation than of character, for they have been taught by bitter experience that their rulers set no limits to their exactions, and that hiding is their only chance of retaining a portion of the grain they have raised. They are, at the same time, fully aware of the customs by which their ancestors were governed, and are constantly appealing to them as a rule of right, and frequently arguing with the Malay on the subject. Upon these occasions they are silenced, but not convinced; and the Malay, whilst he evades, or bullies when it is needful, is sure to appeal to these very much-abused customs whenever it serves his purpose.*-*
“The manners of the Dyaks with strangers are reserved to an extent rarely seen amongst rude or half-civilised people; but on a better acquaintance (which is not readily acquired), they are open and talkative, and, when heated with their favourite beverage, lively, and evincing more shrewdness and observation than they have gained credit for possessing. Their ideas, as may well be supposed, are very limited; they reckon with their fingers and toes, and few are clever enough to count beyond twenty; but when they repeat the operation, they record each twenty by making a knot on a string.*-*
“Like other wild people, the slightest restraint is irksome, and no temptation will induce them to stay long from their favourite jungle. It is there they seek the excitement of war, the pleasures of the chase, the labours of the field, and the abundance of fruit in the rich produce which assists in supporting their families. The pathless jungle is endeared to them by every association which influences the human mind, and they languish when prevented from roaming there as inclination dictates.*-*
Dayak Society and Life
Political unity is rarely advanced beyond the village level. There is little social stratification although slavery was, and may still be, practiced. The Dayaks follow adat, or customary laws. Their way of life depends on reciprocal social networks for planting, harvesting and assistance in times of trouble.
Potong pontan is a welcoming ceremony in which guest are given a machete by the village chief and asked to cut through plants placed at the entrance of the village to purge evil spirits. As they hack away the guests explain why they are visiting.
Dayaks have traditionally lived in villages along Borneo’s complex river system, grown rice and other crops in shifting slash-and-burn plots, tended orchards and gardens that look like forests to outsiders, tapped rubber trees, and gathered forest products such as rattan, resins and gums. Dayaks grow special kinds of rice, sometimes named after ancestors, adapted for their home territory.
Dayaks have traditionally lived in villages with multifamily dwelling, often including longhouses (See long houses above and under the Iban). To get around, Dayaks have traditionally navigated the rivers of Borneo with dugout canoes that were propelled forward by ten standing punters. No they mostly use motorized dugouts or long boats.
In spite of leeches, snakes and insects, Dayaks often go barefoot in the rain forest because they say it gives them surer footing. They also go naked except for shorts. Their advise with leeches is to "surrender what they want to them. If they feel happy, you will too." Dayak porters are capable of carrying loads three times their body weight in rattan basket that are secured to their heads and backs. When walking through the forest, Dayaks carry machetes known as manduas to clear a path. ♢
Dayaks are renowned for their rattan weaving skill. Intricately decorated baby carriers are adorned with ancient beads, coins, crocodile teeth, bear claws, dog teeth and magical amulets that keep the baby safe from evil spirits. The human oils deposited by constant use helps them resist rot. ♢
The Dayaks produce magical dog and serpent carvings. Ironwood is used for the foundations of houses and for carving. The Ngaju and Dusun Dayak people produce giant temadu (carved ancestor totems depicting the dead).
Dayaks have traditionally followed the fruiting patterns of the trees which usually has corresponded with the migratory patterns of the animals they hunted. Bamboo shoots that taste like cabbage are harvested from dark freshwater pools of water and boiled for consumption. Sago is taken from palm trees. Tribes in the forest have experimented with dryland rice introduced by missionaries. ♢
They Dayaks traditionally grew rice. During the planting season men made holes with bamboo sticks and the women put the seeds in the holes. They also raised pigs and grew vegetables, tobacco, sugar cane and bananas. They liked to drink sweet tea and offered it as a special treat to guests.
Dayaks extract products such as honey and rattan from the forest to sell. Tubers and fruits are gathered for food. Herbs, leaves and roots are collected for medical uses. Sometimes they left small plots of the rain forest untouched so they had food sources in times of drought. In Borneo, a plate of food that look like spaghetti is sometimes parasitic fish worms.
Dayak Feast in the 1840s
James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: ““3rd — Took leave of this pleasant valley, and by another and shorter road than we came reached Ka-at. We arrived in good time on the hill, and found every thing prepared for a feast. There was nothing new in this feast. A fowl was killed with the usual ceremony; afterwards a hog. The hog is paid for by the company at a price commensurate with its size: a split bamboo is passed round the largest part of the body, and knots tied on it at given distances; and according to the number of these knots are the number of pasus of padi for the price. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]
“Our host of Nawang, Niarak, arrived to this feast with a plentiful supply of toddy; and before the dance commenced, we were requested to take our seats. The circumstances of the tribe, and the ability of Nimok, rendered this ceremony interesting to me. The Sow tribe has long been split into four parties, residing at different places. Gunong Sow, the original locality, was attacked by the Sakarran Dyaks, and thence Nimok and his party retired to Ra-at. A second smaller party subsequently located at or near Bow, as being preferable; whilst the older divisions of Jaguen and Ahuss lived at the places so named. Nimok's great desire was to gather together his scattered tribe, and to become de facto its head. My presence and the Datus* was a good opportunity for gathering the tribe; and Nimok hoped to give them the impression that we countenanced his proposition. The dances over, Nimok pronounced an oration: he dwelt on the advantages of union; how desirous he was to benefit his tribe; how constantly it was his custom to visit Sarawak in order to watch over the interests of the tribe — the trouble was his, the advantage theirs; but how, without union, could they hope to gain any advantage — whether the return of their remaining captive women, or any other ? He proposed this union; and that, after the padi was ripe, they should all live at Ba-at, where, as a body, they were always ready to obey the commands of the Tuan Besar or the Datu.*-*
“This was the substance of Nimok's speech. But the effect of his oratory was not great; for the Bow, and other portions of the tribe, heard qoldly his proposition, though they only opposed it in a few words. It was evident they had no orator at all a match for Nimok: a few words from Niana drew forth a second oration. He glanced at their former state; he spoke with animation of their enemies, and dwelt on their great misfortune at Sow; he attacked the Sing& as the cause of these misfortunes: and spoke long and eloquently of things past, of things present, and things to come. He was seated the whole time; his voice varied with his subject, and was sweet and expressive; his action was always moderate, principally laying down the law with his finger on the mats. Niarak, our Sing friend, attempted a defence of his tribe; but he had drunk freely of his own arrack; and his speech was received with much laughter, in which he joined. At this juncture I retired, after saying a few words; but the talk was kept up for several hours after, amid feasting and drinking.*-*
Attending a Festival of Head-Hunting Dyaks in the 1840s
Henry Keppel wrote in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy” in th early 1840s: We ascended the river in eight or ten boats. The scene to us was most novel, and particularly fresh and beautiful. We stopped at an empty house on a cleared spot on the left bank during the ebb-tide, to cook our dinner; in the cool of the afternoon we proceeded with the flood; and late in the evening brought up for the night in a snug little creek close to tjie Chinese settlement. We slept in native boats, which were nicely and comfortably fitted for the purpose. At an early hour Mr. Brooke was waited on by the chief of the Kunsi; and on visiting their settlement he was received with a salute of three guns. We found it kept in their usual neat and clean order, particularly their extensive vegetable-gardens; but being rather pressed for time, we did not visit the mines, but proceeded "to the villages of different tribes of Dyaks living on the Sarambo mountain, numbers of whom had been down to welcome us, very gorgeously dressed in feathers and scarlet. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]
“The foot of the mountain was about four miles from the landing-place; and a number of these kind savages voluntarily shouldered our provisions, beds, bags, and baggage, and we proceeded on our march. We did not expect to find quite a turnpike-road; but, at the same time, I, for one, was not prepared for the dance led us by our wild catlike guides through thick jungle, and alternately over rocky hills, or up to our middles in the soft marshes we had to cross. Our only means of doing so was by feeling on the surface of the mud (it being covered in most places about a foot deep with grass or discoloured water) for light spars thrown along lengthways and quite unconnected, whilst our only support was an occasional stake at irregular distances, at which we used to rest, as the spars invariably sank into the mud if we attempted to stop; and there being a long string of us, many a fall and flounder in the mud (gun and all) was the consequence.*-*
“The ascent of the hill, although as steep as the side of a house, was strikingly beautiful. Our resting-places, unluckily, were but few; but when we did reach one, the cool fresh breeze, and the increasing extent and variety of scene; — our view embracing, as it did, all the varieties of river, mountain, wood, and sea, — amply repaid us for the exertion of the lower walk; and, on either hand, we were sure to have a pure cool rivulet tumbling over the rocks. While going up, however, our whole care and attention were requisite to secure our own safety; for it is not only one continued climb up ladders, but such ladders I They are made of the single trunk of a tree in its rough and rounded state, with notches, not cut at the reasonable distance apart of the rattlins of our rigging, but requiring the knee to be brought up to the level of the chin before the feet are sufficiently parted to reach from one step to another; and that, when the muscles of the thigh begin to ache, and the wind is pumped out of the body, is distressing work.*-*
“We mounted, in this manner, some 500 feet; and it was up this steep that Mr. Brooke had ascended only a few months before, with two hundred followers, to attack the Singe Dyaks. He has already described the circular halls of these Dyaks, in one of which we were received, hung round, as the interior of it is, with hundreds of human heads, most of them dried with the skin and hair on; and to give them, if possible, a more ghastly appearance, small shells (the cowry) are inserted where the eyes once were, and tufts of dried grass protrude from the ears. But my eye soon grew accustomed to the sight; and by the time dinner was ready (I think I may say we) thought no more about them than if they had been as many cocoa-nuts.*-*
“Of course the natives crowded round us; and I noticed that with these simple people it was much the same as with the more civilised, and that curiosity was strongest in the gentler sex; and again, that the young men came in more gorgeously dressed — wearing feathers, necklaces, armlets, ear-rings, bracelets, besides jackets of various-coloured silks, and other vanities — than the older and wiser chiefs, who encumbered themselves with no more dress than what decency actually required, and were, moreover, treated with the greatest respect. We strolled about from house to house without causing the slightest alarm: in all we were welcomed, and invited to squat ourselves on their mats with the family. The women, who were some of them very good-looking, did not run from us as the plain-headed Malays would have done; but laughed and chatted to us by signs, in all the consciousness of innocence and virtue.*-*
“We were fortunate in visiting these Dyaks during one of their grand festivals (called Maugut); and in the evening, dancing, singing, and drinking were going on in various parts of the village. In one house there was a grand fete, in which the women danced with the men. The dress of the women was simple and, curious — a light jacket open in front, and a short petticoat not coming below the knees, fitting close, was hung round with jingling bits of brass, which kept “making music'* wherever they went. The movement was like all other native dances — graceful, but monotonous. There were four men, two of them bearing human skulls, and two the fresh heads of pigs; the women bore wax-lights, or yellow rice on brass dishes. They danced in line, moving backwards and forwards, and carrying the heads and dishes in both hands; the graceful part was the manner in which they half turned the body to the right and left, looking over their shoulders and holding the heads in the opposite direction, as if they were in momentary expectation of some one coming up behind to snatch the nasty relic from them. At times the women knelt down in a group, with the men leaning over them. After all, the music was not the only thing wanting to make one imagine oneself at the opera. The necklaces of the women were chiefly of teeth — bears' the most common — human the most prized. In an interior house at one end were collected the relics of the tribe. These consisted of several round-looking stones, two deer's heads, and other inferior trumpery. The stones turn black if the tribe is to be beaten in war, and red if to be victorious: any one touching them would be sure to die; if lost, the tribe would be ruined.*-*
“The account of the deer's heads is still more curious: A young Dyak having dreamed the previous night that he should become a great warrior, observed two deer swimming across the river, and killed them; a storm came on with thunder and lightning, and darkness came over the face of the earth; he died immediately, but came to life again, and became a rumah guna (literally a useful house) and chief of his tribe; the two deer still live, and remain to watch over the affairs of the tribe. These heads have descended from their ancestors from the time when they first became a tribe and inhabited the mountain. Food is always kept placed before them, and renewed from time to time. While in the circular building, which our party named "the scullery, “a young chief (Meta) seemed to take great pride in answering our interrogatories respecting different skulls which we took down from their hooks: two belonged to chiefs of a tribe who had made a resolute defence; and judging from the incisions on the heads, each of which must have been mortal, it must have been a desperate affair. Among other trophies was half a head, the skull separated from across between the eyes, in the same manner that you would divide that of a hare or rabbit to get at the brain — this was their division of the head of an old woman, which was taken when another (a friendly) tribe was present, who likewise claimed their half. I afterwards saw these tribes share a head. But the skulls, the account of which our informant appeared to dwell on with the greatest delight, were those which were taken while the owners were asleep — cunning with them heing the perfection of warfare. We slept in their “scullery;" and my servant Ashford, who happened to he a sleep-walker, that night jumped out of the window, and unluckily on the steep side; and had not the ground heen well turned up by the numerous pigs, and softened by rain, he must have been hurt.*-*
Dayak Clothes, Tattoos, Earrings and Ornaments
Dayak men traditionally wore loincloths and had elaborate tattoos running up their shoulders. Sometimes they covered much of their body with tattoos. Women wore knee-length sarongs and went topless.
James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy” in the 1840s: “The dress of the men consists of a piece of cloth about -fifteen feet long, passed between the legs and fastened round the loins, with the ends hanging before and behind; the head-dress is composed of bark-cloth, dyed bright yellow, and stuck up in front so as to resemble a tuft of feathers. The arms and legs are often ornamented with rings of silver, brass, or shell; and necklaces are worn, made of human teeth, or those of bears or dogs, or of white, beads, in such numerous Strings as to conceal the throat. A sword on one side, a knife and small betel-basket on the other, complete the ordinary equipment of the males; but when they travel they carry a basket slung from the forehead, on which is a palm mat, to protect the owner and his property from the weather. The women wear a short and scanty petticoat, reaching from the loins to the knees, and a pair of black bamboo stays, which are never removed except the wearer be enceinte. They have rings of brass or red bamboo about the loins, and sometimes ornaments on the arms; the hair is worn long; the ears of both sexes are pierced, and ear-rings of brass inserted occasionally; the teeth of the young people are sometimes filed to a point and discoloured, as they say that "Dogs have white teeth." They frequently dye their feet and hands of a bright red or yellow colour; and the young people, like those of other countries, affect a degree of finery and foppishness; whilst the elders invariably lay aside all ornaments, as unfit for a wise person or one- advanced in years.” [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]
Men and women, boy and girls all used to sometimes wear clusters of brass earrings that pulled their ears and made gaping holes in their ear lobes, pulling them down to their shoulders. Some Dayak women used to stretch their earlobes with rings, put tattoos on their hands and put gold on all their teeth. The practice is still done in some remote areas. Trimmed earlobes is a sign of conversion to Christianity.
In the old days most Dayak men wore tattoos to commemorate headhunting expeditions and women tattooed their forearms and calves with bird and spirit designs. Few young women receive tattoos except some who live deep in the interior. In the past men were expected to earn their tattoos by taking heads. Markings and tattoos today sometimes represent “a modern interpretation of traditional headhunting tattoos.” A Dayak elder told photographer Chris Ranier, “When we have lost our tattoos we have lost our culture.”
Monkeys and flying squirrels were traditionally dispatched by Dayak hunters with blowguns with poison darts and wild pigs, deer, pythons and bear were hunted with spears. Eggs laboriously collected from wild jungle fowl were usually reserved for children. Other traditional Dayak weapons include axes, machetes and knives. ♢
Dayak blowguns are two to three meters long and hollowed out of a single piece of hardwood that curves slightly upwards to compensate for the propensity of the dart to drop. They have bore spirals like those in a rifle that help the dart travel straight and true. The Kenyans reputedly make the best blowguns and the Penans are the best at using them for hunting. The end is sometimes sharpened, and since it is one piece of hollowed out wood the blowgun can can also be used as a spear. Blowguns can be accurate up to 75 meters. ♢
The darts are tipped with as many as five different kinds of hand-mixed poisons. Nerve poisons are favored. Different poison are used for different species. With monkeys the trick is getting the dose right, two hunters told Blair. If the dose is too strong the monkey dies clinging to the tree tops. If it is just right "it tumbles down and gives you your dart back." The monkeys are roasted over an open fire and the area that has been poisoned is removed. If they are fried or boiled the poison spreads. Large monitor lizards are the most common prey and endangered gibbons, which sell for as much as $5000 on the black market, are also killed. ♢
Dayak and the Modern World
Many Dayaks now wear Western clothes, watch television and ride around on motorbikes. Their traditional homes sometimes have satellite dishes. Few live in longhouses anymore. Their traditionally dugouts have motors.
The Dayaks are regarded as one the most marginalized ethnic groups in Indonesia and Malaysia. They have been driven off their land by logging schemes, palm oil plantations, deforestation, settlers form other ethnic groups and transmigration schemes. They have been forced to move from their river villages to towns, often dominated by other ethnic groups. They claim they have been denied jobs, education and land and that settlers to their traditional lands are given preferences to these things. .
The Dayaks are perceived by other ethnic groups as backward, stupid and lazy. They often occupy the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. The logging companies and palm oil estates prefer to use migrant laborers rather than Dayaks. Forced into the cities the Dayaks often find no work at all. To earn money, many Dayaks pan gold from the rivers in Borneo and tap rubber trees. Lucky ones get dangerous jobs in gold, tin and copper mines or at palm oil and coconut plantations.
Dayaks that remain in the forest have been hurt by drought, fires and soil erosion, The forests fires in the late 1990s were particularly devastating for them. Their villages were engulfed in flames and smoke, and trees and plants they depended on for food destroyed. But not only that, developers used the fires as an excuse to clear land that belonged to the to the Dayaks. Droughts have traditionally been blamed on mothers who married their son—and end when they are both killed.
Many Dayaks would like to create their own independent state. Dayak chiefs have met to discuss the subject.
The Bintangor tree, which grows in swamps in Sarawak, produces a kind latex that in turn contains chemicals that have been shown to be effective treating AIDS and HIV. The Dyaks traditionally used the latex to make poultice that treated headaches and skin rashes as well as a poison for stunning fish. The drug company and the state of Sarawak have an agreement to share any profits made from the drug but under the arrangement the Dyaks get nothing.
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.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015