The Iban is a group of former headhunters that is found throughout Borneo but is particularly concentrated in Sarawak. Also known as the Dayak, Dyak and Sea Dayak, they have traditionally lived along the mid levels hills and delta plains of Borneo. The activities of a small group of Iban pirates on the Bornean coast on the 19th century earned them the name Sea Dayaks.
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.
The Iban trace their origin to the Kapuas Lake region of Kalimantan. Regarded as an aggressive group, they expanded out their homeland towards the coast, fighting with other tribes and taking heads and slaves. When they first encountered the British they responded by moving inland. After Malaysia became independent they expanded throughout Sarawak. In recent years they have abandoned their longhouses and most live like ordinary Malays.
At one time an Iban standing in the community was determined by the number of heads he had taken. Sea Dayaks supposedly only hunted heads in self defense. The Iban hunted heads up until World War II. In Brunei, the head of their last victim, a Japanese soldier, is occasionally brought out to show foreign guests.
Iban life and religion are intricately intertwined. The Iban believe that “nothing happens without a cause” and that their everyday activities are directed by the bird-god Sengalang Burong, who issues messages through his seven son-in-laws. In their myth crickets determine the sex of children, trees talk and pots cry out to be hugged.
There are three kinds of Iban religious practitioners: 1) bards, responsible for reciting myths, histories and genealogies; 2) augurs, who are involved in presiding over rituals involving things like agriculture and traveling; and 3) shaman, who work primarily as healers. For some rituals all three work together.
Religious ceremonies generally fall into four categories 1) agricultural festivals; 2) healing rituals; 3) ceremonies connected with head hunting; and 4) rituals of the dead.
The Iban believe health is generally associated with the condition of the seven souls recognized by the Iban and illness is sometimes caused by malevolent spirts who drive the soul from the body. If this happens a shaman is brought in to retrieve the soul. If the soul is not retrieved a person dies. After death the primary soul crosses the “Bridge of Anxiety” to a world of unimaginable pleasure. After a brief stay the soul becomes a spirit which later returns to the earth in form of rice-nourishing dew.
Iban longhouse society revolves around a group of siblings who founded the house or their descendants. They are the leaders of the house and they decide how bilik-families occupy each apartment. The closeness of apartments and houses is often a refection of kinship or alliances. A longhouse chief is called a tuai rumah.
The Iban have traditionally been more egalitarian that other Bornean groups whose members are divided into aristocrats, commoners and slaves. Iban political positions such as headmen, regional chiefs and paramount chief were introduced by the British in the 19th century for administrative purposes and help suppress headhunting.
The Iban are taught from an early age to avoid conflict. Children are told that guardian spirits are always watching them to make sure they behave correctly. One of the main duties of a headman is to arbitrate over disputes. The Iban can be a proud and stubborn people, and conflicts break out over property, sexual impropriety and perceived insults. In the old days these matters were sometimes “solved” through headhunting. The Iban have traditionally had a fierce rivalry with the Kayah.
The traditional Iban legal system is based on paying fines in traded goods such as brassware, ceramics, and more recently outboard motors, firearms and money. Young people who traveled and acquired these items were greatly esteemed.
Charles Hose, an Englishman stationed on Borneo as the Resident Magistrate during British Imperial rule in the early 20th century, described Iban headhunting in his book, “The Pagan Tribes of Borneo”, published in 1912: “It is clear that the Ibans are the only tribe to which one can apply the epithet head-hunters with the usual connotation of the word, namely, that head-hunting is pursued as a form of sport.” He also said these same people “are so passionately devoted to head-hunting that often they do not scruple to pursue it in an unsportsmanlike fashion.”[Source: discover-malaysia.com]
Hose believed the Ibans probably “adopted the practice [of headhunting] some few generations ago only... in imitation of Kayans or other tribes among whom it had been established,” and that “the rapid growth of the practice among the Ibans was no doubt largely due to the influence of the Malays, who had been taught by Arabs and others the arts of piracy.” As their own areas became overpopulated, they were forced to intrude on lands belonging to other tribes to expand their own land-trespassing which could only lead to death when violent confrontation was the only means of survival.
On why the practice of headhunting existed, Hose wrote: “That the practice of taking the heads of fallen enemies arose by extension of the custom of taking the hair for the ornamentation of the shield and sword-hilt,” and that: “The origin of head-taking is that it arose out of the custom of slaying slaves on the death of a chief, in order that they might accompany and serve him on his journey to the other world.”
The origin of headhunting among the Iban, some anthropologists believe, is tied to mourning rules given by a spirit. One of them reads: “The sacred jar is not to be opened except by a warrior who has managed to obtain a head, or by a man who can present a human head, which he obtained in a fight; or by a man who has returned from a sojourn in enemy country. [Source: Iban Cultural Heritage website]
Among the war (ngayau) regulations followed by the Iban are: 1) If a warleader leads a party on an expedition, he must not allow his warriors to fight a guiltless tribe that has no quarrel with them. 2) If the enemy surrenders, he may not take their lives, lest his army be unsuccessful in future warfare and risk fighting empty-handed war raids (balang kayau). 3) The first time that a warrior takes a head or captures a prisoner, he must present the head or captive to the warleader in acknowledgement of the latter’s leadership. 4) If a warrior takes two heads or captives, or more, one of each must be given to the warleader; the remainder belongs to the killer or captor. 5) The warleader must be honest with his followers in order that in future wars he may not be defeated (alah bunoh). [Ibid]
Iban Marriage and Family
Both arranged marriages and love matches are common. Parents prefer the former as a way of improving alliances within the longhouse community. Marriages within a kin group are preferred to maintain possession of property. Divorces are easy to get. Non-Iban ethnic groups have been absorbed into the Iban community through marriage and are regarded as Iban by the second generation.
Young children are generally lavished with attention and allowed to run free. By age 5 they wash their own clothes; by age 8 girls are doing domestic chores. Boys have traditionally left the longhouses for months or years and were expected to return with trophies. Girls are expected to become skilled weavers.
The bilik-family that occupies a particular place in an Iban longhouse is usually a nuclear family but can also contain grandparents or members that joined through adoption or other means. They are responsible for constructing their parents apartment in the long house and producing their own apartment and governing their own financial affairs.
Iban that can afford it send their children to boarding schools down river. The children that have done this say they prefer their school dormitories, with electricity and running water to the long houses. Many have vowed to move to the cities to find work and leave the traditional Iban life behind.
The Iban have traditionally lived in longhouses that are like villages under one roof. They can range in size from four families with 25 residents to 80 families with 500 residents. In the center of house is a common room off which the rooms of the house radiate, sort of like side streets off of the main square. Longhouses made sense in the old days because the were easier to defend than dwelling spread out all over the place. They were regarded as normal and single family houses were seen as unusual.
Iban longhouses have a large open deck in front, and a wide enclosed veranda, with doors leading to the individual bilik or apartments. The long veranda, or ruai, has traditionally been the center of the traditional social life. It is where old people gathered in the evening to chat, weave rattan baskets, repair fishing nets and relax while their children watched television powered by a Honda generator. The porch is where clothes are hung and rice is dried. To get to the porch you walk up a rough ladder formed from a single log.
Longhouses are constructed with their front to the water, preferably facing east. The quality of construction often varies from group to group and even house to house within a village. High-quality ones are soundly built and have polished hardwood floors. Lower quality ones have walls and floors made of flimsy split bamboo. The average width of a family unit is 3.5 meters but the the distance from front to back can vary greatly.
The residents eat and sleep and store their heirlooms in their apartments. They sleep on straw mat floors in one room and eat around an open cooking fire in another. About halfway over the apartments and halfway over the veranda is loft where rice is stored and a large bark bed where unmarried girls sleep.
Iban Life and Arts
The Iban eat dishes such as plantain-and-papaya stew by using a ball of moist rice to mop up the stew. They drink a potent sour rice wine called tauk. Dogs, chicken and children run loose although prized gamecocks are tethered by the their owner’s door.
The Iban love water. They sometimes spend all day squatting in rivers. In the old days they settled disputes by holding competitions to who could stay submerged under water the longest.
Men have traditionally covered their bodies with tattoos and men and women wore iron rings in their lobes up to six inches in diameter. Even when the rings were removed the pierced earlobes drooped almost to their shoulders. Some Iban had a tattoo of hook tied to a bamboo raft on their leg to keep crocodiles from attacking. The reasoning goes that when the crocodile sees the hook it won't bite.
The most important Iban musical instrument is called a engkerumong which is a set of bronze gongs haug from ropes hanging from a stretched wooden frame which are struck with a wooden mallet.
The Warrior Dance is a traditional dance of the Iban people. This dance is usually performed during Gawai Kenyalang or 'Hornbill Festival'. Reputedly the most fearsome of Sarawak's headhunters, the tribe's victorious warriors were traditionally celebrated in this elaborate festival. Wearing an elaborate headdress and holding an ornate long shield, the male warrior dancer performs dramatic jumps throughout this spellbinding dance. [Source: Malaysian Government Tourism]
Iban women are regarded as skilled backstrap weavers. They weave blankets and clothes. They are also known for their split cane weaving of mats and baskets. Men are known as skilled woodcarvers. The Iban have a rich folklore filled with myths, epics and histories.
Iban have traditionally been rice farmers who used slash and burn methods on hills and slopes. Because of uncertainties of growing rice in Borneo, dozens of varieties are planted, a special sacred patch is set aside as a gift to an ancestor or spirit and the cultivating cycle is accompanied by numerous ritual to ensure a good harvest. The rice crop is planted and harvested by a single community at the same time to reduce the likelihood that a single family will have their fields damaged by pests.
Different Iban communities have different cropping-fallow patterns. Many Iban cultivate food and collect plants from "managed" forest plots such as several varieties of ferns, bamboo shoots and hearts and pits from numerous palms.
The Iban have problems with birds raiding their fields. To address this they set up rattles and noise makers in the fields that have strings attached to them that run to a small hut. When birds appear someone pulls on the strings which set off the noise makers that shoo away the birds. With fertilizers and pesticides Iban rely less on traditional methods and rituals than they used to.
Iban Economic Activity
The Iban grow food crops sich as casava, pumpkins and vegetables, raise cash crops like pepper and cacao and collect fruit from trees. Fishing is done with traps, nets and lines and hooks. Wild pigs, deer and other animals are hunted with dogs, traps and nets. Almost all families keep pigs and chickens. Every longhouse has dogs. Chickens, pigs and water buffalo are raised for sacrifices.
These days many Iban men work in logging camps or on rubber or palm oil plantations. Some work for oil companies; others as traders. Other work independently tapping rubber and collecting rattan. Many have gone to the cities in search of salaried jobs. Some Iban earn extra cash by putting up tourists in their longhouses and performing so-called headhunter dances to drums and gongs.
Iban and the Modern World
Many of the problems faces by the Penan and Dayaks in general are faced by the Iban. See Dayaks and Penan.
The Iban have lost their land to logging, palm oil plantations and dams. They have been involved in land rights protest and court cases. In the past 40 years or so more than a quarter of all Iban have moved to urban areas in Sarawak.
See Bakun Dam
Iban Activist Detained over Anti-Logging
In October 2009, AFP reported, “Malaysian police said they had arrested a native leader who set up roadblocks in Borneo to stop a logging firm from encroaching on their ancestral land. Ondie Jugah, 55, from the Iban indigenous group, was among a group of 10 people who have mounted a blockade since early this week in the interior of eastern Sarawak state, on Borneo island. Police said Ondie was detained late Friday after he refused to remove the blockade, following complaints filed by the logging company. "We directed him to open up the road but he refused, so we have to take him back to facilitate investigation," a senior police official from the local Kapit district, who did not want to be named, told AFP. [Source: AFP, October 23, 2009]
Ondie's son, Anthony, urged the police to release his father, saying they were merely protecting their home."They (the logging company) want to destroy our land and did not want to compensate us," the 29-year-old told AFP. Nicholas Mujah, secretary general of indigenous rights group Sarawak Dayak Iban Association, condemned the arrest as a form of "harassment" of the vulnerable group and demanded the authorities respect native land rights.
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