Fireflies, red dragonflies, the next moment a dinosaur could trudge between the primeval sago trees – south of Sumatra, in the Indonesian archipelago, there are small islands where the indigenous culture is still maintained: the Mentawai Islands.
The rivers lead deep into the largest island of Siberut. The jungle lies in a swamp – the indigenous cut down trees to create paths through the mire out of thin tree trunks – it’s a challenge to keep your balance on long walks across the slippery tree trunks and not to fall into the mud or into a spiked palm tree with your film equipment.
Deep in the forest, there is the Uma, the house of the clan. Airy and open, you feel at home quickly in its cooling shadow. My host is the shaman Takgogouk – the shamans (Sikerei) are the charismatic guardians of the ancient Mentawai culture, they know all the plants and preparations, how to craft bows and poison arrows and how to hunt, they live the tradition. I got to know some Sikerei during my days on the islands, listened to their stories and songs.
The indigenous people live in an egalitarian community. Everyone has a voice when there is something to decide, including the children. It roots partly from animism, here the spirits are more at eye level, less an almighty deity of monotheism, which could promote a culture of subjugation and exploitation.
Everything is animated: according to native beliefs, souls and spirits form the interwoven forest. Every human being, in a sense, has two souls: the consciousness and a spiritual soul that could be walking through the forest and meeting other souls while one is working or sleeping at home. In the aboriginal belief, the shaman can see the invisible souls, the whole spiritual fabric of the forest. One adorns oneself with flowers, so that after its wandering, the soul gladly takes its place inside the body again. If someone gets sick, their soul is gone astray on their wandering through the forest, is in bad company, does not want to come back. The soul is like a child, the shaman soothes and lures it like one – with songs and gestures.
The sago tree is the affluence of the swampy islands. If you cut down a tree, you can provide for family and pets for a long time. Some sago trees serve luxury: they feed beetle larvae, which are regarded as a delicacy. But in the end, you only get a small basket full of larvae from the soft wood of a big tree.
Sago flour is much more fruitful. Roasted with grated coconut, it acts as the daily bread. You put the sago dough into the fire inside bamboo pipes or wrap it in sago leaves and put it into the hot coal. The menu includes fruit, chicken, fish, beetle larvae and game. Pigs are not part of everyday meals, their meat is reserved for important festivals and ceremonies. The domestic pigs are half boars and are free to search food in the forest daytime. In the evening their owner sounds the wooden bel, the noise rings through the forest and the pigs come back to the house to get their share of sago.
According to old legends, the sago tree is said to have turned into a human and a human into a sago tree. The tree not only provides food, its leaves serve as a roof and in earlier days, the leaves were smoked as well.
Poison arrows are made for hunting with a bow and arrows. The shaman knows exactly how to find roots and leaves to prepare in the vicinity of the house, and after half an hour, the arrows are prepared to be lethal.
The production of bark clothing is just as fast, but the old techniques can only be performed with such ease using lifelong practice. With a few strokes of the machete my host Takgogouk cuts through the slender trunk of a Baiko tree from which the bark clothing is made. But the tree does not fall yet, its crown is stuck in the dense forest. Takgogouk climbs up the narrow, bare trunk in seconds and uses the machete to separate the trunk from the top. A moment later, he is down again safely and with quick cuts releases the second layer of bark, taps and rolls it with a wooden tool until soft and elastic – this requires strength and skill, which only forms after long practice.
The forest of the islands is maintained to this day, the indigenous people use it regeneratively. But the government has given licenses to commercial loggers who are now moving in on it as well. Here, too, the ancient forests and traditional culture are in danger.
The Australian Rob Henry has been living with the indigenous people for nearly 10 years and has established a foundation to support their culture. He collaborates closely with the organization of the indigenous people Suku Mentawai.They have begun to document traditional culture, language, medical and plant knowledge, stories, myths, spirituality, songs – a project worth supporting. At present there are hardly any funds and donations are urgently needed. If you would like to travel to Mentawai yourself, you will find eco-tourism offers at the house of the foundation (mentawaiecotourism.com).
After filming, I‘m travelling to my next destination, the island Flores – first back to the 30-million-city Jakarta and then further east in the archipelago, beyond the Wallace line. But the departure from the Mentawai Islands is hard. At some point I will return.
Joo Peter, July 2019
Update September 2020: trailer for my documentary
(c) by Joo Peter (except film trailer by Rob Henry)
copyrights reserved, contact joopeter(at)gmx.de
The featured starting picture of this chapter shows shaman Aman Boroi Ogok.