1. Introduction and Acknowledgements


Introduction and Acknowledgments

Note: the numbers in brackets direct you to endnotes at the bottom of the page.

In this section of the website entitled “Ethnographic Fieldwork” the reader will find a series of articles dealing with key cultural dimensions of life in a particular region of South Siberut , Mentawai(1). The basic assumption informing these is that the description and analysis of such key beliefs and practices is necessary in order to develop a basic understanding of the rhythm and “texture” of daily life in this part of the world. Each article is, to some degree, self contained. However they all loosely come together to form an overall picture of key categories and practices informing the lives of the people who are the focus of the study. Hence, it would make most sense if the reader were to tackle them in the numerical order in which they are presented, particularly since their order is directed by an overarching theoretical argument which is laid out in detail in “Article 2: Theoretical Perspectives”.

Nevertheless they can be randomly accessed since I have provided an orientation at the beginning of each to place it in a general context—I have thus occasionally modified some of the ethnographic details within to reflect this altered context. As these “ethnographic particulars” were collected in the area of South Siberut, Mentawai, that is attracting the most domestic and international attention, the “Rereiket”, they will be useful to the majority of people who find themselves in this particular part of the world.

In the interests of conducting ethnographic research in pursuit of a Ph.D in Social/Cultural Anthropology, from February 1992 to August 1993 I lived in the small community known as Madobag located on the northernmost and largest of the four islands constituting the Mentawai islands, or Mentawai archipelago, which lies some 130 km to the west of Sumatra’s central-west coast. The area is administered as a part of the Province of West-Sumatra, homeland to the Minangkabau(2).

Within the district (kecamatan) of South Siberut there are ten administrative areas called desa, and within each of these are several residential hamlets or dusun. Madobag is one such dusun within the desa named after it. The other dusun are Ugai a little further to the north, and Rogdog located to the south down-river. The dusun of Madobag is located approximately 15 km inland, as the crow flies, from the main town and administrative centre on South Siberut, Muara Siberut, Mentawai. Madobag was chosen as a field-site because of its central position in the area mid-way between two other hamlets, one a little way to the north-west, the other just to the south-east putting them easily within reach, although the research was carried out overwhelmingly in Madobag and its immediate environs. It was also, furthermore, not prohibitively far from Muara Siberut. Since all of my supplies came from there, this was an important consideration.

The research was substantively focused on a close examination of the ‘kinship’ system under changed circumstances. The only other researcher to carry out intensive research on this subject on Siberut and publish widely his results, Reimar Schefold, has consistently presented—as one dimension of a wide ranging opus—a particular model of social organization which he represents as the ‘Mentawaian’ typical unit of ‘kinship’. My own research was oriented, then, towards a re-assessment of social organization generally in the context of a critical suspension of what the actual referents of ‘Mentawai’ and the ‘Mentawaians’ might be. The details of, and the rationale for this reassessment are set out in “Article 2:Theoretical Perspectives“.

The research eventually came to be focused upon key dimensions within local conceptions of the nature of the cosmos, what I henceforth refer to as the local “cosmology”. An understanding of Rereiket cosmology—or the ways in which the local people define what entities populate the seen and unseen world both immediate and further afield—can be achieved by bringing it into relief with our own.

A popular perspective in western scientific cosmology constructs the cosmos as an expanding area of curved, to a greater or lesser degree, space-time subject to the law of entropy, a law temporarily counteracted, through the organisation of specific structures in accordance with the laws of physics: stars, planets, galaxies, nebulae and so forth. The darkness is penetrated here and there with the light emerging from stars, however darkness and entropy remain the future towards which the universe is unwinding.

Rereiket cosmology can be portrayed, in one of its dimensions, as presenting a universe of beings antagonistic towards “life”. Just like a star in the darkness, “life” is continually under threat of extinction in the face of the entropic power (bajou) wielded by the ghosts (sanitu). However in this cosmological scheme it is not the laws of physics impartially acting out their Laplacian destinies in temporary defiance of the ultimate sentence of entropy, but intentional human agency that turns the darkness back upon itself, temporarily.

The way this is done is through the key ritual form that is enacted on a regular basis by particular groups throughout the region, the puliaijat. Based on the analysis of a number of different types of puliaijat, I put forward the argument that the puliaijat can generally be interpreted as a means to create a “space of life”, in a world in which “life” (purimanua) is constantly threatened by the entities of death, the sanitu. And rather than a sociable event, in which the people constituting a community are brought closer together, it carries within it, on the contrary, an extremely anti-social attitude aimed at heightening the sense of difference between the various groups (suku) which in aggregation make up the various communities that collectively constitute Rereiket society. In the puliaijat the ancestors (saukkui), or the spirits of deceased suku members, are called upon as allies in the puliaijat to combat the influence of the dead of other groups, the sanitu, who are the ones the local people see as being largely responsible for sickness and death.

An understanding of this leads to, in turn (or conversely depends upon), an understanding of the ubiquitous uma (House) which are located liberally throughout the area. The uma is the primary vehicle for achieving this outcome mainly because it is the repository for the ancestral heirlooms, the nature and the function of which is dealt with in some detail in the following articles. My basic argument is that the uma can be conceptualised as a “strategy of intervention” in the cosmos. All the material presented in these articles is aimed, in the last instance, at clarifying the role that the uma (House) plays in the lives of the locals. This is the general theme which binds them together into a more-or-less cohesive whole. Nevertheless I emphasise again that they can be read as stand-alone documents; and they are presented primarily with that purpose in mind.

Two final issues. Firstly, many of the articles contain details concerning the trials and tribulations of certain groups, and individuals within those groups. I have thought long and hard about whether or not to make this information publically available. I have decided to go ahead since the primary motivating factor for the establishment of this site was to make readily available a good quantity of generally accessible detailed information based upon a more or less rigorous research methodology. This is offered as a counterpoint to the growing amount of readily available information which tells us more about the preoccupations of the authors (writers/travellers) than about the people whom are supposed to be the the subject of such writing or reports. In other words there is an abundance of information of poor quality that perpetuates myths about indigenous peoples generally rather than informs us about the reality and concerns of the indigenous inhabitants of the Mentawai islands in particular. Quality ethnographic knowledge is built from a base consisting of the painstaking cataloguing of myriad details. Thus details are what the reader will find presented in the following articles, details from which quality conclusions about the nature of life (in South Siberut) can be drawn by the attentive reader.

Secondly, the information contained in the articles relies heavily upon terms and expressions used by the local people. I have opted to increase the burden of the interested investigator, who has to come to his or her own understanding by way of an understanding how these terms and concepts are used in the local context, since too much is lost in translation—an ongoing problem for the ethnographic perspective. In order to ease this burden I have included a working “glossary” of the terms utlilsed throughout the articles, which should be consulted in concert with a close reading of the latter. A link to this is provided on the homepage/index.


Research for the information made available in these articles was funded by a three and a half year Australian Government Postgraduate Research Award. Fieldwork was conducted under the auspices of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). Many thanks to Mr. Kalam Sebayang whose cheerful assistance on many occasions was invaluable. Many thanks are also in order to my sponsor in Indonesia, Prof. Dr. Abdul Aziz Saleh, Fakultas Sastra, Andalas University, Padang, West Sumatra.

I am very grateful to Doug Miles for his advice and guidance in helping to facilitate my entry into the field and also for his support whilst I was in the field. Thanks also to Jim Fox for his assistance in setting the project on the right track early on, and for his careful reading of the final draft of the original text on which these articles are based. Sincere thanks to Patrick Guinness for taking on the supervisory task in the writing-up stage. I am most grateful for his several conscientious, meticulous, and very detailed examinations of the text, pulling it into line when it was off the rails. I am also indebted to the participants in the thesis-writing seminar—Ward Keeler, Mandy Thomas, Nils Bubandt, and Chris Watson—for their close and perceptive examinations of the text. Nevertheless I have chosen, in many instances, to go my own way, perhaps at my own peril. The responsibility for the final product rests, of course, totally with myself.

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(1) These articles are modified versions of the substantive chapters of my PhD thesis held in the thesis collection of Library of the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, entitled “Spaces of Life; Spaces of Death: The Relationship of the House (uma), to the Production of Space and Identity in a Rereiket Community, Mentawai.”

(2) It must be noted, however, that the islands’ inhabitants are, in many respects, strikingly distinct from their neighbours on the mainland. Although the language spoken varies across the islands, these variations are considered cognate enough by linguists to be regarded as one language. In broad perspective, as with the other Sumatran languages, this belongs to the Western Austronesian group.

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