Preface: General Information and Preliminary Issues

The Mentawai islands are located some 130 km to the west of the west coast of central Sumatra, specifically the province of West Sumatra and its provincial capital Padang. There are four islands in the group. The largest, and most northerly is Siberut. Immediately to the south is Sipora which lies a little way to the north of the two islands which complete the group, North and South Pagai.
The islands are administered under the umbrella of the province of West Sumatra, one of 33 constituting the Republic of Indonesia. They form a lower level adminstrative unit on their own, the recently formed Kabupaten (Regency) of (the) Mentawai (Islands) (Kabupaten Kepulauan Mentawai, formerly Kabupaten Padang/Pariaman) which is further divided into a number of districts, or Kecamatan. The islands are divided amongst four such Kecamatan: North Siberut, South Siberut, Sipora, and North and South Pagai which together constitute one Kecamatan. Population figures (c.2000): North Siberut, 15 161; South Siberut, 14 757. Sipora, 12 840. North and South Pagai, 20 974. (Source Regional Autonomy Website). For further information on Regional Autonomy relating to the islands click here.

The inhabitants of the islands in the present can be divided into indigenous and immigrant populations. The origins of the indigenous people are briefly described elsewhere. They all speak dialectical variants of the language indigenous to the Mentawai Islands, with most speaking the Indonesian national language and a minority the Minangkabau language. The indigenous language dialects are spoken in North Siberut, South Siberut, Sipora, and the Pagai Islands. Immigrants include people from North Sumatra (Batak), West Sumatra (Minangkabau) who represent the bulk of the non-indigenous population, and Javanese, along with representatives at one time or another of most of the other ethnic groups in Indonesia as well as the odd Euroamerican residing in a professional capacity (missionary, research, social/humanitarian aid).

On Siberut people mostly live in small settlements[1] dotted along the major rivers or close to the coast. They commute back and forth between dwellings in the settlement and dwellings located on ancestral land at varying degrees of distance from it. There they raise pigs and pursue a variety of horticultural activities, such as harvesting fruit when in season, durian and jackfruit for example, along with many other naturally occurring species. Chickens are often raised close to the settlement. Sago palms are also tended in low-lying swampy locations, usually contiguous with a river. The pith is processed and forms, along with taro, a dietry staple. Virtually every settlement has at least one shop where rice and instant noodles along with the basic items found in any similar establishment throughout Indonesia can be purchased. Hence rice and noodles are often consumed. These purchases are financed by a number of petty-trading activities which include the sale of rattan, collected from the uncultivated areas of forest, and durian when in season (being the opposite of the durian season on the Sumatran mainland creates demand). A load of durian might be transported by canoe to the coast, the cash obtained being used to purchase fish or machete blades and other items rarely obtained upriver. Trade is almost exclusively dominated by members of the Minangkabau immigrant group. The religious orientation of most people is Catholicism. A good percentage follow Islam. Most people are still immersed, although some more than others, in the beliefs and practices that have their origins in the period prior to the coming of the world religions[2]. Most people have access to primary education should they wish their children to attend. A small number of graduates attend secondary school in Muara Sikabaluan or Muara Siberut, or even in Padang on the mainland where a sizable student population lives and studies. There are no roads apart from those within and in the immediate vicinity of Muara Sikabaluan and Muara Siberut.

The situation on Sipora and the Pagai Islands differs to Siberut to the extent that further dialectical variants of the language are spoken in each region respectively. These regions have been subject to colonial and post-colonial influences for a longer period[3] resulting in considerable changes in cultural beliefs and practices. Much of the literature concerning Sipora and the Pagais portrays beliefs and practices that have all but disappeared. Most communities are Christian with some Muslim, and are mainly located along, or in close proximity to, the coast. The presence of these world religions has heavily impacted upon indigenous cosmologies and belief systems. Raising pigs and horticulture are important subsistence activities. Sago is not a dietry staple but rather rice, purchased from Sioban or Sikakap or at a local shop supplemented with horticultural produce.

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As of the present (September 2001) much of the information contained in the various articles constituting the content of this site derive from my own work in the field of social/cultural anthropology, although there is a growing body of material from several other contributors (particularly indigenous people). Therefore I emphasise that the “facts” revealed within are the product of a particular point of view (see Theoretical Perspective).

The issue here is that the phenomenal world confronting us does not speak to us directly. We accordingly take upon ourselves the deceptively straight-forward task to speak on its behalf, to tell its story in a way that we feel it would like the story to be told if it could indeed tell the story itself, to paraphrase my honours supervisor of yesteryear. This is, thankfully, attenuated by (although it also complicates) the important truism that the social/cultural worlds that anthropologists study (or the discerning traveller engages with) are the product of living and experiencing human beings who, whilst technically “objects” of “scientific” investigation, are however able to tell their own stories. Nevertheless the final responsibility for the story told rests with the one through whose eyes and beliefs that story finds a wider audience. Despite the inherent (and perhaps intractable) difficulties the intermediary—be s/he merely “passing through” or acting in some professional capacity, an anthropologist for example—faces in this task, it is exceedingly important that the stories told correspond as closely as possible to the original.

The “facts” related in the pages grouped under the rubric of “Ethnographic Fieldwork” and “Ethnographic Journal“, then, are the result of an encounter between one concerned to stay as true to the spirit of the original as is permitted by his disciplinary imperatives and particular theoretical conerns, and a particular population on the island of Siberut. They are, therefore, compromised, and form not so much “facts” as interpretations of a particular socio-cultural reality, at a particular place, at a particular time in world history. Nevertheless they offer a sound starting point for anyone concerned to learn about the world inhabited by a good proportion of the people inhabiting South Siberut, which brings me to another important qualification.

The ethnographic particulars described throughout these pages can only be said to hold for the area in which are located the villages of Rogdog, Madobag, Ugai, and Matotonan. Nevertheless the interested investigator will certainly find that the cultural conceptions and social practices characterising this area of Siberut share resonances of various intensities with other regions in Siberut as a whole, and perhaps further afield on the islands of Sipora and the Pagais in some circumstances. However since the author has conducted intensive ethnographic research in just the one delimited region it must be recognised that the ethnographic particulars described primarily relate to this region.

Bearing in mind the above qualifications, the “facts” related throughout the following pages are being made available for public consumption in the hope that those who engage in any capacity for any length of time with the locals in this part of the world—or anywhere else on the planet for that matter—will attempt the (admittedly difficult) task of setting aside deeply entrenched beliefs, a result of knowledge of “other cultures” coming to them through the stereotypes bequeathed to them from a period in the early development of the discipline of social/cultural anthropology. Such stereotypes, to name but a few, include notions that the non-western world is largely inhabited by “primitives” (which does not tell us anything apart from what we think we already know), or “stone-age” peoples (which merely hints at the level of technology that may be relevant for a particular population) or “noble savages” (more an image embedded within pictorial and textual representations than an explicitly articulated phrase) which in essense claims the possession of certain beliefs and values by indigenous people, the possession of which has yet to be determined.

I exhort you, esteemed reader—and having got this far you are obviously qualified to respond to the challenge in the appropriate manner!—to reflect deeply upon your experience in these islands and ask yourself the question, prior to taking it upon yourself the task of speaking on behalf of “an-other”, and subsequently making your “speaking-for” available to the rest of the world via the ubiquitous medium of the internet, a book, or magazine, (but particularly the internet) of whether you have yet reached the point in which you are truly in a position to adequately articulate, describe, and most importantly evaluate the reality of what you have seen or experienced on your travels in the Mentawai islands. Minimally I would urge you not to rely upon the metaphors bequeathed to you by your own cultural/intellectual tradition. You need to make the attempt to abandon hackneyed concepts such as “primitive” or “stone-age” and, instead, rely upon the rich source of metaphors that your hosts use to construct the world in which you find yourself a guest.

In sum a study of the world described in the following pages  prior to, or in conjuction with, a visit to the Mentawai islands, would be well rewarded by personal enlightenment and, when all is said and done, constitute a contribution to the more accurate portrayal of the socio-cultural world encountered. So it can be considered a springboard forming a solid foundation from which to gain an adequate understanding. It is also a springboard to a consideration of key texts listed in the bibliography of sources—I would direct the reader here to the work of the anthropologist Reimar Schefold, particularly his (1988) publication “Lia”—and, more generally, the development of a more qualitative engagement with a unique part of the world in which some justice is done to the complex socio-cultural reality that exists there.

Take me to the introductory article

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