5. The Suku—Profiles and Interrelations


The Suku: Profiles and Interrelations

 Suku is simply the name given to a cohesive group of people who consider themselves related. In the past, uma and suku were the same. The name given to the enduring, cohesive groups of relatives was ” uma” which referred to both a dwelling and social unit. In the present, however, the new usage, “suku”, now refers to the social unit where uma refers to a dwelling in which the ancestral heirlooms, the katsaila and the alei katsaila, are stored. Thus the typical situation in the Rereiket is that of a suku composed of a number of subgroups, or uma factions as I have arbitrarily named them. To put it another way, you will find in a Rereiket village, a number of suku composed of household (lalep) groups, each of these being focused on a particular uma within a suku thus constituting what I term an ‘uma faction’. In those circumstances where a suku consists of just the one uma, these are constructed as separate entities: ‘there is our suku, and there is our uma’.

However, an interesting point is that a suku can be adequately described in terms of its constituent household units (lalep) without mentioning the uma at all, since usually only the one household lives in it anyway. This is because suku members live and work in terms of their households (lalep), whereas just the one household dwells in the uma, making it no more than a residential hut (sapou) where the heirlooms are stored. In order to appreciate the uma’s role in Rereiket society, Mentawai, it is important to look a bit more carefully at the suku in terms of, firstly, its internal constitution and external relationships with other suku, and secondly in terms of its relationship to the ancestral heirlooms. In doing so it will be easier to understand the cosmological role that the uma plays in Rereiket society, that is as a ‘strategy of intervention’ (see article 1) in the cosmos.

Suku in Madobag, Mentawai, range in size from those consisting of merely one individual, to large suku consisting of many dozens of people belonging variously to several uma factions. There is no necessary correlation between suku size and the number of uma factions, although there needs to be a reasonable population in a suku before we find more than one faction. Yet one of the largest suku, Salolosit, consists of only the one uma. Recruitment to a suku, or an uma faction within it, takes place through a person being born into it, or affiliating with it through marriage or adoption. In most cases this involves a woman joining her husband’s suku, although sometimes a man joins his wife’s suku if he does not have the bridewealth to “pay for” (saki) her.

Suku members generally strive to represent their suku to themselves and to others as distinct from, and therefore superior to all other suku. Accordingly, in respect of both formal and informal relations, suku do not have a great deal to do with each other. Yet it must be said that this holds more for older married people rather than the dusun’s youth who regularly associate across suku boundaries. For the former, daily interaction and formal occasions are generally carried on in terms of suku membership—one associates more with one’s own suku than one does with sirimanua, that is the ‘undifferentiated masses’ or the ‘general public’. Formal inter-suku relations take place in the context of marriage, the paabad, pakok, sinuruk, paroman, and tulou institutions respectively. Each suku demonstrates unique characteristics vis-a-vis other suku with regards to each of these.

The number of members in each genealogy I recorded for each suku must be regarded as approximate since, in every case, some suku members are not included. Revisions to genealogies in the field always involved increases in suku populations. However, the figures do adequately reflect the relative size of the suku in Madobag. Four suku have only nominal representation in the dusun, their members having migrated there from both nearby and more distant locations.

The smallest suku consists of just the one elderly widower, the last of his uma faction belonging to the suku Sateburuk which has representation in the Silaoinan area to the north east of the Rereiket, and in some of the dusun located near to Muara Siberut. This particular man lives in his hut on suku land located 1.5 km to the south of Madobag, but is affiliated with the suku Sapojai in the dusun proper. Saleubajak and Saegioni from the Matotonan area, along with Sagoluk which has uma factions in Ugai and Rogdog, Mentawai, are represented by a single household each possessing and occupying a single hut in the dusun. Each has separated from its natal uma faction in the recent past. Such separations constitute a potential basis for the formation of new suku should they decide not to return to their original suku. All that would be required is the establishment of a new uma with a new bakkat katsaila, legitimized and advertised to the rest of the community through holding the relevant puliaijat (ceremonial event). In the case of these factions this has not yet occurred. In the dusun Saegioni has affiliated with the suku Samalaiming, initially building a large sapou next to the Samalaiming uma (1,12). This was subsequently dismantled to make way for a new Samalaiming sapou. This affiliation was based upon the common ancestral origins of both suku. Both trace their immediate origins to the one suku and, along with several other suku, constitute a group of related suku known as a ‘rakrak’(1). This particular household was granted a sapou (1,25) under the PKMT Housing project next to the one Saguluk household which affiliated with the suku Sabagalet. The space was made available there so they had to be content with the position they were given even though this meant living surrounded by non-suku members. The preferable position would have been over near Samalaiming where they were in the first place. However, it was not until the second phase of the Housing project in early 1993 that the space for a new hut was made available with the dismantling of all the old huts in that far corner of the dusun.

A similar position was occupied by the smallest suku in the dusun possessing an uma and an array of ancestral heirlooms, Sakairigi, who have affiliated with the larger Samapopoupou suku. Sakairigi is constituted by a middle aged couple who have adopted a child from one Samapopoupou family since they have no children of their own. They added to the materials granted to them by the Social Affairs Department for a sapou building the uma (4,7; type 1) instead. The uma is also the focus for the Samapopoupou households clustered nearby on its north side.

Samatobe, with their uma located at (4,28) are a little more substantial with a total of five members divided amongst two households, an elderly couple along with their son his wife and their child. The younger couple were childless, as with Sakairigi, and responded to the offer when it was suggested they adopt the husband’s sister’s youngest child, the sister having died giving birth. Similarly the suku Sakakadut consisting of the rimata, his two sons, together with their wives and children inhabit the one uma (1,30a) when they are in the dusun. Saluluplup with some seven members divided into three households have an uma inhabited by the rimata and his wife across the river where they live with their pigs near to their sagu-making platform (pasaguat). Of the other two households, one lives in the dusun (3,37), the other near to the uma in a hut above their pigs. Sapojai with one uma (3,41) and one hut next to it consists of nine people divided amongst four households, three of whom live in the uma and various sapou, the fourth, the elderly widower who by himself constitutes the suku Sateburuk, attends events at the Sapojai uma as one affiliated to it. Sapojai claims an undifferentiated line of derivation beginning at Simatalu, the place claimed as the origin of all suku by every suku, with Sateburuk constituting an offshoot in the past. The rimata of Sabulau finds himself in an unenviable situation similar to Sakairigi. His suku’s eight members, divided into two households, are predominantly female—the rimata of the one uma, his daughters, along with his childless brother leave no male heirs. If the rimata acquired a son through adoption like Sakairigi then the problem would be solved. The uma would remain occupied. He has, however, not yet embarked upon this course of action and would not appear likely to. In common with some other suku, the rimata has a large sapou (4,18) in the dusun where he resides, the uma only being used when curing a member of the suku who has fallen ill, or when holding a puliaijat (ceremonial event). He also has a large sapou outside the dusun across the river where he raises his pigs and where he, thus, spends a lot of time.

Samalaiming, which we have encountered in the form of the type 1 uma, consists of four households. In the uma lives the rimata, his wife and two daughters along with his widowed sister. This is an interesting case since the elder of the two daughters has recently been divorced. She married a man from the suku Sakaiload located in central Siberut in the Samukob area. Shortly after the birth of her second child, following problems with her husband and her in-laws, compounded with the tyranny of distance making visits back to see her family in the Rereiket prohibitive, she moved back to the dusun permanently. In accordance with the norm she moved with the children back to her father’s uma, of which both she and her children, formerly members of Sakaiload, are now officially members. The rimata’s sister had married into the suku Sabagalet. But following the death of her husband, and despite the fact that her children and grandchildren remain members of this uma, she returned to her father’s (now her brother’s) uma. It is often the case that a widow returns to her father’s uma in this way, the contact with the natal uma having always been maintained.

A similar situation occurred in Samalaguret, a suku similar in size to Samalaiming centred upon the one type 4 uma (3,34). There are five households in this suku including the rimata who lives in the uma itself along with a widower son and a widowed daughter who was married to a man from Sapojai. Following his death she elected to move back to the uma. That they had no children made it a certainty that she would return to her natal uma, although even if they had had children, in conformity with the usual practice, she would have in all likelihood returned to her original suku and the uma with her children. The other households in this suku have huts (3,21; 3,19; 3,36) near to the uma. One of the rimata’s sons, however, spends a lot of the time with his family (lalep) in the next valley to the west-southwest where Samalaguret has some land.

Samapopoupou, in a similar vein, is focused largely upon both a type 6 uma located on the very fringe of the dusun, as is also the Sakairigi uma. The notable characteristics of this suku are firstly the return of the widowed sister of one of the two eldest males from her husband’s suku, and secondly, the inability of the rimata of the suku’s eldest son to raise the bridewealth required to give to the suku Sakukuret in exchange for one of the Sakukuret uma rimata’s daughter. Such bridewealth which includes pigs, mone (gardens), taro plots (gette), coconut, sago, and durian trees, as well as material for making mosquito nets, even glasses and plates, is contributed by each household in proportion to the number of the respective items like durian trees to which they have rights, since individuals can acquire rights in these kinds of items from a variety of sources in a variety of different areas. People may have rights in individual durian trees or coconut trees on any suku’s land. Collectively these items are given in exchange for a wife. However, if the demands cannot be met, and subsequent negotiations fail to bring about a satisfactory outcome, then a man may affiliate with his wife’s suku, rather than the other way around which is the usual practice. In this particular case the husband did indeed affiliate with his wife’s suku. He now lives in a large sapou (1,30) next to the unoccupied sapou (1,32) belonging to his wife’s father, in an area occupied by several Sakukuret households (1,29; 3,31; 1,41; 3,38; 3,32). Any events held at the uma he attends with his wife and children as a member of the suku, although only the events held at his wife’s father’s uma and not at any of the other three uma in the Sakukuret suku.

Sapuaiload represent probably the perfect ‘average’ suku with six sapou (2,18; 2,20; 2,21; 2,22; 2,23) clustered close to the uma (2,18). What is perhaps somewhat atypical is their making the uma into a monument to Catholicism. Unlike any other in Madobag, Mentawai, it is adorned with colour print portraits of Jesus along with a statue of the virgin Mary above the doorway. Displayed across the front of the batnuma (inner sanctum) wall are several vibrant scenes depicting the crucifixion. Mounted above the doorway is a small statue and a crucifix.

With 23 members the suku Sabeuleleu, the only suku lacking an uma, is one of the more substantial suku. The four households comprising the suku are, temporarily, divided amongst three longish sapou (3,7; 3,8; 3,11) recently completed in the first stage of the PKMT Housing project, Mentawai. They originally lived in the one uma and several sapou located in the next valley across to the west from the Rereiket. When the housing in the dusun was completed they moved to their present position, although they still spend a fair amount of time in their respective sapou on the suku land. With the move to the dusun the ancestral heirlooms were transferred to the rimata’s sapou (3,7) where they remain today. They plan to build another uma in the dusun as an appropriate storage-place for the heirlooms when they are able to get the resources together. The rimata does not define the hut where they are presently stored as an uma even though it may well function as such on ritual occasions (see article 8).

Samwonwot is the first of the suku made up of more than one uma. There are 35 people divided amongst two uma in this suku. In the first faction we find five households including the rimata’s which is located in the recently completed uma (4,30). His two sons live directly opposite in two recently completed huts (4,31; 4,32). The other two sapou are located some distance away in section 3 on the map (3,9; 3,13), a location dictated by the availability of space. Five households are centred on the other uma. Each uma has its own horde of ancestral heirlooms divided up when two brothers, the rimata of each of the existing uma, decided to go their separate ways. This suku’s land is located quite some distance away from the dusun, to the west, beyond Sabeuleleu land, requiring a half-day journey cross-country to get there. This means that suku members spend a great deal of time out there rather than making the journey between the dusun and their land too often.

Whilst a largish suku is required before it is possible for there to be more than the one uma in it, the existence of the one large suku does not guarantee the existence of multiple uma (factions). Such is the case with Salolosit, a 31 member suku focused upon a large type 5 uma. The suku is centred upon a core of a pair of brothers, one of whom is the rimata, and their brother-in-law (lakut), Silikat. All three prefer to live on their particular segments of Salolosit land located just to the north of the dusun and a little further away to the east, but still spend time every day in the dusun. Silikat’s situation constitutes the second example of a man who was not able to assemble the bridewealth to compensate the suku from which he gained his wife, Salolosit, and instead had to affiliate with them. His wife is the sister of the two brothers. His original suku was Saumanuk, located in the Taileleu area near Siberut, Mentawai, south coast, a suku of which he is no longer a member. Nevertheless the patriarchal bias persists. When I was inquiring about the particular suku membership of each sapou in the dusun, informants labelled the sapou (3,4), inhabited by Silikat’s eldest son and his family, as Saumanuk, despite the fact that the household inhabiting the sapou define themselves as Salolosit. Similarly people label the hut, where the Sakukuret woman and her Samapopoupou husband live, as Samapopoupou whereas in reality the household is affiliated to Sakukuret. However, Silikat’s youngest son has recently taken a wife into Salolosit, the bridewealth for whom is the responsibility of the suku. His wife thus becomes unambiguously Salolosit.

The final three suku, Sakaliau, Sagorojo/Sakukuret, and Sabagalet are the largest suku in Madobag each consisting of multiple uma—6, 4, and 3 respectively. Sakaliau number 54 individuals, divided amongst 6 uma and some 12 households. In the dusun itself there is just the one uma with four sapou each affiliated to one of the various uma factions. Just across the river on the Sakaliau land the rest of the uma are located, each occupying its segment of suku land along with several sapou inhabited by the households affiliated to each uma. The uma are, in the main, inhabited by the rimata, his wife and his younger children, with married sons living in their sapou above their pigs. Each rimata keeps his pigs beneath the uma and rarely goes into the dusun. All those older Sakaliau members living out in this area have never elected to come into the dusun to live, although they occasionally stay overnight in the sapou that some of them have there. Their older unmarried children prefer to spend most of their time in the dusun. Any work that needs to be done on their segment of the suku land is only 15 minutes to a half-hour walk away.

It is somewhat of a mystery how and why this suku came to be in its current situation when compared with the other suku in Madobag all of whom are almost 100% based in the dusun due to government ‘insistence’ that this is where they reside. Many informants cite government pressure as the reason they remain in the dusun rather than returning to a life of full residence on their pulagajat (suku land) pursuing the lifestyle that Sakaliau now enjoys. This pressure has been intense over the decades since Independence, coming in waves, periods in which uma along with the ancestral heirlooms within, along with the artefacts relied on by shaman to carry out their business, were destroyed. Administrators have consistently defined all these objects and the beliefs associated with them as anachronistic and “primitive”. A rimata of one of the Sakaliau uma factions perhaps provided a clue when he talked about the close relationship that he had cultivated over the years with the authorities in Muara Siberut. Other Sakaliau members merely said that they wanted to live that way and so they did. Echoing this, officials in Muara Siberut indicated to me that if the people upriver wanted to live that way then there was nothing much they could do about it, more a reflection of current policy toward the local people than a statement of fact. Along with this has been the official conversion to Islam by the whole suku in the previous decade, an event looked upon and talked about favourably by the predominantly Minangkabau Muslims of Muara Siberut. It is exclusively from among the Sakaliau people that the active members of the nightly Koran reading sessions in Madobag come. This factor, along with the recent change in tactics by the government leading to a more tolerant policy towards what they regard as a “primitive” and “backward” lifestyle, may help explain why this particular suku has been able to maintain their lifestyle where others have not.

The second largest suku in Madobag, Sakukuret-Sagorojo, has 52 members divided amongst four uma and 15 households. Sakukuret was the original suku from which Sagorojo under the present rimata, the oldest member of the suku, split away in the recent past. The rimata, his brother, and the rimata’s daughter along with her husband who joined the suku from Samapopoupou are affiliated to the first, a type 5 uma (2,1). Four households are focused on the Sagorojo type 6 (3,6) uma, six households are focused upon one type 2 (1,40) uma, with the last three focused upon a type 4 uma located across the river a half-kilometre from the dusun. The rimata and his son spend a fair proportion of the day out here whilst sleeping in sapou (4,16; 4,17) in the dusun at night. The younger brother of the Sagorojo rimata whose uma was previously located directly opposite (2,1), together with his two sons, moved to Muntei a dusun not far upriver from Muara Siberut. Government officials had brought pressure to bear in order to get as many people as possible from Sakukuret to move to Muntei since they owned land half way from Madobag to Muntei where they all have huts and keep their pigs, making it much of a muchness in travel to their land from either direction. From the government’s viewpoint it was better for them to be closer to Muara Siberut and ‘beneficial’ influences. The brother and his sons dismantled their uma, re-assembling it in the Muntei dusun, but failed to convince any of the others to follow them. The bonds between them were still strong although weakening, since in the event of a puliaijat or healing event (pabete) for example, members of the Sagorojo and Madobag-based Sakukuret attend whichever uma it takes place at, but not the faction residing at Muntei.

Sabagalet is the largest suku in the dusun with some 62 members spread amongst four uma and 15 households. Sabagalet were, in Madobag’s early days, concentrated around the uma (1,1; 1,2; 1,3). (1,2) is the uma in which dwells the one household composed of a middle aged couple and their young son who also have a recently completed PKMT hut (sapou) (1,33). When the PKMT Housing project got off the ground in 1989-1990, the suku expanded toward the southwest. It now occupies 13 huts in this general sector. Those affiliated to uma (1,1) built a new uma (1,18) near an existing hut (1,15), as well as building another new hut next to it (1,17). The old uma has thus been abandoned. Those in (1,3) stayed where they were. In the most recent round of PKMT hut building, several old huts, located a little to the northwest, were pulled down to make way for new hut for each household (lalep).

According to informants, the uma constituting Sabagalet have been drifting apart for some time. The faction remaining at (1,3) recently held a puliaijat of separation in which they formally separated from the other uma. The rimata now refers to this uma as the ‘Sapeleggut’ faction (named after a type of tree). Given time this may become a new suku, Sapeleggut, as the younger members grow older depending on whether or not they want to strengthen the notion of a separate identity. Or perhaps like Sagorojo, who play down distinctions between themselves and Sakukuret, they gloss over the differentiation and continue to construct themselves as Sabagalet. On the other hand, the faction based on the (1,18) uma, whilst emphasizing their identity as Sabagalet, nonetheless differentiate themselves not only from the other factions within the suku but also unequivocally from all other suku in the dusun. They have a reputation even amongst other Sabagalet members as “brash” and “arrogant” having a history of engaging in pakok, a state of rivalry bordering on fighting with another suku in which each tries to outdo the other in successive hunting expeditions to the leleu (forest). They would broadcast their successes to all within earshot, aiming barbed insults targeting their opponents lack of hunting prowess by means of the tudukat drums. They have also recently embraced Islam and number among the 40 people officially registered as Muslims although they are virtually non-active. In contrast, the Sapeleggut men have been closely associated in the past with Church and administrative affairs.

An interesting exception to the marked tendency of suku to differentiate themselves from and define themselves in opposition to other suku is an isolated case of sister exchange between one of the Sabagalet factions and Sapojai. The rimata’s brother’s son took a Sapojai girl for his wife with his sister marrying his wife’s brother. On several occasions informants expressed that this was a desirable option but not necessary nor imperative, a claim backed up by the lack of such relationships in my field data.


Marriage between suku is exogamous: that is, a member of a particular suku may not marry another member of that suku. In light of the efforts of each suku to mark itself off from every other (see article 6 ), we might expect marriage to tend towards endogamy (marriage allowed only between members of the same group) thereby protecting and enhancing the exclusiveness of each suku. Instead, apart from one instance, the practice is for individuals to select a partner where there is no possible relationship demonstrable between them in ancestral terms. An individual must select a partner from not merely another suku but from a suku having no ancestral connection to one’s own. If people can be shown to share a common ancestor within four or five generations then they are not considered to be suitable partners, and there will be pressure upon them not to marry. There is, generally, no interest in creating or consolidating alliances with other suku through marriage. Where there is any interest in alliance it is achieved, rather, through the institutionalized relationship known as paabad, which we will examine shortly.

Marriage, largely an individual affair, takes place in one of three ways. Liaisons are conducted beyond the public gaze. As long as couples conceal relationships from parents, or as long as parents or older people in the relevant suku do not know about them, these are left to run their respective courses. However, should some such person get wind of the affair, then the suku quickly moves to ascertain the intentions of both parties in respect of each other. A father asks a son whether or not he is serious, as does the girl’s father of her. Should both parties be willing to go ahead then bridewealth negotiations are entered into. Following a preliminary agreement as to how many sago trees, pigs, taro plots and so forth should be given, then, on an agreed day, the girl is taken and formally inducted into her husband’s suku. Several weeks or months later, a separate series of events (puliaijat) takes place in which the girl is formally relinquished by her natal suku, the bridewealth finally settled upon and delivered. What is initially an affair between two people becomes an affair between two suku.

Should there be objections on whatever ground from either party, and if the couple are indeed serious about a permanent union then they may run off together. If only the girl’s parents are not happy with the situation then she might run off to become a wife in her husband’s suku anyway. Or if the boy’s suku is unhappy then the couple go out and live together in a sapou on the land of either suku. Or sometimes it happens that, as a means of informing people who might be adverse to a particular union (in the couple’s perception), they still run off . If there are no objections then they are “called” back to the dusun whereupon formal bridewealth negotiations begin.

It sometimes happens that a liaison results in a pregnancy. In this case both parties move quickly. It is in this sort of situation that a man under pressure to obtain large amounts of bridewealth in a short period of time may have to affiliate with his wife’s suku if he fails to do so. Informants stated that where this had occurred, a man was always free to take his time to get the required amount of bridewealth together. Whilst he is working on getting this together he affiliates with his wife’s suku. However, men who find themselves in this position are usually never able to raise enough, instead staying permanently with their wife’s suku. This would appear to be the case with the young man from Samapopoupou who married into Sakukuret.

Parents sometimes put pressure on their children, especially sons, to get married although such pressure is usually reserved for widows and widowers. The thought of marriageable adults, or worse still, adults who have been married and have lost a spouse, living ‘alone’ is abhorrent, and such people are urged to marry. In the case of widows and widowers this person will also be someone who has lost a spouse. Whenever and wherever there are two likely people, negotiations are entered into. The eighty-eight year old rimata of Sagorojo married the wife of the deceased brother of the Salolosit rimata at the instigation of the Sagorojo rimata’s son’s wife. Likewise the Samalaiming rimata’s brother’s daughter, who is now a member of Sakukuret, negotiated the marriage between an elderly widow from a suku based in the Matotonan area and the Samalaiming rimata. Both suku have a great deal to say and make much ado about the link that has been forged by a newly married couple, although they do not act upon it afterwards. No enduring long term alliance is set up requiring constant (re)affirmation through future exchanges. At the most it enables members of one suku to say of another that “they are our saraina (relatives)”, but only in the context of that marriage link since in all other respects they are still Other, a different suku with different ancestors and a different pulaggajat.

The data I was been able to gather on marriages reflects the fact that people interact more in terms of suku within the dusun or the immediate area in relation to marriage rather than with those people coming from suku based in other areas. In 54% of recorded marriages men took their wives from the suku within Madobag; 46 % took wives from outside the dusun; 70% of outmarrying sisters and daughters marry within the dusun, the remaining 30% marry outside. Marriage with people from outside the dusun is heavily biased towards taking a spouse in the nearby dusun of Ugai and Rogdog, accounting for 80% of spouses coming from outside. 58% of the wives coming from outside the dusun are from Ugai the nearest dusun located some two km upriver. 22% are from Rogdog the next nearest dusun located four or so km downstream. A further 22% come from a variety of areas outside the Madobag Desa.

These figures also reflect the ‘centripetal’ force the suku exerts on men who form its core members. If men or youths leave the dusun to go elsewhere seeking work or education almost all return to the dusun and their suku of origin to settle down and marry. Only three men had permanently left the dusun: the brother of the deputy head of the Madobag Desa who had many years before gone to the mainland for secondary education eventually gaining a managerial position in a Coca-Cola factory in Padang; one young man had been accepted into the army; another was studying in Padang.

The situation is very much the reverse of the Minangkabau, Melayu, and Acehnese (Siegal 1969) centrifugal practice of male merantau, or migration away from his household, particularly the Minangkabau where the typical life trajectory of a male is forever outwards and away from his mother’s house (Ng 1993). On the contrary, in Madobag the centripetal force exerted by a male’s suku—or uma faction within his suku—of origin in Madobag is the overwhelming power in his life for as long as he lives. The experience of Petrus is testament to this. Petrus is eighteen. He completed primary school in Madobag but did not get any secondary education. He would like to go away from Madobag and find work elsewhere, even in Padang, in order to gain “experience” (pengalaman). However, his father was putting pressure on him to get married. It did not matter with whom as long as he found a wife. Personally he feels it is not yet time, citing his age:

Twenty-five would be a better age to be tied down. For that’s what it amounts to. Once you are married you can’t really go anywhere. Well … yes you can go away but not for very long. I would like to go away for six months or a year, but no longer. If I was married and went off somewhere, I could not stay away for very long otherwise my wife would return to her father’s uma. Someone else could then marry her. It must be stressed that it is not the dusun as a community that exerts this force but the uma communities as constituent of the suku, the various factions that as an aggregate make up the dusun(2).

Also reflecting the suku’s centripetal power of exclusivity, in only two cases in my data are there marriages aimed specifically at alliance, at specifically strengthening ties between two suku. Firstly, there was the sister exchange we encountered in relation to one Sabagalet faction’s relations with Sapojai, two suku which in other respects have little to do with each other. In the second instance, Salolosit took two wives from Samalaiming in the same generation. The present rimata’s younger brothers both took their wives, two sisters, from Samalaiming in what is regarded by most people in Madobag as a very unacceptable set of marriages. Although suku exogamy is satisfied in each case, all parties to the marriage can be traced problematically to the one ancestor. Both suku belong to the largest and most self-conscious rakrak in Madobag, in an effort to lessen the distance between two suku which once belonged to the antecedent suku Satoleoru. But in doing so they violate the principle of no marriage between people who can trace an easily demonstrated relationship to an apical ancestor.


In contrast to the lack of enduring ties set up between suku through marriage, a paabad relation, which may be reproduced over several generations endures between some suku in Madobag and suku in areas some way removed from the area, usually outside the Rereiket. Paabad is instituted to re-establish the peace between two suku where either one of them have at some time in the past killed a member of the other, or where a situation of extreme tension has brought both to the verge of bloodshed. Older people still have vivid recollections of raiding parties sent out from their uma to distant places in search of a head, along with the attendant unease as a result of the possibility of reprisals. The Dutch did much to eradicate this sort of violence between groups, however there were isolated head-taking incidents until recently. Some paabad relations were instituted even as late as the early days of the indigenous Indonesian administration. The exchange relations these incidents engendered in contrast to marriage are intended to be reproduced indefinitely.

The relationship itself is sustained between the rimata of the uma factions within the respective suku. Three of the four Sakukuret rimata have an ongoing paabad relationship with the rimata of the suku Sakelu located in the Katurei area near Muara Siberut, as well as the suku Saumaru and Sabojiat both based in the dusun of Salappak, located near the headwaters of the Silaoinan river in the valley to the north-north east. All three suku take turns to visit each other in their respective districts. They each define the other relative to themselves as saraina (relatives), or siripok (“friends”: literally ‘the one who is/sits opposite, next to, adjacent to’ [oneself]). However when pressed on the matter informants felt that, all things considered, their paabad relations are with people who are siripok rather than saraina, the latter term defining people so designated as identical to those who are unequivocally saraina, the members of one’s suku. As with all relationship terms it is used strategically in context to dissolve the differences between people, converting people who were formerly distanced from oneself and therefore one’s uma faction or suku, into staunch allies and thus totally trustworthy. Siripok are intermediate between sirimanua (the Other) and saraina. Whilst not above suspicion, they are certainly a great deal more trustworthy than sirimanua. Siripok, moreover, concerns the present or the recent past whereas saraina is more about the distant past, about long standing relations. There is no intermarriage between the two suku, consistent with the general lack of interest in creating or maintaining alliances by means of marriage.

There are five individuals from the two Salappak suku, each having a specific relation to each of the elderly males in Sakukuret, which includes the rimata of two of the four factions within Sakukuret as well as a brother of one, and a son of another. On this particular visit the Saumaru and Sabojiat members stayed for two nights and one day. They did not bring any gifts themselves but were instead given gifts of money by Sakukuret. They usually exchange many types of articles, although these are largely restricted to the items and objects used by shaman (sikerei), since six out of the ten are shaman. These objects include the small bells (tairosi) worn about the ankles or by a shaman’s wife about her waist. Popular are tudak, short lengths of hollowed resin or ceramic threaded along a stiff length of wire, worn about the neck. A very common item is cash, Indonesian rupiah. When Sakukuret go to Salappak to reciprocate the visit they may do so by taking chickens along with them, or even a pig or two.

Because Sakukuret had been to Salappak recently it was now the turn of the Saumaru and Sabojiat people to reciprocate by coming to Madobag. At the previous meeting in Salappak the subject of counter-gifts had been discussed. Both sides had agreed on a medium-sized cow along with its calf to be delivered to one of the Sakukuret uma factions, that of the rimata Sipange, for a payment of some Rp.200 000 leaving the remainder, Rp.600 000 to be paid over time. This was considered a windfall by Sakukuret particularly Sipange, since the ultimate aim is to breed from the female and sell the offspring while they are still young, either to the locals or to traders in Muara Siberut when they are full-grown. Hence the hefty price. One month later some young men from the Salappak suku brought the cows to the dusun, Sipange having given a down payment, the Rp.200 000(3) when the Saumaru and Sabojiat people were visiting. My informant in this case was not sure (or was not saying) what had originally precipitated their particular paabad relationship. What he did point out as important is that the patuat (“thoughts/feelings”) between the two suku, be compatible, indicating that the original rapprochement between the two suku ending the problem between them, was still of high quality.

One of the two Samwonwot uma factions also has a paabad relationship with Sabojiat along with two others, the suku Sakarengdalegu near Muara Siberut and the suku Salaise also of Salappak. The paabad relation with Sabojiat came about when Samwonwot was engaged in a puliaijat “quite some time ago”. In order to “boost their prestige” and demonstrate to their neighbours that theirs was a suku to be reckoned with, they went in search of a victim in the Salappak area. The first person they came across was a man looking for rattan whom they killed, taking his head back to the uma. They did not know which uma (suku) he came from. The point is they were out in search of a head and he was the first person they came across. It would not have mattered who they encountered—whoever it was would be, simply, unlucky. There was thus no plan to get a victim from any particular suku, although they did make attempts to ascertain later from which suku the man came. The usual practice in these incidents was the taking of a head, a source of great pride and prestige for the individual actually taking it. It would be the subject of a puliaijat where it would be “tortured” and “teased”, yet eventually buried with the other members of the suku as a suku member, with all the attendant precautions guarding against the pernicious influences of the victim’s ghost (sanitu). The person who actually carried out the killing was Baliktakkak, the grandfather of the present rimata of the two uma constituting the present Samwonwot in Madobag. Samwonwot knew that their victim was from Sabojiat long before Sabojiat knew that it was Samwonwot who did the deed. According to the story, a member of Sabojiat eventually did find out but was reluctant to tell his relatives. Eventually the government stepped in. Some officials came to the area to ibadnakek (“institute paabad”) that is to re-establish good relations between the two sides and defuse the situation. Following an exchange of pigs and chickens, the affair was settled.

The background to the establishment of paabad relations with Sakarengdalegu is expressed more along mythical lines. Sabagalet and Samwonwot were on fairly good terms since they lived quite close to one another. The teteu (“ancestor”) from Samwonwot borrowed the canoe belonging to the Sabagalet teteu in order to cross the river so that he could get to his pigs(4). The Sabagalet teteu became very upset about it, abusing the Samwonwot teteu and taunting him about the fact that he had never killed anyone or taken a head. The Samwonwot teteu was accordingly incensed at this slur against him and his suku’s prestige. So he went to the Sabirut (Muara Siberut) district near to the coast where he came across a woman whom he killed. The head was taken back and shown to the Sabagalet people. Once again the government (Dutch) stepped in to ibadnakek (“make peace [between]”) both sides.

The paabad relations between Samwonwot and Salaise were established under different circumstances again. Samwonwot had built a new uma for which the appropriate puliaijat (ceremonial event) was held. A group of four Samwonwot members went out in search of heads. Once again, they killed the first person they came across in the Salappak area. Besides the head they also took the left arm. Since this is the one used for cutting with a machete, the implement used to dismember a body, they were taking symbolic steps(5) to ascertain that the same thing not happen to them in reprisal.

Samalaiming has quasi paabad relations with the suku Samangeak now based in Ugai, and Taksiriratei based in the Samukob region, stemming from an incident in the 1950s. The first relationship came about in order to resolve tensions engendered by a killing. Samalaiming wished to clear some land to make a garden (mone) and plant some durian trees. The land belonged to Samangeak who forbade them from doing anything at all on it. Samalaiming went ahead regardless, with the thought that when they had harvested the crops they were to plant they would simply abandon the plot. Samangeak, however, cut down one of their durian trees. Samalaiming retaliated by cutting down some of Samangeak’s trees which led to a state of competitive rivalry (pakok) between both suku, each deriding the other through messages transmitted via their drums (tudukat). Eventually overtures were made to end the stand-off with some Samangeak people coming to the Samalaiming uma, where they obtained 10 pigs, lots of chickens, lots of taro and much more. At this time Samalaiming held a puliaijat. Four days later some Samalaiming people went to the Samangeak uma to attend a puliaijat being held there, taking the same amount of pigs and chickens and so forth. Following this the hostilities were regarded as finished.

The paabad between Samalaiming and Taksiriratei followed the normal pattern of events. A Samalaiming raiding party set out from the Rereiket for the Samukob district with the sole intention of taking a head. There was no plan to hit any particular suku. However, it happened on the way they met a raiding party from Taksiriratei, whereupon a fight ensued. Samalaiming were successful, bringing a head back. When some time later Taksiriratei discovered that Samalaiming were the ones they had met on the trail and thus those responsible for the death of one of their numbers, they called in the Dusun Head and “Hansip” (“civil defence” officer) who went to the Rereiket. Samalaiming admitted that they were responsible for the killing. Taksiriratei took as compensation (tulou) from them pigs, chickens, and taro, a lot more than Samangeak had taken from them in the earlier incident, since that only involved a state of pakok (see below) and not a death. The exchanges took place in the context of two two-day puliaijat at both the Samalaiming and Samukob uma. Nevertheless, however many pigs and chickens Taksiriratei took from Samalaiming, Samalaiming also took from Taksiriratei. My informant claimed that there are rarely meetings in the present between the two suku as it is “too far”. If the Samalaiming people were in the Silaoinan area a little further to the north, and thus nearer to Samukob then, he claims, there could be frequent visits.


Intermediate between the state of paabad and its opposite, open hostilities, is the state of pakok. In actual fact suku are every day engaged in an unofficial pakok in respect of the tendency to always differentiate themselves from each other. Every suku thus considers itself a cut above the rest, but it is when a suku pours all of its time and resources into affirming and broadcasting the fact to all other suku and one other in particular that a formal state of pakok exists.

The Sabagalet faction that converted to Islam was the group most recently to become embroiled in a pakok affair. This took place in opposition to Salolosit. This Sabagalet faction was, in many people’s eyes, always too eager to broadcast to the dusun their expertise in hunting and killing monkey out in the leleu (forest). Usually a monkey-hunt (uroro) is carried out in the context of a puliaijat, bringing the event to a close by capturing “forest meat” (iba leleu) as a complement to the domestically produced meat (pigs and chickens) that is consumed during the event. Upon taking a monkey, various details, including size and the number taken, are announced to the dusun by means of distinctive rhythms struck on the tudukat drums. However, Sabagalet would deride other suku in the dusun for their lack of prowess in contrast to Sabagalet’s demonstrated superiority, enabling them to take several monkeys in one hunt. On one such occasion they singled out Salolosit for special attention, directing their derision specifically at them. This led to a whole series of uroro, having no connection to any puliaijat, but hunting carried out for hunting sake. Men by themselves or in pairs sometimes go out on a hunt, although this is usually always because they have another purpose in traversing the leleu and happen to take along their hunting equipment. In pakok all the men who would normally go out en masse on uroro in a puliaijat go out on repeated hunts in response to the successes enjoyed by their rivals. In this case the mediation of the Desa Head was required before the pakok was formally ended between the sides.

Informants also report that pakok can often flare up between two suku over the matter of appropriate amounts of bridewealth. A marriage is formally completed within the context of a puliaijat, including the specific amount of bridewealth to be handed over, along with the exact types of bridewealth item. Some weeks before these details are roughly agreed upon where the pigs, trees, and chickens and so forth making up the bridewealth, are inspected by the prospective bride’s suku. Should any of the pigs be a bit on the sickly side, or a bit too small, or one of the trees not have much life left in it, then fresh demands are made on the day, for more or replacement items. The sticking point is often over pigs where the wife-takers claim they have no more pigs to give and hold fast to this. If the wife-givers also hold firm in their demands stating, rhetorically, that the wife-takers would not have embarked upon their project to gain a wife for one of their number if they did not have any pigs, and that they should therefore hand them over or give it up, then there is always the possibility that a stand-off will lead to an on-going state of pakok. This point in the negotiations is always tense. It all depends on the flexibility of each side. Although pigs can be borrowed from “friends” (siripok) from other suku or even members of their own suku, people try to avoid such a course of action, as this can lead to disputes, and thereby pakok, when it comes to returning a pig that compensates the lender exactly for the pigs he lent—the same number, same size, same gender.


An important relationship, ostensibly between suku but obtaining more between two (male) individuals from different suku, is the sinuruk, where X from suku A calls upon Y of suku B to assist him on a project. This might be in the building of a new uma or sapou, but more often relates to the holding of a pabete (healing event) or puliaijat. The sinuruk is not passed on in the same way that a paabad relationship is to subsequent generations but is established in one generation as a friendship in which each of the partners define the other as siripok (“friend”) or perhaps saraina (“relative”).

For example, in one series of puliaijat held in order to inaugurate a new shaman, Samalaiming requested help from Amanbilijou of Sabeuleleu, the rimata’s sister’s son, the sister having married into Sabeuleleu, and who also attended proceedings. The rimata defined the fellow variously as punu bua (ZC), or punu teteu (SC,DC), basically designating him as a ‘child relative’. The new shaman himself engaged the services of his official instructor (paumat), Amangaraikerei, along similar lines. Amangaraikerei is a member of the suku Samabailoi from the Matotonan area. Both the new shaman, Amanniknik, and Amangaraikerei’s father’s mothers were sisters originating from the one (unspecified) suku. In the context of shamanic activities there has been co-operation along these lines. But apart from this particular link, there is no enduring form of co-operation between the two suku just as there is not between Samalaiming and Sabeuleleu. In other contexts they are defined as sirimanua (Other). If either engages in some business that requires the “help” (paroman) of others then they call them. This “help” is reciprocated through a share of meat should there be any, or in lieu of this a chicken or two, or perhaps some taro or newly sprouting coconut trees. It is not the case that “help” given now will be reciprocated by help sometime in the future. It is a relationship based on an exchange in the present, which holds a possibility for future paroman.

Paroman and Tulou

Paroman is the term used to describe an appropriate exchange, including both the act itself as well as the actual articles exchanged. Thus it is possible to have an exchange of items, “help” for pig meat for example, that is defined as ‘not being paroman’. In enquiring about types of paroman in specific instances, sometimes informants would state that ‘there was no paroman’. There was an exchange of items, except that the amount or quality of these items presented to my informants was not enough and accordingly could not be defined in his view as paroman. ‘Paroman’ is the noun form of the verb “ropmakek”. It can be translated as “help” although it is based on the more fundamental notion of “giving (something)”, rather than “help” per se. For example, one of my assistants once requested his remuneration for “help” tendered in Indonesian: “Ada bantuan sedikit” (Do you have any help for me?) a direct translation from the concept of paroman which would have approximately been rendered in the local language as “Anai paroman ta boirok?” Correct Indonesian would have substituted the word “bantuan” (a direct translation of ‘paroman’) as “upah” or “gaji”. However, paroman, or the completion of an exchange between us—language assistance for money—was what he meant and so was the appropriate concept from a local viewpoint.

Paroman can be considered a quintessential part of both inter-suku and interpersonal social relationships. Where there is not, or where there has not been in the past, paroman on some scale between persons, or between suku, then no relationship of any consequence exists. Strangers to the dusun are greeted with a hand shake and a request for tobacco as a foundation for an even transitory relationship, with the onus on the visitor to do the giving. The implication is that the good grace of acceptance has been already extended to the visitor as a sirimanua (Other) on someone else’s pulaggajat (suku land). The visitor would also normally be made a fuss of at the host’s uma or hut (sapou) and would be invited to have a light meal of sago and banana before he went on his way.

The quality of paroman between persons, whether of the same or different suku, whether sustaining a paabad relationship, or whether compensating for sinuruk services rendered, can precipitate great social tension. Poor quality paroman is indeed the major cause of the almost evanescent nature of inter-personal ties of this sort. People are forever engaging in new sinuruk relations as well as breaking off old ones in the shifting play of siripok relations which takes place against the more substantial background of suku self-proclaimed uniqueness. People who are allies one day cease to be allies the next with varying consequences. The split between S. and H., two men each belonging to two uma within the one suku, is a case in point. H. gave S. Rp. 50 000 in exchange for nine small sago trees, young trees he intended to plant on his particular part of his suku’s land. The usual price in Madobag for a small sago tree is around Rp. 5000. H. handed over the money. All that remained was to pick up the trees. However not long after S. asked for a further Rp. 70 000 bringing the total to Rp. 120 000 which H. thought was a bit steep. He determined to get the money back and buy his trees elsewhere. But by this time S. had already given the money to his paabad relatives from Silaoinan as part paroman payment for the cows he would later receive from them. H. decided to bide his time, waiting for the right moment to press his demands for the money after which he would have nothing more to do with S., despite a reasonably close relationship in the past. This is inappropriate paroman, or rather, simply not paroman. As H. commented to me: “Between suku members there should be paroman. He ‘helps’ me and I ‘help’ him. This is not paroman”.

The reverse side of the coin, as it were, that is where paroman has not been forthcoming where it should have been, is the tulou institution. In the literature it is not seen in terms of an exchange but rather described as a “fine”. Van Buuren relates that on Siberut a man cannot claim a woman as his wife, or simply have much to do with her at all before a transfer of bridewealth. If he does, then the girl’s parents can demand that the man pay a “fine” for his transgression (Van Buuren 1937:530). A similarly legalistic perspective leads Luth to describe tulou in terms of a “fine” (denda), the “legal” sanction suffered by anyone found to be engaging in illicit sex (Luth 1980:55). Susanto et. al. talk about what they term the “tulou adat law” (hukum adat tulou) specifically designating tulou as “fine” (Susanto 1980:49). Schefold, similarly, describes those taking all the fruit belonging to a particular uma rather than taking just a bit for consumption as subject to the payment of a “fine” ie. tulou (Schefold 1991:61). However, a little further on he states that a person found to be stealing coconuts from a certain other person’s clearly marked tree, must make good the loss by compensating the owner three to four times the amount that would normally be paid for an unmarked tree. Tulou is probably best understood in the Rereiket context as compensation.

Situations incurring tulou are varied. In the context of obtaining materials for the PKMT Housing project, people wanting to build a hut (sapou) lay claim to suitable trees in the vicinity of the dusun. Although these are usually on other suku’s land, these suku make no specific claim to the trees unless they mark them out for their own huts. Should the tree be of the durian variety, then this requires payment of a pig or perhaps a sum of money, since durian are highly valued. The act of taking a durian tree without such paroman being discussed and settled upon first incurs tulou (compensation). Similarly, unless there was a prior agreement, someone who marks a tree out to be cut as material for their hut is able to claim tulou from someone else who uses it for their own hut instead.

The majority of tulou come about in the context of responses to marital infidelity. The onus is on the offending male to give tulou to the woman’s husband, his father and brothers—to compensate them for, in effect, taking something without having given paroman in return. A man caught in this position has a difficult time of it, since the settlement of an appropriate amount of tulou is a very public affair. One couple concealed their relationship from everyone until it became obvious that the girl was pregnant. A large meeting was convened to discuss the tulou that automatically would have to be paid, along with a rough outline of bridewealth items and amounts that would be required for the marriage puliaijat that would follow. Most dusun members attended this at one time or another as it dragged on through the afternoon, often giving their thoughts on the situation. The initial demands were unrealistically inflated, virtually hurled at the offender by the woman’s brother: 1 large cooking vat, an area (mata) of durian trees, 1 roll of material for making mosquito nets, a large hand-net used by women to catch fish and shrimps in the river (subba). He was given one non-negotiable week to come up with the goods. After several hours, things having cooled down, the position was relaxed a little—he could pay up Rp. 750 000 in lieu of the goods. He left briefly to check how much money was owed to him from a recent sale of simoitek (raw material for making incense) to one of the dusun traders. He re-appeared with Rp. 45 000 saying he would go out to the leleu (forest) in search of more simoitek that week in order to honour the debt. This would be quite possible if he was lucky and found a tree with good quantities of this highly sought after commodity. The demands were eventually modified to where he would be required to give the goods stated at the outset, whenever he managed to come up with them. This is a typical scenario. A hard-line assertion of power over a person subject to tulou, and not really in a position to argue the point is subsequently modified, moderated to a position everyone is comfortable with. Often tulou is never completely handed over. Informants are still able to cite instances of incessant meetings leading to a pakok-like stand-off, leading to more meetings between certain individuals that have still not been resolved.

In short if there has not been paroman between persons or groups where it comes to be seen that there in fact should have been, then the payment of compensation (tulou) to right the wrong, to even up the imbalance created in the relationships is required. It is misleading to define this in terms of a “fine” which immediately drags in notions of western jurisprudence involving ‘deterrence’ or the positivist, functionalist construction of analogous institutions to tulou in the literature as a ‘control mechanism’.

In this article we have examined the significant characteristics of the suku in Madobag. The most significant aspect of inter-suku relations is the sense of exclusiveness actively maintained between suku through the institutions of paabad, pakok, paroman, and tulou. This may seem paradoxical in the case of paabad since this very much resembles an alliance, a coming together, aimed at preventing a further outbreak of violence between the suku similar to the one that had led to the institution in the first place. However, the relation is governed by the paroman/tulou institution and is, accordingly, carried on within very strict parameters about what is or what is not appropriate exchange between suku. This represents not so much a rapprochement as a stand-off where both parties eye each other with mutual respect from a distance, reflecting the general ambience within which inter-suku relations are conducted in Madobag and other dusun in the Rereiket. In the next article we explore this further in the context of the relationship of several suku to each other in terms of the existence of ‘higher order’ entities that have been identified on Siberut, and the other islands, by previous fieldworkers.


(1) I ask the reader to accept this provisionally. In the next article I go into this in much more detail.

(2) On a general level parents are loathe to send their children to Muara Siberut or, heaven forbid, Padang. People who can be designated as relatives (saraina) must stick together. They can see no discernible profit in making forays into unknown worlds inhabited by non-saraina (sirimanua), the Other. Recent financial support schemes to send promising primary school children to Muara Siberut or Padang, making it possible for them to continue their education, have not been enthusiastically embraced by residents in the Madobag Desa generally, exasperating administrative officials. As one strategy within an overall development plan, the scheme is partly aimed at breaking down this sort of “resistance” through education.

(3) These are significant amounts. The basic wage for manual labour (on the rare occasions it is available) is Rp. 5000 per day. $A1.00 is approximately equivalent to Rp. 1500.00. [NB. This applies to the period 193-1993. At the time of the preparation of this document for publication on the World Wide Web (July 2000) the exchange rate is approximately $A 1.00 = Rp.5000. With the severe inflation that has characterised the Indonesian econonmy over the past three years, and given exchange rate adjustments, this is an even more significant figure]

(4) The projection of the present into the past. Before the days of the dusun pigs were kept under the uma and not at any separate location, across the river or otherwise.

(5) ‘Symbolic’ from an objectivist anthropological standpoint, but from not from theirs, as this act has, for them, real instrumental efficacy: it is a measure taken to guard against a machete being used against them. A division between “expressive” and “instrumental” acts (cf. Leach 1976) is not appropriate in this context. This is a central theme in chapters seven and eight.

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