4. Houses and Heirlooms


Houses and Heirlooms

In article 3 I introduced the major (sociospatial) categories through which the inhabitants of Madobag, and the Rereiket region in Mentawai more generally, understand and interpret their experience. These categories are, on one level, representations and therefore invocations of types of spaces. But on another they are implicated in the actual production of these spaces, providing the context both within which, and through which, the social life of the dusun inhabitants is lived. The leleu (forest) is, for example, an objectified representation of a particular space, objectified through its evocation and deployment in a variety of contexts including discussions about it with an anthropologist. But beyond this it is much more. It is a space also actively produced and reproduced (and therefore lived), one with which people engage when they leave the dusun and head out to their pulaggajat. These spaces—many of which are easily identified through reference to them by means of a lexeme although they are certainly not simply reducible to or coextensive with language—provide the broad context in which daily life takes place within the dusun and in the leleu. The particular “space” (or, if you like, institution/dwelling place: it is both of these simultaneously) that I am concerned with in this article is the uma (House).

The Uma

Although this is to jump ahead somewhat, the importance of the uma derives from the way in which it is made use of in order to effect specific outcomes in the world, in the sociospatial cosmos . In taking such a perspective it is important not to look upon the uma first and foremost as a ‘thing’, as an assemblage of wood, nails and bindings, but on the contrary emphasize its nature as an institution. Taking this a little further, then, I propose to look upon the uma as a strategy of intervention in the cosmos when things go wrong and “life” (purimanua) is threatened. But before we can develop this idea (the subject of article 8 ) it is necessary to define what exactly we mean by an uma. Having done this, in the following article we need to look at the relation between the suku, the uma faction, and the uma; it is in its function as a vehicle of intervention in the cosmos that the uma also differentiates the suku of which it forms a part as an uma ‘faction’. Because problems with the cosmos for “us” (sukumai) come from “them” (sirimanua), that is other suku, or (other) “people” more generally, dealing adequately with “them” is achieved through means which are constructed as specific to “our suku”, and which are thus critical in affirming suku identity, in affirming that “we” are distinct from “them”. In short suku identity is intricately connected to intervention in the cosmos.

Uma in the dusun number twenty-one, and are to be distinguished from the twenty-odd suku resident in the village. Uma, usually recognizable by their structure, appear in a variety of shapes and forms. The largest measure 7m by 19m, standing some 10m from the ground to the roof-peak. The smaller ones are impossible to distinguish from the small two to three roomed sapou (residential hut) where people spend most of their time when not out on their pulaggajat (suku land). Ideally an uma should be a grand, imposing structure as reflected in its full title uma sabeu or “great, large uma”. But since obtaining the resources and cooperation required to construct one can be a difficult and protracted process; most uma are these days only marginally larger than the residential huts. Reflecting on uma which were constructed in the past, elderly people have recollections of huge structures with the sagging roof-beams characteristic of contemporary Minangkabau “rumah adat” (rumah gadang) houses, dwellings having up to eight compartments (lalep), each occupied by a married male member of the uma and his exogamously acquired wife along with their children. This was a time when the social group, the community and the uma were one, although this is now more the exception than the rule in the Rereiket, Mentawai. In the present the largest uma consist of only four, largely unoccupied, rooms.

All uma in the dusun are based on a set number of designs which are set out in order of increasing structural complexity in figures 4.1 to 4.6 . I should mention that in some of the other areas of the Rereiket where I had the opportunity to inspect uma, I did not come across any other designs. But this is not to say that there are no further possibilities for variation. Details aside, the important point here is that there is a wide variation of design based around a fundamental division between the inner sanctum where the ancestral heirlooms are stored (batnuma), and the space in ‘front’ of this, the laibok or tenganuma.

The first type is exemplified by the suku Samalaiming uma, located at (1,12) on the map (figure 3.2), forming the focus for its constituent lalep clustered around it (1,10; 1,11; 1,13; 1,14). The Sagorojo uma (2,5) and one of the three Sabagalet uma (1,3) are examples of other uma in the dusun based on this design. Uma are built up off the ground on supports in characteristic Austronesian fashion, at heights usually ranging between 0.5m to 1m. The Samalaiming uma is built approximately 0.75m off the ground. None of the supports penetrate into the soil, most of them being placed upon smooth river rocks, a little wider in diameter than the supports. Since the thickest of these are only some 10 cm in diameter, they would penetrate deeply into the soil under the tremendous load which they must carry without the firm foundation the rocks provide. Uma are, furthermore, divided into two equal halves, a left (sikaciu) and a right (sikatoiet). Left and right are always calculated relative to a person standing at the entrance looking towards the back of the uma.

The entrance to 4.1—all the diagrams are arranged with the uma entrance facing the left margin of the page, apart from figure 4.5 with its entrance facing the bottom—is gained via removable steps (designed so in order to discourage dogs from entering when large amounts of pork are being butchered or divided up). The area extending back to the boards forming the wall of the inner sanctum is known as the pulaibokat or, more commonly, laibok. Along the right-hand side extending from the front to the back wall is a bench used mainly for sitting on, although people prefer to sit on the floor, leaning back against a bamboo rail running along the length of the front and down the left-hand side to the back.

In most uma the laibok floor consists of lengths of bamboo (mangeak) split down the centre into two halves, each of which are placed with the convex surface facing upwards. These are easily moved apart in order to allow waste products to drop through to the area below (teiuggu), where dogs or chickens dispose of any organic matter. Many uma also have part of the floor constructed from planks, with most uma consisting of both areas covered by mangeak and areas over which boards are laid. Thus the Samalaiming uma laibok consists, on the right half, of boards whereas the left half is mangeak. The dotted rectangle represents an area measuring some 1.5m2, utilized in rituals for specialized types of “dancing” (uturuk), referred to as the (p)uturukat or laperat.

Also marked on this particular laibok is the uggala siririok uma, an important yet not necessarily ubiquitous, part of an uma. Uggala are the major supporting posts which extend from the ground up through the floor to where they connect with cross-beams (baibai), which in turn support the roof. Nearly all uma have at the least one pair of posts (uggala), on either side of the central longitudinal axis. In the older designs there might be several such pairs running down the length of the uma. The other posts provide support at the building’s corners and along the walls. The uggala siririok uma is one of the most important supports. It is crafted from a species of hardwood, the ariggi tree and so is sometimes referred to as the bakkatnariggi, the addition of bakkat (“base/foundation”) attesting to the irreducible significance of this particular support. Riok means to “stand up straight”, such “straightness” implying strength, fortitude, and so longevity. These qualities have a cosmological dimension insofar as they represent the quotidian consequences stemming from the gaud (“power”) possessed by this particular post. Healing potions often include fine shavings from the uggala siririok uma in order to transfer these properties to an ailing individual. Whilst other posts are more load-bearing and therefore more important from a structural viewpoint, cosmologically the uggala sirirok uma is a vital part of most uma and is also closely associated with the “power” of the ancestors.

Whilst the front, left, and right sides of the laibok are open, the inner sanctuary is completely enclosed by either wooden boards or sago-tree bark. Access to it is gained through an entrance from the laibok or at the rear. This area is known variously as the batnuma, kotnuma, or sometimes bat sapou. Bat indicates a “space”. The compound batnuma is therefore technically the most accurate term for this inner sanctum. ‘Kotnuma’ technically includes the batnuma but extends beyond the back wall to encapsulate the space immediately to the rear of the building itself. Kotnuma was always the answer I received when asking about the correct term for what is, specifically, the batnuma. The latter is thus subsumed within the former. Still, in practice, people always speak of the batnuma and frequently the batsapou, alluding to the unsuitability of calling a dwelling the size of this one, an uma when, from the point of view of structural aesthetics, it is technically a sapou. Indeed only the uma in Fig. 4.5 comes near to satisfying the aesthetic ideals commensurate with an uma sabeu, ie. a ‘real’ uma, in the dusun.

The reason why this particular dwelling is appropriately designated an uma is that it fulfils the defining criteria for an uma, namely it is a repository for the ancestral heirloom objects belonging to a suku, or if there is more than one uma in the suku, a uma faction. Any sapou housing such objects and having gone through the relevant ritual event is defined as an uma. In the case of Samalaiming the ancestral heirlooms kept in this uma are those belonging to the entire suku. Several years previously, these were moved to the sapou (1,13) just across the track, an even smaller sapou which became the uma for the suku. The original uma had fallen into disrepair, so suku members, facing adverse cosmological consequences from perhaps the ancestors, or even the objects themselves, moved them to the other sapou. Although smaller it was in better repair than the original uma. Following extensive renovations, the items were moved back to their former location.

The ancestral heirlooms, which include one or more large gongs, along with wooden and ceramic plates, are kept on the right-hand (sikatoiet) side of an uma. In this particular type of uma they are always to be found just inside the threshold of the inner sanctum (batnuma) arranged across the front wall. The area in front of these items consists of boards although, usually, mangeak (bamboo slats) make up the flooring in uma of this type.

The uma’s rimata, rimata being the term for an elderly male of a suku or uma faction within a suku who enjoys a special relationship to the ancestral heirlooms (to whom I will also often refer as the “caretker” [of the heirlooms]), sleeps directly in front of these, although when this uma was in disrepair he slept adjacent to the batnuma wall on the left laibok. His wife sleeps over on the left side of the uma on a permanent sleeping platform there. Ideally the rimata’s wife sleeps in with the ancestral items, the rimata himself sleeping on the other side of the wall on the laibok, the standard practice in type 4 and 5 uma. In other uma such as depicted in Types 1, 2, 3, and 6, sleeping arrangements are adapted to the design and condition of the uma. The most important consideration is that the ancestral heirlooms be properly located, permanently, on the positively valued right side. This is not open to improvisation unlike sleeping arrangements which are quite flexible.

Since the rimata and his wife, as well as their nephew and his wife in this case, are shaman (sikerei), their equipment is stored on racks up above and a little to the rear of the ancestral objects on the batnuma’s far right-hand side. Storage racks upon which a variety of personal items are stored run down both the left- and right-hand sides at approximately head-height. Down below on the floor are several padlocked wooden chests containing valuable personal items which usually include cash. Access to items kept in these ubiquitous features of every batnuma, and every residential hut (sapou), is by definition restricted, although keys are often left in conspicuous places, resulting in items vanishing now and again. But this causes no great consternation to the owner. The lock is largely a token gesture towards placing some sort of restriction on the use of some items and the existence of locked trunks does not necessarily inviolably place the contents beyond the reach of other suku members. On the other hand, the small chests (bakkulu) containing a shaman’s equipment are not locked at all, since merely opening a bakkulu let alone helping oneself to its contents can lead to dire cosmological consequences for the offender.

On both of the side walls are small doors which are opened during the day, to let in light, and closed at night. These are often focal points where young men, women or children assemble and eat fruits they have gathered, throwing the remains of their meal through the door. Down the back in each corner are fireplaces where cooking takes place. Wood fuel is stored up above these. Attached to the rear of the uma and extending out into the kotnuma is a platform made up of mangeak (bamboo slat) lengths, the gare (access gangway). This is utilized mainly for cleaning pots or airing clothes etc.

The second type of uma, depicted in figure 4.2, is similar to the first. It is more complete, in one sense, yet less complete in another. Firstly it has, as should all uma ideally, a gare connected to the laibok. Access to this is gained through traversing a log of wood, the orat, one end of which is laid on the ground, the other end resting on the lip of the gare. Footsized notches are carved into this to provide traction when ascending the log to the gare. There are no benches for sitting on anywhere on the laibok. Instead, bamboo rails are provided against which people lean while sitting on the floor as with the Samalaiming uma. Secondly, although it possesses a gare, the uma does not have an uggala siririok uma which one would normally expect for this design, although the uggala (post) supporting the uma where the gare (access gangway) joins the laibok can be used in place of the uggala siririok uma should the circumstances demand. The gangway leading from the gare straight across the laibok to the batnuma (inner sancteum) entrance consists of boards. The rest of the laibok to the left and right of this consists of mangeak (bamboo slats). Inside the batnuma everything is arranged as in type 1, apart from mangeak making up the total floor area. The rimata of this uma, one uma of four uma factions constituting the suku Sakukuret, prefers to live outside the dusun on his section of Sakukuret land where he and his wife have a small hut (sapou). His youngest son lives in the uma with his wife.

Type 3 (figure 4.3) is based upon an uma belonging to one uma faction of three in the Sabagalet suku and represents yet another variation on the first two types. Access to the uma, which lacks a gare (gangway), is directly into the laibok via a set of steps fixed into position. Bench seats have been built right across the front of the laibok whilst at the sides bamboo rails have been set in place. Boards cover the whole laibok area, as well as the batnuma (inner sanctum) floor. Directly inside the batnuma on the right, where the ancestral objects are kept in types 1 and 2, is a room normally occupied by the rimata’s eldest son. The rimata himself sleeps over on the right behind the room over against the wall. His wife and their younger children sleep over on the left opposite wall. Arranged along the opposite side of the back wall of the room outside, in the batnuma proper, are the ancestral heirlooms.

This uma was at the time the most recently completed in this Mentawai dusun. It was built partially from the allowance of material granted by the Social Affairs Department under the PKMT Housing scheme, materials enough to build a 4m x 5m hut. Falling back on his own resources along with those provided by his two sons and a nephew, the rimata added to this initial stockpile. The normal allowance paid by the SAD includes the wages of a chainsaw operator, compensation to the owner of the trees to be cut down if the trees do not already belong to the intending house builder, as well as items such as nails, hammers, and saws. Compensation is also paid to the house builder himself for the time spent on the project, time spent away from normal pursuits such as collecting rattan from the forest, or attending the mone (plantation) on the suku land. Should anyone wish to build anything larger, such as an uma, requiring more materials than the allowance provides, then the raw materials and the nails must be at their expense. Because this cost is prohibitive many suku are prevented from pursuing this much coveted avenue. Every suku or uma faction would very much love to replace their existing uma with a newer, larger version.

The fourth type (figure 4.4) is modelled on the uma of one uma faction from two constituting the suku Samwonwot, built merely two years prior to my entry to the field. This uma type is an exemplary, structurally complete, uma. The gare (access gangway) reached via a log (orat) is roofed over unlike the gare in type 2. It consists of boards and there are bench seats running down either side. The boards continue on into the laibok. On both sides, the floor, consisting of mangeak (bamboo slat) lengths, is raised some 30cm. The next section is on the same level as the laibok mangeak involving a step-up from the gangway to cross its threshold. Attached to a cross-beam overhead immediately above the threshold are three partitions (sauksauk), one for the left, one for the centre and one for the right. These can be let down sealing off the rest of the uma from the gare and the laibok. This area down to the batnuma (inner sanctum) wall towards the rear is known as the tenganuma or laibok tengah. In contrast to the gare and the laibok, the tenganuma has walls interrupted only by small doors opened for light during the day.

The boardwalk continues down to the batnuma entrance. Set half-way between the entrance and the sauksauk is the large central fireplace, bordered on each corner by a post (uggala). The uggala siririok uma constitutes the rear right post here. Over to the right, back against the batnuma wall the rimata has his sleeping mat and mosquito net set up. Stored up above on racks are the special items belonging to him and his two sons in their capacity as shaman (sikerei). The board walk continues through into the batnuma terminating at the back wall. As with the laibok and tenganuma, mangeak (bamboo slats) constitute the rest of the floor surface. Just to the right, inside the door, are located the ancestral objects. Directly below these the rimata’s wife has her sleeping mat and mosquito net. Fireplaces are located in the rear left and right corners. A little in front of these, on the left and right walls, are the usual small apertures opened during the day and closed at night. Extending out the back into the kotnuma is a gare.

The fifth type (figure 4.5) is one of the two largest and oldest uma in Madobag, Mentawai. The gare and the laibok are constructed similarly to type 4 except there is bench seating along either side of the laibok. Due to its length, the tenganuma walls are punctuated by two doors on each side instead of the one. This uma is occupied mainly by the rimata and his wife when they are in the dusun as they spend a great deal of their time coming and going between their sapou out on their mone (plantation) and the uma in the dusun. When at the uma the rimata sleeps in the back right-hand corner of the tenganuma. His wife sleeps on the other side of the wall in the room with the ancestral heirlooms. Next to the rimata’s sleeping platform in the tenganuma, a large trunk holds copious amounts of rice, sugar, tobacco, tins of sardines, much coveted consumables when the money is available to spend on them. When his brother sleeps in the uma he occupies a sleeping platform over on the left side, opposite. His wife sleeps in the room directly behind this in the batnuma. Their daughter and youngest son sleep in with their mother, the other son sleeping with his father.

Directly on the right as one enters the batnuma (inner sanctum) is the first of four rooms. The ancestral heirlooms are located in the left-hand corner. Various odds and ends are kept here including one or two small locked trunks full of personal items. The rear rooms are occupied by members of the suku on ritual occasions when the uma is the focus of much coming and going. Otherwise these remain unoccupied. Each room, apart from that containing the ancestral heirlooms, has its hearth. At the very rear is the usual gare (access gangway), although there are small gare projecting from the small doorways in the outer wall of each room, on which the messy jobs to do with food preparation are carried out. Apart from the boarded central gangway all other floor areas consist of mangeak (bamboo slats).

The sixth and final type (figure 4.6) is modelled upon the Samapopoupou uma, although variants are the Sagarojo and Sapuaiload uma respectively. It represents a radical departure from the previous five types indicating the flexibility that attends modern uma. Access to the uma is gained via the orat located on the left-hand side. The laibok floor consists of boards and is enclosed by bench seating on each side. Inside the batnuma are two rooms down the left side. The ancestral objects are located on the right-hand wall, shelving and bric-a-brac occupying the space against the batnuma wall where these would be located in other uma. Down the back is one fireplace beside which is the back entrance. Shortly before I left the field Sagorojo moved their ancestral heirlooms from their dilapidated type 1 uma (2,5) across to the sapou (2,4). The ancestral objects were arranged on the right wall as well as the batnuma/laibok wall in this case. The plan is, eventually, to replace the original uma. But for the time being the sapou-become-uma will suffice as a legitimate storage place for their heirlooms.

There are fundamentally, then, two basic uma types, those consisting of the laibok section and the batnuma, and those consisting of a laibok, a tenganuma with its sauksauk and central hearth mediating the laibok and batnuma. Each of the spaces marked out within an uma, the gare, the laibok, the tenganuma and the batnuma marks out in succession progressively exclusive spaces. A visitor not on any special errand who has not been summoned by the uma’s occupants, upon arrival, sits out on the gare or perhaps a little further in on the edge of the laibok. A person having been invited to attend a puliaijat, the premier ritual event involving the ancestral heirlooms, or a visitor invited to partake in a meal may move to the tenganuma. However any subsequent move into the batnuma, or the actual room where the ancestral heirlooms are kept in the case of the type 5 uma, would also be contingent on a specific reason to do so, in a puliaijat context, for example, where a visitor may have a role to play vis-a-vis the heirlooms, or be carrying out a task in the vicinity of the heirlooms. Normally only visiting shaman would get anywhere near these or the batnuma area more generally. The exclusivity of the batnuma and the designation of this site as the location for the ancestral heirlooms is instructive. It is to a consideration of the latter, then, that we now turn.

Alei Katsaila

There are several types of objects which together make up the set that have been, in many cases, passed down from ancestors spanning several generations. The first and foremost is the bakkatkatsaila. This is a length of bamboo some 30-40cm long with a 12-15cm diameter. The bamboo is cut off below a joint, the natural partition forming the base. Inside resting on its base, placed there in the past by a particular ancestor, are a variety of objects including river pebbles, certain roots and leaves of particular plant species, and small slivers of lead. What exactly is to be found at the bottom of any bakkat katsaila, apart from those recently created or revamped, involves some speculation on the part of an uma’s present inhabitants. Nevertheless it will fall into one of these categories. Inserted into the open top of the cylinder are several species of gaud-(“power”)containing plants. These are initially only a few, but with each puliaijat, increase in abundance. Many years and many puliaijat later a bakkat katsaila will be overflowing with these additions, its bulk often dominating all other objects in the vicinity.

‘Katsaila’ derives from the preposition ka meaning “in”, “on”, “at”, or “to/towards”, and the verb “saila” which according to two of my informants means to substitute one thing for something else: “If there is a shirt over there and I go over to get it but when I get there what I actually find is a bucket—this is aisaila. Or if I am waiting for a certain person to arrive but the person who actually turns up is someone else and not the person I was specifically waiting for, then this is aisaila.” In relation to the bakkat katsaila this means that people associated with it, that is the members of the uma faction in whose uma it is stored are, in a sense, “substituted” for something else not specified and therefore moved out of harm’s way when it is heading in their direction. Another informant explained the concept in a slightly different way describing the action ka saila as deflecting harm away from a potential victim to one side rather than removing that person from danger through some sort of substitution. Thus an arrow fired at a person goes astray and he or she will be safe. ‘Bakkat’ means “base” or “foundation” and serves to distinguish the bakkat katsaila from other katsaila which, along with it, form an important component of the puliaijat, a relationship we examine in detail in chapter eight.

Of almost equal importance to the bakkatkatsaila is the gong. In each uma there is at least one gong and in some as many as three. But normally there is only the one large gong. In those uma possessing more than one these will vary in size, the smallest at around 40 cm in diameter to 55 cm for a large gong. The larger gongs are very difficult to obtain. However the smaller (modern) and more easily obtained gongs give out an unsatisfactory tone. Much fun was had at the expense of one uma faction which obtained a shiny new small-diameter gong. It barely resonated at all when struck, giving instead a dull and, worrying for its owners, lifeless thud. The gong or gongs are hung next to the bakkat katsaila and, similarly, are only utilized in the course of a puliaijat. The progress of a puliaijat is announced to those within earshot, each session of gong sounding indicating the commencement or completion of a stage.

Usually mounted alongside these items is a large 30cm diameter ceramic plate of Dutch manufacture. The rimatauses this in the appropriate context within the course of a puliaijat. Plates such as these were manufactured early this century and obtained, along with gongs, from Dutch colonists at Muara Siberut, Mentawai. They are much revered and are hung up with the other items in their own rattan-weave holder. Also hanging up are a set of elongated wooden dishes (lulag) numbering up to three, ranging from small to large, in a complete set, the irik, the pusikebbukat, and the kokoman sikebbukat. Each has a particular role to play once again in the course of a puliaijat. The smallest begin at around 35 cm long, being some 15-17 cm in width at the widest point, tapering off at each end. The largest measure up to 55 cm long. In some uma the irik is the smaller of the two. In others it is the pusikebbukat. The largest lulag is universally the kokoman sikebbukat measuring approximately 65-70 cm long and some 25 cm wide. If there is only the one lulag, this is defined as an irik, the most important lulag of the three. However, in the appropriate context, it is defined as, and thus used as, the pusikebbukat. Only in Ugai did I come across an uma in which there was only one lulag. In Madobag there were never less than two in every uma: an irik/pusikebbukat and a kokoman sikebbukat.

Hung up near the lulag are two more items, the lakuk (bowl) and the sisip (ladle). The lakuk is crafted from a coconut half with its husk left intact and is used as a liquids container in a puliaijat. The sisip consists of a 50cm long shaft of wood some 0.5cm thick. On one end is attached an immature coconut-half inner shell used to transfer liquids from the lakuk. An important category of items although somewhat peripheral to the core heirlooms—the bakkatkatsaila, the gong(s), the Dutch plate, and the lulag—is the set of three partially hollowed out tree sections, each fashioned into a drum or tudukat. A set consists of a large (2-2.5m), a medium, and a small (1-1.5m) drum, each having a diameter of around 30cm. Each has its particular tone, the larger the tudukat the lower the tone. These are struck one at a time with a large pestle-like implement in special combinations and according to fast or slow rhythms which communicate the taking of “forest meat” (iba leleu) that is monkey, deer, or wild pig, and the death of a person affiliated to the uma respectively. All uma also possess a set of smaller hand-held hollowed out 1m x 20-30cm drums, gajeuma, covered at one end with python-skin constituting the striking surface. Like each of the other items these are mobilised in set events during a puliaijat. The tudukat and gajeuma are marginal however to the other ancestral items even despite their incorporation into suku origin narratives (article 6). Gajeuma are usually stored above the central fireplace in type 5 uma or above head-height over the laibok in those uma lacking a tenganuma. Tudukat are stored up here also but more towards the front of the laibok. If they are to be sounded, someone (male) ascends and strikes them there. In some cases tudukat are kept to one side on the laibok, or even, in the case of the Sagorogo tudukat, kept outside on the ground under a special shelter erected over them. In addition to these items there is sometimes a small bottle of cooking oil or coconut oil (pakale) hung up alongside them, the lelebak. This is a potent source ofgaud (“power”) although not all uma have one, nor is the lelebak, strictly speaking, a part of the set of ancestral heirlooms.

The items themselves are never usually referred to collectively but only individually. However everything is evaluated relative to the bakkat katsaila, since this is the vital heirloom. Indeed the minimum requirement for an uma to be defined as an uma is the possession of a bakkatkatsaila (in Ugai I came across one or two uma having just a bakkat katsaila and nothing else). In the context of my enquiries about these items, people would talk about the bakkatkatsaila and alei nia (“its/his/her companion[s]”). I therefore refer to them collectively as the alei katsaila.


Along with the variation in design and layout of Madobag uma comes a wide variation within each of the categories of ancestral objects and their placement in their respective uma.

Samalaiming have placed their bakkatkatsaila on the far left of the batnuma/laibok wall section, a mere 0.8m from the batnuma doorway, leaving 1.5m in between it and the far right wall. It rests on a small platform the same size as the bakkatkatsaila’s base attached to the batnuma wall 1m above the floor. The largest of the three gongs, 50cm in diameter, hangs 0.5m above the floor a little to the right. The middle- and smallest-sized gongs hang in the corner. In between these hang two lakuk (bowls). A little to the right, at the same height as the bakkat katsaila, hangs the three lulag, the largest one first, with the other two hanging in front and on top of it on a nail tacked into the wall. There are three sisip each of which are inserted into the top of the bakkat katsaila, the usual storage place for these.

In contrast to this the type 2 uma belonging to one of the Sakukuret uma factions has its bakkatkatsaila mounted centrally between the door and the right wall. A little to its right are two lulag, the smaller used as both irik and pusikebbukat in the appropriate context. Down to its left hangs the only gong. Suspended in between the lulag and the gong is the Dutch plate. The sisip (ladle) is located in the bakkat katsaila, the lakuk resting on the rafters running at head-height down the right of the uma against the right wall.

The type 3 uma, belonging to a Sabagalet faction, similarly has the one large gong located a meter to the left of a large 40 cm x 13cm bakkat katsaila, affixed one metre above the floor, on the back wall of the single room inside the batnuma. The leaves extend a further half a meter or so out the top of the cylinder itself, reaching above the top of the wall. The other items are arranged in between the bakkat katsaila and the gong. Nearest to the bakkatkatsaila just to its left is the kokoman sikebbukat lulag hanging by itself on a nail. A little to the left of this again, the pusikebbukatlulag and the irik lulag hang together. In between these and the gong hangs the Dutch Plate.

One of the two Samwonwot uma, the type 4 uma, possesses a large bakkat katsaila immediately to the right of the batnuma doorway. Next to this is the first and largest gong, then the lulag (a complete set), a lakuk and a sisip, the Dutch plate, then the smallest gong (medium sized), finishing up with the newest gong (also a medium) acquired from a suku over in the next valley (Silaoinan). Due to lack of room the rimata and his sons have taken the decision to place the third gong just to the left of the doorway rather than have everything cramped together, an aesthetically unacceptable situation, even though this means relocating the gong to the left, negatively valenced, half of the uma.

In the type 5 uma, the largest of the Sakukuret uma, the rimata has taken the unusual step of fastening a triangular wooden base-piece 1m above the floor in the back left corner of the first room on the right, inside the batnuma. To the front and the side wall he has connected a 30 cm high length of sago-tree bark behind which have been progressively placed the anarchic profusion of leaves constituting the bakkat katsaila. Immediately to the right, a lattice of rattan holds an ordinary enamel plate in lieu of a Dutch manufactured plate. This is a common practice for those uma lacking a Dutch plate. Even those having one might store an ordinary enamel plate, such as this one, with the Dutch plate, and use this, rather than the greatly treasured porcelain plate itself.

Three suku in Madobag, Mentawai, have a type 6 uma. Originally an ordinary sapou, these dwellings have been upgraded to uma status through becoming storage places for ancestral heirlooms. This recently took place in the suku Sagorojo, its members moving the heirlooms out across the way to the rimata’s eldest son’s sapou. Here the objects were arranged with the bakkatkatsaila and one gong occupying what space was available directly to the right inside the batnuma door, the other items being placed on the right wall. In one of the other type 6 uma, Samapopoupou, the bakkatkatsaila has been placed on the right wall along with the other objects, since no room was available on the batnuma wall where they would normally go. It might be noted that, apart from the one Samwonwot gong located on the left half of the uma, in no other uma did I come across any heirloom items placed on the left-hand side.

The uma come in all manner of shapes and sizes. There are those that are grand and imposing structures, unmistakably uma since sapou (residential huts) are simply not built in this way. There are the majority, however, which are structurally indistinguishable from the sapou for which they form the focus. What does distinguish them is the store of ancestral heirlooms kept within in particular the bakkat katsaila. Indeed, if a sapou possesses a bakkat katsaila then it qualifies as an uma. In their capacity as the uma’s central distinguishing characteristic, the heirlooms can be conceived to form the hub of the uma faction as a community focused around these items stored in a particular uma. The importance of these for uma faction and suku identity is the subject of the next two articles ( article 5 and article 6 ), in which I also clarify the relationship between the two. In doing so, I will also clarify the role the heirlooms play in creating suku and/or uma faction identity through what I have termed the ‘ideology of identity’.

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