3. The Sociospatial Cosmos


The Sociospatial Cosmos

The purpose of this article is to look, firstly, in detail at the village of Madobag itself, since this is where the majority of the research upon which the claims and representations on which this site as a whole is based was conducted. Having done this, the aim is to then place it in the context of the broad “sociospatial” categories employed by the local people, the inhabitants of the Rereiket, to invoke, construct, and live a sociospatial cosmos. By this I mean the totality of beings and the spatial expanse in which they are located, as defined by the people of Madobag, and the Rereiket region more generally. In a way the phrase ‘sociospatial cosmos’ is a tautology (not to mention jargonistic). But what I am trying to convey by using it is the sense of the reality of the simultaneously social, physical, moral, and meaningful world in which these people find themselves, a world, above all, lived. It is a world into which they are ‘thrown’ and one with which they must contend(1). I would, once again, alert the reader to the theoretical agenda which infuses this article— the concept of “space” comes up repeatedly. The reasons why are set out in the article Theoretical Perspective .


Madobag is one dusun (hamlet) of three located in south-eastern Siberut on the western bank of the Rereiket river which flows in a south easterly direction to where it meets the sea some 22 km away, or 15 km as the crow flies. One other, Ugai, is located approximately 2 km upriver to the north west. The last, Rogdog, is located about 4 km downstream. Together they constitute the desa of Madobag, one of ten similar administrative units constituting the Kecamatan (district) of South Siberut. Each desa is made up of its constituent dusun. The islands do not form any sort of administrative unit on their own but are divided into four Kecamatan amongst several constituting the Kabupaten (Regency) of Padang/Pariaman, although plans are afoot to raise the status of the islands to that of a Kabupaten in their own right following the institution of a permanent representative for ‘Mentawai’ in the local parliament(2) in the 1992 elections. Siberut is divided into 2 Kecamatan, North and South Siberut respectively. Sipora is a Kecamatan on its own, with North and South Pagai constituting a Kecamatan together. Each Kecamatan has a main town serving as the centre for local government. For South Siberut this is Muara Siberut, located on the coast at the mouth of the Siberut river, into which the Rereiket river feeds as a tributary further upstream.

The Rereiket river gives the general area its name. This is characteristic of South Siberut where each of the major river systems gives its name to the valleys through which it and its tributaries flow. Directly inland from Muara Siberut along the Siberut river—also known as Ojuk—at Siberut Hulu, the river branches, one branch continuing in a generally north-westerly direction past Silaoinan Tengah and Salappak, the area through which this flows being known as Silaoinan, the other turning south then north west. The area from Samekmek through to Matotonan is conceived as the Rereiket, the term meaning “deluge” or “downpour”, which it rarely fails to do everyday.

In relation to the whole of South Siberut, 12.8% of the population live in the Madobag Desa which is the fourth largest, going by population, in the Kecamatan. The relative figures are as follows:

Table 3.1

DESA                              Males             Females          Total         %

Madobag                         861                     868                    1729          12.8

Pasakiat Taileleu         941                     916                     1857          13.8

Katurei                            756                    745                      1501          1.2

Muara Siberut             1006                  935                      1941           14.4

Maileppet                      331                      333                      664             4.9

Muntei                            508                     464                       972             7.3

Saliguma                        676                     638                       1314           9.7

Matotonan                    412                     409                        821            6.0

Sagalubbek                   424                     305                        729            5.4

Saibi Samukob           1038                   921                         1959         14.5

TOTALS                     6953                   6534                     13 487      100

1991 Census Figures. Source: Desa Administration

Within the Madobag Desa itself the population is evenly distributed amongst its constituent dusun:

Table 3.2

Dusun        Males Females Total

Ugai                 302        299            601

Madobag        294       306            600

Rogdog          265        263            528

Total                861        868           1729

1991 Census Figures. Source: Desa Administration

As with all the dusun along the Rereiket, and generally for all dusun on Siberut, Madobag is not purely the outcome of an indigenous initiative. Reimar Schefold is the anthropologist to have done the most research on Siberut in the course of several visits dating from the late 1960s. Shefold’s model of social organization, highlighting the contrast between Siberut and the southern islands, is based upon what he describes as the “traditional situation” (Schefold 1982:68). In brief, this holds that there exist exogamous, local groups or “uma” consisting of some five to ten families in common residence within the large pile dwellings also called uma. These are to be found distributed along the river banks at various intervals in any particular valley. Each group traces its own discrete derivation relative to its neighbours, although it is related to others, whether these be in the same river valley or in other river valleys across Siberut, through sharing a common ancestor with them (Schefold 1986:73).

Since the early 1960s, however, there has been on Siberut an ongoing government initiated and administered effort to bring these groups together into settlements, largely on or as near to the coast as possible. These contain many uma in order to facilitate the achievement of development goals which are broadly directed at the “advancement” (kemajuan) of the local people who the authorities perceive as “primitive” or “backward”, although this is glossed as “isolated” in the program’s official title: Isolated People’s Prosperity Development Project (Proyek PKMT). The aim is to foster education and, through this, strengthen mainstream religious and national consciousness. In a perfect world this would mean both the relinquishing of the “traditional religion” which has come to be constructed as Sabulungan(3), and the exclusive adherence to Catholicism or Islam. It would also mean proficiency in the Indonesian national language as well as people’s increased awareness of themselves as “orang Indonesia” first and “orang Mentawai” second.

Ugai, Madobag, and Rogdog are the results of these initiatives. Madobag was originally established in 1961-1962 near the Madobag creek, a small tributary which runs into the Rereiket river a half-kilometre or so upstream. It was thus a lot closer to Ugai than is the case today. The move from the original location was precipitated by an altercation between a resident of Madobag and a visitor from Ugai in which the latter was struck down with a machete and subsequently died. A person dying in such a manner is believed to become a tinigeilat, the most malignant and dangerous of the many varieties of “ghost” (sanitu) that are considered to inhabit the area. Since sanitu of any kind are conduits of death manifesting itself in the living in the form of disease, let alone a tinigeilat which is the embodied essence of bad relations between people (magoluk baga—”anger” which has led to conflict between people and the death of one), the decision was made to abandon the site. A concern with its tendency to flood was another issue. The present site suffered from none of the problems that the first one did and has continued to expand in successive phases over the years. The settlement now lies between the Rereiket river to the east and the malabaiet creek to the west. The name ‘Madobag’ should have, ideally, been dropped and the name ‘malabaiet’ adopted, consistent with dusun naming practices. However, it has been administratively more convenient to leave the name as it is.

The formerly dispersed groups glossed as uma in Schefold’s traditional model, are referred to by people, with what would appear to be an introduced term, as suku(4) rather than uma. These number fifteen in Madobag. For a provisional, working definition, a suku can be thought of a a social collectivity whose members share (1) a common ancestor and (2) a particular name—Sakukuret for example. The name comes to be used only when a person has official dealings with the government. Thus a male named ‘Anton’ of the suku Sakukuret would, in such a situation, call himself ‘Anton Sakukuret’. One is still able to enquire of a person “Ponia umam?” or “What is your uma?”, although I only ever came across this form used by Minangkabau from Muara Siberut or those Minangkabau having had a long relationship with the island. It is not a form used by the locals themselves as usually everyone knows everyone else. Rarely does a completely unknown Siberut inhabitant pass through. Should such a person show up, or in clarifying the identity/origin of a particular individual the question is always phrased as “Kapai ubara”, “Where is he, she, or they from”? An answer might be given in terms of their specific suku, hence Sajijilat, for example. Or it might be, as is usual, phrased in terms of the general area where that suku is to be found, in this case Silaoinan, the next river valley to the north named after the river flowing through it. The designation uma, generally refers to the medium to large-sized buildings which number some twenty in the dusun proper. Apart from one suku lacking an uma, the suku consist variously of from one uma, or what I will henceforth refer to as uma faction, up to six. Each suku is also identified with a more or less clearly defined tract of land, its pulaggajat, from the root laggai meaning rock/pebble”, or in everyday parlance, porak (“land”, “earth”).

The dusun was originally located exclusively on the suku Salolosit’s pulaggajat. In its present position it straddles three pulaggajat. Up until 1990 the dusun consisted of several uma and several dozen sapou (“residential huts”) each occupied by one “household/family” (lalep) scattered over the area indicated on the map. The original building was the uma(2,1)(5), one of five making up the suku Sakukuret whose land extends to the boundary of sections 1 and 2 ( see figure 3.2 ). Sections 2 and 3 consist of the suku Sabagalet’s land, the largest suku in Madobag. Section 4 consists in the suku Sakalio’s land. All the other 12 suku and their uma are located on the land of one of these three suku, although they tend to congregate in an area in the general direction of their own land to be found beyond the confines of the dusun. Thus the suku Samalaiming who reside close to their uma (1,12) and Salolosit (2,16) respectively located their uma and residential huts (sapou) at the northern extremity of sections 1 and 2 since their respective pulaggajat are to be found outside the dusun in that direction at varying distances from it. Similarly the suku Samapopoupou (4,33) is located on the southern extremity of section 4 since its land is to be found in this direction where it shares a boundary with the suku Sakalio.

In 1990 the PKMT (Isolated People’s Prosperity Development) project administered by the Social Affairs department swung into full operation in Madobag, setting up an office staffed by a permanent official representative to coordinate the establishment of dozens of new huts (sapou) in order to accommodate the many new “KK” (“family” groups)(6) who might otherwise dwell outside the dusun on their share of their suku’s land. In early 1993 the second phase of this project swung into operation in which 50 more huts were to be constructed. Materials are paid for by the Social Affairs Department, whilst labour is supplied by the people who will occupy the dwelling. These new sapou were built around the existing dusun structure, structured roughly into ‘ward’-like groupings according to suku, resembling the wards into which villages on the Pagai islands and Sipora are divided (Nooy-Palm 1968). Thus Sabagalet established their new huts on the eastern extremity of section 1. They were originally confined to this sector’s north eastern corner, but, with the availability of new huts, have expanded back into their own territory. The suku Sabeuleleu established its new huts in the east of section 3 as its pulaggajat lies 2-3 km to the far south eastern side of Sabagalet’s land. In general, residential position within the dusun is a function of the reproduction of suku identity, an argument I will pursue in later articles. Many new huts have had to be accommodated, however, wherever they have been able to be located, although they are never totally isolated from other suku members. Sakukuret, for example have three huts located together in section 3 (3,39; 3,40; 3,44). Some others are located in section 2 (2,29; 2,30; 2,32; 2,41). Ideally they would have been located on the empty area between the two rows of huts in section 2. But since this became the soccer field they had to make alternative plans. The site for the dusun was chosen as it slopes away from the river to the east eventually becoming Mt. Simen (teitei simen) 750 odd m. to the east of the river. With even the highest flood, the river, having burst its banks, spreads towards the dusun only as far as (2,1) or (2,4) in the most critical instance. The cleared area is criss-crossed by gullies which leaves it well-drained, and so suitable for a large community.

The sociospatial cosmos

Barasi and Pulaggajat

As a village or hamlet, Madobag is represented officially as dusun, although it is never referred to by the locals as such on a day-to-day level, informally. The term used is barasi derived from the Minangkabau word for “clean” (bersih in standard Indonesian). People talking in a context where the ‘dusun of Madobag’ is understood refer to it as the barasi which, as an extension of the Minangkabau term, means “cleared area”, that is an expanse of ground cleared totally of vegetation. The other instance where land is cleared is for the establishment of a garden (mone). But here the vegetation is left lying around to rot and tree stumps are not cut right back to the very roots as they were in clearing the original area for the dusun, and as was the case when clearing the area for the recent PKMT Housing project. Shortly after bananas, cassava or certain species of fruit trees are planted. In due course forest growth, cultivated and uncultivated, returns, albeit in a somewhat modified form. Where the barasi is concerned there is in principle an ongoing effort to keep the area clear of grass and bracken growth. With the volume of human traffic, heavier growth is inhibited. People meeting on a path outside the dusun, in response to any inquiry regarding their destination (their version of the standard Anglo-Australian greeting “how are you”), reply with “I’m off to the barasi”, not “I’m going to Madobag” or “I’m going to the dusun”.

The barasi itself is situated in relation to two sociospatial vectors: pulaggajat and leleu. The word pulaggajat is the compound noun form of the simple noun laggai meaning “rock” or “pebble”. In its compound form pulaggajat refers to the bounded tract, or tracts, of land set aside for the exclusive collective use of a particular suku. Within the bounds of a suku’s pulaggajat is freshly cleared land (tinuggulu), along with the gardens created from these (mone/monen) worked by members of the suku. It also includes tracts of primary forest growth. Boundaries are marked out by streams, hill-ridge tops, as well as certain species of hardwood tree. Although these boundaries are fairly clear cut, this still does not prevent them from often becoming the focus of disputes and the concomitant boundary redefinition.

In daily parlance the word ‘pulaggajat’ as with ‘dusun’ is rarely used. Instead, people refer to their porak (“land, earth”) or porak mai (“our [lalep or suku] land”) or simply mone. In the rest of this article and subsequent articles I use these interchangeably even though, strictly speaking, ‘porak’ connotes the actual earth of the pulaggajat, whereas pulaggajat evokes notions of a suku and its land as a whole. In theory, porak can be bought and sold. In practice, however, it is rather a selection of the fruit trees or gardens on it that are alienated as a unit (mata: hence sanga mata mone; sanga mata gette/one mata of fruit trees or gardens; one mata of taro) as part of either a bridewealth or compensation exchange, an impossibility for the pulaggajat. The party giving the goods are represented as “buying” (saki), regardless of whether or not any Indonesian rupiah actually changed hands, although the party ceding land or a wife is not constructed as “selling” the land or the woman. Purported “sales” of porak were described in the context of one member of a particular suku asserting hypothetical rights in land in fact owned by another suku, rights claimed by reference to common ancestral origins. The suku Sakukuret, for example, claims land in the Saibi area, a river valley system near the central east coast, as well as Sagalubbe on the South western coast. The assertion is based on the claim that they share a common ancestor with suku in that area. Similarly the suku Samalaiming has land in two separate locations near Madobag as well as a large expanse at Siribabak, a river on the far southwest coast a few kilometres to the south of Sagalubbe, land which has passed down to them from the ancestors. These suku claim rights in land at separate locations based on ancestral legitimation, rights which must be viewed as relatively insubstantial, however, in the case of Sakukuret since, if they were to actively pursue de jure rights in these areas, then there is no doubt that these would be vigorously opposed by the local suku who actually use the land on a day-to-day basis. Forthcoming permission to use the land would be based on a carefully negotiated and complex exchange and would be contingent on whether or not the Sakukuret people were moving there for good. Samalaiming, on the contrary, maintain a demonstrated presence on their separate land locations, spending around one week a month out there, the other three weeks being spent in the dusun. Even suku who are neighbours and share common ancestors, the suku Sabagalet and Sakaliau for example who, as is the case with nearly all suku, were both part of a larger antecedent suku, can become embroiled in heated debate as to who has what rights in which particular area. In this case both claimed rights in the one tract of land. Their land shared a boundary, a consequence of the division of their antecedent suku’s pulaggajat. The exact location of the boundary was the subject of the dispute, both sides claiming rights with reference to the antecedent suku. It got to the point where both parties sought the mediation of the local government administration in Muara Siberut to help them to reach a mutually satisfactory outcome. Those suku who do have land in separate locations still refer to these collectively as their pulaggajat.

Each household (lalep) has rights to the use and cultivation of a particular section of a suku’s pulaggajat, the entire pulaggajat being divided amongst the total number of household constituting the suku. A household’s primary livestock resources, its pigs and chickens, along with its sago palms which are processed into the staple foodstuff at regular intervals together with as its cultivating activities in general are, ideally, situated within the bounds of a household’s particular porak division. However, since the dusun is situated on sections of three particular pulaggajat, it is closer for some to their pulaggajat than others. Accordingly several households for the sake of convenience have acquired permission from suku whose pulaggajat lie adjacent to the dusun to raise their pigs and chickens on sections of these suku’s land. For those that elect to keep exclusively to their suku’s pulaggajat this can entail a walk of several hours. This situation is complicated by the government regulations stipulating that pigs, for reasons of hygiene, must be kept on the east side of the river opposite the dusun, or over to the west in the next river valley. The water in the river along with the distance separating the dusun from the western valley keeps the pigs well away from human habitation. Formerly, in the time prior to residence in the dusun, pigs wallowed about beneath a suku’s uma which were at that time located upon their respective pulaggajat, a time looked upon with great fondness. This is often cited by people whose pigs are some distance away from the dusun as a reason for frequent visits to them. Households erect small dwellings (sapou) there under which their pigs congregate. Chickens are also housed there. People often spend a week or longer at a time at these sapou. Some households have established a fully-fledged uma in place of a sapou, and in the case of one suku, most of its constituent households live in and around separate uma distributed about their pulaggajat just across the river to the east, in defiance of government wishes that they reside in the dusun proper. In token deference to government policy they have preserved a nominal presence in the dusun in the shape of several sapou and an uma where they may spend a few days at a time, thus going against the norm of largely dusun residence, with short visits to pigs and chickens out at the pulaggajat.

A major advantage of living in the dusun cited by older married people is the sense of community, of “many people” (maigi sirimanua). This is offset however by the heat (maka) of conflict that is an inevitable part of collective living, which, along with the great contentment to be experienced on one’s pulaggajat observing the comings and goings of one’s pigs and chickens, makes residence on the pulaggajat very attractive. In the words of one elderly resident of the dusun describing the munificence of his former life on his suku’s pulaggajat:

Where I lived before I came to the barasi we had pigs and chickens. Maigi sibabara [lit. “lots of occurrences”]. Now, here in the barasi, it is not so. At the uma it was not clean and there were not many people. But there were lots of pigs and chickens. There were lots of things from the past (ancestral objects). We would often eat monkey and deer. If someone came from another pulaggajat then there were lots of pigs, lots of meat. It was better before. Now I have a clean uma and there are lots of people. If someone dies, there are people to help. But there are few chickens [some people raise some chickens around their houses in the dusun] and no pigs. We don’t often eat monkey. There are pigs and chickens on the mone but no people—it’s a sad situation (magoak bagata). If we fall ill there is no one to help us and we die.

Another informant expressed distaste for the constant “unproductive work” required to keep the dusun ‘barasi’, that is, clear of the grasses and brackens which quickly spring up to cover the paths and areas around the houses in the absence of the forest canopy. For him a much more profitable and enjoyable task is looking after pigs and chickens on the pulaggajat:
In the morning when you wake up, there they all are. Here in the barasi it is hot(7) and we sit around with no work to do. Do the tourists(8) stay here in the barasi? No. They go out and stay in the leleu [forest]. And because we are not out with our pigs and chickens in the leleu, they get stolen or taken by snakes. When this uma falls down we will build a new one out in the leleu on the pulaggajat. If the government were not so insistent we live in the barasi, we would be living out in the leleu.

Despite the expressed benefit of living in a large community such as the barasi, informants talk about its lack of reciprocity, the lack of genuine sociality that they are able to experience living on the pulaggajat. This comes across quite clearly in this testimony extolling this virtue characteristic of life outside the barasi on the pulaggajat:
If you give me three chickens to eat, later I could come and ask for some tobacco from you. Another time you might give me some money and then later when you needed a pig for a puliaijat [a type of ritual event] I would give you one. Or you might ask for a durian tree which I would give to you.
The sentiment is clear even though in reality dusun life often does entail just this sort of reciprocity between individuals as well as between suku. Younger people unanimously support a dusun residential lifestyle preferring the communal atmosphere and the opportunity to socialize with large numbers of their peers, making day or overnight trips to feed livestock, hunt wild pigs (in the case of the young men), or collect forest fruits. But having married and become responsible for their own mone, pigs and chickens, this attachment wanes somewhat.

Leleu, Pulaggajat, and Suku

People heading out to their pulaggajat, or to their pigs if they are kept on another suku’s pulaggajat for convenience, often phrase their activity in terms of going to “cross the river” (ka silak) to the east bank. However if they are going further afield then the term is ka leleu. Leleu has a variety of referents, or perhaps more exactly, connotations. It mainly refers to the “forest” or the “hills” and through this conveys a sense of otherness, that the forest/hills are places of danger since one is likely to encounter a “ghost” (sanitu) or a wild pig there. But, conversely and somewhat paradoxically, one is also likely to encounter good fortune in the form of meat—monkey, deer, or wild pig—whether or not one is specifically hunting for it or not.

At a fundamental level leleu must be viewed as relative to the sanctuary provided by a dwelling in the barasi or the pulaggajat which one has left and which one will enter at the end of the journey. The leleu is that relatively undomesticated, unsocialized (even anti-social) space traversed in getting to one’s destination when viewed in the context of the journey itself, although from the point of view of the barasi one goes to the leleu rather than through it. From a barasi perspective this space is included within the designation leleu but from the point of view of the destination in the leleu must be traversed again if one is to return to the barasi. Having arrived at one’s destination, or the leleu from a barasi perspective, people define themselves as on the porak of their pulaggajat.

The pulaggajat can be thought of as a socialized space (relatively) safe from wild pigs, accidents, or occult forces (bajou) pertaining to sanitu (ghosts), the defining elements of the anti-social space of the leleu and not of the human space of community and sociality having its locus in the occupied dwelling. This is especially the case should they be in an uma which by dint of its being an uma possesses objects, the ancestral heirlooms, containing “power” (gaud) utilized to prevent or distance negative influences from the uma’s occupants. Sapou also may have certain gaud-containing objects. But it is also the fact that the occupants are simply within the bounds of the communal socialized space that constitutes the dwelling that automatically sets that space off from the space of the leleu. The primary inhabitants of the leleu, are defined as the monkeys, deer, and wild pig. They are hunted as sources of “forest meat” (iba leleu), and along with varieties of sanitu (ghosts) the sources of the life-threatening bajou, are sometimes referred to as taikaleleu or saikaleleu (“beings in the leleu”). They are in one of their aspects distinctive through their lack of an uma or sapou dwelling, the very opposite of human beings who, wherever they are, are characterized by their inhabiting a dwelling of some kind. This predilection is based on the differentiation between the pulaggajat and the leleu, the former consisting in a community of house-dwelling beings, the latter a dispersed number of houseless beings.

The concept, pulaggajat, evokes the notion of a whole and possesses an indexical relation to the suku as a whole. Suku names almost always have the unifying prefix “sa” serving to drive home the idea of a solid unity, an “us” against the Other(9), ie. suku mai (“our suku”) and sirimanua (“people”). People can talk about their suku, or their pulaggajat; each evokes the other; one is impossible without the other. Indeed, the cosmos as a (spatial) whole is conceived as consisting of a variety of pulaggajat units located at various distances from each other.

This is exemplified in the way in which a stranger’s origins are identified. As with most Indonesians, the people of the Rereiket are keen to find where a stranger (sareu) comes from, for to know ‘where’ is to know ‘who’. They question such a person in Indonesian, not with the standard “dari mana asalnya” (literally “where do you come from/what is your origin”), but rather with “di mana kampung”, or “where/what is your village?” even though “kampung” in the sense of a settlement, a collectivity of dwellings and people, is not what is meant. There is no conceptualization of, nor word for “kampung” in the local language, explaining why the loan word barasi has been adopted. The subject of enquiry here is the person’s pulaggajat, the quintessential social entity, and not the village or town from which the person originates(10).

The association between a suku and its pulaggajat is clearly evident in the way in which the relationship between the two is discursively constructed. As on the southern islands, the suku attached to a particular pulaggajat is known as the sibakkat laggai, “that which/those who are at the base/foundation of the pulaggajat”. Sihombing (1979) is a little confusing on this issue. On the one hand he states that the suku opening up a particular tract of land for the first time is known as sibakkat laggai, but two sentences below states that the sibakkat laggai is the “eldest person” in the suku (Sihombing 1979:13). Nooy-Palm (1968:170) defines the sibbakkat laggai as referring unequivocally to the collectivity and not the individual. The only time I ever heard the term in daily usage in Madobag was in the context of one old man asserting propriety over his suku’s pulaggajat, referring to himself as sibakkat laggai (aku sibakkat laggai). However, this must be viewed in light of the tendency of individuals to declare propriety in items no one person has exclusive rights to, which includes virtually everything. Anything about which a person can declare aku sibakkat nia (I ‘own’ that) can be used by someone else who would also able to say of these same items ‘aku sibakkat nia’. Refusal would require a very solidly stated case to support it. In the absence of good reason a person is liable to be labelled “stingy” (matibaga:lit. “dead inside”). In light of this it is not incorrect for any member of the suku to declare such ownership since all members potentially ‘own’ everything pertaining to the suku. The sibakkat laggai then are the people constituting a suku having rights to a particular tract of land, pulaggajat, although this would exclude the odd area (mata) of garden and/or fruit trees (mone) that has been ceded to someone else. However the suku retain exclusive rights in the land itself (porak).

The concepts of leleu and ka silak imply a lateral movement outwards and away from the Rereiket river which is at once also a movement away from habitation and community since settlements are still located as they have always been—close to the river. Supplementary spatial categories used in daily parlance are “upriver” and “downriver”, respectively ka ulu and kaleoruk, a movement in the latter direction ending at the river mouth or monga where Muara Siberut is located. A journey “upriver” or “downriver” may mean a trip to one’s pulaggajat, a visit to relatives (saraina) or friends (siripok).

Through these sociospatial values/categories the spaces of daily life are constructed. Life is lived largely in terms of people’s dusun dwelling (uma or sapou) and gardening or husbandry activities, both of which take place for the majority on their suku’s pulaggajat, all of which takes place against, and through, the background, the existential context provided by these values.

The Rhythm of Daily Life

An understading of Madobag as a living community very much depends upon understanding the spatial arrangement of its constituent suku (‘descent group’) which are constituted by their various uma factions and numerous residential huts (sapou). These form the locus of most daily activities and can be considered the foundation of the lives of the members of each suku and thus of the dusun. Whilst in the dusun proper, life is spent mainly in the sapou around which various crops including climbing beans and cassava are often planted and tended.

The daily domestic cycle also involves activities performed outside the dusun’s bounds on the pulaggajat (suku land): tending livestock, making sago, working in taro plantations, and in the context of the leleu (forest;mountain): gathering forest fruits, hunting monkeys, deer or wild pigs, or searching for simoitek, a species of tree (Aquilaria malaccensis[?]) prized as a raw material for making incense and purchased by mainly Minangkabau middlemen or the Nias storekeepers to be sold primarily to Chinese traders on the mainland.

In the durian season there is a veritable flood of fruit that has to be harvested and brought back into the dusun. Durian fruit is mainly for domestic consumption, consumed shortly after being brought back from the trees, which can be located up to several kilometres from the dusun and from each other. Some fruit is taken down to Muara Siberut where it finds a ready market. The durian season in the Rereiket occurs at almost the opposite time of the year compared with most areas in mainland West Sumatra where a lot of the fruit ends up. At this time people occasionally load up a canoe with durian along with bananas, coconuts, and perhaps some rattan which they take by canoe downriver to the coast. These are converted into cash which is then converted into every sort of consumable item: clothes, nails, buckets, fish, batteries, kerosene, and perhaps even a pressure lantern if the money is available. A round trip takes from 4-7 days. People go out collecting rattan all the year round. When enough rattan to fill a canoe or two has been collected they take this down to Muara Siberut, although, increasingly they sell it, at a vastly reduced price, to the Minangkabau trader resident in the dusun who arranges to take it down himself, citing more important social commitments as having the primary claim on their time.

Sago-making is a task carried out at regular intervals mainly by the male members of a household (lalep), a father with his son, or sons, if they are old enough. If the sago is to be consumed within the context of a puliaijat involving all members of the suku, then the male members of the suku’s constituent households work together to produce sago for the event. A man may be helped by his wife if no other help is available, even though this is defined as a male activity. Many people establish sago-making platforms (pasaguat) on suku land other than their own, although most suku’s pulaggajat is not so far away that it is difficult for them to get to their pasaguat periodically. The pasaguat must be constructed near a steady supply of water which is used to rinse the sago pith. Once a sago palm is felled, it is cut into sections which are sometimes floated down the river near to the pasaguat. Otherwise the pasaguat is constructed as close as possible to the felled tree(s). Each household usually has its own pasaguat, although brothers may share one amongst themselves or with their father. A fully grown sago tree yields a ten or so metre length of processable pith. Having been felled the stem is divided up into 1-1.5m lengths which are shaved away. The detritus from this is then rinsed several times. The starch-sediment issuing from the pith is collected and stored in small 10 litre bucket-sized containers (tappri) made out of sago leaf. This lasts an adult couple with several children from 2 to 4 weeks. One tree yields some 10 tappri. These tappri are stored under water at the pasaguat where they keep until required.

Important other foci of daily life in Madobag, are centred on the trading stores, the Social Affairs Department office to a lesser extent (its activities tending to be dispersed in space rather than being focused on a particular building or dwelling), along with the Church and the Islamic teacher’s house. Three different trading establishments owned and run by outsiders operate in the dusun. The smallest is run by the dusun’s only Minangkabau resident who married a local girl. The others are run by immigrants from Nias, who heard about the increasing number of foreign and domestic tourists as well as the volume of simoitek passing through the area, and decided to set up shop. People rely on the stores to supplement their staple diet of sago, taro, and bananas with rice. The shops have also made it unnecessary to make frequent journeys downriver to Muara Siberut so as to obtain tobacco, sugar and tea or coffee supplies which have also become staple consumables. Through its administering of the PKMT Housing project, the Social Affairs Department helps to reinforce the position of the trading stores in its capacity as an employer of local people, to carry out maintenance and development projects including path widening and bridge construction. Wages are often paid directly to shop owners, employees taking goods to the value of wages earned as they require them. Similarly the Church-cum-meeting hall (Balai Desa) houses the Sunday Mass congregations as well as providing a venue for meetings convened to discuss matters of government policy affecting the dusun administration, or domestic disputes requiring the mediation of desa officials. Allied to the Church is the Catholic Women’s group and the Youth group which convene regularly to deal with issues regarding pregnancy and hygiene in the case of the former, youth sporting and recreational activities in the case of the latter.

The Church   (not that great ’80s band of the same name with eternal hits such as “unguarded moment”!!)

The original Church building was constructed on a patch of ground at the western end of the soccer field. The land was “bought”, from the suku Sagorojo upon whose land it lies, within the appropriate exchange (paroman) transaction. That is, Sagorojo gave the pastor the right to the exclusive use of that particular segment of land. Thus the pastor had to give something in return, paroman (lit.”help”) which, in substantial terms, meant items such as mosquito net cloth, tobacco, and machete blades. Over the years, however, the building had become riddled with termites, reducing it to a ramshackle state. Church services were moved to the Balai Desa following its completion. Not long after this a working-bee spent two days dismantling the old Church. Still useable wood was carried off to be turned into extensions to people’s sapou (residential huts). A disused building rarely remains standing for very long since it is considered to become a haunt for sanitu (ghosts) who gravitate to dwellings abandoned by the living (sirimanua). Indeed, shortly before it was taken apart, a shaman indicated to me that it should be burnt down due to the fact that it most definitely had become an abode for sanitu. The only thing that stopped him, he related, was the problems that this would provoke with the authorities. The plan is to build a new Church some time in the future, the Balai Desa being a temporary stop-gap measure.

Various individuals have been at various times heavily involved with the Church and its activities. One of the elderly members of the suku Sabagalet was, at one time, very active in the Church including leading Mass on occasions (as well as serving two periods as Kepala Dusun). However, having become deeply involved in shamanic (kerei) activities, he ceased all involvement with the Church as well as the Desa administration, relating that these two spheres of knowledge and activity were mutually incompatible. This is more so from the administrative point of view since development philosophy is very much set against shamanic knowledge and practices which are officially construed as “backward” and “primitive”. The Church, however, has a more flexible approach. According to the resident missionary in the Catholic complex at Muara Siberut it is sufficient that the local people believe in God and Jesus and live “decent” lives. As this does not conflict with the beliefs grounding shamanic practices, including the existence and importance of the uma, such “traditional” elements are not targeted by the Church, but are, in contrast to the state, even supported. The people attending Church services are mainly young women and their young children. Occasionally a shaman substitutes his loin-cloth (kabit) for a good pair of trousers and his best shirt to attend Sunday Mass, although this is a rare occurrence. Christmas and Easter are the only occasions when the majority of people in the dusun attend services.


Official Islam was late in coming to the Mentawai islands although it had long had an unofficial and informal presence through visits by inhabitants of the Sumatran mainland, and even the Bugis who had been visiting the islands prior to European incursions. There is a recorded conversion to Islam at Simalegi in north Siberut in 1935 of the adopted child of a policeman (Karangan & Yunus 1981:116). Sihombing writes that the first Islamic missionaries arrived in 1950 following independence. The subsequent dissemination of Islam has been, and continues to be, facilitated by the administering authorities who are themselves Muslims. Early success in gaining converts was mainly limited to Siberut’s north with some 500 conversions (Sihombing 1979:103). Whilst Catholicism has been the religion to take hold over most of Siberut due to its better institutional organization and the availability of funds through the Italian-run Catholic missions in Muara Siberut and Muara Sikabaluan in the north, Islam has been steadily gaining a more solid footing.

The administration categorizes dusun in Siberut’s south according to whether they are Christian or Muslim, despite the fact that in any dusun labelled in this way as one or the other, there is a minority who adhere to Catholicism in a predominantly Islam dusun, or vice-versa. Along the Rereiket river only Matotonan near the headwaters is classified as Muslim. All the dusun in the Madobag desa are categorized as Christian, although Madobag, and to a lesser extent Rogdog, have considerable Muslim populations. In mid 1992 a full-time Islamic teacher was installed in the dusun with the aim of developing and institutionalizing Islam there. Shortly after, a four-roomed sapou (4,34)(11) was built with funds supplied by the Social Affairs Department to serve as his living quarters as well as a teaching centre. In mid-1993 construction of a small mosque commenced. The Islamic teacher is closely allied with the suku Sakaliau and Sabulau who had some 20 years earlier officially accepted Islam, and in whose section of the dusun the mosque and the centre are located. This conversion, as is the case with contemporary conversions, represents a largely nominal adherence to Islamic doctrines and practices. As one young man put to me in explanation for his non-adherence to the prohibition on eating pork:”Our bodies are Muslim but our stomachs are not”. Until the arrival of the teacher none of them adhered to the five ‘pillars’ of Islam. Even so, it has been mainly the younger people who have expressed an interest in converting theory into practice. The establishment of the centre has provided a regional focus for a more organized Islam as a counterpoint to the Catholic Church and its activities which, since its introduction in the 1950s, and unlike Islam, has gone on to gain a degree of currency in select domains of ideology and practice. Officially 40 people are listed as Muslim with several conversions gained in the 12 month period to July 1993.

The school

The school, constituted by just the one long building divided into 3 rooms, represents another important focus of dusun life. It is attended by a reasonably stable population of some 40 students. Most school age children attend classes fairly regularly. Classes are based upon the standard Indonesian state primary school curriculum (Sekolah Dasar) which is oriented mainly towards acquainting children with the idea that they are members of an entity larger than the village or the local and ethnic community to which they belong: they are Indonesians first, and ‘Mentawaian’ second, which bestows upon them the obligation to grant the former their undivided loyalty. This is done through an emphasis on fun activities, mainly singing, since it is only through such activities that teachers can attract the pupils. Most parents are indifferent to whether or not their children attend the school since there are many tasks that their children, in their eyes, can be more profitably engaged in. For these parents school does not offer tangible benefits, and whilst they do not generally actively oppose it, they certainly do not actively support it. There is, however, a minority of parents who have experienced secondary education in Muara Siberut, some even having spent several years in Padang over on the mainland. They see the benefits of an education, which provides an awareness of this wider context in which their lives are lived, as part of the modern Indonesian state, a world beyond the immediate community and beyond Siberut, a world which they perceive to be increasingly presenting them with challenges.

There are officially three teachers at the school, but only one of them, the son of a Nias immigrant and a local girl, is permanently resident in Madobag with his wife and children. One teacher is a local from the Saibi district to the north of Muara Siberut, the other is an expatriate Javanese Catholic. They spend much of their time in Saibi and Muara Siberut, respectively, for reasons of health, family, or both. The permanent teacher usually conducts the Sunday mass at the Balai Desa, an example of the strong link that exists between the Church and the school. Indeed school is the major source of Christian religious instruction for children. Apart from fulfilling the obligations set out in the standard primary school curriculum. extra-curricula hymn learning often takes place there. The other teachers may also sometimes lead the congregation when they are in the dusun.

People of the Rereiket

It should be emphasised that this article and those that follow do not concern the ‘Mentawaians’ of Madobag or, more broadly, the Rereiket. The difficulties associated with, and the distortions effected by the term ‘Mentawai’ are set out in the article History and ‘Mentawai’ (in which this section “People of the Rereiket” has been reworked). The artlces deal with a select series of events and a range of generally shared values, found within the community, Madobag, which is a part of one of the river valleys located across Siberut known as the Rereiket. People of the Rereiket can be understood as having similar sorts of practices that are directed towards similar sorts of ends, people who in certain contexts see themselves as Rereiket people rather than Sagalubbe people or Silaoinan(12) people, Madobag people rather than Ugai people in other contexts. Or, in most contexts, people of a certain suku (‘descent group’) as distinct from all others. This approach stems, then, from the concerns of the people of Madobag and the multiple facets of their complex identity that are evident as a manifestation of those concerns.

On a general level they construct themselves as “Indonesians” since they have a definite relation to the entity “Indonesia”, this relation varying amongst people according to the length and quality of contact with “Indonesians”. Younger people and those educated in the schools in Muara Siberut, the administrative and trading centre for South Siberut, in certain contexts refer to themselves unequivocally as “Indonesians” using the national language (“Bahasa Indonesia”) to articulate this identity: we are/I am “orang Indonesia”. They have, to varying degrees, an awareness of Indonesia as an entity among other identities in a geo-political context, although for those who have not had secondary education this is in terms of one pulaggajat amongst other pulaggajat. However, on the most inclusive level identity is formally articulated in terms of the opposition between simatawe and (sa)sareu.

The existence of the word simatawe arguably represents a case of what Thomas (1992) has described in relation to Fiji as substantivization(13), where colonial discourse led to the selection, reification, and institutionalization of a specific cultural order consisting of certain practices selected from a possible variety of practices. Similarly an exogenous reification has been accepted and is reproduced as a living reification in the present by the very people who were the original subject of that reification in the term simatawe. “Matawe” is the root, a usage taken, as described in History and ‘Mentawai’, by Logan (1855) from Crisp (1799), a word that has come to be applied in colonial discourse as ‘Mentawai/Mentawei’ and has hence come to be used by the people themselves to refer to their collective identity in certain contexts.

Sihombing (1979) reports that his informants told him that “having gained control of the Pagai islands as well as having made contact with several villages on Sipora and Siberut the English would often meet with the local inhabitants who were always fearful of them, shouting out to their companions: Mei sita Ee [lets go, leave].” From this the white people named them “Mentawai” and popularized this to the outside world (Sihombing 1979:19).

Sihombing also relates a myth (which appears in no other source including Loeb’s (1929) Mentawai Myths) concerning a man from Nias named Amatawe, or the “father” (ama) of the individual “tawe”, who went out fishing from the south coast of Nias to be subsequently driven by a storm to Simatalu on Siberut’s west coast. Having found favourable conditions there, he returned to Nias and brought his wife and child and a boat-load of people back to live on Siberut. Sihombing accepts this as the origin of the name ‘Mentawai’, although I would suggest that both explanations are creative local rationalizations for the existence of the word ‘Mentawai’. One young man in Madobag who had had extensive education in Padang on the mainland knew of this myth although no-one else, old or young, was aware of it, suggesting that he may have come across it through the Minangkabau living in Muara Siberut, many of whom know the story. In Madobag origins are very important, with Simatalu, in almost every case, cited as the origin point for suku there, a theme dealt with article 6 . Origins prior to or different from Simatalu are rare, consisting of, where they are postulated, an oblique reference to Nias or Sumatra for example.

Crisp reported the word for “man” (ie. “person”, “human being”) as “Mantaoo”, although he came to accept the pronunciation according to the “people of Sumatra”. The Rereiket word is similar today: simateu, the root being mateu. This is to be understood in its relation to its opposite, sinanalep, or “married female/woman” and, despite phonetic similarity, bears no relation to simatawe which must be understood in its relation to its opposite (sa)sareu.

Simatawe refers to anyone who can be defined as originating from one of the Mentawai islands who can speak the “Mentawai language” (nganga (si)matawe). It is part of a strategy to identify broad categories of “people” (sirimanua): simatawe, Minangkabau, Nias(ians), Batak people, Jerman (Germans), Inggiri (English). However, the word simatawe is hardly ever used in this positive sense, except when actively elicited from informants. It is, rather, a case of whether an individual is sareu or non-sareu, not whether they are simatawe or not. Indeed, this facet of identity is only relevant in contexts where sareu may or may not be involved, the language criteria being of primary importance here. It is otherwise not important. I surmise that in the past it would have been a case of ‘our suku’ against the rest, sirimanua, a subset of whom would have been sareu. But this distinction has been encapsulated within this introduced term simatawe.

Sareu (“those from afar”) embraces other Indonesians or anyone simakotkot tubu (“dark/black-bodied”) not originating from river valley areas such as the Rereiket, Taileleu, Simatalu, Sikakap (North Pagai) whose first language is not nganga matawe, as well as (white) foreigners. These foreigners are referred to as orag turi (“tourists”), since they almost universally appear with backpacks, cameras and guides, these constituting the defining elements of an orag (Indonesian: orang) turi. Other Indonesians are never usually referred to as ‘orag Indonesia’ but rather simply as sareu.

One older informant highlighted the contradiction experienced by some between being Indonesian yet not being sareu which encapsulates things Indonesian: “Indonesian [language], Minangkabau are sareu languages. Indonesian is the language of us all, like tourists who all speak English although they come from Holland, America, Germany. You all speak a different language each, but you all speak English. Thus our language is simatawe, their language is Minangkabau, but we all speak Indonesian.” My informant confirmed his first statement about Indonesian being a sareu language after, a little confused, I queried this. Although there is, on one level, a sense of identity as Indonesian, on another the Indonesian language and Indonesians themselves as with the Minangkabau are identified as sareu, as Other. Whilst they may speak this sareu language just as they follow, to greater or lesser degrees, the Catholic faith, both the Indonesian language and Catholicism are manifestations of arat (adat) sareu which have come to be adopted by the simatawe.

In day to day life, in opposition to this formal, discursive distinction between sareu and simatawe, the most important distinction is that made between suku. It could be said that understanding daily life depends to a great extent on appreciating how this distinction is practically reproduced, or rather lived, in a variety of contexts in the daily round of activities. Thus there is “us” (kai, or more usually, suku mai, “our suku”) and “them” (sirimanua) the broad undifferentiated mass of humanity (within which is included sareu and orag turi). Sirimanua can be also differentiated according to river region in the relevant context, the people of Madobag along with those in the dusun of Rokdok, Ugai, and Matotonan defining themselves as “from the Rereiket” in opposition to those from Silaoinan, Sagalubbe, and those more distant, Saibi, Simatalu, Samukob, Terekan and others. Sirimanua can be conceived also to consist of all the other suku whether they be Sabetiliakek (a suku in the Ugai whose members live both inside and outside of the dusun), the suku Satoinong of Silaoinan, the pulaggajat of Padang, Minangkabau, Jerman (Germany), or Inggiri (Britain) and so forth.

In short, this somewhat simplistic formal (discursive) dichotomy between simatawe and sareu, relied on by several of those working within what I term the “discourse” of the ‘Mentawaians’ (see History and ‘Mentawai’)(eg. Naim 1977; Coronese 1986), does violence to the lived reality of identity in the Rereiket context, an identity that will be explored in greater depth in subsequent articles. As for ‘Mentawai’ suffice it to say that the category has a relevance limited to certain contexts where it is used to evoke the collectivity of islands directly adjacent to the province of West Sumatra, and thereby metonymically encapsulate—a process in which an object or concept is given meaning due to its association or proximity to another object or concept—the inhabitants of these islands.

In this article, then, I have outlined the general categories and contexts implicated in the representation and reproduction of the sociospatial cosmos. These provide the context within which, and through which, daily life is lived. I have also sketched the broad contours of a more complex identity than previous researchers/writers have allowed for. In doing this I have aimed to lay the foundation for an understanding of how a particular aspect of this identity, as articulated within what I refer to as the ‘ideology’ of suku identity, is intimately involved in people’s active manipulation of the elements within the cosmos in order to achieve beneficial outcomes for their suku in contrast to all other suku in the dusun and beyond, this being a key concern for people in the Rereiket (dealt with in article 6). But prior to a detailed look at these activities it is important to take a close look at the nature and function of the uma, and its store of ancestral heirlooms.

Next Article


(1) A world, however, done an injustice through its representation and objectification in this text.

(2) Pemerintah Propinsi Daerah Tingkat II (Provincial Government, Second Level).

(3) See article seven.

(4) This is by no means the first instance of an introduced term coming to be adopted by the indigenous inhabitants. Very early on von Rosenburg (1853:433) in his short survey of the “language of the Mentaweijers” identified several usages as clearly being Melayu in origin. Indeed, in the early articles, Melayu language items are often used to describe items or activities. Thus scattered throughout von Rosenburg’s texts, for example, are references to the Mentawaians who have “parangs” with which they clear their “ladangs”, and who are attended to by their “doekuns” when they are sick. This tendency has become endemic in the present where Indonesian, functioning as the dominant language, even though it is not the most commonly used, has the effect of transforming the nature and meaning of institutions in Madobag in order to make those institutions intelligible from an administrative viewpoint. Thus villages are described in terms of how many “KK” (pronounced “kahkah”) or “Kepala Keluarga” (“family head”) they contain. “KK” refers to the husband of the household who represents the family as a whole. In the Rereiket the term for “family”, or specifically, a husband-wife dyad and their children, is “lalep” or “sanga lalep”, lalep being the small one or two roomed dwelling they occupy. In common parlance this is known as “sapou”. A “sapou”, then is occupied by “sanga lalep”.

(5) I indicate the location of buildings on the map thus: (2,1). The first figure, ‘2’, refers to the general sector in which the particular building ‘1’ is located. The ‘sections’ are purely conveniences of my own making.

(6) See footnote 4 above.

(7) Maka:There is a play on words here since maka also has the connotation of heat coming from conflict between people.

(8) The area has become a favoured destination for mainland guides bringing foreign and domestic tourists for weekly visits.

(9) “Sarereiket” for example.

(10) This is analogous to the North Sumatran (Nias/Batak) practice of enquiry as to a person’s marga in order to locate them socially and spatially i.e. whether they are Karo Batak as opposed to Mandailing Batak for example.

(11) See figure 3.2

(12) See figure 3.1.

(13) cf. Giddens’ (1984) concept of the “double hermeneutic”.

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