Mentawai Culture is NOT Disappearing

by Glenn

Repeat. Mentawai Culture is not disappearing.

It is changing though, oh yes indeed. And it always has been, faster at some times, slower at others.

Look, I’m just a bit tired of this old narrative, this old story-line that repeats this simply untrue old refrain that Mentawaian culture is in peril. It’s like Lady Gaga doing a cover of Viva La Vida (the lyricis right on theme too!). Or Elton John doing a cover of himself.

The story goes back at least to the 1950s when the Indonesian central government enacted draconian measures in relation to the local people. And you actually might have got away with the argument then.

This ‘disappearing world’ was an issue twenty years ago when the concerned folk of the Siberut National Park project were traveling hither and thither setting it up—and just as  unconvincing as it is today.

The “Mentawai Culture” that people are talking about refers to a few extended families in Siberut’s “hot” zone. By that I mean the Rogdog, Butui (to the northwwest), Attabai (to the east) triangle that has watched, amused, the tens of thousands of backpackers floundering through during the last three decades or so. The region is also the setting for numerous documentaries and photo-shoots over the years.

The small group of local individuals that continually star in these media productions represent—and so recreate—a fictitious glorious past that hangs precariously in the balance. “Buy your tickets and get your butt over here before it’s too late” is the contrapuntal melody accompanying every thump of a gajeuma, every footfall on the uturukat. It’s a tune written by the media-makers and one encouraged by the locals.

“Bulagadta!!??” (what about our money?) is the eternal question hanging over every local-sasareu (outsider) interaction (which gets into thorny issues about appropriate exchange and culture commodified).

The secret of great marketing is telling your customer exactly what they want to hear. Hence the pensive Sikerei (or not necessarily…he may only be the Bajak Uma) on camera in those types of video intimating their fears that budaya Matawe or arat mai is moribund.

Mentawai Sikerei Culture
Winners are Grinners. Source:

And note that budaya is the imported Indonesian word for culture , originally a sanskrit word. Or the Arabic-derived adat (‘culture’ or ‘norms’). This ‘local’ culture is a complicated hybrid of the very recent past, the recent past, the more distant past, the very distant past…and the right now.

Indeed, upriver a little bit, in the Islamic-leaning Matotonan, you’ll get plenty of Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim (“In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most compassionate”). Elsewhere the Lord’s Prayer…attended by those colorful loin-cloth wearing chaps. Don’t uderestimate the success of August Lett and his theological descendants at the Murara Siberut mission. But don’t overestimate them either.

As a conversation on any day of the week might go between some locals immediately after the latest mob of tourists have headed back to home: “Alei…maigi le bulagadta” “Iate! Maigi le panoramata simasingin!!” “Man it’s a good payday” “Yeah dude! And we got a whole mess of the sweetest smelling tobacco to boot“. Life is good—but death is everywhere: you do not want to be a baby born in this area dear reader. (I’ll leave this mostly left-out dimension for another post).

My title “Mentawai Culture is not Disappearing” is sure to get a lot of clicks due to its resonance with this deep seated western fear of the death of indigenous culture wherever it is found.

It’s weird though that the end of this culture couldn’t come too soon for the vast majority of socially conservative citizens throughout Indonesia who live and breathe the — paradoxical — doctrine of pembangunan (development) that was introduced by the New Order and is doing just fine in the Reform Era (Zaman Reformasi).

Mentawai culture is not disappearing and both groups are going to be disappointed on this score.

What do you think? There’s plenty of room for other points of view.

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