By Bunga Pakma
What is Dayak culture? A week ago I was reading the stories of the Native American writer Sherman Alexie and marvelling at the faith and tenacity with which (as we say) “Red” Indians have held on to the essentials of their identity as a people. As I read, I could not help comparing Indians to Dayaks, and wondering what features of way of life and character Dayaks have maintained, practiced and preserved from their distant past.
And, indeed, I wondered what form these traditions now take. Culture stands still as little as anything else in human life. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said “One cannot step into the same river twice.” All things are in flux. Even rivers change their courses, but so slowly in terms of human time we can speak of a river’s identity through many ages. A people’s culture thus resembles a river.
I do not know whether anyone has yet written a “deep” history of Borneo. That project presents difficult challenges. Archaeology and written records tell us that history has been happening in Borneo quite vigorously as far back as we can see, and history means change, often major. In the 18th century headhunting, previously a low-intensity inter-tribal affair, morphed into an industrial venture, and piracy and pillage was all the rage when James Brooke arrived in 1839.
The first big change the outside world—through the Brookes and the Royal Navy—wrought on Sarawak was the stamping-out of freewheeling violence and the establishment of a loose, but unified polity. After that I can only think of two major innovations. The Brookes introduced rubber, which gave smallholders a way to make a good living, and shotguns became available. A hundred and twenty years ago shotguns were so common that no writer bothered to remark on Dayaks’ owning them. Dayaks must have abandoned their spears as soon as they could get guns, and the whole system of hunting changed quickly and fundamentally. Apart from these things, Dayak life seems to have ambled along very much as it always had.
World War Two closed down the tiny civilization of the coast, and brought about a sort of Dayak Renaissance. All the old ways—utai lama-lama magang—were revived out of necessity. Youths schooling in places such as Betong returned to their longhouses and used their education to absorb and record in writing their peoples’ poetry and traditions.
Then the war was over, Sarawak was left wide open to the outside world, and progress (if you want to call it that) abruptly went into high gear. All of you readers have lived through at least part of these times, so I don’t have to dwell on the rapid, radical, astonishing, almost unbelievable changes of the past 60 years.
Two years after I was born Kuching saw its first modern hotel, the Aurora. Malaysia happened and commercial exploitation of Sarawak’s resources started in earnest. Konfrontasi brought guerilla war again to the remotest regions. When I first married and moved to Senyiur, we kampong people got our water from a well and lighted our houses with pressure lamps. Twenty-five years later I surf the internet from my late father-in-law’s house.
The word “culture” is much abused. While most of us are content to accept the way we live without much thought (“It’s a strange fish that knows water,” goes the proverb), people from outside our sphere latch on the most visible differences and define our culture often solely by those.
Tourism is big business, and the quaint and picturesque trappings of former customs are too easily packaged and marketed as the “real thing.” Dayaks gave up wearing loincloths and going topless decades ago, but I imagine many tourists disembarking at KIA are disappointed to see their first Sarawakians garbed in western dress. It’s only Prime Ministers and such who enjoy a beaded, be-sungkited and be-feathered welcoming committee.
True culture is a practical way of life. True culture is weightless, and few have eyes to see it. What in Dayak life today derives directly from the deep past and looks strong enough to continue into the future?
Dayak languages show no signs of disappearing, swallowed up by one or another hegemonic language, rather of growing. Sarawakians have always been used to speaking several languages. The idea that to know one you have to give up your own has never occurred to them. I can’t see the Ibans ever losing their attachment to Iban. Iban is a very direct language. One says what one means, and therefore one is free to speak ironically. Irony is dear to the Iban soul, and Malay, wherein anything and everything is expressed obliquely, is incapable of irony.
By now most Dayaks have accepted Christianity. In some places, though, they have adapted traditional festivals to that faith with great success. I have attended a Gawai Antu (one of my friends was among those memorialized), and this rite was blessed by the Church.
Plenty of crypto-pagans remain. Everyone knows that if you’re sick, you go to the doctor, but now and again I hear the sounds of gongs at night from a healing ceremony from which the sufferer takes comfort.
Dayak families hold themselves together with strong and extended ties. People know precisely how they connect with hundreds of relatives, living and dead. The worst disaster to befall a Dayak family is considered the occasion when a son or daughter converts to Islam. The son or daughter is then cut off from the family forever, as finally as if he or she had died.
These tight family feelings find their visible expression in the longhouse. Dayaks continue to build longhouses and cherish that way of living which blends privacy and community. I need not say how comfortable, well-appointed and elegant many modern longhouses are.
Dayaks as always take great pride and pleasure in growing rice. When rice prices went up 40% two years ago, many retired people re-opened their farms, and beautiful things they were to see.
I could list many other continuities great and small. As for dress, have you noted that in old photographs Dayak men are almost always wearing a labong, or headcloth? In our village today I rarely see a man outdoors without his cap.
The deepest, most important and meaningful legacy of ancient traditional life to modern Dayak life is also the most secret. Every Dayak, man and woman, is a warrior. To be a warrior hardly means to be swaggering macho, violent or rapacious. Yes, taking heads was once a part of the warrior ethos. Not so long ago Iban men killed Japanese soldiers and took their heads. Will anyone condemn them for that?
At the same time, the art of weaving is Kayau Indu’, “the women’s warpath.” And my friend the late scholar Gana Ngadi told me that since he could not kill an enemy as his great-grandfather and grandfather did, he was going to get a Ph.D. I remarked that he intended to take his own head.
To be a warrior is to stand up for yourself, your family and your tribe. To be a warrior is not to avoid confrontation and responsibility. To be a warrior means to act and live with decisiveness, courage and honour. Not everyone lives up to the ideal; no one does not respect the ideal.
The years of colonial rule and the first decades of Malaysia saw wrenching social disruption. Dayak pride suffered gross humiliation under a strident foreign hegemonic programme. Dayaks themselves have come close to being dispossessed of their own land. The generation before mine felt ashamed and confused. They could not go back to tradition, and the future seemed to have no place for them or their ideals.
I see many younger Dayaks now turning with great interest and pride to their peoples’ pasts. Many are working not only to preserve their rich artistic cultures, but extend them. Others more directly practise the warrior spirit by fighting for their peoples’ rights through activism and the law against the depredations of a pirate régime. The oldest, nay the most “primitive” (ha!) element of the Dayak soul is what will save it and make it flourish.