Text & Photos David Metcalf
As the early explorer and naturalist, William Hornaday wrote, “The Dayak tribes of Borneo are especially interesting. In some respects they are the most remarkable people living, and their condition is well-worth study. He has no written language, makes no pottery, builds no monuments, carves little but only in wood, works but little in iron, yet builds fine war boats. His bearing is independent, dignified, respectful and frank, and he is honest at all times.”
In the oppressing equatorial heat of Malinau, Kalimantan (Borneo) 50 Dayak warriors ran into the middle of the field. With mandaus (knives) clenched in hand, they swung out wildly at the invisible enemy, as they charged forward, dressed in traditional fibrous bark clothing, chanting the ancient cries of their ancestors.
This very dramatic, colourful, tribal scene can be experienced every two years in the town of Malinau, in the newly created province of North Kalimantan, and home to 50,000 inhabitants. The majority of Malinau residents are native Dayaks and the Irau (party) Festival is a 12-day event. This year it was held on October 15th to 27th and featured a collaboration of nine different Dayak tribes and cultural groups from Flores, Java and South Sulawesi. What a feast for the eyes as these native tribes danced, sang, played music, engaged in a variety of sporting games and came together in a spirit of unity.
The objective behind the Irau Festival is to promote Dayak culture and keep Dayak dance, song and traditions alive among the younger generations. Respect for each other’s specific Dayak clan history is the central theme of the festival and also allows for an exchange of each other’s religious beliefs and practices.
I was impressed with the superb organisation and professionalism of this fascinating event and the tremendous amount of work and co-ordination that went into making it a huge success.
The sporting events included a running marathon, football, climbing, rowboat racing and the unusual so-called sport of bird chirping. There were logo and food contests, a kite competition and mixed choir groups involving men, women and children competing in song and performance. At night the highlight was a fashion show and the appearance of a sexy dangdut dancer from Jakarta, who thrilled the men each time she wiggled her butt!
On display in the large exhibition area is a variety of cultural art, including intricate, hand-made beautiful tribal artefacts. Many stalls sell elaborate beaded Dayak products and colourful jewellery and clothing. The event is also an opportunity for organisations, such as the World Wildlife Fund and the KayanMenterang National Park to display their materials and educate people about conservation of the forests and local environmental challenges.
The festival involved over 1,000 participants and many of the people came from very isolated areas, including some DayakKenyah people who had travelled for four days by boat.
The Tidung tribe originally inhabited the Malinau area and the history dates back to the 17th-century kingdom called Berayu. Keen to track down a little bit of the history, I was led to Pak Ayu from the fascinating DayakPunan tribe who promptly told me to call him Thomas.
Thomas is the chief of 20 Punan villages from around the Malinau area. He explained, “I grew up in the forest in a place called Long Tarau, basically in the middle of nowhere. We lived a very peaceful happy life in the forest until we were forced to move to this area along with many other Punan communities during Suharto’s time in the ‘70s.”
Thomas went on to explain this was very difficult for the Punan because they are forest dwellers and do not belong in towns. Many returned to the forest and now live a very traditional existence, although I fear for their future, as mining and forestry companies are moving into some of the areas where these people live and the environment is under threat. “Without the land we have nothing,” Thomas said, “and our culture will disappear.”
“That’s why the Irau Festival is so important, so we can come together to discuss our future and work together with all the other Dayak communities for the benefit of everyone.”
At the opening ceremony, a poem was read in honour of the kings, warriors, and fighters from the past. Thomas explained all the dances performed have a deep meaning and the words and songs are passed on down from their ancestors. I got a little lost in the sea of explanation of every single dance, however I did confirm the Tingalan dance symbolises peace and unity.
The Dayak tribes represented at the 2014 festival included the Kenyah, Tagol, Lundayeh, Bahau, Bulungan, Tingalan and the Punan, said to be the first inhabitants of Borneo. Not only is this festival a gathering of the Dayak people, but it also includes a representation of the many different ethnic groups that live in Malinau. People from Flores, Java, East Nusa Tenggara and South Sulawesi moved here under the transmigration programme and these cultures were very proud to showcase their music and dance. For example, a group from NTT (East Nusa Tenggara) performed a rite of passage dance involving young children telling a story of the concept of being independent and overcoming life’s challenges.
In this part of Kalimantan the Dayak people have tremendous respect for their leaders. The Bupati (head or chief) of Malineau, Pak Yansan, is treated almost like a God, with every tribal chief presenting special artefacts and clothing from their homeland and in the exchange of each gift giving much reverence and respect was evident.
If the sight of hundreds of Dayak warriors, graceful dancers gliding in perfect harmony with spirit and grace, young children dressed in magnificent hand-woven colourful garments and the sounds of traditional ancient music appeals to you, make your way to Malinau in two years time, for an authentic festival experience that you will simply never forget.
David Metcalf runs specialist photography and cultural tours in Kalimantan, Bali, Java, Sri Lanka, India, Bhutan, Mongoliaand USA.
David also supports education and health programs in Kalimantan. For more information on these and ways to support please contact him on Davidmetcalf3@mac.com
David’s photographs appear in his new book ‘Looking for Borneo’ with with all profits going to support Dayak Cultural and education programs. Please visit this link below for further information:
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Text & Photos David Metcal