Dancing with the rivers Long Saan
This story actually began about 3,000 years ago, when a band of Dayaks settled in a place they called Long Sa’an, high above the mighty Bahau River, deep in the heart of what is now called North Kalimantan.
I got an insight into what life was like for the people that lived in this place when I recently viewed a black-and-white film that was shot by a European film crew in the 1950s. Wearing nothing but loincloths, the Dayaks were seen in this film hunting with traditional blowpipes and poisoned darts produced from forest plants. From their traditional longhouses, skulls hung from recent head hunting expeditions, while children played in the wild rapids of the river and topless women tended to cooking duties and gathered firewood. Also in this footage was a recording of a traditional funeral ceremony where dead bodies were set in wooden coffins and placed high above the forest floor in carefully selected caves.
What was apparent from this film was that this group of highly capable forest dwellers were living a sustainable lifestyle, with the forest providing all they needed. Their daily tribal activities were self-sufficient and they appeared to be living in perfect harmony with their surrounds.
It was in a village called Setulang about 100 kms to the North of Long Sa’an, where I met one of the Long Sa’an village elders named Philius. He is from one of the many sub-tribes, the Unyang, within the Kenyah Dayak culture. He speaks a dialect of his own Dayak sub-group. Philius explained to me that all his people, the Unyang, originally from Long Sa’an, lived among the ancient forests and rivers until 1969, when they decided to move to Setulang, to be nearer to medical facilities and schools.
“I left Long Sa’an when I was 15 years old,” Philius said, “It was a very difficult decision for the elders of my village to leave Long Sa’an. We were very happy and contented living in the forests, as there was plenty of food. We had fish from the rivers, wild game from the hills, forest fruits and vegetables, and life was good. However, some people from my village would leave the forests and journey to other places. They returned with tales about another way of life and the benefits of education and medical care,” Philius continued, “In Long Sa’an we were two days by river from the nearest hospital. Our village was in a very isolated area. Sometimes the river was so high it made the journey quite dangerous and when we had serious health problems, our people would die.”
It took the Unyang people until 1975 before they were all relocated to their new location, Setulang village, which is about a four-week trekking journey north of Long Sa’an.
Life in Setulang has changed their way of life considerably. They now have power 24 hours a day and with that, comes television. Setulang has an elementary and junior high school and all the children in the village now get an education. Many go on to higher education and attend high school in Malinau, one hour from Setulang.
The older generation, like Philius, are concerned that the culture is dying, as the young people are following a pattern and wish to move to the bigger cities in Kalimantan and therefore lose touch with the land.
“We are concerned about the future and many of us in the village dream about our childhood days in Long Sa’an. As a child growing up it was really like paradise. I fished and hunted with my father. I used to love sneaking down to the river to play with my friends, although when my mother found out she would be very mad with me, as it was easy to be swept away by the turbulent waters.
But we were very closely connected with the land. It was very sacred to us and carried the spirits of our ancestors. I am worried that one day a company will come along and try and cut down the trees and pollute the rivers as they have done in other parts of Kalimantan.”
Just two weeks ago I was able to give Philus and five other Dayaks from Setulang an opportunity to return to Long Sa’an and relive those wonderful days. I took a group of 15 men, including a Native American from South Dakota, Kevin Locke, an Indonesian film crew, and we recorded the journey.
Before 1969, around 1,600 people lived in Long Sa’an in three traditional longhouses and practised sustainable living, leaving a very small footprint on the land. In fact, when we walked through the area of Long Sa’an, there is virtually no sign that a village community inhabited this beautiful place for 60 generations. It is a true testament to the guardians of the forests. The Dayaks, like so many indigenous cultures, existed side by side with their environment, with an attitude of mutual respect and reverence to their land.
Joining Philius on this journey back, returning to his native homeland, visiting his ancestral burial grounds deep in the forest and hearing his tales of his people and the traditional ways of the forest is something I shall never forget. Seeing the joy and excitement in this man’s face as he reconnected with his tribal roots in Long Sa’an brought the journey back for all 15 of us and gave us the chance to re-connect and find common ground.
ABOUT DAVID METCALF
David is in the process of producing a documentary film about the Journey Back to Long Sa’an expected to be realised late this year in Indonesia and abroad. David is looking for sponsors for the film and ongoing Dayak cultural activities; he can be contacted directly firstname.lastname@example.org.
He is realising a new coffee table book this month titled Looking for Borneo in collaboration with author Mark Heyward featuring colourful drawings by Khan. It will be available in bookstores in Indonesia with all proceeds going to support Dayak Dance and Education programs.
Find us in Facebook http://www.facebook.com/LookingForBorneo
Trailer to Documentary http://www.youtube.com/user/LongSaanMovie
Facebook – Long Saan the Journey Back
Website of the movie http://www.thejourneyback.info