Siberut Island is an isolated jungle paradise lying some sixty miles west of Padang, Indonesia. Although Siberut is part of the Mentawai Archipelago, famous the world over as the “Last Frontier of Surfing,” it is extremely difficult to reach – especially if you want to visit the heavily tattooed Mentawai people who call the interior of this island home.
To get here, you must first endure a bumpy, stomach-churning ferry ride lasting some ten hours. The seas get so rough during the overnight passage, that by morning the ferry smells and looks like a Roman vomitorium after an all night dinner party! Then, just as you think you’ve survived the hardest part of the journey, a six-hour dugout canoe journey awaits you after reaching the Muslim and Christian port town of Muara Siberut. If it’s raining, which it does almost every day on Siberut, the dugout voyage can be misery. And if it’s sunny, you’ll bake like a Mentawai sago stick that has just come out of the oven! But if you want to witness some of the most amazing tattooing in the world and hang with some of its most incredible people, then this trip is definitely worth it. You’ll never forget it!
SAREREKET: “THE PEOPLE OF THIS PLACE”
The Mentawai are an ancient tribe that for thousands of years has lived on Siberut Island. Although 19th century Christian and Muslim missionaries converted most of the Mentawai living on the neighboring southern islands of Sipora and the Pagai’s (which are relatively flat), the traditional culture of the Mentawai living on rugged (and somewhat mountainous) Siberut has remained relatively intact; albeit just barely.
With Indonesian independence in 1950, an aggressive government campaign was launched to modernize the Mentawaians of Siberut. Traditional cultural practices such as tattooing, tooth filing, and the wearing of loincloths were forbidden because they were considered “pagan” and “savage.” Moreover, every individual was forced to join either the Christian or Muslim faith.
In the 1990s, cultural oppression against the Mentawai took on more brutal forms of forced relocation from jungle villages to resettlement sites in government-created villages. Mentawai religion (e.g., shamanism) was for all purposes outlawed, and police stripped practicing shamans (sikerei) of their medicine bundles, sacred objects, loincloths, and their long hair. Sadly, Mentawai shamans, the keepers of the rain forest and their peoples, were denied their basic human rights; even when these abuses occurred under the noses of international organizations like UNESCO, the World Wildlife Fund, and Friends of the Earth, who were more concerned about saving Siberut’s primates than their indigenous peoples!
Thankfully, several Mentawai clans living in the remote interior of Siberut succeeded in escaping the disruptions and dislocations of the government. One such group, the Sarereket or “the people of this place,” made a courageous decision to leave their ancestral village of Ugai – a place where mosques, Catholic missions, and Western clothing were becoming a thing of the present – and move deeper into the jungle in an attempt to retain their original culture.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
For the Mentawai, the jungle has always been a place where everything, from plants to rocks to animals and man, has a spirit (kina). Spirits are believed to live everywhere and in everything – under the earth, in the sky, in the water, in the treetops, in bamboo, in a dugout canoe – and they are spoken too because they speak and act as human beings do. Some spirits offer protection and help to humankind. But others are evil and hand out punishment in the form of sickness and disease.
In the malaria infested jungles of Siberut, there is no doubt that human existence is constantly threatened by disease. For this reason, the population density has always been low. The Mentawaians attempt to explain the onslaught of illness as not living in harmony with oneself and the environment. To maintain this harmony, religious and everyday codes of conduct must be followed at all times because acting recklessly or breaking taboo will anger the spirits of disease that live in the jungle.
For these reasons alone, the Mentawai have developed an elaborate system of taboos that govern everything they do. For example, they live in harmony with nature by taking only what they need; they only eat fruit when it is season, and they only eat meat during ceremonial occasions. At all other times of the year, they eat their staple food sago which comes from the sago palm, various types of greens, and rice.
But taboos extend far beyond breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the traditional longhouse or uma of the Mentawai people, sex is taboo. If you want to “get busy,” you and your companion must head out to the jungle and use one of the “love shacks” that dot the landscape. Before a hunt, men cannot wash their hair or else they will shoot their arrows poorly or they will become sick. When making arrow poison, men are forbidden to sleep or bathe that night. If they do, the monkeys they hunt will die high in the trees, or the poison will become diluted and ineffective. During the hunt itself, hunters cannot strike their dogs; because if they do, it is believed that they will not catch any game.
SIKEREI: KEEPER OF THE RAIN FOREST
As noted, the religious beliefs of the Mentawai are centered on the importance of coexisting with the invisible spirits that inhabit the world and all the animate and inanimate objects in it. Health is seen as a state of balance or harmony, and for the Mentawaians it is something holy and beautiful. But if the balance is broken, the only way to restore it is by placating the spirits that have been offended or accidentally distressed.
With the help of medicinal plants, these malevolent spirits can be “cooled down” by magical means, and then they are appeased with sacrifices. The intermediary in these contacts is always the Mentawai shaman, or sikerei, because only he can communicate with the spirits.
Aman Lao Lao is a Mentawai sikerei, literally “one who has magic power.” But he is not just a doctor. He is a leader, priest, herbalist, physician, psychologist, dancer, family and community man. Although Mentawaian society is egalitarian, shamans are considered to be the leaders of their people. They are the tribe’s connection to the spiritual world, but also to the outside world. Sometimes they travel to distant cities to meet with government officials to fight for their human and environmental rights.
Because the Mentawaian belief system is animistic and has many taboos limiting it, it is the responsibility of shamans like Aman Lau Lau to maintain his people’s balance with the natural and spirit worlds. For Aman Lau Lau and the other Mentawai shamans of Butui village, nature is both religion and survival, and they must know the forest inside and out to successfully maintain the balance between these complex worlds.
Sickness may be treated with medicinal plants, but it is the intervention of the shaman on the spiritual plane that ultimately determines a patient’s fate. And for this reason, the sikerei must fly away on the wings of trance to work his deeds of magic rescue.
As in other indigenous cultures, the Mentawai believe that all disease is nothing but the loss of the soul (ketsat), and if it abandons the body sickness or death will be the result. Soul-loss is usually attributed to the spirits of disease or of ancestral ghosts (sanitu), and numerous ceremonies are carried out to appease them if taboos have been broken.
One of the most important shamanic ceremonies held to mend broken taboos is the pasaksak. Once it begins, all work is taboo except for the necessary cooking and rituals. Though the Mentawaians have many pasaksak – for the cutting of trees, the building of canoes and longhouses, weddings, funerals, hunting expeditions, initiations, visiting strangers, healing rituals, and tattooing – all of them are conducted to make amends to the spirits of the jungle and of the ancestors for the breaking of any number of taboos.
However, another way the Mentawaians keep their souls “close” is by beautifying the body. Individuals, be they male or female, who neglect their bodies by not keeping them beautiful with beads, flowers, sharpened teeth, and especially tattoos will cease to be attractive to their souls. In such cases, the soul may decide to leave its human host and roam about the body free. But if the soul does not return to its home, it may decide to withdraw to the ancestral world at which point that person must die.
Shamans like Aman Lau Lau, Aman Toshi, and Aman Berita are experts at beautifying themselves. And almost every day flowers adorn their hair, beads their necks and wrists, facial paint accents their rigid faces or their strong bodies are smeared with fragrant ground turmeric.
THE “GRANDATHER” OF MENTAWAI TATTOOING
Continual care for one’s soul is one of the guiding principles in the life of the Mentawai people. And permanent decoration of the body through tattooing keeps it near at hand. So does good food, music, and dance because each are a religious means of benefiting the members of the community and longhouse (uma) by pleasing their souls, as well as their “Grandfather.”
Traditionally, tattooing was performed after a religious ceremony called punen lepa. This was held to wipe out the evil influence of blood spilled in the village or longhouse (uma). A special porch was constructed in front of the uma, so that no blood would fall to the ground. If it did, Pagete Sabbau or Teteu (“Grandfather”) would be summoned, and an earthquake soon followed.
According to myth, Pagete Sabbau was the first Mentawai shaman and taught his people everything they know today – including tattooing. But the people became jealous of him because of his magic and determined to kill him. When they built their first uma they sent Teteu down to dig under the center post. Then they let the post down on his head, imprisoning him in the ground. In revenge, Teteu knocked the uma down with an earthquake.
To make amends for this disaster, the Mentawai people began to offer human sacrifices to their Grandfather. Traditionally, these were made under the center pole of a new uma upon its construction. Although these types of sacrifices are no longer practiced, today it is taboo to let blood drop to the ground for fear of earthquakes. So when chickens or pigs are sacrificed, their necks are wrung or their bodies are speared so that they bleed to death internally.
Pagete Sabbau is so revered today, that it is taboo to mention his name unless in the most serious of conversations. Aman Lau Lau is very hesitant to speak about him, because his power is so great. And the only time Teteu is summoned these days is when a new uma is built; because Teteu is pleased by the beautiful dancing that takes place in his honor.
TITI: SPIRIT TATTOOS OF THE MENTAWAI SHAMAN
Because the soul is pleased by beautiful and complete body tattoos, the Mentawai believe that it allows them to bring their material wealth into the afterlife. The Mentawai also say that their tattoos (titi) allow their ancestors to recognize them after death. More importantly, however, many forms of tattooing are specifically believed to protect their owners from evil spirits lurking in the jungle.
Tattoos are applied by a designated tattoo artist called asipaniti or “man who makes the needle” at specific stages in life. Traditionally, when a girl or boy reached the age of seven, they received their back tattoos; now this practice begins in the mid-teens, if at all. Then, after waiting one or two years, their upper arms and the backs of their hands were marked. Next, the tattooing of the upper thighs and legs was executed (note: traditionally these marks were made just before marriage), and followed by the intricate tattoos of the chest and neck. The final stage of tattooing, which usually commenced after the individual reached forty years of age, was completed when the calves, shins, and the forearms were tattooed.
Of course, different Mentawai clans observed their own customs when it came to the different stages of tattooing. Bai Lau Lau, Aman Lau Lau’s wife, who is from a different region of Siberut told me that her hands were tattooed first (all in one day); then she waited one year and her chest and back were tattooed (all in one day)!
Traditionally, Mentawai tattoo artists sometimes used a sharpened piece of bark taken from the karai tree as their skin-plying tool. Others used a lemon thorn set into a small bamboo stick which was hand-tapped into the skin with a wooden mallet. Among the indigenous Atayal and Paiwan of Taiwan, and the Kalinga of the Philippines, thorns of the mountain orange tree were used in this capacity. However, the coastal peoples of Papua New Guinea, who are essentially Polynesian, also used the lemon thorn as a tattooing tool.
Anyone in the Mentawai community could become a tattoo artist, but only those people with sufficient skills and talent actually found work. Aman Bereta, who tattooed me and several of the Mentawai men living in Butui with and old brass nail, learned the art from his father who was a renowned artist. Unfortunately, there are not many practicing tattoo artists working on Siberut today, and the reason why Aman Bereta is not fully tattooed is because there is no one in his community that can properly tattoo him.
Moreover, tattoo artists like Aman Bereta cannot find apprentices who have the talent or patience to learn the traditional techniques. Of course, some Mentawai people who wish to get tattooed cannot afford these expensive markings either. For example, the cost of a full suit of tattoos, which takes a lifetime to receive, is high by Mentawaian standards: 1 medium size pig; 1 durian tree; 4 sago palm trees; 1 coconut palm tree; and 1 chicken basket with several chicks! But if you want to become a “real” Mentawai man, woman, or shaman, tattooing is the necessary vehicle; because it is the apex of everything that comprises Mentawaian identity.
Tattoo can distinguish people regionally, and I was amazed that the Mentawai with whom I lived with could tell me which community a man or woman was from by the style of their tattooing. In the past great headhunters were easily distinguished by their markings including tattoos of frogs on their torsos or shoulders. And today in some regions of Siberut, the intricate body tattoos of the Mentawai are said to represent the “Tree of Life” or sago palm: the stripes on the upper thighs represent the veins and trunk of the sago; long dotted lines running down the arms symbolize the prickly fronds of its branches; patterns on the hands and ankles may mirror the bark or roots; and the curved lines on the chest represent the sago flower. Some Mentawai elders say that this “Tree of Life” must be tattooed on every shaman, because there can be no death when one is part of a tree of life. Of course, the sago palm is the staple food of the Mentawai people, and all of their domestic animals eat it too.
But the Mentawai of Butui told me that their tattoos do not necessarily depict the “Tree of Life” for them. For example, the barbed tattoos running down their arms represent the thorny fronds of the rattan palm. Small marks tattooed on the inner thighs and tops of the feet of men (that resemble chicken’s feet) are dog’s paws; a kind of sympathetic magic that enables the men to run as fast as their hunting companions. The intricate tattoos that appear on the chest (dudukat) and wrists are tattooed beads (ngalou: note that this word also means “talisman”) which “tie-in” the soul and keep it close to the body. The hook-like tattoos on the backs of the hands have a similar function, but Aman Lao Lao also told me that they help you catch fish and game animals more easily by making your fingers and hands more dextrous. The rosettes tattooed on the shoulders of men (sepippurat) and the bold starburst patterns (gaylan) inked on the shoulders and backs of women symbolize that evil should bounce off their bodies like raindrops from a flower. Of course, no evil will find someone marked in this way, because it is the protective shield of the Mentawai.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE?
Off in the forest, the drone of an illegal logger’s chainsaw is a constant companion. What remains of Siberut’s once vast rain forest is not known, and as deforestation continues to plague the region it not only threatens the natural diversity of the island, but the shamanic religion and tattooing practices of the Mentawai people.
Aman Lao Lao says, “Mentawaian culture, including tattooing practices, depends on the rain forest for its existence and meaning, and the degradation of the forest will destroy it and my people if we cannot stop it.” Aman Ipai, another respected elder said, “I am very worried about losing the forest and our tattooing traditions. Because this leads to the loss of everything else in our culture – from uma building to sago agriculture.”
But as second class citizens on their own island, the shamans of Butui rarely have the opportunity to voice these and other concerns to the outside world. Regardless, they are their people’s mouthpiece, and their voices will not be silenced or ignored, because they will continue to fight to keep what is rightfully theirs. After all, shamanism and tattooing practices have been the basis of Mentawaian culture for millennia, and the Mentawai shaman is the “keeper of the rainforest” and everything associated with it.
Henley, Thom (2001). Living Legend of the Mentawai. Victoria, Canada: Baan Thom Publishing.
Lindsay, Charles (1992). Mentawai Shaman: Keeper of the Rainforest. New York: Aperture.
Loeb, Edwin M. (1929). “Mentawei Religious Cult.” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 25, no. 2.