August 7, 2015
The Sa’ban are a small tribe inhabiting the Punang Kelapang region in the remote Kelabit Highlands of northeast Sarawak and neighboring Kalimantan. Long Banga is the main Sa’ban village in the Sarawak highlands and I visited it in 2011.
The Sa’ban originally lived in the upper reaches of the Bahau River in east Kalimantan. Migration to Sarawak began around 1900 and continued until the late 1960s.
Despite sharing many cultural similarities with the neighboring Kelabit, the Sa’ban are a distinct people whose tattooing traditions are similar but quite distinct from the Kelabit. Historically their warriors were renowned for their bravery and steadfastness in battle.
Sab’an tattooists were female but the practice stopped around 1960 with the influx of missionaries. A woman’s extensive tattooing occurred in stages: legs first (4 days) followed by arms (4 days). A woman received her tattoos around the time of marriage and before she bore her first child. The designs were stenciled on the skin before they were hand-tapped and payment usually consisted of heirloom beads. I was told that there were no accompanying rituals and that warrior tattooing was extinct.
I met two fully tattooed Sa’ban women and pictured here is Bulan Wa of Long Banga.