Anak Mentawai//Dispatch from the Island


©Danishwara Nathaniel

Arriving at the uma (traditional Mentawai communal longhouse) after few hours of hiking from a nearby village, we entered the house for the first time. Blocks of wooden floor placed next to each other make noise each time we step foot. We sit down and take a rest.

As the sun is about to set, our host in the uma suggest we take shower. They said there’s a river right behind the house. Aman Lepon, the head of the family, took us down the river and show where we can dip ourselves. “You can use the water here, very clean; but if you want to dive in, I’ll show you a deeper side more towards the back”, he explained. “Sure” I replied. All this time, the kids have been following our little trip down the river for shower. Some are Aman Lepon’s sons some are not. But they are all relatives.

“That is where you can swim and dive in”, Aman Lepon pointed a curve in the river next to his house, where it goes down two metres deep. He then leave us alone and wait back in the uma.

Charles and I observe where we can best enter the river for a dip. Before we know it, the kids, stripped naked of their clothing, run together at the same time and dive in. They stay afloat, screaming to each other in the local dialect, laughing out loud. We cannot help but watch from the side. What a spectacle.

They repeatedly go back to the shore and start running towards the river to dive in. Some jump head first, others backflip each in their own style. They are the strongest kids. Free from any parental watch, no one is telling them do’s and dont’s. The river is their friend.

The Idea of (Sustainable) Development

What is Development?

Its a very loaded word. So much at stake in what it tries to encapsulate. To develop a region or place of a certain community, they must be first classified as ‘underdevelop’. This is where the problem lies. Development projects, loaded with foreign or imported concepts and worldviews unfamiliar of the local context, often contribute to more deterioration. In “Anthropological Critique of Development” (2002), development is described as “a synonym for more or less planned social and economic change.” But there appears to be many contradictions when exploring the relationship between scientific knowledge and local knowledge that take place in the region of development projects.

Take a look at this video to see what we mean more clearly:

Alive and Well in Siberut

Just got back from Siberut Island. Two and a half weeks and we can tell you we have so much data and information already. We will have to reorganize and transcribe information. All in all, it was eye-opening, risk-taking, and fulfilling. We were very lucky to be able to gain access to the Sikereis (Mentawai Shamans) and follow their daily activities. We got lucky as in the middle of our stay they were invited to perform a healing ceremony in another clan for one of their sick comrades. The healing process took around four days. This was really when we experience how they use their habitat-the forest- as part of their lifestyle. They communicate with their ancestor’s spirits through leaves, using the many different types of herbal medicine found in the forest to conduct the healing ceremony. On the last night, dances were performed in different sets until sunrise without sleeping, before each of them return back home.

1st encounters





We are in the process of getting an informant! In an anthropological research, an informant is usually someone from the culture the anthropologist is studying but is able to communicate the knowledge and the culture in an understandable manner. In this case, the Mentawai people speak their own dialect. Although some people who live in the exterior of the island know a bit of Bahasa Indonesia, many in the interior of Siberut Island still speak their own ethnic language.

We said to ourselves that we will not enter the tribes until we can go with an informant. Not only because of language barrier, but also we want to be careful of misinterpretation of data. During interviews the interactions between informant, the subject of study (Mentawai tribe), and the researcher will be essential in getting raw data.

As far as our research is concerned, we have been able to meet Mentawaians in Padang (the coastal city in Sumatra close to Siberut Island) who are very passionate in explaining what their culture is about and why they want to preserve it. They are not from the younger generation, but rather older people who have substantial experience in advocating and promoting Mentawai culture in the national politics or regional districts. They speak fluent Indonesian (sometimes even better than I can express myself in Indonesian). They are very politically active.

Through our long conversations on the day we visited them in a Padang-based NGO that supports Mentawai indigenous community, we were able to pitch what our research is about and that we are in need of an informant. An active member from the NGO and district leader of a village in Siberut Island is interested in helping us out. He offered us a place to stay and a possibility to later go further inside the interior of the island.

Finally, we are entering Siberut Island for the very first time tomorrow (Sat 25 March 2017) with an informant willing to help us out. We plan to stay for there for 3-4 weeks before seeing where we can go next.

Will update again soon. Ciao.

Dan & Charles

Practicing ethnographic fieldwork

Who are we studying? and What do we want to find from them?


This is where the Mentawai Islands are located. Our research will focus on the biggest islands, Siberut, where most of the Mentawai culture still is being practiced.

Mentawai. The name is very popular in the surf world. It is number two after Hawaii for its world class wave for surfing. Also in the tattoo world, Mentawai is known for its unique style and tapping technique.

But not much is known about the inhabitants of the islands and their culture. The native of Mentawai island in West Sumatra live a semi-nomadic life and are hunter gatherers. The population are estimated to be about 70,000. However many have moved to bigger cities in Sumatra and through out Indonesia.

An ancient culture of more than two thousand years old and is now on the brink of cultural extinction.

Years of national modernization programs, exploitation of their forest and now the threat of commercialization are further marginalizing the indigenous community.

In fact, the Mentawaian tradition holds an ancient knowledge of living close to nature and taking just enough resources from it to sustain their lives.

In this study we will look at the case of the Mentawai island of Siberut in understanding ethnicity and politics of development and in how the global affects the local as well how the local influence the global. How does the traditional societies of Mentawai take part in the process of development in a way that fits with their personal and cultural aspiration?  

What if we relocate nature at the center of our societal values? This is the central theme we will work on. The so-called ‘local wisdom’ of Mentawai tradition can be learned and applied to conventional concepts of development, which in the end redefine what it means to ‘develop’.

For more information about Mentawai culture please refer to these links: