Being Sarawakian: We No Longer Behead

Here is one of the common conversations I had with the people who met me for the first time when I was in Peninsula.

“So where are you from?”

“I’m from Kuching.”

“That’s in KK?”

“No, that’s in Sarawak. KK is in Sabah.”

“Aah.. So, you’re from the headhunter’s tribe? Do they still hunt heads there?”

“Uhh.. No, we don’t do that anymore.”

I do not know much about my own tribe except the basic knowledge the whole world would have. Let alone, about other tribes and their history. But it is offensive when a conversation like this takes place in the 21st century.

However, I don’t blame people for immediately associating the word “headhunting” with Sarawakians. They are not entirely wrong. After all, Sarawak is the land of headhunters.

The practice of collecting heads was widespread among the Dayaks – the indigenous, non-Malay inhabitants of Borneo. And the Iban tribes are reputed to be the most formidable headhunters on the island.

I am a Bidayuh; a tribe known as “Land Dayak”, a name that was first used during the period of the White Rajah of Sarawak. We are the second largest Dayak ethnic group in Sarawak after the Iban (Sea Dayak).

My parents are from two different geographical areas. While my dad is from the Penrissen district, my mum is from Bau. And they both speaks two different but related dialects. My dad, Bisitang and mum, Bijagoi. One is much softer than the other. But the Bidayuhs are generally very softspoken people.

However, they are also known for their warrior audacity. The men are proud and strong. In a war, a Bidayuh man’s prowess and status are determined by the heads he collected – the more heads, the higher his rank.

And what happened to the heads, you asked?

Well, the brains were carefully extracted through the nostrils. And then the heads were skinned, placed in rattan nets and smoked over fires. I still can’t get this image out of my head. The skulls then, were stored in their baruk, a roundhouse that rises about 1.5 metres off the ground.

Curious about the history of headhunting, I had a conversation with my dad about it. He could not give me the kind of explanation I wanted on the subject, though. But according to him, back in the days, the men would go out for a headhunting expedition once in four (4) months. The first to bring home a head is considered a hero. Sounds to me like headhunting is a form of sport. And sort of… Evil?

But our ancestors were animists, and the skulls were said to possess powerful forms of magic. Since the ideas of manhood were also bound up with the practice, the skulls were considered trophies of manhood and bravery.

Dad also spoke about tribal wars. Our ancestors’ headhunting skills played no small part to their aggressive culture of war against other tribes. When there is the need of territorial expansion due to overpopulation, there is the need to intrude on lands belonging to other tribes. Thus, there is the need for brutal confrontation as it was the only means of survival. And during that time, while the Bidayuh men were killed, the Bidayuh women were taken and raped (a common scenario in any wars).

But our headhunting days has long gone. It was outlawed in the 19th century through the efforts of the colonial Dutch. Conversion to Christianity or Islam had also suppressed the practice. And our humility and peace-loving reputation had opposed our headhunting past.

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