Located sixty miles west off the Sumatran coast, lays the tropical island of Siberut, inhabited by the Mentawai tribe, one of the last most pure indigenous Indonesian societies.
An ancient tribe that for thousands of years has lived deep in the jungles of the equatorial rain forest in a relative isolation from modern society.
Known as the “Flower People” Mentawai have a retained mainly oral tradition of story telling and have been living deep in the heart of the tropical forest for millennia. They harvest sago and gather or hunt their meals every day. They sing and dance and wear hibiscus flowers to preserve the harmony of the world from the spirits that surround them.
Faced with campaigns of evangelization, modernization, and resettlement some of the Mentawai clans made a courageous decision to leave their ancestral villages and move deeper into the jungle in an attempt to preserve their original culture, living in the remote interior of Siberut succeeded in escaping the disruptions and dislocations of the government.
Mentawai live in remote jungles of Siberut, near the equator, which meant that the bright light will come very quickly during the day and will end fast leaving minimal window for shooting. Generally, we would be on location around 5 am for morning shots, and 6-7 pm for evening, shoot throughout the day indoor and outdoor often in the rain playing with children and participating in daily life of a tribe. I have used Mark II 1Ds full frame Cannon body with Cannon lenses (50mm, 100-400mm and 16-35mm), few flashes used both off camera and mounted in ultra-light soft box (Four Square), collapsible reflector dish and few LEDs
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.”
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 (shamanism) was outlawed, and police stripped practicing shamans (sikerei) of their medicine bundles, sacred objects, loincloths, and their long hair
Welcome to the Jungle
The Island of Good Fortune
Pulau Siberut is located just below the equator along Indonesia’s Ring of Fire, or as the early day explorers called it “the island of Good Fortune”. It is an isolated island, about a hundred kilometers in length, entirely covered in a thick tropical, swampy forest.
After an overnight journey on a ferry, gorgeous sunrise welcomed us on the shores of Maura Siberut. After getting necessary provisions in town, we have boarded the canoe and headed off into the heart of Mentawai settlements. In order to reach the first tribal settlements, we have traveled up the Rereiket River on a dugout canoe for two hours and then couple of hours on foot through slippery swamps to get to the heart of the Mentawai jungle
For the Mentawai, the jungle has always been a place where everything, from plants to rocks to animals and man, has a spirit. Belief in animism emphasizes the existence of nature spirits, souls and ghosts. Spirits are believed to live everywhere and in everything – under the earth, in the sky, in the water, in the treetops, in bamboo and in a dugout canoe – and they are spoken too because they speak and act as human beings do. Mentawaians as many indigenous tribes live in perfect harmony with nature by taking only what they need, eating seasonal fruit and meat during ceremonial occasions. At all other times of the year their staple food is sago, which comes from the sago palm as well as various types of greens, and rice.
My Tribe is My Home
According Mentawai legends the entire tribe originally came from one tribe (Uma) from Simatalu area located on the west coast of Siberut Island, which then spread throughout the island, splitting into several clans. Uma means tribe as well as the house. All tribe members live in a communal, big long house ‘Uma’ deep in Siberut jungles. Social structure is egalitarian and each member has grown in Uma the same position, all food, forest products, and jobs are divided equally into Uma members.
Built on sticks, Uma it is divided in three large rooms, three distinct spaces that run its full length. To enter, one must climb onto a trunk into which steps have been cut. To reach the living space Mentawai use wooden steps up to a veranda platform. The terrace encloses all Uma. The door from front area brings one to wide room with gallery to the back on which sides are smaller rooms for sleeping. Front room is considered a holy place reserved for gatherings, rituals, and shamanic ceremonies.
There is no school in the jungle, all knowledge and traditions are passed to children orally. All members of the Uma raise children equally as an integral part of the clan. Children from young age participate in all collective activities like hunting, gathering and cooking and above all playing in the jungle.
Patrilineal groups consist of families who live in narrow places along the great rivers. Uma traditionally has the highest authority in Siberut. During the New Order regime Uma function of social organization to function but less so since the reform era Uma begin again encouraged by the formation of several Village Traditional Council.
At the heart of the Uma hangs the beam displaying hunting trophies in order to showcase skills of the hunters. The skulls of monkeys and other wild animals are hung and arranged as though to look toward the forest outside their original home. In the same hope of appeasing sacrificed souls, the skulls of pigs and other domestic animals are hung across from the wild ones, looking toward the interior of the house, the hearth.
Mentawai believe that every living creature, plant, or object has a vibration that resonates with all the others vibrations of the world. As a result, hunters and fishers thank their preys before taking their lives and implore them not to upset the harmony with the other souls of the universe.
The women get their teeth sharpen because they believe this makes them beautiful. If a Mentawai woman does not get her teeth sharpened, both she and her soul are be considered ugly. Woman gets her ‘soft’ teeth sharpen soon after she hits puberty, or prior getting married. Many people from other clans will come and observe the ceremony, but the most important one is the shaman who does the teeth sharpening and the women’s husband or soon to be husband. The shaman uses a sharpened chisel and hammer. Afterwards women chew on green bananas to ease their pain. Besides full body tattoos and sharpened teeth, fresh flowers adorn their hair, beads their necks and wrists, facial paint accents their rigid faces and their strong bodies are scented with fragrant ground turmeric
The Mentawai believe that a person is nothing without a soul. Mentawai keep their souls “close” by beautifying the body. Individuals, be they male or female, who neglect their bodies by not keeping them, beautiful the soul may decide to leave its human host and roam about the body free. The soul is pleased by beautiful and complete body tattoos, as 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.
Tree of Life
The sago is a central element in the Mentawai culture. It is a motif for tattoos and a nutritional staple. It is a nourishing tree that is vital to the survival of tribes in the jungle. Mentawai tattoos are said to represent the 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, as well as all domestic animals.
Natural connection between tribe and their environment, as well as ability to connect with me. At one time, we were stranded in the Uma for few days due to heavy rains as the swollen rivers prevented further trekking, everyone was being bored with inactivity – children included. After bit of persuasion and bribery with sweets we shooting children playing in rain on the river, yet, the essence wasn’t coming through, scene felt posed and artificial, until the moment I got into the water with them. One could feel the mood have changed rapidly and children were truly engaged with activity and us.
Chosen by the Spirits
Shamanism for the tribe is a quest for harmonious relationships between human beings and nature. It is a profound wisdom born out of the constraints of survival and brings with it an effective natural medicine practiced by the shaman (sikerei) “ the one with magic powers.”
Sikerei, is not just a doctor, he is the leader, priest, herbalist, physician, psychologist, dancer, and family man. Whether alone or with the help with spirits, he is able to heal, operate and soothe disease. He has the knowledge of the jungle, animals, plants, and minerals
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. 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. However, if the balance is broken and curse has been cast, 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, because only he can communicate with the spirits.
The main subsistence of the Mentawai is farming, main cultivation consisting of yam, taro, rice, banana, papaya, sugar cane, vegetable, and medicaments. Clearing the land is the assignment of men, while for the treatment of growing is taken over by women. The exclusive work dome by men is hunting of pigs, deer, birds, monkey and others using bows.
I hope that one day we will all live peacefully with each other and nature, in full acceptance of our respective cultures, embracing the beauty of our diversity. I hope that my documentaries will inspire others to live and travel with depth and respect for other cultures and environment.
During the hunt Mentawai, relay on poisoned arrows. Poison is brushed onto arrowheads and can kill a wild boar in a short time. Sikerei is responsible for its production; with a small brush, he meticulously applies the poisonous liquid to the arrowheads. Even after being passed through fire, the dried poison remains active and dangerous, paralyzing pray upon penetration of the skin.
I have used different locations and light to capture harmony Mentawai have with nature, their sense of belonging, the importance of being one with the universe, importance of their beliefs and how they shape their lifestyle.
Mentawai series has been completed, the theme, however, is an ongoing project, my next trip back will involve documentary of few more indigenous tribes living on Indonesian archipelago.
About Aga Szydlik
I am a cultural photographer and a doctoral candidate, currently living and exhibiting in Johannesburg, South Africa. Over the years, my travels took me across many continents and diverse cultures, which allowed me to fully experience, understand, and appreciate diverse beauty of our planet. Focus of my photography is to capture and document tribal heritage, everyday humanity, personal stories which inspire me to live and travel with more depth and purpose. My assignments involve both freelance work and collaborations with various NGOs. I use my education and expertise to raise health awareness, support conservation efforts, and empower most vulnerable and much less privileged members of our societies. [Official Website]
My travels involve remote areas off the beaten path. Focus of my photography is to documenting tribal heritage, everyday humanity of lesser-known cultures that are often on the brink of extinction. I was living in Indonesia at the time, and researching tribes for a cultural documentary, when a fellow photographer asked if I would like to collaborate on documentary of a Mentawai tribe. I was familiar with the location, the tribe, local culture and language, and in process of planning new trip adventuring into the Indonesian jungles, so we decided to embark on a joint international expedition.