The Cultural Charms of Mentawai

Story By
Mancil Harsoyo

Even as one of the oldest tribes in Indonesia, the Mentawai tribe that live in the Mentawai Islands still maintain their customs and beliefs, presenting a strong and memorable cultural experience for visitors.

Photos by Mancil Harsoyo

From their belief called Sabulungan, the Mentawai people think that everything in existence has a spirit and a soul. When the spirit cannot be properly cared for, it will roam and cause bad luck and illness. Therefore, the tribe has a very strong belief in objects that they consider sacred. For instance, they live in traditional houses which are similar in design to those of West Sumatra, with a stilt design and made of wood or bamboo. There are actually three types of traditional houses that are commonly used: the Uma, Lalep, and Rusuk with each being different in size and able to accommodate from 1 to 4 families in one house.

Sago is the staple food of the Mentawai people, but hunting and archery are huge parts of their lives and culture. This activity is not just to get more food, but also for self-defense and celebratory occasions such as when a child is born.  Arrows and the bows themselves use different materials depending on their purpose. For game animals that are usually in the top of the tree, for example, archers will use pointed arrows and a thick, dried poison to kill the game and prevent blood from spilling. Land animals such as deer are targeted with arrows with an elongated metal plate, deliberately making the cut wider on the body. The goal is that the droplets of prey animal blood can provide clues for hunters to follow in their footsteps. Another type of arrow used is designed to crush bones and is usually for killing birds.

The skull bones of monkeys hung inside their house.

Sikerei, the physician of the Mentawai tribe, with his wife.

Smoking is also a tradition among the people.

A dancer prepares himself for Turuk Laggai, a dance whose movements are imitations of the movements of animals in nature around the Mentawai tribe. In addition, the Turuk Laggai movement also holds noble values ​​that are important in the life of the tribe. Turuk Laggai is the final part of the healing ritual performed by Sikerei. The purpose of this dance is so that the spirit of the sick person is entertained and does not leave his body. Because, if the spirit leaves the body, the sick person will die.

Tattoos are not mandatory for the tribe, but obligatory for Sikerei. Tattoos are an identity, not just as accessories or decorations on the body. They depict the balance between forest dwellers and nature. The materials used for tattoos on the body of the Mentawai tribe are natural ingredients. First the shaman, or the tribal elders, will pray for the charcoal and then give it to those who will be tattooed .

Sometimes they travel using canoes.

Aside from the traditional charms, the waves are highly sought after by world-class surfers. Which surfer doesn't know the Mentawai waves?