Indigenous identity in Borneo

There are numerous ethnic groups in Borneo, some say a few hundred. As awareness begins to spread through the different communities on their own unique identity, smaller, minority ethnic groups start breaking away from the major groups they joined. Some have been assimilated (intermarriges), some extinct (wars, diseases).

Before the coming of the European powers, the people of Borneo did not have any problems when it came to who’s who. You neighbours are your neighbours, you marry them sometimes, fought with them and maybe take their heads. But the Europeans, keen on neat categories for the different ethnic groups began to place names like Land Dayak and Orang Ulu. When Sarawak and Sabah joined the Federation, they continued this policy of nine categories (and expanded in the constitution). Major ethnic groups started changing their names to be more indigenous, (Land Dayak – Bidayuh) and an awareness for ethnic identity arose. So no longer are all just Dayak but Iban, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu etc.

Some Orang Ulu, comprising the people of Northern Sarawak, Kayan, Kenyah, Kejaman, Penan, Punan etc. do not identify with the word Dayak, preferring Orang Ulu. Some Orang Ulu leaders even proposed that the name Orang Ulu (people of the inland) be changed because it sounds backward, wanting to change it to Lun Daya in 2009. Many objected, seeing as how the word Orang Ulu is already known, and such perception of primitiveness is no longer relevant.

Many Melanaus are Muslims, but there’s also a sizeable Christian population. Some groups were cut off from the ones on the coast by the Iban and Kayan expansion. The inland ones were becoming more “Kayanized” while the coastal ones adopted many Malay practices. Intermarriage with the Malays, and the Kayan among the aristocracies of the inlands.

The fact is that indigenous identity is immutable, always changing. As populations move across different areas, join together with other groups, they assimilate and become something else. The nomads become settled and adopt a new name. Most groups, being nomads, moved a lot and came into contact with diverse groups, sharing and borrowing cultures and practices. Intermarriage between aristocrats of different ethnicities were common. Slaves of war were taken and assimilated. Since records are mostly oral and does not go that far back, origins can be difficult to prove and always subject to controversy. Even if we were to categorize ourselves based on our origins, we have evolved culturally and linguistically so far from each other.

There still exists many in between groups, who shelter under an official category to make it legally easier. They take one name, then change it and now many use their original names out of pride. The assimilation of many Muslim Dayaks into Malays (taking on their culture and language) have also caused many ethnic groups to disappear. Today, those who claim to be pure Malays, or Ibans, or Kayans might not even be pure, because in the hazy first generations of the Dayaks, intermarriages are rife. I just found out I might have Kejaman blood after all.

“… cannot classify the population (of Sarawak) neatly on the basis of physical characteristics, because of the constant mixing. Cultural criteria are of little help… for they are often of such trivial importance as the presence or absence of tattoos. Linguistic classifications, too have so far had little precision… and the usefulness of classifying peoples, as opposed to languages, on linguistic grounds, remain to be demonstrated, in a situation where there seems to be little correlation between the language and anything else. Classification the basis of origins is equally difficult.”

~ Tim G. Babcock, 1974

Dayak rojaks are easier to find nowadays than pure bloods. For the Dayak mindset, racial lines aren’t that important. Religious are. Many Dayak parents forbid, or frown upon the marriage of Dayaks to Muslims because it usually entails the death of their culture where ignorance breed Arabic names and Malay practices. You’ll be hard pressed to find a Dayak Muslim who isn’t almost 100% Malay. Even the Bidayuh Muslims of Serian wear Baju Melayu and Baju Kurung.

Just like how as opposed to Western countries where asking the race of someone is sensitive, over here it’s the norm, where no one assumes because everyone looks almost like everyone else. You can’t speak Bidayuh to someone who isn’t one (and doesn’t speak it), and even then you have to make sure it’s the same with your own sub ethnic group. (Some people might say Iban is the lingua franca, but hey, I don’t speak it.)

You want to know not out of racism (mostly), but out of affinity.


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