The Kenyah Peselai, and the aftermath of Konfrontasi

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A Kenyah peselai group, 1930, with Dutch photographer HF Tillema

Peselai, an ancient ritual of the Kenyahs of Borneo, is a coming of age journey undertaken by men to discover new lands, wealth and trading. It is the equivalent of the Iban’s bejalai.

… peselai is a rite of passage with deep roots to the land; it is the journeying to distant territories by Kenyah men discovering new territories and cultures. Peselai was once large associated with long-distance raids, scouting for new arable lands, hunting  or trading expeditions. The wide array of ancient Chinese jars, Javanese bronze gongs, Venetian nad Mesopotamian beads, batik textiles and even Papuan penis gourds that can be found in possession among upriver kenyah and Kayan communities are ample evidence that central Borneo had been part of an extensive trade network, indicating the importance of mobility.

Before the outlawing of headhunting 1900s, peselai were organised into large group from 50-500 men, led by a paren (aristocrat) to ensure safety in numbers. Rampant headhunting by Iban raiders were always cause for concern.

But nowadays, especially the late 1900s, peselai trips has evolved into migrant labor journeys, where Kenyah men seek work in logging camps in Sabah and Sarawak.

The dynamic fluidity of movement between the Kenyahs of now Kalimantan (Indonesia) and Sarawak (Malaysia) resulted in many peselai journeys between the borders, which back then didn’t exist. It all came to an end when the Confrontation happened, and the borders of Indonesia and Malaysia were finally formed.

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Peselai expeditions of the Kenyahs between North Kalimantan and Sarawak.

Long Mekaba, a village with four longhouses, sits between Baram River and Silat River, in Miri. It is a sister village of the Kenyah in Apo Kayan (North Kalimantan), and kinsmen remain in contact with each other via peselai expeditions. Garau Dian, who now lives in Long Mekaba and owns a Malaysian IC, was born Eban Dian in the village of Nawang Baru in the Apo Kayan. In 1974, he went on a peselai trip to Sarawak with around 20 men for jobs in logging camps. He and many Kenyah men chose to settle down in Sarawak in the 1970s peselai trips.

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PeLencau Bilong

PeLencau Bilong, of Nawang Baru, a paren iut (minor aristocrat) made 11 peselai trips in his lifetime. He rescued Tom Harrison in a parachute incident when Mr. Harrison first landed in Borneo for Ops Semut in WWII. He said,

We used to go to the Baliu (Balui). It was called Malaysia after Konfrontasi. But we are happy; when we travel to Malaysia, we won’t go hungry as our kinsmen are there. Before we were still at war with the Iban, it was difficult to find food.

Knowledge was gleaned from these journeys between the different lands. These men picked up languages like Malay, Kayan, Iban, Penan and even some Foochow. Yet now with the disappearance of this rite of passage, the lingua franca of the Heart of Borneo has devolved to Malay or Bahasa Indonesia.

Pak Ubang Ding, of Long Nawang, neighbouring settlement of Nawang Baru, went on his first peselai trip to Belaga after being recruited by the Sarawak (British) government to build an airstrip there in 1958. Together with his father and 500 Kenyah men, they crossed the non-existent border. In 1960, he was personally invited by Tom Harrison, then curator of the Sarawak Museum in the Niah Caves excavation project.

Families have been sundered across distances that used to be a mere journey into a neighbour or relative’s land. As Pak Ubang put it so eloquently,

Kenapa dulu kita bisa berkumpul dengan saudara kita di Sarawak walaupun harus berdayung berbulan-bulan. Dan sekarang sudah ada jalan, ada mesin, ada outboard engines tapi nggak bisa, karena ada halangan, susah masuk ke Sarawak secara legal.

(Why is it back then we could meet our kin in Sarawak even though we need to paddle for months, yet now we have tarred roads, machines and outboard engines, we no longer could because borders make it hard to enter Sarawak legally.)

wpid-Screenshot_2013-12-25-17-28-20-1.pngLong Nawang, Apo Kayan Plateau

Excerpts taken from “The Malaysian Roadless Trip” by Adeline Ooi & Dave Lumenta, B-Side Magazine Dec 2014

Photo credits belong to The B-Side Magazine, Adeline Ooi and Dave Lumenta.

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Languages of Borneo

The indigenous languages of Borneo is divided into 10 subgroups (Hudson 1978).

The Malayic subgroup includes Iban and Malay. The diversity and relative archaism of the Malayic languages spoken in West Borneo suggest that the Malayic homeland may have been in this area.

The Tamanic languages are close enough to the South Sulawesi languages to form a subgroup with them. They have some striking phonological developments in common with Buginese, with which they seem to form a separate branch within the South Sulawesi language group.

The Land Dayak languages have a few striking lexical and phonological similarities in common with Aslian languages. This suggests that Land Dayak originated as the result of a language shift from Aslian to Austronesian, or that both Land Dayak and Aslian have in common a source from an unknown third language.

Malayic Dayak languages are part of the Malayic sub-family (including, among others, Malay, Minangkabau and Banjarese), Tamanic languages are most closely related to South Sulawesi languages, and Sabahan languages subgroup with the Philippine languages (Hudson 1978).

Hudson (1970) should be credited for identifying and defining the Malayic Dayak subgroup. Previous scholars were not aware of this subgroup and classified the Malayic Dayak languages either with the Malay dialects spoken by Muslims on the Borneo coast or with the Land Dayak languages.

In this way they classified Iban as a Malay dialect, and Salako as a Land Dayak dialect with strong Malay influence. Kendayan Dayak was seemingly also considered as a strongly Malayicized variety of Land Dayak (cf. Cense and Uhlenbeck 1958). Hudson, however, calls Iban, Kendayan, Salako and other closely-related Dayak languages ‘Malayic Dayak’, and he classifies them together with Malay and other Malay-like languages[10] into the ‘Malayic’ linguistic group. His term ‘Malayic Dayak’ is meant to distinguish Malayic languages spoken by non-Muslims in Borneo from other Malayic languages.

Hudson’s classification also pays attention to the fact that the Malayic Dayak languages are indigenous, whereas other Malayic languages in Borneo were introduced from Sumatra and/or Malaysia. This is important for the search of the original Malayic homeland. Three areas have been considered as a homeland: Sumatra, the Malay peninsula and Western Borneo.

Kern (1889) was in favour of a homeland in the peninsular Malay area, and he rejected the possibility of a Bornean homeland. But his arguments do not hold (Adelaar 1988). The historical and linguistic evidence suggests that the Malayic settlements in the Malay peninsula are of more recent date than those in Sumatra or in Borneo (Bellwood 1993). In view of the geographical spread (in the interior), the variety (which in some cases cannot be explained as due to contact-induced change) and the sometimes conservative character of Malayic Dayak languages, some linguists tend to favour Borneo as the homeland of the Malayic languages (cf. Blust 1988; Adelaar 1988, 1992).

The dialects belonging to the Tamanic subgroup are Embaloh, Kalis and Taman. They are spoken in the Hulu Kapuas Regency of West Kalimantan near the head of the Kapuas River and its tributaries.

If, as seems to be the case, Tamanic is more closely related to Buginese than to other South Sulawesi languages, it has to be included in the South Sulawesi language group in a subgroup with Buginese (or with Buginese and Campalagian, cf. Grimes and Grimes [1987] and Sirk [1989]).

It is evident that the Tamanic-Buginese link has no connection with the Buginese migrations to the coasts of East, South and West Borneo from at least the 17th century on. The Buginese kept their identity or merged with the local Malays. Their migration to Borneo is a more recent phenomenon in comparison to a Buginese-Tamanic split, which must have preceded the Islamization of South Sulawesi. It must have happened so long ago that it allowed the Tamanic speakers to adapt and assimilate to a considerable degree to their Bornean environment, and to forget their “exo-Bornean” (from outside Borneo) origin.

As to the original homeland of Tamanic, as a consequence of its apparent membership of the South Sulawesi language group it is most likely that at some point in time its speakers have left South Sulawesi and have migrated to Borneo.

~ K. Alexander Adelaar (Borneo as a Cross-Roads for Comparative Austronesian Linguistics)

Tarian Hudoq Bahau

 

From The Star 27 June 2011: Author extreme right

Anak Borneo made an appearance at the annual Miri Red Crescent Dance for Humanity 2011. They brought a Bahau (of Kalimantan) dance, the Tarian Hudoq.

The Hudoq dance is also practiced in Sarawak by the Dayaks, but not as widely or as intricate as the Kalimantanese. Hudoq means ‘mask’. It represents the spirits or gods of old that came down to the world in the form of animals like birds, pigs, crocodiles or wolves. The dance is for the paddy planting ritual or for scaring and entertaining kids. The dancer’s body is covered with banana leaves, or sometimes coconut husk or mats.