Penan or Punan: The Western Understanding

(Sourced from Global Voices)

There has been confusion about the terms Penan and Punan in ethnographic literature. In Sarawak, these two groups tend to be collectively grouped with various other tribal peoples.

According to Needham (2007), investigations confirm that there are a number of nomadic peoples in Borneo and the Penan form one group. The affected groups themselves however, are aware of their cultural and their profound linguistic differences. The confusion is perhaps due to early documentations.

Langub (1989, p.169) states that early Western writers like Hose and McDougall, Harisson and others used the two terms indiscriminately.

Sercombe and Sellato (2007, p7) note that the term ‘Punan’ which may also be articulated as ‘Penan’ have long been widely used by the settled tribes to refer to the various nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers. They state that in Kalimantan, the nomads are generally known as Punan while in Sarawak and Brunei, Penan became the default term.

Harisson (1949 in Hoffman, 1984, p128) stated in his writing that Punan is synonymous with the Malay word hulu or “upriver”. Other people define the term as “people who live at the source of the river”, “people who live deep within the forest”, “people always moving from place to place” and “people who do not plant gardens and swiddens and must hunt for their food”. The Kenyah look at this term as “to assemble, pile up or gather things together”.

In other words, the term Punan, is more of “a description of the geographical location and behavioral characteristics of the peoples”(Hoffman, 1984, 128).

Urquhart states that the term ‘Penan’ is used by the Kenyah and the term ‘Punan’ is used by the Kayan to refer to the nomadic people (Langub, 1989, p169).

Hoffman (1984, p128), states the term Punan has been an exonym – a name by which a group is referred to by other peoples or the outsiders. He notes the different usage of the terms as dialectal variant.

Needham (1953 in Langub 1989, p169) affirms that there are actually three distinct groups: ‘Penan’, ‘Punan’ and ‘Punan Bah’. Penan are divided into ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ Penan. The Eastern Penan occupy largely the Baram and Limbang watersheds namely east of Baram River -Tutoh, Patah, Apoh, Upper Akah, Selaan, Selungo, upper Limbang and Upper Baram River. The Western Penan occupy the Balui watersheds, Silat and tributary of Baram namely Belaga district and the Silat River- watershed of Long Belina, Long Tikan, Lo Bo Pumu, Long Jekitan and Long Beku (Brosius, 1992).

(sourced from Pustaka Sarawak)

There has been many theories regarding the Penan/Punan issue. Some dispute the existence of the Punan, some say they are distinct from each other. I don’t claim to know much about the difference, and the information above are merely written records by Western ethnographers.

Based on my understanding, the Penan are nomads (Penan Busang among the earliest settled), the Punan never nomads, and the Punan Bah considering themselves Kajang. Of course, this might be simplifying things. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Sometimes, the problem stems from the Westerners themselves for trying to quantify something that is abstract to their organized, neat minds. Being newcomers to this side of the world (back then), they get confused by local dialects, and lump together groups that don’t even relate. They spell certain words differently when sometimes they mean the same thing (back then Dayaks have no written history), or use the same words for different groups which also leads to confusion among modern researchers as they try to put into context what and whom they were writing about.