Peoples & Societies

Mentawai

The inhabitants of the Mentawai Archipelago, west of Sumatra, came into contact with the Western world relatively late. Siberut, Mentawai’s northernmost island, was especially ill-reputed for its tradition of headhunting. About the same size as Indonesia’s best-known island, Bali, it consists of approximately 1,478 square miles. Given the humidity and the prevalence of malaria in the hill country there, and the fact that much of the landmass was covered by dense, tropical rain forests, Mentawai offered very little for Europeans to exploit economically.

The archipelago’s isolation lasted until the beginning of the 20th century, when the Dutch colonial government began in earnest to establish control over the Mentawai Islands. For the islands’ indigenous inhabitants, however, apart from a prohibition on the old custom of headhunting, there was little interference with their traditional culture until Indonesia declared itself independent from the Netherlands. This status quo radically changed in 1949 with the commence­ment of President Sukarno’s term of office. The newly constituted Indonesian government considered the islands’ inhabitants to be backward and primitive. In 1954, a new decree was promulgated to force Mentawaians to adapt to mainstream Indonesian society. This decree had devastating effects on the ancient cultural heritage there, as it required Mentawaians to give up the custom of tattoo­ing, abandon animistic rituals, adopt a world religion, wear modern dress, and move into newly built villages of single-family dwellings rather than continue to live in scattered longhouses.

Within a few years, examples of Mentawai’s rich artistic legacy very quickly and almost entirely vanished. Often artifacts were actively sought and burned by zealous missionary teachers or government officials. Yet despite this onslaught against their beliefs and customs, and even to this day, a few groups in the inte­rior of Siberut have stubbornly managed to practice much of their traditional culture. After a period of self-imposed isolation, they are now enjoying the greater tolerance practiced by the present gov­ernment and have made a deliberate choice to continue with their ancient and customary way of life.

Traditionally, Mentawaians live off the land, cultivating sago, tubers, and bananas. They also raise chickens and pigs, and go hunting and fishing. The workload is divided between the men and the women. There are no specialized technical skills. Important basic utensils, such as iron tools and textiles that the Mentawaians cannot produce themselves, are exchanged for coconuts and rattan with coastal Malayan merchants. The Mentawaians have neither chiefs nor slaves, nor are there any inherited political positions. Their communities are organized in clan groups of about ten fami­lies. Such a group lives in one big house, the uma, and shares the responsibility for all important communal activities. These clan houses are built at irregular distances from one another along rivers. Traditionally, the Mentawaians did not construct trails or lay out jungle pathways. In this region, the canoe was and still is the most important means of transport. These vessels are used to collect the harvest from the gardens, and to visit neighboring uma in the river valley.

Adapted from

Reimar Schefold, "Toys for the Soul: The Art of Mentawai," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 29-33.

Related Multimedia

Learn about the Mentawai people.
Anthropologist Reimar Shefold discusses the Mentawai people.
Dr. Reimar Schefold discusses living with the Mentawai and describes their way of life