Times & Places

Borneo: The Island—Its Peoples

Bigger than the state of Texas and more than seventeen times larger than the Netherlands, Borneo is the world’s third-largest island. Since 1963, it has been divided among East Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah), the oil-rich Sultanate of Brunei, and Indonesia (Kalimantan). In a vast nation of more than 17,000 islands, Kalimantan accounts not only for 73 percent of Borneo’s territory but also 28 percent of Indonesia’s entire landmass.

Borneo’s indigenous peoples are collectively known as the Dayak. This term was already in use among the island’s inhabitants when first noted by Europeans in the 18th century. It is most likely derived from the Austronesian term “daya,” which means “toward the interior.” The name “Dayak” was further popu­larized in the 19th century as a colonial convenience, and today is still generally used to refer collectively to the island’s indig­enous, non-Muslim peoples. Not including numerous dialects, seventy-four individual language groups are ascribed to Borneo. Indigenous Dayak communities range in size from the very last bands of nomadic Penan hunters and gatherers, variably estimated at 300–500 persons, to the most populous entity, the Ngaju, with an estimated population of 890,000 persons (2003).

While many Dayak groups share similarities, each has its own distinct language, social norms, and material culture. Before the 1950s, the majority of Dayak lived in dwellings that accommodated an extended family or in longhouses, and practiced shifting agri­cultural techniques. Until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many groups also engaged in headhunting.[1] The passing down of oral traditions and leitmotifs in elaborate creation myths, heroic legends, and stories was essential to each group’s identity and is honored in its artwork.

Long before the arrival of Europeans in 1521, the forebearers of present-day Indonesians, Malaysians, Chinese, South Asians, and Arabs came to Borneo’s coasts in search of valuable forest products such as camphor, rare woods, hornbill ivory, and beeswax, as well as gold and alluvial diamonds. In return, trade goods from coastal settlements, Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms, and later Islamic sultanates were transported into the remote interior by intrepid natives and traders using Borneo’s extensive river systems. Over time, the most coveted and prestigious imports—Asian ceramics, beads, textiles, tools, and metalwork—were often ascribed magi­cal properties. These same items also became important ritual and heirloom objects. Whether acquired through trade, exchange, or conquest, such goods can still be seen in modern-day dwellings or longhouses. The creation of art was influenced by trade goods and the assimilation of forms and motifs from other indigenous groups. These exchanges enlivened the traditional arts of Borneo by making them materially rich and stylistically diverse.

The Dayak pieces at the Dallas Museum of Art are drawn largely from Kayanic peoples and their related subgroups, the Modang and Bahau of eastern Kalimantan, and the Iban of Sarawak. Many such objects are no longer produced, and most were created before the Dayak peoples were exposed to colonialism, the creation of 20th-century nation-states, conversion to out­side religions, and other manifestations of modernity.

[1] Headhunting and human sacrifice were practiced on a limited basis by the traditional societies with works represented in the DMA collection. Among the Dayak, these practices were sensationalized and sometimes even encouraged by Europeans, who sought to use them as a pretext both for extending colonial control and to further civilize these groups.

Adapted from

Steven G. Alpert, "Borneo: The Island-Its People," 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), 117.

Related Multimedia

Learn about the Dayak people.

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