Peoples & Societies
Nias is an island on the western edge of the Indonesian archipelago. It is approximately seventy-eight miles long and, at its maximum, twenty-five miles wide. Nias can be subdivided into three general regions based on cultural differences in language, mythology, political organization, village layout, house architecture, art and social rules (called böwö here, but otherwise known as adat throughout Indonesia). North Nias is larger than Central Nias, which in turn is more than twice as large as South Nias. The Hinako Islands, situated off Nias’s western coast, are also considered to be part of Nias, as are the Batu Islands located to the south, whose settlement was carried out from South Nias approximately 150 to 200 years ago. Today, approximately 700,000 people inhabit the island of Nias, among whom the vast majority practice the Christian faith. A Muslim minority live only in the port cities.
The Ono Niha, as the residents of Nias call themselves, were not integrated into the Dutch colonial empire until the beginning of the twentieth century. An intensive slave trade provided commercial contacts with the Acehnese, the Batak, and the Minangkabau on Sumatra during the preceding two centuries. This commerce in human beings made the slave traders rich and in part served to fund the accumulation of the extensive gold jewelry of the Ono Niha, as well as the lavishness of their exceptional stonework, consisting mainly of plazas and monuments, which can be found in their villages.
The peoples of the island Nias were mentioned for the first time mostly in Arabic sources from the middle of ninth century onward. European traders, however, did not establish commercial contacts with the indigenous inhabitants before the end of the seventeenth century. In their reports, they record virtually nothing about the culture of the Ono Niha. Western sailors and merchants were interested mainly in trading, and in stocking up on food and drinking water. Even at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the megaliths, architecture, and material culture of the Ono Niha were not considered worth mentioning by these authors. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that Dutch colonial officials, soldiers, and German missionaries began to study their culture more systematically.
These first travelogues brought Nias to the attention of the Western world. For the first time, as these accounts attest, Western travelers went beyond the harbor towns and marketplaces. They now visited villages in the interior of Nias and were very impressed by their layouts and by the large houses built partly on enormous wooden pylons. In particular the unique villages of the south, with their stone stairs, village fortifications, plazas, bathing places, and conduits for running water, elicited great admiration. The sumptuous and lavish feasts of merit (owasa), the large numbers of pigs sacrificed, and the extensive presentation of gold jewelry among the noble and free families were particularly popular subjects in the descriptions of Western travelers to the region.
On the other hand, headhunting, slavery, alleged cannibalism, and numerous depictions of ancestors in wood and stone were considered evidence of an archaic and “heathen” culture, which had to be “civilized” from the Western point of view. Through deliberate campaigns of destruction by Western missionaries, within a few decades the great clan houses were “freed” from their “heathen” imagery. Interestingly, this fate affected only the ancestor and protective figures made of wood, while the missionaries’ iconoclasm actually spared the stone sculptures, columns, tables, and benches in public spaces. As one scholar observes, “The stone artifacts were not on the iconoclastic agenda of the mission. . . . The missionaries . . . regarded these stones as primarily socio-political, therefore secular, monuments.” In fact the missionaries were wrong in this appraisal, probably due to a lack of knowledge—for example, that in Central Nias, the skull of an ancestor could lie underneath some of these stones—otherwise many of the stone constructions would certainly have also been destroyed. Admittedly the ancestors received no sacrificial offerings at these stones—this was reserved for the wooden effigies of ancestors—although healing was expected from the stones in cases of illness. Perhaps this aspect was “forgotten” during the course of Christianization, evaluated differently in different places, or simply concealed from the missionaries.
Christianization through Protestant missionaries of the German Rhenish Missionary Society, and later also by Roman Catholic missionaries, was responsible for the loss of many unique features of the island’s culture. Headhunting, the slave trade, ancestor cults, and traditional beliefs in the supernatural were all prohibited, as were the extensive festivals (owasa) that celebrated the elevation in rank of nobles and kings. It was in their honor that the large stones were erected. The decline in these practices, and in the wealth that sustained them, becomes readily evident with the marked decrease in the production, quality, and use of gold ornaments among the Ono Niha during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
 Tjoa-Bonatz 2009: 119.
Achim Sibeth, "The Art of the Ono Niha," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, Reimar Schefold, ed. in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 43-47.