In Focus

Dagger (pattei)

This exquisite dagger (pattei) comes from northern Siberut (Berisigep) and was said to have been made in headhunting times more than a century ago. It has an iron blade that was obtained by barter from Sumatran traders as a blank and then ground into shape. Such blades are also used to tip spears. Unlike many of the other ethnic groups represented in the Dallas Museum of Art's collections of island Southeast Asian art, Mentawaians did not forge their own metal.

The wooden sheath of this dagger is carefully polished and was colored red with the juice of the kalumanang fruit. It consists of two parts that are secured at the bottom by a bone ring and at the top by a binding of rattan, also colored red in a complicated process that involves cooking the binding with vegetal materials in a dye bath. As a final touch, clusters of chicken feathers were carefully wrapped and affixed to the rattan binding. The lower end of the dagger’s sheath is slightly curved, in perfect counterpoint to the sharper curve of the solid wooden handle. This elegant grip is ornamented in the middle by a thickened ridge and ends in a spiral that, accord­ing to some informants, refers to a coiled millipede or, according to others, to the tightly wound coil of an unopened fern. The wooden parts are carefully polished, and where sheath and handle meet, there are finely incised decorative designs, the grooves of which were subsequently filled with black resin.

These daggers are tucked at a horizontal angle into the loincloth on the right-hand side. According to this dagger’s previous owner, a pattei was a necessary part of every bride price. As sym­bols of a warrior’s prowess, pattei were carried on headhunting expeditions.

There is a Mentawai myth that reveals the significance of a dag­ger for its owner. It tells about a boy who asks his father to make a pattei for him. The father refuses, and the boy goes to his mother’s brother in a neighboring house, who presents him with a beautiful dagger. Upon returning home, the boy is taken by his mother to her taro field. But although he explicitly asks her to be careful, she negligently breaks the dagger during her work. The boy then climbs a tree and magically ascends into the sky. In the sky, he meets other beings who accept him into their midst and help him to raise his own chickens. Eventually, he returns to his parental longhouse, where his mother tries to lock him up in order to keep him at home. The boy flees and returns forever to the sky people. Obviously, this story has to do with the problem of detaching oneself from the dependencies of childhood. The dagger that the boy receives at the end of his journey to the house of his mother’s brother symbolizes his awakening masculinity.

Due to the ban on headhunting, such elaborate daggers are no longer made. Instead, bride price transactions now include other items that are given in explicit “replacement for a pattei.” From the literature, daggers are also known from the southern islands of the archipelago, Sipora and Pagai. While similar in size and basic shape, some of these daggers have handles in the form of the head of a cock or a man.

Adapted from

Reimar Schefold, "Wall panel with figure of a slain shaman (tulangan sirimanua)," 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), 36-37.