Enter a Mentawai longhouse and the first thing you’ll notice are the fanciful animal carvings – hanging from the ceiling, emblazoned on the walls. There are birds and turtles, monkeys and boar. These are “toys for the dead,” placed there for the spirits of the animals killed for food by these traditional hunter-gatherers. The thinking is that if the spirits of these creatures are happy and entertained they will stay in the longhouse and invite others of their kind to visit. Thus do the Mentawai hope to ensure a steady supply of the game essential to their diet and way of life.
The Mentawai inhabit an island off the coast of an island – Siberut Island, 96 miles across the Indian Ocean from the Indonesian isle of Sumatra. The principal role in their society is played by the shaman – any individual, it seems, who is willing to undergo the requisite training and to endure a series of painful tattoos that eventually cover most of the body. Despite the mystery often associated with the role, the shamans assembled for our visit were an extremely relaxed and affable group of nearly naked men happy for the novelty and gracious about demonstrating their material culture. Their training seems informal – solicited from anyone with the requisite knowledge, and payable at the rate of a pig a week – leaving the impression that it continues until the aspirant has achieved the desired level of proficiency, or exhausted the supply of available pigs.
Among the traditional skills demonstrated for us was the making of poisoned arrows and darts. The lethal preparation involved some ginger, some chilis, and the lethal root of an unnamed tuber – unnamed not because it’s a secret but because our translator didn’t know the word in English. Bark was stripped from a tree, moistened, pounded and turned into the makings of a loincloth before our eyes. We watched the women head down to the river to fish wearing jaunty rattan leaf skirts designed to hide their scent; we declined their invitation to join them from an unwillingness to descend the slippery riverbank that they have negotiated effortlessly since childhood. In the evening the shamans danced, delighting us and eliciting excited squeals of “bilo, bilo” from the children as they recognized the stylized moves of the monkey.
But time spent with the Mentawai is bittersweet. With every visitor who travels the five hours by boat to Siberut from Padang, ventures two hours inland by dugout canoe, and makes the truly daunting slog through the mud of the rain forest to their longhouse, modernity encroaches a little more. It is not hard to imagine the day when the longhouses of the Mentawai will no longer be inhabited by the souls of either animals or men.