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Why the Suy’uk are fact-checking their Dayak origin myth

The Ngkaran, an earthern jar adorned with birds and snakeheads that a powerful symbol for the Suy'uk people of western Borneo. Photo by Andi Fachrizal for Mongabay.

KAPUAS HULU, Indonesia — Mateus Liung headed to the Tanjung village hall just as dusk started to gather. A walking stick in his right hand supported his now-fragile legs. A torch in his left lit the path.

“I am old,” he said. “But tonight’s village discussion concerns history. I must attend and help.”

Since an Indonesian Constitutional Court decision in 2013 stating that indigenous people have rights to their land, NGOs have encouraged adat groups, as they are known in this Southeast Asian country, to map their traditional territories. For decades, the state has failed to recognize their rights, instead allowing loggers, miners and plantation firms into their territory, with or without the local community’s consent.

The hope now is that national and regional governments will incorporate the outlined area into official maps and consider the areas in planning and other governance decisions. Under the current administration of President Joko Widodo, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry even agreed to process 6.8 million hectares of indigenous maps so that they could be included in the country’s one map.

The meeting Liung was headed to was among the first steps the Suy’uk community of Tanjung, West Kalimantan, took toward mapping its indigenous territories.

Inside the Tanjung village hall this April evening, the sense of kinship was thick. Young joked with old. And representatives from the Indonesian branch of the World Wildlife Fund, an NGO, sat in to help facilitate Tanjung with its 20-year development plan. The first step toward this goal was to find traces of the Suy’uk people.

As the 70-year-old Liung turned his thoughts to times past, the hall turned silent. It is as if everyone was hypnotized, spellbound with the anticipation.

“Originally, we were members of the Suy’uk Busang tribe of Sungai Langau of East Kalimantan. Our ancestors travelled a long way to get to the Bawan River in Kapuas Hulu,” Liung said.

And his oral history continued. The first Suy’uk tribal member to settle in Sungai Bawan was named Tongkah. He had seven wives and they were blessed with 30 kids. This led to five major lineages that fought between themselves before the tribesmen dispersed to the rivers Mentebah, Kalis, Embaloh, Mandai and Bunut.

Tongkah’s descendants moved to 11 other places, eventually settling in Tanjung, Biang and Gurung Langkung. Traces of the Suy’uk migration exist today. There is the Teeh pillar. There is also the Mpatung Mensia wooden sculpture of a man and the Mpatung Mmaung figurine of a tiger.

The Mpatung Mmaung is battered but still stands in the territory of the Suy’uk. Photo by Andi Fachrizal for Mongabay.

Searching for the old sites

The night after Mateus Liung’s stories, some worthies of Tanjung village prepared to explore the Suy’uk River. With the meeting’s oral history as their guide, they headed into the field to find indicators of their past.

The head of village development, P Sabang, took the commanding shaft to lead the trip. He was joined by Dulah, Samad and Thomas, village heads of Gurung Langkung, Roban and Biang respectively. “Is everyone ready,” he asked and after receiving nods, headed down the path to the Muller Mountains. Walking out of Roban hamlet, the eight-man exploration team passed through thick, multispecie tree groves. The Suy’uk River ran clear alongside, adding to the beauty of the panorama.

After two hours of climbing hills, fording the river and honest trudging, the team reached Nanga Baeng, a site hailed as a onetime residence of the Suy’uk people. “Let us rest, take a look up here,” Thomas said pointing at an old but sturdy-looking pillar.

The pillar was made from ulin wood. At the top of the pillar was a replica of a hornbill bird, a symbol of strength among the Suy’uk. The team defied the thick weeds surrounding the pillar to get a closer look. After hacking a new path in, Thomas lay down his machete and smiled. “ This is Teeh,” he said.

According to the village elders, there is no site that stands alone. Look around and you will find traces of heritage. And sure enough, not far from the first finding, the team came upon Ngkaran.

Its shape was like the Teeh pillar. Dug into the earth, the Ngkaran stood 5 meters tall, but midway up the stump was an earthern jar adorned with birds and snakeheads. This was a Dayak motif. The Ngkaran is considered a symbol of authority among the Suy’uk.

Not far from the Ngkaran, the team found a few other spots: a pillar from the ruins of a longhouse. Near the river, they sighted the Nanga Biang. At another spot, they came across wooden statues of men; symbols of the bravery and military prowess of the Suy’uk.

“These are signs that our ancestors have used this land,” Thomas declared. “They created a community in this spot not far from a water source. They farmed and hunted here for subsistence.”

For the Suy’uk, these sites are evidence that they have managed the forests surrounding the Muller Mountains for centuries, preserving and protecting the area and developing a sustainable society. This is a revelation that may come in handy if the Suy’uk, like countless other indigenous groups, find themselves facing down a well-connected company that wants to develop their land, with or without their consent.


This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on May 31, 2016.


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