Finding the Link between Indonesia's Six Indigenous Ethnic Groups

On 23 March 2019, the Indonesian Institute of Advanced International Studies (INADIS) successfully held the second edition of DISTRAKSI (Diskusi–Interaksi–Kreasi). The theme was “Dalami Budaya untuk Karya Kita: 6 Suku Asal Indonesia” or “Deepening Culture for Millennials’ Skillsets: Indonesia’s 6 Indigenous Ethnic Groups”.

In addition to bringing back Mitu M. Prie (archeologist and cultural communication consultant) as a speaker and moderator, DISTRAKSI II also invited representatives from Indonesia’s six indigenous ethnic groups as speakers. The six representatives were Dedi Juliasman Sakatsila, Heri Sujarwo Doloksaribu, Rista Fuji Leluni, Novianus Parapak Paonganan, Emanuel Toda, and Ambrosius Mulait. As for the photography and illustration workshops, INADIS collaborated with Damar Anjar (photographer) and Giovanni D. Austriningrum (illustrator of Koperasi Perupa Sanggaré).

Taking place at Koléga X MarkPlus, Kuningan, this event was attended by 17 participants. INADIS researcher Aldrin Sampeliling, the project officer for this edition of DISTRAKSI, opened the event by stating that DISTRAKSI II was a follow up from the previous DISTRAKSI event which aimed to introduce and promote Indonesia’s cultural identity to the young generation. DISTRAKSI I mentioned Japan as an example that succeeded in preserving their culture amid the strong current of globalization, resulting in the incorporation of their cultural elements into their technological development. During the event, it was also revealed that there were six indigenous civilizations in Indonesia that are still maintaining their traditions and cultural products. Based on this information, INADIS developed the second edition of DISTRAKSI to introduce and deepen the knowledge of these six indigenous civilizations to the Indonesian youth so that they can incorporate their cultural knowledge into their respective jobs.  

Mitu M. Prie opened the first session of discussion. She stated, “We all know the problem of rampant hoaxes. It also happens towards culture. Many cultural obfuscations and falsifications occur. If we do not understand the correct cultural exposure, we can get lost and easily be consumed by hoaxes or cultural misdirection.” In her research, Mitu found that there were six indigenous civilizations that became the origin of most Indonesian ethnic groups and who have managed to carry on their traditions and cultural products in the modern world. Those six civilizations are Mentawai, Batak, Dayak, Toraja, East Nusa Tenggara, and Papua. However, this information is not widely known yet and there are many misconceptions surrounding these six civilizations. By bringing up this subject closer to young people, Mitu wishes that the young generation would see, know, and understand that the diversity of Indonesia is an advantage that unites the nation instead of divides it.

The second session of the event was the discussion panel with representatives from Indonesia’s six indigenous ethnic groups, which was moderated by Mitu. Before the discussion started, all six representatives were given 5-7 minutes to share their cultures and experiences in preserving their cultures in the modern world.

The first to share their culture was Dedi Juliasman Sakatsila from Mentawai. Dedi is currently studying for his Master’s degree in Jakarta and is also the chairman of Ikatan Mahasiswa Mentawai Jakarta (IMMJ). Dedi stated that out of four major islands of Mentawai, it is only on the inland of Siberut Island that we can still find Mentawai tradition and customs. The Mentawai tribe has the oldest tattoo tradition in the world and also the tradition of teeth sharpening; the sharper their teeth, the more beautiful or handsome the person considered. The Mentawai people are also known for their mutual cooperation. Facing the challenge of globalization that has started wiping out their tradition, Dedi said, “We do not have to close ourselves to modernization because it is inevitable, life will always change, always going in a circle, and the children from the Mentawai tribe will eventually have to get formal education and must accept modern life. But for me, when that happens, understanding our culture is still important to be applied to young people.”

Afterwards, Rista Fuji Leluni (member of the Dayak Youth Community [DYC]) from the Dayak Maanyan tribe explained that she just came back from her village to attend a traditional death ceremony known as Wara. It took around a year to prepare the ceremony and everyone, including the young generation, still had to participate. “Young people like me who are no longer part of Kaharingan or traditional religion still have to undergo rituals. As my grandfather said, religion is our search for God in any way. All Dayak people are free to choose their religion, if you want to be an atheist it is up to you, but traditional customs cannot be abandoned.” Rista also mentioned that even though formally she’s a Christian, she still went back to her village for eight months to learn how to make tuak (traditional Indonesian alcohol) from her elders. She argued that in Dayak tradition, tuak is used to carry out various rituals for traditional ceremonies and not for fun.

The third one to share their experience was Emanuel “Noel” Toda who represented the Bajawa (East Nusa Tenggara) culture. Noel is an activist of the Flores tribe. He brought up the topic of the marriage system amongst the Bajawa people. “Bajawa’s marriage system is a matriarchal one in which the women are in power at home. It is also a marriage system that is monogamous and does not recognize divorce. I chose the theme of marriage because we as young people have to know our culture, we can’t only want the easy part or ‘eloping’.”

Noel was followed by Ambrosius Mulait of Dani tribe who represented Papua. Ambrosius is the chairman of PLT DPW Wilayah Indonesia Barat Asosiasi Mahasiswa Pegunungan Tengah Papua Se-Indonesia. He explained the importance of noken, a multifunctional knotted or woven bag native to the Papua that has listed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List as Indonesia’s cultural heritage. He also explained other traditions in Wamena such as the marriage system and the use of koteka. “In the mountain culture the men wear koteka and the women wear sali or loincloth. The impact of modernization is when we wear koteka and someone says, ‘It’s pornography.’ But we Dani people are very aware that if we don’t wear koteka, we don't have culture, and that means we will be destroyed.”

The fifth person who shared their culture was Heri Sujarwo Doloksaribu, the chairman of Ikatan Keluarga Batak Universitas Indonesia, from the Batak Toba tribe. Heri mentioned that Batak was a term used to include the Toba, Karo, Simalungun, Pakpak, Mandailing, and Angkola. These six groups have different languages and customs. Heri explained about the Batak marriage system that was patriarchal and the traditional Batak house known as “Rumah Bolon”. He stated the challenge in maintaining and developing Batak culture is “in the form of someone’s ignorance towards their own culture, because they are isolated within the modern culture. And because of their busy schedule, they don't want to be bothered to apply Batak customs.”

Lastly, Novianus “Inton” Parapak Paonganan (member of Himpunan Mahasiswa Toraja Jabodetabek) shared the Ma’nene’ of his Torajan custom that takes place every August. “We have a tradition called Ma’nene’. The Ma’nene’ tradition consists of cleaning the cloth of the tau-tau (statue) and replacing the dead relatives’ clothing. This is one way to remind us of our ancestors.” Additionally, Inton also explained the importance of the water buffalo in the Torajan custom.

From the six representatives’ introductions, it was revealed that although they were spread from the west to the east part of Indonesia and appeared different from each other, all these six indigenous ethnic groups share a common thread: tuak and the use of pigs in traditional ceremonies and rituals. Mitu clarified that pigs were considered sacred for the ancestors of the six indigenous ethnic groups. Pigs (and their relatives) are common to be found decorating the cave walls, such as the babirusa (pig-deer) painting found inside the caves in Maros, South Sulawesi. This babirusa painting is dating back at least 35,400 years ago, likely to make it the world’s oldest known example of figurative art. The importance of pigs for the six indigenous ethnic groups showed on the cave paintings explains why pigs are continuously used as marriage dowry and in ceremonies. As well as pigs, tuak is an inseparable part of the tradition of these six indigenous ethnic groups and often used in traditional ceremonies and rituals.

The discussion session lasted for 70 minutes, followed by lunch break where participants mingled with the speakers to talk more about the six cultures. After the break, participants were introduced to Damar Anjar and Giovanni D. Austriningrum who would deliver photography and illustration workshops.

Regarding to the relationship between culture and photography, Damar stated, “[…] they showed some photos that prove that their original culture still exists and is lived up to now. So in my opinion photography and culture are two things that cannot be separated.” 

While according to Giovanni, “There are no works that are void of value; any work, regardless of whether it claims a political agenda or not, is a product of ideology. Consciously or unconsciously, there are biases in the institutionalization of aesthetic standards; also biases in judging works based on certain stereotypes that are intertwined. Starting from gender, class, racial and ethnicity, religious, spatial, and so on.”

After the short introduction, participants joined the workshop group of their choice, photography or illustration. In the photography workshop, Damar taught participants of the techniques to capture cultural products from Indonesia’s six indigenous ethnic groups in order to preserve the cultural products. Whereas Giovanni taught the step-by-step process in creating an illustration that started from abstraction to technical execution, or what she elaborated as the rationality of the 3 Cs (context-content-concept) and the visual form or style. Both workshops lasted for 100 minutes. At the end of the event, one participant from each workshop group presented their creation and shared the process they’ve gone through to produce the art.