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The Culture

The Mentawaian  are the native people of the Mentawai Islands, province West Sumatra, Indonesia. They live a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the coastal and rainforest environments of the islands. The Mentawai language belongs to the Austronesian language family. The people are characterised by their heavy spirituality, body art and their tendency to sharpen their teeth, a practice they feel makes one beautiful.

The Mentawai live in the traditional dwelling called the uma which is a longhouse and is made by weaving bamboo strips together to make walls and thatching the roofs with grass, the floor is raised on stilits and is made of wood planks.

The main clothing for men is a loin cloth and they are adorned with necklaces and flowers in their hair and ears. Women wear the same thing except they wear a piece of cloth wound around the waist. Women wear small sleevless vests and they sharpen their teeth with a chisel for aesthetic reasons to make there teeth look like a shark's. Tattooing is done with a needle and wood which is hammered on the needle.

Men hunt wild pigs, deer and primates. Women and children gather wild yams and other wild food. Small animals are hunted by women.The Mentawai keep pigs, dogs,monkeys and sometimes chickens as pets.


Mentawai House

The Uma: The Uma is the Primary stucture of the Mentawai Islanders. As well as a communal living space, these structures also serve as the primary setting of clan ceremonies and rituals. Each Uma has it's own altar, and also a sacrificing priest, or Rimtaa. The Uma is used as a dancing floor, council house, reception center, and also as a sleeping place for the men, during religious celebrations. This building is so important, that, once built, a long religious celebration (or punen) is begun. In former days, a human sacrifice was also conducted under the center pole (This was done to appease their Earthquake god).

The Lalep: The lalep is a family living structure. They contain their own altars, like the Uma. Laleps are built surrounding an Uma, making the Uma and it's surrounding laleps the basic living unit in Mentawei Culture.

The Rusuk: While the Uma (as well as the lalep) is the most significant structure, there exists another major house type: The Rusuk, which is any house that does not contain an altar.

Modern Housing: With pressure from the outside world, the Mentawai have been striving to live in modern homes. Unfortunately, modern homes quickly fall into disrepair in the harsh jungle environment. In addition, Umas are also disappearing, increasing the rate of the Mentawai's assimilation.

Clothing: In the jungle, modern clothing doesn’t last very long. Most clothes rot right off the body (and can even lead to skin diseases), and shoes quickly become useless as they become filled with mud. For these reasons, the Mentawai wear very little in their day to day life. Their clothing is of a primitive standard, but it suffices for their environment.

Tattoos: The Mentawai frequently tattoo their bodies, the most famous being the tattoos of the Sikeiries. Mentawai legend tells of a boy who turned himself into the first sago tree, turning into the tree of life. Their entire bodies are covered in tattoos to emulate the tree's form.

Food: The Mentawai mainly eat fish, or iba. With the help of domesticated dogs, the Mentawai will also hunt monkeys and deer. Depending on the island, the Mentawai may also hunt boar (as in Siberut) or grow rice. The Mentawai men will farm sugar cane and banana trees. Taro, a tropical Asian plant, and sago, a starch from palms, may also be a part of the Mentwai’s diet.

Religion: Shamans, or Sikeireis, feature prominently in Mentawei society. They are the only ones allowed to ritual clothing, and to perform the ritual dances. The Mentawai people subscribe to Jarayak, a form of animism that stresses the existence of nature spirits, souls and ghosts. The nature spirits are those of the sky, the earth, the sea, and the jungle. There is also the grandfather, the god of earthquakes. Ghosts are malign spirits, and they are blamed as the cause of most death and sickness in Mentawai society. People have souls, and so do all animals and plants. In addition, even inanimate objects have souls (known as kina). Mentawai rituals and punen surround the appeasement and avoidance of these various spirits. Mentawaian religion also known as arat sabulungan.

The Punen: One of the most remarkable attributes of the Mentawai is the system of religious observances and taboos they participate in, known as the punen. Punens are religious festivals that are marked by numerous sacrifices, and the observance of religious taboos. The taboos can include sexual intercourse, and all work must be initiated by a priest. Punens are initiated by any major event, and can last from several weeks to several years.

There is also a second type of punen, the lia, or the family punen. These are usually initiated by a family level event, such as a marriage or birth.





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