SIBERUT, Indonesia: Saving the Mentawai Culture

By Two Monkeys Travel - Contributor October 20th, 2015 Posted in Asia Travel Blog, Inspiration and Love Stories, Travel Blog 59 Comments

Four days of stay in Siberut were one of the longest ‘cultural’ days in my life. Many said that the Island of Siberut is the only remaining real believers and followers of the Mentawai Culture today. That statement alone was an enough reason to explore this community.

Is the Mentawai Culture dying? Well, to see is to believe, as they said. I will better say, to live with it can give you a unique conception. Spending time in Siberut for less than a week was an experience full of inquisitiveness, admiration, and hope.

SIBERUT, Indonesia Saving the Mentawai Culture
Photo from Authentic Indonesia Official Website

Other articles you can read: 

Curiosity to what Mentawai Culture is all about. What makes it distinctive to other cultures?

Awe to the people who kept this kind of culture. How they did and do that?

Wish to let it be continued and valued. Will this culture still be recognized in the next generation?

A Glimpse of Siberut Island

Demographics: SIBERUT is the home of around 40,000 people as of today, holding the record as the largest island in Mentawai, West Sumatra, Indonesia.

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Mother and Daughter are streaming in a river using ‘Pongpong’ ( a small boat without motor and balance). Photo by: Intercultural Multimedia Center in Siberut.

Education: Among Siberut’s populace, most reached only up to senior high school. Availability of schools in the community remains as the top reason why mainly of them were not able to enter University. However, the economic situation also contributes, given that the whole island has a rich agricultural value. Residents often opted to sell their whole land for instant money in paying school fees, instead of making it sustainable through naturally-grown crops.

Related Article: Looking for affordable accommodation? Check out our Ultimate List of Best Hostels in Indonesia.

Heritage: About 60% of Siberut is still covered with tropical rainforest, which shelters a rich biological community that has earned a spot for UNESCO biosphere reserve. The western half of the island is protected as the Siberut National Park. This preserved natural wealth leads to the conclusion that this island alienated itself in the modern world from the city where it belongs, Padang.

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Sea and Mountain wait until the Sun sets. Photo by: Intercultural Multimedia Center in Siberut.

Transportation: Natural disasters, which threatened Siberut and its neighboring islands in the Mentawai Cluster, also opened a new access for outsiders. They are tsunami-prone areas that invited various groups to visit the islands and build resiliency among people. This can be one of the reasons why boat trips have been expanded and thus exposed the island for tourists to its compelling perfect spots for surfers and even for trekkers.

Before, there’s only a way to get into the Island from Padang. The local government set up boat trips which can take half up to a whole day. Now, faster trips are available, given the following schedules:

Siberut, Indonesia Saving the Mentawai Culture 4Photo by: Mentawai Fast

Sikbaluan is another island in Mentawai. From Padang, your boat will stop for about half an hour. It gives time for some passengers to get off and in or just to grab some lunch in the village.

Tickets can be purchased days before your target date of departure or even the day itself in Padang port that is approximately one hour drive from the [Minangkabau International] Airport. I am sure you will secure your place in the boat by buying beforehand, as only chosen days are available for the trip, especially during peak season.

There will be no problem on how will you go from one corner to another of the island as various choices of vehicles are available. Commonly, it is already pre-arranged by the visitors, which are part of the accommodation’s services they opted to stay in.

The day-to-day Indigenous Life

How is it to live for some days in this community?

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The Common House of Mentawai people. Photo by: Intercultural Multimedia Center in Siberut.

It was in the middle of the year when I visited Siberut. I came from a three-day food festival in Ubud, Bali and wanted to maximize my allowed 30-day visa free entry in Indonesia. A friend of mine recommended visiting Siberut in Mentawai not to experience the waves (of course, I do not know how to swim!) but to meet a group, advocating the culture and environment of Mentawai. So I came there and witnessed how Mentawai people live every day, normally.

June 9, 2015: After quarter-day of sailing and finally reached the island of Siberut, I liked the all-community-like welcome, which consists of the relatives of my co-passengers, private tour guides, and local drivers.

My arrival was normal. Of course, locals do not see me differently as I have the same physical features until I spoke. It was a big surprise for the people who are with us in the public transportation and found it so funny that someone who looks like them is speaking in English! I guess it was more shocking to them than to see white people.

It was an introductory day. Where to stay? Where to eat? I was accompanied to the modern house because it’s the center where mini markets are there and where the boat stops. Signal was still there but only in some corners and time. Electricity was cut from 10 am up to 4 pm daily.

June 10, 2015: The Preview of the Mentawai Culture.

In Muntei Village, visitors are normally invited to come and gaze what the traditional Mentawai house looks like.

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In the center village of Siberut, a model house is built to preserve the Mentawai culture and to remind that this is still being valued despite the coming of a new world in the area. Though people are already adapted in the new clothes, stuff around remained as an indigenous mark. Food proves it. Rice is not their staple food but Sago (flour). It came from the tree and processed as flour and locals cooked it and served as daily food. Sago (tree) reflects a vital role in Mentawai people’s belief as it is the most common sign in their body. Called as ‘Durukat,’ it is usually found from belly button to chess and cheeks. It nearly covers the whole upper body as sago plant signifies life among the locals.

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Photo by: Intercultural Multimedia Center in Siberut.
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The Sago Tree and the processed Sago Food.

June 11, 2015: Entering one’s home is one of the best ways to know someone. There was one family in the other village, renovating their house and I am lucky to be invited to get in because they thought I am their new neighbor. Yes, again, they thought I am an Indonesian and a native.

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Like any other communities near in the forest, people in Siberut can still get free materials but with a limited number only. From roof to wall, they can find the resources around. Men usually get the raw materials and build the house. For women, to stitch the leaves to be used in roofing is their part. It can usually take for two weeks to finish a house, depending on the size and the number of family members who will work. Well, there’s no labor pressure at all as every day, women prepare food and having snacks is the best part as it invites a strong family-tie set up.

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June 12, 2015: The Jungle day! The village where the only remaining strong believers of Mentawai culture is called Jungle. From Muntei village (the center), it needed about 6-hour boat trip to that culturally-preserved area, using the smallest boat they have on the island.

Siberut, Indonesia Saving the Mentawai Culture 11Boats are also one of an essential identities of Mentawai people. At their back, Serapak Abak’ is inked. This means balancer of the boat, denoting the symmetry of nature.

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Photo by: Intercultural Multimedia Center in Siberut.

After a long boat trip of mostly non-moving, the innocence of the area can highly be felt. The flow of the river, breath of the air and freedom of animals were the perfect scene everyone can think of. Kilometers of walk welcomed me. Motorcycles are available but still needed to walk a lot before we found one. Ways are not anyway fully-constructed so most of the moments; I needed to get down to pass by a certain spot. As more people, I can see around, the closer we got to our destination.

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What is more fulfilling than to be welcomed by these girls of the indigenous village?

Heading to the place of the tribe’s leader was the goal. It was a fine afternoon. I was introduced to the highest Mentawai advocates and even entered to their traditional home.

Siberut, Indonesia Saving the Mentawai Culture 14
A second-generation Mentawai Family.

In exploring inside their house, there are three significant points for the Mentawai people. First is the collection areas where they hang the skulls of the animals they caught. Locations of those collections do not simply show how much they killed.

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As you walk from outside, those hanging skulls you can immediately see are categorized specially as they are killed through hunting. On the other hand, those who are hidden, which placed behind the doorway, are those animals slain from their cages. If there are more animal skulls situated near the cooking area, which is the first part you can see as you enter their house, that family is more skilled and therefore, more respected. The cooking area, placing in the center of the house is another important point. The whole Mentawai home has no division and has no doors. This set up is designed for a more welcoming environment. Mentawai people highly invite everyone to see their pure culture.

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Hand-made weapons, usually with poison and used in hunting.

The ‘Jaraik’ gets another special spot in a Mentawai house. It means wood engraving that is believed to be an attraction of good spirits and defender of bad ones.

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It was a whole new experience not only for me but as well as for them to talk with an Asian who is physically same with them. They were used to white foreigners, and they became comfortable in discussing with them about what a Mentawai Culture is until I came. They were surprisingly enthusiastic about sharing to co-southeast Asian about their rich custom. It gives them an assurance of a diverse interest in Mentawai culture.

Before getting on the boat again for hours of sitting, a refreshing Kulu kubuk Waterfalls experience is the best way to have.

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The falls can give you a rejuvenating feeling after a long walk and boat trip, but it will not give you a really neat sense. You need to walk again in a muddy way to get out from the falls, but who cares? Just take a bath as long as you want upon reaching a modern comfort room!

Mentawai as a Culture

“Those who are in business and promoting Mentawai as a surfing gem, they always printed on shirts and to other souvenirs as MENTAWAI ISLANDS. It is wrong; it should be CULTURE.”

A strong articulation from an original Siberut citizen, Joseph Napitupulu.  Technically, information all over the web, including Indonesia’s Tourism, provide ‘Mentawai Islands’ and that can’t be wrong. This local vented on how he wants to introduce the Mentawi better and in a deeper meaning to all its visitors. Aside from the common surfing reason why people are coming in their areas, he then pointed that there’s a true and instinctive jewel in the area, and that is the Mentawai People; the Mentawai Culture.

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The Son of the Village Head and a proud advocate of Mentawai Culture. Photo by: Intercultural Multimedia Center in Siberut.

According to the natives’ tales, the discovery of their terrain was because of the Germans who were in search of spices. This is the time where voyagers from Europe are looking for unique spices along with other continents, including Asia. These Germans, nevertheless, were not fully successful on their initial motive and then decided to build hospitals and churches. Presently, missionaries from Germany are still visible in the community, encompassing activities among disaster victims.

Language: With Indonesia’s hundreds of languages, Mentawai people have their own called ‘Nganga.’ Nearly 100% of the inhabitants know how to practice it but as access to their island is getting wider and the call of technology is affecting them, most opted to speak in Bahasa (the national language of Indonesia).

The Belief: In language, that Mentawai feels is still running smoothly but the only tiny percentage of doers and believers of the ‘Arat Sabulungan’ left. Art depicts culture and Sabulungan for Nature. It is locally classified as a religion but not nationally. In Indonesia, there are six ‘official’ religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism).This system forced the Mentawai people to dress up and choose among the six religions every time they will approach the government.

Tattoo as a Legacy: Tik-tik’ implies ‘immortality’ and the term for a tattoo that plays a vast role to Mentawai people’s belief.

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Photo by: Intercultural Multimedia Center in Siberut.

Only accredited members of the tribe are allowed to put ink to someone who wants it. This is also must be arranged ahead of time as Mentawai people are preparing for the rituals. Simply, it is like the biggest celebrations of the world such as wedding and if someone gives birth.

To be a visitor was not a complete hindrance. Specific details might not be completely expressed by the Mentawai people through words, but I knew, and I felt their eagerness to spread this nearly dying culture.

Monkey Dividers

About the Writer

To Nuremberg: A Letter to the City I fell in love and will forever beJessica Ayun is a Freelance Writer who writes if 5-10 cups of coffee  a day will be served. She used to work as a TV Researcher but her feet are always curious to  step into new places so she decided to work in the communities of Visayas and Mindanao as  a  Documenter for almost two years, through a non-government organization (NGO). She tries to see the “real  happiness” in  every person she meets and every place she goes to. She will always choose mountains than beaches.

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59 thoughts on “SIBERUT, Indonesia: Saving the Mentawai Culture

  1. Hi, after all these years can you share how you organised your trip to the mentawai? Did you spreak to a local guide beforehand? Who was he? Thanks

  2. I felt like I was traveling with you to the villages of Mentawai. Sadly, but it seems that everyone is losing their identity due to the globalization processes. You are very lucky to have had a chance to experience the culture that still has big traces of its past in it.

    1. The locals are trying to keep the culture and hope the tourists can support it whenever they are in Siberut, Mentawai.

  3. Getting up close and personal to a dying culture is priceless. You get to experience how they live, work, eat, and even be a part of their family and get to know personal details about them. I hope there were ways introduced to you guys on how to preserve and share their culture to others.

    Those animal skulls hanging on the ceiling and those hand-made weapons with poison gave me the creeps.

    1. Yes, Dominic! The people of Siberut are giving every visitor about they want to preserve its culture. Those skulls are part of it. Hehe

  4. I have to agree with Sam. Getting to experience their culture is one of the most incredible things you’ll feel when you travel. Trying to immerse yourself in the community and being one with the locals is worth all your time and effort.

    1. Totally true, Maria! One of the best travels I had so far is here in Siberut, Mentawai due to its culture and genuine assets.

  5. The best part of travel is getting to know the culture. I like how this photoshoot looked because it emphasized on that, not just the sights. These photos remind me of Whang-Od. We really should take the time to do cultural trips.

    1. Right, Sam! Both the Philippines and Indonesia have lots of culture to preserve and to appreciate. Siberut, Mentawai is one of those.

  6. I have always been interested in learning and seeing first hand how the indigenous community lives. I’ve never been this up close and personal to a group before. I see you learned a lot from their culture and the whole place as well. Looking forward to the day I can finally visit Indonesia. I hope I can drop by this area too!

    1. I am sure you will be in Indonesia someday, Rej! Don’t missed Siberut, Mentawi and let me know how would be you trip.

  7. What an amazing adventure! I visit Bali regularly but have never made it off the island. What a great opportunity to live like a local, even if it was only for four days. You pictures are stunning and the waterfall looks lovely!

  8. Thank you for sharing this. This gives me a clearer picture of the lives of the locals. I particularly love the mentawi houses and would want to experience going inside and even sleeping there. The hanging skulls may both send fear and admiration to tourists.

    1. Great insights on the skulls, Momi Berlin. Siberut, Mentawai can’t be all tourists’ taste but sure the appreciation would be huge.

  9. This was such a beautiful and very informative post. It’s always great to learn about other places & cultures from other bloggers. More than the houses that remind of our own bahay kubos, how they preserved the Mentawai culture and way of life are amazing. Hanging the skulls of the animals would creep out some folks, but knowing that it stands prestige and is considered something really important for them – ang galing diba? Traveling does make us richer. I’m sure this must have been a different yet an amazing travel experience. Not everyone will be able to do it, so good job.

    1. Wow, Russ! Love the point that it does make us richer. Thank you for reminding me that! That’s the most important after all. Siberut, Mentawai will make one wealthier when it comes to culture.

  10. You have explained the real meaning of travel through this post. The pictures depict every single detail and I felt like I was around while reading this.

  11. Jessica,

    This is amazing! I totally enjoyed your post and could almost imagine what it was like to be there. This is what travel should be, being assimilated in the lives of locals. It is how you can have a truly fascinating experience and better understanding that simply watching or reading about it could never give.

    P.S. I almost missed it so I had to read again. I was puzzled by the significance of the skulls.

    1. Thank you, Robert. Comments like this can simply inspire people to travel humbly and based on benefits of them and the places they are about to visit.

      Yes, The people of Siberut, Mentawai has some cultural-basis and societal status significance in terms of the skulls.

  12. The pictures are incredibly beautiful. I wish I could ride a ‘Pongpong’ (first time I’ve heard the name). It was interesting that you gave us such interesting insights about the culture as well – that’s mostly my reason #1 when I visit somewhere new.

    1. My first time to hear the term as well. It was a fascinating ride but not all might want it. Hehe. One of the things you should try in Siberut, Mentawai though.

  13. Wow this place looks incredible, I would love love love to ride in one of those long boats but I have never been anywhere that has had them! It looks like you had such a great trip.

  14. Super interesting post about the Mentawai culture. I was amazed that so much of their traditions were still intact. However I do feel its only a matter of time before they are modernised like the rest of us……I hope I’m wrong. Great!

  15. This was honestly such an interesting, in depth post. I’m so intrigued about the Mentawai Culture. It sounds like you had such an amazing experience there, and I’m so happy you shared it with us!

  16. Right now I am mildly jealous of the simpleness of life… no technology beeping away to ruin the peace and quiet x

  17. I would love to visit and explore civilizations that are fading before our very eyes. It makes me sad that we continue to destroy what little bit of the planet we have left.

    1. there’s still time to save it. Hehe. More importantly, responsible appreciation in every place is a must. 😉

  18. What an absolutely amazing post. So informative, and a real insight into the lives of the inhabitants of the island. I had never heard of this island before, so I found the post really refreshing.

  19. This was so interesting to read and learn about a different culture. You must have had such an amazing few days there! The photographs are beautiful, I especially loved the waterfall photo.

    1. That’s one of my 2015 highlights, Helen. Thank you and I know you will see that refreshing waterfall too soon. 🙂

  20. Oh wow. This post was such an interesting read. I love reading about other cultures/countries. Amazing photos.

    1. Thank you! Glad you loved it. 😉 Hope you and your kids will have more time to explore other cultures. 🙂

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