Keeping Ahead in Borneo

on Monday, April 30, 2007

"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
..........You'll be a man, my son."
(adapted from Rudyard Kipling's "If")

Murut Women Dancing to Clapping Bamboo (LGS)
The equatorial island of Borneo is an exotic place - the third largest island in the world. There are over 100 ethnic groups on the island including the famous headhunter tribes. The largest of these are the Ibans of Sarawak. In Sabah, the most feared are the Muruts or the Hill People. In the 19th Century, the strange rule of the White Rajah's had settled over much of Sarawak and the western part of Borneo. The central region was dominated by the Brunei Sultanate and the northern region was under the influence of the Sulu Sultanate located in what is now the southern Philippines. The state of Sabah was thus divided between the Brunei and the Sulu Sultanates. In reality though, the sultans' influences and rivalries were mostly concentrated along the coast and the interior tribes were never directly under their rule. Later, Sabah came under the control of the British North Borneo Charted Company from 1881-1941. The Muruts were one of the last tribes to submit to British authority and probably the last to stop the practice of headhunting. Official history states that headhunting was outlawed in the 1920's. However, there are tales of Japanese soldiers and Indonesian soldiers suffering from that fate during the Second World War and in the Confrontation of 1962-1966 respectively.

Fierce Murut Warriors Can Dance Too (LGS)

The Ibans believe when they take the head of an enemy, they absorb the life essence of that person. As such the head of a proven warrior is highly prized. The Muruts have a different belief. For them, it was simply necessary to have heads and it did not matter whether it was the head of a brave warrior or that of a frail grandmother. A Murut man would be required to give a head to the family of his chosen bride as proof of his manhood. If the crops fail, it would be necessary to bury a head in the field so that it would be fertile the following year. All the wise men would tell you that if you build a bridge across a river, you need to bury at least one head to ensure the bridge will last. So for the Murut, it was a daily necessity to have some heads handy!

Today, they smile and tell you that they almost never hear of this type of behavior anymore. They'd rather do some dances for the visiting tourist and scalp their wallets. The Murut dances are also exciting stuff but let me digress to tell you a bit about the traditional costumes. The men wear a red loincloth as well as a jacket and headdress made of tree bark from the tree Artocarpus tamaran. The headdress is decorated with the beautiful and long feathers of the argus pheasant.

The women are attired in a short, black, sleeveless blouse and long black skirt decorated with colorful beads. They may also wear bracelets made from the giant clam.

And so, the unwary tourist may find himself lulled into the belief that the Murut are now peace-loving and that he is safe in their company as they regale him with stories of the old days and entertain him with exciting tribal dances. Beware, invariably all the dances lead to the "clapping bamboo" dance. The Murut will bring long bamboo poles. In pairs, they will take two of these poles and lying them side by side will rhythmically knock the poles against the ground and then against each other. The Murut warriors and their maidens will then do intricate dances which involve sticking their feet between the clapping bamboo. Needless to say, this involves exquisite timing to avoid having squashed feet.

Tourists will see the dancers appear to do the impossible as the bamboo clapping goes faster and faster. So pacified, the tourist will think nothing of it when the dancers innocently invite the tourists to join them, assuring the tourists that they will guide them all the way. The dance starts almost in slow motion and the tourists are lulled into thinking that this is easy. However, the pace picks up and the tourists are still having fun. Finally though the rhythm reaches a crescendo when the bamboo clap like lightning. Invariably, there are many squashed feet, cries of pain and hobbled tourists........ not a pretty sight! Alas, the pitiful end was obvious.

I wonder how many squashed tourist feet are needed for the young Murut warrior to earn the right to date the girl of his dreams.

Headhunters are known to bamboo chop tourist feet! (LGS)

Heads are intact but Feet are sore (LGS)


Janice Thomson said...

I'm going to be mighty careful if any First peoples ever ask me to dance near bamboo! It is amazing the bizarre customs that haunt these tribal peoples, even to this day in places like Africa as well. It is fascinating to read the history on Borneo. Interesting how quickly even tribal people figure out the power of money...I noticed this quickly in Jamaica too...looking forward to more Lgs

Anonymous said...

Very cool! Thanks for the pictures. I have seen people from the Philliphines do a similar bamboo dance and enjoyed it very much.


Becky Wolfe said...

Great photos! Aside from the foot squashing, I bet it was a feast for the eyes to be watching this! (did you do any dancing?)

Thanks for the summary on the ENDANGERED animals & ecosystems!

Looking forward to hearing more!

Squirrel said...

What a fascinating post and great pics! Those costumes are beautiful! Glad you had a good time!

Anonymous said...

Welcome back.
Fascinating information and the photos are great.

Ruth said...

I just love reading your blog...I'm learning about a whole new area for me. Keep up the good work. I really would love to see that part of the world some day.

my backyard said...

Did you learn this lesson through painful experience?

Great photos!

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I exaggerate for effect. Please don't let me put you off getting up and dance. Stepped on toes or squashed feet! What's the difference! ;)

I've seen the Philippine version too. The Philippine version has a few additional elements (e.g. the dancers carry the bamboo in on their shoulders with two dancers balanced on the bamboo... very elegant!).

yes, this is something you have to see with your own eyes. Photos (at least my photos) cannot capture the energy and vibrancy of the dancers. And, yes, I have sore feet.

Glad you liked it. Thanks.

Thanks. I think it would have been something you would enjoy. By the way, have you been over to heartsinsanfrancisco ? There is a picture there that could be of you nekkid and letting it all hang out! lol. Check it out!

well I hope you will get the chance to see this part of the world. Thanks for the words of encouragement.

my backyard,
Let's see. Head intact. feet sore and squashed. Yup! Speaking from experience!

Tai said...

No bamboo dancing for me, thanks!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I learned more from this post than I ever knew about Borneo, a fascinating area.

American sideshows used to have a "wild man from Borneo" on display, but aside from that and their reputation as headhunters, I knew almost nothing.

Wonderful pictures, too. I wouldn't worry about my feet in a land of severed heads.

Anonymous said...

Well, I would rather have my feet squashed then my head chopped off so I suppose I would try the dance, just in case there were any people from the "old school" there and would have any ideas of doing a bit of chopping of the heads.

Great post as always...

geewits said...

I've seen that dance on TV. It's very impressive. It sounds like you had a very interesting trip. The pictures are great. Oh, and you DO know the name of my blog is from Kipling's poem?

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I am surprised that someone who plays with swords on her head shys away from feet crippling clapping bamboo.

It is likely that the "Wild Man of Borneo" actually refers to the Orang Utan which is the red Ape. The name "Orang Utan" actually means Man of the Jungle.

Good on you for being game to try the crippling dance! Hahaha.

I didn't know! But now I do. The last verse in the poem. While we're at this, what does "geewits" mean? Inquiring squirrels want to know.

Josie said...

What a wonderful story. I once saw a shrunken head from Borneo. An acquaintance of a friend of mine had one, and it was fascinating to look at, and gory and bizarre at the same time.

I have seen the bamboo dancing, and I love the sound of it.

Great post!


Odat said...

they went from head chopping to feet chopping??? oh my!

Anyway, it was a great post...thanks for the history lesson...

Open Grove Claudia said...

WOW! That gives new meaning to "watch your head!" I love that they "say" it doesn't happen... makes you wonder doesn't it! Thanks for sharing!

patterns of ink said...

Fascinating narrative and great photos. Hope there's more coming.
What a trip! I was taken by the similarity of dress (first photo) between those dancers and Native American dress and dance. We have Ottawa Indian tribes and other in our area. I've heard that the similarities may exist because of common heritage from way, way back. I wish I knew more about that. Is it just coincidence?

CS said...

Welcome back - looks from the photos like it was a great trip. I think it so easy to lose sight of the incredible variety of cultures unles you do some traveling. There is some dancng similar to tha in Hawaii also, with the bamboo poles.

geewits said...

As for "geewits," it's a combination of things. I mispronounce things on purpose* with the "ts" sound instead of "s" or "z" so it's a take off of "Gee Wiz!" I came up with it back in the 90's when I was playing NTN trivia in bars. And "wits" is a cool word.

*An example of the "ts" thing is my cat's name is Rufus, and when I'm being silly I pronounce it "roofits."

Now you're probably sorry you asked.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

What interesting friends you have with their own personal collection of shrunken heads! (Squirrel quickly makes notes never to offend Josie as she has powerful friends!)

It's a natural skill .... chopping, that is.

Remember when I offered my services as a mad scientist? I now also have connections for head hunters!

It would be interesting to look into the similarities in the costumes further. It is guided not just by cultural beliefs but availability of materials.

Didn't know the bamboo dance thing was also in Hawaii. Maybe it is found in the Pacific Rim cultures. Hmmmm. Interesting.

Interesting but confusing.

Anonymous said...

I will check out the pic at hearts.
I forgot to mention the women dancers look Hot!lol

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