Dayak people

The Dayak (/ˈd.ək/ (audio speaker iconlisten); older spelling: Dajak) or Dyak or Dayuh are one of the native groups of Borneo.[4] It is a loose term for over 200 riverine and hill-dwelling ethnic groups, located principally in the central and southern interior of Borneo, each with its own dialect, customs, laws, territory, and culture, although common distinguishing traits are readily identifiable. Dayak languages are categorised as part of the Austronesian languages. The Dayak were animist in belief; however, since the 19th century there has been mass conversion to Christianity as well as Islam due to the spreading of foreign religions.[5]

Dayak people
Young Ibans, or Sea Dayaks.jpg
A sub-ethnic group of the Dayak people, Iban or Sea Dajak boy and girl in traditional clothing.
Total population
6.3 million+
Regions with significant populations
      West Kalimantan1,531,989
     Central Kalimantan1,029,182
      East Kalimantan351,437
      South Kalimantan80,708
      West Java45,233
      South Sulawesi29,254
      East Java14,741
      South Sumatra11,329
 Malaysia3,138,788[citation needed]
Malayo-Polynesian languages
Dayak languages
Ngaju • Iban • Klemantan • Kayan • Ot Danum • Barito • Bakumpai • Ma'anyan
Indonesian and Malay languages
Berau Malay • Kutai Malay • Mempawah • Sarawak Malay • Brunei Malay • Sabah Malay
Christianity (Protestantism, Catholic) (62.7%)
Islam (Sunni) (31.6%)
Kaharingan (4.8%)
and Others (i.e. Animism) (1%)[3]
Related ethnic groups
Austronesian peoples
Banjarese • Malays • Rejang • Sundanese • Malagasy


The Dayak sociolinguistic map as described by Tjilik Riwut in 1954, which divided the Dayak groups into Ngaju, Apu Kayan, Iban, Klemantan, Murut, Punan, and Ot Danum.

The Dayak people of Borneo possess an indigenous account of their history, mostly in oral literature,[6] partly in writing in papan turai (wooden records),[7] and partly in common cultural customary practices.[8] Among prominent accounts of the origin of the Dayak people is the mythical oral epic of "Tetek Tahtum" by the Ngaju Dayak of Central Kalimantan; it narrates that the ancestors of the Dayak people descended from the heavens before moving from inland to the downstream shores of Borneo.[citation needed]

The independent state of Nansarunai, established by the Ma'anyan Dayaks prior to the 12th century, flourished in southern Kalimantan.[9] The kingdom suffered two major attacks from the Majapahit forces that caused the decline and fall of the kingdom by the year 1389; the attacks are known as Nansarunai Usak Jawa (meaning "the destruction of the Nansarunai by the Javanese") in the oral accounts of the Ma'anyan people. These attacks contributed to the migration of the Ma'anyans to the Central and South Borneo region.

The colonial accounts and reports of Dayak activity in Borneo detail carefully cultivated economic and political relationships with other communities as well as an ample body of research and study concerning the history of Dayak migrations.[10] In particular, the Iban or the Sea Dayak exploits in the South China Seas are documented, owing to their ferocity and aggressive culture of war against sea-dwelling groups and emerging Western trade interests in the 18th and 19th centuries.[11]

In 1838, adventurer James Brooke arrived in the region to find the Sultan of Brunei in a desperate attempt to suppress a rebellion against his rule. Brooke aided the Sultan in putting down the rebellion, for which he was made Governor of Sarawak in 1841, being granted the title of Rajah. Brooke undertook operations to suppress Dayak piracy, establishing a secondary objective to put an end to their custom of headhunting as well. During his tenure as Governor, Brooke's most well-known Dayak opponent was the military commander Rentap; Brooke led three expeditions against him and finally defeated him at the Battle of Sadok Hill. During the expeditions, Brooke employed numerous Dayak troops, quipping that "only Dayaks can kill Dayaks".[12] Brooke became embroiled in controversy in 1851 when accusations against him of excessive usage of force against the Dayaks, under the guise of anti-piracy operations, ultimately led to the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry in Singapore in 1854. After an investigation, the Commission dismissed the charges.[13] Brooke employed his Dayak troops during other military expeditions, such as those against the Chinese-Malaysian insurgent Liu Shan Bang and Sarawak warrior Sharif Masahor.[14][15]

During the Second World War, Japanese forces occupied Borneo and treated all of the indigenous peoples poorly – massacres of the Malay and Dayak peoples were common, especially among the Dayaks of the Kapit Division.[16] In response, the Dayaks formed a special force to assist the Allied forces. Eleven US airmen and a few dozen Australian special operatives trained a thousand Dayaks from the Kapit Division in guerrilla warfare. This army of tribesmen killed or captured some 1,500 Japanese soldiers and provided the Allies with vital intelligence about Japanese-held oil fields.[17]

During the Malayan Emergency, the British military employed Dayak troops against the Malayan National Liberation Army.[18] News of this reached the British parliament in 1952 after The Daily Worker published photographs of Royal Marines posing with Dayak scouts holding the severed heads of suspected MNLA members.[19] Initially, the British government denied allowing Dayak troops to practise headhunting against the MNLA, until Colonial Secretary Oliver Lyttleton confirmed to Parliament that the Dayaks were indeed granted such a right to do so. All Dayak troops were disbanded upon the end of the conflict.[20]

Coastal populations in Borneo are largely Muslim in belief, however, these groups (Tidung, Banjarese, Bulungan, Paser, Kutainese, Bakumpai) are generally considered to be Malayised and Islamised native of Borneo and heavily amalgamated by the Malay people, culture, and sultanate system. These groups identified themselves as Melayu or Malay subgroup due to the closer cultural identity to the Malay people,[21][22][full citation needed][23][full citation needed] compared from the Dayak umbrella classification, as the latter is traditionally associated with their pagan belief and tribal lifestyle.[citation needed]

The Dayak people classification is largely limited among the ethnic groups traditionally concentrated in southern and interior Sarawak and Kalimantan. Other native groups dwelling in northern Sarawak, parts of Brunei and Sabah, chiefly the Bisayah, Orang Ulu, Kadazandusun, Melanau, Rungus, and dozens of smaller groups were categorised under a separate classification apart from the Dayaks due to the difference in culture and history.[citation needed]

Other groups in coastal areas of Sabah and northeastern Kalimantan; namely the Illanun, Tausūg, Sama, and Bajau, although inhabiting and (in the case of the Tausug group) ruling the northern tip of Borneo for centuries, have their cultural origins from the southern Philippines. These groups though may be indigenous to coastal northeastern Borneo, are nonetheless not Dayak, but instead are grouped under the separate umbrella term of Moro, especially in the Philippines.[citation needed]


Various indigenous Malay and Dayak homeland in Indonesian Borneo. In contrast to the coastal Borneo which is predominantly inhabited by ethnic Malay and Banjarese people, the Dayak groups were located further in the inland Kalimantan. Apart from Kalimantan, the Dayak groups can be found in the Malaysian state of Sarawak and Brunei.

The term "Dayak", a local Malay word ("daya", "daya'" or "dayuh")[24] equivalent to "savages",[25] started out as a derogatory term used by coastal-dwelling Malays that were adopted by the European colonial administrations as a general term referring to all non-Muslims tribes in the interior.[26] There are seven main ethnic divisions of Dayaks according to their respective native languages, customs, and cultures which are:

  1. Ngaju
  2. Apo Kayan including Orang Ulu
  3. Iban (Sea Dayak) or Hivan
  4. Bidayuh (Land Dayak) or Klemantan
  5. Kadazan, Dusun, Murut
  6. Punan
  7. Ot Danum

Under the main classifications, there are dozens of ethnics and hundreds of sub-ethnics dwelling in the Borneo island. There are over 30 ethnic Dayak groups speaking different languages. This cultural and linguistic diversity parallels the high biodiversity and related traditional knowledge of Borneo.

The above list of Dayak clusters by Tjilik Riwut was revised by the First International Dayak Congress and Exhibition in 2017 to become: Ngaju-Ot Danum, Apo Kayan-Kenyan, Iban, Klemantan, Kadazan-Dusun, and Punan.[citation needed]


Dayaks do not speak just one language.[27] Their indigenous languages belong in the general classification of Malayo-Polynesian languages and to diverse groups such as Land Dayak, Malayic, Sabahan, and Barito languages.[28][29] Nowadays most Dayaks are bilingual, in addition to their native language, are well-versed in Indonesian.

Many of Borneo's languages are endemic (which means they are spoken nowhere else). It is estimated that around 170 languages and dialects are spoken on the island and some by just a few hundred people, thus posing a serious risk to the future of those languages and related heritage.

Headhunting and peacemakingEdit

The gallery in the interior of a Kayan Dayak house with skulls and weapons along the wall, exhibiting their headhunter culture

In the past, the Dayaks were feared for their ancient tradition of headhunting practices (the ritual is also known as Ngayau by the Dayaks).

A Dayak with earrings and a lance (taken c. 1920, Dutch Borneo). The Dayaks are previously reputed to be headhunters by the Europeans. In the first half of the 19th century, the Dutch Colonial government in Eastern and Southern Borneo successfully curtailed the traditional headhunting culture by the Dayaks. In reality not all Dayaks were Hunter-gatherers, most Dayaks in the 19th century are actually farmers, mainly engaging with shifting cultivation. They also gathered forest goods and animal hunting.

Reasons for abandoning headhunting are:[citation needed]

  • Suppression of headhunting and piracy through punitive expeditions and enactment of relevant laws by the colonial governments such as Brooke in Sarawak and Dutch in Kalimantan.
  • Peacemaking agreements at Tumbang Anoi, Kalimantan in 1874, and Kapit, Sarawak in 1924.
  • Coming of Christianity, with education where Dayaks are taught that headhunting is murder and against the Christian Bible's teachings.
  • Dayaks' own realisation that headhunting was more to lose than to gain[citation needed]
The Dayak longhouses along the Kahayan River taken in Tumbang Anoi village (c. 1894), the village witnessed the Tumbang Anoi Agreement 20 years earlier in 1874 that ended the headhunting practise by the Dayak people in Dutch Borneo (Kalimantan).

Among the most prominent legacy during the colonial rule in the Dutch Borneo (present-day Kalimantan) is the Tumbang Anoi Agreement held in 1874 in Damang Batu, Central Kalimantan (the seat of the Kahayan Dayaks). It is a formal meeting that gathered all the Dayak tribes in Kalimantan for a peace resolution. In the meeting that is reputed taken several months, the Dayak people throughout the Kalimantan agreed to end the headhunting tradition as it believed the tradition caused conflict and tension between various Dayak groups. The meeting ended with a peace resolution by the Dayak people.[30]

After mass conversions to Christianity and anti-headhunting legislation by the European administrations was passed, the practice was banned and appeared to have disappeared. However, the Brooke-led Sarawak government, although banning unauthorized headhunting, allowed "ngayau" headhunting practices by the Brooke-supporting natives during military expeditions against rebellions throughout the state, thereby never really extinguishing the spirit of headhunting especially among the Iban natives. The state-sanctioned troops were allowed to take heads, properties like jars and brassware, burn houses and farms, exempted from paying door taxes, and in some cases, granted new territories to migrate into. This Brooke's practice was in remarkable contrast to the practice by the Dutch in the neighbouring West Kalimantan who prohibited any native participation in its punitive expeditions. Initially, James Brooke (the first Rajah of Sarawak) did engage his small navy in the Battle of Beting Maru against the Iban and Malay of the Saribas region and the Iban of Skrang under Rentap's charge but this resulted in the Public Inquiry by the colonial government in Singapore. Thereafter, the Brooke government gathered a local troop who were its allies.[citation needed]

Subsequently, the headhunting began to surface again in the mid-1940s, when the Allied powers encouraged the practice against the Japanese occupation of Borneo.[31] It also slightly surged in the late 1960s when the Indonesian government encouraged Dayaks to purge the Chinese from interior Kalimantan who were suspected of supporting communism in mainland China and also in the late 1990s when the Dayak started to attack Madurese emigrants in an explosion of ethnic violence.[32]

Headhunting resurfaced in 1963 among Dayak soldiers during the Confrontation Campaign by President Sukarno of Indonesia against the newly created formation of Malaysia between the pre-existing Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak on 16 September 1963. Subsequently, Dayak trackers recruited during the Malayan Emergency against the Communists' Insurgency wanted to behead enemies killed during their military operations but disallowed by their superiors.[citation needed]

Headhunting or human sacrifice was also practised by other tribes such as follows:

  • Toraja community in Sulawesi used adat Ma’ Barata (human sacrifice) in Rambu Solo’ ritual which is still held until the arrival of the Hindi Dutch which is a custom to honour someone with a symbol of a great warrior and bravery in a war.[33]
  • In Gomo, Sumatra, there were megalithic artifacts where one of them is "batu pancung" (beheading stone) on which to tie any captive or convicted criminals for beheading.[34]
  • One distinction was their ritual practice of headhunting, once prevalent among tribal warriors in Nagaland and among the Naga tribes in Myanmar. They used to take the heads of enemies to take on their power.[citation needed]

Agriculture, land tenure and economyEdit

A troupe of Bahau Dayak performers during the Hudoq festival (Harvest festival) in Samarinda, the Residency of South and East Kalimantan, Dutch East Indies (present-day East Kalimantan, Indonesia). (Taken c. 1898–1900)

The Dayak are swidden cultivators who supplement their incomes by seeking forest products, both for subsistence (ferns, medicinal plants, fibers, and timber) and for sale; by fishing and hunting and by periodic wage labor.[35]

Traditionally, Dayak agriculture was based on actual integrated indigenous farming system. Iban Dayaks tend to plant paddy on hill slopes while Maloh Dayaks prefer flatlands as discussed by King.[36] Agricultural Land in this sense was used and defined primarily in terms of hill rice farming, ladang (garden), and hutan (forest). According to Prof Derek Freeman in his Report on Iban Agriculture, Iban Dayaks used to practice twenty-seven stages of hill rice farming once a year and their shifting cultivation practices allow the forest to regenerate itself rather than to damage the forest, thereby to ensure the continuity and sustainability of forest use and/or survival of the Iban community itself.[37][38] The Iban Dayaks love virgin forests for their dependency on forests but that is for migration, territorial expansion, and/or fleeing enemies.

Dayaks organised their labour in terms of traditionally based landholding groups which determined who owned rights to land and how it was to be used. The Iban Dayaks practice a rotational and reciprocal labour exchange called bedurok to complete works on their farms own by all families within each longhouse. The "green revolution" in the 1950s, spurred on the planting of new varieties of wetland rice amongst Dayak tribes.[citation needed]

To get cash, Dayaks collect jungle produce for sales at markets. With the coming of cash crops, Dayaks start to plant rubber, pepper, cocoa, etc. Nowadays, some Dayaks plant oil palm on their lands while others seek employment or involve in trade.[citation needed]

One belief is when people die hornbills come into their souls.[citation needed]

The main dependence on subsistence and mid-scale agriculture by the Dayak has made this group active in this industry. The modern-day rise in large-scale monocrop plantations such as palm oil and bananas, proposed for vast swathes of Dayak land held under customary rights, titles, and claims in Indonesia, threaten the local political landscape in various regions in Borneo.[citation needed]

Further problems continue to arise in part due to the shaping of the modern Malaysian and Indonesian nation-states on post-colonial political systems and laws on land tenure. The conflict between the state and the Dayak natives on land laws and native customary rights will continue as long as the colonial model on land tenure is used against local customary law. The main precept of land use, in local customary law, is that cultivated land is owned and held in right by the native owners, and the concept of land ownership flows out of this central belief. This understanding of adat is based on the idea that land is used and held under native domain. Invariably, when colonial rule was first felt in the Kalimantan Kingdoms, conflict over the subjugation of territory erupted several times between the Dayaks and the respective authorities.[citation needed]

Religion and festivalsEdit

Religion of Dayak People

  Roman Catholic (32.5%)
  Sunni Islam (31.6%)
  Protestant (30.2%)
  Kaharingan (4.8%)
  Others, mostly Animism (0.9%)
Dayak chief as seen holding a spear and a Klebit Bok shield.


The Dayak indigenous religion has been given the name Kaharingan, and may be said to be a form of animism. The name was coined by Tjilik Riwut in 1944 during his tenure as a Dutch colonial Resident in Sampit, Dutch East Indies. In 1945, during the Japanese occupation, the Japanese referred to Kaharingan as the religion of the Dayak people. During the New Order in the Suharto regime in 1980, the Kaharingan is registered as a form of Hinduism in Indonesia, as the Indonesian state only recognises 6 forms of religion i.e. Islam, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism respectively. The integration of Kaharingan with Hinduism is not due to the similarities in the theological system, but due to the fact that Kaharingan is the oldest belief in Kalimantan. Unlike the development in Indonesian Kalimantan, the Kaharingan is not recognised as a religion both in Malaysian Borneo and Brunei, thus the traditional Dayak belief system is known as a form of folk animism or paganism on the other side of the Indonesian border.[39]

The best and still unsurpassed study of traditional Dayak religion in Kalimantan is that of Hans Scharer, Ngaju Religion: The Conception of God among a South Borneo People; translated by Rodney Needham (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1963). The practice of Kaharingan differs from group to group, but shamans, specialists in ecstatic flight to other spheres, are central to Dayak religion and serve to bring together the various realms of Heaven (Upper-world) and earth, and even Under-world, for example healing the sick by retrieving their souls which are journeying on their way to the Upper-world land of the dead, accompanying and protecting the soul of a dead person on the way to their proper place in the Upper-world, presiding over annual renewal and agricultural regeneration festivals, etc.[40] Death rituals are most elaborate when a noble (kamang) dies.[41] On particular religious occasions, the spirit is believed to descend to partake in a celebration, a mark of honour and respect to past ancestors and blessings for a prosperous future.[citation needed]

A sandung, which houses the remains of a Pesaguan Dayak in Ketapang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. As the rise of Christianity within the Dayak community since the 19th century, the traditional burial based on Kaharingan belief is on the verge of extinction.
A Hudoq mask, performed mainly in the Hudoq festival in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Held in September–October each year, the event is celebrated as a harvest festival by the Bahau, Busang, Modang, Ao'heng, and Penihing Dayak groups in the Mahakam river basin.
The Islamised Bakumpai Dayak that mainly concentrated in Barito River system, South Kalimantan. (photo taken circa 1920s)
The Dayak tribe during an Erau ceremony in Tenggarong, Dutch Borneo


Over the last two centuries, some Dayaks converted to Christianity, abandoned certain cultural rites and ancestors' practices. All Dayak God and Deity has been labeled as mythology and converted Dayak Christian are not allowed to worship this Dayak's God and Deity indirectly making Dayak people had forgotten their original religion and ritual. Christianity was introduced by European missionaries in Borneo. Religious differences between Muslim and Christian natives of Borneo has led, at various times, to communal tensions.[42] Relations, however between all religious groups are generally good.

Many Christian Dayak has changed their name to European name but some minority still maintain their ancestors' traditional names. Since Iban has been converted to Christianity, some of them abandoned their ancestors' beliefs such as 'Miring' or celebrate 'Gawai Antu' but many celebrate only Christianized traditional festivals. However, some think there is no need to abandon their tribal beliefs to be replaced by new religions which may lead to the loss of their identity and culture. They require only the appropriate modernization of their way of life to be in sync with the development and progress of contemporary time.[citation needed]

Despite the destruction of pagan religions in Europe by Christians, most of the people who try to conserve the Dayaks' religion are local people and certain missionaries. For example, Reverend William Howell contributed numerous articles on the Iban language, lore, and culture between 1909 and 1910 to the Sarawak Gazette. The articles were later compiled in a book in 1963 entitled, The Sea Dayaks and Other Races of Sarawak.[43]

Bidayuh or Klemantan celebrates Gawai Padi (Paddy Festival)[44] or Gawai Adat Naik Dingo (Paddy Storing Festival).[45]

Society and customsEdit

Dayak headhunters
Sea Dayaks (Iban) women from Rejang, Sarawak, wearing rattan corsets decorated with brass rings and filigree adornments. The family adds to the corset dress as the girl ages and based on her family's wealth.
One of the basic Dayak dances performed in a ceremony in 2007
A Dayak Longhouse, known as Rumah Betang in Indonesia or Rumah Panjang in Malaysia, the traditional dwelling of many Dayak Tribes. Original watercolour painting by Carl Schwaner, 1853.
Dayak Festival in a traditional Longhouse, 1846, Dutch Borneo.
1880s-1920s. Two Dayak women with drums.

Kinship in Dayak society is traced in both lines of genealogy (tusut). Although in Dayak Iban society, men and women possess equal rights in status and property ownership, the political office has strictly been the occupation of the traditional Iban patriarch. There is a council of elders in each longhouse.

Overall, Dayak leadership in any given region is marked by titles, a Penghulu for instance would have invested authority on behalf of a network of Tuai Rumah's and so on to a Pemancha, Pengarah to Temenggung in the ascending order while Panglima or Orang Kaya (Rekaya) are titles given by Malays to some Dayaks.

Individual Dayak groups have their social and hierarchy systems defined internally, and these differ widely from Ibans to Ngajus and Benuaqs to Kayans.

In Sarawak, Temenggong Koh Anak Jubang was the first paramount chief of Dayaks in Sarawak and was followed by Tun Temenggong Jugah Anak Barieng who was one of the main signatories for the formation of the Federation of Malaysia between Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak with Singapore expelled later on. He was said to be the "bridge between Malaya and East Malaysia".[12] The latter was fondly called "Apai" by others, which means father. He received no western or formal education.

The most salient feature of Dayak social organisation is the practice of Longhouse domicile. This is a structure supported by hardwood posts that can be hundreds of metres long, usually located along a terraced river bank. At one side is a long communal platform, from which the individual households can be reached.

The Iban of the Kapuas and Sarawak have organised their Longhouse settlements in response to their migratory patterns. Iban longhouses vary in size, from those slightly over 100 metres in length to large settlements over 500 metres in length. Longhouses have a door and apartment for every family living in the longhouse. For example, a longhouse of 200 doors is equivalent to a settlement of 200 families.

The tuai rumah (longhouse chief) can be aided by a tuai burong (bird leader), tuai umai (farming leader), and a manang (shaman). Nowadays, each longhouse will have a Security and Development Committee and ad hoc committee will be formed as and when necessary for example during festivals such as Gawai Dayak.

The Dayaks are peace-loving people who live based on customary rules or adat asal which govern each of their main activities. The adat is administered by the tuai rumah aided by the Council of Elders in the longhouse so that any dispute can be settled amicably among the dwellers themselves via berandau (discussion). If no settlement can be reached at the longhouse chief level, then the dispute will escalate to a more senior leader in the region or pengulu (district chief) level in modern times and so on.

Among the main sections of customary adat of the Iban Dayaks are as follows:

  • Adat berumah (House building rule)
  • Adat melah pinang, butang ngau sarak (Marriage, adultery, and divorce rule)
  • Adat beranak (Childbearing and raising rule)
  • Adat bumai and beguna tanah (Agricultural and land use rule)
  • Adat ngayau (Headhunting rule) and adapt ngintu anti Pala (head skull keeping)
  • Adat ngasu, berikan, ngembuah and napang (Hunting, fishing, fruit and honey collection rule)
  • Adat tebalu, ngetas ulit ngau beserarak bungai (Widow/widower, mourning and soul separation rule)
  • Adat begawai (festival rule)
  • Adat idup di rumah panjai (Order of life in the longhouse rule)
  • Adat betenun, main lama, kajat ngau taboh (Weaving, past times, dance and music rule)
  • Adat beburong, bemimpi ngau becenaga ati babi (Bird and animal omen, dream and pig liver rule)
  • Adat belelang (Journey rule)[46]

The Dayak life centres on the paddy planting activity every year. The Iban Dayak has their own year-long calendar with 12 consecutive months which are one month later than the Roman calendar. The months are named in accordance with the paddy farming activities and the activities in between. Other than paddy, also planted in the farm are vegetables like ensabi, pumpkin, round brinjal, cucumber, corn, lingkau and other food sources like tapioca, sugarcane, sweet potatoes and finally after the paddy has been harvested, cotton is planted which takes about two months to complete its cycle. The cotton is used for weaving before commercial cotton is traded.

Fresh lands cleared by each Dayak family will belong to that family and the longhouse community can also use the land with permission from the owning family. Usually, in one riverine system, a special tract of land is reserved for the use by the community itself to get natural supplies of wood, rattan, and other wild plants which are necessary for building houses, boats, coffins, and other living purposes, and also to leave living space for wild animals which is a source of meat.

Besides farming, Dayaks plant fruit trees like kepayang, dabai, rambutan, langsat, durian, isu, nyekak, and mangosteen near their longhouses or on their land plots to mark their ownership of the land. They also grow plants that produce dyes for colouring their cotton treads if not taken from the wild forest. Major fishing using the tuba root is normally done by the whole longhouse as the river may take some time to recover. Any wild meat obtained will be distributed according to a certain customary law which specifies the game catcher will the head or horn and several portions of the game while others would get an equally divided portion each. This rule allows every family a chance to supply meat which is the main source of protein.

Headhunting was an important part of the Dayak culture, in particular to the Iban and Kenyah. The origin of headhunting in Iban Dayaks can be traced to the story of a chief name Serapoh who was asked by a spirit to obtain a fresh head to open a mourning jar but unfortunately killed a Kantu boy which he got by exchanging with a jar for this purpose for which the Kantu retaliated and thus starting the headhunting practice.[47] There used to be a tradition of retaliation for old headhunts, which kept the practice alive. External interference by the reign of the Brooke Rajahs in Sarawak via "bebanchak babi" (peacemaking) in Kapit and the Dutch in Kalimantan Borneo via peacemaking at Tumbang Anoi curtailed and limited this tradition.

Apart from mass raids, the practice of headhunting was then limited to individual retaliation attacks or the result of chance encounters. Early Brooke Government reports describing Dayak Iban and Kenyah War parties with captured enemy heads. At various times, there have been massive coordinated raids in the interior and throughout coastal Borneo before and after the arrival of the Raj during Brooke's reign in Sarawak.

The Ibans' journey along the coastal regions using a large boat called "bandong" with sails made of leaves or cloths may have given rise to the term, Sea Dayak, although, throughout the 19th Century, Sarawak Government raids and independent expeditions appeared to have been carried out as far as Brunei, Mindanao, East coast Malaya, Jawa and Celebes.

Cockfighting is a favourite amusement of the Sea Dayaks, or Ibans.

Tandem diplomatic relations between the Sarawak Government (Brooke Rajah) and Britain (East India Company and the Royal Navy) acted as a pivot and a deterrence to the former's territorial ambitions, against the Dutch administration in the Kalimantan regions and client sultanates.

In the Indonesian region, toplessness was the norm among the Dayak people, Javanese, and the Balinese people of Indonesia before the introduction of Islam and contact with Western cultures. In Javanese and Balinese societies, women worked or rested comfortably topless. Among the Dayak, only big breasted women or married women with sagging breasts cover their breasts because they interfered with their work. Once marik empang (top cover over the shoulders) and later shirts are available, toplessness has been abandoned.[48]

Metal-working is elaborately developed in making mandaus (machetes – parang in Malay and Indonesian). The blade is made of softer iron, to prevent breakage, with a narrow strip of a harder iron wedged into a slot in the cutting edge for sharpness in a process called ngamboh (iron-smithing).

In headhunting, it was necessary to be able to draw the parang quickly. For this purpose, the mandau is fairly short, which also better serves the purpose of trail cutting in dense forests. It is holstered with the cutting edge facing upwards and at that side, there is an upward protrusion on the handle, so it can be drawn very quickly with the side of the hand without having to reach over and grasp the handle first. The hand can then grasp the handle while it is being drawn. The combination of these three factors (short, cutting edge up and protrusion) makes for an extremely fast drawing-action.

The ceremonial mandaus used for dances are as beautifully adorned with feathers, as are the costumes. There are various terms to describe different types of Dayak blades. The Nyabor is the traditional Iban Scimitar, Parang Ilang is common to Kayan and Kenyah Swordsmiths, pedang is a sword with a metallic handle and Duku is a multipurpose farm tool and machete of sorts.[citation needed]

Normally, the sword is accompanied by a wooden shield called a terabai which is decorated with a demon face to scare off the enemy. Other weapons are sangkoh (spear) and sumpit (blowpipe) with lethal poison at the tip of its laja. To protect the upper body during combat, a gagong (armour) which is made of animal hard skin such as leopards is worn over the shoulders via a hole made for the head to enter.[49]

Dayaks normally build their longhouses on high posts on high ground where possible for protection. They also may build kuta (fencing) and kubau (fort) where necessary to defend against enemy attacks. Dayaks also possess some brass and cast iron weaponry such as brass cannon (bedil) and iron cast cannon meriam. Furthermore, Dayaks are experienced in setting up animal traps (peti) which can be used for attacking the enemy as well. The agility and stamina of Dayaks in jungles give them advantages. However, at the end, Dayaks were defeated by handguns and disunity among themselves against the colonialists.

Dayaks carry their babies in baskets or carriers such as this one. The motifs on the beaded panel and the additional embellishments such as shells, claws, etc. are meant for the protection of the child. Courtesy of the Wovensouls Collection, Singapore

Most importantly, Dayaks will seek divine helps to grant them protection in the forms of good dreams or curses by spirits, charms such as pengaroh (normally poisonous), empelias (weapon straying away) and engkerabun (hidden from normal human eyes), animal omens, bird omens, good divination in the pig liver or by purposely seeking supernatural powers via nampok or betapa or menuntut ilmu (learning knowledge) especially kebal (weapon-proof).[50] During headhunting days, those going to farms will be protected by warriors themselves, and big agriculture is also carried out via labour exchange called bedurok (which means a large number of people working together) until completion of the agricultural activity. Kalingai or pantang (tattoo) is made unto bodies to protect from dangers and other signifying purposes such as travelling to certain places.[51]

The traditional Iban Dayak male attire consists of a sirat (loincloth) attached with a small mat for sitting), lelanjang (headgear with colourful bird feathers) or a turban (a long piece of cloth wrapped around the head), marik (chain) around the neck, engkerimok (ring on thigh) and simpai (ring on the upper arms).[52] The Iban Dayak female traditional attire comprises a short "kain tenun betating" (a woven cloth attached with coins and bells at the bottom end), a rattan or brass ring corset, selampai (long scarf) or marik empang (beaded top cover), sugu tinggi (high comb made of silver), simpai (bracelets on upper arms), tumpa (bracelets on lower arms) and buah pauh (fruits on hand).[53]

The Dayaks especially the Ibans appreciate and treasure very much the value of pua kumbu (woven or tied cloth) made by women while ceramic jars which they call tajau obtained by men. Pua kumbu has various motives for which some are considered sacred.[54] Tajau has various types with respective monetary values. The jar is a sign of good fortune and wealth. It can also be used to pay fines if some adat is broken in lieu of money which is hard to have in the old days. Beside the jar being used to contain rice or water, it is also used in ritual ceremonies or festivals and given as baya (provision) to the dead.[55]

The adat tebalu (widow or widower fee) for deceased women for Iban Dayaks will be paid according to her social standing and weaving skills and for the men according to his achievements in his lifetime.[56][57]

Dayaks being accustomed to living in jungles and hard terrains, and knowing the plants and animals are extremely good at following animals trails while hunting and of course tracking humans or enemies, thus some Dayaks became very good trackers in jungles in the military e.g. some Iban Dayaks were engaged as trackers during the anti-confrontation by Indonesia against the formation of Federation of Malaysia and anti-communism in Malaysia itself. No doubt, these survival skills are obtained while doing activities in the jungles, which are then utilised for headhunting in the old days.


The West Kalimantan Dayaks clad in their warrior accessories

A Dayak war party in proas and canoes fought a battle with Murray Maxwell following the wreck of HMS Alceste in 1817 at the Gaspar Strait.[58]

The Iban Dayak's first direct encounter with the Brooke and his men was in 1843, during the attack by Brooke's forces on the Batang Saribas region i.e. Padeh, Paku, and Rimbas respectively. The finale of this battle was the conference at Nagna Sebuloh to sign a peace Saribas treaty to end piracy and headhunting but the natives refused to sign it, rendering the treaty moot.[59]

In 1844, Brooke's force attacked Batang Lupar, Batang Undop, and Batang Skrang to defeat the Malay sharifs and Dayak living in these regions. The Malay sharifs were easily defeated at Patusin in Batang Lupar, without a major fight despite their famous reputation and power over the native inlanders. However, during the battle of Batang Undop, one of Brooke's men, British Navy officer Mr. Charles Wade was killed in action at the battle of Ulu Undop while chasing the Malay sheriffs upriver. Subsequently, Brooke's Malay force headed by Datu Patinggi Ali and Mr. Steward was totally defeated by the Skrang Iban force at the battle of Kerangan Peris in the Batang Skrang region.[60]

In 1849, at the Battle of Beting Maru, a convoy of Dayak boats that were returning from a sojourn at the River Rajan spotted Brooke's man of war, the Nemesis. They then landed on the Beting Maru sandbar and retreated to their villages, with two Dayak boats acting as a diversion by sailing towards the Nemesis and engaging her, with the two boats managing to retreat safely after a few shots were exchanged. The next day, the Dayak ambushed Brooke's pursuing force, killing two of Brooke's Iban entourage before pulling back.[61]

Layang, the son-in-law of Libau "Rentap" was known as the first Iban slayer of a white man in the person of Mr. Alan Lee "Ti Mati Rugi" (Died In Vain) at the Battle of Lintang Batang in 1853, above the Skrang fort built by Brooke in 1850. The Brooke government had to launch three successive punitive expeditions against Libau Rentap to conquer his fortress known as Sadok Mount. In total, the Brooke government conducted 52 punitive expeditions against the Iban including one against the Kayan.[62]

The Iban attacked the Japanese force stationed at the Kapit fort at the end of the Second World War in 1945.[citation needed] The Sarawak Rangers which were mostly Dayak participated in the anti-communist insurgency during the Malayan Emergency between 1948 to 1960.[63] The Sarawak Rangers were despatched by the British to fight during the Brunei Rebellion in 1962.[64] Later, the Sarawak Rangers fought against the Indonesian forces during the Confrontation against the formation of the Federation of Malaysia along the border with Kalimantan in 1963.[citation needed]

Two highly decorated Iban Dayak soldiers from Sarawak in Malaysia are Temenggung Datuk Kanang anak Langkau and Sgt Ngaliguh (both awarded Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa) and Awang anak Raweng of Skrang (awarded a George Cross).[65][66] So far, only one Dayak has reached the rank of a general in the Malaysian military: Brigadier-General Stephen Mundaw in the Malaysian Army, who was promoted on 1 November 2010.[67]

Malaysia's most decorated war hero is Kanang anak Langkau due to his military services helping to liberate Malaya (and later Malaysia) from the communists. The youngest of the PGB holder is ASP Wilfred Gomez of the Police Force.[68]

There were six holders of Sri Pahlawan (SP) Gagah Perkasa (the Gallantry Award) from Sarawak, and with the death of Kanang Anak Langkau, there is one SP holder in the person of Sgt. Ngalinuh.[69]

The Dayak soldiers or trackers are regarded as equivalent in bravery to the Royal Scots or the Gurkha soldiers. The Sarawak Rangers was absorbed into the British Army as the Far East Land Forces which could be deployed anywhere in the world but upon the formation of Malaysia in 1963, it formed the basis of the present day Royal Ranger Regiment.[70]

While in Indonesia, Tjilik Riwut was remembered as he led the first airborne operation by Indonesian National Armed Forces on 17 October 1947. The team was known as MN 1001, with 17 October celebrated annually as the anniversary date for the Indonesian Air Force Paskhas, which traces its origins to that pioneer paratroop operation in Borneo.[71]



Organised Dayak political representation in the Indonesian State first appeared during the Dutch administration, in the form of the Dayak Unity Party (Parti Persatuan Dayak) in the 1930s and 1940s. The feudal Sultanates of Kutai, Banjar, and Pontianak figured prominently prior to the rise of the Dutch colonial rule. Political circumstances aside, the Dayaks in the Indonesian side actively organised under various associations beginning with the Dayak League (Sarekat Dayak) established in 1919 in Banjarmasin, to the Partai Dayak in the 1940s, which serves as an early Pan-Dayakism in Indonesia[72] and to the present day, where Dayaks occupy key positions in government.

The violent massacre of the Malay sultans, local rulers, intellectuals, and politicians by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Pontianak incidents of 1943–1944 in West Borneo (present-day West Kalimantan province) created a social opportunity for the Dayak people in the West Kalimantan political and administrative system during the Orde Lama era of Sukarno, as a generation of predominantly Malay administrator in West Borneo was lost during the genocide perpetrated by the Japanese. The Dayak ruling elite was mostly left unscratched due to the fact that they were then mainly located in the hinterland and because the Japanese were not interested,[72] thus giving an advantage for the Dayak leaders to fill the administrative and political position after the Indonesian independence. Cretion of Central Kalimantan province was pushed by Dayak militia Mandau Talawang Pancasila. The militia also on the other hand helped government to fight Islamist rebellion in South Kalimantan.

In the 1955 Indonesian Constituent Assembly election, the Dayak Unity Party managed to gain:

  • 146,054 votes (0.4% of the nationwide vote)
  • 33.1% of the votes in West Kalimantan (becoming the second largest political party after Masjumi)
  • 1.5% votes in Central Kalimantan (the party managed to obtain 6.9% of the vote in the Dayak-majority areas in the province)

The party was later disbanded after an order by the then-president Sukarno that prohibited an ethnic-based party. The members of the party were then continued their careers in other political parties. Oevaang Oerey joined the Indonesian Party (Partai Indonesia), whilst some others joined the Catholic Party (Partai Katolik).

Among the most prominent Indonesian Dayak politician is Tjilik Riwut, a member of the Central Indonesian National Committee, he was honoured as the National Hero of Indonesia in 1998 for his major contribution during the Indonesian National Revolution. He had served as the Central Kalimantan Governor between 1958 and 1967. While in 1960, Oevaang Oeray was appointed as the 3rd Governor of West Kalimantan, becoming the first governor of Dayak origin in the province. He held the office until 1966. He is also known as one of the founding fathers of the Dayak Unity Party in 1945 and had been actively assisting the Brunei Revolt in 1962 during the height of the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation.

Under Indonesia, Kalimantan is now divided into five self-autonomous provinces i.e. North, West, East, South, and Central Kalimantan. Under Indonesia's transmigration programme, which was initiated by the Dutch in 1905, settlers from densely populated Java and Madura were encouraged to settle in the Indonesian provinces of Borneo. The large-scale transmigration projects continued following Indonesian independence, causing social strains. In 2001 the Indonesian government ended the transmigration of Javanese settlement of Indonesian Borneo.[73] During the killings of 1965–66 Dayaks killed up to 5,000 Chinese and forced survivors to flee to the coast and camps. Starvation killed thousands of Chinese children who were under eight years old. The Chinese refused to fight back since they considered themselves "a guest on other people's land" with the intention of trading only.[74] 75,000 of the Chinese who survived were displaced, fleeing to camps where they were detained in coastal cities. The Dayak leaders were interested in cleansing the entire area of ethnic Chinese.[75] In Pontianak, 25,000 Chinese living in dirty, filthy conditions were stranded. They had to take baths in the mud.[76] The massacres are considered a "dark chapter in recent Dayak history".[77]

From 1996 to 2003 there were violent attacks on Indonesian Madurese settlers, including executions of Madurese transmigrant communities. The violence included the 1999 Sambas riots and the Sampit conflict in 2001 in which more than 500 were killed that year. Indonesian military and local politician was instead, supportive of Dayak cause and many Dayak figures use the violence for political cause.[78][79]

Dayak in Indonesia has legal cultural organization which is National Dayak Customary Council (Dewan Adat Dayak). It has local branches in regencies and cities down to villages, recognized by local government laws, and has a paramilitary wing, Batamad.[80][81] It enjoys relatively high support from government including close ties to Indonesian military.[82][83]


The Dayak's political representation in Sarawak compare very poorly with their organised brethren in the Indonesian side of Borneo, partly due to the personal fiefdom that was the Brooke Rajah dominion, and possibly to the pattern of their historical migrations from the Indonesian part to the then pristine Rajang Basin. Reconstituted into British crown colony after the end of Japanese occupation in World War II, Sarawak obtained independence from the British on 22 July 1963, alongside Sabah (North Borneo) on 31 August 1963, and would join the Federation of Malaya and Singapore to form the Federation of Malaysia on 16 September 1963 under the belief of being equal partners in the "marriage" as per the 18 and 20-point agreements and the Malaysia Agreement of 1963.

Dayak political activism in Sarawak had its roots in the Sarawak National Party (SNAP) and Parti Pesaka Anak Sarawak (PESAKA) during post-independence construction in the 1960s. These parties shaped to a certain extent Dayak politics in the state, although never enjoying the real privileges and benefits of Chief Ministerial power relative to its large electorate due to their own political disunity with some Dayaks joining various political parties instead of consolidating inside one single political party. It appears that this political disunity is caused by the fact of inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic warfares among the various Dayaks ethnic groups in their past history that led to political rivalries at the loss of the whole Dayak people's power. The Dayaks need to forget their past, close ranks to unite under one umbrella party, and prioritize the whole Dayak interests above all personal interests.

The first Sarawak Chief Minister was Datuk Stephen Kalong Ningkan, who was removed as the chief minister in 1966 after court proceedings and amendments to both the Sarawak state constitution and the Malaysian federal constitution due to some disagreements with regards to the 18-point Agreement as conditions for the formation of Malaysia. Datuk Penghulu Tawi Sli was appointed as the second Sarawak chief minister who was a soft-spoken seat-warmer fellow and then replaced by Tuanku Abdul Rahman Ya'kub (a Melanau Muslim) as the third Sarawak chief minister in 1970 who in turn was succeeded by Abdul Taib Mahmud (a Melanau Muslim) in 1981 as fourth Sarawak chief minister. After Taib Mahmud resigned on 28 February 2014 to become the next Sarawak's governor, he appointed his brother-in-law, Adenan Satem, as the next Sarawak Chief Minister, who has in turn been succeeded by Abang Johari Openg in 2017.

A wave of Dayakism which is Dayak nationalism has surfaced at least thrice among the Dayaks in Sarawak while they are on the opposition side of politics as follows:

  • Sarawak Alliance made up of SNAP and PESAKA managed to win the Sarawak Local Council Election in 1963 over the opposition pact of SUPP and PANAS, proceeding to make Stephen Kalong Ningkan as the first Sarawak Chief Minister and signing up of the Malaysia Agreement at London in 1963.[84]
  • SNAP won 18 seats (with 42.70% popular vote) out of a total of 48 seats in Sarawak state election, 1974 while the remaining 30 seats were won by Sarawak National Front. This resulted in the first Iban becoming the Opposition Leader in the Malaysian Parliament i.e. Datuk Sri Edmund Langgu being the leading Iban MP from SNAP with the SNAP president James Wong being detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
  • PBDS (Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak), a breakaway of SNAP in Sarawak state election in 1987 won 15 seats while its partner Permas only won 5 seats. Overall, the Sarawak National Front won 28 constituencies with PBB 14; SUPP 11 and SNAP 3.[85] In both cases, SNAP and PBDS (both parties are now defunct) have joined the Malaysian National Front as the ruling coalition.

The Dayak people are still struggling to unite under one political force, perhaps due to self-enrichment of joining politics, different riverine geographical origins, and past intra- and inter-tribal wars among themselves. However, the Dayak themselves fail to recognize this weakness in their political strategy. A full treatment of Dayak politics is studied by Jawan Jayum in his PhD thesis.[86]

Notable DayaksEdit

See alsoEdit


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  75. ^ Hedman, Eva-Lotta E. (2008). Conflict, Violence, and Displacement in Indonesia. SOSEA-45 Series (illustrated ed.). SEAP Publications. p. 63. ISBN 978-0-87727-745-3. Retrieved 15 December 2011. The role of indigenous Dayak leaders accounted for their "success." Regional officers and interested Dayak leaders helped to translate the virulent anti-Communist environment locally into an evident anti-Chinese sentiment. In the process, the rural Chinese were constructed as godless Communists complicit with members of the local Indonesian Communist Party ... In October 1967, the military, with the help of the former Dayak Governor Oevaang Oeray and his Lasykar Pangsuma (Pangsuma Militia) instigated and facilitated a Dayak-led slaughter of ethnic Chinese. Over the next three months, thousands were killed and roughly 75,000 more fled Sambas and northern Pontianak districts to coastal urban centers like Pontianak City and Singkawang to be sheltered in refugee and "detainment" camps. By expelling the "community" Chinese, Oeray and his gang ... intended to ingratiate themselves with Suharto's new regime.
  76. ^ "Time, Volume 90, Part 2". 90. Time Inc. 1967: 37. Retrieved 15 December 2011. Before the Indonesian Army could cool off the Dayaks, at least 250 Chinese had been slaughtered: Catholic missionaries believe that as many as 1,000 were actually killed. About 25,000 of the traumatized Chinese have descended on the sleepy West Borneo port of Pontianak, where they live in dismal squalor. The Chinese are crammed into makeshift quarters, bathe in muddy, sewage-filled canals {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  77. ^ Corn, Charles (1991). Distant Islands: Travels Across Indonesia. Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-82374-1. Retrieved 15 December 2011. There was a dark chapter in recent Dayak history, and it concerned the Chinese living on the island. Tribes in the lower hills had been mobilized by the Indonesian military in the mid-sixties to murder many thousands of Chinese in the
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Further readingEdit

  • Benedict Sandin (1967). The Sea Dayaks of Borneo Before White Rajah Rule. Macmillan.
  • Derek Freeman (1955). Iban Agriculture: A Report on the Shifting Cultivation of Hill Rice by the Iban of Sarawak. H.M. Stationery Office.
  • Derek Freeman (1970). Report on the Iban. Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Eric Hansen (1988). Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo. Vintage Books. ISBN 9780375724954.
  • Hans Schärer (2013). Ngaju Religion: The Conception of God among a South Borneo People. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9789401193467.
  • Jean Yves Domalain (1973). Panjamon: I was a Headhunter. William Morrow. ISBN 9780688000288.
  • Judith M. Heimann (2009). The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 9780547416069.
  • Norma R. Youngberg (2000). The Queen's Gold. TEACH Services. ISBN 9781572581555.
  • Peter Goullart (1965). River of the White Lily: Life in Sarawak. John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-0542-9.
  • Raymond Corbey (2016). Of Jars and Gongs: Two Keys to Ot Danum Dayak Cosmology. C. Zwartenkot Art Books. ISBN 9789054500162.
  • St. John, Sir Spenser (1879). The life of Sir James Brooke: rajah of Sarawak: from his personal papers and correspondence. Edinburgh & London.
  • Syamsuddin Haris (2005). Desentralisasi dan otonomi daerah: desentralisasi, demokratisasi & akuntabilitas pemerintahan daerah. Yayasan Obor Indonesia. ISBN 9789799801418.
  • Victor T King (1978). Essays on Borneo societies. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780197134344.

External linksEdit