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Dusun is the collective name of a tribe or ethnic and linguistic group in the Malaysian state of Sabah of North Borneo. Due to similarities in culture and language with the Kadazan ethnic group, a new unified term called "Kadazan-Dusun" was created. Collectively, they form the largest ethnic group in Sabah.

Dusun people
A Dusun man carrying Bongun, 1922.
Regions with significant populations
 Malaysia: 568,575 (2010)[1]
(Sabah, Labuan)
Dusun, Sabah Malay and English
Christianity, Islam, Animism
Related ethnic groups
Kadazandusun, Murut, Rungus , Lun Bawang/Lundayeh other Austronesian peoples

Other similarly termed, yet non-related groups can also be found in Brunei and the Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Both Bruneian Dusuns (Sang Jati Dusun) and Dusuns of Indonesia (Barito Dusun) are not related to the Kadazan-Dusun people, instead the Bruneian Dusuns are culturally, historically and linguistically shared a common origin, language and identity with the Bisaya people of Brunei, northern Sarawak and southwestern Sabah,[2] while in Indonesia, the Barito Dusun groups that can be found throughout the Barito River system belonged to the Ot Danum Dayak people instead.



Illustration of Dusun traders by Allan Stewart in British North Borneo, by L. W. W. Gudgeon.

One interesting fact about the Dusuns is that they do not have the word 'dusun' in their vocabulary. It has been suggested that the term 'Dusun' was a term used by the Sultan of Brunei to refer to the ethnic groups of inland farmers in present-day Sabah. 'Dusun' means 'orchard' in Malay or "simpleton" in the Sundanese language. Since most of the west coast of North Borneo was under the influence of the Sultan of Brunei, taxes called 'Duis' (also referred to as the 'River Tax' on the area of south east of North Borneo) were collected by the sultanate from the 'Orang Dusun', or 'Dusun people'. Hence, since 1881, after the establishment of the British North Borneo Company, the British administration categorized the linguistically-similar, 12 main and 33 sub tribes collectively as 'Dusun' though among themselves they are simply known in their own dialect as just "human" or in their Bobolian term "kadayan" or "kadazan" (in Tangaa version). The Tambanuo and Bagahak, who had converted to Islam for religious reasons, had preferred to be called "Sungei" and "Idaan" respectively although they come from the same sub-tribes.


The Dusun ethnic group at one time made up almost 40% of the population of Sabah and is broken down into more than 30 sub-ethnic, or dialect groups, or tribes, each speaking a slightly different dialect of the Dusunic family language. They are mostly mutually understandable. The name 'Dusun' was popularised by the British colonial masters who borrowed the term from the Brunei Malays.

Most Dusuns have converted to mainstream religions such as Christianity (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) and Sunni Islam, although animism is still being practiced by a minority of Dusun.

The Dusun of old traded with the coastal people by bringing their agricultural and forest produce (such as rice and amber 'damar') to exchange for salt, salted fish and other products. The Dusun have a special term to describe this type of trading activities, i.e. mongimbadi. This was before the development of the railroad and road network connecting the interior with the coastal regions of Sabah. The present Tambunan-Penampang road was largely constructed based on the trading route used by the Bundu-Liwan Dusun to cross the Crocker Range on their mongimbadi.

The vast majority of Dusuns live in the hills and upland valleys and have a reputation for peacefulness, hospitality, hard work, frugality, drinking and aversion to violence. They are now modernized and well-integrated into the larger framework of Malaysian society, taking up various occupations as government servants, and employees in the private sector, as well as becoming business owners. Many have completed tertiary education both locally and overseas (in America, England, Australia and New Zealand).

In their old traditional setting they use various methods of fishing, including using the juice called "tuba" derived from the roots of the "surinit" plant to momentarily stun fish in rivers.

The arrival of the Christian Missionaries in the 1880s brought to the Dayaks and the Kadazans/Dusuns of Borneo the ability to read, write and converse in English. This opened their minds and stimulated them to get involved in community development. The tribes who were first exposed to this modernization were the Tangaa or Tangara who dwelt in the Papar and Penampang coastal plains who were responsible to spread the passion of nationalism to the other tribes. The first attempt to translate the Bible was in Kadazan (Tangaa), also referred to as the "z" dialect. This was followed by a Kadazan (Tangaa) Dictionary. The first registered Native friendly Society was the Kadazan Society and the political party registered in North Borneo was the United National Kadazan Organization under the leadership of Donald Stevens, who was made the first Huguan Siou of the Kadazan aka Dusun Nation of 12 main and 33 sub tribes. When Sabah became independent on August 31, 1963, Donald Stevens became the Prime/Chief Minister, a position he continued to hold after Sabah formed Malaysia on September 16, 1963.

Subtribes of the DusunEdit

Tuaran Dusun LotudEdit

From an anthropological point of view, it is not clear where the Dusun originated. However, based on anecdotes or folklore, the Dusun have been known to come from Nunuk Ragang or the red-coloured 'Kayu Ru' tree colour situated at Kampong Tampias in the district of Ranau.

From the time before the spread of the major world religions in Southeast Asia and until the present day, the ethnic Lotud were animists.

Bruneians use the word 'Dusun' to identify farmers who have a piece of land planted with fruits or tend orchards. The term was adopted by the British during the period of North Borneo Chartered Company rule from 1881 to 1941.

According to researchers the ethnic Lotud were synonymous with the word 'Suang Lotud' and can be found in 35 villages in Tuaran district. The ethnic Dusun Lotud called Lotude were based on the anecdotes not written by their ancestors. The Lotud women were known to wear skirts below the knees only. The word 'otud' in Dusun Lotud dialect means 'Lutut' or knee.

A husband from ethnic Dusun Lotud can practise polygamy and can divorce.

The 'Adat' or Custom of 'Dusun Lotud' marriage processes is divided into 35 segments like Suruhan, (merisik or bilateral meeting), monunui (bertunang or engagement), popiodop ('bermalam' or stay a night atau ditidur or 'sleeping together'), Matod (kahwin or wedding) and mirapou ('adat' or custom).

Before the 1950s, the partners for Dusun Lotud children were chosen by their parents. The children had no choice except to accept what their parents required for the matching partners without any help. The main objective aims to have good generations of a family: which claims to be respectful and hard-working in the paddy fields and to avoid incest in the families.

The male's family will appoint an elderly person known as 'suruhan' qualified on the 'adat resam' and will visit the female's house for the purpose of 'merisik' or negotiating.

The 'Suruhan' is aimed at delivering a message to engage the daughter from the female's family. The girl's family requests for a duration of days before the 'Risikan' or negotiation could be accepted. Many matters have to be clearly made known like the family tree, character, the capability of the male's side, and to evaluate the meaning of a dream that occurred in the female's family. If the female's side had a bad dream, 'sogit mimpi' is done for 'perdamaian' or peace. Based on 'adat', when the male's had no 'suruhan' or appointee, they can be fined on 'adat malu' by the girl's family.

Adat Monunui ('bertunang' or engagement) side the proposal of marriage or 'risikan' is accepted by the girl's side, both parties will discuss to fix the date for 'Adat Monunui' They will find the suitable date and month in the Dusun Lotud calendar like the night of the 14th in a one-month cycle called 'tawang kopiah' or the 15th night called tolokud, to perform 'monunui'.

As a symbol of engagement, the man's side will give a ring to the woman only. 'Adat Monunui' can only be done in the morning before 1pm. After completion of the ceremony, the man's family members have to leave the woman's home before 4pm.

In the 'adat monunui', the head of village and the appointee are the frontline people in the ceremony. Both parties of the families will be represented by the head of village. At this time the girl proposed to be the fiancée must be in the bedroom or in another place not to be seen by the male's family. The man's will not be allowed in the girl's living room before the 'monunui' ends.

The most important in 'adat menunui' (engagement) are 'berian/mas kawin' (tinunui), 'belanja dapur' ('wang hangus' or kitchen expenses), 'hantaran tunang' or dowry, 'sogit' atau adat keluarga (jika ada or if family custom exist), tempoh bertunang (duration of engagement).

The list of valuables equivalent to dowry items delivered to the girl are 'karo aman tunggal', 'karo lawid', 'kalro inontilung', 'karo dsapau', 'kemagi lawid', 'kemagi 3 rondog', 'badil' or cannon, 'tajau' or vase, 'canyang tinukul', 'tatarapan', two pieces of 'rantakah', two pieces of 'sigar emas', 'simbong bersiput', 'pertina', 'tompok', gong (tawag-tawag), 'tutup panasatan' ('canyang'), 'kampil', 'kulintangan', two pieces of 'simbong bersiput'.

At the traditional pre-speech, 'adat berian' or dowry custom and belanja dapur or kitchen expenses, the heads of the villages from the man's and girl's sides will start the pre-discussion. They have prepared some pieces of 'kirai' or the (mangrove palm shoot rolled, dried and turned to make cigarette), or the matches sticks as a symbol of notes equivalent to RM1,000 each. The girl's side will make some requests of the man's side. 'Berian' or 'Tinunui' or dowry is obligatory as the symbol of the value of the girl's personality and based on the tradition worth RM1,000. The period to perform a marriage ceremony is one year. The man's family will request for an adjournment of the marriage if the man's encounters a financial problem.

The 'belanja dapur' or kitchen expenses is estimated above RM5,000 and a moderate fat buffalo. 'Adat Berian Tanah' or the land grant custom dowry is obligatory for the ethnic Dusun Lotud called 'Pinolusadan Do Aluwid', with the approved land taxation of 0.25 cents. The purpose of land grant dowry is for the construction of a house when the married couple has children. Based on tradition, if the bridegroom does not have assets like land, the 'berian four binukul (valuable archaic items) will be mentioned with the value of RM1,000.00 as 'adat berian' and has fulfilled the terms.

Ranau DusunsEdit

The Ranau Dusuns can be considered as more closely representative of the original Dusun stock than other sub ethnic Dusun. This is due to the area in which they reside, the area are generally considered as the birth place of the Dusun population,-Nunuk Ragang. Most of the Dusun Ranau embrace Christianity.

Dusun TatanaEdit

The Dusun Tatana are different from all other Dusun people, their culture being similar to Chinese culture but mixed with some traditional Dusun customs. The Dusun Tatana are the only Dusun who celebrate Chinese New Year as their festival. Kaamatan is less celebrated by them.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Saw Swee-Hock (2015). The Population of Malaysia (Second Edition). Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN 98-146-2036-X.
  2. ^ Ooi 2004, p. 272

Further readingEdit

  • Evans, I. H. N. (1953) The Religion of the Tempasuk Dusuns of North Borneo Cambridge: University Press.
  • Glyn-Jones, Monica (1953) The Dusun of the Penampang Plains, 2 vols. London.
  • Gudgeon, L. W. W. (1913) British North Borneo, pp. 22 to 39. London: Adam and Charles Black.
  • Hewett, Godfrey (1923) "The Dusuns of North Borneo" Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Containing Papers of a Biological Character Volume 95, Issue 666, pp. 157–163 Publication Date: 8/1923
  • Ooi (2004) "Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East, Volume 1"
  • Williams, Thomas Rhys (1966) The Dusun: A North Borneo Society NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

External linksEdit