May 27, 2024 | Allison Robertson

The Mentawai People

Souls of the Forest

Indonesia’s rainforest is home to one of the nation’s oldest indigenous tribes—the Mentawai.

Also known as the “Flower People,” the tribe has an intriguing traditional belief system that governs how—and why—they continue to live a primitive lifestyle deep in the rainforest.

Mentawai Split Gallery

Who are they?

The Mentawai people are an indigenous tribe living a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle in an island rainforest and along the coastal areas.

tribeCW Pix, Shutterstock

Why are they called The Flower People?

They are often referred to as “Flower People” because of their deep connection with nature.

Portrait Of Mentawai PeopleYuliseperi2020, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Where do they live?

Mentawai (also known as Mentawei and Mentawi) people are the native people of the Mentawai Islands, about 100 miles from West Sumatra province, Indonesia.

Siberut Island, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

What is their population?

The Mentawai population is estimated to be about 64,000.

Mentawai tribe danceGUDKOV ANDREY, Shutterstock

What language do they speak?

Now a days, schooled children are encouraged to speak Indonesian, but Mentawai remains the principal language of this tribe. It is part of the Austronesian language family.

mentawaiCW Pix, Shutterstock

How old is their tribe?

The tribe is documented to have migrated from Nias, a northern island, to the Mentawai islands, living in an isolated life for centuries until they encountered the Dutch in 1621.

Their ancestors are believed to have first migrated to the region somewhere between 2000 and 500 BCE.

Mentawai  medicine manCollectie Wereldmuseum (v/h Tropenmuseum), CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

What is their environment like?

The Mentawai people live in the dense rainforest, surrounded by nature. They have always survived by what nature offered. Not only does their food come completely from nature, but they also build their homes and make their clothes from nature’s materials as well.

Mentawai  people homeLon&Queta, Flickr

What are their homes like?

The Mentawai live in a traditional, hand-crafted dwelling called the Uma—which is a longhouse made by weaving bamboo strips together to make walls and thatching the roofs with grass.

The floor is raised on stilts and is made of wood planks.

Mentawai tribe houseMuslianshah Masrie, Shutterstock

What is the layout and design of an Uma?

Each Uma entrance is decorated with skulls of the various animals they hunted.

In the middle of the Uma there is a stone fireplace, called Abut Kerei—which is used for lighting, a place to heat their drums, and where dances take place during rituals.

Mentawai jungle houseAhron de Leeuw, Flickr

Do they have a kitchen?

A stone stove inside the Uma is used for cooking, and also for stepping on embers during certain ceremonial rituals.

Mentawai tribe ritualGUDKOV ANDREY, Shutterstock

What is at the back of the Uma?

In the back there is a large walled bedroom that they use for sleeping. For rooms with multiple sleeping spots, some families have mosquito nets to section off beds and protect them from bugs at night.

Mentawai man in his houseZulfikar Efendi, Flickr

How many people live in an Uma?

An Uma is fairly large and can house three to four families. There are other dwellings called a Lalep which is made for only one family, and a Rusuk, which is a home for widows and bachelors.

Mentawai people at their houseMuslianshah Masrie, Shutterstock

How do they provide food?

The Mentawai people are semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers. The men typically do the fishing and hunting of larger game, and the women hunt smaller animals and do the gathering.

Man hunter from Mentawai tribeGUDKOV ANDREY, Shutterstock

What do they eat?

The main food they eat is grilled sago, a type of flour from ground palm medulla. They also gather various rainforest fruits, as well as roots and yams.

Typical meat for them includes warthogs, chicken, deer, and primates.

Mentawai tribeGUDKOV ANDREY, Shutterstock

How do they cook?

Sago is grilled over the fire by grinding it up into a thicker powder and then filling a bamboo shoot and baking it over the fire.

It ends up being similar to rice when they are finished.

The processing of sago starchParinussa Revy, Shutterstock

How do they hunt?

The Mentawai use dogs to spot the animals during hunting. Then the prey is shot using a bow and poisonous arrow. The poison comes from a local leaf which has been mashed and mixed with water.

Mentawai tribeCW Pix, Shutterstock

Do they have any pets?

Yes, the Mentawai usually keep pigs, dogs, monkeys, and sometimes chickens as pets. In fact, pigs are a measure of wealth in their community.

Mentawai tribeBogbang Sabajou, Shutterstock

How do they use pigs to measure wealth?

The pigs are hunted in the jungle and then raised near the Umas, which makes a person's wealth depend on their own work and not on inheritances.

Mentawai UmaAlex Lapuerta, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

What do they wear?

Traditionally, the main clothing for men is a loin cloth made from the bark of a gum tree. Women wear a cloth wound around the waist and small sleeveless vests made from palm or banana leaves.

Today though, some of the younger generations have acquired modern clothing.

How do they adorn themselves?

The Mentawai are big on decorating their bodies. They wear lots of beaded necklaces and flowers in their hair and ears as accessories, along with another unique tradition.

Mentawai woman in traditional decorationsMuslianshah Masrie, Shutterstock

What else do they do to their bodies?

The Mentawai people are known for sharpening their teeth with a chisel—for aesthetic reasons. It is said that sharpening their teeth makes them feel more appealing to others.

It doesn’t stop there.

Mentawai personCollectie Wereldmuseum (v/h Tropenmuseum), CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

What is Titi?

Titi is a tattooing tradition that the Mentawai people have. It is considered one of the oldest of its kind in the world.

A tattoo, in their culture, describes the role of a person in society. It’s very common to see Mentawai people covered from head to toe in tattoos.

Mentawai tribeArif Kisnadi, Shutterstock

How do they do it?

Titi is done with cane and coconut charcoal dye, a nail, a needle, and two pieces of wood fashioned into a hammer-like stick by a shaman called Sikerei. The shaman will pray for the charcoal before using it to make a tattoo.

tribal ritualsGUDKOV ANDREY, Shutterstock

How important are the tattoos?

Tattooing on the island is an identity and a personal or communal reflection of the people's relationship to nature, called Arat Sabulungan.

Mentawai people believe that these tattoos allow them to bring their material wealth into the afterlife and allows their ancestors to recognize them in the afterlife.

Mentawai tribeApriadi Kurniawan, Shutterstock

What other beliefs do they have?

The Mentawai never harvest a plant or take the life of an animal without asking for their spirit's forgiveness first because they believe every part of the environment has a spirit.

Mentawai Tribe womanKiwiGraphy Studio, Shutterstock

How is this done?

Before the Mentawai take down a tree, for example, a group of them will circle the tree with the Shaman and say prayers and bring it offerings. They explain why the tree is needed and pray for forgiveness—before proceeding to cut it down.

This is also done before going out to hunt for food, and even gathering anything that has to be dug up from the ground.

Mentawai HunterGUDKOV ANDREY, Shutterstock

What is Arat Sabulungan?

As mentioned, Arat Sabulungan is the Mentawai’s traditional religion, which allows them to worship their ancestors, as well as everything and anything that nature provides—from the sky to the ocean and everything in between.

Mentawai woman in canoeLon&Queta, Flickr

What rituals do they have?

The Mentawai people have numerous ritualistic ceremonies, including: marriage, death, new born, new uma, new canoe, new kerei, illness, successful hunts, broken taboos, and so on.

Mentawai tribeKiwiGraphy Studio, Shutterstock

Why do they have so many ceremonies?

These ceremonies and rituals are in place to appease the spirits—the Mentawai gods. This ensures that the tribe remains happy and at peace at all times, avoiding illness and death.

mentawai tribeGUDKOV ANDREY, Shutterstock

What happens during these ceremonies?

Traditional healing ceremonies can last anywhere from one day to over an entire month. During the rituals, it is not uncommon to see the spirits enter the body of those partaking, evoking a possessed like state called Gobok.

Mentawai manLaszlo Mates, Shutterstock

What happens during ceremonies after the passing of a tribe member?

About three months after the loss of a tribe member, the Shaman—who is said to possess the ability to communicate with the spirits of their ancestors—gathers the tribe in the Uma of the lost member.

Mentawai shamanLaszlo Mates, Shutterstock

What happens next?

The tribe brings possessions of the loved one, and offerings (plant or animal). They summon the spirits to join them in cleansing the body and the Uma.

They continue to summon the spirits through song and dance for 3-4 days.

mentawai shamanccdoh1, Flickr

Do they grieve?

After that, the spirit is said to be released, and they conclude the ceremony with a period of crying. The widow and close family members wear a white cloth on their head to identify themselves as grieving.

mentawai womanLon&Queta, Flickr

What is marriage like?

Traditional Mentawai marriages are arranged by the parents. Social status and financial wealth were desired.

Today, many Mentawai choose their own partners, but still require permission from the family—or sometimes from their whole clan.

Couple from MentawaiLon&Queta, Flickr

Is there a dowry?

The man’s family must pay a huge amount of goods to the woman’s family as a dowry. For example, some dowries require 20 pigs, one hectare of sago, one hectare of durian, one hectare of coconut plantation, a bunch of chickens, as well as cash (in modern days).

In most cases, the entire clan pitches in for the dowry.

Mentawai woman making sagoLaili Wasliati, Shutterstock

Do they go to school?

School is something that some children go to, but not all. The closest school is a 3-4 hour walk away and the terrain is challenging in various weather conditions.

Many kids don’t go at all. They learn as much their clan can teach them.

Mentawai tribeApriadi Kurniawan, Shutterstock

Do they earn an income?

Traditionally, no. There was no reason. They used nature for everything and had no need to purchase anything.

However, today, in the settlements, some Mentawai people earn money by selling hand woven baskets, and traditional clothing or decorations.

mentawai tribe womanHariyanto teng, Shuttertstock

How do they create harmony?

The Mentawai people believe that beauty if necessary for harmony—which is why they adorn themselves in flowers, jewelry and tattoos.

But they also carve wooden birds that are present when the shamans summon the ancestors, as a way in balancing harmony after a loved one passes.

woman from mentawai tribeLon&Queta, Flickr

How do the Mentawai People live today?

Today, globalization has impacted their way of life, bringing shops, technology and tourism to the tribes. But even so, the Mentawai people have managed to balance change with tradition—keeping as much of their traditional lifestyle as possible.

Mentawai tribeKiwiGraphy Studio, Shutterstock

How has tourism infiltrated the tribe?

The Mentawai tribe, like most other indigenous tribes, are constantly being coerced into moving into settlements built for them.

Some of these settlements include “ethical immersion stays” for tourists.

Tourist in Mentawai villageWayne Hodgkinson, Flickr

What are “ethical immersion stays?”

An online website advertises “authentic immersive travel experiences,” where island visitors can encounter the Mentawai tribe, in their natural living space, in an ethical way.

Essentially, visitors can go stay with the tribe for a few days to get a taste of how they live.

Tourists in Mentawai villageWayne Hodgkinson, Flickr

How does the tribe benefit from this?

The tribe benefits by gaining modern supplies, tools, clothing, and even money as a form of income.

Tourists in Mentawai  villageLon&Queta, Flickr

Are all clans of the Mentawai tribe subjected to this?

No. There are plenty of Mentawai people who remain isolated in the rainforest, hiding from outsiders completely. Some of them continue to move around the rainforest specifically to avoid colonization.

Portrait of a Mentawai tribe manGUDKOV ANDREY, Shutterstock

Final Thoughts

The Mentawai people have a history rich in culture and tradition, and they largely still uphold most of it today. While remaining isolated in the rainforest, they are able to avoid colonization, and focus on living harmoniously with nature—just like their ancestors have done for thousands of years.

While some have been lost to modernization, there are still a vast number of Mentawai people who remain deeply rooted in their traditions.

mentawaiCW Pix, Shutterstock

Sources: 1, 2, 3


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