Harman Patil (Editor)

Mentawai people

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Mentawai people

Mentawai (also known as Mentawei and Mentawi) people are the native people of the Mentawai Islands, West Sumatra province, Indonesia. They live a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the coastal and rainforest environments of the islands. The Mentawai population is estimated to be about 64,000. The Mentawai language belongs to the Austronesian language family. The people are characterised by their heavy spirituality, body art and their tendency to sharpen their teeth, a practice they feel makes one beautiful.

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Culture and lifestyle

The Mentawai live in the traditional dwelling called the uma which is a longhouse and is 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.

The main clothing for men is a loin cloth. Mentawai adorn themselves with necklaces and flowers in their hair and ears. Women wear a cloth wound around the waist and small sleeveless vests. Mentawai sharpen their teeth with a chisel for aesthetic reasons. Tattooing is done with a needle and wood which is hammered on the needle by a shaman called sikerei.

Tattooing on the island was an identity and a personal or communal reflection of the people's relationship to nature, called arat subulungan, although there are motivational and design differences from region to region and among clans.

During the pre-independence era, the cultural influence of foreign colonials and other islanders had systematically displaced or obliterated indigenous customs and religions. In postcolonial times, the Indonesian government continued this policy with a 1954 decree that prohibited indigenous religions, effectively abolishing tattooing and other customs.

The traditional knife of the Mentawai people is called Palitai, while their traditional shield is called Kurabit.

Men hunt wild pigs, deer and primates. Women and children gather wild yams and other wild food. Small animals are hunted by women. The Mentawai people keep pigs, dogs, monkeys and sometimes chickens as pets.

Surfaid is a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the lives of Mentawain people.

Popular culture

  • BBC Two's Tribal Wives: Mentawai.
  • A film titled 'As Worlds Divide', which will document the lives of modern Mentawai people, is due to be released on March 24th 2017.
  • References

    Mentawai people Wikipedia


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