Dayak cover - Borneo, Indonesia

Dayak People: Living by their rules in Borneo

Once upon a time in Borneo, there were the Dayak tribes living in the charming ambient of the wild woods and endless rivers of the island, who used to use the traditional medicine, decorate their bodies with some of the most impressive tattoos and wear the long heavy earrings. They lived in the large houses that were gathering more than 50 family members and the truth is… They still exist! They’re right there, in the middle of Indonesia, living by the rules of the nature of Borneo and preserving their traditional ancient values while adapting to the modern times.

Who are the Dayak people?

Dayak warrior - Borneo, Indonesia

Dayak warrior – Borneo, Indonesia

The popular legend says that the first ancestors of this indigenous tribe from Borneo came down from the heavens and maybe that’s the reason why members of the Dayak ethnicity cannot be easily defined. Of course, there is a more probable reason, as well, and it is based on the fact that it is difficult to describe all of them using one definition because of the diversity of their ethnic subgroups and languages that they speak.

The Dayak Groups

However, to make it really simple for you, we’ll just say they are people of non-Malay origins that are the natives of Borneo and this name was given to them by the Europeans who used it to differentiate people with Malay origins from those who didn’t have them.

Even though there is a really large number of the Dayak subgroups in Borneo (more than fifty of them), they are usually divided into seven larger groups: Ngaju, Klemantan, Punan, Apau Kayan, Iban, Murut, and Ot Danum. This division is based on the language they speak in the each group and all of the languages they speak belong to the family of Austronesian languages.

The Dayak Religions

When it comes to their religion through the history, nowadays, Dayak people are mainly Muslims or Christians, because of the religion conversions from the 19th century, but before that most of them were animists for a really long time – they believed that various herbs, objects, and animals had their own spiritual energy and they used to glorify it. The animism among the Dayak people is known as Kaharingan.

Young Dayak Kenyah girls - Borneo, Indonesia

Young Dayak Kenyah girls – Borneo, Indonesia

Where Do They Live?

Dayak Longhouse - Borneo, Indonesia

Dayak Longhouse – Borneo, Indonesia

Dayak's Bird Crown - Borneo, Indonesia

Dayak’s Bird Crown – Borneo, Indonesia

From the earliest times, they used to make their homes in the area of hills and rivers in inner parts of Borneo. In these areas, they’ve built a diverse culture abounding with different dialects, traditional laws and ways of living based on the harmony with natural treasures, protecting the wildlife of the island.

However, they also had to protect themselves from the wild nature that surrounds them so their houses have always built high above the land so that they can remain safe in case of floods or wild animals’ attacks. These houses are built on really tall wooden columns and they can be up to 150 meters long. This means that a large number of families can live in a single house, which is kind of typical of Dayaks who are considered as people who really respect their families and friends, and love to live in the large communities.

What Do They Do?

The Dayak people are known as the producers of various organic products starting from areca palms, rice, tobacco, millet, betel, and many others. They also collect rubber and usually trade it for some tools they need for cultivation. The trade is usually performed in the coastal areas of the island and you can see them requesting different farming equipment, foreign products and seeds. They are also great fishermen.

Ritual dayak dance - Borneo, Indonesia

Ritual dayak dance – Borneo, Indonesia

From Ruthless Headhunters to Kind-hearted Peacemakers

During their long history, the Dayak people have remained well-known for their infamous headhunting reputation which was a product of their different practices and one of them was a mourning tradition. Basically, in order to calm the spirits of their beloved ones, they had to make a human sacrifice. Only if a warrior succeeded to bring the human head, he could finish the mourning rituals, by opening the sacred jar and there were several ways of getting the head. Some of them included getting it from the fights or the wars.

In addition to this reason, some other aspects of living were also related to headhunting, so, for example, they thought that the land fertility could be improved if they made a sacrifice and threw a festival to celebrate the newly collected heads. Additionally, they thought that heads were an important part of the traditional medicine, the key element that could provide healing and disappearance of numerous diseases. Freshly cut heads were also an obligatory part of the activities that preceded the marriage agreements. Heads were the symbols of the family and land protection and they represented a kind of dowry. Therefore, people who owned more heads and skulls were more respected in the Dayak society, as well.