The Mentawai: Get To Know Sumatra's Fascinating Indigenous Tribe

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It sounds like a cliché, but I try to travel off the beaten path and stay away from the tourist zones (where possible). One piece of advice I would give to any backpacker or traveller is to always join the backpacker or expat groups of where you intend to travel on Facebook or another social media platform. It’s a great way to find cheap accommodation, tours, and to learn a little more about the local area, like where to go and what to do. Using this technique is how I found out about the Mentawai. They aren’t a tribe I had heard of before visiting Sumatra, but once I saw the post about living in the middle of the jungle, on a tropical island with a tribe that still lives the same way as they did over 2,000 years ago, I knew it was something I had to do.

Make sure not to miss out on exploring my captivating photo project capturing the essence of the Mentawai Tribe.

Hunting with Aman Tiru.

Who are the Mentawai?

Mentawai also known as the “Flower People” are among the oldest tribes in the whole of Indonesia. They reside on the island on Siberut within the aptly named Mentawai islands, which is a chain of islands located approximately 150km off the western coast of Sumatra. Researchers believe that their ancestors lived in the islands since 500 BC. They are very friendly and respectful, they are more than happy to take you along and show you how they live as long as you treat them and their culture with respect. The thing I loved most about our time there was that it wasn’t staged or put on, we just joined our host Aman Tirou and Aman Jano in his daily life.

A misty sunrise over the Sumatran rainforest.

How to reach the Mentawai?

It is definitely not an easy place to get to. First, we arrived in the coastal city of Padang a few days before the expedition. Then we were up early the next day to catch the ferry to get to the Mentawai islands. More than seven hours after the journey began, we made it to Siberut. After grabbing some lunch, we took the short ride up to the river and hopped into a dugout canoe for the next leg of the journey, which took around an hour and a half. Finally, we had arrived in the heart of the jungle, but we weren’t finished there. It was another hour or so of trekking through the dense jungle until we arrived at Aman Tirou’s Uma (Uma is a name for the Mentawai traditional house).

A small dugout canoe heading upriver.

What do they believe in?

The Mentawai have a belief called “Sabulungan”. They believe everything that lives in the jungle has a soul and that all these souls are entwinned. Living sustainably and in harmony with their surroundings is a must for any Mentawai. When you pass away, they believe your spirit returns to the forest and merges back into nature. They have many ceremonies for different occasions. One of these is called “Lajou Simagre.” The purpose of this ceremony is to cleanse the negative energy from a person. This is often performed for the family of someone who has recently died. One thing that they do find funny is how interested we are in our age (it’s usually one of the first questions asked) as they just don’t keep track of it. The only way they have some idea is from a government issued ID, on which they tend to just guess.

I did also find the names of the Mentawai interesting, so they will be named by their parents at birth and keep that name until they have their first child. After this, their name will change to father or mother of the child’s name, so Aman Tiru means father of Tiru and Bai Tiru means mother of Tiru.

A spot of fishing, a job done by the women.

What do they eat?

The staple diet for the Mentawai is seasonal fruit that grows on land that each person owns (each Mentawai Uma owns their own plot of land). These fruits include durian, rambutan, sour apples, and soursop. They also eat something called “sago,” which is actually a tree. Yes, you heard that right, a tree. So the sago tree will be chopped down and taken back to the Uma where the sago flour inside will be removed and ground into a finer flour. Afterwards, the flour is wrapped in Sago leaves and cooked over an open fire, and there you have it, freshly cooked Sago. This is the main food that the Mentawai eat. To me, it tasted a little like cheese, but it definitely wasn’t unpleasant. They also keep some livestock, such as chickens and pigs. They give them free roaming and only kill them to eat on special occasions. Because the Uma is on stilts, sometimes during the night the pigs would come underneath and eat any scraps that were dropped. They would fight, and when a fully grown boar is screeching less than a metre from your face, it is sure to wake you up. I always enjoy sleeping outdoors and listening to the sounds of the jungle.

The Mentawai are also skilled hunters and hunt all animals that dwell in the jungle, from monkeys and hornbills to palm grubs (like witchetty grubs). It’s important to note that 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. When I travel, I have a rule when in situations such as these. That rule is that I never say no and I try to immerse myself in their culture, so you can best believe that I ate whatever was offered (the grubs tasted like a watery mushroom soup) and wore nothing but a loin cloth.

You may also be interested in: Where To See Sumatra’s Orangutans In The Wild

Our Time With the Mentawai

In total, we stopped with two different families during our week living with the Mentawai. Both were Sikerei (Shamans). The role of the Sikerei is to connect the residents with the spirits, and all of them are herbalists, able to treat various types of diseases with herbs from medicinal plants. While there, we participated in various daily routines such as harvesting sago, fishing, collecting fruit, clearing paths through the jungle, cooking, making poison for arrows and a range of other things. The highlight of my trip was being asked by the second Sikerei to go back and live with him for six months. In that time, he would teach me how to live, speak, and hunt like a Mentawai.

After a week, it was time to head back to “civilization”. One thing that I really thought about during my time in the jungle was that word “civilization.” What does it actually mean? Having a car, or a house, a smart phone, or living in a city Do these things make us civilized, or is it how we act and treat one another? I feel, in many aspects, tribes like the Mentawai are more civilised than many of us. They respect and pay homage to nature and are true masters of their own environment. They can treat a range of illnesses with herbs and plants found in the jungle. They are able to live in equilibrium with nature without destroying their surroundings. The life there is stress-free; no worrying about what to post on social media or trying to impress your boss at work. They are deeply respectful, honest, and open. I am already planning my return trip!

Aman Tiru and his family

Before You Visit

If you do decide to do this expedition, which I strongly recommend that you do, make sure to do a little research and be a responsible traveller (I can recommend my guide). Check the reviews and that it is a licenced guide that can speak the local language. Also, it’s definitely not a five-star, fancy experience (just the way I like it). If you are like me, though, and enjoy living life a little rough, exploring new and fascinating cultures, and are up for an adventure, then I would recommend that you do this.

Showcasing hunting skill with the skulls of previous catches hung above the front door.

The World Catching Up

To finish on a slightly sadder note, during the tour, our guide told us that the older generation of Mentawai are the last generation, or almost the last generation, as the younger members have smart phones and don’t tend to dress in the traditional manner. Many are also interested in moving out of the jungle and living in the city to search for a “better life” for their families. If you would like to read more about the Mentawai, check out my other blog that goes a little more in depth.

Enjoying the afternoon in front of the Uma.

Do you want help creating your very own trip to see the wonders that Sumatra holds? Contact me here for expert advice and trip planning.

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