It is Sunday afternoon in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. I am seated in one of a ragtag fleet of dented vans, the mainstays of the local transportation system, winding north from the provincial capital, Samarinda. My fellow travelers and I are perched on benches jerry- rigged along the back and sides of one particular vehicle. The seating arrangement leaves the center conveniently free for prodigious bunches of bananas, sacks of rice, and squawking chickens thrust into duffel bags. Our driver stares fixedly ahead, deftly skirting the cavernous potholes that ravage this route while avoiding the precipitous drop down a hillside scant meters beyond the shoulder. It is slow going, as usual; we share this two-lane road with gargantuan trucks, a family of four perched precariously on a motorbike, and the occasional errant goat or water buffalo.
Most of the passengers debark a mile or so outside the city, beside one of the agglomerations of wooden houses cobbled together at the roadside. The driver pauses impatiently as they exit, keeping a wary eye on his rearview mirror. He doesn't want to be rear-ended by a logging truck. We continue on. Sixteen miles out from the city, the van takes a hard left at a billboard depicting a native woman in an elaborately beaded skirt and vest, her arms raised in dance. We travel a bit farther down the broken asphalt track, past banana trees, family farms, and patches of scrub. Finally, we arrive at the gate of a village called Pampang.
Luckily for me, today the driver is going as far as the village commons. We pass through the gate and in a few minutes pull up in front of the longhouse. This is an enormous wooden building festooned with traditional carvings that resemble curlicue rainbows leaping across the roof. On rainy days, I usually arrive at the longhouse on foot: Drivers refuse to risk their suspension systems by fording the final mucky mile into the village.
Pampang, which means "expansive," is populated mostly by people known as Kenyah Dayaks, natives of the island of Borneo. Dayak, in fact, is a general name for all of Borneo's indigenous inhabitants. The Kenyah are just one of hundreds of subtribes, each with its own language and traditions. The majority of these Kenyah have migrated to Pampang over the past twenty years. They came from villages in their ancestral homeland deep in the rain forest of the Apau Kayan region near Indonesia's border with Malaysia. For many, the trek to Pampang took more than a month, over dangerous rapids, through thick forests, and down muddy logging roads. They accepted the risk to pursue a better future, and they relish their newfound access to goods and services as varied as salt, sugar, health care, and education. One hundred and fifty families, or about seven hundred people, have already resettled in Pampang, and more are on the way.
I have come to know this village in the course of anthropological research on how native peoples respond to the social and economic transformations that are sweeping Indonesia today. Pampang is at the forefront of efforts to cultivate some elements of Dayak culture as tourist attractions. My current study focuses on how people choose the parts of their culture that they want to display and which to cast off in the name of progress. I am interested, above all, in the role that religion plays in their decisions. The residents of Pampang are all converts to Christianity. Yet many aspects of Dayak culture, including the arts, have associations with the traditional animistic religion, now known officially as Kaharingan. I have found that, for these villagers, deciding which aspects of their ancestors' way of life to pass down to their own children is at once a social, political, and spiritual issue.
The struggle for fairness
The residents of Pampang are not aware that the circumstances of their lives converge with pressing theoretical and applied concerns in anthropology, but they are pleased that I want to write about their aspirations. …