Rice, Women, Men and the
Natural Environment among
the Kelabit of Sarawak
In this chapter, I look at the way in which both male and female are fundamental to the construction of what one might describe as full and proper humanity for the Kelabit of Sarawak. I suggest that neither gender can be seen as being more ‘sacred’ than the other through a special, closer relationship with what might be termed ‘nature’. Rather, both genders may be said to be sacred through their role in generating humanity via the relationship which the Kelabit have with their natural environment.
The ‘Euro-American’ dichotomy between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ has been explored by Strathern.1 I would suggest that it is not only in ‘Euro-American’ societies that there is a conception of a distinction between that which is not under the control of humans which we may describe as ‘the wild’ – and that which is – which we might describe as ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’. Among the Kelabit of Sarawak I found that, although there is no word which could be translated as ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’, there is a conception of something called ulun, which I shall gloss as ‘human life’. Ulun implies a special human way of life based on rice-growing that is distinct from simply ‘being alive’ (mulun) which is applicable to wild living things. As is arguably the case in Euro-American societies, for the Kelabit too, to be truly human means to transcend a way of life which is entirely within the sphere of the wild, even though having ulun is, in fact, only possible because of a reliance on something I shall gloss as ‘wild life force’ (lalud).
Both for Euro-American societies and for a group like the Kelabit,