Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Myth, History and Modern Cultural Identity among Hunter-Gatherers: A Borneo Case

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Myth, History and Modern Cultural Identity among Hunter-Gatherers: A Borneo Case

Article excerpt


The island of Borneo has maintained until fairly recently a number of tropical rainforest hunting-gathering groups, generally referred to as Punan or Penan (though other local ethnonyms are found). Today, a large proportion of them have switched to a partly settled way of life and some form of agriculture, but even these groups still rely heavily on the forest, collecting jungle products for trade and, often, processing the wild sago palms for their subsistence while collecting. The Bukat, one of these partly settled groups, are found in Indonesia's West Kalimantan (three hamlets, totalling 300 persons) and East Kalimantan (one hamlet of 150), and in Malaysia's Sarawak (one hamlet of 150).

This paper focuses on one of the Bukat communities of West Kalimantan.(1) It is based on a short manuscript in Indonesian entitled Kisah rakyat tentang "Sebab-sebab terjadinya/terdapatnya benda-benda tua di Kampung Nanga Balang". This manuscript, dated 12 December 1982, was written by Sawing Gemala, a Bukat notable of the tiny hamlet of Nanga Balang, on the uppermost reaches of the Kapuas River (district of Putussibau, regency of Kapuas Hulu, West Kalimantan).(2)

The manuscript includes introductory notes by Sawing, the text of a Bukat legend, and Sawing's comments (the rest of 2.3, and the following two sections). As my translation of the Indonesian text tries to remain close to the original, it may appear clumsy or heavy. Parentheses enclose original elements of the text, while brackets enclose my editing notes. I have kept Sawing's original freehand sketch map of the site of Nanga Balang but translations of captions and orientation of sketch map are mine.

I found this manuscript interesting because I have personally met Sawing, and because his reading of the legend and his comments on Bukat history, as revealed in this text, obviously stray from the information he offered in the course of a series of interviews. The legend's implications also contradict notably what I know of Bukat history from other sources.(3)

The legend dearly originated in the unearthing by local people of a number of artifacts (including gold jewellery), suggesting an "ancient and sophisticated culture", at the site of Nanga Balang. While these artifacts evidently point at some real historical episode, the Bukat legend, in a first stage, provides an interpretation of the artifacts, manipulating the historical tradition to fit certain purposes of the times when it was elaborated. Sawing's reading of the legend and comments on Bukat history constitute a second stage of manipulation, leading to other conclusions, meant to fit better the Bukat's current (1982) social-economic situation.

It is not the goal of this paper to discuss theoretical issues or to establish the comparative or theoretical significance of the data presented. It is commonplace to state that people manipulate their historical tradition for cultural or political reasons and much has been written about this subject (for example, R. Renaldo on the Ilongot or M. Sahlins on Hawaii, and the growing literature on the "invention of tradition"). This paper only attempts to provide, in a restrictedly regional cultural context, an interpretative analysis of the Bukat's manipulations of historical tradition in the context of their changing circumstances.

The manipulation here sets into motion several combined mechanisms. The legend comes up with a sort of myth of origin meant to legitimize the nomadic way of life and improve the nomadic Bukat's low status in the eyes of their farming neighbours. Sawing, drawing a posteriori on the Christian teachings in his reinterpretation of the legend and of Bukat cultural history, makes the point, in a similar attempt to upgrade the nomadic Bukat's status, that they are better Christians than the farmers. A recently-introduced world religion here provides new means to strengthen the ethnic and cultural identity of a hunting-gathering group. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.