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Indonesian Textile Arts
Kalimantan Island

The People of the Interior

For the Dayak peoples of Kalimantan, swidden farming in the deep forest has given way to rubber tapping amongst secondary woodlands. Cultural developments have mirrored environmental changes, and the textile arts of the Dayak Desa have changed accordingly, with recent renewed interest marking a renewed pride in Dayak identity.

The traditional villages and swidden fields of the Dayak people line the riverbanks of Borneo’s remote interior. The name Dayak means ’’people of the interior,’’ and refers to some two hundred ethnic subgroups spread across the world’s third largest island. The Dayak make up about a third of Borneo’s total population, and are especially numerous in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island. Dayak languages belong to the Austronesian family.

Umin village

After their arrival, possibly from Taiwan, about 5,000 years ago, the Dayak slowly penetrated to the heart of the island, building long, open-plan houses that sheltered generations of growing extended families. Today, Most Dayak have left their longhouses for single-family homes. Those families who choose to stay maintain their own section of the longhouse. The dry smoke of their kitchen fires blackens the timbers, keeping malaria mosquitoes at bay.

A longhouse in Ensaid Panjang, Sintang

The Dayak ’’slash and burn’’ swaths of trees to enrich the poor forest soils. When a field loses its fertility, the farmers burn a new area, and allow the spent one to regenerate. Traditionally, a field might be farmed only once in thirty years. Today, encroachment by timber companies has reduced communal landholdings, and many fields are cultivated every five years. Yields have fallen, and eroded soil silts up local rivers.

A burnt swidden field

Dayak livelihoods depend on the forest. Sago palm and wild game anchor the Dayak diet. The Dayak collect and trade a valuable scented resin called gaharu from the heartwood of certain rare trees. Some local economies rely heavily on rattan. In one small area of eastern Kalimantan, some 30,000 people make their living harvesting and processing rattan canes. In the west, unsustainable harvesting has erased rattan from the forest.

Rattan canes

Rattan weaving still flourishes where the supply is not yet exhausted. Rattan baskets carry seed rice to the fields, haul firewood or game home from the forest, and trap fish in the rivers. Rattan mats insulate longhouse floors and walls, and their intricate motifs protect the home and illustrate clan myths. Few weavers have the skill to create apai, the intricately patterned floor mats laid out to receive honored guests.

Weaving an apai, West Kalimantan

Men can raise their status by clearing land or--in the past--capturing heads. Women earn the respect of the community with each ceremonial textile they produce. To the Dayak, creating a sacred motif on a basket or cloth is a spiritually dangerous act, requiring great strength. Weaving a ceremonial textile demands the same bravery as going into battle; missteps can cause great harm, even death.

Empuni performs a dye ceremony, Umin

’’When working on an animal [motif], you cannot stop or its spirit will attack you,’’ said master weaver Veronica Kanyan. ’’If we invoke [the god] Pulang Gana, there will be no problems. If we call Him, He will ask, ’Why was I called here?’ Then He’ll see the cloth and think, ’Oh! There’s a ceremony here.’ If we call Him for no reason, there will be consequences. We will get sick.’’

Veronica Kanyan

The spirits of the ancestors pass new patterns to weavers through dreams. These dream patterns, woven in cotton or rattan, possess spiritual power. Some, like the image of the honey tree, bring help and good fortune. Others grant success in war or protection from evil. The Dayak universe is guided by imperceptible forces, which can sometimes be influenced through the power of shape and color, and appeased with ritual and sacrifice.

Traditional dress, Umin

The ritual importance of Dayak textiles developed in tandem with Kalimantan’s headhunting tradition. For countless generations, textiles with powerful protective motifs harnessed the hostile energy of enemy heads, which were believed to make fields fertile. Headhunting largely ceased in the 1920s, when colonial governments began to effectively suppress inter-group conflicts. Since then, the use of ritual textiles has shifted to agricultural ceremonies, such as the gawai harvest festival.

A tating ceremonial skirt

Improved transportation, forest destruction, and external influences have pushed the Dayak into a larger world, and many cultures are under threat. In recent years, however, resurgent interest in Dayak textile arts has fueled local revivals. More than six hundred women in sixteen villages now belong to Jasa Menenun Mandiri, a prosperous weavers’ cooperative in West Kalimantan. Threads of Life works with JMM to revive natural dye processes and traditional wisdom.

Mundungson and Patricia Sibah pounding materials for dyeing, Umin