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Indonesian Textile Arts
Lembata Island

Whalers and Weavers

The village of Lamalera, on the rocky south coast of Lembata, is best known for its extraordinary tradition of whaling from oar-powered boats using homemade harpoons. A complex culture surrounds the hunt and determines how the spoils are shared. Marriage rituals that bind the clans together require the gifting of handspun, natural-dyed cloth, and it is from a group of a dozen weavers within this tradition that Threads of Life commissioned its first textiles.

East of Flores, dry, rocky Lembata surges from the sea. Part of the Lamaholot island chain, Lembata features massive volcanoes, cliffs dropping into the sea, and one of the harshest dry seasons in Indonesia. Until the early 20th century, slave raids drove most of the population into fortified inland villages. Today, farmers still scratch a living from between the stones, and trade foods and crafts at barter-only markets.

Lewoleba harbor, Lembata

Threads of Life’s very first project began in Lamalera, a village of a few hundred families, squeezed between sea and mountains on Lembata’s southern edge. The steep, dusty hillsides offer little purchase for farming, and nearly everyone in Lamalera lives off the bounty of the Indian Ocean. A rich cold current just off shore attracts a wealth of marine life, including tuna, sharks, manta rays, and whales.

Lamalera village

From May to September, Lamalerans keep a weather eye out for the blow of the sperm whale. If a whale wanders close to shore, the villagers launch their boats and give chase under oar and sail. When the whalers pull alongside a breathing whale, a hunter hurls himself from the boat’s prow, harpoon in hand. A wounded whale often tows its hunters for miles, or drags their boat down into the deeps.

Fishing crew, Lamalera

In a good year, Lamalera fishermen land about two dozen whales and many more sharks and manta rays. Successful hunters distribute cuts of the catch according to clan and status. Oil from the whale’s blubber and head is saved for lamp fuel. Villagers cook the meat fresh or dry it in the sun. Dried whale stores well, and always gets good value at the barter markets.

A guide to sharing whale meat

Little cash changes hands at Ulon Doni, the market closest to Lamalera. Every Tuesday, farmers from the interior gather at Ulon Doni to swap grain and vegetables for marine products like dried fish, whale, seaweed, and salt. At 4 am, Lamalera tradeswomen gather their loads for the three-hour walk to market. Since the coastal soils are so poor, Lamalerans get nearly all of their farm products through barter.

Ulon Doni market

Upland farming communites get nearly all of their dietary protein through barter with coastal villages like Lamalera. Even in the relatively arable interior, harvests are seldom rich. Lembata’s dry climate does not support flooded rice fields, and families subsist on corn, sweet potatoes, and cassava. These are considered poverty crops or used for animal feed in much of Indonesia. Whale protein helps local children develop into healthier, more productive adults.

Whale meat, Lamalera

Centuries ago, the locals say, a flotilla drew up on the beach in front of the village. The boats bore refugees from Sulawesi, who had been traveling from island to island in search of a new home. The locals welcomed these newcomers, and the modern clan structure in Lamalera descends from those times. The clans have specific responsibilities, such as preparing medicines or protecting the village.

A village meeting, Lamalera

The Lamanudek clan is responsible for designing and constructing the tena boats that carry the whalers to sea. New tena are rarely built. Instead, the Lamanudek break down and reconstruct the old ones, reuse as many parts as possible, and paint the old name on the new boat. To the villagers, this means the original boats that carried their ancestors from Sulawesi are still preserved to the present day.

A tena under repair, Lamalera

Lamalerans have embraced Catholicism, and the church has established a clinic and school in the village. But a strong animistic current runs beneath the surface, bound up in Lamalera’s maritime culture. Fishermen paint eyes on their boats, which help them to find their way at sea. Each year, fishing season opens with two ceremonies: a Catholic mass, and the ie gerek ritual, performed before a whale-shaped rock in the mountains.

A painted prow, Lamalera

From harvesting and spinning the cotton, through the final clack of the loom, a Lamaleran woman might require two years to produce a single kwatek nai telo textile. Motifs of manta rays and sharks’ teeth, scorpions and volcanoes, even the weaver’s shuttle or betel nut basket find a place in these exquisite artworks. The gift of a kwatek cements a marriage alliance, maintaining the long peace between the clans.

Weaver Kristina Krofa and her husband