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Savu Island
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Indonesian Textile Arts
Savu Island

Islands of the Lontar

The neighboring islands of Savu and Rai Jua each rise less than 100 meters above the sea. Their dry, limestone landscapes bare crops for only a few months a year. At other times the islanders subsist on the juice and sugar of the lontar palm. The cultural link with this keystone plant species runs very deep, as exhibited by the island’s weavers who divide themselves into two lineages, designated the Greater Lontar Blossom and the Lesser Lontar Blossom.

Long ago, the Savunese say, a giant wave washed away a landmass between Sumba and Timor, leaving behind only the tiny island of Rai Jua. The gods picked up a handful of Rai Juan soil and threw it into the ocean, where it became Savu. To this day, each year the Savunese offer their gratitude and a portion of their harvest to neighboring Rai Jua in a grand ceremony known as hole.

The Savunese coastline

Farmers on Savu grow sesame, mung beans, pigeon peas, and dry-field rice, along with sorghum, or terae hawu in the local language, and maize, called terae djawa or ’’foreign corn.’’ But Savu’s true staple is the sap of the lontar palm (Borassus flabellifer). Many Savunese and Rai Juans drink lontar sap in place of any other food, and sometimes go for long periods without any solid sustenance.

Harvesting lontar sap

The lontar palm is the only crop on Savu that produces food during the island’s severe annual droughts. Tappers climb the tall, slender trees and slice open woody inflorescences that grow among the leaves. Sweet, milky sap drips from the cuts into lontar-leaf baskets, which the tappers collect each morning and afternoon. Lontar sap can be fermented into beer, distilled into spirits, or boiled down into red-brown sugar.

A Savunese tree tapper

Many Savunese and Rai Juans are Christian, but life in these tiny islands turns on a complex lunar ritual cycle. Each district in Savu maintains seven animistic priests, called the mone ama, who lead the traditional religious community. The mone ama perform their duties in circles of large stone platforms, where they sit, sacrifice animals, and make offerings. These ceremonial centers are distributed throughout Savu’s five traditional territories.

Altars near Kampung Namata

Each of the seven priests has a particular purview. The priest called rue guards Savu against outside influence, do heleo administers traditional law, pulodo muhu ensures success in conflict, pulodo dahi placates the seas, and duae bangu udu represents the local clan. Deo rai, or the Lord of the Earth, protects planting and harvest. Apu lodo, the Descendent of the Sun, oversees the tapping of the lontar palm.

Traditional house, Kampung Namata

Lontar supplies the bones and skin of a Savunese house. Lontar trunks become posts and beams, and lontar-fiber ropes bind lontar-leaf roofs. Traditional buildings are layered with meaning. A house represents the bodies of family ancestors, with ribs, veins, and both male and female elements. Three levels symbolize the universe in miniature: a high loft for spirits, a main chamber for everyday life, and a ground level for animals.

A traditional priest

The Savunese also say the roof resembles an overturned boat, with ribs below and rudder in the air. No part of Savu or Rai Jua rises more than 100 meters above sea level, and nearly everyone depends on the sea for at least part of their livelihood. They supplement their diets with fish, and grow seaweed for export in shallow underwater gardens. Small lontar-leaf cups dot the beaches, evaporating seawater for salt.

Harvesting sea salt, Liae

In the dry season, when crops will not grow, the women begin to weave. The few who still use handspun thread and natural dyes harvest their cotton, and collect roots, leaves, bark, and other dye materials. Each family group performs a special ceremony to ensure the strength of their red dye. The gods and ancestors require that ritual textiles be dyed naturally.

Winding thread

Savu’s weavers divide themselves into two main lineages, which they call hubi, or lontar flowers. Hubi ae, the Greater Blossom lineage, stitches their cloths together with red thread. Hubi iki, the Lesser Blossom, uses black thread. Each clan weaves specific patterns and motifs, which they wear in life, and which shroud their bodies in death. Even Savu’s Christians believe their ancestors will know them by the clan textiles they wear.

Getreda Kana Koy and her husband, Rai Jua

Weaving brings needed income to Savu, and some weavers try to boost their earnings by cutting quality and increasing quantity. Threads of Life works with two Savunese weavers’ cooperatives to maintain the highest possible quality. Their museum-level work takes far longer to produce, but fetches far better prices. And by making fewer pieces, the villagers can sustainably manage dye resources, which in other areas are threatened by overproduction.

Hawu Miha weavers’ cooperative