Mentawai Indigenous Indonesia

Toys for the Soul and how the Mentawai self documentation project came about

The islands of Mentawai are culturally and ecologically very rich and diverse. After a year of preparing our self documentation project with the local indigenous community, Sinchi program director Steyn Hoogakker finally went to Siberut (one of the islands in the archipelago) for the month of june 2019 and found a high variety of different cultures and religions living together harmoniously. Mosques, churches and traditional Mentawai houses stand colorfully together beside the one paved road running from east to west. The rest of Siberut is mostly impenetrable rainforest, and the villages there can only be accessed by a few dirt roads and by following the rivers upstream.

When we started drafting the first plans for this collaboration in february 2018, we were inspired by the work of a Swiss anthropologist, the first anthropologist who ever visited those almost impenetrable rainforests of Siberut in the 1960s. His name is Reimar Schefold. Reimar published several articles and books about his field studies there, of which ‘Toys for the Soul’ narrates the traditional life and art on the Mentawai Islands in most detail. Reading Reimars’ book, what stood out to us was the beauty and detail of the artifacts created by the local people to both worship and please the spirit world. Mentawai culture is <still> strongly animist, which means that the people who live in the forest belief that everything has a spirit and their sikerei have communicated between the people and the spirit world since ancient times. What also stood out were the photos showing their harmonious lifestyle. Our wish was to do something with those enticing pictures, now dating almost 50 years back. We wanted to find out their stories and what had become of them and the only way to find out was to reach out to Reimar himself. To our great joy, we found out that Reimar lives in Amsterdam, the home base of our Sinchi team. Was this a coincidence or was it meant to be, I guess we will never know for sure. But however it may be, Reimars’ words in person spoke even more to us than his written words and pictures.

It soon became clear that many of the people in his books had either passed away by now or still living the same way and in the same villages as they did 50 years ago. However, the Dutch assimilation politics of the former colony of Indonesia had largely pulled the Mentawai youth out of their traditional homes and towards a ‘normal’ educational system on the fringes of the island, loosing connections with their language and traditions. Reimar quite vividly explained us how the coast of Mentawai had rapidly developed for ecotourism and to attract extreme sports fanatics to the island. Both the effects of assimilation politics and the development of ecotourism on the island had made the future of Mentawai indigenous culture increasingly uncertain. Infected with his enthusiasm, the Sinchi team became aware that we had to do something to maintain this beautiful culture. We figured the best way to do that was to create awareness and show the rest of the world the beauty of this culture and the threats imposed on it. So at this point during our talks, the idea developed to make a visual representation of how life on Mentawai had changed between first contact in the ’60s and the current state of affairs on the island. Maybe a traveling exhibition with photos of Reimar Schefold, placing them next to recent photos of ecotourism, the rapidly expanded Indonesian school system and the industries on the island. Reimar was happy to support this effort, but he also introduced another very useful idea which set the tone for our collaboration with the local people, and for which we are very grateful.

It became clear that the future of Mentawai culture is in the hands of the youth. Reimar told us about the indigenous movement on the island promoting Mentawai culture amongst their youngsters. The local non profit Yayasan Pendidikan Budaya Mentawai is responsible for the development and execution of a project called Cultural and Environmental Eucation Program (CEEP), which is now even partly funded by the local Indonesian government. The purpose of the CEEP is to re-connect Mentawai with the most important and relevant aspects of Mentawai culture. After school hours, facilitators teach the children about subjects like basket weaving, hunting techniques, botanical knowledge of the plants around the island, traditional dance and music and many other aspects. After doing some more research into the CEEP and the content and ideology behind it, we thought it would be best to talk to them directly and despite many technically difficulties and failing internet connections, we finally managed to talk to those spearheading the CEEP, hoping we could somehow contribute to their cause.

After this, our intentions quickly shifted towards a project which doesn’t speak on behalf of the indigenous Mentawai people, but lets them do the talking. We decided to collaborate with YPBM in a project that was going to be mutually beneficial. Despite the steady influx of funding, Yayasan Pendidikan Budaya Mentawai was still looking to expand their workshop program and finding recourses for the necessary tools and hardware to do so. We found that this is where we could make a meaningful difference. Our program director Steyn Hoogakker came up with the idea to host a part of the CEEP by giving photography and sound recording workshops in collaboration with Aural Archipelago. Teaching the local children how to document their own culture seemed like the most direct way to secure the traditions for future generations. We also donated the necessary equipment such as smartphones, sound recording devices, a laptop, tripods and software for editing. And still baring in mind our initial idea to create awareness outside of Mentawai, we proposed to use some of the outputs of these workshops to display the beauty of the culture in either a travelling exhibition, a published book or article and/or music releases of which the contributions were to benefit YPBM. This idea was warmly received and we were very happy to collaborate with Yayasan Pendidikan Budaya Mentawai and Rob Henry from Indigenous Education Foundation in shaping the content of the workshops and further plans for the future.

The workshops took place last june, each class had around 10-15 participants and the program was executed over the course of a couple days, combining both sit-down sessions with Keynote presentations and fieldwork. This is what the photography workshop program looked like:

Day 1: Introduction, ethics in visual storytelling and basics of photography

Day 2: Short recap, briefing of that days’ assignment and field work

Day 3: Short recap, briefing of that days’ assignment and field work

Day 4: Participants’ presentations, discussion and certifications!

Example of the certificates handed out to participants of the 2019 Sinchi/ YPBM photo workshops taking place on Siberut last june

If you would like to see more results of our visit to Siberut in June 2019 and want to stay updated on future activities on the island, please go to our Mentawai projects page.