Siberut Island, Mentawai, Indonesia. Aman Masit Dere, is a medicine man or Sikerei of the indigenous tribal community that inhabit the inland jungles and mountains of the Mentawai islands west of Sumatra, Indonesia.His leathery skin is covered in tattoos and his lean muscular physique is emblematic of an uncompromising jungle life. Until now he has managed to reject modern influence and instead continues to capitalize on an in-depth knowledge of the jungles foods, medicines and building resources.
Aman Masit Dere soothes his youngest daughter Renti (1) from an unknown illness with a beautiful lullaby. The Sikerei hold the spirit of the child in reverence. They themselves are impish and childlike in many of their mannerisms. A cloud of worry envelops the Uma (house) when children become ill as there is no immediate access to modern medicine and they often pass away suddenly.
As Aman Masit Dere soothes his youngest daughter Renti (1) from an unknown illness his grandson Jumer looks on. Jumer, unlike many young Mentawai, shares a love of Arat Sabulungan, the complex Animist belief system that gives reverece to the spirit of their ancestors, the sky, land, ocean, rivers, and all that is natural within.This system has maintained the Mentawai for thousands of years and provides them with idealology for food, finance, marriage and also medicine.
The Sikerei have a deep knowledge of the jungle and the resources it can provide. As the regions Medicine men they are sought after by locals with health issues and expected to treat them to a full recovery. With the onset of modernity comes with it new and unseen ailments, some of which are untreatable by forest medicine, ultimately having an adverse effect on the status of the traditional Sikerei.
Like his grandfather, nine year old Jumer possesses an inner light, a connection to the land and forest, the knowledge that this is his place. When asked if he would like to go to school with the others Jumer doesn’t hesitate: “No”. Like those before him, he learns all he can and all the Mentawai have ever needed to know – until now – from observing his elders and listening to the lessons of the Sikerei.
Masit Dere and his fellow Sikerei perform a traditional dance welcoming the spirits into the Uma at a ceremony to bless his newly made canoe or ‘pompong’. Ceremonies like this are becoming a rarity within the islands as traditional ways are rapidly being lost to an influx of western influences. Ceremonies sometimes last for days and will involve many families from the local area joining in the practices of hunting and preparing food and will culminate in the sacrifice of a pig and chicken, which are then shared evenly among the guests.
The Sikerei dance for hours, usually until they can no longer stand as a showing to the spirits. The floorboards of the Uma are not nailed to the floor meaning the noise made by the stomping of the dancers reverberates and creates a rhythm to accompany the drummers. The dance usually ends dramatically with one of the Sikerei feigning death to appease those in the afterlife.
Masit Dere performs a tooth sharpening ritual. The procedure is performed less and less as Mentawai women continually look to the western world for what is deemed to be 'beauty'. The ritual has different purposes dependant upon which region it is perfomed. Some say it is a practical tool so that a new mother can break down solid foods to feed her babies with greater ease. Others, like in the Sarereiket region (pictured here) say it is a beautification technique. Most commonly agree that having their teeth chiselled make them last longer and are less prone to rot.
No anaesthetic is administered and depending upon the sharpness of the machete or chisel the length of the procedure is undetermined. Both the top and bottom two front teeth are sharpened to a point by continual chiselling away of the tooth. The woman's head is constantly battered by the force of the chisel or machete and this particular woman lay in the dark for six hours to recover.
Masit Dere's eldest son Kacau Kunen sits in his fathers Uma and plays guitar as Sikerei Aman Dussa Kunen has his forearms tattooed. At age 18 Kacau, like many of his generation, turned his back on jungle life and his birthright; the prestige of being Sikerei, and relocated into the settlement village of Matotonan. He does odd jobs but has no regular income, a wife and three children to provide for and a worrying stomach illness that immobilizes him for days. Kacau Kunan's situation is symbolic of the major disconnect between generations that is threatening the culture of the Mentawai. Masit Dere bears no ill will towards his eldest son but he knows that he must pass on his knowledge to someone who will keep his culture from disappearing.
Masit Dere's daughter Ukan (6) stares through the window at the government school she attends with her brother Pandin in Matatonan. Masit Dere and his wife receive financial benefits for sending the two children to school and it is illegal for children to not attend. The Islamic school she attends is run with military precision, teaching reading, writing, arithmetic and religious studies, skills that, while of great benefit on mainland Indonesia, will offer only a slim chance of employment on the islands. This place is one of poverty, and an unhealthy dependence on outsiders for support.
Ukan watches on as Masit Dere pays for a treat in the small shop in Matatonan. Further adding to the worrying trend towards modern societal systems, the small shop only sells products that are high in sugar and additives that the Mentawai have not yet grown accustomed too. As employment is limited in these purpose built villages the opportunity to buy and sell goods from the outside world is seen as a show of wealth yet further adds to the disconnect from the traditional and sustainable way of life.
Masit Dere's brother Teubarat Kerie (far right) views an image of his recently deceased son on a laptop computer, surrounded by extended family. This is the first time he has seen these images only two weeks after the death of his teenage son from an unknown illness. This is often the case in the Mentawai where access to modern medicine is limited. Teubarat himself is suffering from Tuberculosis, a common complaint.
Muara Port Siberut is the only town of note on the main island of Siberut, and also a drop off point for surfers looking to ride the world-famous surf breaks surrounding the islands. A seeming oasis for young Mentawai with dreams of working on the chartered boats and surf resorts, the settlement town is in fact a mirage, with little to no opportunity for employment and a lack of infrastructure to sustain growth. The residents are Mentawai but the culture here is non-existent, extinct.
It is illegal for Masit Dere to wear his traditional loincloth in the larger government villages like Muara Port Siberut. “They put me in jail because I refused to wear their clothing in the village. I’m Sikerei, the Baiko (dark-red coloured loincloth) and tattoos are my clothing. But they told me I could no longer dress like this when I came to the village. I don’t understand why they say this.” He now obeys the law and adorns himself with western clothing to cover his tattooed body.
A healthy Renti (l) stares outsidethe Uma as Ukan and Pandin play after school. As Masit Dere's youngest son, Pandin (r) is the next in line to be Sikerei due to Kacau's move to Matatonan. Pandin does not share the same love of Arat Sabulangan as Jumer does and as he attends the village school it would seem that Masit Dere is the last in his lineage to be Sikerei. “The future of Mentawai culture survives with our children and our role is to teach them this knowledge.” says Masit Dere.
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