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The Fate of Dayak Lebo Tribe at the Crossroads

The Dayak Lebo tradition in Kampung Merabu is fighting to survive amidst strict religious regulations and the rapid flow of modernization. Regeneration and literacy are some of the big obstacles.

Text: Rifqy Faiza Rahman
Photos: Deta Widyananda and Mauren Fitri


The Fate of Dayak Lebo Tribe at the Crossroads
During our visit to Merabu Village, we encountered Ransum, Dayak Lebo community elder, relaxing and smoking on the terrace of his home/Mauren Fitri

Ransum, the 61-year-old Dayak Lebo community elder of Merabu Village, embodied the village’s rich history. Time had etched its mark on him—silver hair, weathered skin etched with wrinkles, and a cane supporting his steady steps. Though his body, marked by swollen feet and occasional muscle cramps, hinted at limitations, his spirit remained vibrant. He spent his days on the long wooden chair on his stilted house’s terrace, cigarettes his constant companion. Erna Wati, his 62-year-old wife, sat beside him, their shared challenges reflected in her need to walk on all fours.

Despite his physical limitations, Ransum’s eyes held a spark. His voice, though raspy, spoke volumes, carrying the weight of countless memories. When adorned in traditional attire—a wooden bark shirt, layered necklaces, a cloth loincloth, and a mandau (sword)—his transformation was remarkable. A sable hat with a golden hornbill beak and feathers completed the image, and with a cane in hand, he straightened his posture, exuding the dignity of a Merabu elder.

A hint of a smile played on his lips despite his missing teeth. On October 10th, 2023, he shared stories with TelusuRI, tales of his ancestors and the traditions of the Dayak Lebo Merabu, a cultural heritage they fiercely strive to preserve in the face of modern times.

Life and death are intertwined with tradition

Similar to other Dayak tribes, the Dayak Lebo of Merabu are deeply entwined with tradition, from the cradle to the grave. As a subtribe of the Dayak Basap, itself descended from the Dayak Punan, one of Kalimantan’s largest Dayak groups, the Lebo people in Merabu carry on practices, rituals, and customary laws as ancient as the village itself.

“Living in the mountains and forests, how could we even comprehend the concept of a village?” explained Ransum. “Building a village back then was vulnerable to attacks, during the ngayau era. When that happened we sought refuge and food in the forest.”

Ngayau refers to a historical period of headhunting among certain Dayak tribes. The Dayak Basap Lebo, however, were a smaller, peaceful group, opting for isolation deep within the jungle. They found shelter in longai, narrow gaps between towering rock formations rich in prehistoric caves, forming the present-day Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat karst ecosystem. This remote and inaccessible location offered them sanctuary.

It was within these longai that Ransum’s ancestors began attempts at creating a village, constructing basic shelters. However, fear of raids from other tribes kept them from permanently settling.

Only when the ngayau era subsided and inter-tribal hostility ceased, did the village truly come alive. The community built houses, established farms with corn, cassava, and mountain rice, and their elders defined the forest boundaries, establishing customary rules, particularly regarding the protection of their surrounding forests and the Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat karst ecosystem, their cherished “backyard.”

Left: Nordiana shows her work in the form of traditional rattan bag crafts. Right: Hakim (red shirt) filters natural honey freshly harvested from the forest last night. The residents of Merabu Village depend on the products of the Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat karst buffer forest to provide a source of family economy/Deta Widyananda

“We fear outsiders entering and destroying our forest,” explained Ransum, the village elder, “it’s our lifeblood.” The Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat karst buffer forest provides an abundance of natural resources: sago, honey, forest fruits, wild boar, hornbill, deer, and even freshwater fish from the Lesan River.

The government system proceeded in stages when it was led by Sampan, the first village head before Asrani (48). Sampan is Asrani’s uncle. Last October, Asrani was re-elected as Head of Merabu Village, after serving in the 1998—2011 period.

The village’s close relationship with the forest is evident in their nickname, “the tribe of gatherers and hunters.” They utilize these resources sustainably, fulfilling daily needs, from food consumption to traditional medicines prepared by their Belian (healers) for the sick.

Ransum carries out the tradition of sprinkling yellow rice on tourists visiting Kampung/Ester Suwarsih of INDECON

The Dayak Lebo community upholds a unique belief system. In certain rituals, they offer food to unseen inhabitants of the forest, particularly in sacred locations like Bloyot Cave, other karst caves, Nyadeng Lake, and Ketepu Peak. This practice, known as the “iraw” tradition or “village melas”, is a way to appease them and ensure bountiful harvests of honey, forest products, fruits, and rice.

Yellow rice plays a significant role in these rituals and other community activities. For instance, the manugal tradition involves sowing yellow rice during a collective effort to open new land for rice cultivation. This specific type of rice, classified as mountain rice, requires no seeding and yields only one harvest annually.

  • The Fate of Dayak Lebo Tribe at the Crossroads
  • The Fate of Dayak Lebo Tribe at the Crossroads

Yellow rice plays a crucial role in the traditions and way of life for the Dayak Lebo community of Merabu. According to Ransum, the village elder, choosing land for rice cultivation involves a lengthy process. Yellow rice acts as a spiritual tool to assess the suitability of potential clearing sites within the limited forest area. If the elders deem a plot unproductive, they move on to another location.

“This was the way of our ancestors, and we still use it today,” Ransum explained. “But now, things have changed. People are quicker to clear land without the traditional methods, and it’s become harder to find suitable plots.”

Agus Atino, a migrant married to a Lebo Dayak woman, emphasized the importance of offering yellow rice during the manugal tradition, a collective effort to open new farmland. He describes a lemang party, where the community gathers in a hut within the fields to enjoy a traditional dish of sticky rice cooked in bamboo over an open flame.

“We built a small hut, one meter by one meter, filled with yellow rice and flowers,” Agus explained. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to prepare it yesterday. Everyone’s been so busy, there wasn’t anyone to help.”

This sacred rice also serves as a welcoming gesture for visitors from outside the village. Ransum elaborated, “It signifies our respect for everyone who comes to our village. We sprinkle them with yellow rice, wishing them a safe journey back home, free from illness or danger.”

However, Ransum admits his concerns, especially when guests enter the forest without prior notice. He worries that large groups, accompanied by unknown individuals, could endanger the village’s precious 8.245 hectare of forest.

Due to his health, not all visitors receive the traditional yellow rice reception. It is reserved for specific occasions, such as visits from regional or central government officials, representatives of non-profit organizations working in Merabu, and dignitaries attending the annual “Tuaq Manuk” peak procession, a traditional festival celebrated in Berau Regency.

In most cases, Ransum leaves messages, particularly for tour operators bringing guests to Merabu. He emphasizes the importance of respecting customary practices by seeking permission and informing him before entering the forest.

“Following generations of tradition and upholding customary law can be challenging, with its restrictions,” Ransum softly conceded. “But ultimately, these practices are also for our own good. We strive to maintain the forest according to the customs passed down from our ancestors.”

The Fate of Dayak Lebo Tribe at the Crossroads
After the collective effort of manugal, a joyous celebration called the lemang celebration takes place. This festive gathering involves mothers working together to fill bamboo segments with sticky rice, creating the traditional dish known as lemang. Lemang is then cooked over an open fire, filling the air with a delicious aroma. The location for the lemang celebration usually takes place in a special hut situated in the center of the gardens, offering a dedicated space for the community to come together, share the fruits of their labor, and celebrate their collective accomplishment/Deta Widyananda

“If I pass away, it’s over…”

As the Dayak Lebo community elder for 19 years, Ransum faces significant challenges in preserving his people’s ancestral traditions. The rapid pace of modernization and the introduction of Christianity and Islam have limited the practice of traditional rituals.

While some community members remain open to practicing their customs, others have abandoned them due to religious teachings. Certain rituals, such as offering food to unseen forest dwellers or sprinkling yellow rice before manugal, are seen as conflicting with religious beliefs.

Ransum believes that religion lacks the specific restrictions found in adat traditions. He sees religion as a potential complement to existing customs, but he chooses to adapt to the current dynamics.

Asrani, the village head, acknowledges Ransum’s concerns and tries to bridge the gap between religious and traditional perspectives. He emphasizes that adat (customary law) life in the present era differs from the past.

“We are simply preserving our heritage,” Asrani explains. “We believe that these customs and traditions are our legacy, not something fabricated. Even if they are considered outdated, they represent our identity. I believe there’s nothing inherently wrong with our culture, as people in the past didn’t have religion.”

Accessibility to convenient and simplified information and technology poses another challenge, particularly for the younger generation, whose understanding of their village’s traditions is limited. This lack of knowledge and generational gaps threaten not only the survival of adat but also the development of ecotourism, which has been a key focus for Merabu in recent years.

No concrete efforts have been made to document Ransum’s vast knowledge of adat traditions in a written and organized manner. 

Ransum acknowledges the complexities of preserving ancestral traditions in the face of modernization and evolving beliefs. While he believes religion doesn’t impose the same restrictions as “adat” (customary law), he sees them as potentially complementary. However, he chooses to adapt to the current dynamic, allowing space for diverse perspectives within the community.

Asrani, the village head, recognizes the concerns raised by Ransum. He emphasizes the importance of safeguarding their heritage: “We simply strive to preserve our traditions, a legacy passed down, not fabricated. Even if deemed outdated by some, they are the cornerstone of our identity. Back then, there was no conflict with religion, as it simply wasn’t present.”

Another significant challenge lies in the easy access to information and technology, which can create a disconnect from traditional knowledge, particularly among younger generations. This lack of understanding, coupled with difficulties in documenting and passing down these traditions, creates a risk not only for the survival of adat but also for the sustainable development of ecotourism, a vital pillar of Merabu’s recent economic growth.

Unfortunately, there are currently no concrete efforts to formally document the wealth of traditional knowledge held by Ransum, potentially leading to the loss of this invaluable cultural heritage.

The Tuaq Manuk Festival that took place in July 2023 in Kampung Merabu/Ester Suwarsih of INDECON

The Tuaq Manuk Festival held last July offered a glimmer of hope for preserving the Dayak Lebo community’s cultural identity. This week-long series of traditional ceremonies showcased Merabu Village’s dedication to keeping the “cultural blood” of its ancestors alive.

Conceptualized by the village’s early leader, Simpo Belian Danyam, through spiritual guidance, Tuaq Manuk signifies a collaborative tradition with spiritual undertones. It serves as a platform for learning about various aspects of Dayak Lebo customs, encompassing elements like language, knowledge systems, social organization, daily tools, livelihoods, religious practices, art forms, and sacred rituals.

The festival unfolds in four distinct phases. Beramu, a period of preparation and practice. Pasing, a time for prayer and expression of gratitude for what exists. Menyadi Tuaq, fulfilling one’s duties and responsibilities. Peding, the period of observing the established rules and taboos.

These phases are accompanied by vibrant dances and diverse forms of traditional music, such as tajaan, bibi temongang batang, tapik-tapik bagizam, sebumung buka-buka sebumung, batu luga-luga, and tarenten buto taretung.

Ultimately, the Tuaq Manuk Festival aims to bring blessings to the people and forests of Merabu, fostering a sense of gratitude for their harvest, fruit, and honey. It also provides an opportunity for healing and prayer for those facing difficulties. Local residents and visitors alike are welcome to participate in the festivities and gain a deeper understanding of Merabu’s rich traditions.

However, despite the festival’s success, a sense of worry lingers on Ransum’s face. He recognizes the immense challenge of preserving these traditions in the face of rapid modernization and evolving beliefs. He acknowledges the potential threat posed by external influences that may marginalize the customs, regardless of their nature.

The Fate of Dayak Lebo Tribe at the Crossroads
Ransum smiles in traditional Dayak Lebo clothing. The durian tree and forest behind it is where the first village was founded/Deta Widyananda

Ransum expresses deep concern about the diminishing respect for traditional practices. “It saddens me that many of our taboos are being violated,” he laments. “People do things they’re not supposed to, and the consequences only come later when someone falls ill. It’s heartbreaking to see our traditions fading away.”

Despite his role as a traditional leader, Ransum feels his influence limited to spiritual matters. “People rarely seek our guidance for resolving physical problems affecting the village or the forest,” he explains. “They only turn to us when things are truly dire.” He sees his position as more symbolic than practical.

Another source of worry is the lack of a clear successor. While his son, Soleman, has been designated as the potential heir to his role, Ransum acknowledges the challenges involved. “He still needs to learn the intricate details of our history and traditional rituals. Absorbing this deep-rooted philosophy takes time,” he emphasizes.

Ransum’s words carry a sense of resignation, “If I’m gone, I fear the Dayak Lebo customs may vanish altogether.” They would only exist as relics in photographs, hornbill crowns, mandau, and clothing hanging silently on his house’s walls. (*)

Translated by Novrisa Briliantina


Cover photo:
A Merabu man holds a traditional wooden (tugal) with a charcoal smudged face. During the manugal tradition, residents fool around with each other by poking charcoal in each other’s faces. There is no exception for anyone, even guests from outside the village. It is a form of welcoming people from outside the village. The atmosphere became boisterous and friendly/Mauren Fitri

In September—October 2023, the TelusuRI team visited Sumatra Utara, Riau, and Kalimantan Timur on the Arah Singgah expedition: Bringing Harmony to Human Life and Nature. Our trip report can be followed at telusuri.id/arahsinggah.

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Seorang penulis perjalanan, pemerhati ekowisata, dan Content Strategist di TelusuRI. Penikmat kopi. Gemar mendaki gunung demi gemintang, matahari terbit dan tenggelam.

Seorang penulis perjalanan, pemerhati ekowisata, dan Content Strategist di TelusuRI. Penikmat kopi. Gemar mendaki gunung demi gemintang, matahari terbit dan tenggelam.

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