The Mentawai Tribe - Siberut Island

I was long postponing my trip to the island of Siberut (West Sumatra, Indonesia) where the Mentawai people live. I first considered travelling there in 2002 during one of my trips to Sumatra. I often talked to Eddy, then probably the best guide in Bukittingi, but when I realized what kind of people, and how many of them, had been going to the Mentawai for more than ten years, I've lost my interest. I felt sorry for those hunters in the Siberut

Mentawai shaman

Ten years later we had some time left in Indonesia after our expedition to Papua and my curiosity started to win. I thought that it would be interesting to find out how the Mentawai culture was doing. I wanted to know if anything could be left after twenty years of exposure to mass tourism.

Because Siberut has been such a popular destination for so long, with huge numbers of tourists coming to see the ’primitive people’, I definitely did not want to be any part of it. And so I was looking for another way. I needed to find an interpreter knowledgeable of the Mentawai culture.

In the end I found a guide who had been recommended to me by a well-known photographer, and we set off for Siberut. It turned out to be a mistake after all. The times had changed since the photographer's visit.

We planned to go as far as possible from the usual tourist places, to be able to learn something about the life in Siberut's rain-forest. We were promised we would travel by a motorised canoe far into the interior, and then walk for another five hours from the river. That seemed like a sufficient distance on such a small island.

On our first day we arrived at a big village with a mosque, only about three hours from the island's capital, Muara Siberut. From there we trekked through pretty forest over a hill to the first clan. We arrived there in about two hours. When I reminded our guide of his original promise to go at least five hours away, he replied, that this was indeed how long this trip took to a normal tourist .....

Old shaman

We stayed two days. All that was left of the culture there were the last few shamans. Nobody was willing take us any further, because they all confirmed that it was the same everywhere and we would not find anything else. But I did not want to give up yet. But when I kept searching for other options to get away from the tourist trail, our guide became quite edgy. He asked me: ”Well, tell me what it is you want, what exactly you are looking for? How is that shaman ’of yours’ supposed to look like?! There are three shamans here, all the other tourists had always been happy so far!” Again (for how many times already) I explained that I was looking for the clans who still keep their culture, not just a few shamans who are trying to sell me all the usual ’tourist activities’, while the rest of their families spent evenings making noise with their mobile phones, listening to Indonesian pop music .....

When he calmed down, he eventually remembered the family of an old shaman living not far downriver. And so we headed there. We were welcomed by a very beautiful old shaman with his wife. The rest of his family were also already ’civilized’ (in the Indonesian style), and instead of the traditional loin-cloths they wore dirty rugs and made a lot of noise with their cell phones. But, at least, there were no signs of the tourist impact and they asked nothing from us ...

In general, those few days with the Mentawai were very interesting and we learnt a lot about their culture – the original one, as well as the new (modern) one. The Mentawai are very nice people with a deep sense of justice and friendship. They also told us how the Indonesian government is trying to get them to sell their forests for logging, something they are fiercely opposing. They understand how important it is to preserve their environment for future generations. That made me really happy.

Our guide did not keep his promises and took us only to the usual tourist place, but he looked after us very well and was keen to explain as much as he could. We did not find what we were looking for, but at least I have an extra reason to come back.

Photogallery Mentawai