Located some 60 miles west off the coast of Sumatra is the island of Siberut. Siberut is inhabited by the Mentawai tribe, among the oldest indigenous Indonesian societies. Mentawai are an ancient tribe that has lived deep in the jungles of the equatorial rainforest–and in a relative isolation from modern society–for thousands of years.

Our crew left on an overnight ferry from Sumatra. A gorgeous sunrise welcomed us on the shores of Maura Siberut. After getting necessary provisions in town, we boarded the canoe and headed off into the heart of Mentawai settlements. 

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The Mentawai are an ancient tribe that for thousands of years have lived in the jungles on Siberut Island.  After the Indonesian independence in 1950s, an aggressive government campaign tried to modernize the Mentawai. Traditional practices such as tattooing, tooth filing, and loincloths were outlawed, since they were considered “pagan” and “savage.”

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In the 1990s, cultural oppression against the Mentawai tribe became more brutal and forced selected clans to relocate from the jungle to resettlement sites in government-created villages. Religion (shamanism) was forbidden, and practicing shamans were stripped off their medicine bundles, sacred objects, loincloths, and their long hair.

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Several Mentawai clans made a courageous decision to leave their ancestral villages and recede deeper into the jungle in an attempt to retain their original culture. Living in the remote interior of Siberut, they have succeeded in escaping the disruptions and dislocations of the government. Currently, the Mentawai tribe consists of around 64,000 members, well known for their distinctive body art and teeth sharpening, which they believe makes them more attractive.

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The Mentawai have an effortless understanding and an intimate, harmonious relationship with the forest, living in harmony with nature by taking only what they need. For them, the jungle has always been a place where everything, from plants to rocks to animals and men, has a spirit (kina). The Mentawai believe spirits live everywhere, and in everything -- in the earth and sky, in the treetops, or in a dugout canoe --. The Mentawai speak to them, because they speak and act as human beings do.

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Mentawai tattoos represent the “Tree of Life” or sago palm. The stripes on the upper thighs represent the veins and trunk of the sago; long dotted lines running down the arms symbolize the prickly fronds of its branches; patterns on the hands and ankles may mirror the bark or roots; and the curved lines on the chest represent the sago flower. Some Mentawai elders say that this “Tree of Life” must be tattooed on every shaman, because there can be no death when one is part of a tree of life.

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The Mentawai believe that a person is nothing without a soul. The women get their teeth sharpened because they believe this makes them beautiful. If a Mentawai woman does not get her teeth sharpened, both she and her soul are be considered ugly.  Women get their teeth sharpened soon after they hit puberty, or before getting married.  Many people will come and observe the ceremony, but the most important are the shaman who does the teeth sharpening and the women's husband or soon to be husband.

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The shaman uses a sharpened chisel and hammer. Afterwards women chew on green bananas to ease their pain. Besides full body tattoos and sharpened teeth, fresh flowers adorn their hair, beads their necks and wrists, facial paint accents their rigid faces and their strong bodies are scented with fragrant ground turmeric.

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The Mentawai keep their souls “close” by beautifying their bodies. Those who neglect their bodies might lose their souls, which may decide to leave its human host . The soul is pleased by beautiful and complete body tattoos (titi), as it allows Mentawai to bring their material wealth into the afterlife allowing their ancestors to recognize them after death. Most importantly, tattooing protects their owners from evil spirits lurking in the jungle.

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Shaman (Sikerei,) is not just a doctor, he is a leader, priest, herbalist, physician, psychologist, dancer, family and community man. Shamans are considered the leaders of their people, although the Mentawaian society is egalitarian. They are the tribe’s connection to the spiritual world, but also to the outside world. Religious beliefs of the Mentawai are centered on the importance of coexisting with the invisible spirits that inhabit the world and all the animate and inanimate objects in it.

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Health is state of holy and beautiful balance. If the balance is broken, the only way to restore it is by placating the spirits that have been offended or accidentally distressed.  With the help of medicinal plants, these malevolent spirits can be “cooled down” by magical means, and then they are appeased with sacrifices. The intermediary in these contacts is always the sikerei, as only he can communicate with the spirits.

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According to the legend, the entire Mentawai tribe originated from Simatalu, located on the west coast of Siberut Island, and then spread throughout the island and split into several tribes. Uma means tribe as well as the house. Tribe members live in a big long house, ‘uma’, in the tribal lands deep in Siberut jungles.

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Unfortunately, strip logging of the islands became the norm rather than the exception, threatening the balance and harmony of a tribe. The Mentawai build their homes using bamboo, wood and grass, furnishing it with the skulls of hunted prey in order to show off excellent hunting skills of the inhabitants.

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Spirits, shamans, sacred tattoos and a slow way of life. 'Moili moili' means slowly, slowly. It also reveals an important aspect of the indigenous people's approach to life, as the trouble cannot be avoided, but going slowly and acting carefully gives you the best chance of avoiding it and of dealing with it when it comes.

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Whenever there is an earthquake in Siberut, people shout 'moili moili' to the spirit that causes the ground to tremble when he rolls over in his makeshift grave in the posthole of the house. They are asking spirits not to refrain from rolling over, but to roll over very, very slowly.

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