Iban, Ibanic and Ketungau.

Iban, Ibanic, and Ketungau.

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This paper gives a brief history of the labels “Iban,” “Ibanic,” and “Ketungau.” I revisit some of the associated problems and add some preliminary notes regarding language and ethnic self-identification from my research in Kalimantan Barat between 2005 and 2009. (1)


The origins and history of the term “Iban,” as far as they are known, have been repeated many times. (2) A recent synopsis by Clifford Sather (2004: 623) points to its roots as an indigenous term of the Iban language:

The name Iban is of uncertain origin. Early writers speculated that
it derived from the Kayan term hivan, meaning “wanderer.'” More
likely, it comes from the Iban word iban, meaning “a person,”
“‘human being,” or, more specifically, a “layperson.” as opposed to
a “ritual specialist” (a manang [shaman] or lemambang [bard]). In
the post-Pacific War (1941-1945) years, with growing political
consciousness, Kalaka and Saribas Iban preferred to call themselves
Sea Dayaks, reflecting a former tradition of coastal raiding.
However, since the 1970s, that term has largely passed out of use,
and today, Iban is universally employed, both officially and by the
Iban themselves.

While it is tempting to conclude the Iban section with this citation and leave it at that, it may be useful to recall some points of the debate that began well over a hundred years ago.

Metcalf (2010: 11) only stated the obvious when he wrote that, “Instead of assigning or arguing about labels, we have to begin with what they mean to those who use them.” “Iban” as an indigenous term is well-documented. (3) For example, J. Perham (1896, l: 281) described in detail the initiation rites of a shaman (manang):

He is now no longer an Iban, a name by which all Dyaks speak of
themselves, he is a Manang. He is lifted into a different rank of
being. And when engaged in their functions, they make a point of
emphasizing this distinction by constant use of the two words in
contrast to each other.

Citing the same paragraph, Pringle (1970: 20) rightly pointed out that here the term “Iban” implied a difference in status, rather than an ethnic identification. For “Iban” as an ethnonym, the reader of Perham’s paragraph is referred to chapter two of the same volume and the by then well-established derivation from the Kayan hivan (Ling Roth 1896, l: 40). Indeed, the term and its derivation were already mentioned by Bums in 849 and by the Second Rajah, Charles Brooke, in 1893. (4) This derivation has so far been rarely questioned, although even early commentators (Roth 1896, I: 40) remarked on the curious fact that the Rejang Iban would adopt as an ethnonym a term derived from their former enemies, the Kayan. More recently, the late Allen Maxwell (2001: 225) queried the meaning of the Kayan term hivan as “wanderer” and “in-law,” and concluded it may simply be the Kayan name for the Iban, but he did not doubt the hivan derivation as such.

It is unlikely that the development of “Iban” as an ethnonym can ever be fully reconstructed. However, it can be assumed that the repeated use of the term by colonial administrators, anthropologists, and other commentators contributed to its spread and eventual acceptance. (5) For a time, there was considerable resistance to “Iban,” which replaced “Sea Dayak,” the latter apparently coined by the First Rajah, James Brooke (Pringle 1970: 19). The reason seems to have been mainly a reluctance to change what was familiar and replace it with something new.

A.B. Ward, (6) for example, wrote in the Sarawak Gazette, “There seems to be an unfortunate bent in modern times to class the Sea Dayak as ‘orang Iban’ without I think, any justification.” Ward blamed Hose for having encouraged the use of the term by “constantly” alluding to “Ibans” in his writings and added that, “I never remember Dayaks of the Skrang, Undup or Saribas calling themselves ‘kami [we] Iban’;” Ward concluded by stating that “it will be a great pity if an imported designation is allowed to creep in and supplant the old name with which we are all familiar” (Sarawak Gazette 1125, 1951). Ward persisted in his view and still clung to “Sea Dayak” ten years later in an article on Sea Dayak customs and fines in the Sarawak Museum Journal.

Michael Buma (Sarawak Gazette 1159, 1954), himself an Iban, also made a strong case against a change from “Dayak” to “Iban.” But it was another Iban, Benedict Sandin, who was noted for resisting the use of the term (Pringle 1970: 20). According to Sather, who worked closely with Sandin, he and “many other educated Saribas Iban deliberately used ‘Sea Dayak’ from the early 1920s until the 1970s in order to differentiate themselves from other Iban, particularly those of the Rejang, who they considered crude and uncivilized, but who were also emerging as their political and economic rivals in Sarawak.” (7)

In his published work, Sandin appears to have made the shift during 1957 when he was the newly appointed Research Assistant, with Tom Harrisson as Curator of the Sarawak Museum (Sather 1981:118). Harrisson himself still used “Sea Dayak” in an article in 1955, and in his introduction as editor to Sandin’s Westward Migration of the Sea Dayaks he wrote that, “when they met Europeans as pirates in the last century, they earned their present common name, Sea Dayak” (1956: 54). But in two articles published by Sandin in 1957, “Iban” begins to make its appearance, first just in the title, with “Sea Dayak” retained in the text (1957a: 117); and then as a gloss (in brackets) for “Sea Dayak” (1957b: 133). However, beginning with the publication of Borneo Writing Boards in 1966 (co-written by Harrisson and Sandin) all of Sandin’s subsequent articles tend to use “Iban.” (8) In 1966 Sandin also succeeded Harrisson as Curator of the Sarawak Museum.

To conclude, it must be kept in mind that “Iban” as an ethnic category is very recent and even today the people referred to as “Iban” do not comprise “a bounded and homogeneous entity” and continue to “embrace considerable diversity and factionalism” (King 2001b: 5,7). Wadley’s speculative comments provide a fitting ending:

Of course, if peoples like the Kantu’ or Mualang had gotten all the
early and sustained attention as the Iban, we might be calling the
larger family something else. Conversely, if the Brookes had not
begun to administer all the various Iban groups as one ethnic
group, would a wider Iban identity have emerged? Or if the Dutch
had classed the Kantu’, Mualang, etc. along with the Batang
Loepars, would an even wider “Iban” identity have formed, i.e.
smaller groups like the Kantu’ being absorbed by a larger identity?
All speculation, of course, but [it is] worthwhile to recall the
historically contingent nature of Iban ethnicity. (9)

A Footnote

Regarding the term “Iban,” I recently came across a curiosity in the Sarawak Gazette, which, as far as I am aware, has not been noted in print and seems worth a mention here. On 2nd April, 1874 the Resident 2nd Class at Sibu, A. Everett, reported to the Rajah that

… Nialong of Iban has been here to complain that Ampieng with seven of his people (all formerly Belohs, but now settled in Iban) had accompanied the same attack on Sakarang and killed, or been parties to the killing, of some relations of the Iban Dyaks living with Apai Kakong. Malong stated that the offenders were desirous of paying fines to Government, and that they had no intentions of running back to Beloh. He further added that they had got one head, and the Naman people three, all of which were left in Beloh (Sarawak Gazette 77, 1874).

Sungai Beloh is a tributary of the Katibas with its source in the watershed that forms the frontier between Sarawak and Kalimantan. It also forms part of the northern edge of the Lanjak-Entimau Forest Reserve, which was created in the 1930s to prevent Iban rebels escaping government control by removing into the extreme headwaters. (10) It would appear that the “Beloh Dayaks” became “Iban Dayaks” by moving from Sungai Beloh to Sungai Iban. It is not clear where Sungai Iban is located, but presumably it is in the same general area of the headwaters of the Katibas.

This is not to suggest that this Sungai Iban is the source for the ethnonym “Iban.” But it is noteworthy as a footnote, especially since the appellation follows the usual practice of a people being named after the river, or place, where they live.


Considering the critique the term “Ibanic” has engendered, it is useful to recall that before Hudson coined it in 1970 we had no term at all to refer to these linguistically related groups.” Hose (1912, II: 249), for example, referred to them as “other Iban tribes” (listing in particular the Bugau, Kantu’ and Dau). Citing the same Hose reference, Pringle (1970: 38) used the term “sub-groups.” Citing Bouman (1924), Pringle (1970: 18) classified the “Kantus” and “Batang Lupars” as “definitely Iban,” and subsequently referred to the Kantu’ as “Kantu Ibans” (1970:214, 216). (12) In short, before Hudson, Ibanrelated groups were subsumed under the Iban mantle.

More to the point, when Hudson (1970: 304) coined the term, his “Ibanic Group” included the Iban. (13) And this is how the term has been used in the ethnographic literature. Citing Hudson, King (1976: 87) thus wrote that the “Ibanic” category included the “Iban, Kantu’, Seberuang, Mualang, Desa (not listed by Hudson), and most, if not all those ‘river-based’ groupings in the Ketungau.” King used the term “Ibanic complex” to refer to these groups. Two years later King (1978: 58) wrote that, “I would like to see Iban studied within the context of the wider complex of ‘Ibanic’ peoples of which they are a part.” And in 1979 King subsumed the Iban under the category of “Iban-related peoples” (p.23). Dove (1988: 141) similarly wrote that “the Kantu’ and Iban both belong to a broader ‘Ibanic complex’ of peoples.”

Several decades on, this definition of “Ibanic” is taken as common knowledge among cognoscenti of the Borneo ethnographic literature, but other readers may struggle at times with the intended definition of the term. In Wurm and Hattori’s Language Atlas of the Pacific Area (1983), for example, the map of the southern part of Borneo names the Iban, Kantu’, Seberuang, Desa, and Mualang separately, whereas the label “Ibanic” appears only once, placed next to the Ketungau river. The informed reader may not take umbrage with this arrangement and put it down to restrictions imposed by lack of space and the general difficulty of assigning ethnic labels in Borneo referred to in Wurm’s introductory remarks. However, the problem is compounded by Note 7 (Sheet 42) which states that, “‘Ibanic’ (Ketungau) consists of a number of subdialects spoken along the Ketungau River […].” Here one could hardly blame readers less familiar with the larger body of Borneo ethnographic literature for assuming that only the peoples living on the Ketungau river are referred to as “Ibanic.” (14)

This is just one example that may give rise to confusion. (15) It is hardly surprising then that in Indonesian textile studies “Ibanic” often is used to refer to Ibanic groups in West Kalimantan, excluding the Iban, rather than in the inclusive sense intended by Hudson, or, even more confusingly, in a mixture of both senses. (16) However, rather than pointing the finger at specific publications, phrasing, lack of a precise gloss and so on, I contend that the choice of the term “Ibanic” in itself is problematic.

To begin with, the term positions the non-Iban peoples who speak an Ibanic language as subsidiary or a kind of derivative of the Iban, which is historically incorrect. As King (1978: 68) noted, “from the point of view of historical precedent and indigenous ethnic identification the term’ Ibanic’ may well meet with certain objections.” King (1989: 241) further argued that the Ibanic label “suggests a too Iban- and Sarawak-centred view of this complex of closely related peoples.” Wadley (2000a: 91) was perhaps even more vocal on this issue:

Borneo anthropology has been greatly influenced by its early
fascination with Iban society and the Iban have become a primary
point of reference to which other societies in Borneo have been
related. For example, the set of languages in western Borneo that
is most closely related to Iban (such as Kantu’, Mualang, Bugau,
and Sebaro’) is called Ibanic. The precedence, and indeed
dominance, of the Iban in the ethnographic literature probably
accounts for the initial choice of the name “Ibanic” rather than a
more neutral term.

The second problem with “Ibanic” is that it is meant to include the Iban from whom the term itself is derived. If arranged in sequence, “Iban” thus appears both as the root word as well as a subcategory. This may be commonplace for linguists, but can be quite confusing for readers not closely acquainted with current Borneo linguistic terminology. The third problem is that, as Wadley (2000a: 91) wrote, “The name ‘Ibanic,’ apart from being used as a linguistic classification, has also come to be applied to a complex of culturally closely related societies.” (17) In other words, “Ibanic” then assumes the sense of an ethnic, rather than a purely linguistic label.

This takes us back to where we started from, namely that the problem is already inherent in the choice of the term “Ibanic,” which, as Wadley argued, makes the Iban the “primary point of reference.” So, even after Hudson, Iban-related groups continue to be subsumed under the Iban mantle. Accordingly, captions such as “Kantu’–an Ibanic group in Kalimantan” may be commonplace, but one is unlikely ever to see a caption that reads “Iban–an Ibanic group in Sarawak.” As Wadley noted, there are certain “problematic assumptions resulting from Ibanic.” (18) These problematic assumptions, it would seem, are here to stay, along with the term, unless we continually define our categories in ways that are unequivocal.


Another label deserving critical scrutiny is “Ketungau” and “Ketungau Dayak.” A useful point of departure is the article referred to earlier, titled “Ceremonial Skirts of Kalimantan’s Mualang, Kantu’ and Ketungau” (Kreifeldt 2006). To readers familiar with Borneo ethnic labels, the mixing of categories here is immediately apparent, with “Ketungau” being the odd one out. “Mualang” and “Kantu'” refer to groups that share particular Ibanic language variants, origins and migration histories, whereas groups living in the Ketungau river basin do not.

To be fair, the term “Ketungau” has been used in the literature in ways which can be misleading. King (1974: 33), for example, lists the “Iban and Kantu’, the Ketungau, the Seberuang, the Desa, and the Mualang;” and also the “Iban, Ketungau, Mualang, Desa, Seberuang, Rambai” (King 1976: 98). However, introductory paragraphs clearly state that “Ketungau” refers to “river-based groupings” of the Ketungau, with detailed lists of who these groups are.

Nonetheless, the “Dayak sub-group distribution map” produced by the Institut Dayakologi (Sujami Aloy et al 2000) not only lists the category “Ketungau,” but expands the area to include the Jungkit, a tributary of the Belitang to the west, but excludes the upper reaches of the Ketungau river around Senaning, which is under its own category of “Bugau.” In short, here “Ketungau Dayak” does not refer necessarily to groups living in the Ketungau river area, which creates further confusion.

Another case in point is Collins’s article on Ibanic languages (2004) which is peppered with references to “Ketungau speakers,” “Ketungau villages,” “Ketungau families,” and so on (pp 23-29). However, as should be clear even to the most casual reader, “Ketungau” here is short for “Ketungau Sesat,” a specific group of people who refer to themselves by this name and who live in the area of the Sekadau river, a southerly tributary of the Kapuas, about 100 km downriver from the mouth of the Ketungau. In other words, the Ketungau Sesat do not live on the Ketungau at all. Moreover, they do not claim a historic origin in the Kettmgau river; at the very least they are not recent migrants as the group was already documented by Enthoven over a hundred years ago (Collins 2004: 25).

In short, the label “Ketungau” does not necessarily refer to groups who reside on the Ketungau or its tributaries, or have done so in the past. If that were the criterion for the use of the term, we should refer to all Ibanic groups, including the Iban, Kantu’ and Mualang, as “Ketungau” since they all trace their origins to the Ketungau river basin. (19) In fact, it was this shared history that induced Wadley (2000a: 91) to suggest that “Ketungauic” might be a more appropriate term, as opposed to “Ibanic.” This suggestion was not taken up, and rightly so, as it would create more problems than it solves for obvious reasons.

To conclude, the label “Ketungau” should be used with caution and with a detailed gloss. As Collins (2004: 24) commented, the map of the Ketungau River produced by Institut Dayakologi, mentioned above, seems “to simplify a language ecology that is far more complex.”

Research Notes

My recent field research in Kalimantan Barat certainly confirms a complex picture of ethnic self identification very similar to Collins’s account. My research objective in Kalimantan was to document as many indigenous textiles in situ as possible before the last of them are sold and lost to research forever. Ibanic textiles from Kalimantan appeared in great numbers on the international art market in the last ten to fifteen years and the only textiles left today are fragments or poor quality specimens that are of no interest to collectors. All the same, I refrain from identifying some place names and informants in order to protect them from unwanted attention by “scouts” for local and international dealers.

For me, field research in Kalimantan Barat was a very rewarding experience. Although I was aware of King’s and Wadley’s comments regarding the Iban- and Sarawak-centered view in the ethnographic literature, I did not fully appreciate the extent of the bias until I actually went there. I also was quite unprepared for the difficult travel conditions. Almost forty years ago, King (1974: 31) commented that, “A further problem is the sheer distance one has to travel to get into the interior, and the associated lack of adequate transport facilities.” Undoubtedly much has improved since then, but in many regards this still holds true. During my research between 2005 and 2009, the nearest international border crossing between Sarawak and Kalimantan was at Tebedu/ Entikong and it took a minimum of two days to reach the Empanang and Ketungau districts because one had to go the long way round via Sintang, with a similar travel time from Pontianak. (20) After several years of delay, the international crossing at Lubok Antu/ Nanga Badau was opened provisionally in the summer of 2012. (21) When it becomes fully operational it will substantially reduce travel time to upriver Ibanic areas.

Once in Kalimantan, one enters “a different world,” as aptly put by Pringle (2011: 124). (22) I was quite amused reading Pringle’s diary notes from 1971, published in last year’s BRB. Forty years on, travelers on the Kapuas and its tributaries still need patience “more than anything else;” speedboats are still loaded down like “coal barges;” and they continue to “plough” through the Kapuas, rather than “planing” as intended (2011 : 118). The latter practice is so entrenched that male passengers habitually stand up and lean forward, or even perch on the prow, in an attempt to level the boat and raise the propeller blades closer to the water surface.

Despite its many shortcomings, transport by speedboat is exorbitantly expensive and out of reach for many upriver people. The continuing disparity in living standards between Sarawak and Kalimantan Barat is remarkable, at times shocking. (23) It is no surprise then that for people living in the borderlands in Kalimantan the orientation is not to the capital Pontianak, but to Sarawak, where they travel for work or to shop for food and other commodities unavailable where they live. (24) One evening in an Iban longhouse on the upper Merakai, for example, our supper consisted of beef curry and spicy fried pork purchased at Sri Aman market that day and I was told it takes just one hour by van to Batu Lintang (three hours on foot). The crossing from Nanga Badau to Lubok Antu is the most frequented and on market days the town is teeming with visitors from Kalimantan. (25) Further along the international border, the Bugau of upper Ketungau regularly walk across to Lachau market. In other words, for people living in these borderlands, the border is largely irrelevant.


I first traveled to the upper Ketungau in December 2005. As is well-known from the literature, this is Bugau country (Drake and Wadley 2001: 738). Appropriately, there is a Sungai Bugau, as well as a Bukit Bugau. According to one Bugau Tuai Rumah, there are some eleven Bugau villages upriver from Senaning, past Riam Sejawa and Jasa to Nanga Bayan; a further six villages are further inland from Senaning past Rentong to Belubu, with ten villages on the Ketungau itself, downriver from Senaning, passing Sungai Sai and Peturau. According to the same source about 40 % of the population of these villages are Bugau, with just 3 % Iban, although in one village the ratio is closer to 50 %.

Many of the Iban are second generation immigrants from the Pantu and Lingga areas. One group came across the border from Sungai Merah (near Pantu) about a year after the Japanese occupation of Sarawak began in 1941. When the border re-opened atter Confrontation in 1966, they opted to remain in Indonesia. Today, cross-border relations are habitual and frequent, with intermarriage and visits common during gawai. (26) From Jasa and other upriver villages it takes less than a three-hour walk to Lachau bazaar on the main Kuching–Sri Aman road. People may go just for the day or stay several nights. I was told that since the late 1960s there no longer is a need for identity cards. (27)

Another group in the Senaning area are the Sebaru’, for example, at the village of Empunak. They are relative newcomers, however, having moved here only in the 1930s from their homeland on the Ginsar, which flows into the Ketungau much further downriver. According to three separate sources, there are another three groups, or suku, namely the Kumpang, Mandau and Emberak. The relationship between these three groups and the Bugau is not at all clear. In any case, their language and adat are said to be just a “little different” from that of the Bugau.

At times such assertions of minor differences in language are voiced more strongly, that is to say that some “other” people are viewed not at all like “us.” One incident that made this clear to me occurred at Senaning when I told my Bugau host of my intention to travel up the Segarau or the Ginsar, both downriver tributaries of the Ketungau. The Bugau Tuai Rumah advised against this in the strongest terms. When I persisted he told me to be very careful with food and drink offered me as it may be poisoned. The following day in the losmen several others joined in, saying the area I wanted to visit was “primitive” and “uncivilized” and that the people there would cut off my legs at the knee. This made me wonder whether they would consider any area other than their own as unsafe and asked about traveling to Balaisepuak on the Belitang. They assured me that a journey there would pose no danger at all as the people there were Christians and therefore “civilized.”

The warnings were so strongly worded that I did not travel to the area on the lower Ketungau until my return two years later in December 2007 when I visited several Demam villages inland from Airnyiruk and upriver on Sungai Mereka. Contrary to what I had been told, I found the Demam friendly, helpful and less exploitative than people in the Senaning area. I well recall waiting for several days in an upriver Bugau village before the Tuai Rumah finally found one man who would take us down to Senaning in his perau without charging an outrageously exorbitant fare. I had no such problems in Demam villages where 1 was charged the cost of petrol and nothing more. And needless to say I was not poisoned, nor were my legs cut off at the knee. And yet, when I talked of my travels in the Demam area to one university-educated Desa in Sintang he commented that strong magic was still being practiced there.

Banjur and Sebaru’

During my stay in Demam villages on the lower Ketungau, I asked where I might find Banjur people, who, according to Drake and Wadley (2001: 738), lived in this downriver area. However, I was told that the nearest Banjur villages were on Sungai Pedadanghilir, a tributary to the Jungkit, which in turn flows into the Belitang river. With limited research funds and the high cost and difficulty of travel I never was able to visit these Banjur villages in ulu Jungkit. However, I did encounter Banjur on several occasions in other districts, for example at Tebedak Merat, near Balaisepuak, in the Be]itang Hulu District and at Sungai Seria, on the road from Senaning to Balaikarangan in Ketungau Hulu District. The latter told me their families moved there before World War II from Sungaimali on Sungai Ginsar, a downriver tributary of the Ketungau.

This information was contradicted by a Sebaru’ Temenggong who told me that the people at Sungaimali are not Banjur, but Sebaru’ and that this area in fact is the homeland of the Sebaru’. He backed up his claim by pointing out that Sungai Sebaru’ is one upriver tributary to Sungai Ginsar. (28) The Temenggong further told me that formerly the Sebaru’ were all one, but then separated into five groups, namely the Tanjong (who moved to Sungai Sekapat); the Melaban (who moved to ulu Sekapat); the Raba (who moved to Sungai Sekapat near Nanga Merakai), the Mandau (who moved to ulu Ketungau and “became” Bugau); and the Kumpang (who moved even further upriver on the Ketungau than the Mandau).

So here we again encounter the Kumpang and Mandau of ulu Ketungau mentioned earlier. The claim that the Melaban originally were Sebaru’ is noteworthy because these are the same people studied by Dove (1988: 141), who identified them as a Kantu’ “subgroup.” Wadley was of the opinion that since the Melaban (or Belaban Ai) historically were not the original inhabitants of the Kantu’ river, they were one of “the myriad Ibanic clusters, who have become Kantu’ through reoccupation of the Kantu’ drainage,” after the original Kantu’ exodus a decade or so earlier in 1881. (29) However, the latter view is contradicted by the stylistic markers of textiles made by the Melaban living there today which clearly show these cloths to be Kantu’–definitely neither Iban nor Sebaru’.

Ethnic Labels

As Wadley (2000a: 83) wrote:

At its simplest, ethnic self-identification throughout Borneo (as
elsewhere) is like an onion with multiple layers, but which layer
is important depends upon who the interlocutor is and how far from
home the self-identification occurs.

King (1973: 256) similarly referred to layers of categories depending on the circumstance in which a Dayak is called upon to identify himself. Throughout my research in Kalimantan Barat, people as a rule stated their group, or suku, such as Bugau, Desa, Mualang and so on as a matter of course. At Nanga Kantuk, for example, with its mixed Iban and Kantu’ population, people readily identified themselves as one or the other.

On some occasions, people were reluctant to identify their origins for reasons that remain unclear. At one point our motorbike broke down and we had no choice but to spend the night in a warung near Sungai Seria on the “road” from Senaning to Balaikarangan. The owners were more than gracious hosts and yet it took a good part of that day and the following morning before they revealed to me that they were Banjur who had migrated into the area some time before the Japanese. My driver from Senaning, meanwhile, also was slow to reveal that his family originated from Lingga in Sarawak where he still had relatives.

If convenient, people will hide their true ethnic affiliation and claim another. As Sather noted, “When a ‘Bugau’ crosses the Kalingkang range into Sarawak he becomes an ‘Iban’.” (30) In one Bugau village the Tuai Adat showed me several textile fragments, which had the distinctive style of cloths from the Lingga and Pantu areas in Sarawak. The weaver was the owner’s mother-in-law, long deceased. When I asked him where his mother-in-law was from he said, “From here; she was orang Bugau.” As I knew this was not true, I continued to press him, but he did not relent. At the time my two Bugau escorts were present. Two years later I visited the owner again. This time, being on my own, he readily told me of his parents’ and his wife’s parents’ origins from Pantu in Sarawak. Indeed, he did not appear to remember that he had vehemently denied these connections on my previous visit. On that occasion, in the presence of other Bugau, he had wanted to be Bugau.

Textile styles can be a clear, almost foolproof indicator of past ethnic affiliations. In another Bugau village the Tuai Rumah was unaware that quite a few of the villagers originally came from the Lingga area in Sarawak, having migrated as recently as just before or after World War II. But I knew because of the stylistic markers of the textile fragments they showed me.

The problem here is that prior proficiency in recognizing stylistic markers is essential. A case in point is the collection of Kalimantan textiles at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. Many cloths labeled “Iban” (“Batang Lupar” in Dutch colonial terminology) are, in fact, Kantu’. This is a common error. The 1928 photograph by Hendrik Tillema, for example, is shown under the heading “Kalimantan Ibans” in the Encyclopaedia of Iban Studies (Sutlive 2001: 857). Again, the stylistic markers clearly indicate the cloths as Kantu’. Here the confusion probably derives from the close proximity of Iban and Kantu’ in the upper Empanang. Location is also the reason for several cloths having been erroneously identified as “Mualang” in the Tropenmuseum files, when, in fact, they are Banjur and Kantu’. This error is likely to have occurred because the cloths were acquired in a predominantly Mualang area in the Belitang river basin. However, these villages also have Banjur and Kantu’ inhabitants, as I was able to ascertain during my field research. Not being aware of the stylistic markers, the collector assumed the cloths were Mualang because he found them in a Mualang village and saw no need to investigate further.

The cloths in question are part of the Georg Tillmann collection, which he acquired from his agent C.M.A. Groenevelt who, in turn, had bought them from Stefan von Linzbauer, who as Chief Surveyor of West-Borneo was based at Pontianak, but traveled throughout Indonesia between 1911 and 1939. (31) Although Linzbauer built a substantial ethnographic objects collection during his travels (sold to the Museum for Volkerkunde, Vienna in 1942), he regrettably did not record detailed field data on the cloths he purchased in Kalimantan at a time when research could have been much more rewarding than it is today.


Here it is useful to return to the initial meaning of “Ibanic” as a linguistic term. The Iban, Mualang, Kantu’, Desa, Bugau and so on are Ibanic by virtue of belonging to the same language group. At the same time, in the Ketungau and other Ibanic areas of Kalimantan Barat, ethnicity tends to be expressed by referring to differences in language.

I started my research in Iban areas of Lanjak and the upper Merakai near the border to Sarawak. One evening at Sungai Mawang the entire longhouse population was gathered on the ruai when one well-traveled Iban told just how differently people spoke in the Ketungau (he mentioned Bugau and Air Tabun) and gave some very convincing examples. His audience was duly impressed as I was, and it made me wonder how I would get on with my vocabulary of Baleh Iban. As it turned out I did quite well as long as I stayed in upriver areas, close to the Sarawak border, such as with the Bugau and unexpectedly, with the Mualang. I could easily follow their conversation amongst themselves, especially when they were talking about me! This anecdotal evidence is supported by Collins (2004: 34) whose initial survey suggests that Bugau, Mualang and Iban may be “dialects of the same language.”

However, it is not clear to me how these differences in dialect work in practice. If, for example, a Bugau can pass himself off as an Iban, the differences surely must be so minor as to be hardly noticeable? When looking at regional dialects in, let’s say, the U.K. or Germany, it would be impossible for a Geordie to pass himself off as a Scot, or for a Swabian to pass himself off as a Bavarian. Apparently, regional European dialects cannot be equated to the linguistic complexities of Borneo where linguistic borrowing is and has been the order of the day for centuries. Groups that speak the same language variant do not live in isolation, and may be widely dispersed due to diverse migration routes. This creates problems for linguists when trying to establish whether or not a given variant is in fact a separate language; as for example for Collins (2004: 34-5) with regard to Ketungau Sesat; and for Cullip (2004) for Remun, an Ibanic language variant in Sarawak. As Metcalf (2010: 72-3) wrote, while “the data from comparative linguistics is invaluable,” it is “necessary to abandon the notion that somehow linguistics provides any final or definitive answers about ethnicity.”

Stylistic markers of textiles provide a so far neglected means for exploring ethnicity, in addition to language and oral history. Stylistic markers are not just from the female domain of weaving, but from the female domain of the female domain of weaving. That is to say, we are not looking at pua kumbu, the large cloths that play a dominant role in the male and public domain of gawai amat, major rites associated with validating prestige. Rather, we are looking at kain kebat, the ikat-patterned skirts worn by women on ritual occasions. Kain kebat are the personal property of weavers, unlike pua kumbu, which belong to the bilik as a whole (Gavin 2003: 260-1). To be clear, skirt patterns of all Ibanic groups draw on the same pool of basic, classic patterns–aji, rusa, lintah, pelangka, penukoh and so on (Gavin 2003: 173-4, 190)–and, to the untrained eye, these may well appear the same, or at least very similar. Once understood, stylistic markers show clear distinctions and, unlike language, little or no borrowing. The fact that Iban skirt patterns have been handed down for generations without significant changes was already noted by Freeman (1950). It is this conservatism that makes stylistic markers a particularly valuable means for exploring ethnicity. Women stayed at home and copied pattern styles from within their families and longhouse communities, or from closely related Ionghouse communities, not from “other” people.

To conclude, for a short period from the second half of the nineteenth century up to World War II, stylistic markers in Ibanic textiles made during that period provide a “language” that shows ethnicity perhaps as clearly as differences in the Ibanic variant of language spoken.


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Traude Gavin

Eardisley HR3 6PW


(1) The Association of South East Asian Studies in the UK (ASEASUK) Research Committee on South East Asian Studies (formerly The British Academy Committee for South-East Asian Studies) generously funded my research in Sarawak and Kalimantan between 2005 and 2009. The late Reed Wadley originally suggested co-writing this article and I am very grateful to him for his advice and support prior and during my field research; I also thank Victor T. King, Julian Davison and Clifford Sather for their comments and suggestions; this is not to say that they necessarily agree with the points presented here.

(2) Pringle 1970: 19-20; Richards 1981:111; Wadley 2000a: 84; Sutlive 2001: 737.

(3) Howell and Bailey 1900: 56; Sather 2001: 22, 31; also see footnote 2.

(4) Cited in Pringle 1970: 19-20; also see Burns 1951: 482.

(5) For example, Haddon 1901, Hose 1912, Richards 1949, and Freeman 1955.

(6) Ward served in Sarawak from 1899 to 1923 and was Resident at Simanggang, Second Division from 1909 to 1915 (Batty-Smith 1999: 98).

(7) Pers. comm. January 2012.

(8) Sandin’s Sea Dayaks of Borneo before White Rajah Rule of 1967 seems to be the only exception.

(9) Pers. comm. January 2002.

(10) Pringle 1970: 280: Sutlive 2001: 950-1.

(11) As Collins (2004: 20), remarked, “it was in this article that Hudson […] apparently introduced the term ‘Ibanic,’ although he did not provide very convincing evidence to justify this term;” also see King 1978: 68; Wadley 2000a: 91.

(12) Also cited in King 1973: 254.

(13) In the same way as his “Malayic” included Malay–as well as Iban (Hudson 1970: 303; also see Blust 2006: 65).

(14) As noted by Collins (2004: 23), Wurm and Hattori’s maps require numerous revisions to bring them up to the current state of knowledge.

(15) For example, Shin (2009) consistently makes a distinction between the “Ibanic languages of Western Borneo” and the “Iban language of Sarawak.”

(16) Gittinger 2005, Kreifeldt 2006, Leigh-Theisen and Mittersakschmoller 1995.

(17) Wadley here refers to the then soon to be published Encyclopaedia of Iban Studies (Sutlive 2001).

(18) Pers. comm. May 2008.

(19) King 2001a: 902-3; Drake 2001: 903.

(20) Compare Eilenberg 2005: 165; 2012: 20; Eilenberg and Wadley 2009: 65-6.

(21) Pers. comm. Joyce Lim, Department of Agriculture, Kuching, September 2012; for further details, see Eilenberg 2012: 243-4.

(22) Pringle made the comment on entering Sarawak from Indonesia, but obviously it applies both ways.

(23) Compare Pringle 2011 : 125; for 2005, Eilenberg (2005:180) has the yearly per capita income for West Kalimantan at approximately US$ 400 and for Sarawak at US$ 4,000.

(24) Compare Wadley 2000b: 44; Eilenberg and Wadley 2009.

(25) Compare Pringle 2011: 122; Eilenberg and Wadley 2009: 64.

(26) Compare Collins 2004: 22.

(27) Compare Ardhana et al. 2004: 151.

(28) See U.S. Army Map Service, Series T531, Sheet XVII-XVIII/50-51 Sintang.

(29) Pers. comm. December 2004.

(30) Pers. comm. November 2011.

(31) Leigh-Theisen and Mittersakschmoller 1995: 243.
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