A Longhouse in Borneo

Hunting, gathering and living with the Dayak.

In the time before the Pakeha, in the time before colonisation, before settlement, do we really know how we were. In the time before Abel Tasman sailed into Mohua (Golden Bay) in December 1642.

What do we really know about how it was over 300 years ago. Our only term of reference is the here and now, and our own imaginations about how it might have been, based perhaps on a few stories and maybe on some old books, drawings, paintings or even on early photographs. But we don’t know do we. Sir Peter Buck and other anthropologists have documented the material culture of those times and Elsdon Best has descibed the old religion and a great deal more. F.E. Maning and others wrote about the experiences of “Pakeha Maori”. But mostly I think we just imagine what it might have been like.

My term of reference is a longhouse in the jungle in Borneo, the home of a group of indigenous hunter gatherers who were still living a mostly traditional lifestyle. I lived with them for a while in 1966. The Dayak are part of the Austronesian people, a broad ancestral grouping  that includes the Malayo Polynesians.

Although the Dayak people are distantly related to Maori their life and lifestyle were not the same as those of our ancestors. To start with they live in a tropical jungle whereas here in Aotearoa we have the seasons to contend with including the sometimes harsh winters and the winter shortage of food. So food resources are different and food is central to the life of the hunter gatherer. Although similar in origin their religious and cultural practices have evolved on a separate path for a few thousand years. Despite that however there are many similarities in the lives and lifestyles of hunter gatherers everywhere.

I was in the state of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo with the 1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment on active duty during Indonesia’s “Konfrontasi” war against Malaysia. Our job was to protect part of the border between the two countries to prevent any incursions across the border by regular Indonesian troops or by irregular insurgents. Three of our rifle companies were in defended positions near the border and patrolled along the border. Our company was in reserve with battalion headquarters. We were used on various tasks throughout the whole battalion area of operations. As a rifle platoon commander one of the tasks I was given by the battalion commander was to live with the local indigenous Dayak people on a “hearts and minds” mission to gain their confidence as well as to act as a guard platoon across the area I was allocated. The area was thought by Intelligence to sit across an incursion route used by irregular insurgents.

There were four longhouses or Dayak villages in that area and I split my platoon into four patrols each one based in one of the longhouses. A longhouse is just that. It is a long narrow house on raised hardwood stilts about six to eight feet high off the ground. It is usually about 100 metres long but there are some that are much longer; up to 500 metres. The longhouse I stayed in was built on a slightly elevated terrace above a small river and about 50 metres from it. A longhouse consists of a row of individual family rooms. There were about 15 families and 15 rooms in our longhouse. Running the complete length of the longhouse in front of the family rooms was a verandah about six feet wide. Each family room had a door onto the verandah. At one end of the longhouse the verandah widened out onto a community deck in place of a family room where various gatherings were held. At the other end and removed from the main longhouse was a balai or round house on stilts. It was the trophy house and single men’s quarters.

I sent my other three patrols off to their allotted longhouses and with my six man patrol walked into the jungle to our longhouse. When we arrived later in the day we were greeted as is usual in Borneo by a small ceremony that involved drinking tuak or rice wine. Too much of that stuff can give you a powerful hangover.

After the formalities and introductions we were made welcome and shown to our sleeping quarters in the balai. I mentioned that the balai was a trophy house. The trophies were human heads. The Dayak of Borneo had for generations been head hunters and had only in recent decades, we hoped, given up the practice. But they still kept their trophies. During World War II the Japanese treated the indigenous people in Borneo very badly and many of them fought on the side of the allies. We thought that a few of the heads looked Japanese.

They would remove the skull then smoke the head until it was preserved and shrunk to about the size of a softball. Then the teeth were sewn back in. The heads hung by their hair all over the rafters, hundreds of eyeless heads looking down upon us. There were too many to hang on the rafters so the rest were in big cane baskets hanging high on the walls. The walls were made of atap or palm leaves and in the evening the breeze would blow through and cool the balai. And set thousands of teeth chattering.

We were four Maori and two Pakeha. When we saw where we would be living the Pakeha weren’t the only ones who were white. My guys refused to stay in there. They decided to stay out in the jungle where we usually lived when we were on patrol. I wasn’t very happy about it either but we were there to live with the Dayak according to their tikanga so we had no choice. I was not a popular officer until we got used to it but we slept in there the whole time we lived in the longhouse. No-one got much sleep for the first few nights.

The people of the longhouse

Once we were settled in we joined in the routine of the longhouse and became part of the clan. The tuai rumah (rangatira) and his manang (tohunga) took us under their wing and helped us to settle in and get to know the people.

In our battalion area there were a lot of Christian longhouses of various types. None of the four longhouses in my platoon area had converted and they were all described as animist or pagan. Their religion was the old indigenous religion. One of the clear differences we noticed between the two was that when we arrived at a Christian longhouse the patrol leader would usually be offered the hospitality of one of the tuai rumah’s daughters. They never seemed offended when I declined their kind offers. That offer was never made in a “pagan” longhouse. Which I thought was an enlightening difference between Christians and “Pagans” in Borneo.

Apart from the trophies in the balai there were a few other things that took a bit of getting used to. They kept pigs, dogs and chickens as they traditionally did all over South East Asia, Melanesia and Polynesia. The chickens were eaten but the pigs and dogs weren’t. The dogs were actually sacred animals and were never laughed at or mistreated in any way. It took us a while to work out the role of the pigs but we cottoned on. There were no toilets at all. When you wanted a tutae you went out behind the longhouse and after you’d finished the pigs and dogs would have a kai and clean up after you. Very practical and hygienic.

The day would start with a small meal and then everyone would go about their daily duties. Some of the women would sweep and clean the rooms and the verandah, and clean up around the outside of the longhouse, and some would go out gathering food. The men would also gather food and might go hunting once or twice a week. That only took up a few hours each day for the jungle is rich in foodstuffs. The rest of the day might be spent in conviviality or maintaining the longhouse by repairing walls and thatched roofs. Late afternoon we would all head down to the river and bathe before dinner. In the evenings we would all gather on the verandah to eat followed by talking, singing, story-telling and dancing.

We were there as a guard platoon so we would also go out on patrol most days for an hour or two. After we got to know and trust our hosts some of them would come with us as our eyes and ears. It was their territory and they knew it intimately. After a while we realised that we didn’t need to patrol because they knew when anything moved in their territory and they would let us know if strangers were coming.

Gathering food was the main activity during the day. The two staples in their diet were the tapioca root and sago starch from the sago palm. They were not processed into the small balls like frogs eggs that we buy in the supermarket. Tapioca is also known as cassava, yuca and manioc. It was the only crop that they grew. The root had a purple skin and when they boiled the root for a meal it ended up like a purple slimy jelly that was difficult to eat with your fingers. It was nutritious and a source of energy. For a few days while we were there we helped them clear a patch of jungle and prepare the ground for planting tapioca. It was probably the hardest work we did while we were there but it wasn’t too hard.

The sago palm grows wild and about once a week the men would go into the jungle, cut one down and bring it back to the longhouse. The trunk was then split and we scraped out the white pith. It was generally used as a type of flour. Apart from the two staples we ate just about anything that moved including monkeys, snakes, bats and fish. Red ants were a delicacy. We would hold a flaming torch under the ants nest in a tree and catch them in a big banana leaf as they fell out. They would be fried as a crunchy treat for the children and for curious soldiers. But the real delicacy was the juvenile larva that looked like small white huhu. They would be picked off the leaf and eaten straight away.

We ate the bananas of course. The women would gather a variety of fruits and berries from the jungle. Our favourite vegetable was kangkong which is a cross between a spinach and water cress that grows near swamps and creeks. When we were on patrol in Borneo we carried our food with us in 24 hour ration packs. It got boring and there was no fresh food so we would always stop to pick kangkong when we came across it.

One time we were talked into going on a big hunt. The Dayak men were armed with blowpipes and old shotguns and they wanted us to take our military rifles and the Bren light machine gun, especially the machine gun. Mostly they wanted to see our weapons in action but they thought we might be able to shoot more game than they could with their shotguns. We all headed for the top of a valley and all the young people from the longhouse started down in the valley and drove the game up to us. We shot a few monkeys and when a bear appeared they insisted that we shoot it with the machine gun, so we did. That was the highlight of their hunt. The next night they boiled up that bear and the whole longhouse had a feast. It was really tough but they seemed to enjoy it.

One of my guys had done a cooking course. He had brought a supply of flour and a steel ammunition box with him. He made an oven out of the box. His first loaf of bread was greeted with amazement. Not just by the Dayaks.

The evenings were enjoyable. The Dayak had two main dances. One was performed by the adult men and it was a fighting dance with their parangs. The parang is a long steel jungle knife very useful for chopping in the jungle and also a lethal weapon. The dance was elaborate and choreographed a fight with the parang. As a dance it was ceremonial but was also used to instruct in the techniques of parang fighting. We learnt how to do it but nowhere near as proficient as the Dayak. The women’s dance was the bilangi and it was a bird dance modelled on some long extinct big eagle. It involved quite an intricate dance step and the women were amazed that I could do it straight away. It was the same as one of the steps we used to do at the local rock and roll dances when I was a teenager!

The music was provided by a set of brass gongs hung from a long branch. They ranged from the big one almost as tall as a man down to the small one about 12 inches across. In full performance they could be heard in neighbouring longhouses. The gongs were part of all ceremony, ritual and celebration. The drinking of copious quantities of tuak was also part of ceremony, ritual and celebration.

The first ceremony we participated in was the one in which I was granted the status of tuai rumah to sit alongside their tuai rumah. They were probably just flattering me but the ceremony was real. My group sat on one side of the verandah facing the adult males on the other side. The gongs were gonging and the Dayak people were chanting. A live chicken was brought onto the verandah and waved over my head then it was killed and prepared straight away to be cooked. All the while we were served tuak. The drinking went on while the chicken was cooked and while we ate it. During the ceremony they decked me out in a headdress with feathers and with a few other items including a sash I had seen the tuai rumah wearing.

A few years later I read an account of a ceremony in Vietnam, 1000 kilometres away, that was exactly the same ceremony. An Australian Army officer was raising and training an army of Montagnard hill tribesmen to fight against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. He was working with the Rhade people who lived in longhouses and his induction ceremony was exactly the same as mine. The two groups of indigenous people were separated by 1000 km and a perhaps a thousand years of separate evolution but had retained exactly the same ceremonies.

The next ceremony of note was a marriage ceremony. Ours. I mentioned that the so called “Pagan” Dayaks did not offer their daughters as hospitality. But they did have their eyes on us.

This evening we were lined up sitting on one side of the verandah, the six of us, and the tuai rumah sat the seven young marriageable women in the longhouse on the other side of the verandah facing us. The ceremony proceeded with the gongs gonging and the young women serving us our food and tuak. Then the tuai rumah sprung his surprise. We were being married and we had to choose a wife each! Quick thinking Ross. So I said there were six of us and seven of them and one would be left out and we couldn’t offend her so thank you very much but no thank you. The old guy just laughed and said you’re now a tuai rumah, you choose two for yourself.

A couple of my guys seemed quite willing to comply but I managed to get us out of that predicament without offending the young women or the rest of the longhouse.

This whole ceremony was not really about us. In stationary or nomadic hunter gatherer groups there is always a need to refresh the gene pool to prevent inbreeding. To do that the young women would be exchanged with women from other groups in arranged pairings. We presented an opportunity for our young women to be partnered without leaving their longhouse. I don’t think any of my guys later took advantage of the offer but you never can tell. I can guarantee that I didn’t. True e hoa ma, true.

The author right rear with two patrol members, Norm Smith and Bruce Purdom, and our volunteer interpreter, Tuai Rumah front right, Manang front left, and six of the seven young ladies

While patrolling in Borneo we always carried our medical kit and at the longhouses we visited our platoon medic would treat any minor ailments and wounds. It was a popular service. Any serious cases we came across would get sent out by helicopter, or vehicle if there was a road nearby. We provided the same service at our longhouse.

One night a midwife sent for me. I woke up and went to one of the rooms where there was a woman in labour. She was in difficulty and the midwives couldn’t help. So I sent for my medic in the balai and for my radio set. We radioed back to battalion headquarters and had the doctor woken and brought to the radio. The medic described what was happening and the doctor proceeded to diagnose what it was over the radio and to explain the history and frequency of the condition. The woman was in severe muscular spasm around the birth canal and the baby was prevented from birthing. Basically the medic had to massage in exactly the right places until the spasms stopped, and the midwives had to help by encouraging the mother to relax and reassuring her that all would be well. We had the doctor on the radio for about two hours and in the end it was a successful birth. The midwives were amazed. Such is the life of a soldier.

We lived in the longhouse for a few weeks and when the time came to leave it was quite sad. We had grown to like each other. I asked the battalion commander to send in a 44-gallon drum of kerosene and a hand pump to fuel their lamps and stoves for a few months. It was winched in by helicopter and was much appreciated.

We left a short while later after a ceremony of farewell. As we were leaving the tuai rumah approached me with an offer. He wanted to buy one of my soldiers. He was a tall, young, blonde and handsome Ngai Tahu and the longhouse wanted to keep him to breed from. Tuai rumah offered me 100 ringgit or Malaysian dollars. I accepted and sold him. I don’t know why but Mac would have none of it and insisted that I give back the money. He came out with us. To this day I still give him heaps about reneging on my deal.

Some of the longhouse people came with us for a few hours until we reached the road head where we were picked up by truck. The seven young women were among them. Our packs and weapons were carried all the way for us and the parting was genuinely sad. We went back to our regular operations and got on with our patrolling duties and never went back to our longhouse.

Just over six months later we were in another war in another country; Vietnam.

Borneo and our stay in the longhouse was the highlight of my 20 year military career. I was just 22 years old at the time. Many years later as I hear Maori pontificating wisely on traditional life before settlement and colonisation I smile and remember my real experience living the hunter gatherer life as it really was.