Indigenous people’s storytelling traditions are disappearing, but to sustain a just, equitable and inclusive future we must heed their wisdom.
Aman Teu Agoi, Sikerei (shaman) and custodian of Mentawai’s cultural kowledge, shares folklore stories and cultural taboos with the YPBM research team. Photo: Rob Henry
Sarereiket region, Siberut, Mentawai – It is late. The chorus of coupling frogs and the stomp of energetic children running across wooden floorboards floods the pauses between the words from Sikerei, Aman Teu Agoi. His tone and nuances match the sounds of the surrounding forest – from the pandemonium of pigeons, to rumbles of the rain-fed river, and then a pause, like the posture of the proud kara-kara tree. We are gathered together to listen to a story, a story about the most important palm from one of the most biodiverse islands in the world.
A preview of Mentawai’s mythological sago story, captured by the YPBM research team during extensive documentation of Mentawai’s Indigenous oral literature. Siberut Island, 2019:
Storytelling has long been central to the human experience. Stories have helped us establish our identity, beliefs, morals, knowledge, and practices that have been fundamental to sustaining our societies. But we are not limited to stories – our philosophies have manifested as songs, poems, chants, proverbs, taboos, myths, epics, scriptures, and fables. These are the ways we explain life and how we fit within.
Significant to many Indigenous cultures worldwide are oral traditions that have been passed on for generations. These traditions often contain ancient memories and timeless wisdom that has fostered the physical and spiritual wellbeing of their people and the landscapes they occupy for millennia.
But when development and modernization are at the door of many Indigenous territories, oral traditions are often threatened by cultural homogenization.
Sikerei, Aman Manja, reciting healing scriptures for his sick mother. Buttui, May 2019 Photo: Rob Henry
Mentawai culture is rich in storytelling traditions, from stories about shaman origins, songs of the spirits of Mentawai’s medicinal plants, ceremonial scriptures recited in Siberut’s old languages, and late night discussions mapping territories, resources and family histories, among many others. But the ways in which Mentawai people meet and interact have been changing.
Alarmed at the gradual erosion of their Indigenous culture and knowledge, Mentawai’s cultural education foundation (YPBM) have been campaigning to preserve their traditional knowledge so that their children may have opportunity to access, practice and know the richness of their cultural heritage. To find out why their oral traditions are disappearing, the team turned directly to community members from both the Rereiket and Sabirut regions of Siberut to unearth their opinions, needs and ambitions.
They found that a significant reason behind why Mentawai oral literatures are believed to be disappearing is because the connection between generations has been disrupted. Recent changes in Mentawai society structural patterns over the last few decades have meant children and elders rarely interact. YPBM believe this has had repercussions beyond the transmission of oral literature alone – fewer children speak and understand Mentawai dialects, fewer understand the ecological functioning of the forest, fewer have experienced taboos and rituals that govern the Mentawai way of life.
“Yes, we are losing connection to our language and culture. A vast majority of Mentawai youth – almost all – are now without this knowledge. This is because our past few generations have had no access to learn about our Indigenous culture, history or ecology, as it is not part of the local or regional education system. This is terrifying for us. Without our cultural knowledge, we are destined for poverty. Eventually Mentawai people will disappear.” Martison Siritoitet, Mentawai youth.
Three-quarters of respondents from YPBM’s survey felt Mentawai’s oral literature is disappearing because children now spend a significant portion of their time in school, where traditional literatures are not taught. Most respondents felt that Mentawai’s oral literatures were disappearing because people were more interested in learning about foreign ways of life and modern technologies. There were mixed responses as to whether youth were still interested in learning Mentawai’s oral traditions. 7 in 10 respondents knew variations of Mentawai’s traditional stories, songs, poems or myths. However, when asked to share their stories, most responded they didn’t know it well enough to share or pass on.
Despite the evidence suggesting the erosion of an important facet of Mentawai culture, 99 per cent of those surveyed agreed that Mentawai oral literatures are vital for their future.
“Mentawai’s oral literature, including our stories, songs, language, taboos, rituals and so forth, is what carries our culture from generation to generation, keeping us safe from harm and close to our identity. Without our oral literature, essentially, we would soon cease to exist.” Mentawai elder, Madobak 2019.
Remembering that their culture is dynamic, coupled with growing concerns at the loss of their stories, the Mentawai foundation (YPBM) team proceeded to ask in what ways their community would most like to learn about Mentawai oral literatures.
Over 90 per cent hoped for a book that can be shared with their children; 80 per cent hoped to meet regularly at cultural studios to hear literatures directly from elders and Sikerei; and 8 in 10 saw immense value in attending a cultural education program, like the one already established by the Mentawai foundation (YPBM) here in Siberut.
“Our aim is to use this research to develop a Mentawai oral literature book, which we will distribute amongst our cultural education program students and teachers. We shall also share this with Mentawai’s Indigenous committee and government education department, as we envision that this and various other outputs to be integrated within the formal curriculum for all Mentawai children. This is critical. Currently, there are no accurate, cultural reference books available for our schools. The government have made a public request for support in filling this gap and we have the documentation from our research to create books, videos, and so forth.” Fransiskus Yan, Chairman YPBM.
But the Sabirut and Rereiket regions of Siberut represent a very small proportion of Earth’s population. Why then do Mentawai oral literatures matter? Why should we consider carrying with us old stories passed from generations long ago?
Stated simply, we believe the greatest threat to humanity’s wellbeing is homogenization.
Keeping oral traditions alive is paramount to strengthening Indigenous culture, language, values, pride, and wellbeing – both for people, and the territories they occupy. In addition, Indigenous oral traditions contain unique, verdant philosophies to illuminate the challenges often faced in our lives. They provide a prevailing means by which we can understand our connection to our lands, resources, sacred places, and ancestors, and how to interact with each. The collective wisdom of all Earth’s peoples gives hope that we may find solutions to how we may respectfully sustain our global society.
Please continue your support for Yayasan Pendidikan Budaya Mentawai’s mission to preserve their cultural and ecological knowledge. Follow their journey via Instagram, share amongst your networks and become a monthly donor. Masura’ bagatta – thank you.
Rob Henry, IEF and YPBM would like to acknowledge the Firebird Foundation for their financial support toward this project.