Duniart – Photography and Blog by Toine IJsseldijk

My Mentawai Family

– My Story –

I visited the Mentawai tribe on Siberut Island for the first time in 1990, as an ordinary tourist in a small organized group tour. In the late 80s and early 90s West Sumatra was a booming tourist destination and dozens of freelance guides hung out in the tourist coffee shops of Bukittinggi, offering backpacking tourists a 7 or 10 day trip to Siberut Island, to stay with the Mentawai. The guides’ often spectacular photo albums and stories of other tourists that just came back from the island sold the tours like hotcakes! A 10 day trip cost only USD 100 at that time; great value for money…
So I joint one of the most senior and experienced guides, Ed, and together with 7 other tourists we spent 8 days canoeing and hiking around and stayed in 4 different traditional tribal houses. One of those houses was in the Butui, where we stayed with Aman Patre, a proud Mentawai shaman living in a small traditional house along the Butui river, together with his wife and then 8 children. I instantly fell in love with this family and knew I wanted to spend more time with them, to learn more about the Mentawai culture.
So a day after our tour ended in Bukittinggi I turned around and took the first boat back to the island, alone. I hitchhiked on a canoe of another guide and went straight back to Butui. I ended up staying a couple of weeks with Aman Patre and his family, an unbelievable and eventually life-changing experience. Little did I know that this life-changing experience was not only going to be one-way…


The magic plants which the shamans use for a single negotiation or blessing can also be used for a long-term influence on the world of the beyond. For this purpose the magic plants are turned into a fetish during a special ceremony, as a small bunch or package, wrapped in a piece of cloth and tightened together with some rattan.

These fetishes are carefully kept, because they keep their power as a mediator. For instance, for a newborn child and its parents a fetish of different mediator plants is made to protect the child during the first few months of life.

As everything else that exists, a fetish has its own soul and at the end of a rituals sacrifices are made to the new fetish as well.

The most important fetish for the Mentawai is the bakkat katsaila, the main fetish of each uma. When building a new uma has finished a new bakkat katsaila is made. It is blessed and, as a new object, has now its own soul. The bakkat katsaila‘s soul becomes the main protector of the uma and can keep away ‘evil’ and attract ‘good’ at the same time.
The bakkat katsaila is hanging from the main pole of the uma, inside the back room, on the left side of the door when facing the uma’s entrance. It is a large collection of different mediator-plants, placed in a large traditional basket. At every ceremony sacrifices are made to the bakkat katsaila and more mediator plants added, to manage a good relationship and strengthen its soul.
For more photos of the Mentawai on Siberut check out my GALLERY:  
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