Duniart – Photography and Blog by Toine IJsseldijk

From December 2020 until recent.
Siberut is the largest of the Mentawai Islands, about 150 kilometers west of Sumatra, in the Indian Ocean. Large parts of the island are still covered in rain forest, home to one of the oldest Indonesian tribes, the Mentawai. This tribe has been living isolated for centuries and today still practice a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
The Mentawai are animistic and live in complete unison and peace with their natural and spiritual surroundings. Their belief links the supernatural powers of ancestral spirits to the ecology of the rainforest. The people believe that all things in nature have some kind of spiritual essence and balance is key to a peaceful coexistence. When spirits are not treated well they might bring bad luck such as illnesses, or even death. Spirits also often haunt those who forgot them.
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I am visiting Siberut regularly since 1990, up to today. I’ve been there dozens of times, sometimes for just a week, sometimes for up to a month or more at a time. On Siberut I spend most of my time with a traditional family who adopted me as one of them long time ago. Since then I enjoy the enormous privilege to be treated equal, and attend the most sacred of ceremonies and rituals together, as family. The initiations of traditional shamans, weddings, rituals around birth and early childhood and blessings of new longhouses. I speak their language enough to get along.
Times are slowly changing on the island. Initially in the few small coastal villages, but then increasingly also in the more remote interior of the island. Many traditional Mentawai families gave up life in the forest and settled in so-called social villages. Then telecommunication arrived. And mobile phones… Nowadays more and more Mentawai are attracted to a more modern lifestyle, mostly through the influence of social media. Very sad, as most people simply do not have the means or understanding how to move forward…
Fortunately my family is not much interested in changing their lifestyle. Today they are one of the few remaining truly traditional Mentawai families. I hope to spend a lot more time with them in the future and help them face an increasingly challenging new world!
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