The Dayak Benuaq hosts of the Borneo ceremony have spent the past month in a camp they set up at the site of the climactic vow and buffalo rituals. During this time, they made extensive material and spiritual preparations for this event, where they hosted somewhere between 700 and 1000 people from their own and neighboring villages to restore balance and unity in their care for the forest. Ruwi (Ambrosius Ruwindrijarto) has acted as a bridge to the people of Muara Tae as we made the effort to fund the ceremony and share the story of these guardians of the rainforest. On behalf of all supporters, Ruwi attended the last days of the ceremony and sent this report from the village:
“WELCOME. Save me.”
This is the first thing that I read in Borneo’s Balikpapan airport. It was printed next to a picture of an orangutan. They don’t get it, do they? It’s all of us that need saving. And it’s to the forests and their guardians — the ancestors — that we now give ourselves to be saved. That’s how the indigenous people of Muara Tae taught me with the ceremony I attended.
I closed my eyes through two-thirds of the flight there, and I think I discovered why Asuy, Masrani, and others wanted me so to be there in person, not just in spirit or megabytes. ”To make it complete,” Jane said. ”This is it!” said Asuy. Yeah, this is it. They want to make sure we all understand that this is it, the convergence of all prayers and dreams, of humans and spirits, so that fear and despair will sneak away, like a thief in the middle of the night who finds the house is full of laughter and joy.
Now, with vows taken and the ancestors called in, the Borneo ceremony has reached its climax and is drawing to a close. While no company representatives came to the ceremony, there were representatives from the government: Chief of Sub-district Jempang, Chief of Village of Muara Tae, Chief of Indigenous Council of the District of West Kutai. All expresssed appreciation to the people of Muara Tae for conducting the ceremony and trying to resolve conflicts and forest destruction in the indigenous/customary way.
People from Ponak Village did not come to either the ceremony or the vow ritual, although they were invited formally and informally. This was a disappointment. However, people from Lempunah Village and Mancong Village came to the ceremony and it seems the connection between Muara Tae and the people of these villages is stronger now.
At the buffalo fiesta, the atmosphere was festive and busy — many people and many things to do. The ceremonial ground provided a place for people to meet, enjoy performances, play games. This was the largest gathering of the ceremony, and culminated in the buffalo ritual. [In this photo, the traditional carved pole is danced around to prepare for the buffalo.] A feast followed, where they served over 700 people. The dinner was excellent. The pork barbecue was especially good — one of the best I ever tasted. Alex said it was because the meat was prayed over.
A much lower number of people attended the vow ceremony in the forest, which was a solemn ritual, held where two rivers meet and become one before flowing to Muara Tae. The river on the left looks clear, but it’s polluted by chemicals from mining companies. The river on the right looks dirty, muddy, because of the runoff from the palm oil plantations. The ancestors always arranged it that a community or village be guardians of the forests where rivers that flow into that community or village start — just like Muara Tae before mining and oil palm plantations.
The vow ceremony reminded the people: ”This is NOT about ownership of this land. It’s about us — the guardians of this forest. Remember, we did not choose and decide to be guardians of the forest — the forest chose us. Or rather the rivers, with where the water flows to, where it bends, who drinks from and lives from it. And that is how this matter was settled long ago, in the time of our ancestors. We are the guardians of this forest.”
The Chief of Indigenous Council of West Kutai District (which is a quasi-government institution selected and facilitated by the government, although supposedly independent and representing indigenous peoples in the district) questioned why they were conducting the vow ritual — which is very sacred and feared — since it has serious consequences. His comments show how serious the Dayak people consider this ceremony to be, and that people in the district capitol are taking notice.
I could see that Asuy got energy and a powerful aura from the whole process— he seemed stronger and taller. [In this photo, Asuy is addressing the crowd on the purpose of ceremony: to heal the forests and people, to protect ancestral lands, to celebrate indigenous people’s dignity.] And even after all this time and work — including the great preparations as they stayed a month camping in the ceremonial ground — Asuy’s wife Laiyen didn’t look tired. Masrani plans to write a book about the ceremony. He thinks it will be good and useful to document the process and the details of the rituals, including mantras, talismans, equipment, etc.
I think Asuy and Masrani overall feel relieved that the ceremony and the vow have concluded. When I left them, I sensed they were in a kind of floating state — not really there. After the last vow ritual in the forest, nobody talked much. Maybe it was just exhaustion — but perhaps also a higher, more serious state of mind. Still, more than a few people managed to express gratitude to all the friends and supporters of the tribe. Pak Kilo said, “Don’t go away for too long and make me miss you much.’’
Our friends in Muara Tae are now concluding the ceremony with a fasting period of eight days following the buffalo fiesta. During the fasting days, they remain in the temporary living quarters on the ceremonial ground, where they have been living and preparing since just after the pig fiesta. During this time, they can’t see visitors or guests. They stop working, and they are not to cut any trees nor kill any animals.
When they finish the eight days of fasting, they will dismantle everything that they built for the ceremonial ground. This includes the living quarters, the buffalo pole and statue, the praying altars, and the platforms for the ancestors. Everything in the ceremonial ground will be removed — the field cleared. And a new era shall begin.
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