The Wahea Dayak were already busy with the nemlen traditional ritual when I arrived at the village of Bea Nehas in the Wahau District of East Kalimantan. The ritual, used to initiate a male child into adulthood, begins with a three-day fast and is celebrated by the whole community of Wahea Dayaks. It’s a major event, usually held about once every five years, because of the costs and preparation involved.
The village of Bea Nehas and their nemlen ritual was where I, armed with a camera, I began documenting Dayak women and men with long ears and tattoos from East to North Kalimantan throughout July and August 2018. A four-hour journey on dirt road from the city of Tanjung Redeb in East Kalimantan, the villagers of Bea Nehas receive visitors once every two to three months.
Four grandmothers who live in the village still have long ears. They’re about 80 to 90 years old, but are still strong enough to wash clothes by hand and complete other household activities. They were very friendly, offering me nginang (betel nut leaves) to chew and a place to stay the night.
My journey then continued towards the next village of Nehas Liah Bing, surrounded by oil palm plantations. Huwanteg, a 73-year-old grandmother, still actively plants rice, rubber and trees. She’s witnessed a great many changes over the years, and feels that the palm oil plantations that increasingly encircle the village have made the days feel “narrower”, as if the village was literally being boxed in. Because of these plantations, Huwanteg must now walk for about an hour to the paddy fields.
She has her own form of resistance: to fight the plantations that have eroded the forests, Huwanteg plants ulin (a rare timber tree) instead. “I don’t like oil palm, I like to plant ulin because it can be used for my children and grandchildren later,” Huwanteg said. The wood from her trees can be used to build houses for future generations.
But while the environment may have changed, Huwanteg has not. Her earlobes are still elongated, adorned with earrings called swol.
Markers of beauty and nobility
The Dayak indigenous people inhabit the island of Borneo and there are at least 470 recorded Dayak sub-tribes scattered across the island. For some Dayaks, elongating the earlobes and tattooing the body are traditions that have been in place for hundreds of years. For both men and women, these long ears and tattoos represent beauty, and are seen as a way to distinguish between humans and animals like orangutans and apes. Additionally, for the Dayak Kenyah, if there are more than three bands of tattoos on the feet or hands then the tattooed person is considered to be paren, or part of the nobility.
The process of elongation requires the ears of girls and boys to be pierced shortly after birth, with new holes made when they are 10 years old. Pekulud, a grandmother I met in Metun Sajau Village in North Kalimantan, told me that her ears were pierced with thorns wrapped in cloth when she was a baby. The cloth was left in the hole, only pulled out—slowly and carefully—whenever she took a shower. As she began to crawl, earrings were hung from her ears so that her lobes would be more and more elongated as she grew. The longer the ear of a woman, the more beautiful she is considered. The more earrings in her ears, the higher her social status in society.
For some Dayaks, elongating the earlobes and tattooing the body are traditions that have been in place for hundreds of years
Laughing, Pekulud said that her hand often gets caught in her ears or her ears catch on branches when she goes to the fields. Unlike men, women’s long ears shouldn’t surpass their shoulders and metal jewelry shouldn’t be used; instead, animal teeth such as tiger fangs are threaded through the earlobes.
Tattooing, on the other hand, is only done once Dayak women and men enter adulthood. For women, tattoos are a mandatory requirement for marriage. Wahea Dayak women usually inscribe tattoos on their ankles, with nine circles on each foot, and on their hands. The tattoos are done using needles, thorns from salak (snake fruit), or thorns from orange trees. The motifs are inscribed using black soot as a natural ink.
Not all Wahea Dayak men are tattooed—some mark their path to adulthood with a nemlen traditional ceremony instead. Dayak Kenyah and Kayan men, on the other hand, tattoo the right and left sides of their necks and shoulders with eggplant flower motifs; Kayan men also specifically have tattoos with a typical Kayan carving motif on their hands. For some Dayaks, tattoos also show migration patterns. For example, tattoos on the neck, just below the chin, are usually only obtained by those who migrate to the area of the Iban Dayak tribe.
Eroded traditions over time
Over the course of a month of travel from Samarinda in East Kalimantan to Bulungan in North Kalimantan, I stopped by 19 villages. During this month, I photographed as many as 30 long-eared tattooed women and men. They were all over 70 years old—the last generation of long-eared and tattooed Dayaks.
Photographing these older people was no easy task, as they generally didn’t speak Indonesian but the local Bahasa Banjar instead. We’d had to communicate via improvised sign language so I could ask their permission to take pictures. I would then print the photos and return with them the next day. The prints made the atmosphere a lot more relaxed. An elder might smile at his face in a photo; I would then ask for his family’s help to translate our conversation.
Like Huwanteg, 75-year-old Pekulud’s village is also surrounded by palm oil plantations. Pelukud is a descendant of paren, or the Dayak Kenyah nobility. She still sports tattoos, but no longer has long ears.
In the 1980s, when she moved to the village where she now lives, Pelukud and her classmates were ordered by the village leader to cut off their long ears. The chief insisted that the long ears of the Dayak Kenyah tribe were part of a primitive heritage they had leave behind to enter the modern age. With a heavy heart, Pelukud went to a local clinic that cut off her long earlobes. She’s since come to regret it; not only does she feel like she’s lost an important part of her culture, but she’s found that long ears have now also become a source of fascination. “I regret cutting my ears because they’re the most sought after thing [with tourists] and only a few [elders] still have them now,” she said.
Like all Dayak women and men with long ears and tattoos, Pelukud’s generation is the last to have these traditional adornments. Her four children and nine grandchildren no longer elongate their ears or tattoo their bodies. Pelukud and other grandmothers I met confessed that they were worried their children would not have been able to attend high school and find work if they had traditional tattoos.
Age-old traditions and modern stigma
A number of government agencies in Indonesia specify that prospective applicants to the civil service cannot have tattoos. Regulations related to the hiring of civil servants in the Republic of Indonesia Prosecutor’s Office, for instance, clearly state that male applicants cannot have tattoos or piercings. It’s a rule that excludes indigenous cultures like the Dayaks, who have a tradition of tattooing.
But in the appendix of the Rules of the Head of the National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia No.15 of 2017 concerning the Guidelines for Procurement of Prospective Civil Servants in the National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia in Chapter II, it states that employees must have no tattoos or piercings, or piercings other than in the ears except other than those that relate to religion or local customs—which would technically cover the Dayak’s tattoos. But the lack of written support from district or local governments make it difficult for indigenous communities to argue their case. Some schools don’t accept students who have tattoos, which clearly disenfranchises those from local communities.
On the whole, tattoos are still generally considered taboo in Indonesia and there are concerns that this has caused older Dayaks to abandon some of their cultural traditions when it comes to their children. Some of the grandmothers I met claimed to have tattooed their bodies only after leaving school.
Younger Dayaks—particularly those born in the late 1970s on—are unlikely to pick up these traditions themselves. Those I spoke to said they weren’t interested in having long ears or big tattoos. Many of this generation have also embraced Christianity, moving away from the beliefs of their ancestors.
Increasingly, these traditions can only be seen through photographs and stories of the remaining village elders. Such cultural and historical documentation is important for future generations, lest the tradition of the Dayaks disappear from human memory forever.
* The author is a photographer and works as a volunteer in several non-profit organisations for the environment. Ganesha was born and raised in Samarinda, East Kalimantan.
Born in 1991, Ganesha is a freelance photographer and environmental activist from Samarinda in East Kalimantan.