The enticing rainforest-clad Mentawai Islands, 100km off the west Sumatran coast, are home to an ethnic group who are struggling to retain their identity in the modern world. There are over forty islands in the chain, of which the four main ones are Pulaus Siberut, Sipora, North Pagi and South Pagi. Only Pulau Siberut, the largest, at 110km long by 50km wide, is accessible to tourists (overnight ferry from Padang); all visitors must be registered by the authorities. The islanders’ traditional culture is based on communal dwelling in longhouses (uma) and subsistence agriculture, their religious beliefs centring on the importance of coexisting with the invisible spirits that inhabit the world. With the advent of Christian missionaries and the colonial administration in the early twentieth century, many of the islanders’ religious practices were banned, but plenty of beliefs and rituals have survived and some villages have built new uma. However, the islanders are still under threat, not least from an Indonesian government seeking to integrate them into mainstream life.
Organized tours of Mentawai are loudly marketed in Bukittinggi as a trip to see the “primitive” people and “stone-age” culture. Generally, Mentawai people welcome tourism as a way of validating and preserving their own culture, although they get little financial benefit from it. Be sure to read and obey guidelines about behaviour that are given to you, as the people have a complex system of taboo behaviour. Most tours centre on the southeast of the island, where you’ll be able to watch and join in with people going about their everyday activities, such as farming, fishing and hunting. There are also jungle treks and the shaman ceremonies of Siberut are something of a draw for tourists, but many are actually staged for them.