Dayak is an umbrella name for all of Borneo’s indigenous peoples. In Dayak religions, evil is kept at bay by attracting the presence of helpful spirits, or scared away by protective tattoos, carved spirit posts (patong), and lavish funerals. Shamans also intercede with spirits on behalf of the living. Although now you’ll often find ostensibly Christian communities with inhabitants clutching mobile phones and watching satellite TV, the Dayak are still well respected for their jungle skills and deep-rooted traditions.
Traditionally head-hunting was an important method of exerting power and settling disputes. It was believed that when cutting off someone’s head the victim’s soul is forced into the service of its captor. It is not practised now, but in 1997, West Kalimantan’s Dayak exacted fearsome revenge against Madurese transmigrants. An estimated 1400 people were killed in a horrific purge of ethnic cleansing which involved head-hunting and cannibalism. Similar violence reoccurred between the Malays and the Madurese in the Sampit region of South Kalimantan in 2001. The situation is relatively peaceful now, and head-hunting has once again been relegated to the past.