Easily the most numerous of Sarawak’s indigenous peoples, the Iban make up nearly thirty percent of the state’s population. Their language is from the same family as Malay, and any Malay speakers will notice considerable overlap in vocabulary as well as predictable changes in word endings – datang (come) and makan (eat) in Malay, for example, become datai and makai in Iban.
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Origins and conflicts
Having outgrown their original home in the Kapuas river basin of west Kalimantan, the Iban migrated to the Lupar River in southwest Sarawak in the sixteenth century, and came into conflict with the Melanau and Malays. With the Brunei sultanate at its height, the Malays pushed the Iban back inland up rivers such as the Rejang, into interior areas dominated by the Kayan. Great battles were waged between the two groups; one source recorded seeing “a mass of boats drifting along the stream, [the combatants] spearing and stabbing each other; decapitated trunks and heads without bodies, scattered about in ghastly profusion”. Although such inter-ethnic conflict stopped as migration itself slowed, the Iban were still taking heads as recently as the 1960s during the Konfrontasi, when the Indonesian army came up against Iban who had thrown their lot in with Malaysia.
The Iban figure prominently in the minds of visitors, thanks to their traditional communal dwelling, the longhouse. Each has its own tuai (headman), who leads more by consensus than by barking orders. For details see longhouse architecture,.
Traditionally, young men left the longhouse to go on bejalai, the act of joining a warring party – essentially a rite of passage for a youth to establish his independence and social position before marriage. Nowadays, to the extent that bejalai has meaning, it may translate into going to university or earning a good wage on offshore oil rigs or in a hotel or factory in Singapore.
Further complicating the bejalai tradition, of course, is that women are now much more socially mobile, and can pursue education and their own careers. Traditionally, however, women had distinct duties. They never went hunting, but were great weavers; indeed, an Iban woman’s weaving prowess used to determine her status in the community. The women are most renowned for their pua kumbu (blanket or coverlet) work, a cloth of intricate design and colour. The pua kumbu once played an integral part in Iban rituals, hung up prominently during harvest festivals and weddings, or used to cover structures containing charms and offerings to the gods.
Development and urbanization
More than half of Sarawak’s Iban have moved permanently to the cities and towns in the west of the state, or may spend the working week there and weekends back in their longhouse. Most rural Iban no longer live purely off the land but also undertake seasonal work in the rubber and oil industries. By no small irony, logging – the business that most devastated their traditional lands – also long supplied plentiful and lucrative work; these days oil-palm cultivation and production provide more employment.