The Minangkabau people, whose cultural heartland is in the mountainous region of western Sumatra (Indonesia), established a community in Malaysia in the early fifteenth century. As they had no written language until the arrival of Islam, knowledge of their origins is somewhat sketchy; their own oral accounts trace their ancestry to Alexander the Great, while the Sejarah Melayu talks of a mysterious leader, Nila Pahlawan, who was pronounced king of the Palembang natives by a man who was magically transformed from the spittle of an ox.

In early times the Minangkabau were ruled in Sumatra by their own overlords or rajahs, though political centralization never really rivalled the role of the strongly autonomous nagari (Sumatran for village). Each nagari consisted of numerous matrilineal clans (suku), each of which took the name of the mother and lived in the ancestral home. The household was also in control of ancestral property, which was passed down the maternal line. The sumando (husband) stayed in his wife’s house at night but was a constituent member of his mother’s house, where most of his day was spent. Although the house and clan name belonged to the woman, and women dominated the domestic sphere, political and ceremonial power was in the hands of men; it was the mamak (mother’s brother) who took responsibility for the continued prosperity of the lineage.

When and why the Minangkabau initially emigrated to what is now Negeri Sembilan in Malaysia is uncertain. Their subsequent history is closely bound up with that of Melaka and Johor, with the Minangkabau frequently called upon to supplement the armies of ambitious Malay princes and sultans. Evidence of intermarriage with the region’s predominant tribal group, the Sakai, suggests some acceptance by the Malays of the matrilineal system. What is certain is that the Minangkabau were a political force to be reckoned with, aided by their reputation for supernatural powers. Today, the Minangkabau are very much integrated with the Malays, and their dialect is almost indistinguishable from standard Bahasa Melayu.

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