The Sikerei of the Islands

A traveling surfer finds shamans, tattooists, and cultural collisions in the Mentawai Archipelago.

Light / Dark

Tattoos and Cigarettes

The makeshift needle was embedded in my chest. Aman Lepon, a Mentawai shaman and tattooist, pried it free with his bare hands—dirty fingernails and all. Tap tap tap tap tap. His work resumed the same rhythm he’d set over the course of the last ten hours—a fiery, repetitious patter of wood-on-wood-on-chest—that sent me back to a semi-conscious dream.

My thoughts left his gnarled hands, which now stretched my skin taut. They sailed past the young children’s laughter, under the skulls that hung from the longhouse entrance, over the jungle canopy with its endless bug-harmony, and up into the dark thunderheads as they rumbled and flashed livid.

Maybe the ordeal was starting to catch up with me or maybe it was the oppressive Mentawai heat. The dark clouds above the hut pulled me toward them—gargantuan, morphing caricatures, battling it out in the tropical sky.

Soon the wind and rain would come and the tree frogs would sing. Another hour later, and that same wind would be at Rifles, where it would fan the long period swells that had journeyed a week to arrive. I thought of the gallery of boats, their passengers hustling and heckling for a wave, a world that seemed very far away from the longhouse in the jungle.

Before I met him, I saw a photo of Aman Lepon in the rare books section of my university library, where I found a musty copy of Charlie Lindsay’s Mentawai Shaman: Keeper of the Rainforest. Lepon is an expert of the bow, a doctor of the forest, a master carpenter, and everybody’s friend. This poison arrow, made from local fauna, is designed to bring down a 250-pound boar in less than five minutes.

Thock! The needle smacked into my ribs, the searing pain bringing me back down to earth.

“Sorry, Mateo.”  

I looked up to see Aman Lepon’s concerned but grinning face. He’d been re-lighting a clove cigarette and had become distracted from his work.

Knuckles of Eden

The Mentawai Islands are a volatile paradise, precariously strung on the western knuckle of the Sunda Plate. They are home to the most perfect waves on the planet, thanks to doldrum winds, wide-open swell exposure, and a utopian array of reefs. Beyond the surf, this small island chain is a unique hotspot of biodiversity, with a number of endemic plants and animals rivaling that of Madagascar.

For thousands of years, the local Mentawai people have developed an intricate jungle culture that stands as one of the last bastions of indigenous tradition in the world. Their animistic beliefs are based around a complex system of taboos, designed to appease the spirits of humanity and nature.

The sikerei are the Mentawai’s shamans and the keepers of the rainforest. These medicine men represent the physical link to the spiritual world. Their stewardship of plants, animals, and spirits are vital components of the local culture, and has played a role in keeping the rainforest ecosystem thriving.

Outside forces, however, have been encroaching for more than a century. In 1901, August Lett sailed from Germany to become the first missionary in the Mentawai, setting up his shop of good intention. Eight years later, he was beheaded, without having converted a single soul. It took 15 years of European persuasion before the first Mentawaian identified as Christian. A slow start—but that was just the waters retreating. A theological tsunami of Christianity soon swamped the islands, leaving traditional beliefs floundering in its wake.

Whether it’s racing lefts, a pleasant holiday, or a humbling jungle experience, the Mentawai environment provides in abundance. 

It was the Indonesian government, however, that proved most destructive. For the men in suits, gathered in the smoky towers of Jakarta, “primitive” culture was to be left behind as they planned to execute the modernization and nationalization of the country. In 1954, the government declared Mentawai culture illegal, and sent the military to cut the shamans’ long hair as part of a decree that also called for the burning of their longhouses, the outlawing of traditional tattooing, and the banning of the Mentawai people’s belief system, known as Arat Sabulungan.

Still, in the same way that there remains perfect, secret waves in the Mentawai Islands today, there are also small, remnant pockets of their ancient, shamanic tradition.

Longhouses and Mosques

It had been a while since I’d been back. After spending half of my twenties living in the Mentawai Islands, and the better part of a decade visiting, I’d disappeared to the Americas on a surf-expedition via motorcycle and horseback. I turned up in a dugout canoe unannounced. There was no way to phone ahead.

I was greeted by Aman Lepon, who is one of the closest friends I have in the islands. A sikerei from the Salakkirat clan, he doesn’t know his age, though we’ve always estimated it was the same as mine. The reunion with his family was heartfelt—children, parents, grandparents, and friends, all hugging and laughing on the riverbank. They joked that I hadn’t returned in so many years because it had taken me that long to find a wife kind enough to put up with my ugly beard. A fair guess.

We were walking toward the longhouse in high spirits when an electronic voice was suddenly projected over the river’s soft babble. I stopped and looked at Lepon, listening to the Islamic call to prayer.

“Ya,” he said with a shrug. “The Indonesians built a mosque in the village last year. But no problem my friend, c’mon. My uma is finished.”

I followed him into his longhouse, where he gave me a tour. “I gave everything I had to build it,” he said while flipping and skinning a papaya with his machete. “I traded all of my pigs.” 

“You should see my uma!’ his father, Aman Lau Lau chimed in, grinning with cheeky pride. “It’s going to be the biggest in Mentawai.”

Even though Aman Lau Lau is now a grandfather, and a much-respected elder in the clan, he can frequently be found poking a grandchild with a half-squashed banana (feigning an accident), or chasing a misbehaving dog through the longhouse with an ants’ nest on a stick. For all his antics, however, Aman Lau Lau had not been joking about his new longhouse. It was easily the most impressive uma I had ever seen.

I would, on occasion, wander downstream. Photo by Santosha.
Aman Goddai on the roof of his father’s new longhouse—or uma—turning sago fronds into a proper roof.

“I am building this uma,” he said, “the biggest in Mentawai, because it will prove that our way of life has not been forgotten. It is my last one. And I will die in it.”

The Road

At midday, Lepon and I walked along a new gash that severed the tiny hamlet—the first road ever to connect the village to the outside world. The track through the jungle had been cut by the Indonesian government’s bulldozers only a week prior. The mud from the half-constructed motorway had the appearance of a bloody coagulation—oozing, sticky, and warm.

Until now, the remote location of traditional communities in the Mentawai has been their cultural savior. After fleeing from government, religious, and corporate persecution to the depths of the rainforest, they built tiny villages accessible only by small, dugout canoes. The physical distance has given the last of the traditional Mentawai freedom to practice their egalitarian, hunter-gatherer lifestyle, mostly without the use of money.

As we passed the mosque in the center of the village—its generator turned off and the prayer room empty—a young Mentawai girl around 14 years of age approached us. She was coming from the other direction, along the mucky road, wearing shoes, full-length trousers, a sweater, and a jilbab headdress under the impossible heat of the noon sun.

“Aman Lepon,” said the young girl, padding a tissue at the sweat that dripped from her brow. “Your sons Telepon and Litik are back from Padang. They’re staying down in the port to finish their school exams, but they’ve run out of food.” 

I knew how much Aman Lepon cared for his children. He had sacrificed everything to give them an education, so they wouldn’t end up illiterate like him.

 “Hmm,” he said, as he drew some tobacco from a pouch in his loincloth. “So they’re already back? I’ll head down this afternoon.”

As we continued slowly along the road, I asked if he thought the construction was a good thing.

“The road?” he asked. “No. We don’t want it. I don’t have a motorbike and it will be too hot to walk on without the jungle canopy. I like going down the river.”

I considered the rumors circulating, which included a bamboo bio-energy plant to bring electricity to the people, along with better commerce and trading, plus better access to healthcare and education for the “impoverished.” I wondered whether these projects from the developed world were inherently superior. It’s true that the Mentawai have a higher infant mortality rate than modernized cultures. They are also plagued by preventable illnesses and diseases, such as malaria.

Despite this, the Mentawai people have no words for depression or suicide. Traditional Mentawai life is rooted in cultural depth and an almost infinite amount of free time. They dedicate this time in abundance to their children, their community, and the land. Hunting and cooking are their passions. Everything they eat is usually freshly picked or shot within the last few hours. Once they’re finished eating, they often sit, telling wild-eyed tales of their hunting escapades, cracking jokes, or singing together as a family
until their babies are asleep.

While it may be true that Aman Lepon cannot read or write, he instead possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world. He can build a longhouse with his hands and homemade tools. Yes, modern machines might be far more efficient than an axe, but is that a good thing in this context? The Mentawai are not perfect. No one is. But who is to say that they are “impoverished”
and need a road bulldozed into their community so they can “develop?”

I broke the silence of our bare feet on the ground. “Do you think the timber or palm-oil companies might try and use the road?”

“No, they can’t, Mateo. We need the forest for everything—for our food, tools, medicine, everything.”

He smiled, confident that this justification alone was enough to stop the Malaysian corporate conglomerates—enterprises which burned 2.6 million hectares of Sumatra’s forests in 2015. I knew him well, and knew he would fight if he had to, but how would his well-oiled bow stand against the permit-waving businessmen and the military?

Until recently, this wave was never surfed. But as crowds have increased, people are searching out lesser-quality, or in this case more dangerous, waves in order to find still-empty lineups. 
While scarcely appealing in raw form, once cooked, the frogs, shrimp, and wood grubs take on a generic “barbecued-protein” character.

Sautéed Grubs & Barbequed Frogs

That night I was alone in the longhouse. Lepon had gone down river to take bananas and sago bread to his two sons. Lau Lau was busy working on his unfinished longhouse. Goddai, Lepon’s younger brother, and his wife had disappeared without telling anyone where they’d gone. Aman Lau Lau gleefully told me they were off kissing and making love in the jungle.

The next morning, I was lying in my mosquito net when Goddai and his wife, Bai Goddai, wandered through the uma’s entrance. It turned out they hadn’t disappeared into the forest to kiss and make love. Instead, they’d gone hunting and foraging all day and night and hadn’t slept a wink.

Their catch consisted of three civet cats, a jungle turkey, about 50 frogs, 15 pounds of sago grubs, freshwater shrimp, and fish—a very generous offering. Later, when Lepon was back, we sat at the table and ate lunch with our hands, the now familiar buzz of the mosque’s generator humming through the air. Again the call to prayer rang out softly in the distance. Upon hearing the mantra, Lepon noticed my shift of attention.

“Half of the village is Muslim now,” he said matter-of-factly, while insisting I take the nicest cut of bush turkey. “Even Goddai here.” 

“You Goddai?” 

I was astonished. Goddai was the newest sikerei in the village, having been initiated five years ago.

“But what about Arat Sabulungan?” 

Goddai smiled. “I’m always sikerei,” he said. “Arat Sabulungan is everything to my family and I, but I am supposed to have a religion. I tried to go to the Christian church, but they told me I wasn’t allowed in with my loincloth—they said God wanted me to wear trousers.”

The Mentawai method of tattooing involves hitting one stick rhythmically upon another stick, which has a safety pin or rattan spine attached to it. Although it looks vicious, Mentawai tattooing is generally less painful than a modern tattoo machine—except when it’s straight into the sternum.
Decades of charter and resort boats dropping anchor have taken a toll on the fragile reefs, which if destroyed would affect both surfers and the Mentawai tribes.

I couldn’t believe that Goddai was even considering Islam, mainly for the same reason that most Mentawai people had shunned it: their pigs. The hunting, caring for, and eating of pigs is central to Mentawai life, but to Muslims it is haram, or forbidden. 

However, I could also see where Goddai was coming from. In Indonesia, citizens are required by law to belong to Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Confucianism (Atheism is illegal). More than a half century after the 1954 decree, the state still does not recognize the “pagan” beliefs of cultural groups such as the Mentawai, Papua, Borneo, or others like them. Instead, it perceives them as a direct threat to Indonesia’s cohesive identity as a nation.

Goddai swallowed his mouthful of taro and shrimp, and cited the fact that the mosque also bought schoolbooks for children that chose to convert—a similar tactic employed by the Christian and Catholic missions in the Mentawai Islands, which, up until recently, had traded medicine and hospital care for religious conversion.

Aman Lau Lau tossed his steamed plantain peel out the window to the food garden below. “Me, I am free,” he said. “I don’t need the Indonesian people’s religions. We have Arat Sabulungan—that is Mentawai. Christianity, Islam, Catholicism, the other ones, they’re all the same.”


I spent another week or so in the village. I’d been taught traditional tattooing in previous visits, but now I found myself teaching the younger shamans, because many of the older tattooists had lost their eyesight. I was honored to give one of the shamans, Aman Lai, his durukat piece, which extended across his chest, neck, chin, cheeks, and down his arms.

On the last day, I had the same piece (minus the facial sections) tattooed on me. Later that night, Lepon killed one of his ducks for dinner. I gave him a young sow and a small amount of money as a thank you for his hospitality.

We set off down the river the next morning, Lepon joking and smiling the whole way. As we approached the port town, Lepon pulled over to put on trousers and a shirt, simultaneously assuming an alternative, lesser persona.

He knew the port people would laugh and embarrass him if he dared to enter in his loincloth. Neither the faded t-shirt, nor the baggy trousers fit him properly. For the first time since I’d known him, my regal and wise friend looked exactly how the outside world classified him: impoverished.

The stereotypical Indonesian scenes of putrid rubbish dumps and floating plastics covered the riverbanks as we floated into town. We stopped at a shack to see Litik and Telepon, his two young sons, who were still working on their school exams. They’d both grown so much that I barely recognized them. Instead of the cheeky jungle kids I remembered, they were now handsome, confident young men with short hair, sparkling white teeth, and a silver cross around each of their necks.

With my ferry leaving in an hour, I bid them goodbye, and told Aman Lepon I’d return soon. As I walked out the door, Litik and Telepon gave me a hug, and handed me a piece of paper. Later on the ferry, halfway to Sumatra, I unfolded it and saw that it was scribbled with their usernames for Facebook and Instagram.

[Feature image: Photo by Heather Hillier.]