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The Sikerei of the Islands

A traveling surfer finds shamans, tattooists, and cultural collisions deep in the Mentawai. Excerpted from the new issue of TSJ.

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 taught. 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—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.

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.

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. Outside forces, however, have been encroaching for more than a century.

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 levels 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.

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 remain perfect, secret waves in the Mentawai Islands today, there are also small, remnant pockets of their ancient, shamanic tradition…

 

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