Mentawai people

Mentawai (also known as Mentawei and Mentawi) people are the native people of the Mentawai Islands, in Siberut, about 100 miles from West Sumatra province, Indonesia. They live a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the coastal and rainforest environments of the islands. The Mentawai population is estimated to be about 64,000. The Mentawai tribe is documented to have migrated from Nias - a northern island - to the Mentawai islands, living in an isolated life for centuries until been discovered in 1621 by the Dutch. The Mentawai language belongs to the Austronesian language family. They follow their own animist belief system called Sabulungan. When the spirits are not treated well or forgotten, they might bring bad luck like illnesses and haunt those who forgot them. Mentawai also have very strong belief towards objects they think are holy.[2] The people are characterized by their heavy spirituality, body art and their tendency to sharpen their teeth, a practice they feel makes one beautiful. Mentawai tend to live in unison and peace with the nature around them because they believe that all things in nature have some kind of spiritual essence.[3]

Mentawai people
Mentawei / Mentawi
Mentawai traditional healers, 2017.
Total population
Approximately 64,000[1]
Regions with significant populations
 Indonesia (Mentawai Islands)
Mentawai language, Indonesian
Christianity (predominantly), Animism, Shamanism, Islam
Related ethnic groups

Culture and lifestyle

The Mentawai live in the traditional dwelling called the Uma which is a longhouse and is made by weaving bamboo strips together to make walls and thatching the roofs with grass, the floor is raised on stilts and is made of wood planks. An Uma can house three to four families. A Lalep is a smaller house containing only one family; and a Rusuk is a home for widows and bachelors.

The main clothing for men is a loin cloth made from the bark of a gum tree. Mentawai adorn themselves with necklaces and flowers in their hair and ears. Women wear a cloth wound around the waist and small sleeveless vests made from palm or banana leaves. Mentawai sharpen their teeth with a chisel for aesthetic reasons. Tattooing is done with a needle and wood which is hammered on the needle by a shaman called sikerei. It is very common to see Mentawai people covered head to toe in tattoos, since they follow various traditional tribal rituals.

Tattooing on the island was an identity and a personal or communal reflection of the people's relationship to nature, called Arat Subulungan, although there are motivational and design differences from region to region and among clans.[4]

The Mentawai, also known as the "Flower People", never harvest a plant or take the life of an animal without asking for their spirit's forgiveness first because they believe every part of the environment has a spirit.[5]

During the pre-independence era, the cultural influence of foreign colonials and other islanders had systematically displaced or obliterated indigenous customs and religions. In postcolonial times, the Indonesian government continued this policy with a 1954 decree that prohibited animist religions, effectively abolishing tattooing and other customs.[4]

The traditional knife of the Mentawai people is called Palitai, while their traditional shield is called Kurabit.[6]

Men hunt wild pigs, deer and primates. Dogs are usually used to spot the animals during hunting, then the prey is shot with a bow and poisonous arrow. Women and children gather wild yams and other wild food and fruits. The main food they eat is sago, a type of flour from ground palm medulla. Small animals are hunted by women. The Mentawai people keep pigs, dogs, monkeys and sometimes chickens as pets.

The Mentawai still live a traditional lifestyle and worship nature despite the changing times. Various shops and technology have been brought into the tribe land because of globalization, and tours are even given to those who want to experience the daily life of the tribe and interact with its inhabitants.[7]

SurfAid is a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the lives of Mentawain people.[8]


  1. "Mentawai of Indonesia". People Groups. Retrieved 2015-03-10.
  2. "5 Things You Need To Know About Mentawai Tribe". Retrieved 2019-04-02.
  3. "The Mentawai People". Authentic Sumatra. Retrieved 2019-04-02.
  4. Dale Rio (2012). Planet Ink: The Art and Studios of the World's Top Tattoo Artists. Voyageur Press. ISBN 978-0-7603-4229-9.
  5. "The Life of the Mentawai Tribe | Fabien Astre". Retrieved 2019-04-02.
  6. Albert G Van Zonneveld (2002). Traditional Weapons of the Indonesian Archipelago. Koninklyk Instituut Voor Taal Land. ISBN 90-5450-004-2.
  7. "The Life of the Mentawai Tribe | Fabien Astre". Retrieved 2019-04-02.
  8. "Where". SurfAid. Retrieved 2017-06-06.
  9. "Tribal Wives, Series 1, Mentawai/Indonesia". BBC Two. Retrieved 2014-11-16.
  10. "As Worlds Divide". Roebeeh Productions. Retrieved 2017-06-06.

Further reading

  • Thom Henley; Taveepong Limapornvanich (2001), Living Legend of the Mentawai, Ban Thom Pub., ISBN 0-9689091-2-4

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