12 - We Lived With The Headhunters

The Headhunters (*)
Wyn Sargent

Mrs. Wyn Sargent, writer and world traveller from Huntington Beach, California, spent last summer in Asia, part of the time exploring the jungles of Kalimantan (also called Borneo .. a part of Indonesia). With her was her son, Jmy (pronounced Jimmy), 12, a 7th grader at Harbour View School In Huntington Beach. This is Mrs. Sargent's firsthand report on their adventures among the head-hunters of Kalimantan (Borneo) ... written exclusively for JUNIOR SCHOLASTIC.

Would you believe my 12-year old son and I lived with the head-hunters of central Borneo last summer? Well, sometimes even Jmy thinks it might all have been a wild dream ... until he's reminded by the blow-guns, poison arrows, snake skins, knives, and human hair that decorate his bedroom.


[*] Reprinted by permission from Junior Scholastic, (c) Copyright 1969 by Scholastic Magazines, Inc.


We had been invited to explore the head-hunting area by the Indonesian Press. Our mission was to prove that the Indians of central Borneo would not harm outsiders. Many Indonesians are afraid they will lose their heads if they venture into the jungles, and most head-hunters fear they will be killed as wild savages if they venture into the cities.

We entered the head-hunter jungles with a police escort and interpreters at Sampit (Sahm-PEET), a little village located dead-center in southern Borneo. We traveled mostly by canoe. When we ran out of free-flowing river, the canoe was pulled and poled through the rocks. We found abandoned villages, and discovered some never before recorded on the world atlas. We saw oil flowing from canals, ana chunks of silver and gold ore scattered through the hills. The area was rich in untapped mineral resources.

Our first meeting with the head-hunters was in the village of Handjalipan (han-jah-LEE-pan). This was the land of the "little" people, five feet tall and under, black haired with dark, smooth, hairless skin. They found Jmy much more acceptable than me. I'm six feet tall and, standing next to them, looked somewhat like the Jolly Green Giant.

But Jmy was their size and they were curious about his white skin and the hair on his arms. They blew on his hands to see if they were real. They pulled the hair on his arms and touched his white skin in sheer disbelief. They had seen us come up from the river, and thought we were Sacred White Fish Gods.

We were invited to attend a Dyak head-hunter's funeral where we saw a tribal religion in action. "Dyak" means Indian, and there are several different Dyak tribes in this area. The tribe was the Baputi, which practices the Karharingan religion.

We were ushered into a funeral shack. Soon after, three Dyaks entered carrying a sacrificed wild pig. The pig had been killed to make peace with the spirits ... to soothe the "Great Gods."

The Dyaks then rolled palm mats lengthwise and set them on fire. They invited Jmy to participate in the Apuar (ah-PP-ar), fire-play. This fire ceremony is done for two reasons: it lights the dead-man's path to Heaven, so he can see where he is going. Also, if you burn someone's foot, it's considered funny ... something to cheer up the grieving family.

The coffin is made in the shape of a canoe. That way it can sail to Heaven! A cloth canopy is outfitted on top to protect it from the jungle rainstorms and the equator's hot sun.

Standing in front of the men's house in his village, a native Dyak wears his initiation mask.

During the evening we saw several types of dances performed at the funeral. The dancers wear masks made of gourds. If they commit an error in their dance routine, they believe it might anger the spirits. The masks conceal their identity from the gods.

If you've never eaten monkey meat, Jmy and I can tell you first-hand that it's not very good. The Borneo monkey is tough and oily and was difficult for us to digest. We also ate snakes, lizards and tapioca roots. These weren't very tasty either. When we found rice and dried fish, it was a banquet! All the food seemed flavorless because there is no salt in Central Borneo.

The most exciting and unusual event during our journey was the Potang Pantan (PO-tongh PAHN-tahn) ritual. This ceremony was to make us tribe members of the Katingan (kah-ting-GAHN) Dyak tribe. Not quite sure who we were, or exactly from where we had come, this tribe simply decided to put us on their team, no matter, what. As Jmy put it: "They're taking no chances!"

As the first step of the ritual, palm oil, rice powder, and Tuak (TOO-ahk ... a fermented coconut milk beverage) were sprinkled over us. Then we were given mandaus (mahn-DAHOWS), a machete-like knife, and asked to chop through a teak-wood log that separated us from the villagers. We stepped on raw eggs, barefoot, to dispel any evil spirits that might be on our persons.

Then we were placed, crossed-legged, on gongs in the Dyak long-house, an assembly shack on stilts. The village religious chief began a thundering chant to call up the spirits. He waved a small chicken over Jmy's head, uttered a few Dyak words, then sacrificed the bird with a single blow of his mandau. The chicken blood was put into a coconut shell and mixed with rice and palm oil.

The chief, with his fingers, made two little rice balls from this concoction, plucked a hair from his head and placed it in the rice-ball ... and then popped the rice-balls into our mouths. We both turned a little green. But no one with any sense would anger a head-hunter by refusing whatever might be offered!

In the village of Kawanbutu (KAH-wan-BAH-too) we watched the Dyak war dance, Kenjah (KEN-yah). This dance is performed by 10-year old boys who are about to enter manhood.

In former days, the boys left the dance to go out into the jungle to collect a "Trophy of Victory" ... a human head. This represented bravery and gave the youngster the right to marry. Thus upon completion of the dance, any neighboring native might suddenly find himself a target for the young head-hunter's personal ambition. Then, with head in hand, the young man had the back of his legs tattooed with a large patch of black ... the symbol of manhood.

Today, head-hunting has become a thing of the past. The tribes themselves met more than half a century ago and signed a treaty to dispense with the collecting of these "souvenirs". And today, young warrior's legs are "tattoed" with charcoal ... which can be washed off ... rather than lifelong dyes. But the dance lingers on. Once performed, the 10-year-old boy automatically becomes a man.

Poison arrows, however, still whistle through the jungles, shot from eight-foot-long blow-guns. These are the Dyak's only weapons for self-defense against the wild animals ... including tigers and boars ... that inhabit the jungles. The poison is made from the tree-root milk and is called Ipuk (EE-pook). Slender bamboo slivers are dipped in the poison, loaded into the blow-gun and serve as arrows.

In all, our journey took us almost 195 miles up the Mentaja River. We met up with many unusual people and customs. At least they seemed unusual according to our way of life.

This man belongs to a secret society in the New Hebrides. His headpiece consists of spiders' webs and it extends down his chest. His rank is shown by the pigs teeth that ornament his arms.

We also learned that today's Dyaks are not savages anymore. They are a people aware, a people progressing and trying to blend their ancient way of life with what we call "civilization". The "Wild men of Borneo" are tamed.

Homeward bound, I asked Jmy what he missed most during the trip. "Hamburgers," he said, "A good old-fashioned American hamburger."

I'll confess it sounded pretty good, especially after our recent diet of monkey and snake meat.

The Dyaks: A Dying Race

I first heard Mrs. Wyn Sargent speak on the Barry Farber radio program, over WOR in New York City. I wrote to her asking if she had any data on witchcraft practised by the Dyaks. She referred me to the April 11, 1969 issue of Junior Scholastic which contained the article you just read. I wrote to Junior Scholastic for permission to reprint this. Mrs. Louise Bates graciously gave me permission to do so. This magazine, though slanted for high school students, is a highly literate and well edited publication with fascinating fact-packed articles of interest to all ages. A sample copy may be had by sending 50 cents to Junior Scholastic, 50 West 44th St; New York, N.Y. 10036.

On the Barry Farber radio show Mrs. Wyn Sargent said: "The Dyaks are a dying race. In 25 years the population has dropped from 13,000 to 3,000. If this trend isn't reversed they are headed for extinction." A world travelling photo-journalist Mrs. Sargent has incorporated the nonprofit Sargent-Dyak Fund.

President Suharto of Indonesia's wife has assured her that all monies received will be channeled directly to the Dyaks. Mrs. Sargent is on a national lecture tour to raise contributions to save these diminishing Dyaks.

"While we were there, I saw babies die for lack of medicine," Mrs. Sargent has said. "That's why I have nightmares. Conjunctivitis is a regular part of their lives and yet just simple antibiotics could prevent it."

In an interview she gave to reporter Ernest Leogrande in the May 20, 1969 issue of the New York Daily News, in an article entitled "A White Goddess To The Rescue of the Headhunters" she said:

"If we don't help them, these people will become extinct. I want to rehabilitate them and teach them to live on their own land.

If I can get a tractor over there and floor that jungle, we're going to teach them crop rotation. I want to take two doctors to set up a clinic, two schoolteacher and two missionaries." Missionaries are important to Wyn, who is a Quaker.

"I need men who can both work and pray," she said, "And what I also badly need is another Noah with an ark."

She explained to reporter Leogrande that the ark was needed to transport the livestock that she promised the Dyaks.

I ask my readers who are interested in doing their little bit in helping to save a dying race, make your contribution, or write to, The Sargent-Dyak Fund, Inc., 4001 Morning Star Drive; Huntington Beach, California, 92647.

Circle Of The Earth Spirits