Who we are

Who are the Ibans?

The Iban or Sea Dayak (Dyak) are a riverine group of rice cultivators inhabiting the interior hill country of Sarawak (Malaysia) and parts of Indonesian Borneo. They were mistakenly named Sea Dayak by the British who came into contact with them in the 1840s, at which time many were involved in coastal piracy with the Malays. 

The name Iban is from the Kayan language and means "immigrant." It was introduced into the literature in 1901 by Haddon and has continued to be the accepted term (Freeman 1958: 50). 

The Iban refer to themselves by the name of the longhouse village or river where they reside. They have no cover term for all Iban. Presently the Iban occupy the "remote jungle-covered ranges of the underdeveloped interior zone of Sarawak, and also certain of the inaccessible headwaters of the great Kapuas river in what is now Kalimantan or Indonesian Borneo" (Freeman 1959: 15). 

The main rivers of their occupation are the Batang Lupar, Saribas, Krian, and Rejang. Some Iban have moved to coastal and urban areas. 

The Iban speak a dialect of Malay (Malayan subfamily, Austronesian family) that is distinct from other Bornean languages. It does, however, contain many loan-words from other parts of Borneo, as well as some from Sanskrit. 

In Sarawak, the Iban population was estimated to be over 500,000 in 1998 (Statistics Dept). As far back as 1947, they comprised over a third of the country's population and in some areas were the dominant ethnic group. They are principally a rural people; the cities are still mainly the preserves of the Malays and the Chinese. 

Freeman's population distribution map (ca. 1950) shows the Iban located along Sarawak's major rivers and their tributaries, with the densest concentrations along the Rejang in the Third Division (one of Sarawak's five major political divisions) (Freeman 1955:12). No figures are available for the Kalimantan Iban. 

The climate of the Iban region is wet and it is not uncommon for annual rainfall in the interior to reach 180 inches. Heavy rains, flat delta land, and swampy inner coastal regions combine to cause frequent flooding of the best agricultural land. The rainfall pattern is, however, very erratic and its variability presents great difficulties for swidden agriculturalists. Those farmers who, with government assistance, have begun to practice wet-rice cultivation may use herbicides to clear their smaller fields and are thus better insulated from climatic variations. The temperature range is approximately 72 degrees-88 degrees F., or 22.2 degrees-31.1 degrees C. 

Three quarters of Sarawak is still covered with primary forest, the remaining quarter with savannah and secondary growth. Soils are generally poor. Most cleared forest areas can be used only for a season or two, and then must be left fallow for 15 to 20 years. Contrary to what early observers supposed, the shifting agricultural techniques of the Iban were probably the best adaptation to this poor soil, causing the least disturbance and allowing the small cleared areas time to recuperate. 

The tropical forests provide the Iban with a variety of trees, leaves, fibers, and foods, which they exploit themselves and have found to be profitable exports (especially rubber and timber). 

Rice cultivation is the occupation of 89 percent of the Iban population (two-thirds of the country's rice cultivators). But fewer than 40 percent are self-sufficient, and most Iban must buy rice to supplement what they grow (Sutlive 1973: 201). Iban are no longer free to move their settlements after exhausting an area, but they still shift their fields every few years to allow the land to regenerate. Rice agriculture is a highly ritualized activity and is really a complete way of life, rather than just an economic pursuit. Nearly all of the religious ritual has to do with insuring the success of the crop. Along with the rice, mustard, cucumber, pumpkins, and gourds are planted in the same fields and ripen at different times. Maize, cassava, changkok, and pineapple are also grown. 

Fowls and pigs are rear near the longhouses, to be eaten on festival days. Wild pigs are hunted with dogs, but salt fish, obtained from Malay fishermen, is more popular. Fighting cocks are kept by the men for gambling (a license is needed to operate a cock-fighting session). 

The common Iban settlement is a single longhouse composed of from 4 to 50 independent family units (an average of 14 in Baleh region) that are called bilek families. The bilek family is small, ranging from 3 to 14 members, with an average of about 5.5. It is usually composed of two or three generations, but two adult, married siblings never co-reside. Each bilek family constitutes a separate household that cooks and eats together, owns its own land, cultivates its own crops, has its own rituals, charms, taboos, and its own sacred rice. 

There are no large-scale corporate groups above the bilek family. The bilek family is the status-conferring group. Children are named after grandparents, thus providing continuity with ancestors and an identification with the kin group. Among the status-conscious Iban, these names provide links with their illustrious forebears. Membership in a bilek family, and hence the longhouse, may be by birth, marriage, or adoption. 

A family may also join a longhouse because of ties of friendship. Postmarital residence is called utrolocal, which is an equivalent concept to ambilocal residence. A couple may reside with either set of parents (or in their longhouse), but they must choose between one or the other. Uxorilocality and virilocality are equally common. Preferred marriages are within the kindred, especially with first to fifth degree cousins. 

Marriage within the longhouse is as common as marriage outside. The Iban are strongly monogamous, but in the early years of marriage, divorce is simple and not uncommon. Inter-ethnic marriages, though dangerous in some ways, often help to establish and maintain advantageous commercial relations. 

Recently, educated Iban have tended to marry later. They are looked on as valued marriage prospects, regardless of their backgrounds, because of their high earning potentials. 

Longhouse communities are almost always located along watercourses. Populations of these communities vary from averages of 80.5 (Baleh region) to 137 (Sibu District). The upper ranges do not often exceed 200. In Baleh, where virgin forest is plentiful, communities are composed of single longhouses located every one or two miles along the river. In the Sibu District, where the government has long since curtailed the migratory settlement pattern, clusters of longhouses within hailing distance of one another are common. Nevertheless, these clusters do not represent villages. Each longhouse has its own well-defined territory, within which each bilek family has its own hereditary lands. A longhouse has no property of its own. 

Each longhouse community usually has a core group of founding members, related cognatically, who occupy the center of the house. Membership in the house is usually through relations with one or more of these families. In Baleh the rate of interrelatedness was lower than in Sibu's more permanent longhouses, where interrelatedness was sometimes 100 percent (Freeman 1955: 9; Sutlive 1973: 360-361). 

There are two important longhouse officials. The tuai burong is an augur, who reads the omens, especially from birds, before all important events and is important events and is generally responsible for the ritual wellbeing of the longhouse. 

The tuai rumah is the administrator and custodian of adat, Iban customary law, and the arbiter in community conflicts. He has no political, economic, or ritual power. Usually a man of great personal prestige, it is through his knowledge of custom and his powers of persuasion that others are induced to go along with his decisions. Influence and prestige are not inherited. 

The Iban emphasize achievement, not descent. Although Iban society is classless, it is a very status-conscious and competitive society in which personal achievement is important for providing status and prestige in the community. The acquisition of wealth and the production of consistently good rice crops are the main criteria of success. 

The institution of pejalai (bejalai), in which young men travel to distant areas to gain wealth and experience, is an old and important part of Iban life. To return with valuable items is the object of the trip, and his numerous tattoos testify to a man's travels (the practise of having a tattoo is not common in modern Iban community). 

Iban women do not travel, and their lack of contact with the outside world has made them and their craft styles more conservative. Women are not, however, of a lower status. Households heads are women as often as they are men, and women have traditionally played an equal role in public meetings (Gomes 1911: 80). 

While the two principal offices in the longhouse are limited to men, the rights of men and women are equal in matters of property and inheritance. Iban religion revolves around augury, omens, and rice. There are a great number of Gods and spirits, with Petara, who some see as borrowed from the Hindu, at the top. 

Ancestor worship is important, but the assurance of a good rice crop is the principal function of the religion. Rice is believed to have a soul, and it must be treated respectfully and propitiated in order to provide a good yield. 

In a number of areas, Christianity has been adopted in addition to, rather than in place of, the old faith. It is viewed as another method of bringing good luck. 

The Iban have long been in contact with other ethnic groups. First the Chinese and Malays, and later the Europeans. While there has been some friction, especially with the Chinese over land claims, relations have been generally peaceful. The Chinese form the majority of commercial middlemen and shopkeepers in both the rural and urban areas. It is only within these two decades that the Iban have begun to run their own stores, and very few have been successful without Chinese backing. 

The Malays, through their membership in the army and, since 1966, through Sarawak's association with Malaysia, are powerful politically. Independence of spirit and their inability to work together have kept the Iban from gaining political power commensurate with their numbers. Inter-ethnic marriages are common and accepted, but ethnic conflicts have flared from time to time, as in the mid 1960s, when violent rioting brought armed government intervention. 

In today's world, the Iban are still the majority although they do not have the majority in the Dewan Undangan Negeri.  This probably due to the distribution of the State constituencies.

In general, the new generation of Iban had improved in term of their number in the business sector as well as their standard of education. 

Some of the facts I put down here may not be effective as of 1999, due to the fact that I did not have the reliable source to update you on the facts and figures.