During my stay in the Siberut National Park, I completed a swampy trek between two properties the host family owned. Judging by the holiday house we trekked to, I got the impression that tourism had brought good money to Aman Gresik (I say holiday house because there was no room for pigs underneath).
Disappointingly, the house, although still an uma by concept, had a brand new road running by its front door. There was also a light fixture hooked up on the ceiling, a relic from a production team who had filmed a dance. For umas are the cornerstones of traditional animistic Mentawai culture, a spiritual refuge where young shamans (Sikereis) learn their craft, a place where an entire clan can come together for celebration. It only makes sense to suggest that once the umas disappear, so will the Sikereis and Mentawai culture.
In an effort to subdue the Mentawai and assimilate their culture, the government has been sponsoring a major re-location program for the past three decades. These forced changes, including abandonment of the umas, are destroying the Mentawai social structure and clan ties and threatening their culture, environment, ecosystem and health. Source: Native Planet
We were lead to the holiday house by Mama Gainambuk, who used the opportunity to patrol her land’s boundary and inspect various sago and bamboo plantations along the way. Although liking the slice of soursop I tried the previous day, the sickly sweet jackfruit Mama harvested on the trail didn’t appease me so well. I took it to be polite. She cut open one to share the fleshy yellow seeds with us and put the other in the rotan basket strapped to her back. By the end of the trek Mama had become frustrated with how slow the group was traveling. We were told to wear shoes because the creek beds we walked along had hidden sharpies, we didn’t have leather soles on our feet like the Mentawai. We didn’t have stealthy feline pace and confidence in our stride. Our boots and socks filled with mud and water and the constrictive five foot high tunnel Mama cleared with her parang through the torturous rotan-filled jungle undergrowth was malapropos.
Although it is something I have long understood, the experience was an affirmation that I am not a man of the jungle nor do I belong there. The experience only increased the respect I have for people like the Mentawai, who call the jungle their home and have lived off its offerings sustainably up until this present age. Discussions with my guide, Moly, made it clear that Mentawai culture is extremely vulnerable to pressures of the modern age, particularly deforestation, and as far as he’s concerned it will cease to exist once the medicine men disappear from the jungle.