The Ibans (Dayak Iban). One Culture, Three Countries.


The Ibans, or Dayak Iban are a branch of the Dayak peoples. Dayak Iban spread in the northern part of West Kalimantan (Indonesia), Sabah and Sarawak (Malaysia) and Brunei Darussalam.  Linguistically, the Iban language is closely related to the Malay language.

According to myths and legend, historically Ibans lived around the mouth of Kapuas river. But they slowly moved upstream due to tribal indifference.

The Ibans form the largest percentage of Sarawak's population. One of the famous Iban descents is Henry Golding. Born in Sarawak, he was known for his role in a Hollywood blockbuster movie "Crazy Rich Asian". 

Henry Golding. Photo:Discovery Channel

One of the characteristics of the Ibans is the very striking use of tattoos. The Iban people, in their native language, call tattoos as "uker/ukir" or "pantang". Compared to tattoos from other sub-tribes, such as the Dayak Kayan, the Iban tattoos tend to be "coarser" or larger in size and less complicated. The tattoos symbolize someone's life experience, more experiences means more tattoos on the body. 

According to one of the traditional tattoo artists, a spirit usually comes to an Iban in a dream before he gets a traditional tattoo. After, he would consult it with elders so they could create a particular tribal Dayak shape that matched with his dream.

Ukir Rekong (neck tattoo) of a Lachau (lizard) design. The embellishment on the side is a pair of Bunga Besi (Iron Flower). (Photo : Borneo Ink Tattoo)


Henry Golding and his 'Bunga Terung' tattoos. (Photo: RojakDaily)


Dominated by red, what distinguishes the Ibans from other Dayak sub-tribes is that the traditional clothing of Iban women has metal headdresses. The Ibans  has a woven cloth with a very distinctive motif, coupled with Hornbill feathers and a headdress on the head. 

Iban Tradidional Costume, Sarawak - Malaysia. Photo : Mohd Adnan Mahmood, Pinterest



Angeline Fremalco (a member of Indonesian Regional House of Representatives) in a Dayak Iban Kapuas Hulu costume. Photo: Tribun Pontianak

Iban Girls from Temburong, Brunei Darussalam. ( Photo: Flickr )

Traditional Iban people live in a longhouse (Rumah Panjang/ Rumah Betang). It consists of a long, narrow covered veranda with a number of doors leading off it. The whole village lives under one roof with families making their homes in the different rooms. They are traditionally built from timber on stilts with space for livestock underneath.



A longhouse in Sarawak. (Photo: Borders of Adventure)


Iban youngsters from Sungai Utik (West Kalimantan- Indonesia) performing a traditional dance. Their  longhouse's in the background. Photo: Yani Saloh/ Mongabay Indonesia.


Each longhouse is led by a headmen. He is usually appointed by his own group of people; the criteria for selection include leadership qualities and success in life. 

Apai Janggut (the longhouse headman) inside their longhouse in Sungai Utik, West Kalimantan. Photo: Yani Saloh/ Mongabay Indonesia.

The community of Sungai Utik is one of the remaining rainforest cultures of Dayak Iban. Well-known as a forest guarding community, the community and its forebears lived in the Sungai Utik hamlet for over 130 years, before moving to its current longhouse. They maintained about 9,500 hectares of land near the source of the Utik River. Two thirds of this land is covered in pristine rainforest.

Their efforts to sustainably manage the forest in the face of large-scale deforestation and cultural loss across Borneo have won them accolades. The Indonesian Government gave "The Kalpataru Award" on July 2019. In September in the same year,  the community awarded by the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Equator Prize.  

Representatives of the Sungai Utik Dayak Iban Longhouse Community from West Kalimantan receive the Equator Prize from UNDP Goodwill Ambassador Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. (Photo: Tina Saloh)



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