The Indonesian archipelago is one of the most biologically rich areas on earth. It is no coincidence that it also one of the most linguistically diverse regions as well, housing dozens of indigenous languages that stem from the Austronesian family tree.
However, within an increasingly homogenous, globalised society, these unique languages are in trouble of being lost altogether.
Among these places is the Mentawai chain, a string of islands off the west coast of Sumatra. Geographically isolated, parts of the Mentawai were not seen by Europeans until the twentieth century. As such, the Mentawai people have been able to maintain their traditional ways into the modern day.
These practices, however, are under threat. After decades of Transmigrasi - transmigration programs from the larger islands of Indonesia - the majority of Mentawai people have felt the effects of mainstream Indonesian society.
Perhaps most significantly, the dwindling of cultural practices has had a dramatic effect on the number of Mentawai language speakers.
In local government schools, Mentawai children are expected to converse in Bahasa Indonesia, and as such the link between older and younger generations, expressed through oral storytelling, language and other, is in jeopardy.
While the current status of Mentawai culture may seem dire, there are projects that are striving to preserve language and culture for time to come.
On Siberut - the Mentawai chain’s largest island and a UNESCO biosphere reserve - a landmark collaboration has been taking place to record traditional knowledge.
Headed by members of local NGO, Yayasan Pendidikan Budaya Mentawai (YPBM), the project has been working with the Indigenous Education Foundation (IEF) to record ecological knowledge, oral literature and to establish and maintain an indigenous cultural learning hub program.
On 30 November 2019, the collaboration celebrated a significant milestone: the launch of a first-ever edition Mentawai Rereiket to Indonesian language dictionary, a project that has been years in the making, coming to fruition in alignment with the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages.
Speaking to The Ecologist, Yayasan Pendidikan Budaya Mentawai Chairman, Fransiskus Yan, conveyed that protecting indigenous languages is critical. “At present, Mentawai language is not taught in schools and our children are only speaking foreign, more dominant languages such as Bahasa Indonesia or Minangkabau.
"How do we expect to transfer our cultural and ecological knowledge between generations if we don’t speak our own language, the language of our elders?
"In response, we’ve focused particular attention to documenting and enabling our children access to our ancestral knowledge.”
The launch of the dictionary took place in Siberut’s Muntei villag and proved to be a great success for the local community, as it provided an opportunity to celebrate another year in operation of the Mentawai indigenous learning hub programs.
Highlights included special cultural performances from the various student groups across the island.
Indigenous Education Foundation President, Rob Henry, explained to The Ecologist that these various elements of cultural documentation are all vital to the success of keeping Mentawai culture alive and well.
Hentry said: “Documenting the Mentawai language is invaluable, of course, but these initiatives, such as cultural performances, combined with an indigenous learning hub program brings immediate access and impact across the community.
“Seeing the students express themselves through their culture, and the way the community comes together to support and celebrate identity with such pride is really powerful.”
Into the future
While curating the dictionary, YPBM have also been documenting traditional ecological knowledge with the aim of identifying the Mentawai community’s most important plant resources.
YPBM, in collaboration with the IEF, are preparing to publish a plant field guide in the coming year to distribute amongst their indigenous learning hubs.
Given the success of the Mentawai dictionary, the guide promises to be an invaluable resource for the community into the future.
Nick Rodway is a writer based in Australia. His writing on environmental and First Nations affairs has appeared in a wide range of media outlets, including Al Jazeera, Dateline and Mongabay.