To foreign observers, the 800 inhabitants of the village of Setulang live in a rustic idyll at the edge of a pristine forest. But these members of the Kenyah Dayak that live in the North Kalimantan district of Malinau yearn for a paradise steeped in the traditions of their tribe.
“I left our original homelands when I was a small boy. But I have happy memories of my time growing up in the forests and playing in the rivers,” says Pilius, a village elder, who last saw his ancestral lands in 1969.
The land that Pilius remembers is an area of forests which they call Tala Olen , or “the forbidden forest.”
The tribesmen, particularly the elders, feel a spiritual connection to Tala Olen’s forests, rivers and land, located in an area called Long Saan, which is an eight-day journey by canoe up the Kayan River.
There are strict cultural rules about cutting down the trees in the forest or damaging it in any way, a reverence that has not changed despite their move to Setulang for economic reasons. The draw of Tala Olen is also felt by their descendants who are charmed by the elders’ stories of paradise.
“My grandfather told me many stories of growing up [in Tala Olen ] and how they lived back then. His description of it made it look like paradise,” says Herman, a young villager. “I would love to visit and pay my respects to him.”
But the Kenyah Dayak’s ancient way of life and their culture of preserving the forest is under threat. Here in Kalimantan, logging and dam projects are destroying huge swathes of the forest.
Environmentalists estimate that over 52 percent of Kalimantan’s forests has already been lost.
“We don’t exactly know what will happen in the future. Will the next generation keep our agreement [to conserve the land], or will they damage it, and open new land to loggers to serve their self interest?” Kenyah Dayak elder Kole Adjang asks.
“ We hope that by example [sic], our great grandchildren will also take care of our land and Tala Olen.”
Taking the Dayak’s home
In the face of these threats to Borneo’s cultural history, photographer David “Dayak Dave” Metcalf is seeking to help reunite the Dayak with their ancestral homelands.
As with many indigenous peoples throughout Indonesia, such as the Asmat and Kamoro tribes of Papua or the Badui in Java, the Kenyah are hampered by poverty. As such, they can’t afford the cost of the journey to Tala Olen .
Metcalf seeks to provide the means for the villagers to revisit their homelands, a journey that he intends to chronicle in a film he will title “ The Journey Home .”
“I came up with the idea of granting the tribe their dream of visiting their ancestors’ burial grounds deep in the heart of the forest,” says the Bali-based New Zealander, adding that the journey entails more than the just the nostalgia of homecoming.
“We need to raise funds to make the film. As things currently stand, the logistics are only sufficient to take six elders to Long Saan,” says Metcalf, who is also the author of “Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage: Cultural Journeys of Discovery”, a chronicle of his travels through Indonesia.
Metcalf is putting on a fundraiser at the opening of an exhibition on indigenous photography in Jakarta’s Kunstkring Paleis cultural exhibition hall on Aug. 12.
The evening, which will feature eminent Indonesian designer Harry Darsono and New Zealand Ambassador David Taylor, will include performances of traditional Dayak dances.
“We hope that through raising funds to bring the elders back to their ancestral village and making a multimedia documentary about the journey, we can raise awareness of the threats to their unique way of life,” Metcalf says.
He adds that similar events will also be held at the American Club. To date, Metcalf has raised about $2,000 of the estimated $25,000 that he needs for the project.
“The Journey Home” will be shot by a film crew from seven nations; among them New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. They include American documentary filmmaker Jason Houston, who was known for his work with the Dayak in the Malaysian side of Borneo, Robby, a member of the Indonesian world music group Navicula, and Bali-based artist Wolfgang Widmoser, whose work inspired much of the look for the Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar.”
Native American Kevin Locke, an elder from the Lakota Sioux tribe, will also be taking part. While the cultural connection between the Dayak and native Americans is very strong, Locke’s participation marks the first time that a connection between these two cultures has been undertaken.
“One of the primary purposes of [“The Journey Home”] is to raise awareness in Indonesia and other countries about the importance and wisdom of indigenous cultures around the world. This journey is about connecting cultures through art, dance, song and ancient wisdom,” Metcalf says.
“By creating a wider expression and voice for indigenous cultures globally, we can find common ground through music and dance and ancestral prayers.”
Most of all, the film will showcase Kalimantan and its place in the world.
“Kalimantan is Asia’s Amazon, representing 1 percent of the earth’s surface but 5 percent of its flora and fauna, including untold numbers of trees and plants still undiscovered by mankind. As one of the most ecologically diverse landscapes on the planet, we want to raise awareness about the Dayak people that live in Kalimantan’s forests and rivers,” Metcalf says.
“This is all the more imperative, as Kalimantan is also facing the fallout from coal and gold mining, the latter which is poisoning its streams, aside from better known problems like illegal logging and deforestation.”
Metcalf and his team of filmmakers plan to release “The Journey Home” in Indonesia and abroad by the end of this year. He also plans to pitch the film to Discovery Channel and National Geographic.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 14, 2014