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ETHNONYMS: Dayak, Dyak, Sea Dayak


Identification. The name "Iban" is of uncertain origin. Early scholars regarded it as originally a Kayan term, hivan, meaning "wanderer." The use of the name by those Iban in closer association with Kayan gives support to this possibility. Other Iban, of Sarawak's First and Second Divisions, used the name "Dayak," and even today consider "Iban" a borrowed term. The participation of a few Iban in alliances with Malays for coastal piracy in the nineteenth century led to their being called "Sea Dayaks."

Location. Iban are to be encountered in all of the political divisions of the island of Borneo, but in the largest numbers in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the northwest coast. They have lived predominantly in the middle-level hills of the island, and during the last 150 years, fully half have moved onto the delta plains. Within the past 25 years, 20 percent of Sarawak's Iban have moved into the state's urban centers.

Demography. There were approximately 400,000 Iban in the state of Sarawak in 1989 (368,208 in 1980). Reliable figures for Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island, are unavailable.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Iban language is distinct from other Bornean languages, and though it shares a limited number of words with Malay it is not a Malay dialect.

History and Cultural Relations

The Iban trace their origins to the Kapuas Lake region of Kalimantan. With a growing population creating pressures on limited amounts of productive land, the Iban fought members of other tribes aggressively, practicing headhunting and slavery. Enslavement of captives contributed to the necessity to move into new areas. By the middle of the nineteenth century, they were well established in the First and Second Divisions, and a few had pioneered the vast Rejang River valley. Reacting to the establishment of the Brooke Raj in Sarawak in 1841, thousands of Iban migrated to the middle and upper regions of the Rejang, and by the last quarter of the century had entered all remaining divisions. The most dramatic changes in the past three decades have been abandonment of longhouses and permanent settlement in Sarawak's towns and cities. Iban have lived near other ethnic groups with whom they have interacted. The most important of these societies have been the Malays, Chinese, Kayan and, during the Brooke Raj and the period of British colonialism, Europeans. The dynamic relations between Iban and these societies have produced profound changes in Iban society and culture.


Iban settlements are still predominantly in the form of longhouses. During the time when headhunting was endemic, the longhouse provided a sound strategy of defense. It continues to be a ritual unit, and all residents share responsibility for the health of the community. A longhouse is an attenuated structure of attached family units, each unit built by a separate family. The selection of different building materials and the uneven skills of Iban men who build their own houses are apparent in the appearance of family units, some with floors of split bamboo, others with planed and highly polished hardwood floors. The average width of a family unit is 3.5 meters, but the depth, that is, the distance from front to back, varies widely. A longhouse may include as few as 4 families with 25 residents in a structure less than 15 meters long, or as many as 80 families with 500 residents in a house about 300 meters long. Access to a longhouse is by a notched-log ladder or stairs. At the top of the ladder is an uncovered porch (tanju ) on which clothing, rice, and other produce may be dried. Inside the outer wall is a covered veranda (ruai ), which is the thoroughfare for traffic within the house, where women and old men sit during the daytime weaving or carving, and where families gather in the evening to recount the day's events or to listen to folklore told by storytellers. Beyond the inner wall is the family apartment (bilik ), where the family cooks and eats its meals, stores its heirlooms, and sleeps. Above the bilik and extending halfway over the ruai is a loft (sadau ), where the family's rice is stored in a large bark bin and where unmarried girls sleep. The longhouse is constructed with its front to the water supply and preferably facing east. The core of each longhouse community is a group of siblings or their descendants. Through interethnic marriages, members of other societies may become part of Iban settlements and are assimilated as "Iban" in a generation or two. Until the past quarter-century, all Iban lived in or were related to longhouse settlements. Life in the longhouse was considered "normal," and those few people who lived in single-family dwellings apart from the longhouse were thought to be possessed by an evil spirit. Within the past 25 years, through a process of social and economic differentiation, many affluent Iban have built single-family houses. In the towns to which Iban are moving, they live scattered among Chinese and Malays in squatters' communities.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The primary activity of a majority of Iban is rice farming. In the hills, farmers practice swidden cultivation of fields averaging one hectare. Each family maintains its own seed bank of rice, and plants between one dozen and two dozen varieties in any year. At the center of its field they plant their sacred rice (padi pun ), a gift of some spirit to an ancestor, which has been retained over generations to recall the origins of that family. Given the uncertainties of rice farming in the hills, dozens of ritual acts are performed to ensure a successful crop. At the end of April, the head of the house holds a meeting of all family heads to discuss farm sites and an approximate date for the first rites. The meeting ensures that all residents coordinate their activities and that the rice matures at about the same time. Simultaneous maturation is critical because it helps reduce the losses of any one family to insects, birds, and wild animals, who spread themselves over several fields rather than concentrate on just one. It also permits families to coordinate their harvest rituals. Auguries are taken in June, farms are cleared in June and July, and burned over in August or September. When the rice has ripened, it is informed through ritual that it is to be harvested and transported back to the longhouse. On the last day of harvest, farmers make an offering to the final stand of rice to ensure that the soul of the rice will return to the house with them, and not remain behind in the ground. In the plains, farmers practice farming of wet rice in permanent fields. Introduction of herbicides, pesticides, and commercial fertilizers has permitted Iban to remove vegetation, control weeds and insects, and increase the yields of their farms. With much greater control over the success of their efforts, farmers rely much less on ritual. In addition to rice, farmers plant gourds, pumpkins, cucumbers, maize, and cassava. Rice is complemented with a variety of jungle vegetables and fruits collected by men and women for consumption with the evening and morning meals. Fishing has provided the principal source of protein in the Iban diet, but logging and the consequent silting of many streams and rivers have greatly reduced the numbers of fish. Techniques of fishing are sophisticated and adjusted according to the conditions of the waters. Fish traps are placed in constricted streams, and large nets are inclined over larger streams. Fish are taken with a seine or with hooks. Hunting of wild pigs and deer, using dogs, traps, and nets, varies from community to community, according to the region, forest conditions, and animal population. Almost all families keep chickens and pigs, and every longhouse has dogs. Chickens, pigs, and water buffalo are used in sacrifices, and eggs are an essential ingredient of any offering.

The most important commercial activity for the largest number of Iban men has been the institutionalized bejalai, or journey to work for wages. In some longhouses almost all able-bodied men are away at any given time, working for a distant logging company or in the oilfields of northern Borneo. Wage earning enabled men to buy jars, gongs, and other valuables for their families. Rubber and pepper have provided an unstable source of income, as has cocoa, a recent introduction. The attraction of salaried jobs is one of the principal reasons for Iban urban migration. Iban are employed in every major occupational category in Sarawak's cities.

Industrial Arts. Iban women are superb weavers using the backstrap loom. Most men are skilled in the use of the piston bellows. In addition to weaving blankets and other cloths, women weave mats and baskets.

Trade. Iban collect bamboo and rattans for their own use or for sale. Natural rubber and the illipe (Bassia sp., the Indian butter tree) nut, which is available about every fourth year, are other important collectibles. Ironwood, sawed as logs or cut as poles, is becoming increasingly scarce.

Division of Labor. Domestic chores, such as cooking and tending the bilik, are performed primarily by women. Both men and women collect wild foods for family consumption and, among Iban living near towns, for sale. Men fell trees and do the heavier farm work, fish, hunt, and take on contracts with logging and oil companies. In urban contexts, both men and women perform office jobs.

Land Tenure. Rights to land are established by clearing and farming it, or by occupying it. Rights to the use of farmland are vested in the bilik-family, and are held in perpetuity. These rights are maintained in the living memory of the residents of each longhouse. Boundaries are indicated by landforms or trees, or are marked by planting a row of bamboo. Except for the land overshadowed by the eaves of the longhouse, there is no land to which a community holds rights. With the introduction of surveys and titles to land in the early 1900s, Iban who lived closer to government centers obtained titles to their land, under which rights of individual familes to land could be verified. As a result of increased population and the commercialization of land, some Iban have bought land for investment and speculation.


Kin Groups and Descent. The fundamental unit of Iban society is the bilik-family, a group of five or six persons defined by kinship and affinity. Depending upon negotiations at a couple's marriage, there is an almost even chance that their children will be born into the family of either the wife or the husband. Iban families are part of a widely ramifying kinship system that developed in response to Iban mobility. The suku juru and kaban belayan correspond to the kindred. The former connotes kin ties originating with one's grandparents and includes persons to the degree of first cousin. The latter is any group of people who share rights of reciprocity with an Iban, and may include nonkin and even non-Iban. More inclusive groups include "the brotherhood" and "food sharers," made up of distant kin who would be invited to one's festivals, or whose festivals an Iban would attend. Attachment is ambilateral and descent is ambilineal. Although some Iban are capable of reconstructing genealogies up to fifteen generations in depth, such reconstructions are selective and illustrate the Iban practice of "genealogizing" so as to establish ancestral ties with strangers.

Kinship Terminology. Terms of reference are Eskimo and the terms of address are Hawaiian.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Preferred and proscribed marriages are commonly recognized. Though parents prefer to arrange their children's marriages, especially educated young people would rather choose their own mates. Marriage is preferably with a person between the degree of first and fifth cousin. Distinctions are made between parallel and cross cousins; marriages between the former are avoided. Although most Iban marriages are monogamous, isolated instances of sororal and nonsororal polygyny occur. Marriage between a man and a woman who are related as members of adjacent generations is not approved, but propitiatory rites can be performed if, for example, an aunt and nephew insist on marrying. Marriage within the kin group is preferred to protect property rights and to avoid union with a descendant of slaves or a person of ill fortune. Residence is ambilocal or neolocal. Divorce may be initiated by either partner and, with mutual consent, is relatively easy.

Domestic Unit. The bilik-family is an autonomous unit, able to join with other units of a longhouse or to detach itself. Iban become members of a family through birth, adoption, marriage, or incorporation. The family is responsible for construction of its own unit, production of its own food, and management of its own affairs. In a sample of 1,051 families, 60 percent were comprised of parents and children, 40 percent included grandparents. The family is a kin-based, corporate group that holds in trust land, sacred rice, sacred charms, ritual formulas, taboos, and heirloom gongs and jars. Traditionally, one son or daughter remained in the bilik to ensure continuity over time. With urban migration and mail service making possible postal remittances, an increasing number of parents have no adult child residing in the bilik with them.

Inheritance . Male and female children share equally in rights to real and other property so long as they remain members of their natal bilik. Children who move out of the bilik at marriage or for any other reason receive a small portion of the family estate, and in theory relinquish all rights to family land. In fact, however, they retain the right to request land for farming at the annual meeting commencing the agricultural year.

Socialization. At birth an infant becomes the center of attention and the subject of numerous rituals. Weaning is casual and discipline relaxed. During the farming season, children are left in the care of older people. By age 5, children wash their own clothes and by 8, girls help with domestic chores. Traditionally adolescent males would undertake "the initiate's journey," a trip of several months or years, from which they were expected to return with trophies. Adolescent females demonstrate their maturity with diligence and in the weaving of ceremonial cloths, baskets, and mats.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Each longhouse, as each bilik, is an autonomous unit. Traditionally the core of each house was a group of descendants of the founders. Houses near one another on the same river or in the same region were commonly allied, marrying among themselves, raiding together beyond their territories, and resolving disputes by peaceful means. Regionalism, deriving from these alliances, in which Iban distinguished themselves from other allied groups, persists in modern state politics. Essentially egalitarian, Iban are aware of long-standing status distinctions among themselves, recognizing the raja berani (wealthy and brave), mensia saribu (commoners), and ulun (slaves). Prestige still accrues to descendants of the first status, disdain to descendants of the third.

Political Organization. Prior to the arrival of the British adventurer James Brooke there were no permanent leaders, but the affairs of each house were directed by consultations of family leaders. Men of influence included renowned warriors, bards, augurs, and other specialists. Brooke, who became Rajah of Sarawak, and his nephew, Charles Johnson, created political positionsheadman (tuai rumah ), regional chief (penghulu ), paramount chief (temenggong )to restructure Iban society for administrative control, especially for purposes of taxation and the suppression of head-hunting. The creation of permanent political positions and the establishment of political parties in the early 1960s have profoundly changed the Iban.

Social Control. Iban employ three strategies of social control. First, from childhood, they are taught to avoid conflict, and for a majority every effort is made to prevent it. Second, they are taught by story and drama of the existence of numerous spirits who vigilantly ensure observation of numerous taboos; some spirits are interested in preserving the peace, while others are responsible for any strife that arises. In these ways, the stresses and conflicts of ordinary life, especially life in the longhouse, in which one is in more or less constant sight and sound of others, have been displaced onto the spirits. Third, the headman hears disputes between members of the same house, the regional chief hears disputes between members of different houses, and government officers hear those disputes that headmen and regional chiefs cannot resolve.

Conflict. Major causes of conflict among Iban have traditionally been over land boundaries, alleged sexual improprieties, and personal affronts. Iban are a proud people and will not tolerate insult to person or property. The major cause of conflict between Iban and non-Iban, especially other tribes with whom Iban competed, was control of the most productive land. As late as the first two decades of the twentieth century, the conflict between Iban and Kayan in the upper Rejang was serious enough to require the second rajah to send a punitive expedition and expel the Iban forcefully from the Balleh River.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religious beliefs and behavior pervade every part of Iban life. In their interpretations of their world, nature, and society, they refer to remote creator gods, who brought the elements and a structured order into existence; the bird-god Sengalang Burong, who directs their lives through messages borne by his seven sons-in-law; and the popular gods, who provide models for living. Iban religion is a product of a holistic approach to life, in which attention is paid to all events in the waking and sleeping states. The religion involves an all-embracing causality, born of the Iban conviction that "nothing happens without cause." The pervasiveness of their religion has sensitized them to every part of their world and created an elaborate otherworld (Sebayan), in which everything is vested with the potential for sensate thought and action. In Iban beliefs and narratives trees talk, crotons walk, macaques become incubi, jars moan for lack of attention, and the sex of the human fetus is determined by a cricket, the metamorphized form of a god.

Though the gods live in Panggau Libau, a remote and godly realm, they are unseen, ubiquitous presences. In contrast to the exclusive categories of Judaism and Christianity, "supernaturals" and "mortals" interact in all activities of importance. In contrast to the gods who are more benevolently inclined towards mortals, Iban believe in and fear a host of malevolent spirits. These spirits are patent projections onto a cosmic screen of anxieties and stresses suffered by Iban: the menacing father figure, the vengeful mother, the freeloader, and becoming lost in the forest. Iban strive to maintain good life and health by adherence to customary laws, avoidance of taboos, and the presentation of offerings and animal sacrifices.

Religious Practitioners. There are three religious practitioners: the bard (lemambang ), the augur (tuai burong ), and the shaman (manang ). Individually or in teams, bards are invited to chant at all major rituals. They are highly respected men, capable of recalling and adapting, as appropriate, chants that go on for hours. The augur is employed for critical activities such as farming or traveling. The shaman is a psychotherapist who is consulted for unusual or persistent ailments.

Ceremonies. Iban rituals (gawa, gawai ) may be grouped into four major categories: (1) one dozen major and three dozen minor agricultural festivals; (2) healing rituals, performed by the shaman, commencing in the bilik and progressing to the outer veranda; (3) ceremonies for the courageous, commemorating warfare and headhunting; and (4) rituals for the dead. Iban of all divisions perform rituals of the first two categories. Ceremonies to honor warriors have assumed greater importance in the upper Rejang, and rituals for the dead have been much more elaborated in the First and Second divisions of Sarawak.

Arts. The Iban have created one of the most extensive bodies of folklore in human history, including more than one dozen types of epic, myth, and chant. Women weave intricate fabrics and men produce a variety of wood-carvings.

Medicine. Though they have a limited ethnopharmacology, Iban have developed an elaborate series of psychotherapeutic rituals.

Death and Afterlife. Life and health are dependent upon the condition of the soul (samengat ). Some illnesses are attributed to the wandering of one of an Iban's seven souls, and the shaman undertakes a magical flight to retrieve and return the patient's soul. Boundaries between life and death are vague, and at death the soul must be informed by a shaman that it must move on to Sebayan. Crossing "The Bridge of Anxiety," the soul is treated to all imaginable pleasures, many of which are proscribed for the living. After an undetermined period of revelry, the soul is transformed into spirit, then into dew, in which form it reenters the realm of the living by nourishing the growing rice. As rice is ingested, the cycle of the soul is completed by its return to human form. Gawai Antu, the Festival of the Dead, may be held from a few years to 50 years after the death of a member of the community. The main part of the festival occurs over a three-day period, but takes months or even years to plan. The primary purpose of the festival is to honor all the community's dead, who are invited to join in the ritual acts. The festival dramatizes the dependence of the living and dead upon each other.

See also Kalimantan Dayaks


Freeman, Derek (1970). Report on the Iban. Monographs on Social Anthropology, no. 41. London: London School of Economics. [Issued in 1955]

Jensen, Erik (1974). Iban Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Sutlive, Vinson H. (1978). The Iban of Sarawak. Arlington Heights, Ill.: AHM Publishing Corp. Reprint. 1988. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.


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