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ETHNONYMS: Besaya, Bisayah, Jilama Bawang, Jilama Sungai


The name "Bisaya" is applied primarily to those people living on the middle reaches of rivers in Sabah and Sarawak draining into Brunei Bay on Borneo. The Bisaya are culturally diverse; in mainland Sabah, they are primarily Muslims engaged in wet-rice cultivation, but in Sarawak most are neither Muslim nor Christian (though one large group, the Limbang, are now converted to Christianity). The Bisaya live in small groups interspersed among other peoples, and have adapted many of their cultural features from these peoples. The Bisaya language belongs to the North Indonesian Branch of the Austronesian Family. In 1983, the Sarawak Bisaya numbered 4,000; in 1960 the Brunei Bisaya numbered approximately 7,000, and in 1970 the Sabah Bisaya population was 14,000.

Little is known of Bisaya history. Presently, their contact with the Malays gives them access to buffalo, boats, and fish. Some Bisaya gain prestige by paying Malays to slaughter buffalo at ceremonial feasts.


Villages have between 30 and 200 people, and though they have centers, they also stretch alongside riverbanks. In addition, there are sometimes temporary encampments in the interior. There are no public buildings, but there are rice granaries. Villages are permanent, and contain at least one longhouse with at least four apartments (lobok ). Longhouses are rectangular and are built on pilings 3 to 4.5 meters high; they may be as much as 60 meters in length. They are bisected lengthwise, and there is a closed veranda for ceremonies. Longhouses may have as many as seven apartments, though they formerly had more.


The Bisaya staple food is rice, which is grown by both wet and dry horticulture in swiddens. Because of declining fertility, disputes, and omens, wet-rice swiddens rarely are used for more than two years. The Bisaya use a dibble stick rather than the plow. Rice swiddens also produce the following crops (raised between rice plants) for sale: chilies, corn, cucumbers, gourds, pumpkins, yams, and others. Fruits raised are bananas, breadfruit, coconut, and jackfruit. Hunting is much more important than fishing; game includes wild pigs, wild buffalo, deer, and pheasants, which are killed with guns, spears, and blowguns. Bisaya women (and some men) gather ferns, amaranths, and fruits for food, as well as medicinal plants, honey, camphor, and gutta percha. The Bisaya also raise buffalo, pigs, and chickens. Though they are accomplished carpenters, the Bisaya never learned to smelt or forge metal or to weave cloth. (Before they traded for cloth, clothing was made of bark.) They trade primarily with the Chinese (and formerly with Malays), receiving cloth, metal goods, and pottery items. All property belongs to one of the following classes: ancestral property, personal property, marital property, and house-group property. Real property rights are inherited ambilineally. Once land is abandoned, however, it becomes available for use by anyone living in the village.


The Bisaya kinship terminological system is bilateral with Eskimo cousin terminology. Descent is ambilineal, without corporate descent groups; descent group affiliation is used to establish land rights and figures in the payment of respect to influential people. A major kin group is the apartment family (sanan lobok ), which shares food and has a common hearth and common prayers for horticulture. Another kin group is the house family (sanan alai ), which shares some ceremonial objects, the performance of some rituals, and the chores of house repair.

Marriage and Family

The most desirable marriages are to kin, in the following order of preference: second or third cousins, first cousins, and fourth or fifth cousins. Only parents or siblings are forbidden as marriage or sexual partners. Polygyny is allowed but is rare because of the expense. Sororal polygyny is forbidden. Parents often arrange first marriages, sometimes making matches with children as young as 8 years of age. Residence is ambilocal, and the newlyweds must live in the same apartment as the parents; only when the couple has a child does it move to live in its own apartment. Inheritance is ambilateral with no preference for either gender.

Sociopolitical Organization

Government-selected headmen were first appointed in 1930; before that there were no headmen, but rather a council of elders. Presently, the Limbang Bisaya are headed by three officials appointed by the federal government. Status is based on wealth, but there are no social classes. The wealthy must give feasts, which serve to redistribute wealth. Gossip and ridicule are the major forms of social control; feuding is practiced. Warfare is defensive, and the Bisaya do not hunt heads.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The Bisaya religion is animistic; there are shamans and diviners. Illness is caused by soul loss, and a spirit medium is used for retrieval. The dead are revered, but there is no true ancestor worship. Spirits of the dead can be dangerous if not properly mourned. The wealthy give large amounts of food for the "crocodile" or harvest ceremony, the main agricultural ceremony.


Peranio, Roger D. (1972). "Bisaya." In Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia, edited by Frank M. LeBar. Vol. 1, Indonesia, Andaman Islands, and Madagascar, 163-166. New Haven: HRAF Press.

Punchak, Sylvester Sarnagi (1989). "Bisaya Ethnography: A Brief Report." Sarawak Museum Journal 40:37-48.