ETHNONYMS: Brat, Mejprat, Meybrat
Identification. The Mejbrat are swidden cultivators of the Bird's Head Peninsula of Irian Jaya.
Location. Mejbrat territory is located in the inland of the Bird's Head Peninsula, in a mixed riverine and lacustrine Region some distance from the coast. There are four minor lakes in the region, each surrounded by a marshy grassland zone which is itself encircled by a hilly, secondary-forest zone. Beyond this forest belt there is mountainous high country, densely covered with primary-growth, tropical rain forest vegetation. The inhabited portions of Mejbrat territory are criss-crossed with paths that link settlements and dotted with swidden gardens.
Demography. Recent population figures for the Mejbrat are difficult to come by, but there were 16,000 Mejbrat speakers estimated in 1956.
Linguistic Affiliation. Brat, with seven dialects, is a Member of the Central Bird's Head Family of Non-Austronesian languages. The language appears to have been much influenced by Malay, introduced through Moluccan traders in the region as early as the 1600s.
History and Cultural Relations
Indirect contact with peoples not indigenous to the region occurred as early as the sixteenth century, when the first Moluccan traders arrived to seek slaves and locally available spices (principally nutmeg). The Dutch arrived on the Peninsula at the start of the seventeenth century. It was not until the 1920s, however, that any sort of government presence was directly felt in the Mejbrat territory, and sustained programs of government intervention—organizing the inhabitants into registered kampongs or villages—did not occur until 1934. This process of village formation continued until well into the 1950s before it was completed. The largest of these kampongs had a school that doubled as the local mission church, and the schoolteachers—Indonesian or Papuan—did double duty as missionaries. Most of Mejbrat territory was missionized by the Protestant church, but the eastern portion of the area became Catholic. There is little information available regarding the history and cultural relations of precontact times, but it seems safe to say that there was trade both within the Mejbrat territory and between Mejbrat and non-Mejbrat.
Kampong formation was intended to introduce nucleated settlements of several Mejbrat households each, with dwellings facing one another across a central road or path and, in some cases, associated with a local church-school, but today these artificial villages are generally uninhabited or sparsely populated. Mejbrat traditional settlements consist of scattered homesteads, each located close to its associated swidden Gardens and all loosely centered on a regional "spirit house," the location where the founding spirit was thought to have emerged from beneath the ground. Mejbrat dwellings are wood-framed, pandanus-thatched, and built on stilts. Mejbrat do not build separate men's houses.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Mejbrat Subsistence depends heavily upon the cultivation of taro, the principal crop, which is grown along with yams and sweet potatoes in the swidden gardens. Most of the people's protein needs are met by gathering grubs and larvae, locusts, lizards, snails, frogs, eggs, birds, and mice. The Mejbrat hunt with blowguns and spears, killing flying foxes, wild boars, opossums, and kangaroos, but the meat gained from hunting is used primarily in ceremonial exchange, rather than constituting a major part of the day-to-day diet. Fishing in the lakes and rivers is more important in some regions than in others, depending upon the availability of fish. It is most important for the People living near the three central lakes of the territory, for these lakes have been stocked by the territorial government. Fishing is done with poison, with traps in dammed rivers, and with baited lines, as well as with spears. Nonsubsistence cultivation features the introduced cash crops of ground nuts, green peas, and beans. Maize has long been grown as a trade crop in the northern parts of the region.
Trade. Throughout their known history, Mejbrat peoples have participated in extraregional trade. Moluccan traders brought bush knives, black sugar, rice, and—most Importantly—cloth to the region from which they sought local bark, nutmeg, and slaves. This trade was by means of "advance payment"—the trade goods were left for local consideration, to be compensated for by later delivery of the desired local goods. By the time that the Dutch arrived in the seventeenth century this trading system was already in place, and they introduced finer cloth—of cotton—as well as chinaware and iron to the inventory of items imported into the region. By the nineteenth century gongs and glass beads, as well as guns and opium, had also been introduced into the local trade system. Trade within the region centered on ceremonial exchange, conducted under the auspices of feast cycles. The principal form of wealth circulated interiorly is woven, patterned cloth.
Industrial Arts. Items of local manufacture include bark cloth, generally embroidered according to patterns found on imported cloth, string bags, and the basic tools and utensils used in gardening, hunting, and fishing: digging sticks, blow-guns, fish traps, fishing lines, and the like. Men weave decorative armbands. Houses are made of wood frames with Pandanus-leaf thatching. Dams are built of brush.
Division of Labor. Men do the heavier tasks in house building: preparing the wood frames and attaching the thatch. Women, however, prepare the pandanus-leaf bundles used in thatching. While both men and women work at Preparing garden lands by burning off the ground cover, only men build the swidden fences, and the bulk of actual gardening chores fall to women. Men dam rivers and prepare the poison used in fishing, but aside from spear fishing, which is done by both men and women, it is the women alone who fish with lines, spread the fish poison, collect the stunned fish, and use the fish traps. Hunting—with snares, spears, or blow-guns—is done only by men. Gathering activities are considered women's work. Women, as wives, hold the wealth of a household, in the form of special cloths.
Land Tenure. Access to land follows the female line: a married man establishes gardens in the territory of his wife's father's maternal kin; unmarried men work the gardens of their mother's brother's wife. But since the bulk of gardening is done by women, and since the produce of the garden is considered to be women's property, it is perhaps improper to speak of "men's gardens" in any case.
Kin Groups and Descent. Mejbrat stress horizontal relationships over lineal ones in reckoning relatedness. The primary kin ties are those established through one's mother's brother, sister's son, and through siblingship. However, these relationships are subject to a certain amount of manipulation. The consanguineal family, consisting of a male, his mother, mother's brother, and mother's brother's daughter (or, conversely, a female, her father, father's sister, and Father's sister's son), appears to be the most significant unit of relationship and organization. There appears to be a Crosscutting pair of moietal divisions, the first based on geographical separation ("shore" people versus "hill" people) and the Second determined according to ancestral association with one or another of the regional spirits (dema ). These crosscutting divisions establish wife-giving and wife-taking groups.
Marriage. The single most important unit for the Mejbrat subsistence economy is the husband and wife gardening pair, so there is strong societal pressure for all adult males to be married. Polygyny is thought of as the ideal, but it occurs infrequently. The preferred husband will be someone who is both geographically and genealogically distant from the wife-giving group. The wife-giving group, usually represented by the prospective bride's elder brother, selects an appropriate spouse; and the bride-wealth—paid in cloths, meat, fish, palm wine, and physical labor in clearing swiddens, etc.—is negotiated, with most of it to be paid during the course of the Mejbrat feast cycle. Wife givers reciprocate with prestations of lesser value: taro and other garden produce, net bags, and string. Most of the cloths that make up the wife taker's prestation go to the new wife and form the nucleus of the new household's wealth.
Domestic Unit. Mejbrat wives are considered important decision makers and enjoy a high degree of respect within the marital unit for three major reasons: because a wife's gardening labor is very important; because Mejbrat hold that a woman's garden produce belongs to her; and because, with uxorilocal residence, married women live near to close, supportive kin. In the early days of marriage, a young wife will temporarily live with her husband's mother, but the couple quite soon establishes its own household in the area of the wife's father's maternal kin. When children are quite small they live with their parents, but upon attaining the age of initiation a boy will go to live for extended periods of time with his mother's brother and a girl will spend much time in the household of her father's sister. A household proper will consist, therefore, of a husband and wife, their uninitiated Children, and, often, an initiation-age niece or nephew as well.
Inheritance. Access to garden lands follows the maternal line through wives. Other property tends to pass from mother's brother to sister's son and from father's sister to brother's daughter. Esoteric lore is passed along the same lines as movable property, but it is taught rather than inherited.
Socialization. Young children, still living within the natal family, are cared for and disciplined by their mothers. Education in the appropriate skills and lore is the job of the mother's brother (for boys) or the father's sister (for girls). Both sexes undergo initiation under the guidance of the appropriate uncle or aunt.
Social Organization. Mejbrat social organization centers on the consanguineal family, defined in terms of the mother, mother's brother, and mother's brother's daughter. The Sibling relationship, with a differentiation between elders and juniors, also strongly influences the organization of people into cooperative groups.
Political Organization. Mejbrat society is essentially egalitarian, but a "first among equals" big-man system based on prestige and wealth is notable. Leadership status can be achieved by women as well as by men, but the range over which this leadership may be exercised is quite small—essentially limited to the household settlement. Government efforts to organize the Mejbrat into kampongs has had little apparent impact on Mejbrat political and social life: the kampongs tend to exist solely on paper, and the Mejbrat continue to follow traditional settlement and organizational patterns. This situation can be attributed largely to the fact that Governmental organizational expectations, being of a Western, male-centered model, are contradicted on all levels by traditional Mejbrat practice.
Social Control. Most of Mejbrat social control is effected through the belief in and observance of taboos regarding interpersonal behaviors. A rich system of totemic beliefs and supernatural sanctions serve to keep most problems in check. However, fines of cloth wealth may also be levied against an offending party—if a young man is caught engaging in Premarital sex, for example, the family of the young woman involved is entitled to demand that he "show respect" through payment of a great many cloths.
Warfare. There is no information available regarding Mejbrat warfare prior to the arrival of the Moluccan traders in the region, but it is known that once slaving was introduced the Mejbrat engaged in warfare. Dutch control eventually brought slaving to an end, and the Mejbrat are not known to be particularly interested in large-scale conflict.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Mejbrat conceive of the earth as a flat disk, at the center of which is a large island. People live on the top of this island, while spirits live on its other side. Communication between these two worlds takes place at "places of emergence" through which spirits can pass. Each of the Mejbrat settlement territories has a mythological charter, or myth of origin, associated with one of these places of Emergence: through this site the founding dema or spirit woman arose with her consort to create the physical world known to humans. This concept of the dema is not, however, a simple one: the dema is variously understood to be a local founding spirit, a sort of unifying principle (called, in this instance, "Ratu"), or a guiding spirit for human mechar (magical and ritual) experts. Many Mejbrat beliefs are couched in terms of complementary principles: hot and cold, female and male, slowly growing and active. Magical items (particularly small round stones) are selected for the way in which, through their color or shape, they suggest one or another of these principles.
Religious Practitíoners. All adults, both men and women, are ritual practitioners to some degree in their obligations during the initiations of Mejbrat youths and girls. Only women appear eligible to act as mechar experts, however—perhaps because much of their skill involves the invoking of and conversing with the female dema spirits. Mechar experts appear in rituals as female transvestites and practice divination.
Arts. There is little information on Mejbrat arts. Women embroider bark cloth with designs taken from the patterns found on the imported cloths that constitute the bulk of Mejbrat wealth. Songs and dances are important elements of the feast cycle.
Medicine. All illnesses and deaths are thought to derive from an imbalance occurring between the principles of "hot" and "cold" that may be the result of active intervention by witches or of violations of taboos. A cure requires divination to discover the cause of the problem, and if the problem is deemed attributable to witchcraft, a course of countermagic may be followed. Otherwise, the application of ritual objects or of "hot" or "cold" herbs or foods will be attempted in order to reinstate the proper balance and thus to bring about a cure.
Death and Afterlife. When a person dies, Mejbrat believe that his or her spirit travels below the ground to reunite with the dema of the region. Details of funerary practice are sketchy, but it is clear that the responsibility for proper burial ritual, including the giving of a burial feast, falls to the son of the deceased and that this son is given the skull to retain after the rituals are completed. Failure to properly carry out the appropriate funerary rituals results in the spirit of the dead leaving the territory and joining his or her dema, unleashing the possibility of misfortune upon the living.
Elmberg, John-Erik (1955). "Fieldnotes on the Mejbrat People in the Ajamaru District of the Bird's Head, Western New Guinea." Ethnos 20:2-102.
Elmberg, John-Erik (1965). "The Popot Feast Cycle." Ethnos (Stockholm) Supplement to vol. 30.
Elmberg, John-Erik (1968). Balance and Circulation: Aspects of Tradition and Change among the Mejprat of Irian Barat. Monograph Series, Publication no. 12. Stockholm: Ethnographical Museum.
NANCY E. GRATTON