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ETHNONYMS: Dayak, Long Belah (Medéang), Long Glit (Long Gelat), Long Way (Medang), Menggaè (Segai), Wehèa (Wahau)


Identification. "Modang" is a generic term covering a complex of culturally related groups living in the Kutai Regency of Kalimantan Timur, Indonesia, along the Mahakam River and its tributaries. Outside Kutai proper (i.e., in Doberai or Bulungan), these people are known by the exonyms "Segai" or "Ga'ai." The term "Modang" also seems to have originated over a very wide area (about 63,000 square kilometers) in the province of East Kalimantan, roughly between 0° and 4° N and 115° and 117° E. They are comprised of five river-based groups loosely identified as Dayak: (1) Long Gelat (middle and upper Mahakam), (2) Long Belah (Belayan), (3) Long Way (Kelinjau), (4) Wehèa (TelenWahau), (5) Menggaè (Kelai-Segah, lower Kayan).

Location. Established on the middle and upper reaches of rivers in the lowland areas, the Modang occupy a distinct geomorphic region. It is situated between the rolling hills and mountains bordering the Apo Kayan Plateau and the marshy plains nearer to the river mouths. The Modang subgroups are divided among three drainage basins: Mahakam, Kelai-Segah, and Kayan. They have preferentially settled flat areas along the riverside where good fertile alluvial land is found.

Demography. Judging from field surveys and published census data, the total Modang population does not exceed 5,000 individuals for the five subgroups (1985). Epidemics, intermarriage with other ethnic groups, conversion to Islam, and a low birthrate have all had a negative effect on the population. The Modang Wehèa, the largest group, has a population of 2,100 (1985) concentrated on a relatively narrow stretch of land along the upper Telan and Wahau rivers. It has shown a steady growth (39 percent) in the last fifty years (from 1,266 persons in 1935). Some marriages are taking place between neighboring Modang groups such as the Long Way, Menggaè, and the Wehèa, mostly among aristocratic families. Out-migration to the nearby towns (Tenggarong, Samarinda, and Balikpapan), of temporary nature, is still unimportant.

Linguistic Affiliation. Modang is part of the Kayanic Family within Western Malayo-Polynesian, but it constitutes a discrete language group. The five Modang isolects are still mutually intelligible. It appears that a process of lexical innovation, combined with rare phonological changes, has been going on for a long time. The subgroups have been separated for more than two centuries. The languages spoken by the Punan Kelay and Punan Mahkam in Doberai are part of this group. These isolects form a dialectal chain with about 6,000 speakers spread from Kutai to Bulungan.

History and Cultural Relations

Oral history and genealogies point to the upper Kayan area, the Apo Kayan Plateau, as the last major settlement area of the Modang before they migrated to the lowlands of Kutai and Doberai or Bulungan in the late eighteenth century. It is known as Kejin/Kejien, according to the various isolects. If one goes further back in time, the Bahau-Punjungan region was occupied by Modang, Kayan, and Bahau subgroups before the Kenyah migrations from Sarawak started in the seventeenth century. During the early nineteenth century (1810-1840), the Modang, as the major Dayak entity in Kutai and Doberai, were challenging the Malay sultanate's power. They were then practicing ritual headhunting on a larger scale than any other Dayak group in eastern Borneo. The Modang show close cultural similarities to the Bahau, the Busang, and Kayan. They are part of a central-northeast Borneo culture area. Social structure, religious beliefs, custom (adat ), and technology constitute variations on a common background. Within the Kayan-Kenyah-Bahau cultural complex, however, the Modang exhibit a particular differentiation. They distinguish themselves by their village organization: the existence of a men's house (ewéang in Wehèa, petoèh in Long Way, etc.), and the institution of the chief's "great house" (msow pwun in Wehèa). Generally they appear more conservative than the other populations of the region. They have retained cultural elements discarded by others, for instance the great number of taboos (pli' ) observed during the rice cycle. The description given here applies mainly to the Modang Wehèa.


Modang villages (ekung. ) are located on high river banks, usually near the confluence of a major river with a stream. Longhouses (min ) of three to six apartments or individual houses (msow ) linked by plankways are built in rows (telsong min ) parallel to the river course; the ridge beam follows the upstream-downstream orientation. The rows of houses are situated on both sides of a central street (lan ). They correspond to the two named moieties of the village: dya' min, the row of houses closer to the river bank, and lon min, the row of houses farther inland. The village as a unit has a territory (lenih ekung ), where all households are allowed to farm. Villages range from 200 to 600 inhabitants. In the Mahakam area, the politically dominant Long Gelat are sharing multiethnic villages with vassal Busang groups. Within the village territory, settlements used to shift every ten or fifteen years in response to inauspicious omens, deaths, or bad dreams; this is no longer the case. Because population density is very low, the swidden system operates fairly well.

Among central Borneo peoples, the Modang have a distinctive house type (msow). It is built with a strong ironwood structure on two vertical levels: a low platform (sun tah ) and living quarters (maè msow ), linked by stairs or a notched log (hesien ). The same principle is applied to the different buildings: longhouse, individual house, the chief's great house, and even farmhouses. The platform has the same uses as the gallery in Kayan-Kenyan-Bahau longhouses: economic activities and ritual and leisure space. In the past (nineteenth century) , houses were very high, 8 or 9 meters above the ground, for defensive reasons. Households of neighboring houses (or longhouse apartments) are related by ties of kinship; according to the Modang's conception, they cannot be separated by nonkin (see "Kin Groups and Descent").


Primarily subsistence agriculturists, the Modang combine fishing and hunting with gathering of forest products. Fishing is a daily activity whereas hunting, practiced with dogs and spears, is less important. Hill rice (plaè ), their major crop, is cultivated on swiddens located on flat river banks, usually with long fallow periods (12-20 years). Rattan gardens are also planted. Modang occasionally pan for gold during the dry season. Today men commonly find temporary jobs throughout the year with nearby timber companies.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. Modang reckon kinship bilaterally, so as to include vertically great-grandparents and colaterally fourth cousins. The personal kindred, however, is not named. It forms a kinship network focused on a young couple or a sibling group, rather than on Ego. No corporate or economic functions are ascribed to this kin grouping aside from the expected solidarity between relatives. Affines are included in the category. Descent is cognatic (ambilateral) and descent lines (sot ) are linked to apical ancestors of a particular rank. In a village, closely related households constitute clusters of "neighbors/relatives" (petsah msow/pewellin ), according to the residence pattern. They are established on the principle of kentèp (gripped, squeezed), a taboo that forbids nonrelatives (lun elap, "other people") to build their houses or to occupy apartments within a longhouse between relatives (affinal or consanguineal kin, especially siblings and cousins). Transgression is punished by supernatural sanction (ka' kentèp ), which manifests itself as illness, ultimately resulting in death. In practice, these clusters tend to form endogamous units within each row of houses in a community; they show a closer economic and ritual cooperation between their members. Membership in the two named moieties, dya' min, "the lower village," and lon min, "the upper village," is fixed by residence only. In any case the "moieties" are not exogamous; they have a ceremonial function at sowing (enkuel ). In contrast to the other ranks, the chiefs descent line (waés ), attached to the great house, is characterized by a segmentation process. Minor descent lines (sot) stemming from this main line form aristocratie descent lines of a lesser rank. This happens by means of hypogamous or hypergamous marriages between aristocrats of a higher status (hepuy pwun ) and other aristocrats (hepuy so' ), commoners of various statuses, and even slaves (megwes, psap ). Very long genealogies (15-20 generations), complete with collateral lines, are memorized by members of the chiefly house or by influential aristocratic women. In relation to rank, matrilateral or patrilateral descent can be stressed by individuals, depending on their ancestors' position, so as to claim preeminence in political or ritual status. For the ruling strata, however, patrilateral line or the "head of the post" (du' jehoè ) is considered superior to the matrilateral line, the "middle of the post" (welguak jehoè ).

Marriage. According to the hierarchy of rank, bride-price is graded for the chiefs (higher aristocrats), the lesser aristocrats, and the commoners. Formerly the traditional wealth objects and heirlooms, like gongs, jars, old beads, swords, etc., were used. Today these have been replaced by cash payments of different sums. But some items (china plates, swords, cloth) are still available. Bride-price is given to the bride's family on two separate occasions. Postmarital residence (ngeyen) is uxorilocal, but some couples practice alternating uxorilocal and virilocal residence. Neolocal residence, following the birth of children, is becoming more common. The chiefs usually establish virilocal residence, often after an initial uxorilocal period. There have been reports of polygyny among the chiefs. Marriage prohibitions are restricted to first- and second-cousin marriages and those between relatives in two successive generations, such as uncle and niece.

Domestic Unit. The household (msow) is the only corporate grouping of Modang society. It is a production and consumption unit; each household owns a separate rice barn (pèa plaè ). In theory it is an everlasting entity, but after three or four generations some domestic units become extinct (pe'us ). When longhouses were the dominant housing type, the stem family was the norm; now the nuclear family is a major type (one-third of the sample in Bèn Has, the village studied). On average, family size was found to be five persons. The household is also a ritual unit that can be subject to taboos (pli'), thus closing it to nonmembers. As a rule, birth, marriage, incorporation, and adoption create membership for the household. Partition of the "original household" (msow un ) occurs at a slow rate.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Like most of central Bornean peoples, hereditary named ranks characterize Modang social structure. The four main status levels are chief (hepuy pwun), aristocrats (hepuy so'), commoners (pengin ), and, formerly, two classes of slaves (megwes, psap). Megwes, slaves captured in war, were possessed only by the chief. The ranks are divided again into intermediate levels. Rank ascription is exclusively based on descent; nonetheless adopted children follow their parents' rank. According to the rule of uxorilocality, children usually have the mother's status, but this is changing slowly. Ideally each rank was endogamous; in fact, anisogamic marriages were common, but only village chiefs would stick to the rule.

Political Organization. Each village constitutes an independent political unit, although in a river basin the chief of one village may be acknowledged as a paramount chief. The decision-making process is controlled by the chief; a council of elders (bo' be's ) and aristocrats takes place in the great house. They discuss community affairs and prepare village-wide ceremonies and rituals. A village crier (sewün keltèa ) transmits the chief's orders and other information to the villagers. The chief and the important men (hepuy so' and sewún kas, "influential persons") are entitled to build a men's house (ewéang) as a meeting place for their clients (nèak gua' ). These buildings (there are two or three in a village) function as ritual centers for the men and as bachelors' dormitories. More generally, society is divided into two political groupings: the "people who speak" (lun kehèa ) and the "populace" (lun megon ). The former are the aristocrats, sewün kas, and other influential elders.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Modang cosmology gives an idea of a tripartition of the universe: upper world or sky (/engèt ), earth (sun mna' ), and underworld (dya' mna' ) are differentiated. The skiesdivided in seven "layers" (telsun ) and the underworld are the dwelling places of the deities (metà ). At the top of the pantheon one finds a pair of goddesses: Doh Ton Tenyè and Dèa Long Meluen, respectively elder and younger sister. Besides these main figures a complex of deities, malevolent spirits or ghosts (sekyah ), and supernatural beings is recognized. Among the metà, the thunder-gods (dlay ) have a predominant position: they punish humans guilty of transgression of taboos and custom or mockery of animals.

Ceremonies. The ritual life is extremely rich. The yearly cycle has two main phases: Edat na' plaè, "the Custom of Rice," and Na'pli', "to do the sacred [things]," which are comprised of no fewer than twenty-four rituals of varying scale. Transition rites (birth, naming, marriage, funeral) are carried out by ritual specialists, who are also spirit mediums (lun enjuk ). Formerly, most of these ceremonies, when done for the chief's family, required human heads, as well as the building of the great house. Headhunting was abolished in the 1920s. Now for the great head-hunting ritual, Nemlèn, pieces of old skulls are used.

Death and Afterlife. Conceptions of the soul distinguish between a "soul of the living" (welgwen lun blom ) and a "soul of the dead" (welgwen lun lewas ). Eschatological notions refer to a journey of the soul to a village of the dead, Pang Kung Kelung. However, people who have died a "bad death," or lewas ak (i.e., by drowning, in childbirth, or violently), go to another place called Pang Kung Néang. In accordance with this belief, there are two graveyards (keldam ) in the village. The chiefs used to be buried separately from the other villagers, in impressive mausoleums (belah ) up to 10 meters high. Statues of dead persons (parents, grandparents) of high status are erected in the village toward the end of the Nemlèn ceremony as an expression of prestige. These images (bo' jöng ), carved on the upper part of posts, display the particular aesthetic values of the Modang.

Arts. The Modang have a rich craft tradition of mat making, basketry, beadwork, iron forging, and wood carving, which has achieved a high degree of skill as evidenced by house posts, boards, doors, and staircases with intricate motifs of spirits, animals, and ornamental designs. Painted murals on the chief's house and mausoleum (especially among Long Gelat and Long Way) show the same symbolic figures. The performing arts are well developed also: collective dances (enjéak ) and masked dances (hedo' )the masks worn by men onlytake place on ritual occasions. Vocal music, expressed in chants (teluy ) and epics (tek'na' ), presents more complexity than does instrumental music.

See also Kalimantan Dayaks; Kenyah-Kayan-Kajang; Tidong


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