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PRONUNCIATION: nee-AHS-uns (Nias: "NEE-ahs")
LOCATION: Indonesia (island of Nias, off the northwest coast of Sumatra)
POPULATION: over 700,000
RELIGION: Christianity (Protestant, Catholic); Islam; Pelebegu (indigenous religion)
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Indonesians


While most Indonesian ethnic groups identify themselves with a named place or, at the very least, with a general direction such as "upstream," the indigenous inhabitants of the island of Nias call themselves ono niha, "children of the humans." Lumping all other Indonesians as dava, the language itself reflects the isolation in which Niasan culture has developed over the millennia. The Niasans' Austronesian ancestors arrived as early as 3000 bc. This inward orientation also manifests itself in the fact that, despite the myth of a common origin in central Nias, each Nias village has virtually been a world unto itself, cultivating traditions distinct from even its nearest neighbors.

From genealogies and myths going back 30 to 40 generations, scholars calculate that Nias' aristocratic, megalith-raising culture dates back to the 8th century ad. It may well have been fueled by the export of slaves from the very beginning. The first reference to Nias (from an Arab travelogue) dates to ad 851-13th-century Arab sources describe its slave trade as already ancient. When the island first drew the attention of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the Muslim Acehnese satisfied a Niasan chief's insatiable appetite for gold in exchange for Niasan slaves, whose paganism made them a valuable commodity in a by then largely Islamized archipelago (Islamic law forbade Muslims to enslave Muslims). The VOC gained entry to the island by concluding pacts with coastal chiefs needing protection from slavers; the slave trade was depopulating the north of the island and militarizing society (slavery would persist long after Dutch abolition in 1860).

Although the Dutch established their first garrison at the port of Gunung Sitoli in 1840 and enjoyed nominal control of the entire island by 1857, it was not until 1906 that, with the costly Acehnese war over [seeAcehnese ], they achieved a complete subjugation. Of even greater long-term significance was the arrival in 1865 of the Rhenish Missionary Society (German Lutherans). Conversions were few until the crumbling of traditional society in the face of colonialism threw the indigenous ideology into question; South and Central Nias submitted to the new religion only after the devastation of epidemics and brutal colonial repression.

In the mid-1910s, apocalyptic Christian revival movements convulsed Nias, throwing up native prophets to challenge the authority of the German missionaries. Nativist schisms continued after the end of colonialism, and Roman Catholic missionaries came to break the Protestant monopoly. Although the Indonesian state has provided some basic infrastructure and services and the dava (non-Niasan) population has grown, Nias remains isolated and underdeveloped. The level of infant mortality is high, and the incidence of malaria and cholera is very grave despite the operation of government health clinics.

The earthquake and tsunami of 26 December 2004 and the earthquake of 28 March 2005 (the world's second most powerful since 1965) devastated much of Nias, leaving hundreds dead and thousands more homeless as nearly every dwelling on the island sustained some degree of damage; the coastline in many places receded as much as 50 meters, and much of the island's infrastructure of harbors, bridges, and roads was destroyed as well as over 700 schools and 1,000 places of worship. Just as in nearby Aceh, many international organizations are assisting in the reconstruction.


The island of Nias is 130 km (81 m) long by 45 km (28 mi) wide, slightly smaller than Bali (which is about the size of Delaware). Across a 125-km-wide (78-mi-wide) strait, one can see Sumatra's volcanic peaks. The terrain is rugged, and, with a growing population of 712,000 (2005, up from 200,000 in 1959, an increase of more than 3.5 times), deforestation is becoming a problem. About 200 years ago, Niasans also settled on the Batu Islands to the south.

For Niasans, the important reference points are not the cardinal directions but raya, "upstream," and yu , "downstream," added even in mentioning the house next door. "Left" and "right" are not specified; one simply says mi sa or tan sa , "to the side" or sometimes raya and " yu." The ulu, the river source, is considered the origin of all things sacred, while the sea is seen as the abode of monsters and evil spirits.


The Nias language is Austronesian and is probably most closely related to Mentawai and Batak, but centuries or millennia of isolated development have given it a coincidentally "Polynesian" phonetic appearance, as in its having only open (vowel-final) syllables. Three dialect-groups (North, Central, and South) are distinguished, of which the Laraga dialect of the North was chosen to translate the Bible, and subsequently became the standard form for all secular publications.

Although most ordinary adult villagers do not have a mastery of Bahasa Indonesia beyond the ability to sing a few patriotic songs, all children, as recipients of an elementary education and listeners of the radio, are fluent in it.

After the birth of a child, his or her parents are no longer known by their personal names but as Ama [child's name, e.g., Rosa] or Ina [child's name] ("Father of …," "Mother of …").


According to the current version of the Niasan creation myth, the god Lovalangi created the world and placed on it Tora'a, the tree of life. Tora'a grew two fruits, cared for by a golden spider. From the fruits hatched out a god and a goddess; their divine descendants populated heaven, living under the king-ship of one of their number, Sirao Uwu Zihönö.

Sirao took three wives and sired three sons by each. When he wanted to retire, his nine sons began to quarrel over the succession. So he had them compete for the throne in a contest of dancing on nine spears. The youngest, Luo Mewona, won. In order to avoid further conflict, Sirao sent Luo Mewona's eight older brothers down to earth.

Of the eight, only four reached the earth (i.e., the island of Nias) safely; they became the ancestors of the Niasan clans. Of the other four, one, being too heavy, pierced the earth, becoming a giant serpent, the "supporter of the earth and the cause of earthquakes." Another fell into the water and became the spirit of the rivers, to be worshipped by fishers. Yet another was carried away by the wind and became the spirit of the forest, to be worshipped by hunters. The last hit earth at a stony area in the north of the island, becoming the ancestor of experts in invulnerability magic.


Six out of seven inhabitants of Nias are Protestant; the remainder is about evenly divided between Muslim (mostly immigrants from elsewhere in Indonesia) and Catholic. The folk Christianity that has developed emphasizes a relationship between God and humanity that focuses on prohibitions, which are largely compatible with the traditional value system. Nonetheless, the colonial abolition of slavery, headhunting, and ancestor worship forever changed the context of those values.

A few thousand Niasans register themselves as adherents of Pelebegu, used first by non-Niasans, evidently from the Karo Batak perbegu, or Molohe adu, the Niasan expression, both meaning "worshipping the ancestral spirits." Before iconoclastic campaigns early in the century, the people took reverent care of the wooden statues of the adu ancestral spirits, filling shrines and the public rooms of their houses with them and making daily offerings to them. The mythology continues to be handed down in the hoho songs sung at feasts, even by Christians. Originally, the highest god and creator of the world was Sihai. However, Protestant missionaries chose to translate the name of the Christian God with the name of another god, Lovalangi, whom the Niasans worshipped most as the deity responsible for their welfare. Thus, Niasans came to attribute the role of highest god and creator to Lovalangi.

According to traditional belief, a person has two bodies: a physical one (boto) and a spiritual one, consisting of "breath" (noso) and "shadow" (lumölumö). At death, the boto becomes dust, the noso goes to Lovalangi, and the lumölumö becomes a bekhu, a ghost. The indigenous conception of the other world described it as opposite to this world in every detail (night here is day there; sentences here run backwards there) except that the rich and powerful of this world enjoyed the same high status in the other world—provided their kin mounted expensive funerary ceremonies (otherwise, bekhu remained in the vicinity of the grave). The Christian-influenced scenario that has become current is that a soul reaches heaven (Teteholi Ana'a) only after crossing a bridge blocked by a guardian god and his cat. A person who has sins on his conscience and who has not been given the proper ceremonies is pushed off the bridge into hell, which is below.

Priests (ere), who are considered to be representatives of Silewe Narazata, one of the high gods, can be either men or women. A person destined to become an ere first disappears for a time, i.e., is carried off by spirits. After returning, he or she learns from an experienced ere how to perform ritual chants, sacrifice cocks, make spirit images, and cure disease. Also important are kataruna, women and girls specializing in trance, who provide oracles and also heal diseases.


In the boro n'adu ceremony, traditionally held every 7 or 14 years, priests destroy totemic symbols at the spot where the Niasan ancestors descended from the upperworld, e.g., a giant tiger representing a ruler was carried on a high platform and cast into the Gomo River. Missionaries outlawed the ceremony in 1913, but it has recently been revived as part of Indonesian Independence Day festivities.


Boys undergo famoto (circumcision); Christianized Niasans vehemently opposed the German missionaries' attempts to ban the practice, long predating Islamic influence.

In addition to considering social status, a man tries to confirm that the woman of his choice for marriage is indeed his "predestined match" (tambali) by looking for omens. In the past, he would resort to divination to discover whether the ancestors had joined the couple.

The wedding process involves the following stages. The man's kin issues the proposal, presenting the women's kin with betrothal wealth of three pao (30 g or 1 oz) of gold; the latter gives them in turn a basketry container (bola) containing the lower jaw, heart, and liver of a pig. The man's kin must return the bola to them full of boiled pork. Once resources for the wedding expenses have been accumulated, a fangötö bongi ceremony is held at which the two sides decide the wedding date and the amount of the bride-price. In some areas, this can still be quite substantial, for example 100 large pigs. Men who cannot afford the bride-price must work for the bride's family for a specified time. At the fangowalu, the wedding ceremony itself, huge numbers of pigs are slaughtered to serve guests and display wealth. The groom brings the bride back to his house on a litter. In the famuli nucha ceremony, the couple, after two weeks, pays a call on the bride's parents, bringing boiled pork and returning the bridal jewelry that had been borrowed earlier. The bride's parents in turn present them with a specially bred sow, seed rice, and a balewa (a large machete), the basics with which to start a household.

When a man knows his death is imminent, he gives his blessing to and prays over his sons; this famalakhisi ceremony ensures that the sons, who serve the father pork, will not have lives full of obstacles. Customs for handling the corpse differ from region to region. In some areas, bodies are exposed on a platform in the graveyard until the bones are picked clean, at which time a secondary burial can be held. In others, the body is put into a coffin. The bodies of slaves were simply thrown into the forest.

The fanörö satua , or secondary burial, is necessary for the soul's passage to heaven (Teteholi Ana'a). Including the slaughter of pigs (and formerly the sacrifice of slaves), these ceremonies are the opportunity for the display of wealth.


At the end of the 18th century, Nias had more than 50 constantly warring öri, independent confederations of villages (banua). Leading each confederation was a tuhenöri, and heading each village was a salawa, drawn from the founding and dominant clan of the community.

Niasan society was composed of a number of the following social strata: aristocrats, priests (ere), commoners, and slaves. Among aristocrats, called siulu, literally "those of the river source," further distinction was made between rulers (balö ziulu) and the rest. Likewise, the commoners (ono mbanua, "children of the village") divided into siila, commoner leaders and various specialists, and satö, the ordinary people. Slaves (sawuyu) included three categories: binu, those captured in war or through abduction; sondrara-hare, those selling themselves to pay off a debt; and hölitö, those delivered from a death sentence by another in exchange for servitude. Slaves might end their life as a sacrifice, accompanying their master to the grave.

The aristocrats met together to determine the tasks to be done every Wednesday by the whole community. Moreover, commoners were bound by obligations of debt to the aristocrats (for the most part incurred at feasts).

Although generally an individual could not cross class lines, e.g., a commoner could not become an aristocrat, within the two classes one could raise one's status by mounting "feasts of merit" (still given only in Central Nias). Anyone but the poorest can hold a small-scale feast (slaughtering up to 30 pigs) in order to pay off debts acquired in attending other people's feasts and to gain honor. The much more ambitious ovasa feast earns the ovasa-holder the position of village elder (satua mbanua), with the right to join the salawa in governing the village. The host's wife-givers confer on him a title, such as "Lamp of Flame" or "Heard and Obeyed"; the host may erect a stone monument in front of his house. In order to mount an ovasa, a man must call on the assistance of relatives and his wife-takers, persuading them to contribute to the feast (actually, to pay off previous debts to the host) through oratorical skill. The ovasa itself includes competing poetical speeches; various entertainments; carrying of the ovasa-holder and wife in a procession through the village on a litter; slaughtering pigs; and distributing prestige-payments to the host's wife-givers. As aristocrats serve as channels for fertility-giving power from on high, their feasts benefit the whole community.

Contact between the young of opposite sexes is very difficult and, if dared, requires an intermediary. In the past, sex outside of marriage was punished with death (a couple could be bound and cast into a river). Illicit sex is assumed to damage the woman's kin and her own prospects for marriage. Thus, if the couple is not separated by taboo restrictions, the simplest solution is for the man to marry the woman. Otherwise, the man pays fines to her patrilineal kin (and, should she have one, to her husband's patrilineal kin).


The village (banua, also meaning "sky") contains members of several clans (mado) and is usually built on a height for defense (for this reason too, villages in south Nias encompass as many as 3,000 people). Each village has a paved rectangular plaza (evali or, more poetically, olayama, "ceremonial dancing ground") that can be extended into a central avenue. On one end of the evali stands the omo sebua ("great house") of the chief lineage. On either side of the evali leading away from it are the ordinary houses (omo niha). The opposite end is left open (graveyards are often located there). By the omo sebua stands the village gate, which leads down a flight of stone steps to the valley below.

Niasans distinguish between omo (proper houses in the village), ose (the temporary huts of exiles from other villages), and halama (substantial huts near the fields). "Great houses" and ordinary houses differ only in size. The omo sebua are on a monumental scale, supported on massive, almost 1-m-thick (3-ft-thick), vertical and diagonal (bracing) pillars of iron-wood, grounded in large foundation stones as proof against earthquake. With its great projecting eaves, the roof reaches much higher than the rest of the house, going as far up as 30 m (98 ft), while the room height would only be 4 m (13 ft). In north Nias, houses are smaller and have an oval plan.

Traditional houses (omo hada) possessed in front a large, light, and airy public room (tavolo) with a long bench built into the inner front wall for elders to sit on. Tavolo are otherwise empty, though formerly they were crowded with wooden ancestral figures. In the back is the private area for the dark, musty bedrooms or apartments for different related families (also separate sleeping areas for boys and unmarried men), and the kitchen with a big wood-framed hearth and utensils and other tools hanging from the walls.

In front of some houses stand various stone monuments. Behu are megaliths raised to commemorate feasts of merit. Daro-daro or harefa are stone slab seats. Osa-osa are thrones of honor with monster faces carved into their backs. Simulating the walls of enemy villages, stone pylons are raised for zawözawö jumping. Dancing women slap their feet on ni'ogazi, mushroom-shaped stones that produce a musical tone.

Central Nias villages used to have an osali nazu, a house for idols (as well as sacred weights and skulls taken for rituals) erected on a paved embankment. The chief's house served as the community meeting hall and place for rituals (often with space for 200 dancers); elsewhere on the island these functions took place in a separate structure called an osali (north) or bale (south). Churches also go by the name osali.

Modern extensions to traditional villages include houses on the general Indonesian model (omo ndrava or omo pasisir).

The two regencies into which the island of Nias is divided, Nias and South Nias, have Human Development Indices (combining measures of income, health, and education) of 66.1 and 63.9 respectively (2005 score), considerably lower than the national HDI of 69.6 and dramatically lower than the HDI for North Sumatra as a whole (72, in the top third in the country). Nias regency's GDP per capita is us$3,514, and South Nias regency's us$3,702, very low for Indonesia when compared with us$10,910 for North Sumatra as a whole, us$6,293 for Central Java, and us$3,427 for East Nusa Tenggara. In 2000, the rate of infant mortality for the whole island stood at 55.66 deaths per 1,000 live births, which was moderate for Indonesia, worse than provinces on Java but better than most in eastern Indonesia and comparable to provinces on Sumatra with higher GDP's per capita.


Niasans belong to mado (gana in the south), large patrilineal clans that often trace their heritage to a common ancestor 30 to 40 generations back. A household consists of a sangambatö sebua (sangambatö, "nuclear family"; sebua, "great"), which consists of a married couple, their unmarried children, and their married sons and their families all living together.

The ideal marriage is between a man and his mother's brother's daughter. Taboo is marriage between a man and a woman of the same clan related back to 10 generations, as well as between a man and a woman whose mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother, is of his own clan. Marriage creates a relation (expressed in flows of gifts) between a man as a "wife-taker" and the woman's brother, father, and her father's father-in-law and brother-in-law, her maternal grandfather's father-in-law and brother-in-law, and so on, as the "wife-givers." In pre-Christian times, a man might take more than one wife, usually due to the obligation to marry his deceased father's wives (other than his own mother). It was also common, but not mandatory, for a man to wed his brother's widow. If a man has no sons, he adopts one of his brother's sons. Sons, especially the eldest, and not daughters receive inheritance.


Contemporary Niasans follow the mode of dress of other Indonesians, from the Western-style short-sleeve shirts and long pants of the men, to the sarong and kebaya combination for women. Colonial authorities forbade the "indecent" traditional clothing (which consisted of a loincloth of beaten bark; Niasans had no indigenous weaving). Today's war-dancer attire consists of a loincloth of brightly colored woven cloth hanging down to the calf at both front and back, an open jacket, and a head cloth. Ceremonial wear for women includes long-sleeved or sleeveless long dresses in solid colors with appliqué trimmings. Women's jewelry (genuine gold or copper imitation) comes in large pieces in simple designs (crowns, broad head-bands, pectorals, bracelets, and petal-shaped earrings).


Currently the staple food is rice, but formerly it was yams (ubi rambat in Bahasa Indonesia); on the Batu Islands it is sago. Supplementary starch comes from yams, maize, and taro. The yam is boiled or roasted and eaten with sliced or grated coconut. Niasans make little use of coconut milk except to stew cassava leaves, a common side dish. Most other preparations, including pork for feasts, involve only boiling the raw food with salt. Snacks made from fruit are becoming common under dava influence.


In 2005, the level of literacy stood at 87.77% for Nias regency and 62.49 for South Nias regency. The latter was among the lowest in Indonesia by Indonesian national standards, but the former was comparable to the more developed provinces of Bali and Central Java (See also the article entitled Indonesians in this volume).


Funerals and feasts of merit feature hoho, narrative poems (hero tales or genealogies) sung by a leader and three two-man choruses in four-tone melodies. A simpler form, the maena from north Nias, has become a popular replacement for the hoho, consisting of a humorous verse in praise of the feast-giver sung by a leader and answered by a chorus. Various traditional dances are performed by both sexes, the most famous of which is the war dance which accompanies high-stone jumping.


Except for the few who have completed enough education to qualify for government jobs, Niasans support themselves through dry-field, swidden agriculture, growing yams, rice, maize, and taro. Wet-rice is cultivated only in swamps. Every house raises pigs, so as to be able to contribute to the feasts of merit, the funerals, and the bride-wealth needed by kin and wife-givers. In the past, dried pork served as a standard of value, rather like money. Other livestock includes chickens, ducks, water buffalo, goats, and horses. Hunting and fishing are of only secondary significance. Nias' main exports are copra, rubber, and pigs (slaves used to be one of their main exports as well).


Zawözaw consists of jumping over a 2.1-m-high (7-ft-high) stone structure (these are located in the village's central plaza). Formerly, zawözawö was a test of skill for young men, and being able to make it over the stone was a prerequisite to entering the marriageable age. Now, it is performed for government ceremonies or tourist entertainment.


See the article entitled Indonesians .


Valued specializations include gold-smithing, copper-working, and woodcarving (house wall panels and statues). Basketry is also a common skill.


See the article entitled Indonesians .


In 2002, the Gender-Related Development Index (combining measures of women's health, education, and income relative to men's) for the whole island of Nias was 61.5, significantly above Indonesia's national GDI of 59.2 though the same as that of North Sumatra as a whole. The island's Gender Empowerment Measure (reflecting women's participation and power in political and economic life relative to men's) was 59.3, dramatically higher than the national GEM of 54.6 and the provincial GEM of 48.4.

While men, particularly older ones, spend much of their time debating points of customary law or just chatting (when not performing occasional or seasonal tasks such as hunting or clearing swidden [shifting-cultivation] fields), women are occupied all day either working in the fields or preparing food. In gatherings, women sit either on the floor or serve betel to the men seated on benches; however assertive they might be in private with their husbands, in public women keep silent.


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—revised by A. J. Abalahin