Rungus Dusun

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Rungus Dusun

ETHNONYMS: Rungus, Rungus Momogun


Identification and Location. The Rungus are a people of northern Borneo who live in the Kudat Division of Sabah, Malaysia. The Rungus identify themselves, their customs, and their dialect group (isoglot) by the autonym Rungus. A number of other self-ascribed Dusunic-speaking ethnic groups live in the Kudat Division, including the Nulu' and the Gonsomon, both of which sometimes are mistakenly identified as Rungus.

Demography. In 1960, the population was estimated to be ten thousand. The population was estimated to be twenty-five thousand in 1990.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Rungus dialect is a member of the Dusunic language family.

History and Cultural Relations

The peoples of Borneo were influenced by the Chinese either directly or by trade through intermediaries. Antique Chinese ceramics are common. Contact with southern Indians is manifested in some linguistic cognates with Sanskrit, the most important being divato', the spirit familiar of the Rungus priestesses. In the sixteenth century Muslim traders spread Islam along the coast of Borneo. Before the arrival of the British in 1881 the Rungus were under the economic influence of the Sultanate of Brunei and the leaders of various coastal Muslim groups, including the Brunei Malay residing along the Kudat coast. These groups occasionally gave honorific titles to Rungus leaders, validating their position in the political hierarchy, and adjudicated disputes that could not be resolved at the local level. Slave raids and plundering by southern Philippine peoples were feared, but headhunting by Dusunic groups in the Kudat area ceased before to the arrival of the British, probably as a result of the influence of the coastal Muslims.

The Chinese were brought in by the British to work on tobacco plantations near the Rungus area. After the demise of those plantations in the early 1900s, the Chinese assumed a variety of agricultural pursuits, including the planting of rice, rubber, and coconuts. Chinese and Sino-Dusun established shops at key points on the edges of Rungus territory. As a result of Chinese plantation interests, sections of traditional Rungus lands became Chinese-controlled. European missionaries entered Sabah after the British; and by the mid-1950s a Basel Mission began to focus on the Dusunic peoples of the Kudat Peninsula. The British administration and the missionaries affected the socioeconomic base of the Dusunic peoples by introducing cash crops. They encouraged the Dusunic peoples to abandon their indigenous settlement pattern of longhouses and establish a pattern of dispersed residence of individual households on newly acquired plots of land. The government ignored the traditional system of land tenure, forcing individuals to obtain government title to those lands.


Villages consist of one or more longhouses scattered in hamlets along rivers and streams. A village controlled an area that encompassed a drainage system of one of the small streams and rivers that flow east or west from the spine of the Kudat Peninsula.


Subsistence. Traditional subsistence was based on the cultivation by domestic families of dry rice, maize, cassava, vegetables, melons, pineapples, taro, and sweet potato. Bananas, papaya, langsat, nangka, mango, and citrus fruits were obtained from planted and cultivated fruit tree groves. Domestic families raised pigs, chickens, and occasionally a water buffalo (kerabau). Pigs and chickens were used for sacrifices and then eaten. Additional protein and fat were obtained by fishing, hunting, and some forest collecting. Fishing was done with throw nets, fish traps, fish scoops, poles, and poisoning. The hunting of wild pigs (tembadau), barking deer, and sambar deer was done with spears and dogs. Spear traps and spring pole traps also were used to capture larger animals. Smaller traps were used to catch monkeys, tree shrews, and squirrels. With the exception of tree shrews, these mammals were eaten, along with mice, snakes, and occasionally gibbons. Forest collecting included nuts, fern tips, the roots of wild yam, the pith of the palms, berries, and birds, which were captured by liming. Fish was obtained by trading swidden produce and fruits in exchange for the catch of the coastal Muslims at weekly markets.

Industrial Arts. Basketry containers traditionally were made by Rungus men. One or two men in each village knew how to use the Malayan forge and made knives and other cutting implements. Women raised cotton, dyed it, and, using a belt loom, wove skirts with several different designs and a variety of clothing with ritually significant patterns, including male jackets, female blouses, and male trousers. Women who were skilled in this weaving achieved a higher ritual status, and weaving skills were closely associated with the role of the priestess and the spirit medium.

Trade. Weekly markets were held at the high point of navigation along the rivers. In those markets the coastal Muslims exchanged fish and items of local manufacture such as head cloths for the agricultural products of the Rungus. Iron for the manufacture of tools was purchased from Chinese shops. Surplus rice was exchanged for gongs, brassware, and jars. Sailing trips to Brunei on coastal Muslim boats to trade rice for gongs and brassware are still recounted.

Division of Labor. Although sex roles are not identical, they are equivalent and behaviorally and ideologically are of equal importance for societal functioning. Male and female roles are thus interlinked and form a whole. It is difficult for an adult man or woman to operate a household without a spouse. Conflict between the sexes is minimal. Husband and wife are expected to mitimbang ("balance each other"). The symmetry and balance of roles also are symbolized in the fact that only one term is used to refer to both husband and wife, savo'.

Men clear and burn the swiddens, and women help clear debris before planting. Both men and women plant, weed, and harvest the swiddens. Men care for and raise dogs and water buffalo; women care for pigs and chickens. In hunting and gathering, men hunt large game with spears, catch fish with traps and nets, and gather honey and orchard fruits. Women gather snails and shellfish, fish with scoops for small fish and prawns, and collect wild roots, nuts, berries, and vegetables.

The domestic activities of men include collecting firewood and making knives, rope, fish traps, and carrying baskets. Women husk the family's rice supplies, carry water, and do weaving, dying, and sewing; they also make rice winnowing baskets and a variety of baskets for general household use. Men market agricultural surpluses and bargain for brassware and gongs. Women sell the valuable ceremonial clothes they weave; a woman who is a spirit medium receives payments for curing illness and righting ritual imbalance. Women are in charge of the ritual aspects of birth and play the primary role in child rearing and nurturing. Men act as midwives and play a secondary role in child rearing and nurturing.

In the ritual sphere ceremonies for the swiddens and for property are the domain of men, while women communicate with the spirit world through their spirit familiars and perform ceremonies for health, to relieve illness in the family, and for the fertility of the village. The political activities of men include participation in the village moot, in which women give advice to their husbands. Headmen are always male.

Land Tenure. Each village traditionally held rights as a corporate jural entity over its territory, the "village reserve." Only members of the village could cut their swiddens in this reserve each year. Individual families held temporary rights over the area of forest they cut for a swidden until the last crops were removed. This system has been termed "circulating usufruct." Rights to fruit trees, however, if not previously divided among the planter's children, could be claimed from both parents. Those rights were not held by a social group, and the descendants never interacted, as the rites were held in severalty.


Kin Groups and Descent. Rungus society traditionally was cognatic of the bilateral type, as there were no cognatic descent groups. The kindred was not present. The establishment of a kin tie was not necessary for longhouse or village membership.

Kinship Terminology. Cousin kinship terminology is of the Eskimo type, although in certain situations the Hawaiian type may be used to indicate social solidarity. The terminology for the parents' siblings is lineal.

Marriage and the Family

Marriage. Traditionally, when a son wished to marry, a substantial bride-price was provided for him from the accumulated assets of his domestic family. The bride-price items were held corporately by the bride's family and were used to provide bride-prices for its sons. The bride-price, as well as the other institutions that lead to marriage and the foundation of a new family, is justified by the major value premise that all sexual relations are potentially deleterious for the participants, the rest of society, the domestic animals, the crops, and the countryside unless they occur within a marriage. The amount of the bride-price was determined through extended negotiations and was based on the wealth of the groom's family, the wealth of the bride's family, the beauty and skills of the bride, the desire of the groom's family to consummate the marriage, and how eager the bride's family was for the marriage. Marriage is generally monogamous. Residence after marriage is uxorilocal, with the couple living in the wife's family's longhouse and village. Polygamous marriages involving two wives or, rarely, three occur in cases of wealthy men and when there is an adulterous relationship with the wife's unmarried sister. In cases of polygamous marriages separate longhouse apartments for each wife are preferred.

Domestic Unit. Until the next agricultural season, the newly married pair lives with the bride's family. They then found a new domestic family by building a separate family apartment, ideally attached to the longhouse where the bride's family resides. The family most frequently consists of a husband and his wifethe two foundersand their children. The parents or a widowed parent of one of the founders may join the family once the youngest child is married. The family was the only producing, consuming, and assetaccumulating social unit in Rungus society. It was thus the most important corporate entity in the economic, jural, and ritual realms. Surpluses from the domestic family's swiddens and its livestock production were converted into brassware, gongs, ceramic ware, and female ornaments, including ritual clothing, old beads, earrings, and brass wire coiled around the legs, arms, waist, and sometimes necks of young girls and women. The corporate nature of the family was symbolized in the religious system. A number of sacrifices were made to cure illness in the family or to create an enhanced ritual state between the family and members of the spirit world who are responsible for protecting the family from illness and harm and promoting fertility in the swiddens and fecundity among the family's domestic animals.

Inheritance. Men and women traditionally inherited from both sides of the family, although some items were passed down from mother to daughter and from father to son.

Socialization. Children are highly valued, and socialization is permissive and supportive. Men traditionally were closely involved in the process. Learning was by imitation. There were no formal procedures for socialization.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Historically, the major social units were the family, the longhouse, and the village. The longhouse came into existence through the lateral accretion of individual family apartments. No section of the longhouse was jointly made and collectively owned by the constituent members.

This was in essence a condominium. The members of a longhouse were not involved in any joint economic activities. They did take collective, but not corporate, action to protect themselves against pathogenic spirits (rogon). The longhouse was not considered a structural isolate (a ritual entity) in most activities in the ritual realm. It also was not considered a jural isolate in seeking restitution after a ritual delict was committed against its members. The village was the fundamental political unit of Rungus society, but it was not jurally a kin grouping. The village was considered to be both jurally and ritually corporate. However, unlike the family, the village was not an operating social entity. It did not have the capacity to enter into economic relations or accumulate assets, with the exception of the goodwill of the gods. Through jointly organized sacrifices by its members the village could increase the state of ritual goodwill between it, as a corporate entity, and the gods to improve the fertility of its reserve, plants, animals, and inhabitants.

The number of inhabitants of a village varied from forty to four hundred people.

Political Organization. The largest political unit historically was the village, and the village headman was the highest political leader. From time to time an important leader arose and served as a focus for intervillage relations and the resolution of disputes. This role was not inherited. Unresolved disputes were taken to leaders in coastal Muslim villages for resolution. Important coastal Muslim leaders were offered gifts of rice and produce by Rungus individuals to ensure their interest and obtain good luck from them.

Social Control. Disputes were resolved at the village moot, consisting of the male elders. Fines were levied in the form of property, which was paid to the injured party. The amity of kin was another source of social control. One of the most important sources was the role that supernatural beings played in controlling behavior. Gods, spirits, and demigods of the social and physical environment were potentially dangerous. If their rules and social order were transgressed, they became angry and caused illness and death. In the past the guilty party sometimes was determined though trial by ordeal.

Conflict. Conflicts arose over petty theft, intrusion into a family's fields, harvest theft, inappropriate behavior toward women, and especially inappropriate behavior toward another person's spouse. Incest was rare and was punished by the death of the perpetrator.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Celestial gods (osunduw) provided help to humankind through the work of the spirit medium/priestess, the bobolizan. These gods stood in contrast to rogon, who were the embodiment of the social and physical environment and could be harmful to humans. Rogon were found in aspects of the landscape that had distinctive features: a landslide, a large group of boulders, a grove of trees with a spring or wet place, or a banyan tree. They were the most salient osunduw in everyday discourse because they were the most dangerous to human beings. They were capricious and irascible and caused afflictions if they were not properly treated or if their living space was intruded upon. Rogon had families and engaged in the same activities as human beings. Invading the living space of a rogon, for example, by cutting a grove of trees in which a spirit dwelled, could anger the spirit, who would cause illness in the family of the perpetrator. Other rogon also could cause misfortune and infertility. These afflictions could be removed only through a sacrifice of pigs and chickens to reestablish the state of goodwill. In the past a human sacrifice to remove the afflictions of a whole village occurred occasionally.

Wandering rogon brought epidemic diseases. In addition to these spirits and the rogon who personified the natural world, there were rogon called rusod who mirrored the social organization of the household. After the birth of a child, the child's rusod came into being. These spirits lived in the longhouse apartment along with the family. The rusod were the guardians of the proper cultural order in the household and the protectors of the household members. The rusod could be offended by violating any of the rules that governed the household order. The rusod thus not only would cease to protect members of the family, allowing other rogon to make a household member ill, but also would cause a member to become ill until they were propitiated by ceremonies and sacrifices. Rice spirits (odu-odu) mirrored the social order of the family, reflected its social and jural substantiation, and provided good harvests if they were treated well and sacrificed to. There were celestial counterparts of the individual spirits that lived in the lower level of the upper world who provided protection when an individual was in danger. An individual had three to seven souls. There is one main soul of the body and other souls that reside in the joints. Souls are prone to wondering during a dream and can be captured by rogon, causing illness.

Religious Practitioners. Female spirit mediums/priestesses traditionally provided explanations for illness and determined which spirits needed propitiation. The full explanation of the nature of the rusod counterpart could be obtained only from the bobolizan in whose hands lay the placation of the rusod and their care and feeding. In the trance performances of the bobolizan and the ritual texts she sang over sacrifices, the rusod was defined and described. The celestial counterparts of living or deceased individuals could become spirit familiars of a practicing bobolizan, especially in the case of efficacious bobolizan or individuals of renown.

The term luma'ag refers to any spirit familiar, god, rogon, or celestial counterpart that communicates with a spirit medium. This term also was used frequently to refer to the celestial counterpart of a living individual, male or female. However, only bobolizan obtained replies from their celestial counterpart when they were called upon in a trance. It was through the help of luma'ag that a bobolizan in a trance diagnosed illnesses and obtained information on the proper sacrifice to achieve cures, which involved the performance of hymns to the gods and spirits over sacrifices of pigs and chickens. The primary luma'ag of a bobolizan was usually her own celestial counterpart, although sometimes it could be that of her mother or teacher. Males performed the agricultural ceremonies that ensured a good harvest, and these rituals involved the sacrifice of chickens to the rice spirits and the rogon who represented agricultural pests.

Ceremonies. Traditional ceremonies involved sacrifices of pigs and chickens at marriage to dispel any ritual heat of the union. Ceremonies involving sacrifices were held to cure illness and to renew the fecundity of the household and the village. These ceremonies were managed by the bobolizan, who indicated the recipient of the sacrifices and the number of pigs and/or chickens to be given. These bobolizan recited and sung ritual texts consisting of couplets.

Arts. The primary art form was in the use of the language and texts accompanying ceremonies.

Medicine. Skilled males traditionally assisted in births. Knowledge of medicines made from forest plants was used by both males and females.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally a corpse was buried with no secondary treatment. The souls of the dead tended to remain near the household and village longing for their kin until the final ceremony. A series of ceremonies involving pig sacrifice were held to dispel the malevolence of the souls of recently dead, who try to get the souls of loved ones to follow them, and to remove the restrictions on the behavior of the surviving spouse. When enough supplies had been accumulated, a final ceremony was held a year or two after death to send the main soul of the body to Mount Kinabalu, where it dwelled with other souls in a mirror image of the Rungus world, but with fewer cares and troubles. The souls of the joints visited the living world but dwelled near Mount Kinabalu.

For other cultures in Malaysia, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 5, East and Southeast Asia.


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