views updated


ETHNONYMS: Badjaw, Bajao, Bajau, Sama, Samah, Sinama


Identification. The term "Samal," or more generally "Sama," covers a diverse congeries of Sama-Bajau-speaking peoples whose scattered settlements are found throughout a vast maritime zone stretching from the central Philippines to the eastern coast of Borneo and from Sulawesi to Roti in eastern Indonesia. In the Philippines most Sama speakers, with the exception of Yakan, Abak, and Jama Mapun, are referred to as "Samal," a Tausug term used also by Christian Filipinos. Elsewhere, in Indonesia and Malaysia, related Sama-speaking groups are known as "Bajau" (variously spelled Bajao, Badjaw, etc.), a term of apparent Malay origin, while in the Philippines the term "Bajau" is reserved more narrowly for boat-nomadic or formerly nomadic groups referred to elsewhere as "Bajau Laut" or "Orang Laut." The most common term of self-designation is "Sama," or "a'a Sama" (a' a, people). In addition, most groups identify themselves by toponymic modifiers (referring typically to a particular island or island cluster) to indicate their geographical and/or dialect affiliation. As a whole, the Sama are a highly fragmented people, without overall political integration. In the past, these smaller populations were divided between the principal trading states of the region, in each polity occupying a subordinate status relative to the dominant ethnic groups, notably the Tausug and Maguindanao in the southern Philippines, the Brunei in western Sabah, and the Ternatans, Bugis, and Makassarese in eastern Indonesia. Among the principal subgroups of Sama, the most divergent, culturally and linguistically, are the Abak of Capul Island, northwest of Samar in the central Philippines. The Abak are believed to derive from an early northward migration of Sama speakers and are today the only Christianized Sama subgroup. The Yakan of Basilan Island and coastal Zamboanga are thought to be descendants of another early offshoot community. While acknowledging the symbolic suzerainty of the Tausug and Maguindanao sultanates, the Yakan-speaking groups, unlike the majority groups, are today an inland agricultural people with no close ties to the sea.

Location. Sama-Bajau speakers are probably the most widely dispersed ethnolinguistic group indigenous to Southeast Asia. Their widely scattered settlements are found from the central Philippines, with small enclaves in Zambales and northern Mindanao, through the Sulu Archipelago of the Philippines to the eastern coast of Borneo and from Palawan and western Sabah (Malaysia) to coastal Sulawesi, southward through the Moluccas to Aru, Roti, and western Timor.

Demography. In all of Southeast Asia Sama-Bajau speakers number some 650,000 to 730,000. Those in the Philippines referred to as "Samal" form the largest single group, estimated at 243,000 in 1975. The Yakan numbered over 115,000 and the Jama Mapun about 25,000, including an estimated 5,000 in Sabah. The total Bajau population of Sabah was nearly 73,000 in 1970, exclusive of recent Philippine immigrants. The latter comprise a further 30,000 to 40,000 (a conservative estimate). No reliable population figures exist for eastern Indonesia, but recent estimates place their numbers there at between 150,000 and 200,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Until recently the Sama Language Family was thought to be affiliated with the Central Philippine Language Group; today, however, it is generally assigned a separate status within the Hesperonesian Branch of Austronesian, probably coordinate with that of the Philippine languages as a whole. Sama-Bajau has been proposed as a general name to cover all of its various dialects and languages. Included are an estimated ten languages, most of them strongly dialectalized. The most divergent are Abaknon (spoken by the Abak), Yakan, and Sibuguey. The Sibuguey are comprised of a number of small, relatively isolated Sama groups living mainly around Sibuguey Bay in western Mindanao. Another relatively divergent language, Western Sama, is spoken in North Ubian and the Pangutaran island group west of the main Sulu chain. Small numbers of Ubian speakers are also found in northern and western Sabah. More closely related are Northern Sama, spoken chiefly in the islands of Basilan Strait, including Balanguingui in the Samales island group, and central and southern Sama, spoken in the Tapul, Tawitawi, and Sibutu island groups and throughout the adjacent eastern coastal districts of Sabah, from Kudat to Tawau. In Sabah, these latter varieties of the Sama subgroup live mainly on Cagayan Sulu and neighboring islands (Balabac, Bakungan, etc.) near the eastern coast of Sabah, with additional small enclaves in southern Palawan. In Sabah, dialects of a separate Sama language, West Coast Bajau, are spoken in the western and northern coastal districts of the state, from Kuala Penyu to Terusan. Another distinct group of dialects, known generally as Indonesian Bajau, is spoken by a variety of closely related peoples from Sulawesi and eastern Kalimantan to Timor.

History and Cultural Relations

Linguistic evidence suggests that Sama speakers began to disperse, sometime in the first millennium a.d., from an original homeland located in the islands and coastal littoral separating southwestern Mindanao from the northeastern islands of Sulu. While some groups moved northward, settling on Sibuguey Bay and along the Zamboanga coast of Mindanao, most moved south and westward, establishing themselves along the main Sulu Archipelago, southward to Cagayan Sulu and the eastern Borneo coast. A major impetus behind this movement appears to have been a rapid growth of Chinese trade, beginning in early Sung times, and the attraction of the area's rich marine resources. When these migrations began, the Sama appear to have incorporated a wide range of ecological variation, from land-based to strongly sea-oriented groups. However, with the rise of Tausug hegemony in Sulu, beginning in the thirteenth century, ecological specialization seems to have intensified, with the dominant Tausug assimilating the more land-based groups, particularly in Siasi and eastern Jolo, leaving the Sama numerically dominant only in the smaller, mainly coralline islands near the northern and southern ends of the archipelago. The subsequent founding of the Sulu sultanate in the fifteenth century, and the related expansion of maritime trade, appear to have accelerated this southward spread of Sama speakers. While some groups settled the western coast of Sabah, where they came under the loose jurisdiction of the Brunei sultanate, others moved eastward through the Straits of Makassar to southern Sulawesi. From here, their subsequent scattering over much of eastern Indonesia appears to have occurred within the last 300 years and was closely bound up with the development of a trepang (bêche-de-mer) trade and the expanding economic and political influence of Bugis and Makassarese traders. Later, with the rise of the Tausug port of Jolo as a major entrepôt for slaves, Samal living in the islands of the Balanguingui group and along the southern shores of Mindanao emerged as a major piratical force. From bases, particularly on Balanguingui Island, Samal slavers carried out annual raids on coastal settlements from Luzon to the central Moluccas. In 1848 Spanish forces destroyed the main Samal bases on Balanguingui Island, and, by the end of the century, European intervention broke the power of the Sulu sultanate, ending its role as an independent polity. Following the imposition of American colonial rule in 1899, the sultanates of Sulu and Mindanao were shorn of secular power and their domains were brought under the direct administrative control of Manila. However, resistance to central rule has continued. Since the early 1970s the Sulu Archipelago has become the site of intense secessionist conflict. The ensuing civil war, which reached its peak in the mid-1970s, has resulted in a massive dislocation of peoples. Tens of thousands of Sama have migrated or fled to Zamboanga, Tawitawi, and the Sibutu island group or crossed the Malaysian border into eastern Sabah. At the same time, large numbers of Tausug have moved from Jolo and Siasi, centers of Islamic-secessionist fighting, into the formerly Sama islands of Tawitawi and Sibutu, forcing large numbers of Sama further westward into Sabah. Here their presence, as refugees, threatens an already precarious balance of ethnically defined political alignments.


Settlements, particularly those oriented around predominantly maritime economies, take the form of densely clustered houses situated along a well-protected stretch of shoreline. In central and southern Sulu, villages are characteristically built directly over the sea, in channels or tidal shallows, often within or behind a line of fringing reef. Elsewhere they are more often located along or immediately behind the beachfront. Houses, which are raised on piles 1 to 3 meters above the ground or high-water mark, usually consist of a single rectangular room with an attached kitchen. Size and construction materials vary with the wealth of the owner. The dwellings of the relatively poor are typically constructed of thatched roofing and split-bamboo walls and floor; those of wealthier families are more likely to be made of commercially milled lumber and corrugated roofing and may include several additional sleeping rooms, a porch, and a separate kitchen. Houses built over the water are typically connected by catwalks and planks. Households are grouped into larger units called tumpuk, or "clusters." These consist of households that are both physically adjacent and genealogically related by close cognatic ties. Core members are most often siblings or spouses of siblings. Within the community one household head, having the support of the majority of the others, is acknowledged as the cluster spokesman. Clusters coincide in some instances with parishes, local groups whose members are affiliated with a single mosque. More often parishes consist of a number of clusters, all of whose members recognize a common leader in political and legal matters. This leader is usually the owner or sponsor of the mosque. Larger villages occasionally contain more than one parish, with one parish leader generally acknowledged as the village head.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Sama adaptation is varied, typically combining, with differing local emphasis, fishing, farming, seafaring, and trade. For island and strand communities, fishing is generally a major economic activity. Virtually all locally available fish are exploited, using a wide range of equipmenthand lines, longlines, lures, jigs, fish traps, spears, spear guns, drift nets, and explosives. In addition, shellfish, crustaceans, turtle eggs, sea urchins, and edible algae are collected. The crews formed for drift netting and handline trolling are generally recruited from among the net or boat owner's cluster members. Today nearly all fishing is market-oriented, with catches sold through local vendors, or through wholesalers, most of them Sama, or to carriers for transport to local retail markets. Some fish is sold (either dried or salted) to larger-scale dealers for export to areas outside Sulu and eastern Sabah. Cassava, dry rice, maize, and bananas are the principal food crops, with yams, beans, tomatoes, onions, ginger, sugarcane, and fruit being the main secondary crops. Throughout much of Sulu and eastern Sabah copra constitutes the major cash crop, providing both markets and capital for a variety of other commercial activities such as storekeeping and interisland transport. Copra holdings are small, however, and few families own enough palms to support themselves entirely from copra sales.

Industrial Arts. Historically, different Sama groups have specialized in different lines of trade and craft production. The Laminusa Samal are well known, for example, for their especially fine pandanus mats, while the Sibutu Samal enjoy a reputation as expert boat builders. Other groups specialize in pottery making, which, in Sulu, is entirely a Samal craft. Historically, in most regions, specialization was linked to patterns of intercommunity trade. For example, in the Semporna District of Sabah, the Sama Banaran community traditionally produced kajang matting and gathered boat-caulking resin for local trade with other groups, while Sama Kubang villages specialized in boat building, ironworking, and the manufacture of tortoiseshell combs and ornaments and carved wooden grave markers.

Trade. Trade has long occupied a central place in Sama life. European accounts as early as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries describe Sama communities as being dependent on trade for even basic foodstuffs. Throughout Sulu and eastern Indonesia, sea-oriented groups historically were valued for their navigational skills and as seafarers and suppliers of trepang, dried fish, pearls, pearl shell, and other marine commodities of trade. In addition, specialized Sama groups historically engaged in intercommunity barter, exchanging, for example, fish for kajang matting, cassava, and seasonal fruit. Such trade involved, in some regions, both Sama and non-Sama groups. Today trade in fish, farm produce, fruit, and craft goods is channeled almost entirely through regularly constituted local markets, while copra and, to some degree, dried and salted fish are handled by larger-scale wholesalers. Along the Zamboanga coast, Samal traders historically dominated the external coastwise trade of the Subanun, while in Palawan the Jama Mapun maintained similar relations with swidden cultivating groups inhabiting the interior of the island.

Division of Labor. Both sexes share in agricultural labor; fishing, boat building, and ironworking are primarily male occupations. Both men and women engage in trade, while women weave pandanus mats and make and market pottery.

Land Tenure. Farm and residential land is subject to individual use and/or tenancy rights. Fish-trap and lift-net sites and coral fish corrals may be owned individually; otherwise fishing grounds are available for common exploitation.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship is strictly bilateral and genealogical knowledge is generally shallow. There are no permanent kin groups with corporate functions. A bilateral kindred (kampong ) is recognized, consisting of all persons with whom some kin relationship exists, whether traceable or not. Obligations owed to close kindred include attendance at funerals, children's weddings, and thanksgiving rites; lending and borrowing of property, food, and money; and exchange of visits and hospitality. Among the Jama Mapun, a localized kin group (lungan ) is recognized, its members descended bilaterally, over three to eight generations, from a common ancestor. Such groups constitute the primary basis of support of local and regional leaders.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terminology displays some variation, although all systems emphasize lineality, relative age, and generation. Among the Jama Mapun, nobles reportedly have a Hawaiian system of terminology distinct from the more general Eskimo system of commoners and other Sama groups.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage between kindred is preferred, provided partners are close to the same age. Marriage may be parentally arranged, often with the help of a go-between, or be initiated by elopement or, less often, abduction. In the case of elopement, either a couple may place themselves under the protection of a village headman or other local leader, or the woman may act on her own, going to the house of a village headman or other local leader and there declaring her intention to marry a particular suitor. In all cases bride-wealth is paid. In the case of abduction, the groom may be required to pay an additional fine. Weddings typically occasion the largest gathering of kindred and neighbors of any life-cycle rite. An imam or a group of paki (religious officials) officiate, witnessing the ceremony and confirming the transfer of bride-wealth, designated by the bride's father. The couple live for at least the first three or four days with the bride's family. After that they are expected to visit the groom's parents; they may either remain there or return to the woman's family. Most couples are expected to set up their own household by the second or third year of marriage. There is some preference that new households be located near the wife's relatives, with the result that clusters are commonly formed around a core of closely related women. Polygyny is allowed but is most infrequent. The frequency of divorce varies; for some Sama groups it is described as common, while for others it is relatively infrequent. There is some evidence that its frequency is highest for polygynous unions, somewhat high for arranged marriages, and lowest for elopement. Little stigma attaches to divorce, and remarriage is relatively easy for both partners.

Domestic Unit. The primary domestic unit consists of those who eat together and share a common hearth, a group normally coterminous with the household. Most domestic groups consist of a stem or nuclear family often augmented by several additional kin, and occasionally comprised of more than one married couple (normally, married siblings with their spouses and children). Houses are individually owned and the house's owner is usually acknowledged as the household head.

Inheritance. Inheritance is bilateral, with each child, regardless of sex, entitled to a share of its parents' property. The Sama distinguish between property acquired in the course of a marriage and that inherited independently, to which the owner's husband or wife has no claim.

Socialization. Children tend to be highly valued and for the first six or seven years are made to assume few responsibilities. Preadolescent children undergo a ritual haircutting (maggunting ) and weighing ceremony. Boys are circumcised at puberty, whereas girls undergo a form of partial clitoridectomy between the ages of 2 and 6. At adolescence some children are taught to recite from the Quran, either under the guidance of a personal tutor or through attendance at special Quranic schools. Those who complete instruction demonstrate their proficiency in a public reading (magtammat ), at which both they and their instructor are honored. Following puberty, girls are usually kept close to home, where they are expected to help with housework and child care; boys are allowed greater freedom of movement, accompanying their fathers when they go fishing and marketing. Today most children attend public school, although few complete more than primary education.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Historically some Sama groups, such as the Jama Mapun, Balanguingui, and Pangutaran Samal, enjoyed considerable trading and political independence within the Sulu sultanate. Like the dominant Tausug, these Sama groups were divided into ranked strata: nobles, commoners, and slaves. Other groups were more egalitarian. Among the more stratified Sama, the nobility, consisting of both datu and salip, tended to enjoy privileged access to wealth and power through their involvement in trade and raiding and from their control of slaves and the labor services of commoners. Today these hereditary privileges are no longer acknowledged. Inherited titles, however, continue to carry prestige, and class distinctions are based chiefly on wealth and political influence.

Political Organization. Political relations are organized primarily in terms of leader-centered networks, or coalitions. Locally these coalesce around cluster, parish, and village leaders. Above the village level, factional rivalry tends to be endemic. Today, as under the former sultanates, central authorities seek to integrate local Sama communities into the larger polity by placing them under the jurisdiction of regional authorities representing the state. In Sulu the sultan formerly appointed panglima or maharajas as community headmen and regional chiefs. Today regional leaders operate largely in the context of electoral politics, linking local community leaders to the wider administrative structure through a hierarchy of municipal, district, and state officials.

Social Control. Responsibility for settling disputes falls chiefly on parish and village leaders. As a result, disputes that cross village and/or parish boundaries are often difficult to resolve and sometimes escalate, without outside intervention, into open violence. In rendering judgments, local leaders appeal to custom (adat ) and Islamic law (sara' ).

Conflict. In contrast to the situation among the neighboring Tausug, endemic armed conflict is generally not found among the Samal. However, piracy and occasional vendettas occur. In the past regional leaders were in frequent contention and many erected stone or coral forts (kuta' ) where their followers might take refuge in times of raiding or during interregional feuds between rival leaders.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Except for the Abak, all Sama-Bajau speakers are Sunni Muslims of the Shafi school. The Five Pillars of Islam are acknowledged: confession of faith in Allah and Mohammed, his prophet; the five daily prayers; the fast during Ramadan; the pilgrimage to Mecca; and the payment of religious tax. Few, however, can afford to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and only the most pious regularly observe all five daily prayers. Every Samal parish contains a mosque (masjid ), serving as a center of public worship and a weekly gathering place. Parish families contribute to its maintenance and to the support of the imam, hatib, and other mosque officials, chiefly through a tithe (zakat ) collected annually at Hari Raya Puasa. Traditionally, the appointment of mosque officials was a privilege of authority, descending from the sultan to parish elders. God (Tuhan) is believed to be the creator of heaven and earth, of the first man and woman, and of both the archangels and Iblis (Satan), who leads people to evil. Also in this world is a multitude of local spirits (some free-moving, others identified with features of the natural landscape), ghosts, and other potential agents of misfortune.

Religious Practitioners. Those who are well versed in religious matters, including the imam and other mosque officials, are called paki, or pakil. As a group, the paki preside over all life-crisis rites, act as religious counselors, and conduct minor rites of thanksgiving (dua'a salamat ). The latter are held in fulfillment of a pledge (janji ) offered in return for a special favor, such as recovery from illness or a safe return from a difficult journey. A number of traditional religious practitioners are also consulted, including midwives, herbalist-curers, diviners, and spirit mediums.

Ceremonies. Friday prayers performed in the parish mosque climax a weekly cycle of daily prayers. In addition an annual religious calendar is observed that includes a month of fasting (Ramadan) ; a feast day (Hari Raya Puasa) to mark the end of Ramadan; a feast of sacrifice (Hari Raya Hadji) during the month of Jul-Hadj; the birthday of the Prophet (Maulud); and a day of ritual bathing (Tuak Bala'), performed usually in the sea, to remove evil during the month of Sappal.

Arts. The Samal are well known among Muslims of the Philippines for their developed dance and song traditions, percussion and xylophone music, dyed pandanus mats and food covers, and decorative wood carving (ukil ).

Death and Afterlife. As soon after death as possible, the body is bathed and shrouded. It is then buried in a grave niche with the head facing Mecca; the grave is covered, usually with sand or crushed coral, and marked with a wooden marker. Burial is followed by a period of vigil, lasting up to seven nights for an adult. Each evening male relatives and neighbors gather in the house of the bereaved family for readings, prayers, and a meal or light refreshments. If the family is particularly wealthy, it may hold additional memorial rites on the twentieth, fortieth, and hundredth day after death and on the first anniversary. Following a period of atonement a person's soul is believed to ascend to heaven, while the body descends to hell where it suffers punishment proportional to the person's misdeeds and accumulated merit. Spirits of the dead are thought to remain in the vicinity of their graves. Here they require remembrance and expressions of continued concern from the living; some graves become sources of miracle-working power. During the month of Shaaban God permits the souls of the dead (roh ) to return to this world. To honor their return, the living offer special prayers to the dead and clear their graves.

See also Bajau; Samal Moro; Sea Nomads of the Andaman; Selung/Moken; Yakan


Casino, Eric (1976). The Jama Mapun: A Changing Samal Society in the Southern Philippines. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press.

Geoghegan, William (1975). "Balangingi." In Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia, edited by Frank M. LeBar. Vol. 2, Philippines and Formosa, 6-9. New Haven: HRAF Press.

Geoghegan, William (1984). "Sama." In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, edited by Richard V. Weekes, 654-659. London: Aldwych.

Pallesen, A. Kemp (1985). Culture Contact and Language Convergence. Manila: Linguistic Society of the Philippines.

Pelras, Christian (1972). "Notes sur quelques populations aquatiques de l'Archipel Nusantarian." Archipel 3:133-168.

Sather, Clifford (1984). "Sea and Shore People: Ethnicity and Ethnic Interaction in Southeastern Sabah." Contributions to Southeast Asian Ethnography 3:3-27.

Szanton, David (1973). "Art in Sulu: A Survey." Sulu Studies 2:3-69.

Warren, James F. (1978). "Who Were the Balangingi Samal? Slave Raiding and Ethnogenesis in 19th Century Sulu." Journal of Asian Studies 37:477-490.