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ETHNONYMS: Sakai (Malay for "infidel slave"); Senoi or Mai in the Central Aslian language; Smaq or Mah in South Aslian; Orang in Malay with words added from Malay or other languages for "hill" (Bukit), "upriver country" (Darat, Seraq, Seroq, Ulu) or "forest" (Bri, Hutan, Rih). Local groups take the name of the watersheds where they live.


Identification. The criteria used to classify people as "Senoi" are inconsistent. "Senoi" generally refers to peoples who speak Central Aslian languages and subsist by means of swidden agriculture. These include the Semai (central Sakai), Temiar (north Sakai, Temer, Ple), and Jah Hut (south Sakai). Also included are the Che Wong (Beri Chuba) ; the Semelai, former South Aslian speakers who now speak an Austronesian language; the Semoq Beri; and the Btsisi (Mah Meri, Besisi, Betisek). The language criterion is used inconsistently with these groups. Excluded are the Lanòh, Semnam, and Sabum classified as Semang, although they speak Central Aslian. In this summary, "Senoi" is used in the cultural sense to include the Che Wong and Semelai and exclude the Btsisi peoples whom the Malaysian government has only recently pressured into agriculture.

Location. Most Senoi live in rain-forested mountains and foothills of the Main mountain range, which bisects Malaya from north-northwest to south-southeast. Temiar inhabit south Kelantan and northeast Perak; Semai inhabit northeast Pahang and southeast Perak. The other four groups are in south-central Pahang. Government programs are encouraging the rapid clearing of the forests covering the steep slopes.

Demography. Official 1983 figures listed 18,500 Semai, 1,300 Temiar, 2,500 Jah Hut, 200 Che Wong, 1,800 Semoq Beri, and 3,000 Semelai. The Senoi consititute less than 0.5 percent of the Malaysian population. Rapid Senoi population growth and the loss of traditional lands have led to overcrowding in several west Semai settlements. Men outnumber women in all age groups, perhaps because of the number of deaths in childbirth.

Linguistic Affiliation. Senoi languages are classified in the Aslian Branch of the Austroasiatic Family: Che Wong is North Aslian; Temiar, Semai, and Jah Hut are Central Aslian; and Semelai and Semoq are South Aslian.

History and Cultural Relations

The Senoi arrived on the peninsula around 8000-6000 b.c., perhaps mixing with Semang peoples already there. Malays arrived millennia later, at first trading peacefully and even mixing with the Senoi. The rise of Malay statelets turned the Senoi first into dependents and then, following Malay conversion to Islam, into despised pagans who served as raw material for Indonesian slavers who murdered adults and kidnapped children under the age of 9. The word sakai recalls this history, which Senoi over 50 years of age experienced personally and relate to their children. Although mistrust of the Malays remains strong, government policy is designed to convert the Senoi to Islam and bring them into the mainstream as landed or unlanded peasants.

Settlements. Traditionally, the Senoi live in settlements of 30-200 people who rarely leave their home watershed (sakaq, traditional territory). Few people in their lives travel more than 20 kilometers from their birthplace. Settlements are usually strung along high ground near the junction of a stream and river. Dwellings are occupied by nuclear or small extended families, with most settlements having a large house or longhouse for community meetings and ceremonies. Some hill Temiar bands live in 30-meter-long longhouses that hold up to sixty people in nuclear-family compartments. In low-population-density areas (east Semai, Temiar), bands settle for three to eight years, moving on when the land is exhausted. Where population density is increasing, because of population growth and encroachment by non-Senoi (west Semai), people live in compact settlements except just before and during harvest, when each family moves to a simple house in its own swidden. Finally, the wet-rice agriculturalists such as the Jah Hut live in more permanent settlements. Houses of bamboo, bark, and woven palm-frond (plook ) shingles are built on stilts 1 to 3.5 meters high, or up to 9 meters high where tigers and elephants are common. Even where people can afford Malay-style planks, kitchen floors are slatted for easy waste disposal.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence rests mainly on growing rice and manioc, supplemented by hunting, fishing, and the sale of forest products like rattan, resin, and wild banana leaves. The ancient starch staples were Job's tears and foxtail millet; they have been replaced in the last 200 years by maize and manioc, which were introduced by Portuguese traders. Rice seems to have spread widely only about seventy years ago. Fruit-tree groves are especially important in settled communities since inherited trees bind people more closely to their sakaq. In the last twenty-five years, some Senoi have begun growing rubber as part of a government campaign to settle them in Malay-style villages. Traditional agriculture is slash-and-burn, using only dibbles and machetes. Cereals are planted in midsummer, with the option of a smaller planting in spring. The goal is to plant cultivars of all crops so that some will survive no matter what happens. Swiddens are plagued by lalang grass, pests such as rats and rice-eating birds, deer, and elephants. Harvesting is done year-round as the need dictates; only rice harvests are marked by ritual. Basket traps are the main fishing tool. Poisons, weirs, corrals, baskets, spears, and hooks are also used. Men hunt with blowguns and poisoned darts and the Semai and Temiar use spears. Most wild meat is taken via snares, deadfalls, spear traps, and birdlines. The whole community shares any large animal such as a deer, pig, python, or binturong (an arboreal civet cat). Dogs, chickens, goats, ducks, and cats are bred, the chickens for food and the goats and ducks for sale to the Malays.

Industrial Arts. Bamboo, rattan, and pandanus are the basic raw materials. Bark cloth from four species of tree is now worn only ritually. Basketry is sophisticated, especially among settled groups. Aboriginal pottery making and metallurgy apparently disappeared as a consequence of the need to flee from slavers. Bamboo rafts and, rarely, dugouts are used for water transport.

Trade. Traditional Senoi share on the basis of need rather than trade with one another. Silent trade with the Semang is no longer important. Rattan, resin, lumber, fruits, and butterflies are traded with Malay or Chinese dealers for metal tools, salt, cloth, tobacco, and sugar or sold for money. The Jah Hut, with government encouragement, sell sculpture to tourists. Traditional Temiar trade was handled by two mikong, men descended from Thais married to Temiar women. These trusted intermediaries distributed machetes and other trade goods among their clients.

Division of Labor. Although there are no formal sanctions and many exceptions occur, there is a statistical division of labor by sex with men hunting, making blowpipes and traps, and felling large trees and women gathering plant products and making and fishing with baskets. Male and female activities are often complementary, as in planting and house building.

Land Tenure. A family has exclusive rights to the land it clears until it stops producing food. Ties between bands and their sakaq are sentimental, not jural. Land cannot be sold. Neither British nor Malay law recognizes Senoi land rights.


Kin Groups and Descent. Nuclear families, which own the fields, are unstable but basic. Extended families and households, mutually hard to distinguish, are less important. The local group, usually a village but sometimes several villages, has corporate ties to a sakaq. As people move to a new sakaq freely, local groups often split or coalesce. Owners retain rights to trees after moving. Larger kin groups including kindreds (west Semai, jek ) and ramages (west Semai, guw ) spread through several sakaq and do not include affines. Ramages occur within major watersheds because of the easy travel on the river, with the groups taking their names from the rivers. Members sometimes cooperate in fish drives. Although ramages are seen as territorial, the west Semai talk of affiliation on the basis of descent from a common ancestor. Informal age grading is reflected in the kinship terminology, which has a special designation for an adolescent who has not yet settled down.

Kinship Terminology. There are differences among the six Senoi groups in the emphasis placed on lineality and generation in kinship terminology: Central Aslian distinguishes elder and younger siblings but not brother and sister; South Aslian distinguishes elder brothers from elder sisters; Semelai distinguishes nonlineal from lineal kin in the parents' generation. With some exceptions, Semai and Temiar use one term per generation for the six generations above and one below oneself. Kin terms also reflect informal age grades of neonate, child, adolescent boy/girl, old woman/man. Teknonymy is widely used and people are expected to use respectful teknonyms for mature and old people, at least so long as their children are young enough to need such protection.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Casual east Semai and Temiar liasons shade into marriage with little ritual, although local elders may intervene in inappropriate teenage love affairs. Other Senoi have modified Malay weddings. West Semai have a form of bride-price. Less than 5 percent of marriages are polygynous, sometimes sororal. These marriages are often unstable, as first wives feel neglected and leave. West Semai polygynists usually have wives in separate settlements, spending some time with each. Only the Temiar have polyandry, often fraternal. East Semai brothers have limited access to each other's wives, if the wives consent. Since most sakaq residents are kin, marriage tends to be exogamous. Postmarital residence is ambilocal, with the couple living first in the wife's sakaq, then the husband's, then the wife's again and so on until they settle. Divorce is common, often following long periods of living apart. Children and the parents decide on where the children will then live.

Domestic Unit. Nuclear families predominate in most Senoi groups, with extended families found in all groups, ranging from the hill Temiar longhouses to the more amorphous arrangements resulting from overcrowding among the east Semai.

Inheritance. Land goes to the surviving spouse, with siblings or children receiving movable goods, depending on the need. West Semai divide land or trees acquired after marriage equally between widow (er) s and close blood relatives of the deceased.

Sociopolitical Organization

After the traditional social structure was destroyed by slave raiding, Senoi government was consensual. Persuasive people, usually men, were "elders." Taboos against interfering in individual autonomy, expressed as taboos against violence, left no sanctions available to elders who were not persuasive enough to keep people from ignoring them or from moving away. Thus verbal facility, not wealth or generosity, was the prime prerequisite for leadership. Spiritual wisdom generated through contact with familiar spirits and manifested in dreams was also important, so that rivals might criticize a man for representing his wife's dreams as his own. The end of slaving in the 1930s increased contact with outsiders who wanted to deal with "spokesmen," thus creating Senoi "headmen," who almost always were men modeled on the outsider's own pattern. A Communist insurrection in the 1950s speeded the infiltration of state sovereignty into the interior, as the British made headmanship official by giving a letter of investiture as headman to one man in each band, following the model established by the Malay sultans for the dependent Senoi. The emphasis on individual autonomy still limits a headman's authority, and other elders (west Semai "field heads," for example) retain some power. Ultimate authority rests with the Malay-run Jabatan Orang Asli (Indigenes' Department).

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Fear of violence and respect for individual autonomy pervade Senoi life. Children, who are especially vulnerable, need protection by taboos, but parents will infringe a taboo to see if it applies to their particular child. Parents may threaten boisterous children to make them stop behavior that is believed to unleash thunder squalls; but because they regard children as controlling their own lives they will ask children barely old enough to talk if they want a penicillin shot. Everyone fears thunder squalls, but individuals, not communities, make the "blood sacrifice" that appeases storms. For the Senoi, human beings are free, alone, and in constant danger. Individual autonomy applies to religious belief, creating a formless animism. The cosmic order is seen as so fragile that people must always be careful not to destroy it and unleash obscene, ravening horrors into the world, a belief that may be related to the slaving experience. People, most animals, and other entities have several detachable "souls" each. Pain spirits abound. Jah Hut carvings give outsiders some insight into the Senoi spirit world. Christian missionaries were active in the 1930s, producing the first written text. Government proselytizing for Islam is unpopular.

Religious Practitioners. People become "adept" by having familiars. A familiar appears in dreams, attracted by a dreamer's body. A dreamer who chooses to adopt the familiar becomes adept, able with the familiar's help to diagnose and cure diseases caused by pain spirits. Women may reject the offer, since trance is exhausting, but some become "adept" anyway, as midwives. Midwives and adepts tend to marry one another.

Ceremonies. Spirits are so timid that most ceremonies are conducted in darkness at night. Because spirits love fragrance and beauty, dark ceremonial areas are decked with flowers and fragrant leaves. Adepts sing to attract their familiars. Spirit possession and trance occur everywhere but take local forms. Ceremonies, usually lasting two or six nights, are held only for diseases involving pain spirits or loss of spiritual health by individuals (midwives, pregnant women) or communities. The only annual ceremony is after the rice harvest, now synchronized with the Chinese New Year. Teknonymy for both parents begins with pregnancy. Both the pre- and postnatal periods contain ritual restrictions, most of which apply to the mother.

Death and Afterlife. Everyone has several souls, but it is the shadows that become ghosts. Corpses are buried across the stream from the settlement, as ghosts cannot cross running water. Great adepts may be afforded a tree burial. The former practice of abandoning a settlement after someone dies is no longer followed. Mourning lasts a week to a month, during which there are taboos on making music, dancing, and getting dressed up. Six days after the burial a feast "closes the grave." Despite the use of grave goods and vague ideas about a flower-fragrant afterlife, the Senoi are dubious about life after death.

See also Semang; Temiar


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