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LOCATION: Indonesia (island of Sumba, Lesser Sunda chain)
POPULATION: 611,000 (island, 2005)
LANGUAGE: Wewewa (or Waidjewa) in the west, and Kambera in the east
RELIGION: Protestantism; Catholicism; traditional belief system
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Indonesians


The export of sandalwood and horses has linked Sumba to international markets since the earliest times; the 14th-century Javanese poem, the "Nagarakrtagama," lists Sumba as a Majapahit "vassal," though in actuality this meant little more than a commercial relationship. In the 17th century, the sultanate of Bima (on Sumbawa) extended a loose hegemony over the island's chiefdoms; at the same time, Makassarese influence also reached the island. Local rulers amassed great wealth, particularly in gold, through the sale of slaves to Muslim dealers from off-island. Reaching its peak in the 18th century but continuing well into the next, the slave trade virtually depopulated the center of the island.

In 1756, the Dutch concluded a contract with a coalition of Sumbanese chiefs. However, it was only around 1900 that the Dutch began to intervene in local politics, controlling the island through the chiefs already in power, renaming them "rajas." In 1886, a Catholic mission was established but soon abandoned. In 1906, the Dutch commenced the formal pacification of the island, installing an administrator six years later. The situation remained unsettled for some time, the garrison troops being replaced by police forces only in 1933. The Dutch ruled (and taxed) the island through its traditional elite, whose power colonialism actually increased; the elite also perpetuated their dominance by accessing the modern education newly introduced by Christian missionary organizations, education that gave their children the credentials to be appointed as officials. In 1962, the Indonesian republic replaced the old administrative divisions based on traditional "kingdoms" with a system of districts under district heads (camat).

Although the island remained the least developed part of one of Indonesia's least developed provinces, Suharto's New Order regime (1966-1978) did invest in schools, roads, electrification, and healthcare. Since subsistence agriculture has remained the primary means of livelihood (tourism grew but only minimally because of the limited infrastructure), infusions from the central government, particularly in the form of bureaucratic salaries, represent a relatively large portion of the local GDP. Thus, securing a government job not only for the salary itself but also for the opportunities for corruption, is the main way available for a person to lift himself and his extended family out of the poverty endured by the general population. Competition for government positions has been fierce between ethnic groups ("tribes," clans) on Sumba.

In the uncertain conditions after Suharto was forced to give up power and amidst national economic collapse and a regional drought, this competition erupted into one case of mass violence: in November 1998 in Waikabubak, the capital of West Sumba regency, a protest against corruption in the civil service exams directed against the regency's current bupati (head administrator), a member of the Wewewa tribe, evolved into a battle between the Loli and Wewewa tribes, in which over a hundred people were killed. The bupati's chief opponent had long been the head of the regency parliament, a Loli. The town, once a magnet for tourists because of the traditional hilltop villages around which it had grown, was devastated. Traditional reconciliation ceremonies, appeals to Christian brotherhood, and police reinforcements from the East Nusa Tenggara provincial capital of Kupang in West Timor attempted to keep the peace thereafter.


The island of Sumba (area: 11,153 sq km or 4,306 sq mi) belongs to the Lesser Sunda chain, lying south of Flores and Sumbawa across a narrow strait and east from Timor across the Savu Sea. Like Timor, the island lacks volcanoes. Much of the interior, especially towards the west, consists of irregular hills; the eastern part, in particular, is very hot and dry. The population (611,000 in 2005, up from 415,000 persons in 1988 and 250,000 persons in 1960) is concentrated in an interior plateau whose extensive grasslands can support grazing and small-scale agriculture. In the 19th century, the Dutch sponsored the settlement of Christians from the neighboring island of Savu; Muslim Endenese from Flores had already settled at points along the coast, originally engaged in the export of Sumbanese slaves.


The Sumbanese speak several closely related Austronesian languages: Wewewa (or Wejewa), Anakulangu, Kodi, Lamboya, Laura, Mamboru, and Wanukaka in the west, and Kambera (divided into numerous dialects of its own) in the east. Outside the island, the Sumbanese languages find their closest affinities with Manggarai (Flores), Bimanese (Sumbawa), and Savunese.


Traditional beliefs and mythology are still prevalent among the Sumbanese, even though Christianity has come to be the dominant religion. Sumbanese mythology includes many spirit figures, from the Creator to the ancestors (see Religion).


In recent decades, Protestantism has come to claim 51% of the population in East Sumba and 34% in West Sumba, while the Catholic population now includes 20% of the total in West Sumba. Adherents of the traditional belief system, however, still number a relatively high 39% in East Sumba and a similar percentage in West Sumba.

Marapu is the generic term for the spirits and the spirit world. The highest deities include a Creator figure, a Mother Moon, and a Great Mother/Great Father. In addition, innumerable "Lords and Protectors" (of fields, houses, wells, etc.) are recognized. Some ancestral spirits are deified. Clan priests (ratu) communicate with the marapu through blood sacrifices, food offerings, and invocations at altars (racks, posts, or stones in houses, fields, and the bush). For instance, before hunting, one sacrifices a rooster to Marapu Ponda, the god of hunting. Religious celebrations accompanying hunting, house-building, weddings, and funerals provide an occasion for gift-exchange among linked kin-groups. Lengthy all-night recitals transmit stories (li ndai) about the creation of world, the descent of humans to a mythical mountaintop, the dispersal of ancestral clans, and the wanderings of clan founders.

Sumbanese social life is still in great part regulated by the Marapu religion and its rituals, and so even Sumbanese Christians living outside the clan "mother villages" where traditional practices are maintained continue to respect the authority of the ratu.


The New Year's festival (Wula Padu) is celebrated at the beginning of the agricultural year (the start of the rainy season); a "first fruits" celebration is held at harvest time. Every four to eight years, village renewal festivals take place; ancestral spirits are invited to join.

The culmination of the annual fertility rites is the Pasola, timed for the first appearance of multicolored nyale seaworms (a delicacy) on shore (after the second or third full moon of the solar year). The worms are said to be the transformed body of Nyale, the beautiful daughter of the Moon King; taking pity on the sufferings of humanity, she threw herself into the sea as a sacrifice. The Pasola includes the ritual plowing of a sacred paddy field. Young men and women gather at the beach to watch boxing matches meant to draw blood to appease the spirits. Priests observe how abundant the worms are in order to determine prospects for the harvest. The highlight of the festival is a battle between two teams of 150 mounted warriors each. Although the warriors use blunted spears, the fighting can get bloody. In the past, death was common and regarded as punishment meted out by the marapu for infractions of custom. The wounded could expiate their transgressions through sacrifices of chicken and pigs. The spilled blood purifies the participants' villages for the coming year and ensures the health of the crops.


A child receives his or her name when one day old. Prayers to the marapu for an infant's safety and longevity accompany his or her first haircutting; an uncle brings a pig for the following feast, receiving a horse from the father in return. Boys undergo circumcision, while girls undergo tattooing and tooth filing.

Elders arrange marriages; for aristocrats, complicated negotiations are required. A representative of the boy's side, the wunang, delivers the proposal in euphemistic language, referring to the prospective bride as a "bundle of rice." Marriage by elopement is also common. Before taking the girl to his house, the young man leaves a gold chain under her pillow and a horse in the yard to inform her parents of the abduction. Upon arriving home, he beats a gong and distributes gifts to his relatives as a sign of the union. If amenable, the girl's side sends a wunang to negotiate, sending a cloth symbolizing their having raised the girl; the boy's side replies by sending them water and wild figs. Now, the families can set the bride-price and the wedding date. Weddings entail the exchange of goods between the families: the groom's side gives "masculine" goods (gold, spears, slaves, horses), and the bride's side gives "feminine" goods (textiles, beads, pigs, ivory).

For the funerals of nobles, large numbers of water buffalo are slaughtered, and textiles and other valuable goods are destroyed as a display of status. Government regulations limit animal sacrifice to five animals so that no one bankrupts themselves. The rites extend over several years in order to accumulate wealth for a secondary burial. Aristocratic tombs consist of huge stone sarcophagi under enormous slabs; in West Sumba, 40 men labored two years to carve a 30-ton grave slab. The largest tomb on the island was built in 1971 at Gulabakul; 2,000 men were needed to drag the 70-ton slab.


In East Sumba, an individual's identity traditionally derives from the independent domain (tana) to which he or she belongs (of which there are 50). Each tana has a fortified hilltop ceremonial center, the paraing. Within a tana, four clans share the title of kabihu mangu tana ("those who possess the land") and have the right to lead agricultural rituals. The TamuUmbu, the ruler of the tana, is determined theoretically by primogeniture, but oratorical skills and other leadership qualities may favor a younger son or other relative. The ruler's dwelling houses the treasure coming down from the marapu and serves as the temple for the whole tana. The ruler is empowered to deal with other tana and with foreign traders, on whom he levies duties on horse and cattle exports.

Society was traditionally divided into two broad endogamous classes: the tau kabihu ("humans") who possess land rights based on kin-group membership and clanless tau ata (slaves). The latter included ata ndai (servants) and ata bidi (war captives and violators of custom) and ranged from well-off household servants and artisans to field-hands and, formerly, the objects of human sacrifice. The elite (maramba) were descended most directly from the marapu, a status inheritable through paternal and maternal lines. This class had greater access to land, being able to afford to maintain wet-rice fields, as well as sumptuary privileges; lower-ranking tau kabihu were clients of maramba. An elite family traditionally gained prestige through sponsoring religious festivals at which it could display wealth in the form of water buffalo, horses, textiles, and jewelry, sometimes involving the potlatch-like destruction of these goods while extolling praise of the clan. Many former rulers have taken positions within the local administration under the Indonesian republic.


In 2005, the two regencies of Sumba had an average Human Development Index (combining measures of income, health, and education) of 59.7, significantly less than that of East Nusa Tenggara province as a whole (63.6) but dramatically below that of Indonesia as a whole (69.6). East Sumba's HDI was much lower than West Sumba's in 1999, and now the former's GDP per capita is much higher than the latter's, us$3,507 vs. us$2,236, the third lowest in East Nusa Tenggara, whose provincial GDP per capita in turn is the second lowest in Indonesia (cf. us$9,784 for West Sumatra, us$8,360 for North Sulawesi, and us$6,293 for Central Java; and us$3,427 for East Nusa Tenggara as a whole). In 2000, the rate of infant mortality stood at 56.65 deaths per 1,000 live births for West Sumba, only slightly lower than the rate for the province as a whole (56.65), comparable to much more developed provinces, such as South Sulawesi and West Java. East Sumba, on the other hand, had an IMR of 65.62, comparable to Central Kalimantan and Banten, also more developed provinces.

Half of the year, people live away from the main village in scattered settlements near their swidden (shifting-cultivation) fields, although today more Sumbanese are living in riverside villages, while maintaining their clan ties and ritual obligations to the ancestral village. This fortified hilltop home village (the paraing) serves also as a ceremonial center. Clan houses face a central square containing the stone slab graves of prominent ancestors and a dead tree upon which skulls were formerly hung (the slabs are also used for tasks such as drying rice). Tombs, taking the shape of the canoes that brought the ancestors to Sumba, are also built on hillsides.

The clan house (uma kabihu) is a large rectangular structure supported on piles. Supported by four massive center posts, its thatched roof rises gently from all sides then rises sharply to a center ridge; a statue of a chicken (a fertility symbol) stands on the roof. High up under the roof is the place for storing the marapu heirlooms. A veranda runs along the front side. There are separate entrances for the sexes, as well as a gender-divided interior.

The uma kabihu housed members of a patrilineal clan segment and served as a clan temple; the right front corner post is where offerings are laid and the officiating priest stands near it at ceremonies.

Ordinary houses (uma kamudungu) are of wood and have nonpeaked roofs of plaited grass or bamboo (today often of corrugated iron).


The kabihu is a patrilineal clan whose segments are scattered in different locales. Each clan has a senior branch, the "great house," most directly descended from the umbu, the founder who first obtained the right to settle the land of a given area (often in a mythical age).

A peculiarity of the kin terminology is that one's father's sister's daughter and one's mother's brother's daughter are distinguished from other cousins. At least one son in a family should be wedded to his mother's brother's daughter, although the uncle could be fictive kin. Each kabihu is exogamous, but marriage exchange is between kabihu within the same village with one clan wife-giving (jera, higher in status) and the other wife-taking (laija). Marriage links over generations impose numerous ritual and economic obligations. If a man dies before the bride-price is paid, his brother fulfills the obligation by marrying his brother's widow.

East Sumba regency has a Human Development Index (combining measures of income, health, and education) of 59.6 (2005 score), lower than that of East Nusa Tenggara province as a whole (63.6) but far below that of Indonesia as a whole (69.6). East Sumba's GDP per capita is US $3,507, above that of East Nusa Tenggara as a whole, us$3,427, the second lowest in Indonesia the second lowest in East Nusa Tenggara (cf. us$9,784 for West Sumatra, us$8,360 for North Sulawesi, and us$6,293 for Central Java). In 2000, the rate of infant mortality in East Sumba stood at 77.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, the highest in the province (provincial rate was 56.65). The corresponding figures for West Sumba regency (2005 HDI, 59.8) differed somewhat, with GDP per capital substantially lower yet the infant mortality also lower.


Female attire consists of the lau, a tube skirt that includes some bands of warp ikat, a type of tie-dyeing (ceremonial skirts include other types of decoration, e.g., beadwork). In the villages, younger women are now wearing blouses. Men wear a hinggi consisting of two rectangular pieces of cloth sewn together; one piece is wrapped around the hips, the other draped over the shoulders as a mantle. One type is the hinggi kombu, a cloth of blue and rust ikat. Deeper shades are produced by tedious multiple dyeings. The dyes are derived from indigo and kombu tree bark; the cloth is treated with plant oils.


See the article entitled Indonesians .


In 2005, the level of literacy stood at 72.93% for West Sumba and 81.14 for East Sumba, both lower than that for the East Nusa Tenggara as a whole (84.95) and quite low for Indonesia (West Sumba's was only a little higher than Papua's, and East Sumba's was between West Nusa Tenggara's (78.79) and South Sulawesi's (84.6) (See also the article entitled Indonesians .)


Among the better-known performing arts are the Kataga, a war dance of West Sumba; and the Lii Marapu, tales of the creation of the first humans and the ancestors of the Sumbanese told during the Wula Padu (New Year) celebration by clan leaders.


Sumbanese engage in small-scale farming supplemented by stock-raising and the exchange of goods. Rice is the staple food and is also ritually important, grown in aristocrat-owned irrigated fields in the valleys. Maize is cultivated in swidden fields. People keep year-round gardens and fruit trees. Large herds of wild horses roam the island; Sumbanese capture them for mounts or to trade off-island. Since the 1920s, Bengal cattle have been raised for export. Water buffalo provide meat for ritual feasts and serve as a measure of wealth. Sumbanese traded horses, buffalo, and ikat textiles for gongs, coins, gold jewelry, ivory, beads, and porcelain from Makassarese, Bimanese, and Endenese merchants. The intra-island exchange system, operating along ties of kinship and marital alliance, circulated regional craft products, rice, and imported goods.


See the article entitled Indonesians .


See the article entitled Indonesians .


Sumba is famous for its ikat (tie-dyed) textiles, exported off-island since the 19th century. Using home back-strap looms, women weave patterns from memory (learned from their mothers). Among the great variety of motifs are horses and buffaloes in profile, birds, lizards, open-mouthed dogs, climbing monkeys, rampant cats, Chinese-derived dragons, lions of Dutch origin, Indian patola patterns, standing human figures with arms akimbo or praying, and skull trees. Traditional colors were blue-and-white fabrics for commoners; nobles' cloths added reds. Ikat shrouds protect the body waiting for burial and ensure a safe journey and well-being in the afterlife.

Tombstones are often ornately carved, often with human figures.


See the article entitled Indonesians .


The Gender-Related Development Index (combining measures of women's health, education, and income relative to men's) for West Sumba (2002 score) is 51.6, far below both that of Indonesia as a whole national (59.2) and that of East Nusa Tenggara as a whole (56.3). The two regencies' Gender Empowerment Measures (reflecting women's participation and power in political and economic life relative to men's) were, respectively, 42.2 and 48.5, also far lower than the national GEM of 54.6 but close to the provincial GEM of 46.2).

Sumbanese culture, like those of eastern Indonesia generally, is characterized by allied clans exchanging brides and valuables. A Sumbanese woman's life is shaped by the experience of being moved from her father's house to her husband's house (as opposed to the case in many western Indonesian cultures where it is very often the husband who moves in with the bride's family or even remains virtually a temporary sojourner in his wife's family house). Men have access to the ancestral spirits of the patrilineal clan; women, as outsiders who have married in, do not have such access. On the other hand, women's ritual activity (including what is termed "witchcraft") focuses on "wild" spirits resident in forests, streams, coral reefs, and the depths of the sea and promotes the welfare of individuals and individual families rather than not that of the larger corporate groups defined by worship of common patrilineal ancestors.


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Kuipers, Joel C. "Talking About Troubles: Gender Differences in Weyéwa Ritual Speech Use." In Power and Difference: Gender in Island Southeast Asia, edited by Jane Monnig Atkinson and Shelley Errington. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.

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—revised by A. J. Abalahin