Headhunting among Iban in Sarawak is clearly an important markets niche for sustainable tourism in Malaysia especially Sarawak.
Interestingly, although headhunting is no longer allowed to take place but historically they used to practice headhunting and the culture still remains a key part in their society. They were particularly renowned for practicing headhunting and tribal territorial expansion.
Before Brooke Raj (1841-1946) dynasty of British Rajah that ruled Sarawak, particular the period of British colonialism, being a very strong and successful warring tribe, the Ibans were a strong and much feared warring tribe in Borneo.
Headhunting believed to have started with a growing population, creating pressures on limited amounts of productive land, the Iban fought aggressively to intrude into lands belonging to other tribes. Most often, the only way for them to survive through confrontation often was resulting in death.
During colonial period, the British termed them as Sea Dayaks. Traditionally, they lived in longhouses (Rumah Panjang). However, some have move to the city to get a better living and mostly became businessman or engineer. They still maintain ties with their ancestral longhouses.
The traditional longhouse is built of axe-hewn timber, tied with creeper fibre, roofed with leaf thatch and mainly located near the river side which offer easy accessible by boat.
The long covered gallery that runs the length of an Iban longhouse is called the Ruai. Led by two important officials, each settlement has the “tuah burong” (religious head) whom takes care of all religious activities; and the “tuah rumah” (village head) who is the administrator and custodian of Iban customary law and the arbiter in community conflicts.
Although farming is the main occupation but the yields are not self-sufficient and they must buy additional food. The cash crops they grow are fruits, pepper, rubber, cocoa, and oil palm.
Hunting wild animals in the jungle is one of the sources of income for the family. Traditionally, they hunted by setting traps or using blowpipes, but today they use special trained dog to identify the smell and tracks down the prey while hunting.
Rice agriculture is a highly ritualized activity and is really a complete way of life, rather than merely an economic pursuit. Nearly all of their religious ritual has to do with ensuring the success of the crop. Rice is believed to have a soul and at the annual Gawai Dayak, the rice harvest festival, many Iban gathers to witness the rice spirit appeasement ceremony.
Most longhouses are equipped with modern facilities such as electricity, pipe water supply, tar roads, telephone lines and the internet.
The majority is Christian but some converted to Islam although traditionally they were animist. Many continue to observe both Christian and traditional ceremonies, particularly during marriages or festivals.
The Iban today are becoming increasing urbanized while retaining most of their tradition. The dynamic relations between Iban and societies have produced profound changes in Iban society and culture. Although many converts to Christianity but they still continue to practice traditional creameries, particularly with duo marriage rite and important harvest and ancestral festival such as Gawai.
The days were long gone but the struggle for life is an unforgettable memoir of passion and redemption. Although the Iban is free themselves from the legacy of headhunting but they had created a collective sense of loss and nostalgia. One needs to appreciate the nostalgia that underlay their participation and contribution to nation building.