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Ethnic Groups in the Northeast Region of Indonesian Borneo and the Social Organizations

Reprinted from Borneo Research Bulletin 15:38–45, 1983.

G. N. Appell
Brandeis University


From December, 1980, through August, 1981, we undertook ethnographic field work in Kalimantan Timur. We had earlier in the summer of 1980 attempted to continue our long-term study of Rungus society and Rungus oral literature. However, the Sabah Government, after initially encouraging us, refused to permit us to conduct research, as it has in the past. We were similarly discouraged from engaging in ethnographic field work in Brunei and Sarawak. Consequently, I, with my wife and three daughters as field assistants, applied to LIPI to undertake field work in Kalimantan Timur under the sponsorship of the Population Studies Centre at Gadjah Mada University. This was approved, and we subsequently obtained local sponsorship of our research from the University of Mulawarman as well.

Our research goal in Kalimantan Timur was to find an ethnic group where we could initiate a long-term study of their social organization, language, and oral literature similar to that we had planned among the Rungus. To this end we conducted ethnographic surveys in the Sebuku River drainage basin and in the Sekatak, Batayau, and River basins of the northeast section of Kalimantan Timur.


The Agabag Tinggalan

At the present time the main section of the Sebuku River up to Pembeliangan is occupied by Tidung people. At Pembeliangan the river divides into two branches, the Tulid and the Tikung. In these branches of the Sebuku River are found speakers of Idahan Murut isoglots (Appell 1968). We surveyed the Tulid branch.

The Idahan Murut in this region traditionally call themselves Agabag, which is derived from the lexeme for "loincloth." an exonym for these speakers and perhaps related speakers has been the term "Tinggalan" (alternatively rendered Tenggalan), which has been in use since the late 1800's. I have suggested that it might be productive for the ethnic terminology of Borneo to use a binominial system with the first term being the autonym, and italicized, while the second term would indicate the general linguistic family to which the group belongs, and would therefore be an exonym (Appell 1968). Consequently, I have called the Idahan Murut speakers in the upper reaches of the Sebuku River Agabag Tinggalan.

However, we should be cautious in this since the term "Agabag" may in fact be an earlier exonym which has been subsumed by these peoples.

I should also make clear that it was extraordinarily difficult to interview on the ethnic terminology of the region. Previously the exonym "Tinggalan" had become well established among the indigenous peoples. More recently, however, the term Orang Pedalaman, "people of the interior," has been the term the local Indonesian government has decreed appropriate to refer to these people. Therefore, in eliciting ethnic terminology we would frequently get either the term "Tinggalan" or Orang Pedalaman."

The Tulid Agabag no longer live in their traditional villages. Several years ago the government brought them down from their traditional areas, many above difficult rapids, and have aggregated them into three resettlement areas. While the Agabag traditionally lived in longhouses, the Indonesian government has decreed that they should live in individual houses, and they have been told to take up one of the approved world religions in place of their own.

The Tulid Agabag are swidden agriculturalists with a primary dependence on manioc rather than rice. Marriage involves a bride-price, and residence after marriage is virilocal.

I have previously argued that as far as we knew all the societies of Borneo were cognatic (Appell 1976a). However, I have also argued at various times (Appell 1973, 1976b) that the classification of societies into unilineal and cognatic in essence distorts ethnographic reality. The Tulid Agabag provide a good example of this argument.

All the male descendants of the purchaser of a large funerary jar have the right also to be buried in that jar. Bones are removed periodically. These are put in coffins and buried underground to make place for newer corpses. Also, the virilocally residing wives of men entitled to burial in these jars have the right to be interred in these large expensive funerary jars by reason of their marriage.

This in no sense can be considered a corporate descent group but is what I have termed previously a jural collectivity, in this case a funerary jar focused jural collectivity (Appell 1983, ms.). The rights lie with the individual members rather than the group as an entity of its own. Unfortunately there was not sufficient time to go into jural cases at length during our stay among the Agabag, and I assume it was a jural collectivity, although it may have been in fact a jural aggregate (see Appell 1976c, n.d.).

This traditional culture of the Agabag was disrupted by confrontation. Since then there have been extensive changes brought about by resettlement and Christianization. Therefore, after an inquiry of approximately two weeks, we decided not to continue our work among them but instead to work among the Bulusu'.


In the lower reaches of these rivers are found Bulungan and Tidung settlements. The middle reaches are inhabited by an ethnic group called Bulusu'. And in the highlands are found Punan.

The Bulusu’

The Bulusu' are also known as "Berusu" or "Brusu." Their preferred autonym is, however, "Bulusu'." The Bulusu' inhabit primarily the Sekatak, Bengara, and Batayau Rivers. A few villages can also be found on the right bank of the Mentarang River as well as some of its southern tributaries.

It is difficult to assess the linguistic affiliation of the Bulusu' at the present time. It is clear that their language is most closely related to the Tidung language, and they themselves recognize this close affiliation while pointing out how divergent their language is from other neighboring languages.

Traditionally, the Bulusu' are longhouse dwellers and swidden agriculturalists. Post-nuptial residence is virilocal, and a bride-price is required of gongs, jars, cannons, and various other items.

Bride-price payment in Borneo may be divided into two types: corporate and redistributive. Corporate bride-price is found among the various Dusunic-speaking peoples. In this situation, the domestic family of the bridegroom pays a bride-price from its accumulated assets to the domestic family of the bride, which adds these assets to its accumulated earnings.

In the redistributive type of bride-price, the bride-price is constituted not only from the assets of the groom's domestic family. The father of the groom also borrows additional required items both from his network of kin as well as the network of kin of his wife, the groom's mother. The father of the bride receives the bride-price and redistributes it among his network of kin and the network of kin of the bride's mother in repayment for outstanding loans of brassware, jars, etc., as well as in repayment for contributing to the marriage feast.

The Bulusu' method of bride-price is the redistributive type.

The development cycle of the Bulusu' domestic family differs from that of the Iban or the Rungus. The longhouse compartment holds a patrilateral extended family. Typically it is composed of the parents and their sons, the sons' wives, and the sons' children. However, this unit is essentially a consumption rather than a production unit. There is one hearth, but each nuclear family has its own swidden and its own swidden house. Each nuclear family spends much of their time in their swidden house during the agricultural year. But when they are living together in the longhouse apartment each one contributes food from their own swidden to the domestic economy.

A son will remain in his father's apartment until his children have reached a marriageable age. He will then build his own longhouse apartment from which his children marry, and the three generational structure is created again. The eldest son remains in his parent's apartment to care for them in their old age.

I have drawn attention to the two basic types of land tenure systems in Borneo (Appell, 1971, Appell n.d.). These are, with of course various subtypes, as follows: the Rungus system or what I have termed the "circulating system" and the "contingent system," which occurs among the Iban, Kayan, and Kenyah. In both systems the village owns residual rights over a territory in which the resident members cultivate their swiddens. In the circulating system, no individual or family can establish permanent use rights over an area by felling primary jungle. Instead each year after a family unit has removed all its agricultural produce from its swidden area, the area reverts to the area of disposal of the village. And any other farming unit in the village may use that swidden for its own new swidden when sufficient forest cover has grown up.

In the other system, permanent use rights may be established by a farming unit clearing primary jungle. I have termed this system the "contingent land tenure system" because these rights are contingent on residence. These use rights are held by the farming unit and its successors as long as they remain resident in the village. One leaving the village these rights revert to the village and its area of disposal.

The Bulusu' have a very interesting variation of the circulating land tenure system. The swidden area reverts to the village area of disposal unless it is planted in fruit trees. Fruit trees are significantly more important among the Bulusu' than other peoples in Borneo I have worked with. While the Rungus plant small groves of fruit trees, the Bulusu' during a fruiting season will plant a whole swidden with trees. And the rights to these trees belong to the cognatic descendants of the planter. However, this is only done after a major fruiting season, which only occurs irregularly, anywhere from three to seven years, after an unusually dry spell which permits the flowers to be fertilized and the fruit to set.

I should like to point out that this system of Bulusu’ land tenure occurs in an area of extreme rainfall, contrary to my original hypothesis on the possible ecological determinants of land tenure. There appears to be no predictable dry season in the Bulusu’ region, and so planting is timed only in terms of minimizing bird pests.

The Punan

At the headwaters of the various rivers in the Bulusu’ territory and in the height of land between water sheds, in what I have referred to as “the Punan highlands,” are found various Punan groups. They refer to themselves as Punan, but I believe that this was originally an exonym.

The language of these Punan groups is markedly different from the Bulusu’. In fact, in intermarriages between Punan and of Bulusu’ the use of the Punan language in the family has resulted in cause for divorce because of the inability of a Bulusu’ woman to know what is being talked about.

From the Punan highlands down to the traditional Bulusu’ villages, here is a steady cultural and genetic gradation from Punan to Bulusu’ populations and Bulusu’ culture. In the upper reaches of the rivers are found impermanent Punan settlements in which the economy is based on hunting and gathering and the planting of some cassava. Farther downstream are found settlements of Punan with some admixture of Bulusu’. Rice is cultivated and longhouses are used, although it is my impression that these longhouses are smaller and less elaborate than in full Bulusu’ villages. Even in these latter villages male Punan can be found. For when a Punan male wishes to learn rice agriculture and give up hunting and gathering, he will marry a Bulusu’ female. Living with his father-in-law for a number of years he learns the techniques of longhouse building and swidden farming.

However, this is not to imply that the Punan settlements in the Punan highlands are composed solely of Punan. There you do find an occasional Bulusu’ or a Bulusu’-Punan mixture and in one instance which I know of there has been a Tidung male who has married in and lives with a Punan-Bulusu’ wife.

The Tidung-Bulungan

My remarks on the Tidung and Bulungan ethnic group will be abbreviated here for lack of time.

There is considerable intermarriage between the Tidung and Bulungan so that a new ethnic category is developing: the Tidung-Bulungan.

We found Beech’s work (1908), which has been one of the reference points in our understanding of the Tidung and Bulungan in the past, to be full of errors. We collected materials to correct this dictionary as well as some of the conclusions he reached. One of his conclusions was that the Tidung and Bulungan languages are fairly closely related, but this is certainly not true. As I mentioned, the Tidung are most closely related to the Bulusu’.

His conclusion that the Tidung did migrate from the interior to the coast has been substantiated by the data we gathered, but the evidence on which he drew his conclusion was false. The term “Tidung” does not mean “hill” or “mountain,” as he indicated. From Nunukan south through Tarakan and into the Bulusu’ area we were constantly corrected on this assumption. There is a minimal pair Tidung:tidong. The first refers to the ethnic group and the second refers to hills or mountains.


Cline of Intermarriages

Punan males marry Bulusu’ females. And Bulusu’ females also marry into the Tidung-Bulungan category. Therefore, there should be on balance more males than females in Bulusu’ society. This does not seem to be the case. The obvious conclusion that can be drawn is that the Bulusu’ are producing significantly more females than males. But we have not yet had time to analyze all our genealogical data to verify this impressionistic conclusion. Intermarriages are only part of a complex series of exchanges that link these societies together.

Cultural Differences in Cognitive Processes

Our work in Indonesian Borneo resulted in one interesting discovery about differences between cultures in cognitive processes. I have found it useful to distinguish cultures whose cognitive organization is primarily based on digital information processing from cultures where the processing is analog.

The Rungus Dusun and American science primarily use digital processes for organizing information. That is, boundaries of phenomena are clearly distinguished and members of a category are defined by the presence or absence of particular characteristics. In the analog approach boundaries are indistinct and items may be considered in two different categories depending on the social environment. That is, categories are defined by the degree to which a characteristic is present, and this is, of course, always open to negotiation (see Dentan 1970, Appell 1973).

In contrast to the Rungus, we found in Indonesian Borneo that cognitive processes are largely analog. Boundaries are unclear, categories are organized in terms of degree of essential characteristics, and these are open to interpretation by anyone. This approach is represented in the comment made about Indonesia: “Everything can be negotiated.”

I am not too sure the degree to which this observation pertains to the indigenous cultures of Indonesian Borneo rather than to the Indonesian national culture. However, we hope to explore this idea further and provide examples of it from our field data in the near future.

1. I gratefully acknowledge support of this research from the National Science Foundation (Grant No. BNS-7915343) and the Ford Foundation. I want to thank my wife, Laura W. R. Appell, and my three daughters, Laura P., Amity C. P., and Charity R., for their help in this research. I also want to thank LIPI for their support and particularly Dr. Masri Singarimbun, Director, Population Study Center, Gadjah Mada University, for his valuable advise and sponsorship. I am indebted also to Dr. Soetrisno Hadi, Rektor, Universitas Mulawarman, and Bupati Soetadji of Bulungan for their many kindnesses and help.

Appell, G. N. 1968. The Dusun Languages of Northern Borneo: Rungus Dusun and Related Problems. Oceanic Linguistics 7:1-15. 1971. Systems of Land Tenure in Borneo: A Problem in Ecological Determinism. Borneo Research Bulletin 3:17-20. 1973. The Distinction Between Ethnography and Ethnology and Other Issues in Cognitive Structuralism. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 129:1-56. 1976a. Introduction. The Direction of Research in Borneo: Its Past Contributions to Anthropological Theory and Its Relevance for the Future. In Studies in Borneo Societies: Social Process and Anthropological Explanation edited by G. N. Appell. Center for Southeast Asian Studies Special Report. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University. 1976c. The Rungus: Social Structure in a Cognatic Society and Its Symbolization. In The Societies of Borneo: Explorations in the Theory of Cognatic Social Structure edited by G. N. Appell. Special Publication 6. Washington: American Anthropological Association. 1983. Methodological Problems with the Concept of Corporation, Corporate Social Grouping, and Cognatic Descent Group. American Ethnologist Vol. 10, No. 3 (in press). n.d. Observational Procedures for Land Tenure and Kin Groupings in the Cognatic Societies of Borneo. Duplicated. Beech, M.W. H. 1908. The Tidong Dialects of Borneo. London: Oxford University Press. Dentan, Robert K. 1970. Labels and Rituals in Semai Classification. Ethnology 9:16-25.