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Indigenous Indonesian Tribe Emerges for Annual Tribute

Baduy men wait out the rain at the regent's office in Rangkasbitung, Indonesia.

No one knows where Indonesia’s Baduy people got their name: some say it is from the “Cibaduy” river in West Java, or that it’s a reference to the grass, “Areuy Baduyut,” that grows in their territory, or that it is a derivative of the bedouin nomadic tribes of Africa and the Middle East.

They don’t keep any written records themselves. But this hermetic community is a rare success story: an indigenous group that has maintained its ancient way of life, spurning modern technology, formal schooling, and state-sanctioned religion, just four hours from Jakarta, the largest city in Southeast Asia.

One way they have done this is through canny relations with the regional government. Once a year, thousands of Baduy men walk on foot to the local regent’s and governor’s offices for a ceremony called seba, where they pay tribute in the form of rice, honey, and crops to express gratitude for another year of peaceful relations and protection of their customary way of life.

So once again this year, 2,000 Baduy men trekked to the town of Rangkasbitung to do just that. Fifty walked the whole way on foot, leaving their settlement at 4:00 am, and the rest decamped after lunch on buses, pick-up trucks, cars, and angkot vans, although in the end, the ensuing traffic jam meant they too had to walk the final stretch to the governor’s office. Luckily, if there’s one thing the Baduy know how to do well, it’s walk.

Baduy men descend to town carrying tributes of bananas grown on their land.
Baduy men descend to town carrying tributes of bananas grown on their land.

The seba ceremony

By 5:00 pm last Friday, thousands of Baduy men reached the regent’s office in Rangkasbitung exactly as the sky unleashed a soggy downpour on the whole town. They lit up cigarettes and unloaded the gifts they had brought: long green plantains, jars of sweet and bitter honey, sacks of rice. They would sleep overnight in the pavilion and then visit the governor’s office before returning home on Sunday.

The exact date of seba varies year to year, but it’s always shortly after the spring harvest. There was a time when Baduy people did not use fiat money at all, so the in-kind tribute was the only way for them to “pay” the government. But today, although they do engage in monetary transactions, they have retained the symbolic aspects of the ceremony.

Seba is promoted locally as a cultural event and many townspeople stopped the visiting Baduy for photo ops. The Baduy mostly speak Sundanese, a regional language of West Java, to each other. But many of them have picked up the national Indonesian language too.

They also practice an indigenous religion called Sunda Wiwitan, an animist faith that includes ancestor and nature worship. This is the first full year that indigenous faiths (outside of mainstream, state-sanctioned religions like Islam and Christianity) are once again legally recognized in Indonesia.

Baduy men and regional officials walk together to the regent's office.
Baduy men and regional officials walk together to the regent's office.

A split community

The Baduy community is split between inner (“Baduy dalam”) and outer (“Baduy luar”) parts. The Inner Baduy, comprised of about 40 families, are more traditional, and completely reject technology; no outsiders can stay the night in their land. They don’t even ride on motorized vehicles driven by others. Inner Baduy men regularly sell their handicrafts in cities as far as Jakarta, but they walk each way, a two-day journey, and don’t use phones or maps en route.

Outer Baduy people may use phones and ride in, but not drive, modern vehicles. Sometimes they go into town to watch films.

“There is a customary law council in Baduy Dalam [Inner Baduy] that decides whether we can use certain technologies,” said Sarikam, a 55-year-old Outer Baduy man who serves as a liaison with the local government. “For example, they said phones are okay but computers are not.”

However, he explained, since there is no electricity in any Baduy territory, they have to leave the village to charge their phones. “Sometimes twice a day,” he said sheepishly.

The Baduy people’s pragmatic approach to modernity is unique, and may be the key to their success in a nation where indigenous people’s rights are constantly under threat by the state, deforestation, and majority groups.

They are famous for their woven textiles, and the two groups have different variants of traditional dress: inner Baduy people wear cream and black cloth, whereas outer Baduy wear black cloth and blue batik. There is no intermarriage between the groups, but they socialize and work together almost every day.

An Outer Baduy man, dressed in the traditional blue and black, and an Inner Baduy man, dressed in white and black.
An Outer Baduy man, dressed in the traditional blue and black, and an Inner Baduy man, dressed in white and black.

The community is also open to cultural tourism and does brisk traffic in foreign and domestic visitors most of the year, except for the three months leading up to seba, when they close their doors to outside visitors.

The tug of modernity

A handful of Baduy people leave the community every few years to make their way in the modern world. That is, said Saprinaya, one of the risks that come with constant contact. Inner Baduy people are sometimes expelled to Outer Baduy as well, for reasons including using technology and doing an extraordinary volume of business.

But for every case like that, the vast majority of Baduy people seem proud of their way of life.

“I’ve never wanted to ride in a car,” said Jama, a 35-year-old from Inner Baduy who frequently walks to and from Jakarta to sell textiles. “And I think it’s weird that people look at phones all day long.”