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Communal houses

Besides the headhunting, there was nothing as shocking for the Europeans as the communal living habits of the Dayak: the remarkable long houses on pillars, which house entire villages of bees, were seen as obscure places of promiscuous and loose sexual behaviour.
Nothing was less true. However the rules for what sex concerned were more strict in the Victorian world than among the Dayak, all communities knew rules for the intercourse between men and women, and there was nothing live promiscuity. And some houses huaranteed a maximum of descrecy during nightly visits becayse of the thin wooden walls and creaking floors.
Almost all Dayak lived in longhouses (from the English literature). The houses on pillars, sometimes called betanglamin, offered shelter to a village of a couple of hundred people, but sometimes also to a few families. The Ngaju and related populations for example, lived in big houses (umah hai) in which the family only lived with relatives.
The houses, sometimes over one kilometer long, offered maximal protection against attacks. Besides that they guaranteed a big social intimacy, however all families had their own room. The daily life mainly took place on the communal veranda, a wide, covered space which stretched over the entire length of the house. This 'village street' was home to playing children, baskets were made, chains made and meetings were held. These things from the daily life often took place at the same time.

Social organisation

Architecture and construction of a longhouse mirrored the social structure of the community. So it was that the longhouses of the Iban didn't look very stable. The Iban were more like nomads. Every once in a while they left their house in the search for new fields and hunting grounds. The yield of new fields justified all the work what had to be done because of this.
The Iban-longhouse was 'communal possession'. Every family built it's own room frome very material which they thought was enough. The Iban-houses usually were not too far above the ground, and rested on thin pillars. Light wopod, bamboo, bark and leaves were commonly used construction materials.
No Kenyah or Kayan with just a little self-respect would ever enter such a longhouse. Their longhouses were built with an eye on durability. They were high above the soil, on massive ironwood pillars. Ironwood is very labour-intensive, but it doesn't decay and is very resistant against bugs. Walls and floors were at least as good. The craftmanship of the Kayan and Kenyah is very clear: cracks between the sometimes 60 meter long ang 90 centimeter wide floor boards are very hard to see. The wood of the floor has been polished by several generations of bare feet.

The roofs of these longhouses were covered with ironwood carrier-beams, strong enough to withstand a heavy monsoon storm. Long ironwood stms with chopped steps served as a stairs. Usually there was a woodcarved dragon-head, meant to scare the bad spirits.
The massive houses of the Kayan show the low mobility of these people. The division of the houses furthermore show that the population was layered. The long veranda was a communal area, but in the division of the rooms show big differences between noble people and the normal people and slaves. The central room was the place for the leader. It was bigger and often higher than the neighboring rooms of other noble families. The village leader and the noblemen had the right to decorate their rooms with special motives. Along both sides of the rooms were the rooms for the normal people. The rooms of slaves were on the outskirts of the longhouses, the most vulnerable spots in case of an attack.


After the independence of Indonesia, the government had the heavy task to create unity in the country, with a communal, Indonesian way. Soon, the Jawanese way was almost forced all over Indonesia. The longhouses didn't match the Jawanese moral and were concidderred unhygenic.
However there was no formal policy from the Jawanese rulers of Kalimantan that said the Dayak had to leave their longhouses, living in 'normal' houses was encouraged in several ways. Which ways depended on local circumstances and the tolerance of the rulers.
This development was part of the 'civilization offensife', aimed at the 'isolated populations', or the Dayak and Punan. It was meant to be the connection between the 'retarded bush people' with the modern life (schools, hospitals) and a civilized behaviour (fixed housing, permanent agriculture, religion, more clothing). By the so-called 'resettlement projects', families and sometimes entire villages were forced to move. The bush people were well-known with their civilization-lag, and thousands decided to live somewhere else. This cleared the road for the forestry companies which chopped down big parts of the tropical rainforest, which also paid for these movements.
Over the last 30 years, the government has become increasingly sensitive for the cultural diversity of the country and it's population. They know the political and economical favours of a more loose pose (tourists are interested in the traditional cultures). The pressure on the Dayak has gone, and is replaced by the maintainance of the longhouses. With a view on tourism, the government of kaltim has used development money (and Dutch support) to rebuilt a longhouse in Mancong.
The big numbers of Kenyah which left Apokayan over the last 40 years, have - partially because of the government policy - not rebuilt their longhouses in their new villages. Instead richly decorated communal houses were built, but they are not used for living and that was a demand of the government.
In Apokayan, the private house is liked, but still many people live in longhouses. The design of the longhouses is changing as well: they have less rooms and are just above the soil. They still have a veranda, decorated with hallucinating paintings and woodcarvings. This also shows that times are changing: the images wear short pants and watches.

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