The Weyewa inhabit the western highlands of Sumba, Nusa Tenggara Timur Province, where they cultivate rice, corn, and cassava using slash-and-burn farming methods as well continuous irrigation of padi ('wet rice fields'). They supplement this income through the sale of livestock, coffee, and their distinctive brightly colored textiles.
Until the 1970s, there had been relatively few challenges to the Weyewa notions of political and religious identity. Because Sumba is a rather dry and infertile island, located away from the ports of call of the spice trade, it was comparatively insulated from the Hindu, Muslim, and later Dutch influences, each of which helped to shape the character of Indonesia's cultures.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Sumba was periodically raided for slaves by Muslim traders, the local inhabitants responded by building and living in fortified hilltop villages. Patrilineages, which structured these groups, became powerful units of politically motivated marriage alliances in which women were the currency of exchange. Each lineage was headed by a self-appointed raja, or "big man," who, in return for loyalty, cattle, women, and children, offered protection and guarded the sanctity of tradition.
These powerful lineages, symbolized by the spirits of deceased ancestors, remained the focus of Weyewa religious practice and political identity until the 1970's, despite the Dutch military conquest of the island in 1906 and nearly a century of Protestant missionary efforts. In exchange for the fertility of crops, the orderly flow of irrigation water, freedom from misfortune, and continued prosperity, descendants promised to offer ritual sacrifices of cattle, chickens, pigs, and rice. These promises were made in a form of ritual speech.
The Weyewa system of production and exchange began to undergo major shifts in the 1970's, which resulted in a gradual weakening of the authority of lineages. One event that illustrates this process was the construction of an irrigation system and hydroelectric dam at the site of a sacred gushing spring at Waikelo in central-west Sumba in the mid-1960's. Throughout much of the 1960's, this spring watered some 300 hectares of rice fields, whose cycles of cultivation and fallowing were regulated by certain lineage elders carrying out the "words" of the ancestors.
By the early 1970's, more than 1,500 hectares were available for continuous irrigation. Not only were traditional leaders unprepared to oversee and control this increase in the scale of production, but government officials took the initiative by encouraging farmers to abandon the ritual schedule of planting and harvest and to plant new high-yield, hardy, and fast-growing varieties of rice. These new varieties permitted two or more plantings per year.
According to oral accounts of witnesses, the ownership of the new and ambiguous categories of land that emerged from irrigation was often assigned to individuals, not lineages. When disputes arose, government officials, such as police officers, judges, or district heads, rather than the raja, increasingly mediated the disputes and enforced the settlements. As a result, when asked to participate younger farmers were increasingly reluctant to invest in large-scale and expensive ritual feasts honoring the spirits, because the government had more control over their lives than did the spirits.
Meanwhile, government officials put increasing pressure on traditional leaders to give up ritual feasting practices as "wasteful" and "backward." Furthermore, as with the Kaharingan adherents of central Kalimantan, failure to affiliate with an approved religion was regarded as potentially treasonous. Unlike Toraja and the peoples of central Kalimantan, however, the Weyewa and other Sumbanese were not politically organized for the preservation of their native religion.
Most people simply converted to Christianity as a symbolic gesture of participation in the nation state. Indeed, whole villages in the late 1980's and early 1990's conducted feasts in which residents settled their debts with ancestral spirits and became Christians. The number of Weyewa professing affiliation with the Christian religion (either Roman Catholic or Calvinist Protestant) jumped from approximately 20 percent in 1978 to more than 60 percent in 1990.