It is worth noting that the Dayak people never refer to themselves by that name, which is regarded derogatory. Dayak means “people from the hinterland” or “people from the highlands”, hence uneducated people. Rather, the name of the sub-tribe to which they belong is preferred.
The name Dayak normally used to indicate the indigenous population of the hinterland of Kalimantan – not entirely correctly, however, as other population groups such as Malays can also be found far in the hinterland along the big rivers, while some Dayak peoples, such as those of Sarawak, live along the coasts.
Presumably, in the past many Dayaks lice along the coasts. With the coming of the Malays, the Bugis and the Chinese, they saw themselves pushed back into the hinterland, where most of them have since stayed, cultivating crops on dry fields reclaimed from the forest, or opening paddies lower down the rivers.
Generally, the Dayaks have more pronounced Mongoloid traits than most other Indonesian people. They are fair-skinned and have slanted eyes.
According to the anthropologist H.J. Malinckodt, the Dayaks, or the indigenous people of Kalimantan can be classified into six sub-tribes the Kenyah, the Ot Danum, the Iban, the Murut, the Punan, and the Klemantan. Scientific opinion, however, seems far from accorded.
Stor, who bases his views among other things on his observations of the death ceremonies, classed them into three main groups: the Ot Danum, embracing the Ot Ngaju and Lawangan; the Merut, comprising the Dusun, Murut and Kelabi; and the Klemantan, to which group the Klemantan and the Land Dayaks belong.
Another scholar, Ch. F. H. Dumana, classifies the Dayaks into the following seven main clusters :
- The Ngaju Dayaks, who live in the hinterlands of Central Kalimantan and comprise four smaller groups: the Ngajuj, Maryan, Lawangan and Dusun. These, again are subdivided into 88 sub-groups.
- The Apo Kayan, who inhabit several regions in East Kalimantan and comprise the Kenyah, Kayan and Bahau Dayaks. They are divided into 61 sub-groups.
- The Iban, or Heban of West Kalimantan and Sarawak, comprising 11 sub-groups.
The Land Dayaks. comprising the Klemantan and the Ketunggu, consisting of 86 sub-groups living in West Kalimantan and parts of Central Kalimantan.
- The Murut of Central Kalimantan, comprising the Murut, Idaan and Tidung, divided into 44 sub-groups.
- The Punan Dayaks, who live in West Kalimantan and parts of East and Central Kalimantan. The Punan are classified into three groups: The Basap, the Punan, and the At Dayaks, who again divided into 49 sub-groups.
The Ot Danum, consisting of 66 sub-groups occupying areas of West and Central Kalimantan.
Most of the Dayaks of Kalimantan live alongside the big rivers, and relatively few inhabit the hilly regions of the hinterland. They use the rivers to move from place to place and seldom travel over land. They build their houses near the rivers. They hunt and practice shifting agriculture, but also do some fishing along the rivers. They also plant cassava, taro roots, vegetables, pineapples, bananas, sugar cane and tobacco as well as fruit trees, which they do in the forest.
Their longhouses are built of wood, supported by many poles, which are usually about two meters high. To get inside, one must climb a flight of steps, hacked out of a single log of wood. One such house can have 50 family compartments or even more.
The longhouses of the Kayan people on the Mahakam stand on poles that are one to five meters high, have a length of 150 to 250 meters, and are 12 to 14 meters deep. The back half of the interior contains the family compartments, each with a beautifully ornamented door opening to the communal hall that runs along the front half.
A single house is often occupied by a whole clan. Nowadays, however, lifestyles are changing and such grand longhouses are mostly found in the upstream regions of the big rivers, far in the hinterland, such as in the northern parts of Central Kalimantan. Moving from one place to another is common, either due to lack of fertile land or for religion or other considerations. The most valuable parts are usually taken along.
Not all Dayaks, however, live in longhouses. Around the headwaters of the big rivers, there are still a few nomadic hunter tribes such as the Punan, whose people protect themselves against rain or night by building themselves a shelter of livings and leaves.
The Dayak Living in the hinterland of Kalimantan still adherent to the ancestral animist belief’s, which in some areas is known as Kahuringan, which literally means “water for living”. The adherents believe in the existence of spirits and souls, which inhabit certain objects in nature, such as big boulders and trees.
Of the greatest importance to the Dayak population of Central Kalimantan are the ancestral spirits, ngaju liau, which initially linger in the village’s surroundings after the death, but eventually undertake the journey to the abode of the highest god in the hereafter, ranying.