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Identity and Eastern Penan in Borneo

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Peter Sercombe



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


This paper considers aspects of identity among the Eastern Penan of Borneo,[1] in the approximately half century since many have transitioned from full-time hunting and gathering to a partial or fully sedentary existence, in both Brunei Darussalam (henceforth, Brunei) and East Malaysia. Despite settlement, many Eastern Penan continue to project aspects of hunting and gathering behaviour (at both the individual and community level) through a number of traits such as: social organisation, lifestyle, and nostalgia for the past. Nonetheless, following their move to settlement life, there has been more continuous and intense interaction with settled neighbours and state proxies. Through this, Eastern Penan have come to demonstrate identity features that align with neighbours, as well as the nation state in each country, in a number of ways. This paper is based on periods of field work (spanning several decades), in both Brunei and East Malaysia, during a time of considerable change, especially regarding how the physical environment has been exploited in Malaysia. This paper provides a snapshot of Eastern Penan identity which, rather than having fundamentally shifted, appears to have diversified over time as reflected through evolving social circumstances and ways these have impinged on lifestyle, language repertoire, and cultural affiliations among the Eastern Penan. [1] Penan in Sarawak are generally divided between those referred to as ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’. Needham (1953) provided useful distinctions between Eastern and Western Penan, as has Brosius (1992). Western Penan mostly inhabit areas to the west of the Baram River as far as the Rejang River in Sarawak, and the northern part of eastern Kalimantan; they have relatively little contact with Eastern Penan (Sellato & Sercombe, 2007). As hunter-gatherers, Eastern Penan comprised smaller groups, mostly locating their temporary settlements on ridgetops, with camps of shorter duration and smaller foraging areas, as well as tending to rely more on blowpipe hunting than hunting with dogs, besides having less formal or developed institutions of group leadership.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Sercombe PG

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Journal of Modern Languages

Year: 2020

Volume: 30

Issue: 1

Pages: 77-100

Print publication date: 01/07/2020

Online publication date: 03/07/2020

Acceptance date: 27/05/2020

Date deposited: 06/07/2020

ISSN (print): 1675-526X

ISSN (electronic): 2462-1986

Publisher: University of Malaya



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