Hungover at pretend headhunters’ party

Reading about the misadventures of the Kinabalu backpackers, I was so taken in at first by the exaggeratedly XIX-century opposition, “animist Sabah bureaucrat vs. young Western engineer,” that it took me several days to google the minister’s background and the bigger KadazanDusun-Sabah-Malaysian context.

As things stand now, I believe the locals’ ire was mostly feigned and the desecration story cut out of whole cloth. The talk about appeasing the spirits of the dead with hecatombs should not be taken literally. The tourists got caught in a reality show set in motion by politicians and possibly social media.

I see four parties to the case: the backpackers; Emil Kaminski, the provocateur/troll; the Sabah cabinet — or, at least, its pro-native members; and the federal Malaysian executive and judiciary, “Kuala Lumpur.” Let’s look at the Sabah party now. According to the BBC,

Sabah’s deputy chief minister, Joseph Pairin Kitingan, says this tragedy is connected to a group of Western tourists who recently posed nude on the peak and allegedly cursed at a local guide for trying to prevent them from stripping.

It was not established at the trial that the climbers had told the guide to “go to hell” so the cursing charge was bogus. The causal link that Kitingan suggested was too outlandish to be the subject of a legal proceeding. But why is this Australian-educated lawyer, a Roman Catholic, and a prominent pro-indigenous politician – the first non-Muslim native-born PM of Sabah (1985-94) – reverting to ancient magical thinking?

Bluntly speaking, he is deliberately playing savage. “It matters not what we descendants of headhunters believe, but you Malays, and you tourists invited by the Malays, had better not mess with us.”

In support of this, I’m going to quote folklorist/anthropologist Flory Gingging of Indiana University, who spent some of her early years in Tamparuli, a town 20 miles to the north-west of Mount Kinabalu. As one commenter summarized her 2007 work (expanded into a dissertation since):

…her point is that this self-exoticizing has not only a commercial value but also a cultural and political one, it’s a means of responding to threats, discrimination etc.

Gingging makes her case in more detail using some anthropology/humanities jargon, but her conclusions are easy to grasp:

I propose that the tongue-in-cheek invocation of headhunting by the tourism industry represents one way in which Sabah’s indigenous people counter the outside world’s designation of them as the Other; that is, by parodying their headhunting past, they demonstrate their understanding of the joke and thus guard their indigenousness and their status as human beings. I also argue that their use of their headhunting heritage is a means of responding to the threats to their identities posed by the Malaysian state, which, in the process of globalization and nation building, has interpolated them into a Malaysian identity, an identity that they seem to resist in favor of their regional ones.

The notion that spirits of the dead (or of their body parts) reside on Kinabalu is part of the headhunting tribes’ worldview. As one blogger explained in 2009:

Talking to various elderly Kadazan here in Sabah it seems that they needed to sever the head of their enemy while he was still alive, preferably in combat. The head of an already dead man or woman was considered ‘useless’ because devoid of any spirits: the Kadazan, and other Dusunic ethnic people believe that our body is maintained by a number of specialised spirits that inhabit our body… There are spirits looking after our knees, others after our chest and so on. The most important spirit is of course located in the head… “When someone dies,” the stories continue, “our ‘maintenance spirits’ reassemble, go to Mt Kinabalu and eventually find themselves back on the earthly plain in the body of a newborn. If a human head is severed the body maintenance spirits leave through the wound the decapitation created, but without the head spirit which has rolled away with the head and finds itself alone and confused. It remains in the severed head hoping that someone will take care of it.”

Obviously, not many KadazanDusun people hold on to this peculiar theory but sometimes it pays to pretend they do, especially in the face of an all-obliterating, nation-building Islam from across the strait. Far from being ancient primitives, they are playing a sophisticated game of resistance, and I’m in sympathy with their dislike for Islamization, even its moderate Malay variety. The young Westerners got hungover at someone else’s party, as a Russian saying goes.

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