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Although impossible to convey here the depths of what an indigenous people lose when displaced from their land and culture, I’d like to share with you a few observations alongside a series of photographs captured by friend and photographer, Chris Hopkins.

The aesthetic contrast between the resettled and non-resettled peoples in Mentawai was what first grabbed my attention – in particular, the state of the environment they lived in and the way they cared for and interacted with it.

The Sikerei (shaman) had explained to me how sacred the land was to them and that they decorated themselves with leaves, flowers, colours, tattoos etc. to entice good, happy spirits to remain in and around their bodies; which, whilst awfully enchanting, did seem a rather fanciful motive to beautify oneself. Where were these spirits and what did they look like?

After many years living between both resettled and non-resettled indigenous Mentawai people, I gradually came to recognise those from the remote forest regions by the way they held themselves – their relaxed persona, cheeky grin, warm look in their eyes, and often VERY lengthy handshakes. The ‘spirit’ in these people was very much alive. Whereas, comparatively, for those who’d lost touch with their culture, land, and in many ways their identity, the glow – at best – was fading away.

These spirits acknowledged by indigenous Mentawai – be your interpretation metaphoric or otherwise – permeate throughout these tribes-people, their culture and the surrounding forests, as though they are the forest, and the forest them. Beyond aesthetics, it now appears to me that the leaves, flowers and other forest totems they adorn themselves with is not at all a fanciful notion, but in fact a recognition of their health, wellbeing and wholeness that is only apparent because of this relationship. Their connection to indigenous culture and the land is what shields them from poverty, and their right to teach and learn about it should never be repressed.

Further information about the Mentawai and their initiative to prevent the devastating loss of their culture and spirit at the following link – Indigenous Education Foundation (IEF).


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