CHAPTER VII

ON THE ISAU RIVER - A KENYAH CHILD'S FUNERAL - A GREAT FISHING EXPEDITION - CATCHING FISH BY POISONING THE RIVER - TAKING OMENS - ENTERTAINING SCENES

A report came to me that the people of kampong Long Isau (Long = sound; Isau = a kind of fruit) were making preparations to catch fish by poisoning the river, and that they were going immediately to build traps in which the stupefied fish are caught. I decided to go at once, and a few hours later we were on our way up the Isau River, a tributary to the Kayan, at the junction with which lies Long Pangian. We made our camp just opposite the kampong, which has a charming location along a quiet pool formed by the river at this point. The natives here and on the Kayan river above Long Pangian are Kenyahs. Our presence did not seem to disturb them in the least, nor did the arrival of some Malays from Long Pangian, who had closed their little shops in order to take part in the fishing.

The chief was a tall, fine-looking man, the personification of physical strength combined with a dignified bearing. He readily granted permission to photograph the women coming down to the river to fetch water. The Kenyah women wear scantier attire than those of any other tribes of Borneo - simply a diminutive piece of cloth. It was picturesque to see these children of nature descend the steps of the rough ladder that leads down to the river, gracefully carrying on their backs a load of five or six bamboos, then wade into the calm water, where they bathed for a few moments before filling their receptacles. The Kenyah drinks water by taking it up in his hands while looking at it. In the house he drinks from the bamboo utensils which are always conveniently placed. The Malay throws water quickly into his mouth with his right hand.

There seemed to be an epidemic of cholerine among the children, three having already died and one succumbed while we were at the kampong. The sounding of a gong drew attention to this fact and people assembled at the house of mourning where they wailed for an hour. The fishing was postponed one day on account of the burial, and the work of making the coffin could be heard over on our side of the river. During the night there was much crying.

Next day at noon the funeral took place. First, with quick steps, came two men and two women, parents of children who had died before, followed by the father of the dead child and another man of the family who carried the coffin. The procession embarked in three prahus. The relatives were all attired in simple but becoming mourning garments, made from wood-fibre, consisting of tunics, and wrappers around the loins, which as regards the women covered practically the whole body, and on their heads they wore pointed hats of the same material. In the first prahu the little coffin was placed, and immediately behind it the mother lay with face down. Over her breast was a broad band of fibre which passed around to the back where it was tied in a large bow. The mourning garb worn in this and other Dayak tribes by relatives of a deceased person is an attempt to elude the evil spirit (antoh) who is regarded as the cause of death and whose wrath the remaining relatives are anxious to evade by disguising themselves in this way. The men poled fast, and ten minutes later the cortege ascended the bank without following a path, and deposited the coffin in a small, old-looking house. Once daily for three days food is deposited near a dead child, while in the case of adults it is given for a long time.

The following day we all started up the river for the great catch. About 300 Dayaks had gathered, with 80 prahus. There were people from as far east as Kaburau, but those of the kampongs west of Long Pangian did not appear as expected. Some of the men carried spears specially devised for fishing, and some had brought their shields. We passed seven traps, in Kenyah called "bring," some in course of making, and others already finished. These rapidly made structures were found at different points on the river. Each consisted of a fence of slightly leaning poles, sometimes fortified with mats, running across the river and interrupted in the middle by a well-constructed trough, the bottom of which was made from poles put closely together, which allowed the water to escape but left the fish dry.

The poison which stupefies or even kills the fish, without making it unfit for food, is secured from the root of a plant called tuba and described to me as being a vine. The root, which is very long, had been cut up into short pieces and made into about 1,800 small bundles, each kampong contributing its share. The packages had been formed into a beautifully arranged pile, in accordance with the artistic propensities of both Kenyah and Kayan, whose wood-stacks inside the rooms are models of neatness. The heap in this case was two and a half metres long and a metre high, a surprisingly small amount for the poisoning of a whole river.

Before daylight they began to beat these light-brown tuba pieces until the bark became detached. The bark is the only part used, and this was beaten on two previously prepared blocks, each consisting of two logs lashed together, with flattened upper sides. On either side of these crude tables stood as many men as could find room, beating earnestly with sticks upon the bark, singing head-hunting songs the while with much fervour. Occasionally they interrupted the procedure to run about animatedly, returning shortly to resume their labour.