The Dayak

The Dayak (Dyak) are the peoples indigenous to Borneo.  In reality, it is a loose term applied to over 200 distinct ethnic subgroups who may be hill dwelling, costal or river dwelling, have a unique dialect, laws, territory and cultural traditions.  Generally, the Dayak are divided by the  ethnic groups with which they self-identify: the Penan, Klemantan, Kenyah, Kayan, Murut and Iban people.

The Ibans are one of the Dayak peoples.  Also known as “Sea Dayaks”, they were renowned in the colonial period for headhunting and a lust for territorial and tribal expansion. The Iban Dayaks were strong, successful, and a very feared tribe. Dayak warfare was exceptionally brutal, wiping out other tribes to the last person.

The Iban, famous as pirates, were converted to Islam by the Malays and were probably the latest of the Dayak to arrive in Borneo. 

Swords of the Dayak:  A Kelewang, and a Mandau


The way of life of the Dayak aborigines, maintaining their ancient customs, habits and religious beliefs, has always involved the taking of heads.  They became feared as head-hunters and only in recent years has the practice been “largely” abandoned. A tradition of retaliation for old headhunts kept it alive.  Apart from massive raids, headhunting was limited to individual retaliatory attacks and chance encounters. Officially, headhunting doesn’t exist in Borneo despite the occasional report of an isolated jungle beheading.  The Dayak practice of headhunting, rooted for the most part in religious beliefs, has now (as far as we know) disappeared. The Iban, formerly the most notorious of the headhunters, have given up the custom more quickly than the other tribes. Perhaps this is because they live on the coast and are in more direct contact with other cultures.

Today, the Iban Dayak are concentrated in Sarawk, Brunei, in the West Kalimantan region of Indonesia.  The Ibans are becoming increasingly urbanized while struggling, in this era of globalization, to maintain their traditional heritage and culture - minus the headhunting and piracy of the past.

Traditionally, the Dayak were animist in belief.  Many have converted to Christianity, others to Islam.