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Repossessing a Shrine in Riau

On June 1999, I received an e-mail from a well-known Riau Malay, notifying me that the workers of a sharehold company have destroyed a Sakai shrine and other locally meaningful sites. In the past few years, the shrine of Grandfather White-blood had emerged in associations with landright claims. A dispossessed group of Sakai had re-entered the woods to reappropriate an ancestral shrine and landscape. The political articulation with the sharehold company has not only caused a revitalization of some Sakai customary practices relating to the shrine. It has also introduced novel ways in relating to the shrine. Landscapes are never fixed but recreated, remodified and always renegotiable. By reappropriating the shrine and the surrounding land, Sakai not only retell the legends of the landscaped to visitors. They rework the stories as a cultural argument to accompany their legal attempts at repossession. Talking about landscape is not simply talking about culture, but about both customary and legal rights.


The Sakai are a Malay-speaking indigenous people of Riau (Sumatra) who formally called themselves Orang Batin. In the past they lived in administrative territorial units called pebatin headed by a Batin headman appointed by the sultan of Siak. There were thirteen pebatins that flanked the rivers of the area. Today, the pebatin system, which was the product of the Siak kingdom, has been smashed. The Sakai now live in Indonesian territorial villages (desa). Many have settled by the side of the highway which cuts through their traditional territory. They form pocket settlements between a majority migrant population and are surrounded by oil-fields and rubber and palm oil plantations. Regional developments in the name and ideology of Development have dispossessed them of much of their traditional land area.


During the mid-1990s a well-respected, blind Sakai shaman, who was the Batin headman of the area before the change in village organization, had a dream. Grandfather White-blood called him to re-enter the woods and protect his shrine. The old shaman organized his married children and grandchildren into a group, and re-entered the woods. They formed a settlement beside the shrine. Before moving to live by the shrine, the group of about fifteen families lived on a small area of land by the highway. They lived in a settlement with a high concentration of Sakai families all squatting on another's land. Surrounding them was a settlement of ethnically mixed migrants and the notorious brothel of the area.


To look at, the shrine is just a small burial mound surrounded by trees. However, this tumulus is considered magical ground possessing very strong powers although there are no pilgrimages or cults surrounding it. The shrine is merely part of the local landscape. People visit the shrine requesting aid in healing or for other endeavours. (Recently, some people also ask Grandfather White-blood for a winning lottery number.) The Sakai belief in the power of the ancestral shrine is part of a wider Malay belief in the power of graves of legendary people. These people were believed to have had saint-like qualities when they were alive. For Sakai the white blood running through Grandfather White-blood's veins was evidence of his uniqueness. Legends retell his exploits. For example, somewhere further upriver is the estuary of the Drunkard Waters. According to Sakai, once a year, the fish swimming through this estuary rise to the surface as though they were drunk, making it easy for people to catch them. According to legend, this was the place Grandfather White-blood resisted a Dutch attempt at capturing him. The colonials sent a ship of soldiers to search for the magic man. They reached the river-opening, and seven men hauled a rowing-boat and paddled up the river. As they were rowing, they came across a local man (of the pebatin) sitting on the edge of the river. The Dutchmen asked the local man if he could take them to Grandfather White-blood. He agreed and accompanied the visitors in their boat. The Batin man led the Dutchmen to the estuary and then reproached the Europeans. He told them that the man they were after was a magic man and therefore they were wasting their time in trying to catch him. The disbelieving Dutchman passed this off as local superstition. To prove his point, the Batin man, told them that with magic he could turn the waters into alcohol. The Dutchmen took his bait, and asked him to prove this. The Batin man put his finger in the water, and then offered the Europeans to drink it. They did, and immediately fell drunk, so drunk that they forgot their mission. The man then helped row the merry crew of Drunken Dutchmen back to their boat. Little did the colonials know that this man was Grandfather White-blood.


If legends of the shrine reveal how Grandfather White-blood helped transform the landscape, today Sakai are also transforming the landscape through their attempt at resisting further dispossession of land and reappropriating the shrine. When the group of Sakai families moved into the shrine area, they chopped some wood and built a fence and a gate around the shrine. They locked the gate and the shaman kept the key. They also emphasized the shrine's presence by erecting a sign post declaring that this was the shrine of Grandfather White-blood. Underneath the name they wrote a date +, -, 250 years, thus transforming the legendary reality of Grandfather White-blood into a historical fact.


Sakai have also been active in petitioning for the shrine and the surrounding land. On the 17th December, 1998, a large group of Sakai visited the newly appointed Provincial Governor as his official guests. One hundred and sixty-four individuals from four settlements were present and in the new spirit of reformasi could air their problems. One of the settlements represented were the people living by the shrine. Answering their request for schooling, the governor granted the four settlements a large sum of money for building schools. A month later, the headman of one settlement received audience with the Governor and petitioned for the land surrounding the ancestral shrine of Grandfather White-Blood. The Governor responded positively, and authorized a grant of 2000 hectares of land surrounding the shrine to the settlement. Until then, the Sakai group had been resisting the sharehold company's attempt at taking over the land. Regrettably, it seems then, that Sakai attempts at protecting the shrine were not fully successful. At this stage it is difficult for me to assess the amount of damage done to the site. Nevertheless, whatever the future outcome, the Sakai attempt at protecting the shrine presents an historical moment in the biography of Grandfather White-blood's shrine and the surrounding land. It is with regret that I received the news from Prof. Tabrani about the destruction of the shrine. *