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Encyclopaedia of Iban Studies, Vinson & Joanne Sutlive (ed.)

Kuching: The Tun Jugah Foundation, “Borneo Classics Series,” 2001, 4 vol., 2783 p.
Bernard Sellato
p. 120-122
Référence(s) :

Vinson & Joanne Sutlive, ed., Encyclopaedia of Iban Studies, Kuching: The Tun Jugah Foundation, “Borneo Classics Series,” 2001, 4 vol., 2783 p.

Texte intégral

  • 1 The EIS, also available on CD-ROM, can be ordered from: The Tun Jugah Foundation, P.O. Box 734, 937 (...)

1Encyclopaedias form a category of their own, itself an object of study (see Professor Chambert-Loir’s review of Ensiklopedi Sunda in Moussons 2). The new millennium finally brings us, after a decade in the works, the monumental Encyclopaedia of Iban Studies in four volumes totaling 2783 pages.1

2In 2000, the Iban are one of Borneo’s most important ethnic groups, probably about 600,000 strong. The bulk of them, over a half million people, reside in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak, with small clusters in Sabah, Indonesia’s West Kalimantan, and Brunei Darussalam. Related groups, commonly gathered under the term “Ibanic” (really, a linguistic grouping) and residing in West Kalimantan, such as the Mualang and Kantu’, are also taken into consideration.

3This work is probably one of the first comprehensive compendia devoted to a Southeast Asian traditional, non-literate minority group. (The Sundanese mentioned above, although a minority on the island of Java, are twenty-five million and have a written tradition.) The Iban, however, constitute in Sarawak a dynamic, educated, and politically powerful community. They are also, and by far, the best studied group in Borneo.

4An Iban organization, the Tun Jugah Foundation, was established in 1985 and named after a famous Iban regional chief and Malaysian politician. Aware that “massive amounts of data were gone, and forever, irretrievable” and concerned, despite quick-paced modernization, that “a people without a past are a people without a future,” it has been supporting various research projects for the preservation of information about Iban society and culture. The EIS, published by the Tun Jugah Foundation in cooperation with the Borneo Research Council, is the first publication of the latter’s “Borneo Classics” series.

5The idea for the EIS was first suggested in 1990, during the First Extraordinary Meeting of the Borneo Research Council in Kuching, by Peter Kedit, a former director of the Sarawak Museum and himself an Iban, who had had the opportunity to browse through the Handbook of American Indians. The Handbook and, later, David Horton’s Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia (1994) served as models for the EIS.

6The Sutlives, long-time scholars of the Iban—they started working among Iban communities in 1957—acting as general editors of the EIS, have put to the best of uses their extensive knowledge of Iban culture and history. Vinson Sutlive had authored and edited many volumes and, with Joanne Sutlive, published A Handy Reference Dictionary of Iban and English (1994). They brought together a team of eight senior editors and forty contributing editors, all scholars of the Iban, including a number of Iban scholars or personalities—basically, everyone who ever got involved in Iban studies.

7The editorial team, basing their work on G.P. Murdock’s Outline of Cultural Materials, drew principally from J. Derek Freeman’s Report on the Iban (1970), Anthony Richards’ An Iban-English Dictionary (1981), and Benedict Sandin’s Sources of Iban Traditional History (1994). In the process, a “Checklist of Materials on the Iban of Borneo” was compiled, to be included in the book.

8The first three volumes comprise the ency-clopaedia proper (2003 pages). Entries are in both Iban and English, and cross referenced. Over 1000 photographs, a fair proportion of which are in color, illustrate them, as well as some 300 maps, not to mention many drawings. Due to the double entry system, many illustrations appear twice or more through the book.

9Articles range from a few lines to twenty or thirty pages. They include a large quantity of biographical sketches (with photographs), to the extent that the text sometimes reads like an Iban Who’s Who, which I suppose is one of the functions of the book. Among the thicker articles are “Farming” (519-539), “Botany” (239-262; somewhat redundant with a thick appendix on the same topic), “Rajahs and Rebels” (1523-1554; a historical abstract of Robert Pringle’s 1970 book), and an unexpectedly lengthy article on honey collecting (1254-1280). Articles on textiles and weaving, profusely illustrated, extend over some 67 pages, split into three parts, “Ngar” (1220-1241), “Pua’ kumbu’” (1488-1506), and “Weaving” (1958-1983), not to mention shorter articles on cotton, dyes, and mordants. Basketry, too, is quite favored in terms of the total number of pages devoted to it. Meanwhile, “Brunei” has only two pages and “Kalimantan”, unfortunately, one single column.

10Whether entries are in Iban or English, the articles are generally well documented and informative, albeit sometimes in fastidious detail for all but the Iban expert. Material culture, so often looked down upon lately, holds here its rightful place. So does traditional environmental knowledge. But religion and ritual, oral literature, and language are also lengthily documented.

11The view that emerges of the Iban through the EIS, compiling for the first time the works of scholars in different regions of Iban settlement during the last quarter of a century, is of a much higher regional cultural diversity than had been recognized before, when only two regions, the Rejang and the Saribas areas, had been under anthropologists’ sharp scrutiny. Also, thanks to Michael Dove, Allen Drake, Reed Wadley, and others, the Iban and so-called “Ibanic” peoples of West Kalimantan are now part of the broader Iban picture. The larger corpus of data brought together by the EIS should prove an invaluable source for comparative work.

12Despite this last improvement, the EIS displays an appalling lack of knowledge of, or interest in, the geography, history, and ethnography of Kalimantan, except for the small areas of immediate concern to the Iban. The “Sarawak bias” in Borneo studies, due to easier access to old English-language sources (as opposed to Dutch-language sources) and the consequently much larger amount of post-1970 anthropological work in Sarawak than in Kalimantan, is still strongly perceptible. To put it bluntly, scholars of Sarawak still chose to ignore the literature on Kalimantan, both in the Dutch and Indonesian languages, and even its geography (see, e.g., the articles on “Ketapang,” “Mahakam,” or “Pieng”). This reflects the standard Sarawakian lack of interest in Kalimantan, as if Sarawak were an island of its own rather than a small portion of an altogether much bigger island. Typically, maps of Sarawak show blank space beyond its borders.

13Cross-border anthropological work, fortunately, has begun to emerge in the 1990s, thanks to scholars like J.B. Crain (on the Lun Dayeh) and R.L. Wadley (on the Iban). Moreover, the new trend of interest in the Southeast Asian “borderlands” and, more particularly, a recent meeting on the theme of “The Making and Unmaking of Borneo’s Borders,” likely will bring closer together scholars focusing on ethnic groups straddling the international border, although it is just as likely that few scholars of Sarawak will bother, like Jérôme Rousseau did regarding the Kayan, to get even a working command of the literature in Dutch and Indonesian. The same kind of problem pertains to the New Guinea field of study.

14An interesting article by George Appell—but why include it in the encyclopaedia itself rather than as a special appendix in Vol. 4?—is entitled “Iban Studies: Their Contributions to Social Theory and the Ethnography of Other Borneo Societies” (741-785). It summarizes the state of our knowledge of Iban society and the various important contributions that this knowledge made to the social sciences. If it is true, as noted above, that the Iban now are the best studied group in Borneo, it should be stressed that viewing Borneo, as a whole, through the Iban lens is just as risky as viewing it, as it has been done in the past, through the Ngaju lens based on Hans Schärer’s work. There is certainly much more to Borneo than just the Iban (or the Ngaju).

15Finally, Vol. 4 includes a section entitled “Appendices,” comprising 35 elements. These appendices indulge in what seems to be a common proclivity in Indonesian and Malaysian scholarship: lists, lists, and, subsequently, lists of lists. They include, among other, lists of botanical species (2033-2140)—to which must be added separate lists of trees, canes, creepers, etc.—birds, fish, baskets, insects, etc.; lists of proverbs, of riddles, of rituals; an index of names and places; another of historical places, complete with coordinates; and a detailed chronology of events of relevance to Iban (and Sarawak) history (2253-2278).

16Other appendices, not under the section of that name, include the “Checklist of Materials” mentioned above, introduced by V.T. King (2373-2510), followed by a “Bibliography of Works on the Iban of Borneo” (2511-2602); a set of brief biographical notices of the editors—which should have been updated at the time of publication; and a general index (2657-2783).

17The dominant feeling here is one of utter redundancy. The very same bit of information can be found in at least three different places in the book. While the editors argue that this is unavoidable given the choices they had made, one retains the impression that, with a tighter editing, the book could have easily been shorter by 500 pages.

18Nevertheless, for the sheer quantity of information it provides on one single ethnic group and for the overall quality of that information, the EIS is, simply, a masterpiece. Both the Tun Jugah Foundation and the team of editors should receive high praise for the tremendous amount of work put into this book and the remarkable achievement it constitutes. The Encyclopaedia of Iban Studies should absolutely be on the shelves of any scholar or library concerned with Southeast Asian ethnic minorities. Beyond its purely Iban value, it will be a prime reference for any serious comparative work in Southeast Asia.

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1 The EIS, also available on CD-ROM, can be ordered from: The Tun Jugah Foundation, P.O. Box 734, 93714 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia;

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Référence papier

Bernard Sellato, « Encyclopaedia of Iban Studies, Vinson & Joanne Sutlive (ed.) », Moussons, 5 | 2002, 120-122.

Référence électronique

Bernard Sellato, « Encyclopaedia of Iban Studies, Vinson & Joanne Sutlive (ed.) », Moussons [En ligne], 5 | 2002, mis en ligne le 08 juillet 2014, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL :

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Bernard Sellato

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