Preserving Indigenous culture in the Mentawai with Rob Henry

Amidst the idyllic panoramas of godly shaped waves, surf cruises and nasi goreng orders, an ancient local culture in the Mentawai is struggling.  

Found off the west coast of Sumatra (Indonesia), the Mentawai is an archipelago of over 70 islands. The Mentawai ancestors are believed to have migrated here between 2000 to 2500 years ago. These Mentawai tribal communities have managed to survive throughout time by developing and preserving a complex cultural belief system giving respect and adoration to the spirits of the natural world and their ancestors. This sophisticated spiritual system is called Arat Sabulungan.

photo. Tariq Zaidi

photo. Tariq Zaidi

The Indigenous peoples of Mentawai have been experiencing intense pressure to their way of life over the past few centuries. In 1954, the Indonesian government began a campaign to unify the nation across cultural groups with a number of development and ‘civilization’ strategies purposed to integrate tribal communities into one social, religious and cultural mainstream of the nation. For the Indigenous people of Mentawai, this meant the eradication of their Arat Sabulungan practice through forced destruction of their ritual devices. Sikerei, or shamans, were forced into slavery, imprisonment and beatings. In addition to the violent persecution of people practicing their spiritual beliefs, the encroachment/arrival of logging companies devastated their forests and the natural resources they used to sustain their survival.

photos: Rob Henry (IEF)

photos: Rob Henry (IEF)

Thanks to international organizations challenging logging companies and the Indonesian government relaxing their persecution and resettlement of the Indigenous people (mainly due to a flow of tourist attracted by the Indigenous communities), the Mentawai people are now free to practice their Arat Sabulungan culture. Unfortunately, there are now only a small number of Indigenous Mentawai actively practicing their traditional customs and ritualistic practices, isolated to the southern regions of Siberut.

Rob Henry is a filmmaker and anthropologist with a deep passion for Indigenous culture and human rights. In 2008, he left an office job and life in Melbourne behind in search of a more meaningful and sustainable way to live, which brought him to the Mentawai Islands. During this journey, he found himself immersed between two contrasting communities – an underserved, impoverished government-run settlement, and a tribal people living traditionally and abundantly in the jungle.

photo. Tariq Zaidi

photo. Tariq Zaidi

Over the course of eight years, Rob began documenting the contrasting ways of life between the two local communities. Through this, he has provided us with incredible insights into the devastating impacts caused by displacement of Indigenous people from their land and culture. In this journey of personal discovery, Rob brings to light the crucial connection between the ancient wisdom of the Mentawai people and sustainability of their good health and wellbeing.

We asked some questions to Rob about his 9 year journey in advocating for the welfare of Mentawai people, broader Indigenous people, displacement and making a documentary film.

Erik Sumarkho:  So you started out with the idea of being in the Mentawai for one year shooting surf films. You ended up deep in the jungle with the tribes for nearly nine. In the process you exposed an ancient culture struggling from various pressures. Why is it important to tell the story?

Rob Henry: Mentawai culture, like so many Indigenous communities around the world, is facing serious threat of extinction due to impacts of modernisation, deforestation and in many regards marginalization. Extremely rich in natural resources, the Mentawai are one of the last hunter-gather tribes-people remaining on this planet; their culture provides them a subsistent lifestyle, conservation of their forest, protection of their health and wellbeing, and a sense of community and identity. Without this they become destitute. The Mentawai want to preserve their culture and have initiated a strategy to do so, but despite this their voice was not being heard.

photo. Indigenous Education Foundation (IEF)

photo. Indigenous Education Foundation (IEF)

ES: On our 2017 expedition, we noticed the loss of culture driven by encroaching human settlements into the lands of the Mentawai people. How will the tribe be able to preserve their vibrant and spirited culture?

RH: The community have been developing a cultural-based educational solution for many years to enable their children to learn about their history, culture and the land. They believe that reconnecting with their culture is key to alleviating their people from poverty. They established the Yayasan Pendidikan Suku Mentawai (YPSM) and the implementation of this program is now underway. The response from students, local government and the broader community has been overwhelmingly positive. Their main challenge now is obtaining the required support to get the program to a level where they can maintain it independently. To learn about the Mentawai situation and why their program and endeavors to save their culture are so important, check out the As Worlds Divide documentary film.

ES:  We were fascinated by the sheer wildness of the Mentawai. The people, nature, the sophisticated spiritual belief system. What was your wildest moment in the 10 years living on and off with the Mentawai tribes?

RH: There have been a number of incidents with wildlife, waterways and even illness, but I think the moment that stands out the most was arriving deep into the forest to meet the tribes-people for the first time. I’d been living with the Mentawai people in a coconut-farming settlement for 6 months and felt that I’d learnt a lot about the people, their way of life and even the cause of their desperate struggles to survive. The moment I arrived and came face to face with a Sikerei (shaman) and their family – adorned in flowers, bright colours, cultural markings and still possessing the spirit of their Arat Sabulungan culture, my entire perspective changed. Everything I had learnt about the Mentawai suddenly looked a whole lot different, which consequently redirected my life.

photo. Tariq Zaidi

photo. Tariq Zaidi

ES: What is next for you on your mission?

RH: The focus now is ensuring the community’s Yayasan Pendidikan Suku Mentawai has the tools and support necessary to successfully implement their Cultural & Environmental Education Program (CEEP) and sustain it into the future. To help with this, we’ve established the Indigenous Education Foundation (IEF), a non-profit organization empowering displaced Indigenous groups to reconnect with their culture and the land to enrich their lives and develop sustainably. Our long-term vision is to empower displaced communities all around the world, but for now our focus is very much on Mentawai.

Masurak bagatta.

Watch a film, save a culture

To explore deeper the beauty and struggles of the Mentawai people, we encourage you to watch Rob’s journey to finding home in a land far away in the documentary As Worlds Divide.

100% of funds raised via #wafsac will be used to implement the Mentawai community’s indigenous education program over the next 10 years, enabling them to preserve their precious culture.


Indigenous Education Foundation. Community Research Report: Indigenous Mentawai. Suku Mentawai. (2012). viewed from:

Apply to join the Expedition!

If this project is of interest, we invite you to support it through its various stages by joining VOPO’s Mentawai wilderness impact expeditions.



4 Dec - 14 Dec, 2018

Join us for a wilderness impact expedition where you will be intimately connected to Mentawai ancient wisdom and culture whilst conducting a feaisbility for a technology to prevent plastic from entering the oceans.