RETURN TO THE MOUNTAIN
Bundu Tuhan Native Residential Reserve Trustees Committee (Malaysia)
The Dusun priest spoke to the group of pilgrims gathered at the base of the mountain. He was dressed in the traditional black clothes required for the ritual, called monolob, which makes offering to the spirits of the mountain in exchange for safe passage to the top. After the ritual, the pilgrims climbed up out of the forest and onto the rocky summit, where they took in the vastness and glory of creation from the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea. On any other day of the year, the pilgrims would have been charged admission to their sacred place. Tourists would have swarmed the summit. But on this day, the Dusun people were reunited with the mountain.
On maps, the mountain is called Kinabalu. It towers above the Malay Archipelago on the island of Borneo, a rocky sentinel rising out of the rainforest. The Indigenous Dusun people of the surrounding villages, while they have adopted modern religions, still revere the mountain as the home of powerful deities. They call it Gayo Ngaran, "the Big Name." When they die, the Dusun are buried facing its peak, so they know which way to go on their journey. Their spirits rest at the top of the mountain before continuing on to the afterlife.
When the mountain was made into a park by the government of Malaysia in 1964, the Dusun began to lose their connection with it. Tourists flooded in, and the mountain became a world-renowned attraction run by a state agency called Sabah Parks. If the Dusun wanted to climb the peak, they had to pay the same fees the tourists did, fees they could not afford.
Over the years, the Dusun took jobs as porters or guides in the park. But the commercialization of their spiritual center eroded the Dusun's cultural link with the mountain. Their youth knew less and less about the ways of their people. Without access to the mountain, the elders found it hard to explain its history and importance to the younger generations.
Then the Dusun people of Bundu Tuhan began to hatch an idea. If they could have their mountain back, even for just one day every year, it would be enough to keep their relationship with it alive. They knew this would require cooperation between the Dusun villagers and the park authority, and although a simple walk to the mountaintop would have been enough to make the day count, they also wanted to throw a true celebration of the mountain, and of their culture.
In March 2010, the Dusun of Bundu Tuhan, represented by the Bundu Tuhan Native Residential Reserve Trustees Committee approached Sabah Parks with plans for the pilgrimage to Mount Kinabalu, during which access to the mountain would be free to the Dusun people from villages near the mountain. The idea was warmly received, and Sabah Parks offered to help organize the event.
That December, the Dusun held their first annual Community Day and Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran, or "Return to the Mountain." For the first time in years, a pilgrimage of more than 100 villagers shared the monolob ritual and climbed the mountain. Then began the celebration of Community Day—there were traditional dance and musical performances, traditional foods, craft demonstrations and community markets selling forest vegetables.
"We could feel the excitement and anticipation galvanize our community, with our elders excitedly sharing their stories of the mountain with young children, the women busily preparing traditional recipes and many of our experts were on hand demonstrating how to weave baskets and make parangs (machetes)," writes Remmy Alfie Awang, one of the Bundu Tuhan community researchers. "We were a vibrant community working on an activity that strengthened our solidarity as a community."
As they planned the second annual celebration, the committee sought help from First Peoples Worldwide. With a Keepers of the Earth grant of only US$4,281, the committee was able to make the 2011 return to the mountain an even bigger success than the first event. They rented a PA system for the monolob ritual and paid for shuttles to transport those who needed assistance getting to the park. They also used the grant money to provide breakfast and lunch to the 145 men, women and children who climbed the mountain.
The grant also helped members of the Dusun community conduct research aimed at preserving their culture and customs. At the 2011 celebration they began an ongoing process of recording interviews with elders on video, and plan to produce a series of brochures on traditional games, food and sports.
In funding the second "Return to the Mountain," First Peoples Worldwide acknowledged that preserving Dusun culture is about more than building solidarity among the villagers living at the foot of Mt. Kinabalu. Everything about the Dusun way of life keeps in mind the mountain, its health and preservation.
"The mountain does not 'belong' to anyone, but is a monument that we shared with all Dusun people of this region," says Remmy. "Together, we are the custodians of the mountain's plants, animals and waterways, and we work hard to ensure that this bounty will be preserved for our future generations to enjoy."
Part of First Peoples Worldwide's mission is to help preserve and protect the natural world through the cultures of Indigenous Peoples. In funding the Dusun Community Day celebration, FPW supports activities that we hope will inspire other cultures and communities to respect the land on which they live, and to preserve the traditions that sanctify that respect.
The Dusun have already inspired Sabah Parks to take a new view of the beautiful place it is charged with protecting, by celebrating the ancient relationship it has with its people.
"We feel that park managers have come to understand that biodiversity conservation is not just about protecting the natural resources of the mountain," says Remmy, "but foremost [it is about] protecting the traditional customs and cultures of the Indigenous communities around the mountain."