The Berawan tribe – Punan people’s connection in the Baram Basin

Jemarang Uvang (dark blue shirt) and his nephew, Galo Ingut at the latter's house in Miri. Jemarang also known as Ake' Iro is a centenarian, while Galoh is in his mid 80s. They rarely meet each other after Galo relocated to Tinjar then to Tutoh from Kakus.

By Calvin J

THERE isn’t much mention of Punan existence in the Baram River in literature. These peoples’ linkage in the watershed are the Berawan — a corrupted Malay version of Melawan — their actual ethnonym.

It must be noted, that the Punan we are talking about here is not to be confused with Penan. As it happened, in most peoples’ minds the term ‘Punan’ conjures up ‘Penan’. It is an image that has been planted in everyone’s mind since colonial times.

Back then, “Punan” denoted “Penan”. This is the result of how this term has been corrupted by the Kayan and Kenyah. To these peoples, the Penans are still being called ‘Punan’ — especially among those in the Belaga District.

Unsuspecting colonial administrators, who had to rely on the Kayan and Kenyah adopted their labelling without much deliberation.


Consequently, into the twentieth century, as more research was done by competent and professional ethnographers began to realise how complex and muddied the term ‘Punan’ had become. These professionals, unlike the Kayan and Kenyah, had no way of knowing which Punan they were talking about.

The great great grandson of Lukup and wife Pelemi, Dr Ajau Danis, who obtained his doctorate degree in 2006, the first Punan Ph.D holder.

A dumbfounded, Rodney Needham wrote: “Punan’ was the source of the greatest confusion in Borneo” ethnography in 1955. Struggling amid the confusion, Edmund Leach resorted to naming the Punan as “Punan Bah” — replacing an actual autonym with an exonym.

But Leach was not the first to invent the term ‘Punan Bah’. That honour went to Charles Hose in his list of Borneo tribes published in the late nineteenth century.

Lukup’s and Pelemi’ss great-grandson Kajan Galo (green shirt) recently returned to Kakus visiting relatives at Punan Kaku and Punan Mina. It was a trip down memory lane for him.

Compounding the situation, the Punan didn’t call themselves Punan Bah. That is the name of one of their villages in the Rejang, not an ethnonym.

Jayl Langub recalled, “when I first came to Belaga in 1971 I was utterly confused with the usage of the term Punan”. “To the Kayan there were three groups of people they referred to as ‘Punan’ he said. “They have their own way of distinguishing one from the other,” he explained.

Punan is a distinct ethnic group from the Kayan and Kenyah’s “Punan or Penan”. Punan is one of the six smaller ethnics that Edmund Leach classified as “Kajang”. In the early population census the Kajang, including Punan, were often labelled as ‘Upriver Melanau’ due to their cultural affinities with the Melanau.

In other instances, there was Punan being designated as ‘Kenyah’. In the early twentieth century, there was a Punan majority longhouse located near Lubok Nibong, Marudi. The longhouse was headed by a man who hailed from Kakus, named Duet.

After Duet, the longhouse split up its population, scattered out among the Berawan in Tinjar and Tutoh. At that time, the Berawan was labelled as Kenyah or ‘Leppo Puun’ a term that means ‘the owner of the lands’ according to Peter Metcalf.

Historically, Punan has been in contact and neighbours of the Berawan for a long time. Then, they were known to them simply as ‘Lemeting’, ‘Dali’, ‘Bakong’, ‘Kiput’ and ‘Tring’ — not Berawan. At the time, Edmund Leach actually designated the Berawan as part of the Kajang. Peter Metcalf furiously objected to the classification.

Metcalf said the Melanau, Punan, Kajang, Berawan and those found in the Kelabit highlands are culturally related peoples, who had similar rituals, in treating the dead. It was called ‘menoleang’ in Punan, ‘nulang’ in Berawan, a cultural substratum that predates the Kayan and Kenyah in this area according to Metcalf.

The oral history of the Punan tells of their historic settlements clustered within the Niah and Suai valley. In fact, a few places-named such as ‘Niah’ derived from “Nia” — a Punan princess, ‘Keliring River’, a tributary of Suai, are among hints of their presence in the areas. However, circa in the eighteenth to early nineteenth century, they mysteriously disappeared from Niah and Suai valley landscape.

Teladik Lasam, Lukup’s and Pelemi’s granddaughter-in-law, the wife of their grandson Ingut Ubau. She was born in 1910 and passed away over a few decades ago.

Later, these areas were repopulated by new arrivals originally from the Usun Apau plateau region, farther towards the southeast. Subsequently, there was also an influx of arrivals from the southwest — the Dayak Iban.

These new arrivals, inevitably, may have led the Punan to desert Niah and Suai regions. Today, their population is mostly confined to the Kemena, Tatau and middle Rejang valley.

Then, into the mid-late nineteenth century, tribal warfare was effectively subdued by the colonial government. Henceforth, it seems, there was a rekindling of the Punan relationship with their old allies in the Tinjar valley.

Peter Metcalf told many stories of Punan from the Jelalong, Pandan, Kakus and as far as the middle Rejang — the Punan Ba, Punan Biau, and Punan Tepeleang seeking brides among the Berawan in the Tinjar.

Prior to World War II, the Berawan longhouse at Long Jegan was still located at Long Tisam.

“It is a matter of hours from Punan farmhouses in the Jelalong river from there,” recalled Metcalf.

Until the early twentieth century, there was still a Punan longhouse near Meluruong River. In the late eighteenth century, this particular longhouse was known as “Lovuk Punan Maau” — and was located in the middle of Maau River. It was torched by marauding Dayak Iban sometime in the nineteenth century.

The community subsequently relocated to below Meluruong River during Baran, fondly remembered by his nickname Ake’ Tiro. Then, the community gradually drifted downriver and eventually relocated to Sebuang River, near Tubau Fort sometime in the middle of the twentieth century.

Stories have it, when Ake’ Tiro’s longhouse was near Meluruong, there was a story of two men, Tongom and Lukup falling in love with the girls at Long Tisam. Both of them hailed from the Tatau River. Lukup married Pelemi while his relative Tongom married “Inan Kudei” or ‘mother of Kudei”.

A few months later, after his wife became pregnant, Tongom decided to return home to Tatau informing his family about the marriage. However, enroute to Tatau, Tongom became distracted. He courted another girl at Jelalong and remained there for months; the courtship soured and he eventually made his way to Tatau. Reaching Tatau, he was told by his parents to bring back his wife to Tatau instead.

Tongom rushed back to Long Tisam. On his return, he found his wife had given birth to a daughter and that she had married another man. His daughter was named ‘Kudei’ and at the time was already crawling (mengameang). Tongom was accused of abandoning his wife and daughter. Therefore duly tried (besara’) by the Berawan. He was found guilty (sala’) but somehow escaped a fine (eang nukum) — as his wife decided to divorce him officially. The Berawan council then gave Tongom custody of his young daughter, but he decided it was best for her to be raised by her mother instead.

Back in Tatau, Tongom remarried and was blessed with a few children. Sadly, sometime in 1915, Tongom and family, while at their farmhouse at Tuju Batu, along the upper Kakus River were massacred by a party of marauding Dayak Iban from Balleh.

The loud commotion was overheard by the nearby longhouse folks and rushed in to help. The crowd frightened the Dayak party which then fled. As luck would have it, one of Tongom’s children, his youngest daughter although wounded by a spear was found alive in a roll of rattan mats.

The Berawan longhouse at Long Uko, Tutoh where many of Lukup’s and wife Pelemi’s surviving grandchildren are found today.

Back at Lemeting, Kudei who grew up among the Berawan and later was married to Ubau, a Berawan man. Their marriage was blessed with four offsprings — two sons and daughters – Tusin (m), Ketubuong (f), Layu (f) and Ruth (m). Currently, three of Kudei’s children are living among the Berawan at Long Jegan, while Ruth was at Long Teran. A few of Tongom’s grandchildren — Clayre and Shane decided to follow in their grandfather’s footsteps and married Punan.

Tongom was of Punan and Melanau parentage. His younger brother, Medik, while in his early teens was taken away by Melanau’s grandparents and consequently had to live with them in Mukah.

Later, Medik married a Melanau girl and had not set his foot in the Tatau River. Separated away for ages, he was eventually forgotten by his relatives remaining in the Tatau River.

However, Medik’s other siblings, Tusin and Tongom having been raised among Punan, married to Punan continued to be remembered.

Meanwhile, as for Lukup, sometime in the late nineteenth century, he returned to Tatau with his family. The visit was supposedly a short one, but ended a lifetime. Both Lukup and wife, Pelemi were buried at Punan Kaku cemetery located at ‘Tuju Batu’. A few of their grandchildren, yearning to return to their grandmother’s ancestral heartland, made their way back to Tinjar in the middle of the twentieth century. Today, they are found at Long Jegan, Long Pata and Long Uko.

One of Lukup’s great great grandchildren, Dr Ajau Danis is an advisor to Punan National Association (PNA). He estimated, there are more than two hundred of Lukup’s descendants alone, found in the Baram region today.

Their diaspora includes a descendant who lives in Tangaroa, New Zealand. – DayakDaily