Identification. The Sakalava inhabit an expansive region of Madagascar; their territory today encompasses nearly all of the west coast of this large Indian Ocean island. "Sakalava" is a compound term meaning "the long valleys" or "rivers." A noun as well as an adjective, it refers both to a specific ethnic group and its affiliated language. Its origin is obscure, although one argument is that Andriamisara, an early southern ruler, settled on the banks of the Sakalava River, which subsequently gave its name to his settlement and followers. "Sakalava," as a collective ethnic term, encompasses a diverse array of communities that are united by their common respect for a host of related royal dynasties. Other important markers of ethnic affiliation include regional dress, such as the waist wrap ( kitamby ) for men and the two-piece body and head wrap ( salovana and kisaly, respectively) for women; dietary preferences; the observance of local food and behavioral taboos; and dialect. Censuses conducted among the Sakalava during the colonial period and following independence in 1960 have periodically included such groups as the Vezo, who are fishers of southern Madagascar, and the Makoa, people of African slave descent found along the west coast. Sakalava draw sharp distinctions between local "insiders," referred to as tera-tany or tompontany (meaning "masters of the soil"), and vahiny or "guests." Nevertheless, intermarriage with non-Sakalava occurs frequently, involving unions with other Malagasy speakers (such as the Tsimihety), as well as immigrants of foreign origin (including French, Chinese, Indians, Comoreans, and Yemenis). The quintessential mark of Sakalava identity is that one respects, honors, and works for living and dead royalty.
Location. Over the course of several centuries, Madagascar's history has been marked by the formation and expansion of royal kingdoms, and here the Sakalava are no exception. Today the Sakalava form the islands fifth-largest subgroup of Malagasy speakers, who, as a whole, comprise the majority of Madagascar's population. Sakalava are also found on the Comoro Islands, especially on Moyotte, where they are referred to as Kibushy speakers; these are the descendants of Sakalava who followed Andriantsoly, a ruler who fled from western Madagascar to Mayotte in the 1820s when threatened by Merina armies from the central highlands.
The Sakalava of Madagascar (who will be the focus of this article) are organized into a string of kingdoms located along the entire western coast, extending from the south, at the Bay of Augustin near Toliary at 23°35′ S, to as far north as the offshore island of Nosy Be, the Bay of Ampasindava, and the Mahavavy River, all of which lie at approximately 13° S. Sakalava territory is bordered to the south by the island's arid region; to the east by the central highlands; and in the far north by mountainous terrain, where the highest peak is Mount Tsaratanana at 2,876 meters. The Sakalava inhabit a variety of ecological zones: the far north, in particular, is forested; as one moves south, the terrain turns into grassy savanna and then sandy (and, at times, arid) areas, with palm and baobab trees. The Antakarana are the Sakalava's northern neighbors; to the west are the Tsimihety, and to the south is territory occupied by such pastoral groups as the Bara and the Mahafaly.
Within their own territory, the Sakalava draw distinctions between "southern" and "northern" Sakalava, each exhibiting local variations in dialect as well as ritual activities that focus primarily on their respective royal dynasties and associated tombs. Menabe, encompassing the territory surrounding the city of Morondava, is the seat of the southern Sakalava, and also that of the original Maroserana dynasty, which was founded in the 1600s by the ruler Andrtandahifotsy, his classificatory father Andriamisara, and his grandfather Andriamandazoala. In the northwest is Boeny (or Boina), centered around Marovoay near the city of Majunga. Boeny was founded by the ruler Andriamandisoarivo in the early 1700s. All Sakalava dynasties trace their origins to the Maroserana rulers of the far south, each having moved progressively north following disputes over royal succession. The Bemazava dynasty, based today in the town of Ambanja, is located in the far north and is the youngest of all, having been established in the nineteenth century. Sakalava dynasties are also further categorized as being of one of two dynastic groups: the Zafinibolamena (also abbreviated to Zafin'i'mena and meaning "Grandchildren of Gold"), of Maroserana origin, and the more recent Zafinibolafotsy (or Zafin'i'fotsy, "Grandchildren of Silver"). Today each is represented throughout Sakalava territory.
Demography. Census information for Madagascar has been collected sporadically throughout the twentieth century. The reliability of census data is hampered by political agendas (such as election preparations) that can affect their outcome; furthermore, data for different ethnic groups are not always available, or may be defined differently from one census to the next. Thus, the label "Sakalava" has at times encompassed the Vezo and Makoa, for example, whereas at other times these groups have been recognized as distinct categories. With these qualifications in mind, the 1987 census recorded that Sakalava comprised 5.8 percent of Madagascar's total population of approximately 9.9 million (or of 12.6 million in 1992).
Linguistic Affiliation. Sakalava is a dialect of Malagasy, the dominant language of Madagascar. As a Western Austronesian language, Malagasy reveals the cultural and historical roots of the Malagasy people as a whole, who trace their origins in part to southeast Asia, Melanesia, and Austronesia. Linguistically, the Sakalava dialect reflects the impact of worldwide trade networks, with loanwords drawn from Arabic, kiSwahili, numerous Bantu languages, and, mostly recently, French. There is also a smattering of loanwords from Portuguese, German, English, and several Chinese and Indian languages. When compared to Merina, the island's dominant dialect (which is spoken in the central highlands), Sakalava offers striking differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Among the most significant of these is the nasal n sound (which approximates the "ng" in "sing") and a preference for the active over the passive voice. In bureaucratic and educational settings, Sakalava speakers also make use of Madagascar's two official languages: French and Official Malagasy ( mcdagasy officiel).