Batak - Orientation

Identification. The Batak subsocieties are closely related, rapidly modernizing ethnic monority groups whose rural home regions are in the rugged highlands and plains near North Sumatra's Lake Toba. The word "Batak" may have originally been an epithet used by Muslim lowlanders to refer to the mountain peoples in a derogatory way, as "primitives." Today the term is much less stigmatic and is used in some subsocieties, such as the Toba, as an everyday ethnic designation. Some of the groups along the borders of the Batak regions (e.g., Karo, Mandailing) eschew the label "Batak" in favor of their subsociety designations. Although the Batak societies share close dialects and similar social structural patterns, they never have had any significant political unity. During Dutch colonial times they were loose tribal confederations, with some chiefdom formation in border areas. Ethnic boundaries shift often and ethnic identity is labile. Today, with large numbers of city migrants and greater political power in multiethnic competition, many Batak are reemphasizing their Batak ethnic character, and inventing "ancient Batak village traditions" through their use of the mass media and by staging lavish rituals.

Location. The Batak home regions surround Lake Toba in North Sumatra, spanning the large highland region between the Acehnese and Gayo-Alas peoples to the north and the Minangkabau to the south. The home regions include heavily forested mountains, now crosscut with passable roads, and wide, fertile plains, laid out into rice paddies and grazing land. The Batak farm areas straddle the Bukit Barisan, Sumatra's main northwest-southeast mountain chain. North Sumatra has a distinct rainy season (September-December) and a pronounced hot, dry period (May-August).

Demography. North Sumatra had a 1989 population of 10,330,091. Most of this population is Batak, with smaller numbers of Javanese, Indonesian-Chinese, Acehnese, and Minangkabau. There is also a large Batak diaspora population in multiethnic cities such as Jakarta, Bandung, and Surabaya. Many Bataks moved to Javanese cities in the 1920s and 1930s for employment as clerks, teachers, and newspaper writers and editors (the Bataks were one of Outer-Island Indonesia's first deeply literate peoples). This migration pattern has continued, augmented by Bataks from poorer families seeking jobs in the army and transportation.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Batak dialects are Western Austronesian languages closely related to Malay, Javanese, and Tagalog. The Toba, Angkola, and Mandailing dialects are quite similar and mutually intelligible, while Karo, Kairi-Pakpak, and Simelungun are generally not understood outside their home areas. No Batak language is mutually intelligible with the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, although the latter is widely known throughout the Batak home regions. Batak languages have a conversational level and a more esoteric oratory level, used in adat (ancient custorn) ceremonies. Genres of speech here include verse-form verbal duels, mythic chants, dirges, and clan genealogies. Literacy in the Latin alphabet is widespread (introduced in Dutch colonial public schools and mission schools, beginning in the 1850s in Angkola and Mandailing). There was also an old Batak script, a syllabary based on Sanskrit-derived court-writing systems from west or south Sumatra. Little used or even known today, the Batak script was once a runic code for divination and spells, for village priests.

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