Senoi - History and Cultural Relations

The Senoi arrived on the peninsula around 8000-6000 B.C. , perhaps mixing with Semang peoples already there. Malays arrived millennia later, at first trading peacefully and even mixing with the Senoi. The rise of Malay statelets turned the Senoi first into dependents and then, following Malay conversion to Islam, into despised pagans who served as raw material for Indonesian slavers who murdered adults and kidnapped children under the age of 9. The word sakai recalls this history, which Senoi over 50 years of age experienced personally and relate to their children. Although mistrust of the Malays remains strong, government policy is designed to convert the Senoi to Islam and bring them into the mainstream as landed or unlanded peasants.

Settlements. Traditionally, the Senoi live in settlements of 30-200 people who rarely leave their home watershed ( sakaq, traditional territory). Few people in their lives travel more than 20 kilometers from their birthplace. Settlements are usually strung along high ground near the junction of a stream and river. Dwellings are occupied by nuclear or small extended families, with most settlements having a large house or longhouse for community meetings and ceremonies. Some hill Temiar bands live in 30-meter-long longhouses that hold up to sixty people in nuclear-family compartments. In low-population-density areas (east Semai, Temiar), bands settle for three to eight years, moving on when the land is exhausted. Where population density is increasing, because of population growth and encroachment by non-Senoi (west Semai), people live in compact settlements except just before and during harvest, when each family moves to a simple house in its own swidden. Finally, the wet-rice agriculturalists such as the Jah Hut live in more permanent settlements. Houses of bamboo, bark, and woven palm-frond ( plook ) shingles are built on stilts 1 to 3.5 meters high, or up to 9 meters high where tigers and elephants are common. Even where people can afford Malay-style planks, kitchen floors are slatted for easy waste disposal.

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