Dusun people

This article is about the Dusun people. For the Dusun language, see Dusun language.
Dusun people

A Dusun man carrying Bongun, 1922.
Regions with significant populations

(Sabah, Labuan)

 Brunei (Tutong District and Belait District)
Dusun, Malaysian, English and Brunei Malay
Christianity, Islam, Animism
Related ethnic groups
Kadazandusun, Dayak, other Austronesian peoples

Dusun is the collective name of a tribe or ethnic and linguistic group in the Malaysian state of Sabah of North Borneo. Due to similarities in culture and language with the Kadazan ethnic group, a new unified term called "Kadazan-Dusun" was created.

Collectively, they form the largest ethnic group in Sabah. A small minority of Dusuns can also be found in Brunei where they are defined by the constitution to be one of the seven Bumiputera groups.


Illustration of Dusun traders by Allan Stewart in British North Borneo, by L. W. W. Gudgeon.

One interesting fact about the Dusuns is that they do not have the word 'dusun' in their vocabulary. It has been suggested that the term 'Dusun' was a term used by the Sultan of Brunei to refer to the ethnic groups of inland farmers in present-day Sabah. 'Dusun' means 'orchard' in the Malays or "simpleton" in Sunda language. Since most of the west coast of North Borneo were under the influence of the Sultan of Brunei, taxes called 'Duis' (also referred to as the 'River Tax' on the area of south east of North Borneo) were collected by the sultanate from the 'Orang Dusun', or 'Dusun people'. Hence, since 1881, after the establishment of the British North Borneo Company, the British administration categorized the linguistically-similar, 12 main and 33 sub tribes collectively as 'Dusun' though among themselves they are simply known in their own dialect as just "human" or in their Bobolian term "kadayan" or "kadazan" (in Tangaa version). The Tambanuo and Bagahak, who had converted to Islam for religious reason, had preferred to be called "Sungei" and "Idaan" respectively although they come from the same sub tribes. The arrival of the Christian Missionaries in 1880's had brought to the Dayaks and the Kadazans/Dusuns of Borneo the ability to read write and converse in English. This had open their minds and began to get involved in community Development. The tribes who were first exposed to this modernisation was the Tangaa or Tangara who dwelt in the Papar and Penampang coastal plains who were responsible to spread the passion of nationalism to the other tribes. The first attempt to translate the Bible was in Kadazan (Tangaa), also referred to as the "z" dialect. This was followed by a Kadazan (Tangaa) Dictionary. The first registered Native friendly Society was the Kadazan Society and the political party registered in North Borneo was the United National Kadazan Organization under the leadership of Donald Stevens aka Tun Fuad who was made the first Huguan Siou of the Kadazan aka Dusun Nation of 12 main and 33 sub tribes. On becoming self independant on 31/8/1963, Donald Stevens became the Prime/Chief Minister and on 16/9/1963, together with Sarawak, Singapore and Malaysia, formed a Federation of Nations called Malaysia.


Dancing medicine men from the Dusun-Dajak people in Western Borneo (possibly the present-day west coast of Sabah).

The ethnic group, makes up, at one time, almost 40% of Sabah population and are broken down into more than 30 sub-ethnic, or dialectical groups, or tribes each speaking a slightly different dialect of the Dusunic family language. They are mostly mutually understandable. The name 'Dusun' was popularised by the British colonial masters who borrowed the term from the Brunei Malays. Most Dusuns have converted to mainstream religions such as Christian (majority Roman Catholics and Protestants alike) and Islam although animism is still being practised by a small group of Dusun.

The Dusun of old traded with the coastal people by bringing their agricultural and forest produce (such as rice and amber 'damar') to exchange for salt, salted fish, and other products. The Dusun have a special term to describe this type of trading activities i.e. 'mongimbadi.' This was before the development of the railroad and road network connecting the interior with the coastal regions of Sabah. The present Tambunan-Penampang road was largely constructed based on the trading route used by the Bundu-Liwan Dusun to cross the Crocker Range on their 'mongimbadi'.

The vast majority of Dusuns live in the hills and upland valleys and have a reputation for peacefulness, hospitality, hard work, frugality, drinking, and are averse to violence. Now they have very much been modernised and absorbed into the larger framework of the Malaysian society, taking up various occupations as government servants, and employees in the private sector, as well as becoming business owners. Many have achieved tertiary education both locally and overseas (in America, England, Australia and New Zealand).

In their old traditional setting they use various methods of fishing, including using the juice called "tuba" derived from the roots of the "surinit" plant to momentarily stun fish in rivers.

Subtribes of the Dusun

Tuaran Dusun Lotud

From an anthropological point of view, it's not clear from where the ethnic Dusun Lotud came from. However, based on anecdotes or folklore, the Dusun have been known to come from Nunuk Ragang or the red-coloured 'Kayu Ru' tree colour situated at Kampong Tampias in the district of Ranau.

The Dusun in Sabah and Brunei Darussalam are similar in customs but some of their words are different.

Most of the ethnic Dusun in Brunei can be found in Kampong Rambai, Lamunin, Long Mayan, Rambai in the Ulu Tutong. In the Belait district, they are in Kampong Bukit Sawat and Kampong Sukang.

From the time before religious disciplines set in Southeast Asia, the ethnic Lotud were pagans and even today they are atheists.

Bruneians use the word 'Dusun' to identify farmers who have a piece of land planted with fruits or tend orchards. The British (British North Chartered Company) 1881-1941 used the word since then to refer to the people.

According to researchers the ethnic Lotud were synonymous with the word 'Suang Lotud' and can be found in 35 villages in Tuaran district. The ethnic Dusun Lotud called Lotude were based on the anecdotes not written by their ancestors. The Lotud women were known to wear skirts below the knees only. The word 'otud' in Dusun Lotud dialect means 'Lutut' or knee.

A husband from ethnic Dusun Lotud can practise polygamy and can divorce.

The 'Adat' or Custom of 'Dusun Lotud' marriage processes is divided into 35 segments like Suruhan, (merisik or bilateral meeting), monunui (bertunang or engagement), popiodop ('bermalam' or stay a night atau ditidur or 'sleeping together'), Matod (kahwin or wedding) and mirapou ('adat' or custom).

Before the 1950s, the partners for Dusun Lotud children were chosen by their parents. The children had no choice except to accept what their parents required for the matching partners without any help. The main objective aims to have good generations of a family: which claims to be respectful and hard-working in the paddy fields and to avoid incest in the families.

The male's family will appoint an elderly person known as 'suruhan' qualified on the 'adat resam' and will visit the female's house for the purpose of 'merisik' or negotiating.

The 'Suruhan' is aimed at delivering a message to engage the daughter from the female's family. The girl's family requests for a duration of days before the 'Risikan' or negotiation could be accepted. Many matters have to be clearly made known like the family tree, character, the capability of the male's side, and to evaluate the meaning of a dream that occurred in the female's family. If the female's side had a bad dream, 'sogit mimpi' is done for 'perdamaian' or peace. Based on 'adat', when the male's had no 'suruhan' or appointee, they can be fined on 'adat malu' by the girl's family.

Adat Monunui ('bertunang' or engagement) side the proposal of marriage or 'risikan' is accepted by the girl's side, both parties will discuss to fix the date for 'Adat Monunui' They will find the suitable date and month in the Dusun Lotud calendar like the night of the 14th in a one-month cycle called 'tawang kopiah' or the 15th night called tolokud, to perform 'monunui'.

As a symbol of engagement, the man's side will give a ring to the woman only. 'Adat Monunui' can only be done in the morning before 1pm. After completion of the ceremony, the man's family members have to leave the woman's home before 4pm.

In the 'adat monunui', the head of village and the appointee are the frontline people in the ceremony. Both parties of the families will be represented by the head of village. At this time the girl proposed to be the fiancée must be in the bedroom or in an other place not to be seen by the male's family. The man's will not be allowed in the girl's living room before the 'monunui' ends.

The most important in 'adat menunui' (engagement) are 'berian/mas kawin' (tinunui), 'belanja dapur' ('wang hangus' or kitchen expenses), 'hantaran tunang' or dowry, 'sogit' atau adat keluarga (jika ada or if family custom exist), tempoh bertunang (duration of engagement).

The list of valuables equivalent to dowry items delivered to the girl are 'karo aman tunggal', 'karo lawid', 'kalro inontilung', 'karo dsapau', 'kemagi lawid', 'kemagi 3 rondog', 'badil' or cannon, 'tajau' or vase, 'canyang tinukul', 'tatarapan', two pieces of 'rantakah', two pieces of 'sigar emas', 'simbong bersiput', 'pertina', 'tompok', gong (tawag-tawag), 'tutup panasatan' ('canyang'), 'kampil', 'kulintangan', two pieces of 'simbong bersiput'.

At the traditional pre-speech, 'adat berian' or dowry custom and belanja dapur or kitchen expenses, the heads of the villages from the man's and girl's sides will start the pre-discussion. They have prepared some pieces of 'kirai' or the (mangrove palm shoot rolled, dried and turned to make cigarette), or the matches sticks as a symbol of notes equivalent to RM1,000 each. The girl's side will make some requests of the man's side. 'Berian' or 'Tinunui' or dowry is obligatory as the symbol of the value of the girl's personality and based on the tradition worth RM1,000. The period to perform a marriage ceremony is one year. The man's family will request for an adjournment of the marriage if the man's encounters a financial problem.

The 'belanja dapur' or kitchen expenses is estimated above RM5,000 and a moderate fat buffalo. 'Adat Berian Tanah' or the land grant custom dowry is obligatory for the ethnic Dusun Lotud called 'Pinolusadan Do Aluwid', with the approved land taxation of 0.25 cents. The purpose of land grant dowry is for the construction of a house when the married couple has children. Based on tradition, if the bridegroom does not have assets like land, the 'berian four binukul (valuable archaic items) will be mentioned with the value of RM1,000.00 as 'adat berian' and has fulfilled the terms.

Dusun Tambunan

The Dusuns of Tambunan were not always as politically united as they are today. Legend has it that the Dusuns of Tambunan consisted of two rival groups who settled into the valley at varying period in the past. One group was led by a person named Gombunan and the other by Tamadon. Peaceful settlement/compromise of disputes over land division resulted in the valley being named "Tambunan" after the two leaders.

Inter-tribal conflicts emerge however when the settlers began to coalesce into new groups such as the Tagahas and the Liwans. The Tagahas grouped Dusuns from the villages of Kituntul, Toboh, Minodung, Piasau, Tibabar, Lumondou, Tinompok, Kapayan, and Kapagalan Sawa. Members of the Liwans were the Dusuns of Sunsuron, Timbou, Karanaan, Mogong, Papar, Lintuhun, Pomotodon, Nambayan, Tobilung, Tontolob, Patau and all of Kirokot. The formation of these groupings were not based on locations of the villages or of linguistic dialects. The grouping arose out of a need to uphold certain natural social principles during the British pre-colonial era when the absence of the Law, led to the adoption of the principle of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" as the tool for exacting compliance to certain standards of behaviour.

The narrative about a Dusun warrior named Bungkar, whose existence can be historically dated, will illustrate this. The tale of Bungkar also explain the origin of headhunting among the Dusuns of Tambunan, and the beginning of civil government in the Tambunan valley.

Bungkar's original home was in the hills of Pahu, an area close to Ranau. Upon attaining the age of a teenager, he undertook a long journey to a place called Sayap overlooking the Kota Belud district and stayed there for three years. The purpose of his stay was to learn the art of sword fighting and other related pre-Christian skills such as "pinjodop", "pilumou" and "pilubok". Among the learners who came from various districts were the "Tagahas". Bungkar was not a Tagahas. He was a mix of Bundu-Liwan. The Bundu-Liwans were a Dusunic tribal group whose original homeland were the foothills of an area called Libodon in the district of Tuaran.

After completing his training, Bungkar paid his trainer the customary "canang Kimanis", a traditional gong handcrafted in Brunei. In return he received a "gayang" or sword. Thereafter he returned to Pahu and persuaded the extended family to move to Tambunan. At that time Tambunan was spasely populated by the descendants of Gambunan and Tamadon and land was aplenty. In Tambunan, at a place called Borotutuon, in the padi fields of Dambatu, he built a fort-like residence, surrounding it with sharpened wooden stakes.

Meanwhile, the Tagahas were also moving into the fertile Tambunan valley. The word Tagahas means "the strong". The Tagahas originated from the headwaters of the Penampang District. They were a strong Dusunic tribe whose name were given to them by the Dusun Tangaah of Penampang. Their strength were manifested in their being popularly employed by Chinese traders to carry trade goods over the mountains of the Crocker Range, most notably along what is now known as "The Salt Trail".

Soon after, the Tagahas from Kituntul raided Bungkar's home, taking away several buffaloes. Buffaloes were considered important properties then. No blood was shed however during this raid, as Bungkar and all the males in the family were knocked down asleep by "pinjodop" a kind of pagan prayer that induces sleep. The women were also made "compliant" by the pagan charm known as "pilubok" which made one psychologically willing sacrifice and they handed over "everything" to the charmer, including prized properties such as buffaloes and other livestock. Still other males, who were not initially present at the village or knocked down earlier by the "pinjodop", were later affected by the charm "pilumou" which evoked a sense of great pity in one affected, thus evading any violence. These charms would be equivalent to today's concept of mass hypnotism.

After recovering his senses, Bungkar gathered his people and a decision was made for Bungkar, a trained warrior, to lead a small group to give chase. Yumpiau, an untrained brother of Bungkar, volunteered to join as one who would lead any recovered livestock back. Two brothers, Kondoud and Kindipan, also volunteered. A brave young boy named Bolinti also volunteered but Bungkar refused to take him in as he was too young and untrained. This Bolinti would later appear in the list of names of those who joined the early Borneo Chartered Company Police Force.

After making inquiries, Bungkar received a message from a cousin named Rumantai that the Tagahas raiders had gone into hiding with their loot near his farm in the south of Tambunan valley. Rumantai was a "kososoluon", or neutral, residing among the Tagahas. The Tagahas were waiting for nightfall to move the stolen livestock by moonlight. They were travelling to an area called Kapagalan Sawa.

After having spied the Tagahas, Bungkar uttered the triple charms of "ponginjodop", "pilumou" and "pilubok". Having recovered the livestock without a fight, Bungkar directed his companions to travel on ahead, while he covered them from the rear. Rumantai, although a neutral, promised to assist his cousins if the Tagahas ever retaliated with swords. The Tagahas did retaliate with violence but they were no match for Bungkar's sword fighting skills and Rumantai's assistance. On that day, five Tagahas died at a place called Tumoh Modulis. This incident marked the end of the unwritten rule of fighting with charms and the beginning of a long period of headhunting in lawless Tambunan.

The following events could be more accurately dated as they occurred during the eruption of the volcanic island of Krakatoa, Indonesia.

As the tribal war continued, the "Kososoluon", a neutral group whose members were peace-loving, physically weak but politically-aware, began to play a more prominent role in the social upheaval. Dusuns from Noudu, Pantai and Botung belong to the Kososoluon. They attempted to broker peace between the warring Dusuns. They introduced the unwritten rule that no children and women were to be harmed in any way. It was also agreed upon that all women and children of Tagahas and Bundu-Liwan, were to carry a green branch wherever they went as a sign of neutrality.

The Tagahas, however, broke this rule. At a place called Penanambangan, a footpath connecting the village of Tontolob and Sunsuron, a group of Tagahas warriors led by Sambatang set up an ambush. The word "penanambangan" means "deer ambush". Late in the afternoon, Sambatang saw a group of young Bundu-Liwan girls walking home towards Tontolob and Sunsuron, carrying green branches. The Tagahas attacked and Soria, Bungkar's sister, was beheaded by Sambatang. Five days later, Sambatang was also beheaded by Bungkar who led an attack on the former's home at Minodung. Pressured by the women folk and not satisfied by merely killing Sambatang, Bungkar later set up an ambush along the footpath at Tibabar where he beheaded a Tagahas virgin, whose name was-strangely enough-Toria.

As soon as news of Toria's beheading reached the women of Tontolob and Sunsuron, they held a celebration. A long victory procession was formed with women carrying "nyiru" and fanning Bungkar as he carried the body and the head of Toria back to Sunsuron. Oroyok, a young girl of about 5 years old at that time, described how Toria's head was later boiled, the brain removed and placed on the warrior's "gayang". All brave males were then to consume a tiny portion so as to share in the "spirit of headhunting". The following verses in their chanting suggests that some form of cannibalistic ritual took place;

Rubat tinan Toria, Pinororot do togis, Pinosila luha, Kinandayan do Tondangol, Tinayaan do Tamadi, Pinosuang do poriuk, Pinorumpos do kuron, Naakan no loh Tutok, Nosiop no loh raha.

The words "pinosuang" and "pinorumpos" translates as "to pour or place into". "Kuron" and "poriuk" are large cooking pots. "Tutok" and "raha" translates as brain matter and blood. "Naakan" is to eat and "nosiop" to drink. Oroyok remembered these verses as one of several she heard being chanted at the event of Toria's ritual "homecoming" to the Guritom house of skulls at Sunsuron. She also had to memorise it and disseminate it by word-of-mouth to the younger generation at a time when schools were uncommon in North Borneo. Oroyok, who later became a Dusun priestess, died 1978 at the age of 114 years old.

Several hours after the ritual celebration started, the sun suddenly began to dim. For several weeks, the Dusuns of Tambunan had to go about their daily work in semi darkness. Torches had to be used during midday. To the superstitious pagan Dusuns, this was a clear sign of the wrath of their god, "Kinorohingan", over their conduct. In fear they stopped the tribal warfare and headhunting and peace returned to the valley. Unknown to the Dusuns, the darkness that descended upon they valley was not an isolated event but actually was the result of a huge volcanic explosion that took place thousands of kilometres away on the island of Krakatoa in Indonesia. The date was August 1883. The peace lasted only for about 15 years.

In 1898 the peace was once again shattered with the coming of Mat Salleh into the Tambunan valley. Mat Salleh came into the valley with three other leaders, namely Tunggal, a Dusun from Menggatal, Musa a Bajau from Menggatal and another Bajau leader from Kudat. Descendants of Tunggal included Majabin, the current village chief of Kampung Keliangau. Included in Mat Salleh's small native force were Dusun Lotud fighters from Tuaran. Later, after the civil war, these Dusun Lotud fighters from Tuaran hide among the Dusun Tagahas of Kituntul and their descendants became a part of the Dusuns of Tambunan.

Mat Salleh's entry, his rule and his violent end marked the beginning of the rise of the "Kososoluons" political influence and the British intervention to bring the Law among the Tambunan Dusuns. Mat Salleh was a thorn in the British Chartered Company's effort to Govern the coastal areas of North Borneo. As such the British conveniently "forced" him to the interior, knowing that Mat Salleh "discovery" of a new source of "taxes" to finance his anti-British activities would create a situation where the Dusuns of Tambunan would "search" for a superior power. The Dusuns of Tambunan could hardly have known or perhaps only vaguely known at this point that the Sultan of Brunei and the Sultan of Sulu had signed away North Borneo.

Upon arrival in the peaceful Tambunan Valley, Mat Salleh began to project his image as a man of power. It was said that he began to brandish a piece of document issued by the British which purportedly gave him power over the valley, including the power to collect taxes. The illiterate Dusuns however wanted to have nothing to do with any piece of paper. Mat Salleh changed his strategy by bringing in one of the princess of Sulu. This strategy also failed to impress the Dusuns of Tambunan and they defiantly refused to pay "wang kepala" to Mat Salleh. Wang kepala or "head money", was a kind of compulsory tax payable to the British colonialist, the amount of which was calculated based on the circumference of one's head at the eye level.

Upon discovering about the historical enmity between the Tagahas and the Bundu-Liwan during the Headhunting days, Mat Salleh began his campaign of "divide and rule" to sow the seeds of disunity. He succeeded in recruiting the Tagahas to his side. At the top of a hill called Kinabaan, Mat Salleh and his Tagahas allies built a canon emplacement with the canons trained towards the Bundu-Liwan stronghold of Sunsuron and Tontolob.

Unbeknown to Mat Salleh he was actually playing right into the hands of the more politically superior British who were waiting patiently for an opportunity to exert their influence into the interior of North Borneo. The British had signed an agreement with the Sultan of Brunei and the Sultan of Sulu in 1882, but apart from the coastal areas, it was unable to control any portion of the interior. The "wang kepala" taxes were actually a creation of the British.

The Bundu-Liwans were no match for Mat Salleh's Bajau and Tagahas fighters. At this time Bungkar was already an old man. Faced with defeat due to Lack of canons and 'ginsuk' or flint-lock guns, they called upon the "kososoluon" to be the intermediary in a negotiation for peace. Sampuun, a peace-loving and respected leader of the "Kososoluon" managed to arrange a meeting between the Tagahas and the Bundu-Liwans. The meeting which took place at Karanaan ended violently without any agreement forged. Sodiok, a Bundu-Liwan leader, was slashed to death by one of Mat Salleh's Bajau followers when the Bundu-Liwans refused to acknowledge Mat Salleh as the collector of taxes on behalf of the British. The fighting continued.

The ensuing events, which saw Mat Salleh's political and military defeat at the combined hands of the Kososoluon and the British Chartered Company forces resulted in the beginning of Law and Order among the Tambunan Dusuns. Christianity replaced paganism, Bundu-Liwans began to be recruited into the Police Force and the Dusuns began a political awakening which later culminated in one of their number becoming an important leader in the Government of Sabah/ formerly known as North Borneo.

Sampuun decided to seek the opinion of like-minded leaders from other regions of North Borneo. He gathered together several important kososoluon leaders and they set out on a journey to another valley, about 50 kilometres down river. It took them about a week to arrive at another interior valley known as Keningau. There Sampuun sought out a leader of the Dusun Kwijau known as Gunsanad. Gunsanad was also a peace-loving leader of the Kwijau, whose dialect has a close affinity with the language of the Muruts, an ethnic group whose origin were said to be from Kalimantan. Gunsanad was also surprised about the change of overlordship from the Sultan of Brunei to a new entity called "orang putih" or white men. He was equally alarmed upon hearing about Mat Salleh's activities and worried that it might spill-over to his valley. After much discussion it was decided that both Sampuun and Gunsanad were to travel to Brunei to seek confirmation on this new development.

After obtaining the required confirmation and reporting on the civil war taking place in Tambunan Valley they returned home. This time they were accompanied by a fully equipped force of Iban warriors from Sarawak and Sikh policemen led by several British officers. The attacked on Mat Salleh's force was completely successful. It was also used as a show of force designed to impress upon the local Dusuns of Tambunan Valley, as well as the Dusuns of keningau Valley that white men's power. After the defeat of Mat Salleh, the British realised that the system of taxes called 'wang kepala' was not a viable option. It is a potential flash-point as it give rise to dissatisfaction. They began to study other options and began to adopt a system of registering land and collecting land rent as a way of controlling the influx of new settlement into the Tambunan Valley.

Nowadays Tambunan is one of the districts in Sabah where the Dusun people are overwhelmingly Christians.

Ranau Dusuns

The Ranau Dusuns can be considered as more closely representative of the original Dusun stock. This is because they are residing within an area generally considered as the place of origin of the Dusuns namely Nunuk Ragang.

Dusun Tatana

The Dusun Tatana are different from any other Dusun people, their culture are similar to those Chinese culture but it already mixed with some traditional customs. The Dusun Tatana are the only Dusun that celebrate Chinese New Year as their festival. Kaamatan is less celebrated by them.

See also


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Further reading

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