In the U.S., the second Monday of October is Columbus Day. I have become aware in the last several years, though I’m sure the movement has been going on much longer, of a push to instead recognize Indigenous People’s Day on that Monday. (Side bar: Looks like Seattle and Minneapolis did!) I grew up in a state that celebrated with a day off, but before the Great Move to KL I had spent a decade in Texas, which does not take a public holiday on that day. It was easy to forget that the second Monday is anything other than the day before the second Tuesday.
Sunday night I was browsing my Facebook news feed to see how my various friends were responding to college football wins and losses and the NLCS game. (My baseball fan friends are mostly shut out of the ALCS at this point. Insert sad trombone here.) In the middle of the light hearted weekend updates, I saw a “Daily Devotional” post from the national body of my religious denomination. I have often described my denomination as “Vanilla Protestant,” but I’ve learned that’s probably not the best description. As a whole, my denomination is quite liberal and committed to social justice issues. Just one of many reasons I continue to be drawn to this sect over others.
Back to the “Daily Devotional” post:
“This Columbus Day, instead of venerating a dirtbag, do this: learn one thing you didn’t know about a pre-Columbian American culture. That’s it; just one thing. And let the truth start making you free.”
I thought I would give this a Malaysian twist and learn something about the indigenous people of Malaysia, the Orang Asli. (This translates into English as something like “original people.”) Before I tell you what I learned, let me tell you what I already knew from the various tours and museums we have done.
The Orang Asli are a separate group from the ethnic Malay. And the Malays are a separate group from the ethnic Indians and the ethnic Chinese. When people in KL talk about the three ethnic groups in Malaysia, they are not including the Orang Asli in the trifecta. The Orang Asli apparently live in the jungle, because they are associated with wood carving and other wooden handicrafts and since the wood comes from the jungle, that makes sense. And that’s it. For a tourist, I know a relative lot about the founding of Malaysia and of KL, but no one has talked to us about the Orang Asli yet. Though I am willing to admit that maybe it’s because we are living in KL- I wouldn’t expect to go to New York City or Philly and learn something about the indigenous population of the U.S. (outside of a museum devoted to Native Americans, or something like that).
So here’s what I learned as a result of the challenge: As of 2000, the Orang Asli population is around 148,000 and they make up just 0.5% of Malaysia’s population. There are 3 main groups, which are further subdivided into a total of 18 tribes. They are traditionally animists, but many have converted to monotheistic religions in this last century. For the linguists out there, they speak languages from two different language families: Austroasiatic and Austronesian. (Please note that this is not my subfield of linguistics, so I can’t give you any specifics beyond what I’ve read on Wikipedia.) The poverty rate is around 77%, with a significant portion being classified as “hard core poor.” I have no idea what “hard core poor” means in practical terms, but it sounds really bad.
My two sources of quick information are Wikipedia and my trusty Lonely Planet book. Both sources agree on what I’ve summarized above, but they do diverge a little on the rest. (Though this could be a result of the specific genres represented. Wikipedia is a reasonably objective reference guide while Lonely Planet is a subjective tour guide.) Wikipedia basically says that the Orang Asli were plugging along just fine, until the first traders arrived sometime in the first millennium A.D. They continued to do just fine, trading products from the forest for things the traders had of interest (salt, cloth, iron tools), until the rise of the sultanate in Malaysia around 1400. They were pushed from their lands, first by the sultans and then by the British. They were treated badly on land deals with various government entities. They were sold into slavery by the sultans and later were subjected to missionaries trying to convert them. (This is starting to sound like a familiar story.)
My other source, the Lonely Planet book, paints a “noble savage” picture: “The indigenous people of Malaysia played an important role in early trade, teaching the colonialists about forest products and guiding prospectors to outcrops of tin and precious metals.” Sounds like the next line of the story could be about the first Malaysian Thanksgiving, right? The book does talk about the current state of poverty and the history of unfair land deals, but there is no information on the really bad stuff- like being sold into slavery. (This white washing of history is also starting to sound familiar.)
From my brief research, it appears that the history of the Orang Asli in Malaysia runs a similar course to the history of Native Americans in the U.S. Though they were the original people on the peninsula, they are not currently in power and are a minority in their own country. They have been treated very poorly by the new-comers. They’ve lost a lot of their land due to crappy deals with the government and lost a lot of their traditional ways of life due to the influences of “civilizing” missionaries. Many of them live in extreme poverty.
So there you have it. I took a call to learn something about an indigenous culture and learned that poor treatment of indigenous populations is not limited to North America.