On the island of Borneo, there are at least 20 different groups of people called ‘Punan’ with the bulk of these Punans, about 17 groups found in Kalimantan, Indonesia and some in Brunei. On the Malaysian part of Borneo, Sarawak, the term applied to at least three groups of people who are culturally and historically distinct peoples. The sedentary, agriculturalist, longhouse dweller Punan and the former nomad, hunter-gatherer groups Penan, Punan Aput and Punan Busang/Vuhang. They also occupied geographically different areas, the former nomads, hunter-gatherer groups concentrated on the headwaters of Rejang, Baram and Limbang rivers – the main river. The agriculturalist, sedentary longhouse-dweller Punan scattered in the middle section of Rejang, Kakus, Kemena and Jelalong rivers.

Scholars, authors often labeled the Punan as ‘Punan Bah’ (Ling-Roth 1896; Nicolaisen 1976, 1977, 1983). Generally, this is done so for two main purposes to: (1) avoid confusion and (2) distinguish the sedentary Punan from the once nomadic hunter-gatherer groups (Needham 1955a, 55b; Nicolaisen 1976; Rousseau 1990). However, doing so, they inadvertently created another problem, the Punan do not call themselves as Punan Bah, not ethnically and it mirrors the problem that Peter Metcalf discovered among the Sebob of Long Batan in Baram. Although the Sebop sometime refers to themselves as Long Batan, it, however, is not their ethnic label (Metcalf 2010); similarly, of course there are Punans who call themselves as ‘Punan Bah’ especially those from the Punan Ba village – but that is not their ethnic label.

This problem, actually the first telltale sign, an alarm that any curious observers of Borneo ethnicity should notice should have cautious when dealing with this label. In fact, Punan and Penan are one of the most problematic[ It worth noting that, in Sarawak, ethnic categories and identities have been created, reinforced, manipulated and changed and that colonial knowledge had been instrumental in creating these categories (see Jehom 1999). It took some five decades for scholars to correctly identified Penan from the Punan label (see Needham 1954).] ethnic classification in Borneo, a mystery that remains unsolved for nearly a century till it was partially untangled by Rodney Needham (1954, 1955).

The name ‘Punan Bah,’ or ‘Punan Ba’ actually a reference for one of Punan longhouses or villages along the Rejang River. It is located half-way between Kapit and Belaga town and is the oldest Punan settlement in Sarawak – at least it had existed before 1882 (Brooke Low 1882). Officially, however, in the Malaysian Constitution[ Sarawak Interpretation Ordinance 2005] Punan peoples are classified as Punan and group under Kajang, while the former hunter-gatherer groups the Punan Aput and Punan Busang/Vuhang classified as Penan with whom they share close culture relationship.

Therefore, following the Malaysian Constitution classification and based on what the Punan calls themselves any reference to Punan hereafter, will refer to the people Ida Nicolaisen (1976, 1977) designated as “Punan Bah” group – not the above-mentioned former hunter-gatherers and the Penan. The ethnonym ‘Punan’ is an autonym or endonym – what the Punan always refer to themselves (Needham 1955), although in the case of the former hunter-gather groups it is an exonym [ In Kalimantan, nomads have generally endorsed the generic exonym Punan, while in Sarawak and Brunei Penan become the default term of reference for most nomads. Nomads themselves, who rarely seem to mind a great deal about the name given to their or other bands, have often confirmed an exonym (or successive exonyms) by which others refer to them, and this compounds difficulties of distinction between social historians and other interested parties (Sercombe and Sellato 2008)] (Sellato and Sercombe, eds. 2008).

The etymology ‘Punan’ is originated from a toponym, name of a river, Punan River – tributary of Ba River located in an area mentioned above. Punan River and the whole Ba River watershed area is considered the homeland, the center of Punan civilization and where the Punan said they were created eons ago by their semi-god ancestor Bua (Nicolaisen 1976). The word ‘Punan’ does has other meaning i.e., ‘group of people’[ There are few words in Punan that has almost similar meaning but used in different context. Linou – it English closes equivalent is ‘person’. Bengesak in the other hand refers to group of people ethnically. Bengesak means ethnic. ]. However, there is a specific word for ‘race’, ethnic, tribe, in Punan – ‘bengesak’. In Kalimantan, among the group commonly known also as Punan, the word ‘Punan’ carries a different meaning i.e., people with a ‘primitive’ appearance[ As Lars Kaskija said “It is rather significant that Punan, as well as another group in Central Borneo, identify any people with a ‘primitive’ appearance – whether American Indians or Philippine Negritos – as ‘Punan’. This identification is done by just looking at a picture. Physical appearance suffices to label anyone as ‘Punan’ (Kaskija 2002:62).] (Kaskija 2002:62).

Unlike, the former hunter-gatherer Punan groups, the Punan has no memories of being a nomad (Needham 1955a:31; Langub 1975) although Bernard Sellato (1993) beg to differ, arguing the name ‘Punan’ itself denotes past nomadism. The Punan, just like the Kayan, Iban are agriculturalist communities.

Traditionally, Punan occupied huge area, spanning from Pelagus near Kapit up to Bungan rapids near Belaga (Ida Nicolaisen 1976, 1977). But, the expansion of Iban in early 20th century, into upper Pelagus areas into the watershed of Sama, Pila and Metah rivers; an expansion partly facilitated by Charles Brooke – the second Rajah of Sarawak with his two expeditions[ The Great Kayan Expedition in 1863, then followed by another expedition in 1896 – is widely seen as facilitating the expansion of Iban into central Rejang River areas.] against the Kayan; eventually, drive out Punan and Kayan people from these areas.

The Punan after the first expedition retreated closer to where they were originally from – Ba River watershed, where they remained till today, while the Kayan were pushed as far back as to above Bakun rapids (Charles Brooke 1866). Several years after the first punitive expedition against the Kayan known as Kayan Great Expedition, in 1882 Hugh Brooke Low made his first trip up the Rejang River to collect taxes and strengthened Brooke rules of the region. He recorded six Punan longhouses dotting the area in between Bikei rapid to Bungan rapids (Brooke Low, 1882). Today, however, the Punan community is occupying a much smaller area of the Rejang than their ancestors did. Their territory shrinks so much over the century to just tiny spot between the Bikei (Mikai) to Tukok rapids, first due to the expansion of Kayan in the early 19th century, then followed by the Iban in 20th century and in the 21th century attribute to expansion of large scale agriculture – acacia and oil palm plantation.

In the middle of 1970 a renegade Punan Biau named Jelawing, after being rejected in his bid to become the Punan Biau chief went his separate way and formed his own community across the river from the old longhouse. He only managed to coax couple of Punan Biau to follow him. Thus, to increase his followers he then brought in several Iban from Metah and Pila areas to join his longhouse. The Ibans always willing to expand their territory – seized on the golden opportunity presented by Jelawing. During this period, racial tension between the Iban and Punan had been eased a little bit, but was again, frail due to Jelawing action. Majority of Punan – including the late Punan Pemanca, Kupa Kanyan and Punan Sama chief Kulleh Emang pushing for the Iban return to where they were from. A few years after the Iban settled with Jelawing, one of his follower murdered a Punan.

The fragile situation prompted the District office in Belaga to form a security committee. Demand from the Punan and other senior Government officers including the late Gerunsin Lembat for Jelawing to push the Iban out bluntly rejected by recalcitrant Jelawing. According to former S.A.O of Belaga in the 70s – Jayl Langub[ An Iban man – a follower of Jelawing, named Seliong was convicted and sent to prison for the murder of Lubuk or Oman Mawang in early 1980s. Seliong after being freed from prison, has not return to Rh. Jelawing and believed to have resided near Bintulu. ] said he told them: “this is Malaysia, we can lived wherever we want. If want to, I can build my longhouse in Kuala Lumpur,”.

Inevitably, upon his death in the 90s, the Iban who had grown even more numerous, can’t wait to be own their own, quickly seized the opportunity of Jelawing death as an excuse forming their own longhouses. Half of them, then move downriver to Munau known from Jelawing longhouse – establishing a new longhouse known as Rumah Lat. Another half follow Jelawing son, Dari Jelawing, establishing his own community near Belasa River, upriver from old Jelawing longhouse. Deserted by his Iban followers, Jelawing old longhouse today is left with only few doors or bilek remaining occupied by his younger sons families.

Meanwhile, during this same period of the 1970s to 1980s, on the upper reaches of Punan territory along the Rejang, Bungan rapid, near Belaga had been occupied by two different ethnics groups – the Tanjong and Kayan[ It worth noting though, unlike the group of Iban, currently at occupying Punan land at Munau, Belasa and Pemulan, brought by Jelawing in 1976, vehemently opposed by Punan communities, the migration of Tanjong into Pawa area in 1970s then Kayan in 1980s to Buyun – an area traditionally an owned by Punan Sama people – they came with Punan blessing. In the case of Tanjong and Kayan they had seek Punan prior permission and later granted by late Punan leaders, Kupa Kanyan, Kulleh and Matu of Sekapan. ]. The Tanjong originally from Kapit, moved upriver and settled into an area above Tukok rapid, near the Punan Sama sometime in the early 1970s. About a decade later in 1980s, they were followed by a new group, Kayan group from Belaga who moved into an area below Bungan rapid, upriver from the Tanjong. Today, Punan population along the Rejang is estimated to be nearly 3,000 peoples[ Punan National Association put the estimate of Punan total population nearly 6,000 in 2016. An official population of minorities such as Punan is not available – as the official population census lump them together as either Bumiputera or Orang Ulu – which again consisted of several ethnics.], from less than 300 in 1882 (Brooke Low, 1882) and total Punan population in Malaysia is estimated to be around 6,000.

The turmoil in Rejang River basin, heightened with the arrival of Kayan, Kenyah and followed by the Iban starting from early 19th till first quarter of 20th century – led to mass migration of Punan to other part of Sarawak, particularly to nearby Kakus and Kemena watershed. These two areas, today known is part of Bintulu Division, is home to another half of Punan population in Malaysia. Before the arrival of Iban into Tatau and Kakus watershed, the Punan were occupying an area at the present day Tatau town. The influx of Iban gradually pushing the Punan upriver to Kakus and who eventually settled in an area between Mina River and Lana River on the lower section of Kakus River. In this area, today, there are four Punan longhouses (Rh. Ado, Rh. Jayan, Rh. Kitup and Rh.Kiah) and downriver at Mina River known as Punan Mina (Rh. Arjey).
Along the Kemena watershed another two Punan longhouse – Punan Pandan and Punan Jelalong, along Jelalong River. Punan has always been a longhouse dweller – can’t stress that enough. In the good old days, the Punan used to build a sturdy longhouse on stilt, supported by huge whole belian wood (Eusideroxylon zwageri) as pillar, beautifully decorated with various carving and figurine or udok.

As in many communities who have no written tradition, the only means of knowing their history are deciphering their oral traditions, in the Punan case deciphering history contains in their u’a and uket. U’a[ U’a narrative is divided into thousands of stanzas with stanza is marked by opening and closing ‘frame phrases’; the phrase between the opening and closing markers contain rhyme; the singer of the narrative is accompanied by a periodic chorus – consists of solo voice, clear, strong and of high pitch followed by response from a group of others which is characterized by a melodic cadence from highest to lowest pitch.] is also considered as a form of entertainment as it narrates rhythmical by the narrators. Uket means folktales performed by a storyteller. Both are dying traditions, mostly forgotten as the modernizing Punan prefers a western form of entertainment. Available sources on these oral traditions are rare, almost nonexistence nowadays. In this section, my main reference on these oral traditions are the published works of Ida Nicolaisen (1976) and my personal collection of Punan uket as told by Punan elders specially Kojan Kavang. He is regarded as one of Punan finest carver, storyteller and has intimate knowledge of Punan oral traditions. Kojan is affectionately called Akek Lingang, is a close relative of mine and Ida Nicolaisen’s adopted brother.

All the Punans today, according to their oral traditions are descendants of a mythical being called the great Bua – an etun uoa. As a supernatural being, the great Bua possess god supernatural powers and abilities. The myth indicates the great Bua is believed to have come from a Sekapan area in the headwaters of Rejang River where he was married to a Sekapan lady by the name of Lapan, or Jali as she is known to the Punan. As the story goes, one day, he decided to go on a journey somewhere beyond the Sekapan area, leaving his wife Jali behind. Along the journey, he found a place, lush green and beautiful, but was devoid of humans. So Bua thought, why not create human to inhabit the area. The first thing he did was creating a river, as water was source of life. Then he created human being, to inhabit land and the river and let them flourish. That river is the Ungei Ba and the people that the great Bua created and let flourishing are the Punan of today, so the myth tells us. As the myth goes, the great Bua was extremely happy and satisfied with his creations. He then left the Ungei Ba to return home to his wife.

Time passes by, and eon later, Bua went back to Ungei Ba. On his return, he discovered the people he had created, the Punan peoples had grown numerous. Sadly, instead of living peacefully among themselves, they never stop quarreling, fighting each other. This saddened Bua so much. Thus, the great Bua swore to never again create any more Punan people. Despite his anger, Bua chose to spare the people he had created from the place he had wished to see them living flourishing. In anguished, broken-heart Bua then departed Ba area immediately and to never return again.

In the haste to depart, Bua has forgotten to carry his bekoyo or quiver at Ungei Ba or Ba River. That quiver, as time passes, eventually turned into a boulder, and this quiver that had turned into a rock, can still be seen up the Ungei Ba to these days. The Punan believes it is an evidence of their creator, Bua existence. The great Bua, the Punan and Ungei Ba creator, also left behind other evidence of his presence along the Ba River. One of them is known as batu purung Bua, or Bua’s ‘seat’, a boulder that resembled one’s posterior – believed to be where Bua once seated.

This short story is used by the Punan to explain their origin and have a very important cultural significance to them. The great Bua had two children, Tadou and Taga, present-day Punan people ancestors. Although Bua is regarded as a mythical being, overtimes, after several generations, the supernatural powers once upon Bua’s descendants said to have faded away. Baluan and Yuan Mikuang, the great great grandson of Bua, for instance, were said to have no supernatural abilities, already much like any ordinary human being.

One glaring problem with Punan oral tradition – u’oa – is that it mostly stories about the aristocrats, the ruling families, warriors class – none about the ordinary, commoner group in the society. Due to this apparent bias, many regarded them as a distorted picture of Punan communities history. But whatever it is, U’a, is still an important part of Punan tradition – that worth preserving.