Eleanor Goroh, an Indigenous Artist from Sabah – “The Land Below the Wind” by Damon Gerard Corrie
I met 30 year-old Eleanor Goroh of the Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia Organization, at the Tribal Link Project Access Global Capacity Building for Indigenous Peoples Training Course May 2012 in New York City, USA; the first observation anyone would naturally make – is that she is a petite indigenous lady with a studious look about her.
I did not come merely to make superficial observations however…I had the honor of returning to the Tribal Link family this year as a presenter and past alumni myself, having completed MY two-year training course in 2009-2010; but this article is NOT about me – it is about Eleanor…. the indigenous artist from Sabah, ‘The land below the wind‘.
I will not delve into any comprehensive description of her country – in this day and age you can easily find those details on-line for yourself.
Instead, I want to focus on things that you are unlikely to find anywhere; such as the present day reality in her country as seen through her eyes…even though I can only offer you a sliver of the information banquet Eleanor laid before me as I sat down and presumed that I would be interviewing her….when in truth and in fact, I became a mere scribe as she opened up her heart and soul to me – and let the information flow from her lips.
In her own words:
“My people are called the Dusun, today we number about 500,000 persons. There are 32 ethno-linguistic groups in Sabah – which has a total population of 3.2 million. Historically, the tribes who lived in the interior were headhunters, but the coastal tribes were not; the coastal tribes also did not violate the territory of the interior tribes – and only ventured into those areas to trade, and vice-versa.
In 1881 the British came to ‘rent‘ Sabah from the Kingdom of Brunei, they then renamed our country as the ‘British North Borneo Company‘, they built railroads, started commercial logging, rubber tapping (which is still being conducted), Tobacco farming for the Rothman’s Company (now known as British American Tobacco/BAT), and they industrialized rice production for export. Prior to the British coming our people only grew enough rice to feed ourselves, the idea of farming the land beyond satisfying our basic needs was unheard of….and we had a more environmentally sustainable agricultural practice.
In 1900 the British Christian Missionaries came to our country, (most tribes are Christian now) then in 1941 the Japanese invaded and occupied our country until 1945. Since 1957 when the Federated States of Malaysia came into existence, only one political party has ruled Malaysia – the United Malays National Organization.
In the year 2000 the ‘Multimedia Act‘ was passed by the Federal Government, all print media in Malaysia is either government owned – or owned by the ruling party’s supporters. No news about indigenous peoples or any criticism of the government is allowed. The daily front pages of the newspapers only show cosmetic solutions by the regime, like for example some poor person getting water piped directly into their homes for the first time in 2012.
When an indigenous mother gives birth in our country she must state the child’s name, religion and race – but they only list 4 legal options within which to racially classify her baby, and these are ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Indian‘ or ‘Others‘, the Federal Government does not think it is important for our tribal nations to be listed…to them we are merely ‘others‘.
My parents voluntarily assimilated in order to help ‘build the new nation‘ in 1957, but all their generation received in return was inequity, 95% of oil revenues from extraction in Sabah goes to the Federal Government, with only 5% going to Sabah. Another injustice we received in return for faithfully supporting the new Federation was seeing ‘our‘ government flood our country with non-indigenous settlers…a process that continues to this day and which has reduced us to becoming a statistical minority in our own lands. 40% of the people in Sabah today are Filipino and Indonesian migrant workers who all mysteriously have Malaysian ID cards, a political gift for voting for the ruling party of the Federal government. The rest of the settlers are Malays, Chinese and Indians…none of whom are native to Sabah.
The Federal government is carrying out Hydroelectric dam projects that destroy our pristine environments. After 25 years these dams are no longer viable, so then they become a big lake that senior party supporters turn into huge tourist resorts.
Other problems we face are land grabs, the government leasing indigenous lands in Sabah to foreign companies, and previously clear-cut lands being turned into Palm oil plantations…all of this is very bad for the environment, because these Palms rob the soil of almost all of it’s nutrients – leaving no way to raise any other crops in that soil either concurrently or afterwards.”
* NB – A United Nations report in 2010 said that Sabah is the poorest of the States that comprise Malaysia.
Eleanor went on to explain how her generation can be likened to a generation ‘Z‘ (youth), with the ‘Y‘ (parents) and the ‘X‘ (Elders) generations. Due to the voluntary assimilation of her parents generation who focussed all their energies on ‘nation building‘- and neglected to learn virtually all of their own parents’ traditional knowledge in the process…they could therefore transmit very little to the present young generation.
So Eleanor felt the pull deep inside her soul to become one of the leaders of the youth who returned to the Elders in order to learn all that had almost been lost.
The Elders were surprised and overcome with joy to see their grandchildren come to them – begging to learn all of the traditions that their parents had foresaken, and it is the present young generation of Indigenous peoples of Sabah who are preserving and promoting their cultural identity with a pride that their own elders never thought they would witness in their lifetimes.
Verily, few things warm the heart of an indigenous elder more than seeing their youth come to them of their own volition – to quench their thirst for the ancient knowledge which they have protected all of their earthly lives in order to bequeath to them.
Eleanor is an artist herself, and she created a coalition between the urban and rural indigenous artisans; but even in her very livelihood she exhibits a keen sense of higher purpose which overrides any notion of personal financial gain. She does not and will not sell a single one of her pieces to any store, only directly to a buyer; and then ONLY if you agree to support the pro-traditionalist indigenous movement…which can be as simple as signing a petition. Thankfully, their intricate and beautiful indigenous arts and crafts ARE recognized and appreciated by the dominant Malay society….even though their Indigenous Rights as enshrined in International Laws and Conventions are NOT.
In Eleanor’s own words again:
“No land means no natural resources,
no natural resources means no traditional arts and crafts,
no traditional arts and crafts means no traditional knowledge,
and no traditional knowledge means no indigenous identity.
“Now is the time to put our indigenous arts and crafts back into the international spotlight, it would be good if the non-indigenous peoples would stop violating our rights, but for that to happen – they would need to have a heart first, and very few of them appear to possess such a thing.
They only seem to see the world from a consumerist point of view, so maybe if they see our arts and crafts as being something created in an environmentally sustainable way….an ‘environmentally safe commodity’ so to speak….because that is one way to see them from a non-indigenous perspective; then maybe they will buy them and our people who are poor will benefit that way – by using our traditional crafts to finance our human rights struggles.
We indigenous peoples have to STOP only saying that we are victims, and start saying more that we have solutions to offer the world in this era of increased awareness of the Environment, solutions the non-indigenous of this world need to listen carefully to – and act immediately upon.
The non-indigenous have ignored us indigenous peoples and left us behind once before – and look where it has led them!….right to the precipice – one step away from the complete destruction of the world’s environment.
They don’t come in wooden ships with banners and flags anymore…now they come with multinationals, corporate logos and promises of economic prosperity….but for whom?”