The Kenyahs are highly artistic people living in the interiors of Borneo, in what is now Sarawak (Malaysia) and Kalimantan (Indonesia). Oral traditions has it that the Kenyahs arrived from across the sea (China?) and landed in Telang Usan. After many generations, they subdivided into many separate groups/dialects. Terms such as Badeng, Lepo Tau’, Lepo Kulit, Lepo Timai etc. started to appear after a number of the Telang Usan (present day Sarawak) Kenyah migrated to Kalimantan in the Upper Iwan River, in relation to specific characteristics of their term Lepo Tau’ for example was derived from the tau tree which grew in the vicinity of this particular group’s settlement.
In the beginning, the Kenyah practiced a belief system called the Adat Puon. The Kenyahs are a highly stratified society, meaning they practice a caste system. Under the Adat Puon, society is divided into:
Paren: Detau Bio’ (High Nobility)
Paren: Detau Dumit (Low Nobility)
Panyen Tiga (intermarriage between the Paren and Panyen)
Panyen Kelayen (Commoners)
The division of nobility into Detau Bio’ and Detau Dumit is used only during certain animistic ceremonies. After the rituals are over, the High and Low Nobility converge back into a single Paren category.
The Adat Puon is a highly complex and restrictive belief system. It is central to their social activities. If an omen is unfavourable, they will abandon it immediately even if the task is halfway done. Activities that are intrinsic to their survival in the wilds of Borneo like choosing a settlement, farming and hunting are governed by omens. Birds are used extensively, like many other animistic belief system widespread among the peoples of Borneo. The sound and direction of passage of said animal can be interpreted as good or ill, animals like the isit bird, pengulung (owl), kijang (deer), cobra and many more. Heavy ceremonial requirements are needed like animal sacrifices. For example, if a plague hits a settlement, protection against this evil is done through the tepo ceremony, using the blood of a murdered man.
A new religion emerged in 1947-1950, called Adat Bungan. A man named Juk Apui of Long Ampung (“Long” denotes village) received a dream of a revamped belief system. Animal sacrifices were scrapped and strict taboos lifted because it placed a heavy burden on the people. The main requirement is the worship of Bungan Malan Paselong Luan (goddess of creation). Chicken eggs were used in lieu of animal sacrifices. It eliminated the need for the separation of Paren into Detau Bio’ and Detau Dumit, causing great opposition from the Paren.
The Paren felt responsible for the safety of the people and didn’t want to incur the wrath of the gods with an incomplete ceremony. However the belief flourished and became accepted by many, partly due to the ease of practising this revised version of the Adat Puon.
In the mid 19th century, Christian missionaries started to venture among the Dayaks. In Kalimantan, they were brought in by the Dutch while in Sarawak, a limited number of missionaries were allowed due to the Brooke dynasty restriction on unbridled evangelism among the natives. Thus, the Dutch declared whoever still followed the old ways are considered ‘godless’ and accused of Communism, subject to punishment. Many groups were split on the idea of converting to this new Western religion. Some who were adamant in maintaining the Adat Bungan/Puon, split and opened new settlements. However, the first researchers who realized the value of the unique heritage of the Kenyah began putting it in writing, allowing for preservation of these traditions.
The effects of Christianisation is the Paren merged into a single category, and the Panyen as well. The Ula’ were abolished, although the social stigma of being an Ula’ was still evident. No leaders are elected from the Panyen and Ula’ categories.
Today the Kenyahs are known as a major ethnic group of the Orang Ulu (people of the interior).