Dances with Shamans

This post is recent excerpt from the journal of my dear friend, Steve Williams, who left England in his early twenties to see the world. More than 50 years and 192 countries later, Steve’s passion for exploration remains strong, taking him to the most remote of areas. His current expedition involves visiting indigenous people living in equatorial villages. I encouraged Steve to get all of his wonderful stories in writing after meeting him during a volunteer trip in Madagascar last year. I am happy to be able to share this one with you:


by Stephen Williams

I have just finished my trip up the Mahakam River in Borneo/Kalimantan to the equator located in lush jungle. It was a trip of over 150 miles, starting on a fairly large boat but ending on a dugout canoe equipped with a long-tailed propeller. I made several stops along the way, including a visit to a Dyak village. The Dyaks were head hunters till not so long ago and more recently went on a long killing spree against incursions into their territory by Indonesians from different parts of the country.

Many Dyaks still live in longhouses with sometimes as many as 30 families within separate sections of the structure. I was lucky to visit one such village in the back of beyond, more than four hours up a branch of the Mahakam River by long-tailed motor canoe.
Cutting the string at the entrance to the village

I was greeted ceremoniously by about 30 people. First, a string was stretched out across the entrance to the village. Then the village chief made a long welcome speech.

Afterwards he handed me a machete and indicated that I cut the string, which I did.
Welcome dance

A middle-aged woman took my hand and led me into the main area before the longhouse. She gestured that I sit between two large wooden figures – one male and one female. Soon after, about fifteen women and girls performed a welcome dance.

I had no idea what to expect and my guide was seated somewhat apart from me.

As soon as the dance finished, the village Shaman walked directly towards me, locking my eyes with his. He was adorned with a necklace of bones and monkey skulls. He stuck out his hand and gestured that I go with him. Drum beats resumed and the women began to dance.

HealthDancewithShaman (2)
Suddenly I was hauled to my feet by the shaman and pulled towards a totem placed in the center. A woman who had been crouching down, mixing something, anointed my head with oil and marked my forehead and cheeks with white paste. I was then made to dance around a totem, hand in hand with the shaman. I felt pretty stupid.

Later looking at the photos taken by my guide I have a bemused smile on my face and look really stupid!

I was led back to my seat by the shaman. Another dance was performed to celebrate rice planting and the harvest.

Following the dance, a target was arranged using the skin from a large, hairy, lizard-like animal stretched out and pinned to a board.

The shaman was given a blow pipe roughly four feet long. He inserted a dart into the mouthpiece and fired at the lizard from about 25 feet away. He did this three times.

All three darts missed the lizard, landing around the tail area.

shamans shot‏

He then beckoned me over to take my turn with the blowpipe. My first shot hit the corner of the board, but my second shot landed right in the lizard’s neck!

Everyone was amazed but no one more so than me!

Everyone applauded except the shaman, who didn’t look at all pleased.

Steve's first shot‏
The shaman asked me to try again. Perhaps he hoped to show that it was pure beginner’s luck.

Again I hit the lizard’s neck, but a little lower down!

Shouts and applause from everyone except the shaman, who now looked really pissed off.

The elders got together in an animated discussion. The shaman joined the gathering, gesticulating violently. He seemed very upset.

Shaman coming to get me
My guide later told me that the group seemed be talking about adopting me into the clan as a hunter.

The shaman was absolutely against it, pointing out that the clan would be the laughing stock of the whole area if they had an old white man as one of their hunters.

Professional jealousy and racial discrimination! It happens all the time!

I think my guide was just making up a nice story to keep me happy. It worked!

Categories: Travel, Volunteer


  • Kevin Kemp says:

    Fascinating account! Your friend Steve Williams really upstaged the Shaman at his own game. Amazing how human nature can be the same even when separated by thousands of miles, culture, and language

  • Ruth says:

    Well said. I’ve found that to be true – despite how different our appearances and way of life, we are all humans with the same range of personalities, needs, and desires. However, had this happened hundreds of years ago I’m not so sure Steve would’ve lived to tell the tale 😉

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