The term Dayak covers many distinct speech groups in Kalimantan. Today it has the meaning of people living away from the coast, and includes nomadic groups, shifting cultivators, and settled peoples. The term is associated with tribal warfare, male fertility cults, tattooing, head hunting, and long houses where several families live together. Dayak has a connotation of remoteness. It designates non-Muslim minorities in the Republic of Indonesia.
Kalimantan’s thick rain forest was a formidable barrier to human settlement before the twentieth century. Archaeological evidence points to settlements along coasts and riverbeds. The nomadic lifestyle of hunting and temporary planting in forest clearings is an adaptation of the last four hundred years, made by Dayaks as they were pushed deeper into the forest by the growth of ports and the web of coastal Islamic culture. Dayak migrations through the interior of Kalimantan led to its eventual settlement. Dayak peoples supplied labor and raised food for Chinese mining communities; they paid their taxes to Malay river chiefs by raising pepper vines in forest clearings. Through these relationships they achieved intermittent communication with the outside world.
In the nineteenth century Dayaks were the object of Kalimantan explorers and ethnographers. Colonial administrations set up forts and sent regular patrols to wipe out tribal warfare and head hunting. Modern Indonesian administrations target Dayaks for “development,” which means settlement in permanent single-family dwellings on small farms, wage labor, and the systematic eradication of Dayak forest landscapes by logging companies. Farming families from Java and Madura have been settled in “empty” Kalimantan territories to relieve overcrowding in their home regions. Their agricultural settlements are a tool of expanding government control and the mechanism for spreading Muslim culture and Javanese and Madurese peoples across the face of the archipelago.
As a consequence of contact with archipelago Muslims, Dayaks made two kinds of journeys. The spiritual journey led to Islam; Dayaks emerged from it as Malays. Others made a physical journey into the interior of Kalimantan. Their migrations have made possible the steady extraction of resources. Many of these Dayaks also made the spiritual journey to Christianity. In independent Indonesia
Christian and Animist Dayaks see their space shrinking and the economic resources of their habitat being usurped by outsiders. In 1967 in West Kalimantan Dayaks drove Chinese farmers off their rice fields and from their homes. From 1997 Dayaks have made violent attacks on Madurese immigrants. Some attempt, since the fall of the New Order, to reverse a long process of absorption into Indonesia.