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The Center for Southeast Asian Studies > Religion & Diversity Initiative > Voicing Diversity Project > Our Land is the Sea (2018) > Educational Materials

Educational Materials

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About Our Land is the Sea/Air Tanahku

As plant and animal diversity rapidly disappear, human cultures—and the long-cultivated knowledge they sustain—are disappearing too . Our Land is the Sea explores how these parallel trends are related through the diverse perspectives of members of a Bajau community grappling with coral reef extinction, economic change, ethnic discrimination, and changing practices of Islam.

This film grew out of a long-term collaboration between Bajau community members Andar and Saipa—who are featured in the film—anthropologist Kelli Swazey, and digital storyteller Matt Colaciello. The footage in the documentary was filmed during five multiple-week trips to Southeast Sulawesi by the filmmakers in 2018 and 2016. The film was edited in Yogyakarta.

The film is part of the Voicing Diversity Project, a collaboration between Center for Southeast Asian Studies UHM and The Center for Cross-cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University, a research and public education center that focuses on religious life in Indonesia and the diversity it contains. These films were supported by a grant from the US Department of Education as part of the Center’s Religion and Diversity Initiative. The project aims at creating educational resources on diversity in Southeast Asia for educational institutions in the US and Indonesia. Our Land is the Sea (Indonesian title: Air Tanahku ) is currently being shown in universities and other public spaces around Indonesia in open forums to encourage discussion about the issues of religious and cultural diversity, indigenous rights, culture and environment, and conservation.

About the Bajau

“Bajau” or “Bajo” is an overarching term for a number of groups of nomadic people who have traditionally lived their lives on the sea. Bajau communities are found across the Coral Triangle, a marine territory that encompasses the oceans surrounding Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Timor-Leste, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea, and contains more than 75% of the world’s known coral species. Although Bajau groups use different names, they speak a common language and consider themselves to be part of the same cultural community. We have chosen to use the term “Bajau” in this film at the request of our local partners in Sampela, who hope that their stories represent the challenges facing many Bajau communities who depend on the ocean as the source of their culture and livelihoods.

Distribution of three different peoples referred to generally as “Sea Nomads" Blue: Moken, Orange: Orang Laut, Green: Sama-Bajau. Blue - West coast of lower Myanmar; orange - the coasts between Malaysia and Indonesia; green - various coasts between East Indonesia and the Southern Philippines.
Distribution of three different peoples referred to generally as “Sea Nomads” Blue: Moken, Orange: Orang Laut, Green: Sama-Bajau. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Note: This map is a Creative Commons public domain resource and can be reprinted/reused
and modified for educational purposes.

Bajau people relate to the ocean as a collection of places, each with their own history and associations with ancestral spirits. The interviews and research conducted in the course of making this film explore how this worldview informs Bajau people’s relationship to the natural world and their practice of Islam. The film also explores how discrimination against non-normative practices of Islam and other indigenous religions of the archipelago is contributing to the loss of cultural knowledge in Indonesia.

The village of Sampela stands over the shallow waters of a coral atoll in the Tukang Besi Archipelago in Wakatobi National Park, Southeast Sulawesi. Over the last half century, this previously nomadic community has been driven by government policies and economic change towards a more sedentary lifestyle. Despite increasing pressure to move to land and become “modern” Indonesian citizens, the people of Sampela continue to insist upon living at sea. Sampela is thus the product of ongoing innovation carried out with limited resources in the face of constant change. Today, as marine resources disappear and the effects of climate change intensify, the people of Sampela are confronting the reality that they may finally be out of options for maintaining their lives at sea. Our Land is the Sea documents the perspectives of people from three generations in Sampela. The film is not only a record of their personal stories of adaptation in the face of great change, but also a commentary on the importance of protecting diversity, both human and other than human.

Further Reading

Note: Our thanks to Dr. Barbara Watson Andaya for her contributions to the bibliography.

Accioloi, Greg, Helen Brunt and Julian Clifton ‘Foreigners Everywhere: Exclusion, irregularity and Invisibility of Stateless Bajau Laut in East Sabah, Malaysia.’ Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies 15, 3 (2017): 232: 49. 

Afiff, Suraya, and Celia Lowe. “Claiming Indigenous Community: Political Discourse and Natural Resource Rights in Indonesia.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 32, no. 1 (2007): 73-97. 

Andaya, Barbara Watson. “Seas, Oceans and Cosmologies in Southeast Asia.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 48, no. 03 (2017): 349-71. 

Andaya, Leonard. “Applying the seas perspective in the study of eastern Indonesia in the early modern period ” In Early Modern Southeast Asia, 1350-1800, edited by Keat Gin Ooi and Hoang Anh Tuan. London: Routledge, 2015. 

Asian Development Bank. State of the Coral Triangle: Indonesia. Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Asian Development Bank, 2014. 

Chou, Cynthia. Indonesian Sea Nomads: Money, Magic and Fear of the Orang Suku Laut . London & New York: Routledge, 2003. 

Clifton, Julian, and Chris Majors. “Culture, Conservation, and Conflict: Perspectives on Marine Protection Among the Bajau of Southeast Asia.” Society & Natural Resources 25, no. 7 (2012): 716-25. 

Gaynor, Jennifer L . Intertidal History in Island Southeast Asia: Submerged Genealogy and the Legacy of Coastal Capture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016. 

Indrawan, Mochamad, Celia Lowe, Sundjaya, Christo Hutabarat, and Aubrey Black. “Co-management and the Creation of National Parks in Indonesia: Positive Lessons Learned from the Togean Islands National Park.” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 57, no. 8 (2013): 1183-199. 

Kortschak, Irfan. Invisible People: Poverty and Empowerment in Indonesia. Mandiri: Godown Lontar, 2010. 

Lapian, Adrian B. and Nagatsu Kazufumi, ‘ Research on Bajau Communities: Maritime People in Southeast Asia’ Asian Research Trends, no. 6 (1996): 45-70. 

Lenhart, Lioba.’Recent Research on Southeast Asian Sea Nomads.’ Nomadic Peoples 36/37 (1995): 245-60. 

Lowe, Celia. “The magic of place: Sama at sea and on land in Sulawesi, Indonesia.” Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde 159, no. 01 (2003): 109-133. 

Majors, Chris and Joanna Swiecicka. “Missing the Boat?” Inside Indonesia 82, (Apr-Jun 2005) http://www.insideindonesia.org/missing-the-boat.

Nagatsu, K. ‘Pirates, Sea Nomads or Protectors of Islam?: A Note on “Bajau” Identifications in the Malaysian Context. アジア・アフリカ地域研究 = Asian and African area studies (2001), 1: 212-230. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/39212442.pdf

Nagatsu, K. ‘Maritime Diaspora and Creolization: Genealogy of the Sama-Bajau in Insular Southeast Asia’. Senri Ethnological Studies 95 (2017): 35-64 (pdf available online) 

Nimmo, Harry Arlo. Magosaha: An Ethnography of the Tawi-Tawi Sama Dilaut . Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2001. 

Nimmo, Harry. The Sea People of Sulu: A Study of Social Change in the Philippines . San Francisco: Chandler Publishing, 1972. 

Nolde, Lance. “Great is our relationship with the sea: Charting the maritime realm of the Sama of Southeast Sulawesi.” Explorations 9, (2009) 15–33. 

Nuraini, C. ‘Indonesian Bajo History and Narratives: the Iko-Iko Epic Songs.’ In Oceans of Sound: Sama Dilaut Performing Arts , eds. Birgit Abels, Hanafi Hussin and Matthew Santamaria (Olms: Hildesheim, 2012). 

Saat, Gusni. “The identity and social mobility of Sama-Bajau .SARI: Jurnal Alam dan Tamadun Melayu 21 (2003): 3-11. 

Sather, Clifford. The Bajau Laut; Adaptation, history, and fate in a maritime fishing society of south-eastern Sabah. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford. University Press, 1997. 

Sopher, David E. The Sea Nomads, a Study Based on Literature of the Maritime Boat People of Southeast Asia Memoirs of the National Museum, No. 5. Singapore: The National Museum, 1965, 1977. 

Waka, Aoyama. Living a New Life as “Christian Bajau.” Harvard-Yenching Institute Working Paper series, 2017. https://harvard-yenching.org/sites/harvard-yenching.org/files/featurefiles/
AOYAMA%20Waka_Living%20a%20new%20life%20as%20Christian%20Bajau.pdf

Warren, Carol. “Consciousness in Social Transformation: the Bajau Laut of East Malaysia.” Dialectical Anthropology 5, no. 3 (1980) 227-38.