Ephemeral Isle

Cool air blasts across my face as I gaze out a broken window on our twin-engine airplane, bound for Gunungsitoli on the island of Nias, 125 kilometers off the west coast of Sumatra. Below, whitecaps frolic atop the deep azure waters of Mentawai Strait. Today, these very waves, spawned by strong currents in the Indian Ocean, are shaping the island’s future. Once known for its exquisite wooden architecture and fierce tribal ways, Nias has become a mecca for surfers, whose only connection to the past is through reenacted war dances and the buying of native trinkets. At 130 kilometers long and 45 kilometers wide, Nias is just slightly smaller than better-known Bali. Until the Dutch colonized the island in 1825, its rugged terrain, malarial climate, and warlike population had isolated the peoples of Nias from mainstream Sumatran culture. As a result, islanders were spared most of the dramatic influx of Indian, Islamic, and European cultural influences that swept through the rest of Indonesia. In relative solitude, they developed a feudal society, built on a reverence for ancestors and those who could mediate between this world and the next.

Over the past century, however, Christianity has taken hold on the island, replacing traditional beliefs, with old ways gently yielding to the lure of a modern world. I have come to Nias on behalf of the National Museum of Denmark to retrace the steps of Agner Møller, a Danish doctor who carried out extensive ethnographic work on the island in the 1920s, and to document what is left of the island’s traditional villages and their wooden architecture. Møller, a somewhat controversial figure, procured an extraordinary collection of artifacts from the island on behalf of the National Museum, including significant portions of an omo sebua, or chief’s house, purchased from its owners in the village of Hillimondregeraja.

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