Rafael Miku Beding on Life in Lamalera and the Leva Nuang Ceremony Often Misunderstood as “Whale Hunting”
There are thousands of islands in Indonesia, with over 1,300 recognized ethnic groups. Time and open-mindedness are needed, surely, when traveling from one island to another; when learning about (and from) each tradition and every group.
Rafael Miku Beding shares his knowledge about the cultural life, philosophy, nature, and realities in Lamalera that are often made obscure and misleading.
Lamalera is a Catholic village located in Wulandoni district, Lembata Regency, in East Nusa Tenggara. This community is widely known for celebrating Leva Nuang, a whale “hunting” tradition. In most countries, this activity is deemed to be illegal.
Now, buckle your seatbelt and put on your open-mind helmets as we circle back to our journey with Rafael. Join us in learning why the Lamalera community is persistent in continuing their tradition of Leva Nuang.
This article is a translated version of the Sugar Nutmeg interview with Rafael Miku Beding in Bahasa Indonesia (keeping in mind that there are words and phrases that have no direct translation).
Rafael Miku Beding:
My name is Rafael Mikubeding. People call me Bang Raff or Ruang Dia. I work in the creative industry, previously at Watchdoc Documentary for four years, and now I am based in Kupang and a member of the Kupang Filmmaker community.
Long story short, there was a call from nature—I don’t know who called me—but I felt like it was time to come here (Kupang, the capital of NTT province). I am mixed, Javanese and Lembatan. My mother is Javanese and my father is Lembatan. Because he is no longer with us and because there was never a serious conversation between us—father to child—I had to do my own research about the culture and traditions in Lamalera. I first came there in 2015-2016. Since then, my love for my father’s hometown has grown deeper and deeper.
The culture in Lamalera is very unique because in Indonesia, I think we seldom hear of anyone or ethnic groups catching and consuming whales, right? And yet that is the cultural life that the Lamalera people pass down from generation to generation. But if we search on YouTube or even in the media about Lamalera, the popular narratives or perspectives are mostly just about the Lamafa, the spearmen.
In your opinion, Bang Raff, what other perspectives in Lamalera have not been exposed in the media?
RMB: The concept of life in the Lamalera community is similar to the Yin and Yang philosophy. In the heart of it, it is all about balance. According to our ancestors, there are two main concepts in the Leva Nuang heritage. Leva Alep (male/Lamafa) and Peneta Alep (female/Penetang).
The Lamafas have the role of Leva Alep, which is to search for food (fish/whales) in the garden. In Lamalera, the sea is their garden. Once the Lamafa’s feet touch the ground, the men have no right to decide what to do with the food they catch. They can distribute between themselves, like how much meat each Lamafa deserves. However, the next steps will be decided and executed by the women, the Penetang. The role of Penetang is to manage everything from the beach, not even from home, but right away from where the ocean touches land. Everything is up to them. Whether they want to bring the meat home, or to the communities in the mountains to be bartered with vegetables.
The concept of fish (whales) in Lamalera is Sora taram balam, tala rewo rai tai, and the whales are gifts from their ancestors. [Whales] come to feed the people of Lamalera, Lamalera A and Lamalera B, especially the widows, orphans, and the people in the mountains.
In the olden days, there was no vehicle. Women had to walk for days to visit people in the mountains, and even further to communities behind the mountains. These roles of women, mothers, in Lamalera are rarely highlighted in the media. Also, that is why I have an ongoing project about this because I want to respectfully show the realities of the Penetang. Even if Kak Ruth and Kak Alexandra look up the word Penetang or Peneta on Google, they are hard to find and are rarely discussed. If anything, maybe some journals, they usually mention Penetang as smaller parts of larger stories. But never actually stories about them.
SN: Why do you think female roles in the Lamalera community do not have the same portion in the media? Even in school, we all learn stories about strong, independent female figures such as Kartini, Cut Nyak Dien, and others. Logically, the Penetang should have space in the media, no?
RMB: Well, this is an interesting question. This is also the question I am trying to find the answer to when working on my creative project. Honestly, my team and I realized that we are all men; the soundman, cameraman, and myself. However, to my understanding so far, one of the reasons could be because the majority of tourists that come here are men. Maybe most of them think that the sexy story is only the penangkapan (catching) part of the tradition, which is the role of the Lamafa, and so maybe that part of the story is considered sexier than the concept of balance that I mentioned earlier. Sometimes, you can find the roles of the Peneta Alep on Youtube, but maybe only 10% or just as a sweetener of the story here and there. But the rest is about how the Peledang (ship) and the Tempuling (a fishhook) are made.
SN: You said that in the media, on YouTube and in films, people focus more on the roles of the Lamafa. But in the community itself, do you think women get enough appreciation?
RMB: Yes. Very much so. Women’s roles are paramount. Their roles are cornerstone in our daily lives and lifestyles. The thing is, Lamalera can’t be planted [with crops] at all. It is a coastal area with strong winds. Even planting corn requires strenuous effort. The only plant that can survive the climate there is Moringa. And with Penetang bartering meat for vegetables, the role of women is vital. It is difficult for a husband if, for example, his wife dies. Because the chain—the interdependence between Lamafa and Penetang roles—would be broken. Also, the husband would need his sisters or daughters’ help to do the Penetang roles since they are not allowed to do all that themselves.
SN: You mentioned the Peledang. What makes them significant in Lamalera?
RMB: Peledang is a relatively big ship that could accommodate up to 20 people. Each Peledang represents a suku (tribe) or family. If I’m not mistaken, here we have about 17 Peledang. For example, my marga (clan) name is Beding, and the Beding family has two Peledang: Kelulus and Kenapuka. So, each marga or suku has their own Peledang.
SN: So, during the Leva Nuang season in May, how many Peledang participate in the whale “hunting” ritual? All 17?
RMB: This is exciting and interesting. What the world knows—so far—is that the Leva Nuang season happens during the month of May. But actually it’s not just in May. Leva Nuang, in the simplest sense, is “musim buka kebun” or gardening season. For example, in farming, they have seasons when we have to start planting seeds. The Lamalera people go mainly from May until October because there are more fish during this period. And even from November to April, if there is a whale, it will be picked up nevertheless.
SN: From what I gathered and researched, I thought the whale-hunting was a yearly cultural/religious event that the people in Lamalera celebrate only in May, similar to Nyepi in Bali.
RMB: Hmm. Okay, so there are two things that I want to make clear here. First, most journalists or media people do not have enough time to do proper research because maybe they have deadlines to meet. Second is the language, which, in my opinion, is very important because it changes the whole perspective. I have never used the term perburuan (hunting). I use penangkapan (catch), but even that is still too strong of a translation from the local meaning. The closest translation will be “mengambil” (to take/to pick up) from the garden.
The Lamafa don’t go to the sea every day and look for whales. I had a chance to visit the Asmat in Papua. If we compare, maybe hunting is the correct terminology for what they do there because almost every day the Asmats will go looking for boars. However, for people in Lamalera, hunting (berburu) and catching (penangkapan) are two different things. The word “hunting” in Indonesian carries a softer meaning than in English. That is the reason why I never use the word “hunting”. Because we do not hunt. We do not catch whales every day.
SN: Bang Rafa, when I first met you, you told me and the people in our group that day about the legend of the whale in Lamalera. It is so fascinating. Can you share that again here?
RMB: Sure! I have mentioned Sora taram balam, tala rewo rai tai earlier (A buffalo with ivory horns, transformed into a whale). Today, people in Lamalera refer to whales as Koteklema. But the older generation, from around the 6th century, call them Sora. However, Sora does not mean whale. Sora is a buffalo with a large, strong ivory. A grand mythical creature that people pray to when they practice animism and dynamism. That is the belief that the Lamanera people inherited from the past, that whales are the incarnation of Sora; born from the prayers and hopes of the Lamalera community, dia (he/she/it) came down to earth as a whale.
The Lamalera people and the whales live side by side. Stories from our daily lives might sound crazy and don’t make sense to outsiders, but they happen often. For instance, when a group of whales passes Lamalera during their migration, one or two whales will scatter out from the group and swim back and forth around the Lamalera’s territory. When that happens, people will yell “Baleo . . . Baleo!” which means to get the “Leo” rope that connects their Tempuling to their Peledang so they can go pick up the whale.
There are many local stories, from people who have witnessed the entire process, that the other whales will stay and wait outside the Lamalera’s territory until the lost whale is captured. Once that is done, the other whales will leave and continue on their journey. The way the Lamalera people see it, is that the other whales watched and waited for their friend to complete its mission.
Another example is usually with the new Peledang. If something is wrong with your Peledang, the whale(s) will let you know.
SN: How so?
RMB: For example, this happened to my family’s Peledang once. Our local shipbuilders normally use traditional tools and local timber to make our Peledang. One day, my family had a new Peledang. When we first brought it out to the ocean, a whale hit our front stem. And it happened again…three times. The whales kept hitting the same spot. So we called the shipbuilder over to inspect it.
Eventually, we knew why this happened. There was a slight mistake between the wood placement, only a couple inches, and it was precisely in that spot. Once we fixed that, the whales never hit our Peledang again. That type of instance symbolizes our relationship with the whales.
SN: I suppose tourism there must be vibrant, especially during the peak months?
RMB: Tourists come all the time, actually. Not only during the peak months. However, I find it funny when they come during the low season and ask the Lamafa to bring them to pick up whales. They think these whales come from their ancestors and can be ordered to appear anytime they wish. There was a Korean or Japanese TV program that came to make a documentary. They waited for 3 months. The whales didn’t show up. Right after they left, maybe two or three days later, the whales appeared!
SN: What about the government? So far, do they see Leva Nuang as a potential tourist haven to see whales? Like the Lampion Festival in Jogja during Vesak Day? And because of that Jogja has become an international tourist spot for this religious event. In May, during the high season in Lamalera, do you think the government has shown the same intention to commercialize this event?
RMB: So far, the government initiatives on tourism in Lamalera that I feel is positive and well received by the Lamalera community is how they give socialization to form homestays. There is no hotel here, so visitors and tourists will have to stay at the houses of local residents. But to commercialize their activities . . . I think I can say [the locals] don’t pay that much attention to the outside world, let alone to think about how to live from tourism. They say that tourism is just a side effect of the activities they do there. Sure, the Mama-Mama who make Tenun or the people who make trinkets can earn some extra money. But to commercialize their rituals and traditions? I don’t think they see it that way. Also, the government has not promoted the tradition of Leva Nuang.
SN: When I read about Leva Nuang, I felt that this ancestral tradition is very strongly and visibly mixed with Catholicism in Flores. I find very interesting, the interkulturasi (syncretism) between the local traditions and the Catholic practices.
RMB: Yes! The Virgin Mary in Lamalera is seen as the Mother of the Sea. They call her Ina Leva. Even the Catholic philosophy of hope is very similar to people’s principle there, that “Masih ada hari esok” — there’s still hope tomorrow — that they will find whales. So the idea that the Lamafa would chase whales at all costs is not a reality. When it is hard to pick up whales, they say, “There’s always tomorrow.” For instance, in 2021 or 2022, they only got three or four whales from January to November. Can you imagine? They still put their faith in it.
I’ve also discussed this with my brothers, and they said that one of the reasons Catholicism works 100% in Lamalera is because people do not consider it a religion. For them, the way they think of Catholicism is how they can live alongside nature, with the universe, and in symbiosis with everything else.
Hence, when Catholicism was first introduced in Lemalera, there was not much difficulty —hindrance or resistance left and right—because its teaching is similar to the way of life here. That’s also why, since Catholicism, we have the Leva Mass. Before that, Leva Nuang was just a traditional ceremony in the local language to pray for those who have passed so that they can meet their ancestors.
Now, there are two rituals before the peak of Leva Nuang. The first one is the Requiem Mass on the last night of April. Usually, all the Lamalera people–even those who live outside the community–will come back and attend this Mass with their families to pray together on the beach, where they will light candles and float them in the ocean. The next day (May 1st), they will do the Leva Mass and pray to find enough whales this season to feed their families and communities—the widowers and the orphans.
SN: By the way, is there a specific kind of whale that the Lamlera people pick up?
RMB: The Lamafa in Lamalera only pick up sperm whales, not blue whales.
SN: Oh, why is that?
RMB: Well, this is my opinion and assumption. The people of Lamalera were initially migrants from Luwuk, Central Sulawesi. [I think] During the migration, some decided to live and build a village on the shore of Solor Island, which they named Lamakera. My village is Lamalera, and theirs is Lamakera. Back then, the people there picked up the blue whales only. Conversely, people in Lamalera do not pick up blue whales. Only sperm whales.
SN: You said that was back then. So do people in Lamakera no longer pick up whales now?
RMB: That’s right. Because conservation has been done in Lamakera, they no longer pick up whales. Now they just watch the whales.
In Lamalera, maybe around 2007 or 2008, WWF came and tried to socialize the concept of animal cruelty. However, one of the reasons the Lamalera people rejected their program was because they proposed eliminating Leva Nuang altogether and just whale-watching instead. Meanwhile, people here need to eat! The Lamalera people even said that they should just kill us all before executing their idea. Sure, there are more fish in the sea that people can consume. But, again, the whales are the gifts from our ancestors.
I understand that maybe some people think the Lamalera community is cruel, heartless, and so on. But most people who think that way don’t know that the Lamalera community has its own traditional conservation system. They just don’t call it a conservation program.
(1) Lamalera is located on the southern coast of Lembata island. If we look at the map of Lembata, we have a water territory in which we only pick up whales within that territory. The Lamafa will not go outside that border to chase whales to the open sea.
(2) Moreover, the Lamafas will not go fishing after 2 or 3 p.m. because they know that the sun will be gone soon and it will be too dark to go home. Because, again, everything is still traditional. They don’t even use the compass. Their only guide home is the tallest building in the village, which is their church. If they are out in the water till late, they might not see the roof or the cross on top of their church, and they would get lost.
SN: I also read somewhere that in a year, the Lamafa will not pick up more than 20 whales, and they only pick up mature or adult whales. Are these true?
RMB: Yes. Not only that, but if the Lamafas picked up a pregnant whale, they would be punished. So, again, the Lamalera community has traditional measures to maintain balance with nature and in their lives.
Sometimes, when I meet with representatives from international organizations, it actually becomes clear that our ancestors have been practicing conservation long before they came here. I believe more in traditional conservation systems. Even in Asmat, they have their own way of living and keeping their harmony with nature.
People who don’t live here or don’t know about our community might come to Lamalera with a preconceived notion: “I’m a huge animal lover and you can’t do this to animals!” That is understandable. But with that kind of mindset, it is tough to communicate the significance of our traditional practices and beliefs. But if you come with respect and willingness to broaden your horizons, then you might understand why people in Lamalera observe Leva Nuang.
SN: Thank you, Bang Raff, for sharing your knowledge about your community in Lamalera. But before we end this interview, we have our last question. What is your favorite food from Lamalera?
RMB: It has to be Jagung Titi.
SN: What is that?
RMB: Corn kernels that are heated and then smashed with a stone pestle! Maybe it is similar to cornflakes. But instead of milk, you put them into hot tea. They’re so delicious!
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