Since arriving on the island of Siberut around 2,000 years ago, the Mentawai people had limited exposure to the outside world. It wasn’t until Indonesia gained its independence in 1945, and the new country’s leaders sought to turn this archipelago into a nation with a common language and culture, that the Mentawai culture began to be fundamentally transformed.
By law, all citizens of Indonesia had to accept one of Indonesia’s officially recognized religions: Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism or Buddhism. But the Mentawai, like many other Indonesian animist tribal peoples, didn’t adopt a state-recognized religion.
In 1954, the Indonesian police and other state officials arrived on Siberut to deliver an ultimatum: The Mentawai had three months to select either Christianity or Islam as their religion and cease practicing their traditional faith, which was considered pagan. Most Mentawai selected Christianity, in part because Islam forbids the raising of pigs, which is central to their culture.
Over the next few decades, Indonesian police officers worked with state officials and religious leaders to visit Mentawai villages to burn traditional headdresses and other items the tribe used during religious rituals.
The Kapiks fled deeper into the forest to avoid the state’s incursions, without success. Ms. Kapik recounted how the commander of the local police had once forbidden them to get tattoos or sharpening their teeth, both customs among the Mentawai.
“It made me so angry,” she said. So she rebelled.
In the late 1960s, Ms. Kapik said, she decided that she would ignore the ban and tattoo her legs. The police commander, Nikodemus Siritoitet, noticed the new tattoos during one of his visits to the Kapiks’ home in the forest. He punished her by forcing her, without pay, to cultivate land in the hot sun for a week.
“It was miserable,” she said. “I was never brave enough to get tattooed again.”