A shaman’s fight to save Indonesia’s last subsistence whale hunters

Remote island community faces internal and external pressures over keeping ancient practice.

Lamaleran fishermen hunt sperm whales in the Savu Sea. Lamalera, a fishing village of about 1,500 people on Indonesia’s remote Lembata Island, has relied on subsistence whaling for centuries.

The Lord of the Land, as shaman Sipri Wujon is known to his people, was embarking on a mission to save his community.

Before leaving Lewoleba, the small capital of Lembata Island where Sipri had lived for years on the eastern tip of Indonesia’s archipelago, he lit candles at his wife’s grave to keep her spirit company while he was away. Then, using a broken umbrella as a cane, the octogenarian limped to a dusty bus station. There, faux-hawked teenagers didn’t look up from their smartphones, but when Sipri boarded the rattletrap bus headed to his home village of Lamalera, the cramped passengers reshuffled to give him the best seat. They knew that every April, the shaman made a trip to perform the Calling of the Whales, a ritual that implores the spirits of the Lamalerans’ ancestors to send sperm whales so all 1,500 members of the community can feast.

The Lamalerans are one of the few communities left in the world that relies on subsistence whaling, a way of life there for at least five centuries. They get much of their sustenance by hunting sperm whales and other marine animals with bamboo harpoons, and anthropologists from across the world visit them to witness a rare surviving model of how hunter-gatherer societies work. (While sperm whales are listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation, the hunters of Lamalera take just 20 a year on average, a tiny fraction of the worldwide population of around 300,000.) But as globalization increasingly encroaches on Lamalera, the community and outsiders have debated how much they should modernize and especially if the hunt should continue.

By the time I rode the bus with Sipri that afternoon in late April 2018, I had spent years witnessing Lamalerans battle with how much their community should be part of the modern world. I first visited in 2012, and lived there for a series of months-long reporting trips while writing a book that published in 2019. Now, it felt as if this long-running conflict was finally coming to a head, and the fate of the community itself hung in the balance.

For the Lamalerans, the hunt is not only physical but spiritual sustenance, forming the basis of their diet and an ancient religion, of which Sipri and his clan, the Wujons, are the guardians. Outwardly, they are Catholic. In 1920, a German missionary converted the community, and beneath his church, he buried most of their sacred boulders that channel power from the spirits of their ancestors. But Sipri’s forebears managed to hide several in the jungle. Since then, they have continued sacrificing to them while praying to Jesus, creating a unique mix of animism and Christianity.

Shortly after the end of World War II, when Sipri turned seven, the older male members of the Wujon family had taught him how to perform the Calling of the Whales. He remembered thousands of crickets—a form which the shape-shifting ancestors often take—flocking to him as he smeared the blood of a sacrificed chicken over a sacred boulder. He imagined he too might become a head shaman. But then in his teens, Sipri, the third son of nine children, was dispatched over the mountains to earn money. Back then, money was a novelty for the Lamalerans, though it had long since been normalized for most of Lembata Island’s other inhabitants. The Lamalerans, however, had always stood out from their neighbors by holding tightly to traditions.

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Their oral history and contemporary records suggest that in the early 1500s, they washed up on a remote peninsula of Lembata that was isolated by imposing mountains, after a tsunami wiped out their prior home on a nearby island. Better land was already settled, so they were forced to inhabit some of the island’s steepest terrain. The area had no year-round streams for irrigation, and its rocky soil hindered agriculture. Its cliffs, however, overlooked a strait that channeled the migrations of marine animals. Over the centuries, the Lamalerans thrived by harpooning whales, sharks, dolphins, and pelagic fish that swam close to their beaches, and trading the meat for rice, cassava, and other vegetables cultivated by communities in the wetter mountains above, creating a symbiotic barter economy with their neighbors. The Dutch colonizers and, later, the Indonesian government, tried to force the Lamalerans and their trading partners into a cash economy to tax them, but the Lamalerans resisted. They had everything they needed. Their primary concession was that many families sent a single child to Lewoleba, the island’s capital, to earn money for things that could only be paid for in cash, like taxes or metal tools.

For decades, Sipri worked as a tax collector in Lewoleba, paying the family’s taxes and sending money to his clan back home in Lamalera village, while his eldest brother stayed to lead the annual ceremonies that ensured the ancestors remained happy and whale hunts were successful. Over the years, his father and two older brothers died, and at last the title of Lord of the Land fell to him. Now, the Lamalerans’ fate rested in his arthritic hands.

As the bus heaved along the potholed dirt road, wending through jungled-smothered peaks, Sipri felt nervous. Not only was it his responsibility to feed his people, but he, who had spent most of his life outside the community, also had to guide them away from the lures of modernity. Through the early 2000s, the Lamalerans had mostly followed the Ways of the Ancestors, an oral set of ancient rules passed from one generation to the next. But by 2008, motorboats had largely supplanted traditional oar-and-sail-powered whaling craft. A diesel generator powered TVs at night in the village. By 2014, Sipri had become so disturbed that he had threatened to sacrifice a black goat to curse the community unless they returned to using palm leaf sails instead of outboard engines.

A small group of conservative elders agreed with Sipri. But the majority of Lamalerans argued that they could co-opt what was good about the outside world and still retain their traditions. Sipri’s more liberal son, Marsianus, attempted to take control of the coalition of shamans, which was largely made up of their extended family. A bullish, fifty-something pragmatist, Marsianus said he favored modernization because, “I have to actually live in the village and get along with everyone.” Sipri, in contrast, had long dwelled in the distant capital so his ailing wife could be near a hospital, and then stayed there to attend her grave, enjoying the advantages of industrialized civilization while also getting to return to Lamalera partake in the old ways.

Eventually, Sipri backed off his threat to curse the community, and they continued modernizing. But though Sipri and his son had ostensibly patched things up, he had recently accused his son of trying to wrest away control of the annual ceremonies.

After hours of juddering over rutted roads, our bus stopped at the Wujon Spirit House, a grass-thatched bamboo structure and temple that seemed antiquated among Lamalera’s brick houses. Marsianus lived just two brick houses away. As Sipri ate dinner alone in the Spirit House, he hoped his son would come and apologize so that they could call the whales together four days later. The primary directive of the Ways of the Ancestors was that the community remain united.

What Sipri and Marsianus—and the conservative and liberal wings of the community they represented—were split over was how should the Lamalerans live in the modern world? They weren’t the only ones trying to figure this out. More than a thousand miles away, in Jakarta, Indonesia’s smoggy capital, bureaucrats had told me just days before that they were debating whether the Lamalerans should be allowed to hunt whales at all—or if they should be pushed into modern occupations. Though Sipri only vaguely knew about this danger, he sensed that this year was a crucial one for his people. Everything could be fixed, he believed, if only he could enlist the ancestors to save the community at the Calling of the Whales.

The next morning, harpooner Petrus Blikololong led a crew out to hunt devil rays in an 18-foot motorboat. When whales are not present, the Lamalerans hunt smaller game, such as dolphins, manta rays, sharks, turtles, and swordfish, which, unlike sperm whales, are not sacred to the community. But shortly after dawn, a sperm whale was sighted, and Blikololong’s crew zoomed home. They needed to fetch a téna, one of the 40-foot traditional nonmotorized whaling vessels that alone are used to attack the most important prey.

In the old days, the téna fleet would have rowed and sailed out. But a clever Lamaleran had figured out a loophole in the Ways of the Ancestors so that téna could still take advantage of outboard motors. In Lamalera’s bay, Petrus’s men roped their motorboat to the téna, and then towed the whaling boat in the direction of the spout spritzing the horizon. I scrambled aboard one of the many other boats joining in the chase. When they were within a few hundred feet of the whale, the crew untied the rope to the motorboat and began furiously chopping their paddles into the waves, so the hunt would end as tradition dictated: human against whale.

Petrus balanced on the téna’s prow, hefting a 15-foot-long bamboo shaft tipped with a village-forged iron spearhead. Though the veteran harpooner had taken more whales than he could remember, he was still afraid. Hunters are regularly killed by powerful hammering whale flukes and maimed by flailing harpoon ropes, which can slice through flesh when yanked by the largest predator in the world. For their part, whales, when vanquished by hunters, can take hours to die, enduring dozens of harpoon thrusts, until they bleed out. But Petrus couldn't let fear or empathy distract him from feeding his people.

Unlike the Inuit in the Arctic and other indigenous peoples who hunt whales to supplement their diets, which are now often based on imported food, the Lamalerans’ hunt is essential to their survival. They eat all the edible parts of the sperm whale, including the eyes and brain, and render the oil from its blubber for use in cooking and lanterns. In a 2013 paper, Japanese researchers described how the community’s average annual catch of 20 sperm whales neatly meets the protein requirement for its 1,500 villagers. Any surplus is traded with neighboring mountain communities in the ancient barter economy, in which a six-inch strip of jerky is worth a dozen bananas. But the whales’ value goes beyond sustenance. Around the turn of the millennium, 12 anthropologists performed a remarkable experiment: They visited 15 different traditional societies across the world, from African herders to South American swidden farmers to the Lamalerans, and tested how generously each group distributed resources. The Lamalerans scored the highest of all the groups—and much higher than industrialized societies. That mutualism is likely informed by the high degree of cooperation required for dozens of men to catch a whale by hand and share the windfall of meat.

Finally, the oarsmen brought Petrus within range. He leaped onto the back of the whale, using his bodyweight to drive the harpoon through the animal’s foot-thick blubber. The thrashing, colossal tail barely missed him as he swam back to the boat. Normally, Petrus’s téna, attached to the whale by the harpoon rope, would have served as a giant buoy, keeping the whale from diving, while the other téna impaled it with harpoons. But the tail struck the taut rope, ripping out the barb. The whale raised its flukes in a departing salute and slid beneath the water. On the way back to shore, Petrus and other men tried to understand why the ancestors were angry. Their tradition says the spirits give whales as rewards and withhold them as punishment. Why had such a prize been yanked from the community’s very grasp?

That evening, Sipri sat cross-legged on the beach and listened to the complaints of 58 mostly elderly whalers. He felt the absence of the other 250 whalers keenly—none more than his son Marsianus. When Sipri was a child no one would dare miss the Council on the Beach. This was the annual ceremony where the Lamalerans debated and updated their rules—such as the 2001 decision that permitted motorboats to tow téna—and asked the Lord of the Land to intercede with the ancestors for the coming year. That evening, the most pressing debate was why the ancestors had reclaimed the whale that morning. The culprit, the assembly decided, was a man who threw a gift of whale meat away over a personal dispute.

The offender had skipped the council, so Sipri ordered Bona Bataona, a villager who is an Indonesian soldier and who acts as its primary enforcer of customary law, to make sure the sinner offered the old shaman palm wine and a rooster as penance. The next morning, Sipri roasted the sacrificial rooster’s heart and liver over a coconut husk fire. He then laid the steaming meat before five fist-sized stones— miniature representations of the sacred boulders buried by the missionary— kept atop a bamboo altar in the Spirit House. Worryingly, he sensed from the ancestors that there was still some uncorrected sin.

That afternoon, I visited Sipri to ask permission for myself and photographer Kemal Jufri to join the Calling of the Whales the following day. I had attended the ceremony two years prior, the first time the Wujon family allowed foreigners to observe it. But now Sipri explained that this year the ritual had to be perfect, and he needed to consult about my participation with the spirits. As he listened to the five sacred stones, his expression was so severe I expected to be denied. Then he spied a large cricket—an incarnation of the ancestors—clinging to my shirt. “Your name has been entered on the guestlist,” he declared.

I returned late the next afternoon. The Wujons planned to begin climbing the volcano that evening, sleep midway at a mountain hamlet, and resume the ascent before dawn. While waiting for the tropical heat to fade, Sipri, two younger Wujons, a harpooner named Paulus, Jufri, and I passed around a cup of palm wine on the Spirit House’s porch. One of the young Wujon’s cellphones rang. It was Foxy, a whaler who moonlighted as a guide, offering cash to bring several tourists to the ceremony. Sipri refused, and after hanging up, mocked Foxy as “commercial.”

At Marsianus’s nearby house, a group of young Wujons loyal to Sipri’s son were drinking as well. Marsianus’s son-in-law, nicknamed Stonés, stepped out to feed his pigs, pointedly ignoring us while carrying a bucket of slops in front of the Spirit House. On returning, he detoured from the main path and purposefully knocked over a bamboo laundry rack, scattering Sipri’s sun-drying clothes into the dust.

Paulus screamed, “You idiot!” Neighbors who weren’t Wujons wedged themselves between the harpooner and Stonés as they called each other “pig” and “dog.” Soon several partisans from both sides of the Wujon clan had joined the shouting match, which continued for half an hour. The sun went down. As a red moon rose, Sipri exclaimed, “There will be blood.”

Kemal and I were debating whether it was safe to stay when suddenly screams rang out. Two grappling men careened onto the porch, and Sipri urgently motioned us inside the Spirit House. The Wujon women carried away anything that could be used as a weapon, from farming machetes to large stones. Sipri whispered, “My son is doing this intentionally, hoping to ruin the ritual.” Then he pleaded at the altar, “If everyone only listened to me, everything would be all right.”

After a quarter hour, the soldier, Bona, arrived to separate the exhausted combatants. He lectured Sipri, “Do as you said at the Council on the Beach yesterday and guard the unity of the tribe.” Then he left to upbraid Marsianus.

It took until 9 p.m. for the Wujons to clean their wounds and gather their offerings—eggs, bananas, palm wine, and a rooster—before beginning the climb under a sparkling fat moon. Their exhaustion from the fight and late arrival at the mountain hamlet meant they were still eating breakfast the next morning, long after their intended dawn departure, when Foxy, the guide, found them. Trailing behind him were a Japanese man, two rich, city-dwelling Indonesians, and the head of tourism for the island, who had been trying for a decade to turn the Lamalerans into an international attraction. Cowed by the bureaucrat and afraid to disturb the ceremony with more fighting, Sipri allowed the outsiders to follow him up a root-and-rock staircase through the humid jungle. Despite the steamy heat, Spiri, feeling empowered by the ancestors, outpaced all the outsiders. As he climbed, he confessed to the spirits that the tourists’ presence was his fault and asked them to fix what was wrong.

After three hours, we reached a boulder rising from the ground that bore the distinctive squared shape of a sperm whale nose breaching the sea. The younger shamans replaced their baseball caps with crowns they’d woven out of ferns. Then they shouted words that had been repeated there annually for centuries: “We call the ancestors to come in their hundreds and thousands, to bring the whales for the widows and the children of Lamalera because they are hungry and thirsty and they cry day and night for your arrival!” This time, Sipri’s prayers were not just for the community; he also hoped the breach between him and his son could be fixed. Silence draped the bamboo grove, and we waited to discover if those entreaties would be answered.  

At stake for Sipri, his son, and the rest of the community was more than just a bountiful harvest of whale meat but agreement over how strictly to adhere to the Ways of the Ancestors: literally or more figuratively. And while the father and son shamans debated doctrine, the Lamaleran teenagers surfing the internet off a Wi-Fi router donated by the Indonesian government to the village school saw no contradiction between participating in shamanistic rituals and posting memes on Snapchat. Each member of the community had a different view about what it meant to really be Lamaleran. The question had become so fraught that even outsiders had started weighing in.

Many tourists wanted Lamalera to remain in a state that matched their romantic and often prejudiced visions of a pristine ancient society. Indonesian politicians alternately held the Lamalerans up as a symbol of the richness of the nation’s cultural diversity or as a backward community that needed to be modernized. The most outspoken critics tended to be conservationists, who complained that the community’s hunting could be endangering increasingly unstable populations of animals, including manta rays, and argued that killing intelligent sperm whales was cruel and uncivilized.

Years of discussions between the Lamalerans and conservationists ended badly in 2009 when the community interpreted the World Wildlife Fund’s encouragement to offer whale-watching tours as a veiled effort to end hunting and ran the foreigners out of town. Since then, conservationists have lobbied Indonesian ministers directly, reminding them of Indonesian laws against hunting whales and manta rays. There are also laws guaranteeing the nation’s traditional communities can continue their original modes of life, and it is disputed which laws take precedence. But since late 2017, conservationists, with the assistance of some individuals in government, have been co-drafting regulations to severely limit or even ban the Lamalerans’ hunts.

Sarah Lewis, head of the Indonesian Manta Project, who lobbied government officials for stricter regulations, told me, “There is no longer anything traditional about this hunting,” as the Lamalerans are now using outboard motors, “and it is absolutely illegal and unsustainable.” She also suggested the hunt may be commercializing, as one Lamaleran was arrested selling manta ray gills, which are valuable on the Asian black market. (During my time with the Lamalerans, I saw no evidence of widespread commercialization.) Brahmantya Poerwadi, who was a director at the Indonesian Ministry of Marine and Fisheries Affairs, explained to me in 2018, “We honor Lamalera’s traditions and are looking for a win-win solution. But we need to intervene as soon as possible to prevent the whales and mantas from being depleted.”

Bona Bediona, a Lamaleran who now runs an indigenous rights group in the Indonesian capital, argued that “banning the hunt will starve Lamalera and destroy its identity. The Lamalerans have the human right to continue their traditions, which have been sustainable for centuries. Why are international organizations picking on a small tribe when there are important problems to solve?”

No one agrees, exactly, on what it means to be truly Lamaleran. But to Sipri, Paulus, and others, the notion that their culture was dead was ridiculous. Their internal divisions notwithstanding, they lived it every day. For them, as long as the ancestors returned each time the Wujons called, or harpooners chased whales in téna, the old ways would endure—if in some modified form. 

Back on the volcano, moments before the shouted invocation to the ancestors, Sipri had drizzled blood from a chicken’s cut throat across the sacred boulder. Now, he noticed a cricket nosing through the ichor. Joy flooded him as the spirits descended. Though he couldn’t see them, he could feel a breeze from their movements and hear their eagle-like shrieks. He felt his deceased wife press close. All the many members of the community who had passed on were returning. They urged him in one voice to complete the ceremony.

Though I couldn’t sense any supernatural phenomenon, Sipri claimed to spot a small green snake, another form the ancestors take, and other witnesses said they were filled with an eerie haunted feeling. As he felt the ancestors line up behind us, Sipri announced it was time to leave, warning us in dire terms not to turn around—though the tourists ignored him and kept glancing back. Then the old man led us, the living and dead, in a line down the mountain, stopping only to perform more rituals at one of the original sacred stones hidden from the missionary and at the hummock of the Sperm Whale Stone, another sacred boulder, where he summoned the spirits of the whales to join the spirits of the ancestors. Eventually our procession ended at the beach. There, a dozen tourists and a large crowd of locals watched as the shamans waded into the bay and released the spirits. If Sipri had done everything properly, the whales would soon arrive in the flesh.

The next dawn, as the entire community looked on, the town’s Catholic priest blessed a special téna that always sailed and paddled out alone to inaugurate the hunting season. Around noon, the harpooner began frantically waving a harpoon shaft with a shirt tied to it, signaling that a sperm whale had been spotted. The whole fleet pursued the same whale that Petrus had previously wounded. But once more it escaped, and people gravely speculated about what was wrong.

That evening, Sipri sat down on the beach with a group of elders for the Intertwining Ceremony, his final responsibility that whaling season as the Lord of the Land. The men were about to start swapping food and palm wine to symbolize their unity when Marsianus walked across the sand and sat down near Sipri. His father looked away, as if he had not seen his son. To close the ritual, the group carried a whale vertebra from the sea to a beach-side chapel as a way of calling the still-lost whale home. Then the two Wujons walked separately back to their neighboring abodes.

That night, at the instigation of the elders, Bona the soldier forced the father and son to talk. Finally, Sipri and Marsianus agreed the community’s unity was more important than their feud. At dawn, Marsianus and his partisans lined up outside the Spirit House. They bowed as they entered, and Sipri drizzled them with holy water. Meanwhile, the entire fleet launched. Almost immediately, a motorboat sighted the whale, floating dead, overcome by its wound. Sipri interpreted this as proof that everything was finally right with the community. He felt at peace. He vowed that for as long as he would live—and afterwards, when he would return as a spirit responding to the Calling of the Whales—he would strive to make sure that the Ways of the Ancestors endured. That night, the Lamalerans gave an offering of whale meat to the Wujons, and for dinner Sipri and Marsianus ate together of the gift of the ancestors.

In the three years since, Sipri’s advancing age has increasingly kept him in the town on the other side of the mountains. In his absence, Marsianus has taken up leadership of the community’s shamans, and now conducts the Calling of the Whales in his father’s place. Efforts to regulate the hunt have bogged down in bureaucracy, though some locals worry that they continue behind the scenes. For the Lamalerans, the global pandemic meant a year free from backpackers and outsiders, foreign and Indonesian, telling them how they should live. By late March 2021, even before the hunting season officially started, the Lamalerans had taken two large sperm whales in the first quarter of the year—a sign, they believed, that the spirits of their ancestors still blessed them, and that their ways would endure.

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