Kelabit people

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Kelabit among the languages of Kalimantan (orange #27, top)

The Kelabit are an indigenous people of the Sarawak/North Kalimantan highlands of Borneo with a minority in the neighbouring state of Brunei. They have close ties to the Lun Bawang. The elevation there is slightly over 1,200 meters. Because there are few roads and the area is largely inaccessible by river because of rapids, the highlands and the Kelabit are relatively untouched by modern western influences.

With a population of approximately 6,600 people (2013) the Kelabit comprise one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak. Many have migrated to urban areas over the last 20 years and it is estimated that only 1,200 still live in their remote homeland. There, tightly knit communities live in inherited longhouses and practice a generations-old form of agriculture — they are cultivators of wet paddy, hill rice, maize, tapioca, pineapple, pumpkin, cucumber, beans and fruit. Hunting and fishing is also practiced. Domesticated buffalo are valued highly, seven of which are traditionally required for the dowry for an upper class bride.

During the Second World War the Kelabit, like other natives of Borneo, were co-opted by the Allies into fighting the Japanese. The English academic Tom Harrisson led the Semut I operations (one of four Semut operations in the area), which parachuted into their midst in 1945 to make contact; they were supplied weapons by the Australian military and played an essential role in the liberation of Borneo.

After the Second World War the Kelabit people received visits from Christian missionaries of the Borneo Evangelical Mission. The Kelabit are now predominantly Christian. Prior to conversion they had a custom of erecting megaliths and digging ditches in honour of notable individuals.

The Kelabit language belongs to the North Bornean branch of the Malayo-Polynesian languages.

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