|Regions with significant populations|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Dayaks, Bruneians, Orang Ulu|
The Melanau are a people who live on the island of Borneo, primarily in Sarawak, Malaysia. They are among the earliest settlers of Sarawak, and speak a Northwest Malayo-Polynesian language (see Melanau language).
The Melanau were in the 19th century, settled in scattered communities along the main tributaries of the Rajang River in Central Sarawak. Melanau or problematic Kajang  speaking tribes such as the Sekapan, the Rajang, the Tanjung and the Kanowit gradually moved and assimilated into Dayak migrations settling in the Rajang. The Punan  (or Punan Bah) today are closely linked to the last riverine dwelling Melanau communities previously inhabiting the middle and upper Rejang tributaries. The Kajang language is kept relatively alive by the isolated Sekapan communities Kapit division of Sarawak.
The Melanau are considered among the earliest settlers in Sarawak. The name Melanau was not used by the Melanau to refer to themselves until recently. They call themselves a-likou meaning 'people of the river'. Legend has it that the name Melanau was given by the Malays of Brunei to the inhabitants of the coastal swamp flats and riverbanks of central Sarawak which might signifies "coast-dweller".
Eda Green, writing in 1909, referred to "...the Milanes, whose girls are as fair as any Europeans and the belles of Borneo."
Grouping-wise, the Melanaus can be classified into the followings;
- Melanau Matu-Daro
- Melanau Pulau Bruit.
- Melanau Dalat
- Melanau Oya
- Melanau Mukah
- Melanau Belawai-Rajang
- Melanau Rejang
- Melanau Balingian, and
- Melanau Miri.
The largest being the Matu-Daro group. Each group has its own characteristic dialect but they all share the same cultural and lingual background (Exception would be the Melanau Bintulu dialect which can hardly be understood by the rest. Many linguists feel that it hardly fits into the Melanau language grouping. This tribe is also known as "Vaie" whose language is very similar to Punan Lovuk Pandan and Punan Bah. Their early establishment were from Lavang and Segan riverine). The Melanau languages have been divided in the following eleven dialects
Another Melanau group worth mentioning and inclusion is the Melanau Igan. They live in kampungs by Igan River (example : Kampung Skrang, Kampung Tengah, Kampung Hilir.) that borders the Mukah - (Matu-Daro) district. The main language is Melanau. However some speak local Malay dialect. This group of Melanau is probably all Muslims. They mainly adopt the Malay culture even though some of the Melanau cultures are still being maintained. It is believed that this group was originally Malays who settled in the area. However, mixed intermarriages with the Melanaus over generations produced new generations who considered themselves Melanaus.
Similar to the Igan Melanaus ancestral beginnings, many Melanaus who had migrated to different areas in Sarawak experienced the same transformation. A group of Matu Melanaus settled in Bintawa area in Kuching after World War 2. However their offsprings, even though mostly Melanaus by blood, normally do not speak the language. They are considered as Malays. However as a point of interest, the new secondary school built in Bintawa Kuching in 2007 is named SMK Matu Baru. Many areas in Kuching notably Petra Jaya, Lundu and Santubong do have a significant Melanau population. Miri, Bintulu and Sibu are also places where there is a significant Melanau population.
However the 'Bin' which mean "son of" and 'Binti', meaning "daughter of" factors in all their names (be they are Muslim, Christian or "Likou") had probably confused the census workers (read the following paragraph). One of the reasons the Muslim Melanau 'migrated' to become Malay is that during the registration of birth of the newborns, they will automatically being assumed as Malay if the parents don't inform the birth and death registration officer of their racial preference.
Culture, religion and economy
The Melanau were traditionally fishermen as well as padi and sago farmers. Some were skilled boat builders. They used to live in tall stilt and long houses, but nowadays, they live in Malaysian kampung-style houses (individual & separated houses). Because of religious similarity, the majority of Melanaus live socially and culturally like the rest of the Malays in Malaysia.
It is one of the rare ethnic groups in Malaysia which hardly grows or increases in its population. This is because the Muslim Melanaus that have migrated to bigger towns in Sarawak have "automatically" become "Malays" especially during the National Census Operation as their names (and many times the language the elders use with their children at homes) are inseparable from the Sarawak local Malays. This has helped the Malay population of Sarawak to have significantly increased in the census.
All the Melanaus have a 'Bin' (son of) and 'Binti' (daughter of) in their names similar to the Malays and it is also likely that the Christian Melanaus too were designated as Malays in the census.
The 2010 Malaysian Population Census showed the Melanaus population in Sarawak, Malaysia was about 123,410. They make up the 5th largest ethnic group in Sarawak, after the Ibans, Chinese, Malays and Bidayuh. The continuous inter-marriage between the Melanau and other races in Malaysia has also caused the disappearance of the Melanau identity. Data from some private research estimated that the actual Melanau population (in Malaysia and outside Malaysia) is much higher.
Being migrants in the early days, Melanaus are found almost everywhere in Sarawak. Sadly, though their children know their roots, many of them cannot speak or even understand their Melanau language.Intentionally or unintentionally, many of them registered themselves as other races, mostly as Malays. In some cases, their parents, both Melanaus, prefer to speak to their children using Malay or English. This language trend is mainly found in the towns and cities in Sarawak. There have been little efforts done to preserve the Melanau dialects and to teach the current Melanau generation continuous usage of their own dialects.
The gradual disappearance of the Melanau cultures and dialects is further aggravated by the absence of qualified Melanau staff members handling the documentation on the Melanau culture and history in the 'Majlis Adat Istiadat' department in Sarawak. This department is involved in the preservation and documentation of the cultures and histories of the various ethnic groups in Sarawak. The Melanau are slowly being emulsified into other cultures. The Melanau Kaul festival will only serve as a reminder of the Melanau Pagan ritual.
While originally animists, the majority of the Melanaus are now Muslim, although some of them, especially among the Melanau Mukah, and Dalat are Christian. Nonetheless, many still celebrate traditional rites such as the annual Kaul Festival. Despite their different beliefs and religions, the Melanaus, like other East Malaysians (Sabah and Sarawak) are very tolerant of each other and are proud of their tolerance. One can still come across a Melanau family with different children in the family embracing Christianity and Islam while their parents still have strong animist beliefs.
The Melanau have their own calendar which begins in March. The New Year is celebrated during the Kaul Festival.
Notable Melanau people
- "Melanau, Central". ethnologue. Retrieved 12 August 2014.
- 'The Report: Sarawak 2008 Oxford Business Group, 2008
- "Melanau - Orientation". Retrieved 12 August 2014.
- Eda Green (1909). "Borneo: The Land of River and Palm". Project Canterbury. Retrieved 26 August 2008.
- Melanau Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version
- "2010 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia" (PDF) (in Malay and English). Department of Statistics, Malaysia. Retrieved 17 June 2012. p. 108