Kelabit people

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Kelabit people
Orang Kelabit
Sarawak; a native Kalabit smithy. Photograph. Wellcome V0037410.jpg
Kelabit blacksmith in Sarawak, Malaysia, circa 1896.
Total population
approx. 6,000 (2013)
Regions with significant populations
 Malaysia (Sarawak) 1,111 (2000)[1]
 Indonesia (East Kalimantan) 790[2]
 Brunei no census
Kelabit language, Malay language, Indonesian language
Christianity (predominantly), Animism
Related ethnic groups
Lun Bawang

The Kelabit are an indigenous Dayak 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. In the past, because there were few roads (only poorly maintained logging roads, which tended not to be too close to the Bario Highlands) and because the area was largely inaccessible by river because of rapids, the highlands and the Kelabit were relatively untouched by modern western influences. Now, however, there is a relatively permanent road route on which it is possible to reach Bario by car from Miri. The road is marked but driving without a local guide is not advisable, as it takes over 11 hours of driving to reach Bario from Miri through many logging trail junctions and river crossings.

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,coffee,lemon grass, taro and fruitlike passion fruit, strawberry. Hunting and fishing is also practised. 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 with weapons by the Australian military and played an essential role in the liberation of Borneo.[3]

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.


The name of the people comes from the local word, "na labid"; where the name of people originated from the name of Labid River.[4] Also, other people group names such as Lun Bawang, Lun Dayeh or Southern Muruts are often associated with the Kelabit people. The Kelabit people belong to the Dayak people (it is a large ethnic group of closely related people groups that includes about 200 tribes). With a population of approximately 6,600, the Kelabit people are the smallest people group in the state of Sarawak.


Traditional Kelabit cuisine are such as:-[5]

  • Nubak Layag, mashed rice wrapped in Isip leaf.
  • Manuk Pansuh / Pansoh, seasoned chicken cooked in bamboo.
  • Udung Ubih, tapioca leaves stir-fried with lemongrass.
  • A'beng, de-boned fish.
  • Pa’uh Ab’pa, fish cooked in brinjal, cucumber and black fungus soup.
  • Labo Senutuq, shredded beef stir-fried with bamboo shoots and Kantan flower salad.

Notable Kelabit people

  • Robert Lian - former State Immigration Director and dignitary of Rurum Kelabit Sarawak[8]
  • Gerawat Gala - member of the Sarawak State Assembly for N78, Mulu and dignitary of Rurum Kelabit Sarawak[8]
  • Isaac Lugun - former President, Rurum Kelabit Sarawak[8]
  • Ose Murang - Sarawak Deputy State Secretary and President of Rurum Kelabit Sarawak[9]
  • Marcus Raja - former President Rurum Kelabit Sarawak[10]


  1. ^ Raymond G. Gordon Jr, ed. (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. SIL International. ISBN 1-55671-159-X. 
  2. ^ "Kelabit in Indonesia". Joshua Project. Retrieved 2015-01-07. 
  3. ^ Cecilia Sman (14 August 2016). "Teripun a reminder of Kelabits' roots". The Borneo Post. Retrieved 2016-11-05. 
  4. ^ "Келабиты". Etnolog. Retrieved 2018-02-21. 
  5. ^ Dave Avran (15 November 2012). "Tribal Scoops: Traditional Kelabit offering". Free Malaysia Today. Retrieved 2016-11-05. 
  6. ^ "The Journey Continues". IdrisJala.My. Archived from the original on 1 October 2015. Retrieved 30 September 2015. 
  7. ^ "Idris Jala no more a minister, remains CEO of Pemandu". The Malaysian Insider. Archived from the original on 29 September 2015. Retrieved 2015-09-30. 
  8. ^ a b c Yunus Yussop (12 December 2013). "Persafe launches Bintulu corporate office in accordance with plan". The Borneo Post. Retrieved 2016-11-22. 
  9. ^ Karen Bong (7 August 2016). "Highland tales of mystery, legends literarily take flight". The Borneo Post. Retrieved 2016-11-22. 
  10. ^ "Schools in Kelabit highlands to receive further incentives". The Borneo Post. 12 May 2011. Retrieved 2016-11-22. 

External links

  • The eBario and Bario Infopages
  • A Brief Profile: The Kelabit of the Kelabit Highlands
  • The Bario Kelabit Language Wiki
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