Get to know the Kadazan People of Borneo

by | Nov 24, 2017 | 2 comments

Sabah Borneo Culture - Kadazan tribe

A group of Kadazan tribe. Photo by: Willbord Sikodol


The indigenous Kadazan people are one of the largest indigenous groups in Borneo. They are predominantly from the West Coast of Sabah and centered in the towns of Penampang, Kota Kinabalu, Papar, Tuaran, and Ranau.

What is the meaning of “KADAZAN”?

As a Kadazan myself, I never knew the history of the word “Kadazan”. After reading several articles on the internet, I found out there are many theories on the origins of the word “Kadazan”. A former principal of SMK Majakir Papar in 1979, Mr. Richard F. Tunggolou, stated that the word “Kadazan” comes from :

1)  “Kakadazan”, which means “town”, in Tangaa’ dialect due to the reason that Kadazan people mostly live in towns. We need to know that there are several Kadazan dialects predominant to different districts.
2)  Kadazan term was adapted from the word “Kedayan”, which is an ethnic group from Brunei and Labuan. However, there is no valid explanation and it was just an assumption which is in a linguistic way that the word “Kedayan” sounds similar to “Kadazan”.
3)  According to a high priestess or Bobohizan, the true meaning of the term “Kadazan” means ‘the people of the land”.
In short, the Kadazan term means “the people”. Thus, I will be sharing some of the values that are practiced among the Kadazan people.

Paddy Rice as their source of income

Sabah Borneo Culture - Kadazan tribe

The tapai will be put in a jar to preserve the taste of the alcohol


Sabah Borneo Culture - Kadazan tribe

Tapai drinking session

The Kadazan people, originally Borneo headhunters, are the first Borneo people that uses the plow for farming rice and it became as their main source of income. Prior to that, they are known as agriculturalists, where almost all the rice cultivated in Sabah Borneo is grown by them. As a result, they can create the rice into various delicacies and alcoholic drinks through home-brewed fermentation processes. Tapai and Lihing are an example of Kadazan alcoholic drinks that are made from rice.  Therefore, these alcoholic drinks are usually served during any festive season (Kaamatan or Harvest festival), social gatherings and wedding ceremonies.

Sabah Borneo Culture - Kadazan tribe

Performing ritual by a group of Bobohizan( priestess of Sabah Borneo) during the Kaamatan celebration

Kaamatan or Harvest Festival is the main festival for Kadazan people, making it one of the main highlight of annual celebrations done here in Sabah Borneo. This festival is not only to honor Bambaazon, which is the spirit of rice paddy for the beginning of harvest, but it is also as a thanksgiving to Huminodun, the daughter of Kinoingan (which means God) for sacrificing her life to save her people from famine. 

Today, Tadau Kaamatan festival is celebrated with a lot of interesting and fun activities, such as exhibitions of Borneo culture, sports competitions, traditional handmade crafts, food and beverage exhibition, performances by local artists and traditional musical group, as well as the Unduk Ngadau beauty pageant.

Sabah Borneo Culture - Kadazan tribe

One of the important ritual during the Kadazan wedding, Miohon Pinisi, as a symbol of a reunion of two people

A long time ago, Kadazan culture believed in arranged marriages, as the children in the olden days did not have money or dowry required to get married like today, making them highly dependent towards their parents for choosing a lifetime partner for them. Initially, the parents from the young man side will go visit the family of a prospective bride and discuss to wed their son to the future bride. The parents of the bride will be left to consider the proposition, sometimes they will ask for a picture of their future son-in-law. Most importantly, they will want to know if the young man’s family will be able to come up with the required nopung (which means dowry).

Once the parents of the bride agrees, there will be a second visit in order to arrange the date for engagement and the discussion of the dowry. Some parents of the future bride may ask for a higher price on dowry and bargaining will be expected until reaching to both side’s agreement. I was told by my grandmother that Kadazan women from Penampang are known to have the most expensive dowries! (How lucky I am! Hahaha…)

Sabah Borneo Culture - Kadazan tribe

The gongs are beaten by some of the local Kadazan women

When there is a wedding ceremony or any festive seasons, you will have the privilege to witness the Kadazan tribe’s own traditional dance. We called it “Sumazau”, and usually, we will dance with the sound produced by “Magagung” (gong beating), “Bungkau”, “Sompoton” and “Suling” (Flute). The dance consist of a couple of males and females, dressed in beautiful traditional attire, accompanied with the rhythm from the traditional music instruments. However, different districts in Sabah Borneo will have different ways of beating the gong and dance style.

Want to learn the Sumazau dance in Sabah Borneo? Participate in any Harvest Festival or get invited to a Kadazan wedding ceremony!

Sabah Borneo Culture - Kadazan tribe

Kadazan delicious delicacies. Photo by: Tourism Malaysia

For Kadazan people, the food is basically cooked in a healthy way. Either we boil or grill using a little bit of cooking oil, and use some of the locally available ingredients, such as bamboo shoots, sago, and freshwater fish. One of the famous traditional dishes would be “Hinava”, a raw fish salad that is freshly cut fish into small slices, mix, and marinate with diced red onion, ginger, red chilli, bitter gourd, grated Bambangan seeds and lime juice. Apart from that, there are also Tuhau (wild ginger), Pinasakan ( Braised fish mixed with wild fruit, takob akob, turmeric, and salt), and more. Read here to know more other traditional dishes in Sabah Borneo.

Wherever we travel, understanding one’s culture is what makes the travel worth it. So, when traveling to Sabah Borneo, don’t be surprised to meet few other cultures in Sabah Borneo, as there are about 32 recognizable ethnic groups in Sabah Borneo that you need to discover, and Kadazan is one of it. Isn’t this interesting to know some of the Sabah Borneo cultures? Kadazan culture is definitely the biggest representative culture of Sabah Borneo, the land below the wind.

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