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Get to know these Sabahan ethnic groups

A visit to Sabah will never not end up as a multi-cultural experience, since the Malaysian state is home to over 30 different ethnic groups with over 80 local dialects. Many outside of Sabah would probably be familiar with the biggest ethnic group, Kadazan-Dusun, but the other groups mostly remain mysterious. 

In this list today, let’s take a look at some of the ethnic races that call the Land below the Wind their home.


(Photo source: Malaysia Truly Asia)

Also known as the Lun Bawang tribe, Lundayeh can mostly be found in the Sipitang district of Sabah. They are also recognised as the indigenous tribe of Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan, referred to as Murut (not to be confused with the entry below). 

Related to Sarawak’s Kelabit tribe, Lundayeh is one of the earliest ethnic groups on the island of Borneo. The language spoken by them is known as Buri Lun Bawang or Buri tau, which means ‘our language'’.

This tribe is known for their specialisation in agriculture, planting hill rice and tapioca as their main staple. They also practice fishing, hunting and livestock farming, mostly rearing pigs, buffaloes and poultry.


(Photo source: Malaysia Truly Asia)

The Rungus people in Kudat is well-known for their longhouses, though these are getting scarce as modernity takes over and younger generations start building lives in more contemporary concrete buildings. 

Like most of the ethnic groups, the Rungus has an alcoholic drink that’s specific to their tribe. Called Tinonggilan, this drink is made from maize and is slightly sparkling in appearance and texture. It can be found served during festivities.

Another thing that can be found at Rungus celebrations is the Mongigol Sumundai dance, which is a collective term for the separate dances that are performed simultaneously by the males and females of the tribe, with Mongingol referring to the males’ dance while Sumundai is the name bestowed on the females’ dance.


(Photo source: Malaysia Truly Asia)

Kadazan-Dusun is a blanket term used to refer to the two culturally similar tribes of Kadazan and Dusun from the west part of Sabah, the former more often found closer to the coast and the latter more in the mountains area. 

Separation between the two tribes is minimal as both share largely the same traditions, with slight differences. One way to easily distinguish between the two is through the languages they speak. As the name implies, the Kadazan language has more words with ‘z’ in its vocabulary and harder emphasis on words when speaking, especially the one spoken in Papar, though Kadazan Penampang shares more similarity to Dusun in its lesser usage of the letter ‘z’.

Being Sabah’s largest native group of Bumiputra, it is often the first ethnicity that non-Sabahans think of whenever the state is mentioned. Their Harvest Festival or Kaamatan celebration is a 2-day public holiday in Sabah, during which the Kadazan-Dusun people will gather in their respective districts throughout the month of May to celebrate on a relatively smaller scale prior to the large-scale celebration held at the end of the month at the Kadazan Dusun Cultural Association’s (KDCA) Hongkod Koisaan. Among the celebration’s highlights are the tapai making contest (judges will have to drink plenty of this traditional alcoholic drink to decide who makes it the best) and the Unduk Ngadau. (Essentially a beauty pageant where the contestants don their respective district or subgroups’ traditional dress).


(Photo source: Culture Trip)

Divided into two main groups, the horse riders (West Coast Bajau) and sea traders (the East Coast Bajau), the Sama-Bajau tribe is the second largest indigenous group in Sabah. 

The ones who have settled in the western parts of Sabah are more often referred to as Sama and have shifted to more land-based living, while the ones who continued living on water can be found more in the eastern parts and are often referred to as Bajau Laut.

The West Coast Bajau is also known as the "Cowboys of the East" thanks to their horse-riding skills, having learned farming and cattle rearing from the Philippine archipelago.  As for the sea traders, also known as sea gypsies, they are known for their stilt houses, lepa-lepa (boat), and amazing diving ability, where they are able to hold their breath underwater for a long period of time.


(Photo source: Amazing Borneo)

Baukan, Gana', Kalabakan, Okolod, Paluan, Sulangai, Serudung, Tagal, Timugon, and the Beaufort and Keningau Murut – these are some of the many subgroups of the Murut tribe, one of Sabah’s largest indigenous groups. Though the tribe speaks 15 languages and 21 dialects, the language most spoken by a majority of the subgroups is Tanggal.

Traditionally found in the interior and south eastern parts of Sabah, as well as around the Kalimantan and Sarawak borders, the Murut was once feared for their headhunting practice. Same like the Kadazan-Dusun, this eventually phased out with the conversion to Christianity and Islam over the decades. 

One of cultural things the Murut is most known for is their Magunatip dance, which is also practiced by other ethnic groups such as the Kadazan-Dusun and Rungus. Visitors to Sabah who wish to try the dance for themselves can do it for free at Imago Mall in Kota Kinabalu, where it is performed several times a day at the main entrance by a cultural dance group and visitors are invited to join in towards the end of the performance. The Magunatip dance involves long bamboo poles and perfectly coordinated swift-moving dancers, as demonstrated in the following videos. 

Now that you know a little bit more about some of the ethnic groups, why not familiarise yourself with Sabah’s unique slangs and local foods as well beautiful islands and tattoos?

If you want to know more about Sabah, please visit Sabahnites

(Photo source: Remote Lands, Sabah Tourism & Sutera Harbour)

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