This chapter is concerned with two contemporary indigenous ethnic groups, who have come to be officially named Sakai. The first are a small Negrito population of ex-hunters and gatherers living in the southern region of the modern kingdom of Thailand. Their area was peripheral to the historical Malay kingdom of Patani. Today, their area is located in the Thai border province of Yala. The second group are a larger population of descendants of indigenous Malay woodsmen living in the peripheral forest of the Malay kingdom of Siak. Today, they live in the Indonesian province of mainland Riau, on the east coast of Sumatra, between the modern towns of Duri and Pekanbaru.
The southern Thai Negritos were traditionally nomadic hunters and gatherers. The Riau indigenes were sago- and (sometimes) rice-swiddeners and forest-produce collectors. They also engaged in gathering fish from the rivers of the area, and hunting and trapping wild animals. The Negritos were, and some still are, lean-to dwellers. The Sakais of Riau would traditionally build their houses as rectangular thatched rooms on stilts sometimes two metres high. The Negritos are usually considered to be genetically distinct from the surrounding populations and they speak Mon-Khmer, not Austronesian or Tai, languages. In the migratory-wave approach still widely followed in the region, the Sakais of Riau are considered to be “Proto-” or indigenous Malays; their languages are Austronesian, being Malay dialects. Both peoples are characterized as Orang Asli in certain contexts.
RECONSIDERING THE NAME SAKAI
The name Sakai is an exonym, a name given to one population by another. It seems that in the past the name Sakai was a cover-all term used for a certain type of population not very well understood, living in the forests peripheral to the Malay kingdoms. Malays had various terms for the forest-dwelling peoples, but the dominant one seems to have been Sakai (Skeat and Blagden 1906, p. 22). In the anthropological literature, the term Sakai has been characterized as having disparaging connotations. Already in Annandale and Robinson (1903, p. 1) the name was taken as a term of abuse. Dentan (1968, p. 2) conveyed this nicely in his monograph on the Semais of Malaysia, who have also been called Sakai. He writes that the term expressed that they were nothing more than Sakai “and despicable pagans to boot”.