Mirroring the biodiversity of the rainforest surrounding the Kerinci valley, the people who live here are culturally and linguistically unique from village to village. Those who call Kerinci home came to the area over a long period of time. Most of those in the northern parts of the valley trace their lineage back to the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, while those in the south trace their history to the eastern and southern parts of Sumatra. On top of that, the transmigration policy of the Dutch, followed by the Indonesian government, saw the arrival of Javanese into the area, especially around the tea fields in Kayu Aro. This mixture of cultures has contributed to the vibrant diversity of the area.
You may find the people of Kerinci to be some of the most friendly people on the planet. They are proud of their rich heritage and, despite their isolation, are eager to share what they have with the outside world. Their smiles are infectious, their hospitality is unmatched.
Every village in Kerinci has a slightly different dialect and each one has slightly different cultural practices. A Kenduri Sko, for example, is an important custom throughout and unique to Kerinci that offers thanks to God for the harvest and is a time to remember ancestors and past traditions. Yet, the way these festivals are celebrated and the specific traditions vary. Some villages hold them yearly, some are held only once a generation. All involve traditional dancing and music, food, pageantry, and displays of the martial art silat. The Kerinci people may have converted to Islam long ago, and are often more conservative and devout than many in larger modern cities, but ancestor worship and animism still play a large role in many of their traditions and forms of art.
One of the highest forms of art throughout Indonesia, and still made by hand in Kerinci, is batik. While many cultures have similar styles of dying cloth with wax-resistant dyes, it is a practice that has been a part of Indonesian identity that predates written history. Batik has traditionally been used in a number of significant rituals, and certain patterns can signify political importance or indicate area of origin. Today, batik is commonly worn as a sarong for men and women, as a dress shirt in formal settings, and even used as a sling for babies. Be sure to stop by the traditional Batik workshop in Kerinci where you can watch it being made (though it can take a week or longer to complete), and even take lessons if you arrange it ahead of time. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the background pattern on our website and in our tiger logo are traditional batik motifs native to the Kerinci area.
There are three types of complementary governing codes in Indonesia: civil, religious, and traditional, and each play an important role. Every neighborhood has a Pak RT or Kepala Desa (village head) who serves as the primary leader at the smallest level of civil government organization, and is the go-to guy for any issue, big or small, in the community. The Depati and Ninik Mamak, however, are in charge of upholding the adat (traditional law) and culture of a village, which is never more brilliantly displayed than at the Kenduri Sko festivities mentioned above. No village is complete without several small neighborhood prayer houses as well, called a mushollah, and the larger more decorated mesjid (mosque) fills during Friday noon prayers, and where imams and other religious leaders are tasked with implementing aspects of Islamic law.
The Kerinci people are remarkable in that men and women share power, and, like their Minangkabau cousins, are matrilineal. Typically the husband goes to live with his wife’s family, and the daughters inherit property. Traditional wooden longhouses passed through families from generation to generation are still found and inhabited throughout each village, juxtaposed by modern architecture in growing areas of town.
Agriculture is the main economic driver. Rice fields blanket the valley, while coffee, tea, cloves, and cinnamon dominate the hills. Kerinci is the largest producer of cinnamon in the world, and the bark can often be seen curling up as it dries along the roadsides. There are still a number of forest communities that collect bamboo, rattan, wild honey, and other forest products as their main livelihoods.
The government is the second biggest employer in the Kerinci valley, with government jobs being highly sought after. Sadly, people are often forced to pay agents tens of millions of rupiah in bribes to secure work with the government; even school teachers aren’t shielded from this. If either of those opportunities don’t pan out, many Kerinci people try to seek work in Malaysia. Some villages in Kerinci have 75% of adults working overseas.
With a growing population within a valley completely surrounded by protected land, and lack of reliable employment opportunities, ecotourism could certainly go a long way in giving people alternate means of income without further encroaching into the National Park.
Tigers are held in great respect. Historically, Kerinci people were believed and feared to be “were-tigers” by people from the Malay peninsula, West Sumatra and Jambi. Even now, tigers hold a near mythical status. Each village is believed to have an ancestor that has taken the form of a tiger, guarding their village from harm. As such, tigers are often called nenek, or grandmother. They say if you are in the forest and become lost, tigers will often appear to show you the way out. If someone breaks the laws of the forest, adat hutan, a tiger might come and punish them. There are even a number of mystical dances in Kerinci where dancers or members of the audience will become temporarily possessed by the spirit of their ancestral tiger.