standard The sea nomads (Bajo) of Nain Island

Elena E. Burgos-Martínez is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University writing from her field site at Nain Island in the province of North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Here she is living amongst the indigenous Bajo people who live a nomadic lifestyle on the sea, making them highly attune to environmental change.

In 1948 different groups of ‘sea nomads’ arrive to Nain Island, known as the ‘Ninth Island’ during the colonial period. They are looking for better sources of fish, fruit, vegetables and drinking water. In a timely effort to join the ‘Indonesian National Awakening’ they settle and build houses on stilts over the white sand of Nain’s beach and call it ‘Nain Induk’ (mothership Nain).

The Bajo of Nain Island and the Celebes Sea represent what I call ‘post-indigenous’, a culture that originates in the intersection of different groups of ‘sea nomads’ who arrived to Nain Island from the regions of East Kalimatan/Makassar Strait (the Bajau), the Sulu Archipielago/Sulu Sea (the Sinama) and Central Sulawesi/Molucca Sea (the Bajoe). The terms ‘Bajau’, ‘Bajoe’ and ‘Bajo’, largely used to refer to the ‘sea nomads’ of Indonesia, are not different spellings of the same word; these names refer to distinct groups whose culture and language has been and continues to be shaped by their environment.

Bajo language (Baon Sama) and Bajo culture spread around the Celebes Sea. The coast of Manado, Aracan, Tumbak and a number of other locations become the ‘land and sea of the Bajo’ as families grow and new marriages take place. Although culture is embedded in these areas, it is not limited to a set of geographical coordinates.


Nain Induk

In the 80s the first motor powered boat arrives to Nain Island and trips to ‘mainland’ Manado become much faster. Trading relations bring the Bajo to a market of seaweed and fish. At this time Nain Induk had already developed its very own pidgin, a mixture of some of the Sama-Bajaw languages spoken by the nomads that had initially arrived to Nain back in the 40s.

In the late 90s following Indonesia’s political onset, ‘Nain Induk’ is visited by representatives of different political parties. Through these ‘foreign’ political structures their language, the creole Manado Malay, enters ‘Nain Induk’. Baon Sama (Bajo language) emerges as a creole of Manado Malay and Nain’s pidgin. Nowadays Baon Sama is spoken not only on Nain Island but also along the coast of North Minahasa and nearby islands. Its sea terminology is well-known among most Indonesian fishermen. But for the Bajo of the Celebes Sea, language change and evolution goes beyond the purely cognitive and has immediate impacts on their environment. Initially, the Bajo had built their houses on stilts over the white sand, but due to the consistent tropical rain that typically falls from October to December and cyclonic winds, their wooden/bamboo houses were often destroyed.

Houses were re-built and made stronger by connecting them to one another through bamboo passages and wooden panels. The need for more wood resulted in the removal of Mangrove trees off the coast and Palm trees, etc., from the mountain. Seasonal rains became more regular as different seasons merged and the rain and removal of trees brought flooding and landslides.

The ‘sea nomads’, widely classified as at risk due to their nomadic lifestyle, had to face challenges of the sedentary kind. In order to assist them the department of social services and development of the regional government brought cement to the Bajo’s landscape. Wooden houses were cemented as were the spaces between the elevated Bajo houses and the ground. The white sand of Nain Island disappeared and their houses expand towards the sea giving shape to the famous ‘Tompals’ (Bajo houses erected over shallow waters).


Around 2000 a local NGO based in Manado brought in a 7-year program (in collaboration with Oxfam and the European Union) to strengthen Bajo fishermen and foster their socialisation establishing networks and links with other fishermen across Indonesia, especially with regards to the trading of seaweed. The languages of trading and of socialising were Manado Malay and Bahasa Indonesia. New conceptualisations of the environment, such as ‘nature’, were introduced in the Bajo realm. Baon Sama lacked a word for ‘nature’ as it did not have the political terminology that was brought from Manado and the Wori district.

The Bajo of Nain Island and the Celebes Sea never conceptualised ‘nature’ as an entity that is referred to in third person. For them nature was space and it was everything including themselves, a flux of interactions and knowledge made through them. Now ‘nature’ is a source of profit and an economic booster. Bajo houses expand from the coast to the sea, from cemented walls to the initial bamboo/wooden houses over the shallow waters. They grow and connect to the houses of relatives through cemented streets and elevated passages made of wood and bamboo.

This not only influences their social relations and kinship systems but speeds up the mountain’s erosion through the removal of trees. The seaweed socialisation program brings a multitude of seaweed species from Bali and Southern Philippines to the waters of the Celebes Sea. The imported seaweed is stored inside nets under the sea kept afloat by empty water bottles that prevent them from dropping down to the seabed until they are processed at the Tompals and sold in Manado.

celebes sea

Seaweed nets on Celebes Sea.

When addressing environmental change, resilience and risk management, the complex interactions and relations that originate and feed these socio-ecological systems need to be understood in their own terms. In my next post I will be exploring the complex cosmology that originates among the Bajo as a result of all the linguistic and environmental changes that Nain Island has experienced through the past couple of decades.


Nain’s endemic seaweed fields. The Bajo’s ecological, social and architectural realm.

For those who enjoy nature writing this is my reading adventure of the day: ‘Sightlines’ by Kathleen Jamie

Read Elena’s previous post on her field research: Live Worlds, Live Words: Indigenous Language and Environmental Change on the Celebes Sea

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