Kadazan & Dusun Meanings

in Sabah History

There are many explanations and theories about the origins and meanings of the word ‘Kadazan’. In this short article, the writer shall try to explore the more popular meanings and origins put forward to explain the word ‘Kadazan’. Some of the more popular explanations put forward to explain the origins and meanings of the word ‘Kadazan’ are: Firstly, it is believed that the word came from ‘kakadazan’, which means ‘towns’. Secondly, it is believed that the word came from ‘kedaian’, derived from the word ‘kedai’ and supposedly to mean, people of the town. Thirdly, it is believed that the word came from ‘Kedayan’, the name of an ethnic group, residing mainly in Brunei and Labuan and not identified as part of the so-called ‘Dusunic’ peoples. Fourthly, it is believed that ‘Kadazan’ means ‘the people’. And fifthly, that the term was coined by politicians.

Let us examine the first explanation that ‘Kadazan’ came from ‘kakadazan’. ‘Kakadazan’ in the Tangaa’ dialect means ‘towns’. Did the Penampang and Papar Kadazan really name themselves after the word ‘town’? If so, why? Presumably, part of this view is the belief that the word ‘Kadazan’ was coined in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. To judge the merits of this explanation, we have to consider the historical background of urban development in the Penampang District. In the fifties, there were only two towns, namely Donggongon and Kasigui. Donggongon had about 20 shops arranged in two rows on each side of the road, and Kasigui had about 10 shops built on one side of the road. Except for one shop, all the other shops in both Donggongon and Kasigui were owned by Chinese. The Penampang Kadazans were scattered in numerous villages in the Penampang District and they still are. How come these people, who never stayed in a town, suddenly decided to call themselves after ‘town’? Those who proposed this view have not come up with answers as to why these people who did not live in a town had decided to call themselves ‘people of the town’.

The second explanation for the origin of the word ‘Kadazan’ was that it was derived from the word ‘kedaian’ from the Malay word ‘kedai’. The writer looked for the word ‘kedaian’ in the Kamus Dewan, a Malay dictionary but failed to find such a word. Why would a group of people look for a non-existent foreign word to call themselves? Again those who espouse this explanation have not come up with valid reasons why the people of Penampang and Papar called themselves after a shop.

The third explanation is that the word ‘Kadazan’ came from the word ‘Kedayan’, which is the name of an ethnic group living mainly in Brunei and Labuan. In this explanation, it is not clear as to when this so-called change was made. As the Kedayan people are not part of the so-called ‘Dusunic’ group, there was and is very little contact between the two groups. In pre-Chartered Company days, any contact between disparate groups usually means war, and the Kedayans were residing too far away from Penampang to have any significant relationships with them and to have influenced them to adopt their ethnic name. Those who put forward this explanation have not given any reasons why the Kadazans of Papar and Penampang had decided to call themselves after the Kedayans. Moreover, the word ‘Kedayan’ is pronounced as [kedayan], therefore the sound need to have undergone a big change to become in the word ‘Kadazan’, also the sound in ‘Kedayan’ is plosive (“hard d”) whereas the sound in ‘Kadazan’ is implosive (“soft d”). Linguistically, this phenomenon seldom happens, what more when the sound does not exist in the sound system of the Kadazan language.

The fourth explanation is that the word ‘Kadazan’ means ‘the people’. The Bobolian or Bobohizan (priestesses) say that the meaning of ‘Kadazan’ is ‘tulun’ or ‘tuhun’––people. This is not surprising as native peoples of the world seem to refer to themselves as ‘the people’ when calling themselves by name. For instance, the people living in Greenland and northern Canada are often referred to by outsiders as Eskimos. But these indigenous peoples, according to Priit J. Vesilind in his article, “Hunters Of The Lost Spirit” published in the National Geographic, vol. 163, No. 2, February 1983, pp.151-196––depending on where they lived and what ethnic group they belong to––call themselves ‘the people’. He wrote, “&ldots;The peoples of the Arctic, only 200,00 in the west, have stopped apologizing for themselves. They are not merely unfinished products of the civilisation process. They are the Yupiks and the Inupiat and the Athapaskans in Alaska, the Dene and the Inuit in Canada , the Inuit in Greenland, and the Saami in Scandinavia. These names mean roughly the same thing––‘the people’.”. Closer to home in Vietnam , we have a similar situation where outsiders call the indigenous people by different names but these people also refer to themselves as ‘the people’. Peter T. White in his article, “Mosaic Of Cultures” published in the National Geographic, vol. 139, No. 3, March 1971, when referring to the minority ethnic groups in Vietnam, wrote, “&ldots;These minorities often do not like what other people call them. When the South Vietnamese want to be polite they lump them together as ‘Montagnards’, French for ‘mountain men’, but more often they call them ‘moi’, Vietnamese for ‘savage’. Their own name for themselves may be ‘People of the Forest’ or simply ‘the people’. The Chinese people often refer to themselves also as ‘the people’ and call others ‘kui’ or devil. So when the indigenous people of Penampang and Papar call themselves ‘Kadazan’ meaning ‘the people’, then it is perfectly logical as other indigenous peoples of the world also call themselves ‘the people’. As to how long the word ‘Kadazan’ has existed, it is logical to assume that it existed simultaneously with the beginning of the indigenous people of Penampang and Papar.

There have also been claims that word ‘Kadazan’ had been coined by politicians in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. According to this view, the late Datuk Peter J. Mojuntin and the late Tun Fuad Stephens invented the word for political purposes.

Most of the explanations of the meanings and origins of the word ‘Kadazan’ assumed that the word was of recent origin––specifically in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s––as assumed in the explanations for its origin from ‘kakadazan’ (towns), ‘kedai’ (shops), and from the claim that Kadazan politicians such as the late Datuk Peter J. Mojuntin coined the term. Is it true that the word ‘Kadazan’ was of recent origin? In fact, the word ‘Kadazan’ is not of recent origin. Owen Rutter, in his book, “The Pagans Of North Borneo”, published in 1929, wrote: “The Dusun usually describes himself generically as a tulun tindal (landsman) or, on the West Coast, particularly at Papar, as a Kadazan.”. Owen Rutter worked in Sabah for five years as District Officer in all five residencies and left Sabah with the onset of the First World War. This means that he started working in Sabah from 1910 and left Sabah in 1914. We can therefore safely say that the word ‘Kadazan’ was already in existence before any towns or shops were built in the Penampang District and that Kadazan politicians did not invent the word in the late fifties and early sixties. Thus, the most likely explanation for the term ‘Kadazan’ is that it means ‘the people’.

With regard to the word ‘Dusun’ and how it came to be applied to these people, Owen Rutter in his book, “The Pagans Of North Borneo”, offers us the explanation as to how the word ‘Dusun’ came to be applied to the most largest ethnic group in Sabah. On the origins of the words ‘Dusun’ and ‘Murut’, he wrote: “The pagans are usually divided into two main tribes, to which are given the distinguishing names of Murut and Dusun. These names are, however, never used by the tribes themselves, but appear to have been applied to them by the Mohammedan invaders. The word ‘Murut’ is derived from the Bajau ‘belud’ ‘hill’ and ‘Dusun’ from the Malay ‘dusun’ ‘orchard’. So that ‘orang Murut’ and ‘Dusun’ [respectively] meant ‘men of the hills’ and ‘men of the orchards’ or ‘gardens’.”

The above account by Owen Rutter seems to suggest that the word ‘dusun’ was used by the Bajaus of the coastal areas of the West Coast in referring to the native people of Penampang and Papar. When the first white men came to the shores of Sabah, the first people to meet them were the Bajaus or Malays, and when the white men asked, “Who are the natives living in the Penampang and Papar areas?”, they would have replied, “Orang dusun”, meaning ‘villagers’ or ‘orchard people’. The white men not knowing the real meaning of the word ‘dusun’ believed that these people were called ‘Dusun’. This was how ‘Dusun’ came to be applied to the largest indigenous ethnic group of Sabah.

Credit to Mr Richard Francis T.

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