The Leti Islands typify the archipelagoes of Indonesia. This belt of islands is in the Southeast of the Moluccas Islands, the famed original Spice Islands, very close to Timor. The islands making up Leti Islands are of varying sizes. Some of them are barely big enough to support ten palm trees and on such there are no inhabitants. However, the sizable population of the Leti Islands can be found on the islands of Moa, Leti and Lakor. These make a sub-district of Maluku (Moluccas) province.
There are less than 600,000 people of the Leti Islands and the biggest town there is on Moa. This town, Pati sees most of the trade and tourism coming to the Leti Islands. On the island Leti itself, there are some 7,000 people who also speak the language, Leti. Island Leti is particularly noted for its triangular mountain ridge. Since it has no dedicated harbor, this island is inaccessible at the height of the monsoon season between December and April. Of the three main islands making up this archipelago, Leti is westernmost.
Most of the people on the Leti Islands are farmers and fishermen. Apart from fishing and animal husbandry, the plants cultivated include rice, coconut and tobacco. The grounds are enriched by past volcanic activities and palms seem grow everywhere.
On the island Leti itself, the marine life is spectacularly even though the terrain is rough. Therefore, while hiking may be enervating, swimming, diving and snorkeling are definitely exciting and fun both for locals and tourists.
A brief history of Leti names the creator of the Island as Tiwurlety or Paislety who is said to be giant and immortal. A name is important to story-telling in Leti as can be seen from this mythical creator’s name, Paislety, which means “Ladle-Leti” (he ladled water off the land to bring forth the island in the middle of the ocean). While he left no offspring, he bequeathed the land to Slerlety, the founding father. Therefore, Slerlety represents the first immigrant group to the island, the so-called “land-owner” (the people of the second immigrant group who came much later are today referred to as the “boat-owners”). Slerlety means “Wade-Leti”, in Leti language, because he stepped out of his boat (he came from Timor) and waded in the water before reaching the island Leti. His Timorese name was Sairmalay.
Since then descent in Leti has been matrilineal. This is one reason why female figures are prominent in their statues especially in storied statues where the female figures are placed at the head holding an archway tablet made of five or seven petals.
Otherwise, Leti statues depict deceased members of the clan. Usually, a statue is made five days after the death of a clan member. This is because the Leti people believe that it takes five days for the soul to fully separate from the body. To attract the soul to the statue, the statue is placed on a gold plate. These statues are then stored in the attics of clan houses by appointed storytellers who are some kind of griots. Only the storytellers are allowed in the attics and only they can identify the statue of each dead.
Therefore, songs and storytelling are essential parts of the Leti art. In fact, they are so delicate an art that the storytellers are specially selected and do have to follow a formulaic pattern in retelling stories and genealogies for their words to be believed. To aid the storyteller later, ornaments and motifs are carved in Leti statues as mnemonic devices. These are of two kinds: the wona or decorative motifs and the rou or identifying motifs which can be compared to family crests, emblems or logos.
It’s noteworthy that not only statues are so personified. It used to be that every tree, mountain and even river in Leti had its own name which embodies its history and with which trained storytellers can recount stories and lore about it.
While the Leti would sell their statues in the later years, they never included the rou motifs with them. Since the Leti Islands were remote, they enjoyed longer years of art productivity than some other islands. However, with the advent of the Dutch, Christianity came too and the islanders were encouraged to give up their statues which were deemed as symbols of idolatry. Gradually, the craftsmanship dwindled and even though the Leti women still preserved the rou patterns in their textile works, the body of knowledge and the histories of the rou motifs are largely lost now.
The loss of the associative tradition of storytelling and art is the main reason why information on Leti art, culture and beliefs are scarce. However, there is no denying the captivating beauty of these Oceanic islands. Barely 7,000 people may speak Leti now but tranquility and craftsmanship of Leti art speak with a distinctive voice.