The Tribes of Sabah


The largest tribe in Sabah is the Kadazan-Dusun, who make up one third of Sabah’s population. They reside mainly on the West Coast and in the interior areas of Ranau, Tambunan and Keningau.

Traditionally the Kadazan-Dusuns were paddy and vegetable farmers who lived up in the hills and upland valleys. Some Kadazan-Dusun also indulged in headhunting as part of their tribal wars.

A large majority of Kadazan-Dusuns today are Christian while a small minority of them are Muslim.

The Kadazan-Dusun culture is rather unique. One of the unique features of their culture is the ‘bobohizan’, female shamans who are recognized as High Priestesses that conduct the rituals for the famous Harvest Festival.

Also known as “TadauKa’amatan”, the Harvest Festival is held every first of May to celebrate thanksgiving to the Rice Spirits for providing bountiful harvest. The people proudly wear their traditional costumes and celebrate from dawn to dawn with ‘tapai’, their infamous homemade rice wine.

The festival is the Kadazan-Dusuns’ way of honouring their past in an era in which cultures are beliefs are slowly being forgotten. Even as modern day Sabahans assimilate into more urban lifestyles, they still return to their ancestral longhouses and villages to participate in this significant event every year.


The second largest tribal group that make up the Sabahan population are the Bajaus. The Bajau people are mostly Muslim and they live in close-knit communities on the coastal areas of Kota Kinabalu, mainly Semporna and Kota Belud.

Traditionally, the Bajau people claim ancestry from Johorian Malays, though they are believed to have come arrived from the Southern Phillipines by sea in the 18th and 19th century. They were primarily known as sea gypsies because many of them were nomadic sailors.

Other than farming, the majority of Bajaus today are cattle and horse breeders, which gives them their nickname, ‘Cowboy Horsemen of the East’. The Bajaus are known for their expertise in horse riding. Their horses are even dressed better than their riders and are found strolling around cities during festivities.


The Murut tribe (the name “Murut” directly translates as hill people) make up the third largest ethnic group in Sabah and reside in the more remote districts of Keningau, Tenom and Pensiangan.

Most still live in traditional longhouses and were well known for being skilled and esteemed headhunters. They are also believed to be the oldest tribe in Sabah.

The Muruts speak over 15 languages with 21 varying dialects, with a great majority being Christian and a small portion of them Muslim.

Other than blowpipe and spear hunting, they are also heavily invested in agricultural produce such as resin and rattan.

They are also known for the Magunatip, a traditional Murut bamboo dance of quickly stepping in and out between four swift clapping bamboo sticks in a successive dance rhythm. Gong musical instruments assist the clapping bamboo sticks to provide musical rhythm.