Ian Mackenzie

Biographical Notes

I am a linguist, anthropologist, writer, photographer, and documentary film maker based in Vancouver, Canada.

I am author and photographer of Ancient Landscapes of British Columbia (Lone Pine Publishing, 1995), a book that used photographs, prose, and maps to celebrate some of the most significant unprotected wilderness areas of the province. Subsequent to the book's publication, a number of the areas I documented became new parks.

I wrote, produced, and directed a television documentary entitled Cry of the Forgotten Land that portrays the plight of West New Guinea forest dwellers confronted with the destruction of their homeland at the hands of a logging company allied with the army. I shot the film alone and clandestinely during the course of several trips to this Indonesian-occupied territory. Completed in 1993 and broadcast nationally several times in Canada and Australia, it was screened at a number of film festivals, receiving a total of eleven awards in the USA and Europe.

I am co-author with Wade Davis and one of two principal photographers (the other being David Hiser) of Nomads of the Dawn - the Penan of the Borneo Rainforest (Pomegranate Press, 1995), a book that describes and illustrates the traditional lifestyle of the Eastern Penan people of the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo, and their struggle to preserve their forest from logging.

Since 1991 I have been making semi-annual field trips to live among the Penans. I have spent a cumulative total of some three years with this hunting and gathering people, much of the time in the company of nomads. My original interest was their campaign to save their land, but my focus has become the recording and preservation of their endangered language and culture. I do my linguistic and ethnographic research as an independent scholar, an "amateur" in the original sense of the word. I do not receive financial support from institutions or individuals.

I have created a dictionary and grammar of Eastern Penan, a heretofore undocumented language with about ten thousand speakers. These are published on the Web, but will remain works in progress as long as I continue my field work.

I record ethnographic information, initially writing it down in Penan. At this point my data constitute a corpus of perhaps a million words. This includes but is not limited to myths, oral history, and ethnobotany. (I have, for example, collected the names of 1100 species of plants, including 225 medicinal ones, along with hundreds of pages describing their uses.)

While most of this information remains unpublished, I have begun the long process of making it available to the public, to a Penan readership first of all. I believe that linguists and ethnographers have a moral duty to give something back to the communities in which they work, particularly when a people is threatened with cultural extinction. Thus, in cooperation with the Borneo Project, a Berkeley-based NGO, I have published two volumes of myths in Penan that are currently being distributed free among the various communities. At the urging of numerous Penans who want to learn English, I have also prepared an English-Penan dictionary, which is available on my website along with the previously mentioned Penan (to English) dictionary. The first volume of memoirs by a Penan elder is also now available for download (in Penan only).

English language publications in progress include the memoirs of the aforementioned Penan elder, a collection of Penan myths, and a work on traditional Penan religion.

My work was featured in the film The Last Nomads (by Andrew Gregg, 90th Parallel Productions, 2008), a documentary which focuses on the existential plight of the Penan people. The film captures a poignant moment in which I discover that the last of the nomadic Penan bands has been forced to give up its ancient lifestyle and take up farming. The film has been aired in Canada (CBC's The Nature of Things, on the Arte network in Europe (in French and German versions), as well as in the USA, in all cases numerous times. It won the grand prize at the 2008 Banff Mountain Film Festival, as well as various other awards and mentions.

I have travelled in more than fifty countries on six continents, and speak, read and write the following languages (some well, some badly, but at one time or another I have spoken even the "bad" ones more or less fluently: I list them in no particular order or degree of competence): French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Indonesian, Malay, Thai, Tok Pisin (the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea), and Penan. I also read Russian and Dutch, and speak some Chinese.

BA from University of British Columbia (1978) and MA from Université de Montréal (1985), both in linguistics. Fellow of the Explorers Club (FI '09) and recipient of its Lowell Thomas Award (2010). Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.