Thursday, April 25, 2013

Beyond the Bark: Reexamining our Roots

(since the university of the philippines system website seems to be under some sorta state of recovery [tho the issuu account is well and healthy, i guess], i am sharing my article [may kaunting edit lang sa notes] as published in the july-august issue of u.p. forum. in commemoration of macliing dulag, here it is.)

There is a thin line—a letter—between “indigene” and “indigence.” Though their meanings and their Latin roots differ—the former from indigena1 and the latter from indigentia2—both describe indigenous peoples (IPs). In an interview, Dr. Nestor Castro, UP Department of Anthropology chair, quoted Conrad Kottak3 and said that IPs refer to “the original inhabitants or particular territories; often the descendants of tribespeople who live on as culturally distinct colonized peoples, many of whom aspire political autonomy.”

Their right to self-determination, however,  will not be served on a silver platter, more so, a golden one. Despite being guardians of domains blessed with gold, the indigene’s wealth is being looted, making them indigent. No matter how the “civilized” and the “outsiders” romanticize IPs as “rich in culture,” IPs live impoverished lives because of eco-political “developments” that are rather destructive to than cooperative with the environment. Though sources differ regarding Philippines’s ranking4 in terms of gold deposits, our country’s being gold-rich is reflected in folk epics, as bulawan (gold) and is often attributed to matters considered good—which shall not be mistaken as materialistic in the capitalist sense.5

Beyond the indigene’s identities are their communities—their stories, cultures and economies. But because of the images that dominant faction of the “civilized” paint, the IPs and their way of life are misunderstood; or worse, reduced as objects fit for museums and coffeetable books. Instead of heeding the call of the tabusaw6, most of us fall for the myths of how fantastic “developments” are authored by owners and operators of giant machines that excavate mines and construct dams—and displace IP communities.


According to Castro, the common characteristic of IPs in the global scale is their ability to maintain  much of their pre-colonial traditions, beliefs, and practices. “They also have a strong attachment to their traditional territories because their cultures emerged from and were shaped by the specific physical characteristics of their environment.”

Castro said that IPs in the Americas and in Australia are the lands’ original inhabitants. “The majority populations in those continents are migrants coming mainly from Europe,” while “most (Filipinos) are original inhabitants of the Philippines, at least since 8000 years ago,” making Tagalogs, Cebuanos, and Ilocanos indigenous to the Philippines, but are not considered as IPs “only because they have been colonized and have thus abandoned many of their pre-colonial practices in contrast to the others.”

Based on the legal definition6 in RA 8371 or the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), Castro said that IPs may be defined by self-ascription. Thus “if a particular group of people feels and believes that they are a culturally distinct community, they then should be considered” IPs, because “ethnicity (or group identity) is a social and psychological construct8 and not something that is biological.” He added that ascriptions by others may also be bases to define IPs. In a discussion of the Dutch cooptation and indoctrination of Minke,9 a Javanese in The Buru Quartet,10 Yohanes Artadi mentioned in a journal article11 that mental control is necessary in economic and political control. “To control people's culture is to control their tools of self-determination in relationship to others.”

“The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), a government agency that is mandated to ensure the implementation of IPRA, merely provides a formal recognition of who the indigenous peoples are,” said Castro. “There is no agreement on the actual number of groups of indigenous peoples in the Philippines. Even NCIP sources provide different figures: 92 groups according to one document and 110 groups according to its website. To complicate matters, there would be a different figure coming from non-governmental organizations, such as the Environmental Science for Social Change, Inc. (ESSC).”

In an interview, Kakay Tolentino of Katribu Partylist said IPs comprise 14 percent of our population. Castro said that for NCIP, it is 15 percent while for the 2000 Census of Population and Housing (CPH), only 5 percent.  He added, “It is only in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) where IPs comprise the majority of the population. Elsewhere in the country, IPs constitute a minority of the population.”

Castro said that NCIP, using its organizational structure’s seven so-called “ethnographic areas,” grouped IPs together based “solely on their geographical spread,12” lumping together in one region “groups with totally dissimilar cultures.” Castro grouped13 the IPs as: (i) Cordillerans of Northern Luzon; (ii) indigenous peoples of Cagayan Valley; (iii) Mangyans of Mindoro; (iv) indigenous peoples of Palawan; (v) island peoples of Central Philippines; (vi) Lumads of Mindanao; and (vii) Negritos (scattered in the major islands of the country). Castro distinguished the Negritos because “they are phenotypically different from the rest,” having “an earlier history of occupation of the Philippines,” while most “have already lost their original languages by borrowing the language of neighboring groups” making them “the most threatened with culture loss.”


Indigenous practices, knowledge and belief systems are preserved—or perhaps hidden—deep in their folk epics. Dr. Rosario Cruz-Lucero of the UP Departamento ng Filipino at Panitikan ng Pilipinas said that folk epics show how profound and sophisticated our ancestors’ way of thinking is, and because of the tendency of students to use Western framework, philosophical insights of folk epics are often missed.

For instance, Lucero mentioned that the Sulod’s epic hero Labaw Donggon can be read beyond romance and mere acquisition of wives, as he unified the cosmos by marrying a maiden from earth, from the underworld and from the upperworld. In the introduction of Labaw Donggon,14 it was stated that the Sulod have laws regarding adultery and that Labaw Donggon’s case may be an escape mechanism that shall serve as reminder that it is wrong to covet another’s spouse.15 Labaw Donggon humanizes the hero, showing that he, too, is flawed, that heroism is collective.16 Lucero also discussed the development of the meaning of words from the folk epic.

For instance, yawa from Malitung Yawa, Labaw Donggon’s third wife, was originally the baylan (priestess) with the most powerful pamlang (magic), while the Buyung is a leader of warriors who go downhill to attack pueblos. The friars then began using yawa and buyung as derogatory terms or cuss words.17 Banyaga in Waray means “evil person”,18 or “demon”, but the Tagalogs use the term to refer to foreigners. Which is why, according to Lucero, Tagalogs borrowed the term diablo or demon from Spanish.

In Labaw Donggon, the women the hero courted are binukot, roughly translated as “well-kept ones,” as they are epic chanters, who are not allowed to be exposed to the sun, keeping their skin fair. Lucero said that this shall not be mistaken as subscription to the mestizo standard, because through trading with the Chinese, the Sulod could have acquired the fondness for fair skin. The feet of binukot are also prohibited from touching the ground, which is why they stay in their duyan (hammocks). Lucero said that this is a mode of transportation and not for siesta—as friars or people with (neo)colonial minds might suspect.

In Mythologies, Roland Barthes asserted that a myth doesn’t hide or flaunt anything; doesn’t lie or confess. Myth is a distortion, an inflection that “transforms history into nature;” a hemorrhage, “or perhaps an evaporation or perceptible absence” to empty reality. Myth, being a depoliticized speech, justifies19 things. Consider that the myths Barthes referred to are modern ones—misconceptions of IPs that the “civilized” accept as fact and natural. Through ethnocentric20  lenses, colonizers then viewed natives as subhumans, as seen in Rizal’s La Indolencia de los Filipinos, his response to the accusation of our ancestors’ alleged inborn indolence.

According to Castro, the Negritos and the Mangyans are deemed lazy because once given sacks of rice, they eat and they work only once their food supply is depleted. During fieldwork, the Agtas of Isabela neither hunt nor fish unless they are already hungry. “Outsiders do not understand that this behaviour is typical in subsistence societies. Why would they collect food that would just rot and go to waste?  The forests and the seas are their natural ‘refrigerators.’” According to Castro, had there been excess food, they would feast instead of let food rot. He added, “No one accumulates more than he needs. Therefore, feasting is a social leveling-off mechanism to prevent any individual from being richer than others. The group remains egalitarian.”

Castro added that IPs are often stereotyped and “photographed as wearing their native costumes ( e.g. g-strings) and living in traditional houses (e.g. the Agta lean-to) as if their culture is static,” which is not true as many IPs “are already relatively acculturated”—living “in houses with galvanized iron roofs,” using mobile phones and working as professionals. “Despite acculturation, however, many of them still practice traditional rituals and involve themselves with community ceremonies.” For Tolentino, the categorization of IPs as exotic dancers wearing bahag or tapis is also wrong and discriminating, since native costumes are not worn on a daily basis—only during rituals or sacred occasions.

For Castro, culture contact between the IPs and the rest of the Filipinos has brought about changes in the lifestyle of members of indigenous communities. “The commodification of culture, such as Ifugao elders posing in their traditional costumes in exchange for money, is also an outcome of culture contact.” But for Tolentino, since wearing bahag is sacred to the IPs, tourists who wear native costumes “bastardize IP art and culture,” since traditions are “linked in the political and the economic, not simply to (our) different skin color, hair, clothing. The identity of the indigenous means knowing where they came from.”

According to Prof. Roselle Pineda of the UP Department of Art Studies, the Western idea of culture being merely aesthetic as food for the soul cannot be applied to IPs. She said that dances, for instance, are functional in IPs’ daily lives, thus a holistic approach is necessary. Their daily survival against militarization, large-scale mining, dam construction and land grabbing, among other reasons of their loss of livelihood, shall be studied, as IPs’ art and culture are being taken away with their ancestral domains.

In a journal article,21 Lucero showed that the Manobo version22 of the Tower of Babel reflects the historical tradition of the community’s lack of unity way back the first arrival of Muhammad Kabungsuwan who grabbed their lands in 1515,23 and has persisted until the contemporary times when land grabbing ensues and issuance of land titles changed the indigenous community structure to district system. The district leaders were chosen depending on their knowledge of Bisaya language and know-how of the local government system.24 Thus, Barthes added, “Ancient or not, mythology can only have an historical foundation, for myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the ‘nature’ of things.”

Tolentino, a Dumagat, said that they do not have a datu as they group in clans25 and that NCIP deputizes leaders who are not of her indigenous group. She further said that since the government needs to consult IPs, as per IPRA provisions, the NCIP deputize datus, who do not represent the Dumagat. According to Tolentino, the government consults and deals with deputized datus, regarding “development” projects. These datus and their immediate families also function as local private armies or CAFGUs. With the national government overriding IPRA’s Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC), the right of the Dumagat to govern themselves is violated. The cases26 of the Manobo and the Dumagat are but two examples of divide and conquer tactics employed by the national government.

For Tolentino, the “development” projects of the governments established during the Spanish times and continue up to the present have adverse affects on ancestral lands where IPs reside. IPs “were asked to sacrifice in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘development.’ It was believed that since they were lesser in terms of population, they had to sacrifice in favor of the majority. Such was the case of the infamous Chico River Basin Development Project in Kalinga and Mountain Province and the Cellophil Resources Corporation in Abra,” said Castro. Commemorated during the annual Cordillera Day is the martyrdom of Macliing Dulag who said,27 “Land is life;” and asked, “What is the most essential thing for man? Life. If life is in danger, what do we do?”


In Bisaya, gamut means ugat, according to Lucero. In Tagalog, the former means “medicine,” the latter “root.” Extracting insights and delving deeper into the roots of the IPs’ problems may more or less provide uswith the answer to the question the Kalinga leader posed. Using the African philosophy of Ubuntu,28 those who are not considered IP by any definition may relate as, the African saying goes, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.29 

According to Pineda, the IP art tradition and culture is exoticized and romanticized, as if they were an endangered species that ought to be preserved, but there is no ‘pure’ culture because of human interaction.30 Castro added that most people “only appreciate the aesthetic aspect” of the IPs’ culture: the t’nalak textile of T’bolis, the traditional tattooing of Kalingas, the Hanunoo Mangyan syllabic script, the tadek courtship dance of the Tinguian, among others. Seeing “only the surface of the culture,” most are “unaware about the indigenous knowledge systems and practices of these communities, such as their rich knowledge about medicinal plants,31 their better understanding of biodiversity, and their strong spirituality.”

Pineda said that besides exotic dances and bayanihan, “backwardness and being uncivilized to a certain degree” or taga-bundok (mountain dwellers) are among the associations made by her students on IPs. She added that if first world countries are marketed through civilization (e.g. New York’s skyline and the Statue of Liberty), the third world’s selling points are “the pristine beaches of Boracay, the last frontier, the lost paradise.” For Pineda, this is an oxymoron since the beauty of the lost paradise is its being backward, justified through romanticizing and exoticizing. “The rich culture (of IPs) represent an uncivilized community, but this is justified since poverty is presented as an exotic condition.” This is similar to the critique of Brillante Mendoza’s film as “poverty porn,” making impoverished conditions through camera angles appear beautiful. Pineda added that the portrayal of the IPs as cheerful in nature is selective. For instance, the Cordillera people’s culture of fetad32 is seldom featured by the National Commission on Culture and Arts (NCCA) or any government institution.

Showing how futile isolating the problems of IP culture from societal issues, Pineda cited the founding of a “school of living tradition,” making a creative industry out of textiles. “Let’s say that IPs earn and gain ‘pride,’ but the threat of large-scale mining and militarization remains, resulting to hamletting. The problems of IPs then are not really addressed.” Tolentino cited another instance where the Ayalas-Zobels produce copies of Iraya-Mangyan handicrafts and sell them in tourism pilot areas such as the Talipanan Beach in Puerto Galera. She said that the tabuyo (vines) exhibit wisdom of inspired native weavers, so there are no similar designs. Mass-produced copies33 then—though less polished and less detailed—are sold as Mangyan handicrafts.

“What are we going to do with the textile, with the culture, without the people, the (IP) community?” asked Pineda. The IPs from the Cordillera had no choice but to descend to Baguio City to sell their art and culture. With rocky soil and antedated technology, highland farmers’ agricultural economies remain backward. “Had the food supply been enough, there remain threats of mining and militarization, aggravating poverty. Despite their mineral-rich lands, the IPs do not benefit as corporations are the ones with the machines to excavate and to process the minerals.”

“IP culture is less harmful because they work with nature,34” said Pineda. The IPs contribute the least to the destruction of nature—and yet, they are the ones most affected by global warming and climate change. Laws that are supposed to protect IPs, such as the IPRA  fail to protect them  She cited a case in Mankayan, Benguet35 where corporations bore holes in mountains, causing the collapse of a community. “Since IPs are not given basic social services, they cannot read. There is a provision (in IPRA) where upon certification, only the surface of the ancestral domain should remain untouched. In the Cordillera, mining areas lie beneath, so technically, corporations may bore holes under the mountains.” She said that there are supposed to be “stages”, but corporations already begin mining operations during the “exploration stage,” which precedes the “mining stage”.

Tolentino said that because of the extent of mining, almost nothing is exempted—from the areas designated for hunting, gathering, fishing and farming up to those reserved for their ancestors’ burial.36 “No culture is preserved. How do they respect our practices and structures when they intervene?” asked Tolentino. “We were the first ones to be driven away (from our land), and now they still want us displaced. This is why we have to struggle for our (ancestral) lands.”

Thus, Macliing Dulag’s answer to his own question still echoes years after his death: If land is life and life is at risk, we fight. “This is what one must do. Otherwise, one loses his honor and this is worse than death... Owning the land is arrogance because it is the land that owns us… How can we own something that outlives us?”

To realize why all of us shall be a part of this struggle, consider another phrase from the philosophy of Ubuntu—ubuntu ngumumtu abantu: “I participate, therefore I am.”37

1 "Sprung from the land." (2012). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved from
2 "Need, want; insatiable desire.” (2012). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved from
3 Kottak, C. (2000).  Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity (8th Edition). Salem, USA: Bookbyte.
4 Sources differing in ranks and dates either rank the Philippines as 2nd or 3rd, in terms of gold deposits.
5 Discussing a part of Agyu, Dr. Rosario Cruz-Lucero mentioned that there was a broken-hearted datu who left the dowry for the maiden he is courting. After being rejected the datu grieves and leaves his dowry behind. This shows how the datu values the maiden, but not in the framework of capitalism. The dowry of gold the datu left in shore are those which glitters in the sand.
6 Mentioned in Agyu. Tabusaw refers to spirits that aid warriors.
7 Cited by Castro: “A group of people or homogenous societies identified by self-ascription and ascription by others, who have continuously lived as organized community on communally bounded and defined territory, and who have, under claims of ownership since time immemorial, occupied, possessed and utilized such territories, sharing common bonds of language, customs, traditions and other distinctive traits, or who have, through resistance to political, social and cultural inroads of colonization, non-indigenous religions and cultures, became historically differentiated from the majority of Filipinos.” (IPRA, Section 3h)
8  Castro cites Sian Jones’s The Archaeology of Ethnicity (1997) as reference.
9  Hartadi wrote that this is a "probably a euphemism for 'monkey'" coined by his Dutch teacher, as Minke is "a highly privileged person in his age," being "the only indigenous student" admitted to "a high school for Dutch young people."
10 Quartet written by Pramoedya Ananta Toer while “imprisoned in Buru Island, denied of paper and pen" (Hartadi 2009). Comprised of This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass.
11  Hartadi, Y. (2009). The Colonial Doubling, or the Challenge for Colonial Authority. Kritika Kultura. Retrieved from
12  NCIP’s categorization: i) Region I (Ilocos Region) and the Cordilleras; ii) Region II (Cagayan Valley); iii) the rest of Luzon; iv) Island groups, including Mindoro, Palawan, Romblon, Panay, and the rest of the Visayas; v) Northern and Western Mindanao; vi) Southern and Eastern Mindanao; and vii) Central Mindanao.
13  From Castro’s The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Protected Area Management in the Philippines (2004)
14  Introduction of Rosella Jean Makaisar-Puno of Dr. F. Landa Jocano’s transcription of Labaw Donggon.
15  Unlike his first two wives, Ginbitinan and Doronoon, who were not betrothed, Malitung Yawa, the third woman Labaw Donggon wanted as a wife, was then married. Labaw Donggon was defeated by Malitung Yawa’s husband, Saragnayan.
16 Half-brothers Asu Mangga (of Hinilawod’s Ginbitinan) and Baranagun (of underworld’s Doronoon) saved their father from Saragnayan, who likewise asked help from the underworld (It shall also be noted that ‘villains’ in epics are not absolute evil and are also dependent upon collective effort, such as in Saragnayan’s case). Dumalapdap and Humadapnon, Labaw Donggon’s brothers, helped in getting him back in shape.
17 Now, “yawa” roughly means “demon,” while “buyung” roughly refers to raiders, criminals and other ‘bad’ men.
18 Translated from Filipino as "masamang tao" by the UP Diksyunaryong Pilipino (2nd ed., 2010).
19 Barthes furthers, “Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification.”
20 University of Vermont’s Prof. William Haviland wrote in Cultural Anthropology (9th edition) defined ethnocentrism as “the belief that one’s own culture is superior to all other.” Cultural relativism on the other hand is “the thesis that one must suspend judgment on other people’s practices to understand them in their own cultural terms.”
21 From Lucero’s “Ang Dalumat ng Panahon at Espasyo sa Mga Traki ng Dulangan Manobo.” Humanities Diliman (2002)
22  In another discussion, Lucero said that in the Manobo folk epic Ulahingan was Baybayan, who did not engage in battle. Their leader instructed Baybayan to sing of adventures of his people as he dances around the world. This is how stories all over the world bear semblances to one another, as they are weaved and told by Baybayan.
23 Lucero cited Muslims in the Philippines (1999) by Cesar Adib Majul.
24  Lucero cited The Lumad’s Struggle in the Face of Globalization (2000) by Karl Gaspar.
25 “Ang antas na inabot namin sa Dumagat ay antas angkan, kaya wala kaming datu,” said Tolentino in an interview.
26  In Mangyan Day 2012, there are accounts where IPs are pitted against IPs, regarding mining disputes.
27 Translated from Filipino. Quotes from Dulag are from Pinoyweekly’sPagtatanggol sa lupa at buhay sa Abra”, retrieved from
28  Its principle is “I am only because we are, and since we are, therefore I am,” from
29 “A person is a person through other persons,” or “We are, therefore I am.” Ibid.
30 Mentioned by Jun Cruz Reyes in Ka Amado (2012), Reyes’s biography of Armando V. Hernandez.
31 Lucero also mentioned that there are botany and architecture lessons in Agyu.
32 For Pineda, this concept of being revolutionary is a reason why Cordillera was not conquered by the Spaniards.
33 Tolentino added that the same corporate practice of copying of designs is also done in areas of the Igorot and in Mindanao. The copied fabric and design, besides differing in color and having low quality, are also loosely knitted.
34 During Mangyan Day 2012, Amit Gabriel, a Hanunuo Mangyan leader, shared how a Japanese researcher reported findings that kaingin farming is good for the environment. See
35  Sinumlag, A. (2011, December 1). "Likely collapse of LCMC tailings dam walls spooks Benguet folks." Bulatlat. Retrieved from
36  This was also in a talakayang bayan during Mangyan Day 2012—the burial sites being violated due to mining.
37 Forster, D.A. (n.d.) “Validation of individual consciousness in Strong Artificial Intelligence: An African Theological contribution.” Retrieved from

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