an essay on the absent narratives of indigenous peoples in the philippines, by jari
The plight of indigenous peoples (IPs) against the reality of ethnic cleansing is a battlecry some people are willing to take to its bitter end . Since the inception of nation-states as we know them, indigenous peoples have been fighting against the desecration and exploitation of their ancestral lands, culture and humanity. This is the rousing thesis behind the martyrdom of Macli-ing Dulag, and the present day campaign to #StopLumadKillings . But even in the most optimistic victory, changes to ensure legislative recognition and state protection of IPs will pale and eventually crumble against the overwhelming effect of insidious social narratives.
It’s very easy for us to blame the state: it’s the state’s fault that people are dying, it’s the problem of the law that indigenous peoples are being abused and defeated, it’s an issue with national security. And in many ways, it is the failure of the state that we have to address. But there must be a reason why our clamors for change don’t take root and gain momentum. There must be a reason why our politicians and our society decided to be self-interested, and why we don’t view the harms to indigenous peoples as harms to our nation.
I suggest: the cycle of indigenous oppression begins and ends not in the structural machineries of the state, but in the hearts of every modern-day Filipino who enters the classroom and hears nothing of the lives of our brothers and sisters.
how does it feel to know nothing of your own history
Philippine history began in a second —in that momentous occasion when Ferdinand Magellan, European and possibly dripping wet, first set foot on archipelagic soil. History books and well-meaning teachers would suggest that in the moments before and even decades after, not much else existed but the impending colonization by Spain.
The framing of pre-colonization discussions, if any, are brief. Perhaps in a curriculum where all expeditions from Spain, an outline of Doctrina Cristina, and the launch of La Solidaridad will be covered, the unwritten history of our forebears will be narrated as a sidenote. “They existed before the dawn of the West; and Spaniards converted them into Catholics, took their lands and turned them into slaves…”, and then what? Knowing what animism means seems to be the extent of our learning.
Who are they? How did they live before the land was tainted by colonial and imperial blood? Where were they, when the likes of Rizal and Mabini were making our history? Narratives presented in schools would have children believe that the indigenous peoples of the past, who so closely resemble their successors in the present, are faceless figures of no particular significance. The lack of social, political and economic description of IPs’ society generates a stark and unflattering contrast against the intricacies of a ‘more sophisticated’ colonial Manila. It is only in hindsight and introspection that we realize that these implications make no sense; it is impossible for indigenous cultures to have survived parallel yet completely divorced from our own conception of history. Somewhere along the way, someone decided to surgically excise their story from the world which we digest as our heritage.
Perhaps it is only in my school that there’s a distinct lack of emphasis placed on indigenous cultures. But asking friends about their own experiences yields almost similar cases. While schools do have a general course on indigenous cultures, recollection is limited to a largely descriptive lecture on who they are, what they were, what ‘rituals’ they participated in. The discussions themselves put greater stress on more popular tribes, and subsequently create a generalization of all IP groups. And common to the framework of education across these schools is a case of exoticism. Definitions are taught with the assumption that students will never have any meaningful interaction with indigenous communities in the future, outside of possible three-day immersions or the occasional medical mission —that students will never have to see indigenous peoples as humans, and not as characters in a book.
But the understanding of IP identity, culture and history —or lack thereof— has severe implications in our engagement with minority ethnic groups today. I would say that any rational Filipino could be persuaded to intellectually agree with the fact that the lives of indigenous peoples should be protected and inherently valued. But to ask the cosmopolitan Manilenyo to care enough to rally for their rights is to go against years of careful conditioning.
Names have power, and the degree of exaltation we accord to the lives of peoples of the past dictates how we appreciate the legacies they left behind, and how much we are willing to fight for their future. The rationalization of the differential emphasis we put on individual historical events is tied to how we perceive their impact on the building of our nation. We highlight the revolution against the tyranny of Spain as pivotal in the genesis of our identity; it is then a national value to rally for our interest against the overt oppression of stronger states. We are silent in teaching the insidious injustices brought by American imperialism; and now western hegemony is an issue we view with casual disregard. We diminish the contributions of indigenous cultures to the development of our heritage; today, the lives of IPs are irrelevant to the ways we try to write our history.
The problem in engagement is a matter of dissociative history: we do not know their names, or their inherent discursive value. Their works do not belong to the common history of the Filipino people; their identities do not complement what we have built as a sovereign nation. In turn, the legacies they have left behind are not ours to protect. They, though ‘human’ and ‘Filipino’, have become other and unknown.
how do you like to dress up and dance
Cultural appropriation and culturalism are widespread dilemmas attacking different minorities worldwide . Both phenomena display the reduction of cultural legacies into one-dimensional icons and ornamental paraphernalia. In North America, the wearing of ceremonial Native American and First Nation headgear in music festivals is a common, unfathomable and frankly reprehensible practice —especially since indigenous women are still subject to high incidences of rape and murder, reparation for siezed ancestral lands is non-existent, and even an apology for the mass genocide which paid for the luxury of the current nations has never been broached.
Nobody’s so glib as to do the same here in the Philippines (at least I would hope so). But nobody’s quite careful of the material culture of IPs either —a casual disregard that our own education system once again reinforces.
I suggest: the inculcation of perverse perspectives on indigenous material culture happens every August, in that polarizing love-it-or-hate-it month celebrating the Filipino heritage and culture.
There is something funny about the sartorial options open to 3rd grade students during this celebratory month. There are possible four options for girls, arbitrarily varying through the years: the baro’t saya and derivatives thereof, an Igorot costume, the Mindanaoan Malong, and Muslim attire. Of those four options, only one is a historical relic, brought from the colonial period (the attire of the quintessential ‘Dalagang Filipina’, transformed into either a Maria Clara, Visayan kimona or Imeldan Mestiza); the other three are, in fact, not costumes at all. They are the daily wear of various groups living in pockets of the archipelago.
The way harmful social narratives work is that they are covert, but reinforcing. In donning the costume of the Igorot, there is no explicit censure, discrimination or discomfort —in fact, the Igorot costume and Malong were bafflingly seen as cooler options than the baro’t saya in our school— but the attached silence and situation are just as damning.
narrative of historical equivalence
If you reiterate object grouping often enough, the minds of impressionable students would accept the association regardless of logic. Every year, the grouping of the Igorot costume, Muslim attire and the Malong in a time of ceremony establishes the characterization of these attires as historical artefacts (and not as modern attire). While it is true that those costumes are historically-rooted and may not be worn by IPs everyday, especially not by younger generations, the fact remains that their time-bound character is distinct from that of the baro’t saya, Maria Clara or kimona.
The narrative caused by this association implies that all of these costumes are equal in history and in usage. This is problematic in several ways: it homogenizes the diversity of the subcultures manifested by these costumes, and it asserts that the Igorot costume and Malong are relics wearable and appropriate only in instances of historical commemoration. The latter is more harmful —the commodification of these costumes as historical material is premature, and it causes alienation against the very people who still wear these costumes outside of the circumstances we deem acceptable.
The culture of the people who created the Igorot costume is alive (albeit struggling) today. They don’t belong in a gallery of artefacts just yet, and the distance we create when we perceive their culture as irrelevant to modern-day scenarios condemns them to a predestined future of being forgotten.
When Manilenyos wear the Igorot costume every Halloween, or August, or during ceremonial events, it’s fine. But the same acceptance somehow does not apply to members of the indigenous culture the attire belongs to (unless they don their costumes as part of a tourist attraction, at which point it becomes entirely fashionable to recognize and compliment them).
creation of non-contextualized value
Reception of value is doubly harmed by two other factors: first is the lack of contextualized discussion, and second is the underlying rhetoric generated by mass costume production.
Rarely will it happen that teachers will discuss the cultural legacy behind the Igorot costume. Do children grow up knowing that indigenous textiles are traditionally handwoven or loomed? That they are manifestations of a practice passed down from generation to generation? That communities of IPs exist in pride of their unique woven fabrics, which can represent their unwritten history, or their literal dreams, or their futures?
It is distressing to realize how little we know of the costumes we wear, to know that even after several years of donning the costume, we still do not know what the terms ‘wanes’ and ‘lufid’ mean. Many of our generation wear modernized Igorot costumes without understanding how the Ifugao people of Cordillera are different from the Bagobo tribes, for example; more troubling if we interchange and attribute the textile of one group with the abaca clothing of the other. We learn to homogenize the indigenous material culture of the Igorot, the Maranao and the Maguindanao, without a crucial understanding of the diversity of these subcultures. We fail to view them as a community with more defining characteristics outside of their attire; we engineer an information-deficit environment where the appreciation of cultural artefacts relies only on aesthetics.
And we are bombarded by that aesthetic. Every August, whole sections of SM Department stores nationwide become exclusively filled by versions of our national costume and indigenous attire. Tribal patterns have become integral to a worldwide fashion trend. As consumers of fashion, we become desensitized to the unique beauty of the textile patterns created by the IPs. The phenomenon of mass production results to the commodification of indigenous attire —but not in the good way. The attire is still ‘other’, to be used only every now and then by Manilenyos celebrating culture. It is the traditional home industry of indigenous communities producing these fabrics that we truly affect by our appropriation.
When cheap replicas are readily accessible in any mall, or when we learn to identify indigenous patterns as common and all the same, what is the hope for us to appreciate the historical legacy of the T’boli, as they express their works in the creation of T’nalak? How do we value them then?
so what now, miss
These are some of the ways in which the modern majority-member Filipino relates to IP culture: (1) with the assumption that IPs’ legacy has no place in the Filipino identity, (2) with the perception that their history is completely time-bound and presently irrelevant, and (3) with the practice of ignoring or alternately appropriating their material culture and attached value.
Attempts to change these perceptions become unsustainable in the long term as younger generations continue to adopt the same habits of engagement, and as it becomes easier for individuals to go back to a state of apathy and privilege. If you grow up not caring about the plight of indigenous peoples, nothing short of a life-changing experience would make you reevaluate your stance on the world.
Like many other sources of structural injustices, the inculcation of these forms of prejudice are insidious but persistent. There are no active declarations of hate against IPs by the state, just as there is no overt glorification of the elitism of the rich or proclamation of the supremacy of the masculine gender. But the message, when sought, is still clear.
It’s in a media that refuses to sensationalize IPs’ struggles the same way it sensationalizes the drama of greek organizations, privileged philathropists, or celebrity lifestyles. It’s in an executive branch that fails to redefine the execution of its mandate to protect the people. It’s in an educational system that trains children not to care, not to ask, not to know.
It’s in every Filipino who decides not to learn outside the classroom, in every person who accepts a life in a world of unquestionable privilege.
It’s on us.
 Disclaimer: I have much to learn about the plight of IPs in the Philippines. This opinion essay aims less to present facts but more to present arguments on the possible reasons why it’s so easy to ignore the death of hundreds. MOREOVER, everything written here is from the singular perspective of a student who graduated from a private Catholic all-girls school in Manila, who has no regular access to news. I have made many generalizations, but I do not think that they are absolutely unfounded. ^
 An opinion by Michael L. Tan in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (2015/10/28) cites this definition of indigenous peoples by the advocate Jose Martinez Cobo: “[I]ndigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them.” ^
 This whole post was inspired by an article called “IndiGenesis: Pagsusuri sa Kritikal na Papel ng IP sa Filipino Identity” by Agatha Hazel Andres Rabino, featured in an issue of the Manila Collegian (2015/10/12). It provided a timely commentary on the issue regarding the lumad, a collective term which refers to 17 IPs in Mindanao (including Bagobo, Bukidnon, Manobo, and T’boli). Right now, they are facing the pressures of the growing enroachment of large-scale mining industries, as well as civil unrest related to the increasing influence of the New People’s Army. Children’s schools have become the site of extrajudicial actions, as sponsored by both rebels and the state. Relevant social media tags include #StopLumadKillings, #SaveOurSchools, and #Manilakbayan2015 ^
 In fact, another one of the inspirations for this post is the worldwide hashtag #IAmNotACostume, which reflects the stand of different minority groups (including IPs) against the objectification of their identity. For example, there are people out there who have decided to go as Caitlyn Jenner for halloween. (???) ^
2 Comments Add yours
I mean, while the atrocities and abuses committed by the military towards them (while the government turns a blind eye) are appalling, the apathy and indifference expressed by their fellow Filipinos is equally unsettling.
Much of this indifference does stem from a culture of exclusivity, which is, as mentioned by you, rooted in history (or rather, the lack of a history?). Our national identity tends to revolve around the unity of the Filipino people through religion, since this was the most convenient way of unifying us as a people during the era of colonial revolt (ironically, this “unifying factor” was something passed on to us by our colonizers). Anyone else outside this sphere of “civilized” religion and “advancement” was relegated to being savage, uncivilized, and simply unimportant. As said by you, their customs and traditions were considered as, and sadly, continue to be treated as simply trivial novelties that showcase the eccentricity of Filipino culture.
In today’s context, it’s easy to dismiss the plight of the Lumads as something that doesn’t really concern us, but we forget that while they may be a minority group, they are still Filipinos first, and just like us, have rights and privileges to live freely and unoppressed. Maybe it is time for our education system and our culture of indifference to change.
Great writing, as always :D.
“Our national identity tends to revolve around the unity of the Filipino people through religion… [a]nyone else outside this sphere of “civilized” religion and “advancement” was relegated to being savage, uncivilized, and simply unimportant.” — interesting analysis! And I agree. I suppose much of the lines of division we have today is colored by religious supremacy, i.e. we still treat Muslims differently, regardless of their socioeconomic status. We learn indifference very early on; it’ll take a lot to change it. But we can try.
Thank you for reading, and for your comment!