Among Filipino Mountain Tribes

Shamanist stone configuration intrudes the humans to the river and asks permission to be there. (Bong)

I first met Bong Dela Torre through a mutual friend. After we happened to see each other again at a political event, we arranged this interview at my house. Thanks to Bong for his photos.

Bong’s story

My name is Edwin Dela Torre. I come from a theater background and used to be with the Philippine Educational Theater Association. For the past five to seven years I’ve been doing volunteer work with tribes in Mindanao, basically with the Bukidnon Daraghuyan tribe. The root word is bukid, which means “mountain.” Daraghuyan is the name of their sacred space, where the community lives, upslope in Mt. Kitanglad, where other tribes live as well.

In that part of Bukidnon, there are huge pineapple plantations. Usually the politicians are part of the business, with either piggeries or poultry chicken farms which encroach on the ancestral domains of the tribes. So you might have a sacred river on the left and two or three kilometers away huge farms owned by businessmen-politicians. Those two spaces say a lot about the social, political and economic realities. The tribes usually live a marginalized, hand-to-mouth existence. Mindanao is migrant country, where there was an influx of Visayans, so for their language of wider communication some people speak Ilonggo and some Cebuano. Most of the tribes learned Cebuano so they could interact with the migrants from the Visayas. They speak Tagalog because of television, the great equalizer.

Since I have a theater background, I used theater to draw out their myths and legends, but you have to develop trust first. Only after two or three years did the elders start talking about their creation myths. The tribe was trying to set up its own school of living tradition with its own curriculum. With indigenous cosmology you may be setting up a module, a curriculum or a syllabus on something like marriage, but people always go back to the very beginning. The tribal youth were talking about a Christian creation myth involving Adam and Eve, when one of the elders, Datu Dumapal, said, “No, no, no, no. We have our own story.” He started talking about it, and he said, “I am ready to tell the whole story, but you have to come to my house. You can write it down while you listen to me.” The following day I found out that it was the first time that the tribal youth had heard it.

At a workshop (Bong)
At a workshop

We decided to collect a piggy-bank of stories, and I drew out the stories through a theater-based evocative process. But when I looked at the contract between the foundation, the funding agency, and the NGO, it stated that the intended result was a teaching aid in graphic book form on four subjects: creation, traditional marriage and reproductive health, maternal childcare and responsible parenting. (Link) Since it was going to be a commissioned work it would be the property of the foundation. Eventually, I decided I didn’t want to participate in a process that would sell the tribe’s cultural heritage to a foundation. So I left.

In the early or mid-90s, a Jesuit priest and anthropologist, Father Albert Alero, tried to come up with a pan-tribal peace pact ritual, at the foot of Mt. Apo. It fell through because like the different tribal ritual leaders couldn’t agree on the first steps. For example, the Manobo tribe couldn’t agree to using candles, since it wasn’t a part of their culture. Father Alero discovered that each tribe, each ritual, had a cosmology and a context of its own.

In Malaybalay City, at Bukidnon State University, there’s a recording studio donated two years ago by the underwater and wildlife photographer named Ding Cabrera. He used to stay up in a tree up in the mountains for two weeks at a time just to get shots of a monkey eating. Anyway, the facility was meant to be used for recording tribal music, stories, myths and legends. But things are slow. Whenever Ding sees me, he asks me to ask about it. In terms of time, the tribal consensus process is different from what we’re used to here in the city. You really have to listen to what is being said and but more importantly to what is not being said. Time has to be understood like planting a seed and watching the plant grow to fruition.

You know how beauty contests are for Filipinos—we’re all about basketball, beauty contests and boxing. Three years ago I watched a tribal beauty contest sponsored by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It was like the competitions you see on television but with local music, tribal leaders as judges and tribal girls in their finery. They were barefoot but walking on their toes, pretending be wearing high heels. Of course beauty contests can be exploitative. The audience came primarily from the different tribal communities, mostly old tribal men who’d had too much to drink. Since the event was both a beauty contest and community dancing, the Daraghuyan Bukidnon tribe did a dance, and Bae Inatlawan, their spiritual and political leader, was part of the contest. I was uncomfortable, but also criticizing myself for being judgmental. Afterwards I asked the tribes where they got their trainers, and they said from gay men in the city, which to me meant that if we were serious about creating a good cultural program we should support the gays, who are very influential and looked up to as very artistic, even in tribal communities in Mindanao.

I believe the tribes should be seen and heard—and not just with festivals, tribal music and tribal costumes. To be really seen and heard is to be understood in terms of how you live your life. Now the tribes are only visible in tourist festivals, a commercialization of their culture. The way the tourist industry does it now—from the perspective of outsiders—turns my stomach a bit. But now some tribes in Mindanao, like the Bukidnon Daraghuyan tribe, the Talaandig tribe and the Matigsalug tribe, have come up with their own tourism program based on the idea of people meeting each other as equals. For instance on Talaandig Day, the tribe opens up its community to people from the city. In the morning they have a welcome ritual, tribal games, music and then a walk in the forest and a demonstration of drum-making and soil painting. (Link) The Matigsalug tribe and the Talaandig tribe are also using part of their territory for planting coffee. They’re building cafés which will also be art houses and workshop areas. They’re taking an alternative tourism approach by bringing in a few outsiders—environmentalists and people from different university disciplines—in order to have an exchange of skills.

In Manila there’s a growing community of drum circles with new ethnic, new tribal music. A lot of young people are trying to connect with their roots, and music is one way. I want to involve my friends, my colleagues in improvisational storytelling with drums and flute. We anticipate that within two years a lot of different artists, musicians and healers will be coming to Manila from the different tribes in Cordillera and in Mindanao. That’s one way of welcoming them. Or some of us will be going there. We’re very clear about it’s not being co-opted by commercialism.

The Talaandig tribe is a very artistic tribe. In fact, one of their members, Waway Saway, has been touring, and he’s performed at the Smithsonian Institute. They play music with drums they’ve made themselves. They’ve developed a soil painting genre using soils [and glue] on canvas, literally earth colors, which Waway Saway has been teaching the other tribes.

There’s an interesting creative tension in terms of work that’s culture-based, beginning with culture and art and evolving into livelihood crafts. The tension arises when NGOs or private individuals intervene. Generally the end is to raise the income of these marginalized tribes. So last year a well-meaning art curator from Cebu wanted to market the soil paintings of the Daraghuyan Bukidnon tribe. He gave them an advance. It was planting season, but they were told they would make money with their paintings. So for four or six weeks, the tribal youth painted. The result was not up to standard. Out of thirty paintings, only three were considered good enough for the gallery. The rest were sent back. The community was so hurt. As part of the workshop I had to explain that even experts, people in Manila who had been painting for twenty years, found their art was not easy to sell. The youth leaders said, “They should have told us that.”

I talked to the head of the NGO, who said, “Maybe I’ve spoiled them because when they’d come up with necklaces and stuff like that, they can sell them to the NGO and people buy them. There’s been no aesthetic quality control.” The NGO didn’t really have the skills or the time for marketing. The marketplace is also an entirely different culture. It would change them.

A lot of people have taught livelihood stuff, like making citronella, but there’s no marketing mechanism. We’ve sort of tried to bridge that. There’s an organic network in Taywana, in Sikatuna, but you can’t just put products on the shelf and expect them to sell themselves. There are people with money who are interested in social entrepreneurship, but it’s complicated. It took me four years of going back and forth to understand what I do of the tribal dynamics. There are a lot of conversations that are not seen and heard. I also have to disabuse myself of the notion that I can play a major role, the occupational hazard of a do-gooder.

Whether down south in Mindanao or up north in Cordillera, the Philippines is going through a very interesting transition period. A lot of institutions aren’t working. There’s a lot of room for change. For me the tribes represent the most spiritualized and most marginal sector. There’s a lot of wisdom in tribal culture. I’m glad that I am very close to these people. I won’t become part of structures like the National Commission on Indigenous People because you can only work for the commission if you are indigenous yourself, although once you have a university degree, you can be alienated from your own ritual culture. People from the urban areas and those with degrees have most likely been Westernized to a certain extent. The power dynamics between the tribes and the urban mindset is a tension between oral culture and written culture. The challenge is to come up with a space where people can meet each other in a circle as equals. I’ve witnessed so many seminars or conferences which are reportedly trying to help but in the handling of space and communication intimidate and alienate a tribal culture.

In 2009 we had a Bukidnon environmental summit in Malaybalay City. It was hosted by Kitanglad Integrated NGO Network, whose mandate is to work with the tribes, and held in a small, three-star hotel in Valencia City. The space was divided into different focus discussion groups. The local government leaders had the best room with air conditioning and coffee, and the business sector was also very comfortable. When the head of KIN found the space for the tribal leaders, she was shocked. She took me out to the pool area, where a makeshift tent had been set up. Then she said, “Let me handle this.” In a gentle and very quiet voice she explained to the local organizers, “Look, these are tribal leaders. They’re at par with our mayors, our governors and the business leaders.” So at the last minute they had to do some rearranging.  I share that anecdote because it’s typical of the almost blind mindset of the local government units and people from academia. They’re not even aware of it.

These tribal communities are going through their own transitions. I have an architect friend who helped come up with a communal design process for the cultural center up in the mountains. She said, “You know, Bong, when we interact with another culture it’s a mutual myth-busting process. We have certain myths about them which we form out of convenience, and they have certain myths about us. Then we meet, and it’s not what we expected.

Bae Inatlawan in Manila (Bong)

Bae Inatlawan is the spiritual leader or healer, shaman or the visionary of the Daraghuyan Budkidnon tribe in Mt. Kintanglan. They’re the ones who are the caretakers of this tribal cultural center, which is funded by the World Bank. She attended a conference on herbal medicine in Bangkok, and she does two or three rituals here in Manila. One thing I’ve noticed about rituals: if you take a ritual out of its locus, it changes. But I think it’s about exploring and seeing. It’s better to commit mistakes while talking about ritual culture rather than to be too insular about it.

One day I was talking to her and I noticed that she uses “spirituality” and “culture” interchangeably. Then it dawned on me: that’s right. Spirit manifests through culture. It’s one of those small things that give you a little insight which will eventually grow into “oh, I see.”

I want to share something about the spirit of languages from a shamanic perspective. My father is Bikolano, and my mother is Visayan-Ilonggo.  Here the lingua franca is Tagalog. I write poetry in Tagalog, and I discovered the spirituality of language, that words can actually be living beings. When old words come to me or I hear something, sometimes I close my eyes and I feel and talk to the word or the spirit of the word. “I humbly sit before you, I humbly kneel before you. Please unfold.” Then images come. In listening to different Philippine languages, I get with the onomatopoeia, and the very sound of the language carries with it some kind of meaning and it resonates in the body. In Tagalog, the term for “meaning” is “kahulugan.” The root word is hulug, which means something descending from above. When I first felt that, it was almost like a mystical experience for me. When I talk to a Filipino who speaks a different language, I ask, “What’s equivalent of ‘meaning’?” The Ibanak word is like Tagalog equivalent,  kagabanag which is “fruition, completion, totality.” After you’re open and you go into that space, in the dream state you get glimpses of the stories, the myths and legends. Just glimpses.

When I was up in the mountains giving a workshop in Daraghuyan Bukidnon, we did a vocal exercise using mambabaya, the word for “creator” or “god.” The exercise turned into a spontaneous chant. I saw Bae Inatlawan rushing from the kitchen with her eyes wide open. Suddenly she turned a corner. A few days later I heard that for her it was an invocation, and there were spirit beings coming out and entering the creative space. That was her perspective, but I honor that, and I feel that I am blessed to participate.

The first time I went there I brought art materials, and I painted some of the things I picked up in a dream state. A few days later I showed them to Merly, the youth tribal leader. She stared and me, but didn’t say anything. She spoke quietly to Bae Inatlawan, who looked concerned and then rushed to me and said, “Oh, Bong, Merli here told me that you painted certain things that you saw in your dreams. Can I have the artworks please?” I gave them to her. Later I realized that there are certain words or certain deities—of the river and so on—that they don’t share with outsiders. In their cosmology spirits are words. If you share them with an outsider who leaves, the local spirit might leave the territory. It’s a protection of their culture.

Drumming at the Luna Festival in Manila