A Return To The Native

Every August, for the past five years now, I have had the responsibility of fulfilling a loving uncle's obligation to two nieces to source and provide costumes for the annual Buwan ng Wika at Kulturang Pilipino celebrations. And for five years, I have come up with what I thought to be the most wondrous celebrations of our culture. Celina and Andrea have attended their parades dressed successively in complete Yakan, Gaddang, Maranao, Tausug ensembles. Each outfit was meticulously sourced and came with a quick instructional (courtesy of folk dancer friends) on the signature steps or hand movements to bring each outfit to life.

Overeager uncle that I am, I would dress them on the day of the parade and accompany them to their schools. I would watch with pride as my wards stepped proudly into a sea of synthetic organza panuelos and hideous flowery alampays. I would imagine them coming home that afternoon with a medal or plaque for the Most Authentic costume. A fond dream that never in five years became a reality.

"It's always the Maria Claras, the Mestiza dresses that win, Tito," bewailed my nieces. And never mind if the winning ensembles were all in the wrong colors, proportions, materials. "It's what the teachers know kasi eh." It didn't help that the one time I decided to do a Colonial costume, my peg was Damian Domingo.

Maybe it's just me, but I find that while we find it so easy to pay lip service to the concepts of nationalism and love of country, many Filipinos still find it difficult to equate their love of country with a knowledge and a respect for the Indigenous. Is it subliminal, this condescending attitude toward the indigenous peoples of the Philippines? Remember that we used to call them our cultural minorities, a term that smacked of Us-the-Majority (therefore, the "true Filipinos") versus Them-the-Minority.

There's so much to learn, and so much pride to be gleaned from a knowledge of our indigenous peoples and their cultures. For many young Filipinos, it will start with a fascination for, say, a Kalinga tattoo. For a designer, a piece of fabric. For a performance artist, a chant. With hope, the casual interest leads to serious study. And with that investment of time comes an emotional bond, a self-realization, a genuine pride.

Some starting points:

Tattoos and body art

They're probably the most popular and accessible symbol of a vanished warrior culture. Current poster girl is the seemingly tireless Whang-od of Buscalan, Tinglayan, a Kalinga matriarch whose tattoos are considered a fashionable badge of courage for travelers. For a fee, Whang-Od will use the traditional tools (a thorn, a small pounder, soot, and a rag) to etch a traditional motif from the Kalinga Batok repertoire of designs??"usually, a small circlet with triangles.

But there was a time the privilege of wearing the batok tattoos was not bought, but earned by warriors who had participated in war raids and brought home an enemy head. The right to wear batok was hard-won and signified not only a youth's transition into warrior status, it also signified his acceptance of the responsibilities of communal leadership. And we're not talking about delicate little circlets around the wrists. A fully tattooed Kalinga warrior wore his entire set of tattoos on his chest and on his arms and, in some very rare cases, on the face. The womenfolk of such respected leaders were also allowed the privilege of having batok on their arms.

Essentially, what today costs a few hundred pesos was once earned with a life and head taken back to the village. Wearing the batok was for life (no such thing as having it removed when one tired of it), and one had to accept the larger responsibilities of securing the community, managing its resources, leading revenge parties, and then negotiating peace pacts. For us today, it's just finery. For traditional Kalinga, batok were visual signifiers that the wearer had taken on tremendous responsibilities.

It's a comforting thought for anyone who wants to get a Whang-Od batok as a sign of non-conformism.

Handwoven textiles

The T'boli have T'nalak. The Ilokano, Abel. The Mandaya, Dagmay. The Itneg, their Dinapat and Pinilian. Every major group will boast of a distinct textile. The names don't merely describe the finished products but encompass the harvesting and processing of natural materials, organic dyes, techniques such as ikat and supplementary- weft, trapunto, beading, and ornamentation.

In traditional societies, the weaving of these textiles was done on back-strap looms after meticulously laying out a matrix of warp and weft threads with no visible design. It existed in the weaver's head and required intense concentration, physical and mental control to reveal. There were no blue-prints, no how-to manuals. The weaver brought together the decades of skill in realizing a design or motif. She instinctively knew mathematics and geometry, just as she knew the plants of the forests and the turning of the seasons. And if you think that weaving is a leisurely activity, try sitting a backstrap loom and turning out even the simplest textile. The eye-to-hand coordination, the mental alertness, the alternating dynamic of rigidity and relaxed-ness are exhausting.

Weavers were the very first programmers and the back-strap looms were the first computers. The same spirit that built the moon buggy, the same mental dexterity that designs computer programs and apps have animated generations of Philippine weavers. No wonder that weavers were also considered as healers, matriarchs, leaders, and mediums.

Of course, we walk through a bazaar and pick up a piece of "native" textile and think of runners and pillowcases. Some designers see new silhouettes and dramatic creations. We think, instinctively, of how to make it modern and useful and charming.

Others see craft-sy novelties. They may be missing the point. Hold a well-made piece of indigenous textile, and marvel at the technology that the country's first Power Women created.


Graphic designers, video artists, painters, printmakers, and tattoo artists have long been fascinated by the Alibata, the ancient syllabary of the Tagalog. What is most fascinating, and most reassuring is that ancient Filipinos had a written alphabet way before the Spanish colonized us. Now imagine two more alphabets still in use among the Palawanon and the Hanunoo Mangyan. That's a whole new world of Poetry! Myths! Communication! Permanence! The ability to link to other villages, kingdoms, empires! With these comes a profound respect.

Beautiful to look at, and challenging to unravel, will these ancient alphabets ever be made new and resonant again?

Performance art

Dance, music, chant. We are so used to these as staged performances, we can no longer imagine them as spontaneous expressions of joy, triumph, love, loss, fear, flirtation, the myriad human emotions that summon an artistic reaction. But you will thank the universe for any chance encounters with a spontaneous performance (if the word even applies).

I will never forget one harvest season in Ifugao, trekking through the rice terraces I could hear four different groups of harvesters, in four different locations singing the Hud-hud chant. One group would sing and the other would answer, while yet another took up a different part of the chant and another would answer. It was as if the wind itself was carrying the verses around the mountains. I certainly didn't know what it was they were singing about, but I certainly knew that at that very moment, I was witnessing a rare harmony descending on this mad world.

The Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan

Okay, if none of these interest you at all, then at least know??"and be very proud of this. The National Commission on Culture and the Arts has been awarding distinctions for the most outstanding traditional artists in the country. Since 1993, the GAMABA distinction has been given to 13 artists who have exemplified the highest ideals of their communities in terms of the traditional arts.

So far, the roster has included a Maguindanao kudyapi virtuoso and Yakan master of the percussive gabbang, a Palawan and Panay Bukidnono chanter, five weavers (the famed Lang Dulay of the T'boli among them), a hatmaker from Abra, and a silversmith from Pampanga. These are men and women who will never be as famous as any pop artist or as renowned as any National Artist, but their work in keeping alive the traditions of their people and passing them on through schools of living traditions is worthy of every respect.

In the end, respect is what all this is about. It's the only thing we can give, the only thing asked of us. Respect for a people who have been continually marginalized by poverty, militarization, religious fundamentalism, discrimination, land-grabbing, and every other imaginable ill of our modern world.

They have survived far longer and in far nobler ways than we. Let us at least acknowledge that.

Article 43756 originally posted All Rights Reserved