Mingled with the joyfulness, feasting, fellowship, dancing and revelry of the Talaandig Day celebrations held in the heart of the Talaandig Ancestral Domain in Lantapan, Bukidnon this week there was also a measure of mourning. A doleful shadow overhung the gathering of Talaandig tribespeople and their supporters, and the dances of the tribe’s children and grandmothers touched a melancholy chord as well as a joyful one in the hearts of the PeaceBuilders Team. Though the tribespeople greeted their guests graciously and cheerfully during these days of celebration, and though they took delight in presenting their traditional songs and dances and in reaffirming their identity as a people, the overarching reality of the Talaandigs’ existence is still one of siege and struggle. The Talaandigs’ claim of Ancestral Domain rights to their historical home range is still tied up in government bureaucracy. Without a government issued Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title protecting their territorial hectares, the Talaandigs are seeing their home soil deforested and degraded by international agricultural corporations.
This struggle for official recognition of traditional tribal homeland is the experience of many in the indigenous community, says Prof. Sharon Bulaclac, a faculty member at Mindanao State University and a consultant for PeaceBuilders, Inc. who attended Talaandig Day with the PeaceBuilders Team. According to Prof. Bulaclac, government administrators at both the local and national levels often have ties to corporations whose profits would suffer as a consequence of official recognition of tribal domain claims. The Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997 is ostensibly in place to protect tribal rights to tribes’ ancestral lands. Nonetheless, says Prof. Bulaclac, “even though the law is there, sometimes they will pretend that the law is invisible.” The datus (chiefs) of the Panalan Higaonon tribe, who also attended Talaandig Day, made the same assertion as Prof. Bulaclac. They told me that though IPRA is on the books, it is not enforced, and they feel that Mindanao’s Lumad peoples lack recognition and are disrespected.
Also hindering tribes from receiving the rights and protections offered by IPRA is the absence of documents proving their forefathers’ occupancy of the tracts of land which the tribes wish to claim as Ancestral Domain. Prof. Bulaclac explained to me some of the historical and cultural reasons for this scarcity of documentation. From the 16th Century, the Spanish administrators of the Philippine islands invoked the Regalian Doctrine to assert that all the territory in the islands belonged to the Spanish Crown. Tribal rights to their traditional territories were never recognized. When the Americans took control of the islands, they implemented land titling. But those tribes who had managed to avoid extensive intermingling with the Spanish had never adopted a Western conception of the ownership of land, and they did not see the need to have their territory delineated and titled as the Americans demanded. In the colonial backwater of Mindanao, it had been possible to avoid contact with the Spanish to a much greater extent than it had been in the territories closer to the administrative center at Manila, and the indigenous peoples of Mindanao had preserved many of their cultural practices and attitudes during the Spanish era. The Americans classified the nonIslamized indigenous Mindanaoans as “wild tribes,” and began granting large tracts of the super-fertile Mindanaoan soil to agricultural corporations and to Filipino Christian “homesteaders” from islands farther north.
With Philippine independence in 1946 the national government continued the practice of the American colonial administration. They recognized the land rights only of those who had an official, government issued title to the land. Traditional, tribal customs of land occupation and guardianship were never recognized by the government.
Today IPRA is law, and the tribes are supposed to be able finally to attain the long-withheld recognition of their exclusive rights to the mountains and valleys of their forefathers. But when Ancestral Domain claims are contested by corporate interests, or when politicians have their own financial reasons to avoid awarding a tribe a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title, the tribe is saddled with the burden of proof. How are they supposed to provide proof where there has never been any documentation of land ownership? When facing these uncertainties, it is easy for a tribe to become divided. Prof. Bulaclac contends that outside interest groups will sometimes try to play one datu off against another in order to divide a tribal community so that they will not stand as one body to resist corporate incursions.
For this reason, tribal solidarity and a strong sense of shared identity are absolutely essential to a tribe’s success in resisting the forces that seek to divide, conquer, disenfranchise, and exploit tribespeople and tribal territory. In 2012, Datu Migketay Victorino Saway, spiritual leader of the Talaandig Tribe, stressed the importance of tribal identity during a Peace and Reconciliation process with the heads of the Unifrutti Group of Companies. The PeaceBuilders record of the of the event states, “Datu Vic reiterated that his primary concern is the preservation of their cultural identity and integrity and that they will not participate in programs or partnerships that compromise their identity as a people. […] ‘This is who we are, these are our dreams, we are just leading the way as our elders before us.’”
Because the Talaandigs’ claim to their ancestral homeland is based in tradition, tribal customs, and unwritten codes rather than on written documents, the traditions and ceremonies of the tribe are inseparable from their claim on the land. So too is the education of the tribe’s children in the ways and lore of their ancestors. They are encouraged to take pride in their tribal language of Binukid. Last Tuesday, from the timber grandstand in the crowded courtyard of the Sungko headquarters of the tribe, Datu Vic led the Talaandig Day crowd in a Binukid rendition of the Philippine National Anthem. This display of mingled tribal and patriotic feeling was actually an act of civil disobedience, since Republic Act No. 8491 Sec. 36 dictates “The National Anthem shall always be sung in the national language within or without the country.” There is, however, a valid rationale for Datu Vic’s action: heartfelt sentiments like patriotism are best expressed in one’s mother tongue. Furthermore, the Talaandig have good reason to believe that even as they sing allegiance to the nation, they remain under the constant imperative to perpetuate their Talaandig identity. For after all, without a strong and recognizable tribal identity and an indivisible solidarity they will surely never be able to win recognition for their customary land claim, and powerful outside forces will finally divide up the last of the Talaandig territory.
In the light of these stark actualities, the Talaandigs’ traditions; the cultural education of their children; their festivals; their leaders addresses; their hosting of representatives from the seven tribes of Bukidnon; their welcoming of NGO employees; and their beautiful and joy-filled dances all take on an urgency born of the fact that it is by means of these activities that the tribe hopes to preserve itself from extinction. Every gracious ceremony and beautiful tribal costume is infused with the joy and pride that come from a rich and colorful past, but also with the melancholy of an uncertain future.
Great article, Jonathan! Very helpful in understanding the circumstances of the people you are living among. I’m glad you are rediscovering part of your soul that you left behind when you left the Philippines at age 18!
Thanks so much, Luke!