Monday, October 13, 2008

Indigenous People Sunday

Gitamay-tamay kami.

I don’t think I ever heard, in all my years in Mindanao, any sadder or more painful words than these. “We are looked down on—we are despised, belittled—we are snubbed as inferiors.” The words were uttered by a Manobo tribesman at a conference, sponsored by the ECCC (Episcopal Commission on Cultural Communities) in the late 1970s, on the problems of the island’s indigenous peoples under Marcos’ martial law government. The speaker was referring to how they were being treated by others—the government and the non-tribal people of Mindanao in general, migrants from other parts of the Philippines.

The original peoples of Mindanao, he was saying, were second-class citizens in their own island home. Precisely because of that fact, the Commission changed its name, on the motion of IPs themselves, to ECTF—Episcopal Commission on Tribal Filipinos. “Tribal Filipinos”—a name of shame (to non-IPs) deliberately turned into a name of pride: that was the reason for the new designation. (The later change to the Commission’s present name, ECIP, Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples, was made only in the early ‘90s following the United Nations’ publishing of the Charter of Indigenous People’s Rights.)

Since then the one focus of the ECIP in its work among IPs has been the building up of their pride in themselves. It is bad enough when one is called “inferior” by external denomination. Worse when one accepts the name as one’s self-definition. IPs, those of Mindanao especially, have been especially vulnerable to this danger. Building up the human dignity of a downtrodden, neglected people—that the ECIP has believed all along is a prime work of evangelization.

Gitamay-tamay kami. Why the opprobrium cast on the IPs of the nation? Or, another way of putting the question, why the unrelenting prejudices of the rest of Lowland Filipinos against them? The answers are easily given: Those prejudices date back to Spanish times, prejudices that have not disappeared in the more than 100 years since the Philippines ceased being a colony of Spain in 1898.

Just a little bit of history then (from the particular optics of IPs): In the Spanish colonial era, the indigenous peoples of our islands, “Indios” all to the Spanish, were classified into these three broad but still quite precise categories: (1) “Filipinos” (I don’t have an idea when it started to be used generally for the colonized native population), (2) Moros and (3) “the wild tribes”. The criteria used for the classification were quite simple and straightforward. Filipinos were the various tribes that were subjugated by Spanish arms, hispanicized to a certain degree, and Christianized. The Moros were the Muslim groups in the southern islands who successfully resisted subjugation, hispanization and Christianization all through Spanish times. The wild tribes were the hill people that also resisted Spanish rule and colonization but were not Muslims—and they were disparagingly called salvajes for the reason that they refused to be “pacified” by Spanish arms and continued living outside the pale of Spanish culture and religion, clinging unredeemed to their ancient cultural and religious (“pagan”) traditions.

When the Americans took over, they did what the Spanish were never able to do with the Moros and the wild tribes: they brought them under their control (and that by the way is the basis of the Philippine government’s claim to sovereignty over the Maguindanao, the Maranao and the Tausug that the shelved MOA-AD sought to render ineffective). Under American rule, the non-Muslim, non-Christian groups were classified as tribal or “native” peoples and officially placed under the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes. With independence, the term for IPs went through several permutations, each one as unsatisfactory as the last as a description of the reality it was supposed to cover. Thus, Native Tribes, Cultural Communities, National Minorities, Tribal Filipinos (at least in the Church), and now Indigenous Peoples—all quite problematic.

What all this brings out is that the IPs were looked down on because they were, unlike Lowland Filipinos, un-hispanicized and un-Christianized. But if they were that, it was because they were never fully conquered, never fully brought under Spanish domination. It’s a topsy-turvy world we live in in the Philippines: the conquered groups (and their descendants) are honored, hold pride of place; the unconquered (and their descendants) are dishonored and are relegated to (and kept at) the lowest rungs of Philippine society!

If there is anything then that can result from our celebration of IP Sunday, it should be to correct that anomaly: (1) restoring honor to IPs—they have all the right to be proud of their heritage and not to be despised for it; (2) accepting that we are all IPs, indigenous to our islands (and that’s why IPs as applied solely to our tribal peoples is most inaccurate); and (3) recognizing that, as the PCP II Final Document acknowledges, all Philippine peoples have a common, generic culture in which family is the prime value. What that document is in effect saying is that we are all tribal peoples and denying—or at least not accepting—that fact, it seems to me, is precisely one of our greatest problems as a people.