Paradoxes in the Natural Wealth of Lake Sebu


This is part of a broader study on “Climate Change Experience, Expressions, and Responses in a Tboli Community.” It is based on the understanding that indigenous peoples worldwide have been experiencing the impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather changes, longer droughts, and increasing rainfall, which cause floods and landslides. More especially to indigenous peoples, climate change is not something that comes in isolation. Climate change magnifies already existing problems of “poverty, de-territoriality, marginalization and non-inclusion in national, and international policy-making processes and discourses.”[1]

The study examines how the Tboli of South Cotabato,  perceive and respond to the impacts of climate change, analyzing local sources of knowledge such as oral narratives. But more than a mere description of this experience, the study also explores how oral narratives of the Tboli are expressions of their experience of the impacts of climate change, and how, in turn, these narratives are forming and informing their responses to climate change. By investigating how oral narratives contribute to how meaning is generated and attached to experiences, and consequently to risk information and perception, the study sought to contribute to a better understanding on how to inform, update, and apprise indigenous peoples on the realities of climate change.

The narratives I have presented here were analyzed through a poststructuralist lens. Poststructuralism is a reaction to structuralism, and works against seeing language as a stable, closed system.  It is a shift from seeing the written literature and oral narratives as closed entities equipped with definite meanings, to seeing these narratives as “irreducibly plural, an endless play of signifiers which can never be finally nailed down to a single center, essence, or meaning.”  In the poststructuralist approach to textual analysis, the reader replaces the author as the primary subject of inquiry. Without a central fixation on the author, the investigator is free to examine other sources for meaning (e.g., readers, cultural norms, other literature, etc).

I owe a lot to the storytellers and translator that I met in Lake Sebu. Some of the storytellers here are the following: Dodong Ulaw, Nayo Lungan, Nida Anggol, Jenita Eko, Ma Ungkal, and Eko Sulan.

I invite you now to join me on a journey to Lake Sebu, where spirits roam the forests and visit the Tboli in their sleep to bless them with their gifts of weaving, healing, and the magic of storytelling.


Mâ Dodong Ulaw sat in a rattan stool adjusting his ulew, the plaid-styled headpiece worn by men. Jenita Eko explained to Mâ Dodong that I would be recording him while he chants, and told him not to mind the camera that I brought. He consented to the use of camera and a voice recorder, even quipping that he could be famous someday because of the video recording. Eunice, or Nice as I call her, the sister of Jenita, was also there. He was nervous, Mâ Dodong said. Everyone encouraged him, and after a few more coaxes, sung the opening vocables and the introduction to the story of Tudbulul, the cultural hero of the Tboli.

Eee yo ki e de kun

The thundering sun was still hidden,

its dawn light skimmed the surface of the stone crystal.

Duyung was threatening to eat it

trying to bite the sun’s shadow,

trying to swallow the sun’s shadow.

Duyung failed to reach the top of the mountain

when it tried to swallow the sun’s shadow.

It failed to raise its hand to reach the sun.

Woo … 

The thundering sun turned,

sounding like the cock of a gun,

like the pealing of the meginding,

like the clinking of the senkaling,

the shaking of the klung,

the sound of the swift chorus of the veering and weaving

of eight swarms of bees.           

            It was early in the morning and the sun was barely out of the peaks of Klubi. Had I known then what Mâ Dodong’s tutul was about, the day’s sunrise would have projected a new meaning – a celestial adventure, a symphony of sound that only a master chanter can describe. Yet it is also a glimpse of how Mâ Dodong Ulaw sees (and hears) the world through the lyrics and themes of ancient songs. The mountains and waters of the traditional domain of the Tboli resonate and shine in the songs of chanters like Mâ Dodong Ulaw.

To describe Lake Sebu is to describe a revelation. It is easier to describe in the language of poetry than in prose. Chanters and artists like Mâ Dodong reveal this beauty in their songs and crafts.

Going up from the hot and dusty roads of Koronadal and Surallah in South Cotabato, the municipality of Lake Sebu is first revealed as a stretch of cool, shaded road, a balm from the humidity of the lowlands. One opens the window of the public van to experience this revelation, to breathe in the fresh air from the rice fields and a waft from forested patches. Suddenly, Lake Lahit appears from one of the bends, placid and quaint, surrounded by low hills dotted with huts and small tracts of corn. Water hyacinths bloom in their dark pink hues. A gentle breeze disturbs the quiet of the lake. The Surallah-Lake Sebu public van picks up speed as it prepares to ascend another bend. On the left side of the road, a grove of giant bamboos shelters a gathering of men and women, some in their traditional attire, some in denim and shirt, discussing animatedly among themselves. The van turns another bend, and finally, you see the grand reveal, the great lake of S’bu itself.

Compared to Lake Lahit, Lake Sebu is less unassuming. The much wider Lake Sebu is checkered by fish pens. All around it are plebeian resorts and small stores selling anything from live tilapia to antique gongs. A solitary man can be seen quietly plying the lake with his owong, squatting stoically on the far end of the slim dugout canoe, paddling perhaps to his tilapia fish pen. When the moment of revelation is particularly auspicious, the mountain fog descends to the lakeside poblacion and covers the town in thick mists of cloud-stuff, and the old people would say the tulus have descended, for the spirits walk freely in the fog. In this place, it can be said, even the sun rumbles like thunder.

In this out-of-the-way frontier, the modern meets the ancient, tradition wrestles with the novel, and the esoteric grapples with the empirical. In the middle of this tension is Lake Sebu’s unique environment, its geography and resources, its climate, flora and fauna. In this part I will discuss the state of the physical and biological environment in the municipality of Lake Sebu as it shapes the lives and stories of the Tboli in Barangay Klubi.


Issues in the Governance of Natural Resources in Lake Sebu

Land is central to the struggle of indigenous peoples worldwide. Now, this struggle is compounded by risks from climate change. Since many of the territories of indigenous peoples are fragile, and many indigenous communities are highly dependent on natural resources and the integrity of the ecosystems they inhabit, land use policies of the State greatly affect individuals and communities.[2] In Lake Sebu town, where 63.14 percent[3] of the population are indigenous Tboli,  Ubo, and Manobo, majority of whom depend on the forests for their economic activities, encroaching land policies in the guise of development further disadvantage them.

Governance and management of these natural resources, rooted in the colonial history of the country and tied to post-colonial policies, is a major issue in indigenous territories in the Philippines.[4] In pre-colonial “Philippines,” land and resources are considered common resources.[5] Their use and conservation, therefore, are the responsibility of the whole community. Traditional land ownership, for example, is through clearing or t’miba, and planting. If a person clears a forest and plants on it, that person has rights on that plot for the duration of the land’s optimum fertility, which usually lasts 3-4 years upon clearing.

The story of mass migration to Mindanao of peoples from the islands of Luzon and the Visayas finds roots in the story of Western colonialism in the country. In my attempt to discuss issues in governance of resources in Lake Sebu, it is necessary to also tell the story of State-sponsored migration to Mindanao island, altering forever the natural and social landscape of this land.

Lake Sebu itself has been largely unperturbed by the colonial rulers of the Philippines, the Spaniards and the Americans. Although the entire island of Mindanao has been included in the Philippine Commission Act No. 2259 of 1913, or the Cadastral Act, which “institutionalized systematic land surveys and  facilitated the inventory of titled lands vis à vis the lands that can be alienated for government purposes,”[6] Lake Sebu remained impenetrable. On the same year of the Cadastral Act, the Philippine Commission Act Nos. 2254 and 2280, also known as the Agricultural Colonies Acts, invited Christian settlers to Pikit (the first to be carved out of the Cotabato town of the late Spanish period), Glan (known today as Sarangani), and Pagalungan (at that time a part of the old Muslim district of Midsayap, which is in turn part of the general region of Dulawan and Pikit). The arrival and success of Cebuano migrants in Glan, at the southernmost Buayan-oriented areas, presaged the arrival of Ilocano migrants into the neighboring Kiamba in 1918, and into Malungon in the 1930s and onwards. Kiamba was populated by the Tboli who lived in proximity with Maguindanao coastal communities that were also spread out along Malungon’s seaward areas, among the scattered homelands of the Blaan people.[7]

These American Colonial Acts would commence the series of State policies that would ultimately culminate in the Land Resettlement Acts of Manuel Quezon, a massive program to resettle the restive and landless farmers of Central Luzon to Mindanao. The Commonwealth Act No. 441, or the Act Creating the National Land Settlement Administration (NLSA), was passed in June 3, 1939.[8] General Paulino Santos was named head of the incipient National Land Settlement Administration (NLSA). The new body was organized based on recommendations of a three-man committee tasked to study the Quezon presidency priority of land resettlement in Mindanao for Luzon and Visayas. The NLSA was to supersede the work of the Inter-island Migration Division of the Bureau of Labor, which, from 1918 to 1939, resettled 30,000 to 35,000 individuals from Luzon and the Visayas, into Mindanao. General Paulino Santos led the first group of 200 migrants from Luzon and the Visayas to the Lagao area of Allah Valley to form six settler communities in what were, in previous centuries, the contiguous homelands of the Muslim Maguindanao, and the animist Blaan, Teduray, and Bagobo peoples.

Today, much of the control of natural resources and environmental wealth in Lake Sebu lies with the national and local government, with IP communities having little actual control. The Philippine Constitution provides that the State has full control and supervision of natural resources, that it can explore, develop, and utilize all lands of the public domain, waters, minerals, coal, petroleum and other mineral oils, all forces of potential energy, fisheries, forests or timber, wildlife, flora and fauna, and other natural resources except agricultural land.[9] This State-imposed form of resource governance to a people who have, for centuries, been governing their lands, may only be described in the Marxist terms of “capitalist exploitation and internal colonialism,”[10] where the Tboli have been forced to comply with foreign laws concerning their ancestral land. Settler capitalism changed the landscape of resource governance in Lake Sebu.

With the settlers from Luzon and Visayas came also the logging and mining operations. Armed with logging and mining permits issued by the national government, local and foreign corporations cleared hectares of forests for timber and minerals. The height of the logging exploitation happened during the years of the Marcos administration. In 1979, logging concessions in Mindanao has been said to cover five million hectares, nearly half the land area of the island, and were mainly in the territories of the IPs and the Moros.[11] Timber exports to Japan and the USA[12] were to a large extent sourced from Mindanao. The mountains of South Cotabato were not spared from this Marcos logging spree. Timber License Agreements were granted to Marcos cronies, retired generals, and veterans, to secure their continued loyalty to the Marcos administration.[13] During the Martial Law years, the rate of forest destruction in the Philippines was about 300,000 hectares annually.[14]  In the ancestral territories of the Tboli people alone, the forests and mountains in T’boli town and Barangay Ned in Lake Sebu were the first to fall. Now, these places host monocrop plantations by multinational companies like Sumifru, Dole, San Miguel, and Consuji that continue at present to be contentious undertakings of the national and local governments.

Another issue that complicates the governance of resources in Lake Sebu is the presence of multiple legal systems that puts a tension between national, local, barangay laws, and customary laws that govern resources. The Tboli communities in Lake Sebu have a long history of customary laws and traditional governance mechanisms (adat), as well as a western (common law) legal system established during the colonial period in the Philippines and imposed upon the Tboli during the internal colonization of migrant settlers to Mindanao. A large part of the municipality of Lake Sebu is now covered by a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) no. R12-LAK-0110-155,[15] supposedly granting the Tboli a level of autonomy to govern their own ancestral domain. The recognition from the State of their “indigenous-ness” gives them authority emanating from the State. But to what extent does it empower Tboli communities to govern the natural resources within their ancestral domain?

The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (Republic Act no. 8371 or IPRA) is the national legislation that recognizes and promotes Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Section 57 of chapter 8 of the IPRA states that: “The ICCs/IPs shall have priority rights in the harvesting, extraction, development or exploitation of any natural resources within the ancestral domain. A non-member of ICCs/IPs concerned may be allowed to take part in the development and utilization of the natural resources for a period of not exceeding twenty-five (25) years: provided, that a formal and written agreement is entered into with the ICCs/IPs concerned or that the community, pursuant to its own decision making process, has agreed to allow such operation: provided, finally, that the NCIP may exercise visitorial powers and take appropriate action to safeguard the rights of ICCs/IPs under the same contract”. This provision has been seen as a reinforcement of the Constitution’s Regalian Doctrine, the constitutional mandate that “all lands of the public domain belong to the State.”[16] But instead of protecting the rights of the IPs to their ancestral domains, Section 57 actually strengthens the argument that all natural resources found in ancestral domains belong to the State. In this sense, the IPRA does not give true autonomy and power to indigenous peoples to govern resources within their ancestral domains. The State, through legal instruments such as the Mining Act of 1995 and the Revised Forestry Code, and institutions, such as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), govern like the metaphoric Leviathan over lives and resources, perhaps even like the monster Duyung in the story of Mâ Dodong devouring the sun in its sky-journey.


The Resource Curse of S’bu or the Lake of Paradoxes

The natural resources of Lake Sebu are a source of great bounty, as well as a profound cause for many of the challenges facing the Tboli today. To better understand this picture of great wealth in the lake environ of Lake Sebu let me share a story told to me by Yê Nida Anggol[17] where she reminisces the past bounty in the lake before the arrival of settlers and their new economic regime in the town of Lake Sebu.

I was first introduced to Yê Nida Anggol back in 2013 when I was documenting the processes involved in the weaving of tnalak. She had a kind face, and a gentle and generous smile. She spoke to me in a Tboli that has its own cadence and rhythm, every word perfectly enunciated. She was a chanter and tnalak weaver, an artist through and through. I met Yê Nida again in Klubi on February 8, 2017. She was in her traditional fandi, a plaid skirt, and Tboli beads of red and black around her neck. She wore her usual and warm smile.

I told Yê Nida that I was curious about how the lake was like during her childhood years. Jenita translated this question, and so she was looking at Jenita when she answered this. She was talking in rapid Tboli, and I noticed a certain nostalgia in the way she smiled at the recollection of years gone by. She described the lake as andô gonon gësëng matahem, which roughly translates to “an unobstructed vista”, the eyes can only see lake, mountains, and the sky. She said there were no concrete buildings around the lake before, and no water lilies that now choke the waterways. There was only the plant lagat, an aquatic plant that blossoms upward from the depths of the lake. There was an abundance of snails and shells which she described as smooth, shiny and semi-transparent, unlike the shells they get from the lake now. The lake itself was crystal-clear, that one can see right through the waters to its bottom. She lamented that with the introduction of tilapia, the pangasius, and the “Korean fish,” the lake, its fishes, snails, and shells, have never been the same as before. She observed that the introduced fishes have already killed-off the bonol and the hait, their staple when she was younger. She recalled that when she was a young girl living on the lakeside, they could just ride one of the owong boats and catch some fish for their meals, or walk along the shallower parts to pick some shells which they would cook.

Yê Nida said that there were no boundaries in the lake before, everyone can just come in and fish, or collect shells. No one owns the lake, the land, or the forests, she added. Here she explained that the family of our friend, Jelly Escarlote, was the very first migrant settlers to Lake Sebu. They were considered as Tboli, and not as outsiders. Yê Nida said that everything started out with friendship, and the first families who migrated were very good friends with the Tboli who were living near the lake. But she added that it became complicated when those families started bringing in their other families from Luzon and the Visayas, especially from the Ilocos and Negros provinces.

The “resource curse” paradox is already perceptible in the nostalgic narration of Yê Nida, recalling the lake of her youth, its great bounty and its eventual deterioration. It is a picture of what was, and of what was lost in the march of time. It was the same bounty of the lake, which attracted the settlers to venture into the mountains, a long hike (there was no concrete road before) from the established migrant settlements of Marbel (now Koronadal City) and Surallah.

The paradox of environmental wealth attracting insecurity to the indigenous inhabitants of a locale is also featured in the different versions of the creation stories of the lake. One version was told by Nayo Lungan[18], one of the elders in the community of Klubi, during an FGD in the gonô bong of Klubi. The story begins with a drought in mythic time:

There was no water, no lake then. The people before would only get their water from three sources: amo teweng (early morning dew, as large as a bamboo container), lumet (a tree which stores water), and the mto sekel (rattan).

The first person was Boi Henwu. She lived in Tebewow (which is now the so-called “three fingers” in Lake Sebu.) She was living with two companions, Ukan and K’ban. The Tboli were said to come from K’ban, that’s why they are sometimes troublesome. Both Ukan and K’ban are bong busaw (lit. big witches). Ukan follows the evil Sidek We, and he also helps in the delivery of children, but only the male babies. Ukan even kills the mother after delivery of the child.

Boi Henwu likes to take a bath, but only in the upper part of the gono (house), since her feet never touches the ground. She had a house-help, and this helper would fetch the water that she uses for her bath. One day, he was not able to catch the early morning dew, and Boi Henwu was so enraged she beat the house-help from toe to head.

Boi Henwu said, “Why is there no water?” And he answered, “Even the rattan has no water.”

When the house-help fell asleep, he dreamed of a spirit giving him instructions saying, “I pity you. This is what you should do. Look for the white frog in the middle of S’bu, it is hidden by a takul leaf. Raise the leaf and you will find the frog.”

The house-help always had with him several containers, even if there was really no water then. He went to the place as instructed by the spirit, and found the takul leaf. He lifted it and found a white frog. He raised the frog, and water emerged from the ground. After filling his containers with water, he placed the frog to where it was before. The water stopped flowing.

For many days, it was his secret. He would go to the frog, lift it, and fill his containers. His house companions became suspicious and interrogated him why he always had water in his containers. They were also wondering why he looked washed and cleaner than before.

He eventually told Boi Henwu about the source of the water after eight days.

When Boi Henwu found the water, she took a bath that lasted from early morning to late afternoon. When she was done, she forgot to place the frog back on its place.

Other people eventually found out about the source of the water. Without the frog in its proper place, the water flowed and flowed, flooding the village of S’bu, until it became the lake that it is now.


Going around Lake Sebu and asking people stories about the lake, I discovered many versions and ways of telling the story of the lake. During my first visit in 2013, I couldn’t help but ask around for some of these stories. Over lunch and overlooking the lake in one of the local restaurants in the poblacion, I asked my host Jenita Eko to tell me the story of S’bu. She narrated the version that was told to her by Boi Diwa Ofong, her grandmother. I remember there was a light rain that time, disturbing the surface of the lake. Jenita shared that before the lake, a long spell of drought ravaged a village that was once located in the same spot as the lake. The only available water was found in the droplets of water left on the leaves after the morning mist. The people collected these droplets in bamboo containers but it was still not enough. One day, a mystery baffled everyone. One of the village women was always seen by the other women as freshly bathed and with wet hair, as if she took a bath in a spring. One day, the villagers decided to follow her to her secret bathing place. To their disbelief, a small spring was indeed bubbling from a small crack in the earth. Angry that the woman tricked them and kept the source of water to herself,  the villagers mobbed the woman. A white frog was startled by the mob, and started to jump from one place to another. From where it jumped, water came gushing forth until the whole place was flooded. Everyone perished from this flood, and a lake was formed. It was said that the lake was named S’bu after the woman who discovered the spring.

In one of the afternoons of September 2014, accompanied by other researchers from Ateneo de Davao University,[19] Datu Benito Blonto, that time the Municipal Tribal Chieftain of Lake Sebu, shared his version of the Boi Henwu story which was quite similar to Jenita. His version, however, had more details on Boi Henwu’s ascension. In this story, a drought also ravaged the land. After the ordeal with the village people, Boi Henwu was saved by Lemugut Mangay by commanding a huge, black python to serve as a ladder for Boi Henwu. This was Datu Benito’s version of the ascension. He even pointed to the exact spot in the main island of Lake Sebu (the one locals call the “Crocodile Island”) where Boi Henwu was said to have ascended to heaven. Datu Benito also relayed that Kludan, Boi Henwu’s house-help, was so heartbroken about Boi Henwu’s leaving that he dove in the newly-created lake and ruled the kingdom under the lake. The dead villagers were his first subjects. In effect, Kludan became the lord of the Tboli underworld.

Though there are as many versions of the creation of the lake as there are storytellers, a central theme permeates the many versions: that something beautiful can blossom from a tragedy, like a revelation, like the lake of Sebu and its environ.

One thing that struck me in the narratives is the reaction of the people towards S’bu-Boi Henwu, and the house-help who hid the source of water. They perceived it only as a selfish act, deceitful and cunning. As the narrative’s crisis moment, it points to a social value that resources are collective, and  must be shared. According to these versions, S’bu-Boi Henwu should have shared the source of the water. It is a human reaction that the villagers became indignant and furious at how the spring was kept hidden to them. The secrecy was unjust and selfish. In many societies, especially in times of crises, the self should be secondary to the community. One must consider that a Tboli village is not just a community of strangers, but of closely-knit kins. To the villagers, what the woman did was betray her family. The irony here, though, is that their own anger caused their very own destruction. I wonder if  the villagers showed an ounce of restraint and waited for the woman to tell them about the spring, could the destruction of the village have been averted? Was the woman or the frog preparing the villagers for the final ablution?

The life-death attribute of water, so vividly positioned in the opposite ends of the story shows the value given by the Tboli to water—the longing for water at the beginning, and the terrifying flood that took S’bu-Boi Henwu’s and the villagers’ life at the end of the story marks these extremes. At once beneficent and destructive, water is construed as life giver and also life-taker. Kludan diving to the navel of the water to become the god of the underworld, suggests this connection of water to death. Nowhere has this binary opposition of “blessing versus curse,” “life versus death” been featured so strongly than in the narratives about the k’mohung, or fish-kills in the lake, a regular event in the lake of Sebu.

One day during my fieldwork in 2014, as I was buying tilapia fish in one of the stores in the Poblacion, I asked the man selling if there had been any fish-kills recently, trying to stoke a conversation with him. He answered, pointing to one of the inlets in the lake that a relatively small k’mohung happened there just recently. He then shared a story that the fish-kill is a curse. He said that a Tboli man cursed the Ilonggo fishermen, saying that the Tboli are the guardians of the lake, and that their fishes will die, unless they give the fish to the Tboli. Indeed, according to him, whenever there is a fish-kill, the fish pen owners will give the dead fish to the Tboli, or sell them at a much lower price.

Another narrative views the fish-kill as a gift from Fu S’bu, the owner or spirit of the lake. Datu Benito described a time before the Ilonggo settlers put up their fish pens and when the lake was still covered with water lilies and lotus plants. He shared that whenever there is a k’mohung, people would see fish and shrimps floating in the surface. They were not quite dead, they only seemed “as if they were dizzy”. They can easily “pick these fish and shrimps with their bare hands,” he said. Indeed, outside Western and modern science, one will view this as a gift from the lake, almost parallel to the biblical “manna from heaven.” This idea of a gift clearly opposes the notion of a “disaster.” In fact, it only became widely-known as a “disaster” when the Ilonggo settlers came and established their fishery industry in the lake. The disaster-gift dichotomy clearly delineates not only economic valuations of the lake, but also belief or supernatural categorizations of the natural world.

Here, the experience of the k’mohung is expressed in different narratives that show polar notions between the curse-gift discourse based on different circumstances and points of view—differing, but still constituting peoples’ articulations, formulations and representations of the experience. On one hand the experience is akin to sacredness, as a gift from the spirits, while the other as curse to their livelihood. These narrative expressions of a singular ‘reality,’ but of plural experiences, continue on to shape a particular cultural action—that of the seselong. 

            The focus group discussion I conducted in barangay Klubi on March 30, 2013 described the k’mohung and seselong in this manner: after a lëme-et, a Tboli term for a type of weather defined by occasional strong rains and wind coming from the north, and a sudden clearing (my informant likened the lëme-et to an impending typhoon), the Tboli in the uplands would then gather their rootcrops and other produce from their gardens to prepare for a seselong, a system of barter trading between the upland-living Tboli and the lakeside-dwelling Tboli. During the lëme-et, people surrounding the lake would also prepare for the seselong by observing the lake for the telltale signs of the k’mohung. The seselong was an opportunity for the lakeside dwellers to trade their gathered fish in exchange for the rootcrops of the upland Tboli.

This pattern in the activities and interactions of the upland and lakeside Tboli, provided by the seselong, may be viewed as a distribution of resources and exchanges of protein and carbohydrates-rich food between the two groups of Tboli. More profoundly, however, it can be seen as an adaptation to a sometimes hostile environment. The seselong is a concrete social action caused by  a disruption in natural systems. Here, the Tboli ancestors who perished in the mythic flood that created the lake, is telling us something: the community is still paramount, and only through cooperation between communities can crises be overcome. The story of Boi Henwu-S’bu serves as a marker for how the natural and social worlds interact. These narratives are embedded with people’s fears, aspirations, and worldviews, and they expose the people’s vulnerability and resilience in spite of the dangers that lurk within and without their communities.


Of the Sun’s Journey and Monsters on Her Path

Here is perhaps the right place where the story of Mâ Dodong reappears in my narrative, back to that morning in Klubi, listening to the opening of the Tudbulul epic. The impact of environmental degradation, injustice in resource allocation and governance, and encroachment of settler capitalism to the Tboli’s ancestral domains, heighten the vulnerability of the Tboli, and place them in a situation of insecurity. This precarious life of the Tboli find a parallelism in the dangerous sojourn of the sun in the story of Mâ Dodong.

The thundering sun was still hidden,

its dawn light skimmed the surface of the stone crystals.

Duyung was threatening to eat it

trying to bite the sun’s shadow,

trying to swallow the sun’s shadow.

Duyung failed to reach the top of the mountain

when it tried to swallow the sun’s shadow.

It failed to raise its hand to reach the sun.


The thundering sun turned,

sounding like the cock of a gun,

like the peal of the meginding,

like the clinking of the senkaling,

the shaking of the klung,

the sound of the swift chorus of the veering and weaving

of eight swarms of bees.


The sun glided on the iron boulder

while the sea threatened to eat it

but managed only to bite half.


The thundering sun began to set,

like soft bells on a horse’s reins.

Right on time, in the sun’s journey,

it crossed the limestone mountain

sounding like the cock of a gun.

The sun tricked Megisan which was about to eat its lower part

but only the sun’s shadow was swallowed,

only its thick outer coat was swallowed.


The sun trudged on

and skimmed on the limestones.

It descended in G’bang Lunay

toward Mëgëwan.

Be safe in that crossroad!


In Mâ Dodong’s version of the Tudbulul epic-cycle, the opening narrative speaks of an endless danger for the sun as it crosses the mountains, sky and seas. In this mythic landscape, the sun’s journey becomes itself a trope for the Tboli who are voiceless, displaced from their land and from history, marginalized in national narratives and policies. The journey is arduous and full of dangers, full of monsters trying to bite or swallow the sun. Yet the daily pilgrimage has to be done. So does the  lives of the Tboli also have to trudge on as will be shown in the succeeding chapters, even in the face of many uncertainties. It is an image of never-ending toil, but also of an unceasing fortitude to face these dangers.

In Mâ Dodong’s story, movement is a strong theme. The sun thunders—it peals, clinks, buzzes in its journey that is poetically described as an ascent to crystal mountains and descent through limestone peaks. The sun of Mâ Dodong shares the toil and fate of the Tboli people who have, for centuries, been moving from mountain to mountain in search of arable land for their rotational farms, often facing the dangers of the feral forests. These are the forests that the Tboli eventually came to respect and name. Forests that the ancestors first cleared and planted with their crops are still known. Stories are still shared about places or trees in the forests, and villages are still named for the original trees that mark boundaries or special sites. The monsters in stories have been domesticated, unable even to bite the sun in its persistent flight in the sky. Yet another monster, more terrible even than Duyung and Megisan, hides in the story of Mâ Dodong—a gun, an artifact from the settlers, concealed in the opening of the ancient Tudbulul.

How does a gun suddenly appear in an ancient epic? The word used by Mâ Dodong was “munsil.” My translator was also surprised to hear the word in the midst of the specialized Tboli language used in the entirety of his chant. Her exact translation of “dëng keng nasad te munsilwas “pagkasa ng baril” (like the cocking of a gun), describing the turning of the sun in the midday sky, a strange description, but an evocative one. The gun, too, is a trope. Just as it nonchalantly intruded the mythic landscape of the chant, it, too, is a potent symbol of the encroachment of settler capitalism and its values, artifacts, and narratives to Tboli-land. It is the symbol of how mountains were flattened, ancient trees felled, and new laws protecting the colonizers were imposed. The sun turned, “sounding like the cock of a gun.” It is not the soft pealing or clinking of bells, but a weapon about to be fired. At that moment in mythic time, people and resources have become hostages to an unjust and violent regime.

[1] Crate and Nuttal, 12.

[2] Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Eleanor P. Dictaan-Bang-oa, Indigenous Women, Climate Change & Forests (Baguio City, Philippines: Valley Printing Specialist, 2011), introduction: xiv.

[3] Municipality of  Lake Sebu, 23.

[4] Ben S. Malayang III, Merrilyn Wasson and Simon Tay, “Political and Institutional Transformations,” in Critical States: Environmental challenges to development in monsoon Southeast Asia eds. Louis Lebel, Anond Snidvongs, Chen-Tung Arthur Chen, Rajesh Daniel, (Selangor Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2009), 25.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Many Muslims and other Mindanao communities with pre-colonial social systems (i.e., today’s ‘indigenous people’) remained unaware of this dictum.

[7] Marian Pastor Roces, Events pertinent to the violent politics of identity in 20th Century Mindanao: an annotated timeline (unpublished document), 28.

[8] The intent of Commonwealth Act No. 441 was: “(a) To facilitate the acquisition, settlement and cultivation of lands whether acquired from the Government or from private parties; (b) To afford opportunity to own farms to tenant farmers and small farmers from congested areas, and to trainees who have completed the prescribed military training; (c) To encourage migration to sparsely populated regions, and facilitate the amalgamation of the people in different sections of the Philippines; (d) To develop new money crops to take the place of the present export crops which may suffer from the loss of preferences which they enjoy in the American market.” The NLSA was given a capital stock of PHP20-million. It would immediately open up “virgin lands” mostly in Mindanao to agriculture by migrant farmers.

[9] 1987 Philippine Constitution, Article XII, Section 2.

[10] Duhaylungsod and Hyndman, 15.

[11] Shaira Panela, “Greener on the other side: Deforestation in the wake of Martial Law,” published 21 September 2012, accessed in on 30 January 2017.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Logong, Ibid.

[16] 1987 Philippine Constitution, ibid.

[17] Yê Nida Anggol is a member of the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association, Inc. She is a gifted tnalak weaver and chanter. She is in her early 60s.

[18] Nayo Lungan is the Barangay Tribal Chieftain of Klubi. With the absence of birth certificates among the older Tboli in Klubi, I can only estimate that he is in his late 60s.

[19] In 13 September 2014, a consultative meeting was held in Barangay Poblacion, Lake Sebu, for the Tboli Sbù Senior High School project, a joint initiative of the Ateneo de Davao University and the Department of Education. I was part of the group who initiated the project.


Teaching Peace, Developing Tolerance, Instilling Sensitivity

I grew up in an extremely pious Catholic city. Every year, thousands of devotees gather in Naga City to show their love to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, bringing with them a multitude of thanksgivings and prayer-requests to Ina. The festivity during the nine-day novena itself has become a cultural icon, the celebrations referring to the city while the city prides in being the steward of this devotion – Pueblo amante de Maria. But looking in retrospect, with me now immersed for two and a half years in the cultures and struggles of Mindanao, I found myself asking questions on religious tolerance and sensitivity, of challenging my worldview as a Taga-Naga Catholic and to reflect on the level of tolerance given to non-Catholics in and around Naga. How, for instance, are we portraying our pagan past in performances like street dancings during the Peñafrancia festival? How much space is provided for the narratology of non-believers in the public discourses? How are we excluding non-Catholics when we institutionalize such religious events? I believe such questions must be addressed in pedagogy.

Developing a curriculum and reforming methods of instruction with a particular sensitivity to diversity in cultures and religions in the Philippine context is an imperative in promoting peace and in pursuing a society marked with respect and acceptance of the ‘otherness’ of the other.

We are in a point in our educational history when great leaps and bounds are being done not only in the adding of two years in Basic Education but also of reforms being done in curriculum and classroom instruction. This is also an opportune time to integrate subject matters or topics relating to peace, and in amending certain topics that have been deemed passé, obsolete or culturally insensitive. Methods of instruction in the classroom must also be changed to cater to more and more plural ethnicities, backgrounds and religions of the students.

For instance, in teaching Grades 6 and 7, a crucial time for transforming attitudes and biases of students, greater emphasis on multiculturalism can be done. This includes, among other things, the use of literary samples from the different ethnolinguistic groups of the Philippines in teaching Values Education or in other suitable subjects. In English subjects, literature tends to lean in favor of English writers and Western categories of literature when in fact, there is a treasure chest full of literary gems from the Indigenous Communities which may be carefully translated to English without losing its soul, and not packaged in a Western literary category, but as it is. In this way, students may be able to appreciate the diversity of cultures, and also, of worldviews in the Philippines. 

Religious intolerance may be corrected by choosing carefully the topics, examples and methods of instruction. Students must be given the freedom to express their beliefs in projects, or written compositions, without feeling betrayed by the prejudices in the textbooks or the way the teacher delivered the lesson. This point begs an example. The ‘Moro-Moro’, (which in fact was a type of theater in several Luzon areas) for instance, as a type of Philippine theater play may not be omitted on textbooks but instead used as a jump-off point for students’ personal reflection on their attitudes towards Muslims – a movement towards conscientization that can be strengthened in higher year levels. 

It must also be clear, in the development of curriculum, to refrain from generalizing that the wars in Mindanao have been caused by the gaps in the relationship of Muslims and Christians when in fact, several studies have already concluded that the hardening of ethnic and religious identities were the consequences, and not the causes of conflicts in Mindanao. Students must be given input on the political and socio-economic conditions of Mindanao to better understand how conflicts are triggered and identities mustered in wars. This can be iterated in the Social Science subject and emphasized on Values Education.

How do we teach the ‘Mindanao Problem’ to students outside Mindanao who have never been directly impacted by the many challenges in Mindanao? By putting Mindanao right at their doorstep. I, for one, am a product of an educational upbringing where Mindanao seems to be so far off from my own community. By bringing into the fore how this ‘Problem’ directly and indirectly impacts on the students’ own community, a better interest might be attained. By giving emphasis on Mindanao’s indispensable contribution to statehood and nationhood, ranging from contributions on cultural diversity to economy and contributions to the nation’s collective symbols and narratives, Mindanao becomes a bedfellow to the student who lives in a mountain community in Camarines Sur. 

Instilling sensitivity of the other requires that we move out of the tribalistic frame of mind that is often characteristic of many groups here in Mindanao. This pervading tribalistic attitude is marked by insensitivity to non-members of the ‘tribe’ or group and shuts any sense of the pursuit of the common good, and takes personal and tribal affronts to wars and violence against this ‘other’. It fences in the ‘tribe’ away from the nation and away from the global world, taking into consideration the good of the tribe or even in some instances, only the private, individual good. This lack of the sense of the common good, of this ‘my tribe’ attitude needs to addressed as one of the primary causes of conflicts in Mindanao. A Sama Banguingui youth, for example, can identify his or her role in a globalized world, or identify his or her contribution to nation building. This must be addressed not only in education but also in agencies working for the development of Mindanao like the Mindanao Development Authority. Public interests, the summation of interests of those individuals comprising Mindanao is imperative in any development plans, of which education holds a key role. By addressing the dearth of the sense of the common good in education and development plans, we can imagine a movement from the tribal good and on to a good that serves the nation (or even nation/s in the context of Mindanao) and the global world, which ultimately, serves the community.

A change in attitude is required of every citizen, most particularly the young, if ever this is to be achieved. Here the emphasis is on education, the right kind of education, with its core deeply rooted in forming culturally-, peace-, and environment-sensitive citizens not just of the immediate community but also of the nation and the global world who sees him/herself in the web of human relations. This is an education that is not cold-hearted but is committed to the ethics of care, valuing the other not because he or she is a victim of injustice, but because the other is valuable per se.

Sa Lawa ng Buluan, Maguindanao

IMG_5783 IMG_5795 IMG_5797 IMG_5798 IMG_5822 IMG_5752 IMG_5760 IMG_5748 IMG_5845 IMG_5830 IMG_5823 IMG_5762 IMG_5765 IMG_5781 IMG_5768 IMG_5676 IMG_5680 IMG_5710 IMG_5697 IMG_5694 IMG_5691 IMG_5693 IMG_5682 IMG_5711 IMG_5713 IMG_5726 IMG_5730 IMG_5729 IMG_5732 IMG_5746 IMG_5744 IMG_5739 IMG_5740 IMG_5737 IMG_5733

“Lake Buluan is a lake located in the island of Mindanao, Philippines. With an estimated surface area of 61.34 square kilometers, it is the third largest lake in Mindanao, after Lake Lanao and Lake Mainit. It has an average elevation of 4.5 meters.

The lake is sandwiched between the provinces of Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat. The lake falls under the political jurisdiction of the municipalities of Buluan of Maguindanao and President Quirino and Lutayan in Sultan Kudarat. The lake actually consists of adjoining marshy basins of the Pulangi, Maanoy, Buluan, Alah rivers, which are all tributaries of the Mindanao River.” (Lake Buluan. Retrieved 8 June 2013)

Lake Buluan is threatened by mining in Tampakan, South Cotabato.

In T’boli Land, at World’s End

I never completely imagined myself doing some field work in the hinterlands where the nearest restroom is the most un-glamorous bush, or the only use of the cellphone is anything other than communicating, where comfort means a patched-up mosquito net or an extra pillow made from who-knows-what. The city has always been my jungle, and its sights, smells, sounds and textures have been the limits of my comfort and discomfort. My only inkling of what life was there in the wild mountains lay in the impressions of media that glossed over some lost treasure of Zinj a la Crichton’s Congo, stories from fieldworkers too who spoke of their Indiana Jones adventures, or maybe from books  with their colored descriptions of magical rituals that called the rain from its sleep and people wearing dead animals over their shoulders. I was young then (or maybe still young now) and childhood’s egoism backed up my notion that I define the world as I sensed it.

All’s well that ends well. I suppose that maxim holds truth, but in my case my beginning may also be appropriate, at least as I see it now. What better way to begin than with apprehensions and doubts, right? Those queasy moments between the red light and the green. In truth, I found the same spirit of adventure out of the insipid comings and goings in the city and the ‘comforts’ accorded/afforded to its citizens. Yes, the hinterlands await, but a little boy inside me was still caught between the red and the green light, shuddering, wait!

Now that I’m in the second semester of my Anthropology class, more or less having heard and having finally been exposed to a different version of anthropologists’ experiences from the field (worlds away from my initial notion of it), I found a new courage to face the uncomfortable: to maybe learn how to take a leak (or more) in the nearest bush or find the right angle of the rigid pillow, to ignore that whining little boy in my head. I thought, if those geriatric westerners, with their delicate sensibilities in much hostile tribes did it, I can certainly do it also. I imagined them in their winter-ready melanin traversing the Sahara in search of the Tuareg and the Nuer, or imagined Geertz, with his obviously foreign head sticking out of a Balinese crowd, and all of a sudden living for months with a Filipino indigenous group did not sound hard after at all. That became my motivation.

While thinking of a research proposal for my thesis, Bikol was always on my mind – to continue with my interest in the Bikolano people’s way of life, to unravel their hidden connections with other cultures, and to demystify their weltanschauung which I perceived was firmly grounded on deep-seated faith and belief. But working fulltime in Davao and doing my research in Bikol didn’t seem to be the brightest idea in the solar system. So I was caught between personal interest and rationality. I had to find another group of people that  I can certainly relate to, and make the whole process easier for reasons that I am indeed, fully interested in studying them.

The answer came as a surprise, when during my first month in Mindanao, I was introduced to Jenita Eko, a partner of Ateneo de Davao’s Campus Ministry at that time. Jenita Eko is the President of the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association, Inc. (LASIWWAI) herself a T’boli from Brgy. Klubi in Lake Sebu. On several occasions during my first few months here in Davao, I had a chance to talk to her about her organization – until she invited me to visit Lake Sebu on purely recreational purposes and on that first visit, there and then I felt that the T’boli of Lake Sebu could be a good research subject.

I remember the first time I saw the documentary film “Dreamweavers” back in our Sociology class in college. It featured the T’boli tribe of Lake Sebu in Southern Mindanao and how they weave their cloths inspired by spirits in their dreams. I was amazed watching that film, fascinated at how these people give value to their traditions and at how pre-Catholic animism surfaces in all their arts and crafts even if they have been baptized Christians by early Mindanao missionaries. The T’nalak cloth of the T’boli already captivated me when I first saw that film. It was for me a romantic remembering of our past before the cross gave us a new persona. I thought to myself that maybe this people, with their own arts, worldview, rituals and traditions, hold the answer to that elusive mystery of the Filipino identity. And I longed for that answer.

The T’boli it is then.

I have been fortunate in my work to be able to travel to areas in Mindanao. It wasn’t just a dream-come-true for me but a real chance to see these “original” inhabitants. I would consider it then that fate brought me to Mindanao and to Lake Sebu in South Cotabato. At last, I will be in that lake surrounded by clouds and forests, where people tell the stories of creation in songs and in their weavings.

But then my first visit to Lake Sebu almost brought me to tears. Lake Sebu is no longer the mysterious and charmed place I’ve imagined from that “Dreamweavers” documentary. Fish pens of tilapia crowd the lake and surrounding mountains are almost denuded. A number of resorts have also dotted the lakeside. And yet, there’s still a barely perceptible charm, almost like the humming of a mother’s lullaby.  It is certainly there in the sweeping breeze that tickles the lake’s surface. The sun still bathes the lake with a golden warmth each morning. The mist still covers the mountains and for a moment, houses and resorts are obscured, the lake exhales ancient songs. It was certainly not my imagined Lake Sebu but already a place where the modern world and its many wonders and appeals have slowly crept to the homes of the T’boli people. I have come to a Lake Sebu where people have already embraced the modern tides – with its television shows, capitalist attitudes and current flairs.  I have to ask: did they have a choice or were they pushed in a corner with nowhere to run but to modernity and its lifestyle?

My second visit to Lake Sebu, sometime on the last quarter of 2011, was the more formal moment that I had a chance to talk to Jenita Eko on my plans for research. Initially, I wanted to write about the t’nalak enterprise among their association, in line with discourses on women empowerment. I wanted to be more formal, and so I gave her a copy of my proposal. She shared that she was genuinely interested about this partnership as she was also working on a ‘source book’ on t’nalak weaving. She gave me a copy of the source book and asked me if I can help her edit the book, and of course I said yes, it would be my honor to help her. But to cut the long story short, I had to change my intended research topic to one that fits the ‘environmental agenda’ of the department (yes, there are so many ways on how to kill a plan) and I opted to do a study on climate change and the T’boli.

On that visit, Jenita Eko introduced me to some members of the women weavers association. They told me all about the beginnings and the nature/goals of LASIWWAI, and the more I knew about them, the more my interest in partnering with them grew.

A brief background on LASIWWAI: The Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association. Inc. ( LASIWWAI ) is a non-profit community-based organization that envisions T’nalak enterprise to grow, be appreciated and be endorsed in the market through social entreprenuership. They promote t’nalak weaving not only as a source of livelihood for indigenous women but also as an integral part of the T’boli’s rich culture and tradition. The organization, aside from being entrepreneurial, seeks to address the unequal opportunities given to T’boli women by empowering them economically, in planning for their organization and in decision-making. They shared that this was a breakthrough as T’boli society is still patriarchal and ‘feudal’, a term often used in my conversations with Jenita. This may pertain to how T’boli give high regard to the class system of Datu (ruling class), Tau Sool (middles class) and Tau Dok (slaves).

Of course, I still believe that the t’nalak research would have been a perfect study with LASIWWAI but I had to find an alternative that considers the thrusts of AdDU’s Department of Anthropology. And there I was looking piteously at the once-majestic lake of Sebu, and I thought  “why not write about the Waters of Sebu?”, investigate the effects of climate change not only on perceived changes in the weather patterns but also on the cognitive aspect, on how the T’boli re/cognizes, and eventually translate climate change in their behaviour. The lake-dwelling people, mostly living on agricultural means, can share their experiences of climate change, and I can dig deeper, interpret their modes of cognition through myths.

So finally I had a ‘problem’ I can work on. I had another chance to visit Lake Sebu, this time with a group of German visitors from Bavaria. During that visit, I laid out my plan to Jenita. I told her I wanted to do a research on climate change and the T’boli, specifically of Brgy. Klubi in Lake Sebu, and I was mildly surprised to find her genuinely interested in my proposition. She said that I can do the climate change research in her barangay and also get a glimpse on how t’nalak is made by their women weavers – two birds with one stone.

This visit also offered me a chance to talk to their elders in the gono bong (long house, literally big house). It was my first time to be in a circle of elders, barefoot, surrounded by men and women in their traditional attire (most probably because I was with German guests at that time), with the whole gono bong pulsating rhythmically in the beat of the agung. The elders shared that there were only 3 ‘master artists’ living and teaching in the School of Living Tradition and that this school is right below us in the gono bong, hardened clay floor with little educational materials. One of the master artists was a skilled dancer and chanter and he  showed us the kadal tahaw or dance of the bird. The whole house shook with the graceful movements of his feet, mimicking the fast leg and wing gestures of the tahaw bird, with others joining him in the dance. The other elders explained that he was one of the few dancers who teach the traditional dances in the fashion that was passed down to them. They also shared that the only living mewa nga (healer) in their area was already on her deathbed and was not able to pass down her knowledge of herbs and healing to others. I thought that this was sad, frustrating and disappointing to not be able to document her knowledge and to think that all of it, generations of traditional wisdom, will be down the drain. This became a motivation for me – to be able to help, even in my littlest capacity – a dying, or actually, an evolving culture, by documenting as much as possible, this changing way of life.

On April 17, 2012 I was invited to document an international conference on Ikat Weaving.  Ikat is a method of weaving where strands are tied before they are dyed giving them their distinct patterns. One of the most highly regarded ikat fabrics in the southeast Asian region is the t’nalak of the T’bolis – hence the conference was held in Lake Sebu and I was again at its shore longing for imagined worlds and occasionally craving for its delicious tilapia.

In this conference I met Kevin, a graduate of the Ateneo de Davao University and a T’boli of Lake Sebu. He was very patient with my questions about his being a T’boli, their struggles and his dreams not only for himself but also for his people. He also shared with me the same story of this bygone Lake Sebu, when there were no fences yet in the lake and anyone can fish or swim in its water.

Thinking about the stories of old-world beauty and magic, it was very timely when he taught me a traditional song (we were all told to give a short presentation during the cultural night of the conference and Kevin chose this song). He said that it was usually sung during weddings and celebrations, and is about an edenic paradise that may be a fitting reference to Lake Sebu but also an allusion to all paradises lost to the inanity of mankind. The T’bolis call this paradise Lemlunay, and the song goes:

Lemlunay gono setifun ne Lemlunay gono sesotu.

Lemlunay gono kemulo ne Lemlunay gono setambul

e se waten uni sembakung e Lemlunay tey lemobun.

Kevin helped me do a rough translation and we came up with this: Lemlunay is a place where the people are gathered and united and we are all beckoned by the sounds of festivities, the beating of gongs and drums welcome us to this paradise hidden in mists.

This archetypal paradise calls to mind our dreams of a perfect place where differences are set aside and we celebrate our oneness with creation. I asked if this is the T’boli heaven and Kevin answered no, it was a place comparable to the Biblical Eden yet there is no mention of a parting from this Eden, from Lemlunay, because of a sin or transgression. We can only assume that Lemlunay faded to dreams, to the world of mists. I thought that the modern world was surely no place for this Lemlunay.

I would like to believe that Lake Sebu was once Lemlunay and human folly has pushed it to the plane of the mythical, a world that can now only be accessed through songs but is still physically present in the slowly congesting lake of Sebu. In looking for my imagined Lake Sebu brought by that documentary I’ve watched in college, I was also searching for our identity as a people. If I have to be honest, I was looking for my self. Take away all the western, borrowed cultures from my system, what is left of me? Who am I in this sea of foreign cultures? Of modern gadgets and western language? Who are we as a people, tortured and brought to our knees by colonizers? We have become ‘modern,’ parting from our indigenous selves, embracing western, foreign cultures, but who is this indigenous self?

I don’t have the answers right now. Perhaps the journey is still unfolding before me, in my thesis and all the forks in the road that I may walk on. Maybe the answers are in Lemlunay, maybe in Lake Sebu – in their songs, music, in their t’nalak, or their stories.  But I have to constantly remind my self that in this search, I maybe searching for a lost past, a mere fuzzy dreamland of the imagination. What I would like to do is to better understand where we failed in our past in order to build a better future.  The hidden Lemlunay is but a metaphor of what we’ve lost but also of what lies before us.

If only we can part the mists shrouding our vision. Maybe we can find Lemlunay – the sound of gongs and drums welcoming us to our land, to our self, to our identity, to our future even.

In Kutawato, Unveiling the Iranun Tarsila

I had the unexpected good fortune to join a team doing a Focus Group Discussion on “Understanding the Iranun Tarsila as a Tool in Conflict Resolution in Mindanao”. This was organized by the Al Qalam Institute for Islamic Identities and Dialogue in Southeast Asia (Ateneo de Davao University) in Cotabato City last Sunday, 20 January 2013. Unexpected because I never thought that it would be both a provocative meeting and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be around the descendants of the proud Sultanates in Mindanao, who shared their life stories, their ancestors’ struggles and the technicalities of genealogical recording. It was also my first time to visit Cotabato City and there were a lot of prejudices that I brought with me like an invisible extra satchel over my shoulders. But already upon entering the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) I contentedly ticked away my biases and found communities thriving, proud of their heritage and trying to pick themselves up after bloody years of conflict.

For the first timer, one still feels a palpable air of unease and an apprehension on what the new Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro might bring to their communities and their lives, yet there is also a pervading hope that life will be normal, time to go back to their farms and time to fight the age-old battle of taming the unpredictable moods of the Pulangi River. I felt that Cotabato is a city with deep wounds that go as deep as the history of our country and even deeper – going back to pre-Hispanic Mindanao, the Sri Vijayan and Majapahit empires in Indonesia. Its scars can be seen running deep in worried eyes, in forehead furrows, the scurry and hurry of getting home after dark, the military (or otherwise) checkpoints that dot the city, or in a stranger’s friendly advice to the tourist to go home after 3 in the afternoon.

Our group stayed at the Hotel Rio in Magallanes Street, where the FGD also took place. My first shock was that the name of the street was a Spanish conquistador right in the city center of Moroland, in the center of colonial resistance in Mindanao. Or maybe I read it differently. It may perhaps stand as an unwitting trophy in the sense that Magellan was fallen, supposedly, by a Moro-Tausug in the name of Lapu-Lapu/Maas Iliji/Maas Pulun as the Tausugs in Basilan and Sulu would proudly tell you. But more scholarly works are needed to prove this, even if it exists only in oral narratives, intellectual propriety insists that it must not be assumed fictitious. Indeed the street’s name was a fitting welcome to my first Cotabato experience!

The FGD team was composed of Prof. Yusuf Morales (as moderator), Michelle David (documenter), Nikki Ayubo (photographer), myself as documenter and headed by Al Qalam’s director, Datu Mussolini Lidasan. It was attended by Mohammad Lidasan, Amerul Umbra Nasser Lidasan, Bajunaid Saban, Abbas Addulkair and Datu Alamada.

The FGD aimed at probing the links, bloodlines and interconnectedness of the people through the use of the tarsila and further focused on the tarsila as a tool in conflict resolution. The following were the general questions that the FGD tried to answer:

  1. Who are the people knowledgeable in the Iranun Tarsila? What are their characteristics, traits and other qualifications?
  2. Aside from the mentioned uses of tarsila, what are its purposes and significance in the people today?
  3. How does tarsila help in resolving conflict?
  4. What are the indigenous modes of conflict resolution? How are they applied in the community?
  5. How significant is the tarsila in the lives of the Iranun people?

The study focused on the Iranun people whose traditional domain are the coastal towns of Datu Blah Sinsuat, Sultan Mastura, Sultan Kudarat, Parang, Matanog (municipalities under the province of Maguindanao), and the towns of Malabang, Balabagan, Sultan Gumander (municipalities under Lanao del Sur). These coastal-living people are generally called Iragaten. The Idalemen, on the other hand, or the upland people traditionally reside in the present towns of Buldon and Barira (parts of Maguindanao), Pigcawayan, Alamada, Banisilan (parts of Cotabato), and Wao, Bumbaran, and Butig (parts of Lanao del Sur).

The Iranun gained infamy because of their maritime raiding and assaults on villages and coastal dwellers as explicated by James Warren in his book “Iranun and Balangingi: Globalization, Maritime Raiding and the Birth of Ethnicity”. Warren described the Iranun as having “a fearsome reputation in an era of extensive world commerce and economic growth between the West and China” and that the name Lanun “struck fear into the hearts and minds of riverine and coastal populations across Southeast Asia two centuries ago.”

One of the participants asserted that the Iranun were the ancestors of the Maguindanao and other Islamized groups in Mindanao and that their tarsila proves that the royal houses of the Maguindanao is a direct line of the Iranun sultans and chieftains. He claimed that the primogenitors of both the Islamized ethnolinguistic groups and the non-Islamized Manobo, Tiruray, etc. named Mamalu and Tabunaway were in fact Iranun. There are still contentions on the Mamalu and Tabunaway story as there are discrepancies in the oral narratives of different groups. Some claim that Shariff Kabunsuan married Tabunaway, while others claim that Mamalu and Tabunaway were Manobo brothers before Tabunaway was Islamized, and other variants. What is important is the assertion of the pre-Islamic roots of these groups and their interconnected histories. In fact, the tarsila of the Iranun points to the house of Maharaja Tabunaway as the earliest line of the sultans of Maguindanao, while the Dulangan Manobo, in particular, traces their descent to Mamalu.

The tarsila is a genealogical record/narration of the Iranun. Other Islamized groups have their own tarsilas but the FGD focused on the Iranun tarsila. Amerul Nasser Lidasan shared that it has two kinds: the Tisa and the Sitta. The Tisa is the genealogical record of the nine shariffs, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima, who came out of Meccah in Saudi Arabia to spread Islam and its tenets. The Tisa tarsila points all the way up to the Prophet Muhammed and his ascendants all the way to Adam. The Sitta tarsila on the other hand recounts the ancestors and descendants of Shariff Kabunsuan who himself is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammed. The Sitta Tarsila is the basis of all genealogical lines of the Sultanates of Maguindanao and Sulu. An alternative name to the tarsila is silsilah which is Arabic for ‘chain’ or ‘link’.

The Iranun uses the tarsila not only as a simple record of ascendants, descendants and kinship, but also as a tool to identify the line of the sultans and to take records of his bloodline. In Iranun society there is a council of elders called the ‘Pat – a Polaos’ or the ‘Four Pillars’ who uses the tarsila to trace candidates for the Sultan of Maguindanao and enthrone in a special ceremony, the rightful Sultan that they deem fits into the 4 attributes of a Sultan, namely:

  • antawan (wealth)
  • nunawan (lineage)
  • bangsawan (bloodline)
  • rupawan (charisma)
  • and in the case of a tie, ilmawan (intelligence).

Aside from identifying the Sultan’s bloodline, the tarsila is also the story of the Iranun people – of how the Datuship of Manila and Tondo were once connected to their own political and genealogical system. The Sultanates of Brunei, Makassar and Sulawesi can also find common ancestors in the Maguindanao houses most probably from intermarriages resulting from strategic alliances.

The FGD also proved that the tarsila is a tool used by the Iranun in conflict resolution. In cases of rido or clan wars, for example, they resort to the tarsila in finding a common kin who will serve as the mediator for the feuding families. They will then recite the tarsila in a religious ritual that involves the chanting (dhikr/dikil) of Quranic verses.

The following may be a rough guide to how conflicts are resolved:

  • A conflict arises
  • Elders investigate the conflict
  • Identification of the reason for the conflict
  • Families get a mediator, usually an elder datu who is a common kin
  • The Mediator then resolves the conflict.

The tarsila is also used in funerals and weddings to establish lineage. Often in funerals, an elder will recite the tarsila of the deceased to reconnect him/her to the ancient lines of heroes, sultans, and the Prophet Muhammed himself. The participants shared that the tarsila can be considered as a sacred document that contains the names of the deceased and that prayers are said before opening a tarsila, also as respect to the lineage of the Prophet. In weddings, the tarsila of the bride and the groom are recited from the bride all the way to the common ancestors and down to the groom’s ancestors to form a link, symbolic of a singular family that binds the ties of the wedded couple.

More than a genealogical record, the tarsila, as shared by the participants, is also a map of the extent of Islamic influence in the world from Saudi Arabia, to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, proving the linkages of different peoples and the unity of the human race through a religion that teaches surrender to one God, and compassion to mankind, among others.

In the middle of the FGD, we were showed a tarsila and some documents signed by the Pat-a Polaos validating the enthronement of a Sultan. The tarsila was written in a long parchment paper with the different houses signified by different colors. The tarsila included the royal lines of the Kingdoms of Manila, Tondo, and Brunei, and the early Sultanates of the Maharaja Tabunaway, Silungan, Buayan and Maguindanao – all following a direct line from the Prophet Muhammed. I was surprised to find out that succeeding sultans were not necessarily the sons of the previous sultan. They told us that the Pat-a Polaos consults the tarsila and looks for possible candidates in all the branches of the other houses. They then look for the 5 attributes of a sultan from each candidate. This was, they said, to ensure that despotism does not happen and that power is not contained in a single family. Technically they are still one big family with a common ancestor, but the distance from this common ancestor makes each family a single house. There are several technical notes in choosing the sultan and I deem that it must be elucidated on a separate paper to give it its due detail.

It is both sad and disappointing, as the participants shared, that the tarsilas of the Iranuns are now a rarity because of the past “revolutions” in Mindanao. The elders were either killed or too pre-occupied with surviving the Moro wars that the tarsila were either forgotten, lost, or failed to be transmitted to the next generation. The original tarsilas were committed to writing in barks of wood or animal skin and later on to scrolls of paper that were easily damaged. The participants also shared that the tarsila keepers of ancient time were given certain privileges, one of them is residence in the torogan or the Sultan’s house, implying the importance of the records keeper. They jealously kept the tarsila in secrecy, fearing forgery from people who desired to claim the sultanate or to con their way to the royal houses.

At the end of the FGD, someone told me that the Luzon and Visayan people lost something when they gained their Spanish surnames. While listening to those people who could recount their ancestors up to Adam himself, I felt like something was indeed missing, and that the oldest ancestor I could name was only my great-great grandmother on my mother’s side.

How wonderful it would be if we could only pick up the pieces of our lost histories, draw the lines of my mother and my father, connected to your great grandfather, discover a common ancestor, and see them grow in a giant World Tree rooted in a consciousness of brotherly and sisterly love for one and all.

Our trip to the ancient city of Kutawato, bastion of pirates, slave raiders, missionaries and warriors, was an invitation to a deeper understanding of Muslims in Mindanao, the pervading conflict in the area and a reflexive journey towards a people’s identity and my own.

Unveiling the tarsila, we discover that we are all cousins dancing under the watchful eye of God.

[This article is not the official document of the Focus Group Discussion conducted by the Al Qalam Institute. Result of the FGD will be made public after completion of the research.]