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.

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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. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.]

Ye Kumu [T’boli T’nalak ]

Ye Kumu 6 Ye Kumu 23

This Ye Kumu, or ceremonial T’nalak cloth often used for weddings, was painstakingly crafted by weavers of the Lake Sebu Women Weavers Association, Inc. (LASIWWAI) in Brgy. Ned, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. [With permissions from Ms Jenita Eko, President of LASIWWAI].

To purchase t’nalak from LASIWWAI, please email me at radabueza@gmail.com for details.