According to Amnesty International, there are 370 million indigenous peoples in the world that are clustered to 5000 various groups. Seventy percent are in Asia. In the Philippines, indigenous peoples make up an estimated 17 million of the country’s population. The United Nations reports that majority of these peoples are situated in Northern Luzon and in Mindanao and some spread out in Visayas.

Although a concrete and universal definition of “indigenous” is uncertain, there is an understanding that indigenous people differ from the dominant groups in society in that they possess “a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories”1)Cobo, J. M. (1983). Study of the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations. Final report submitted by the Special Rapporteur, Mr. José Martínez Cobo, UN-Document E/CN. 4 Sub. . They have a distinctive social, economic, and political system and carry with them a firmness to preserve their culture and conserve their ancestral environments2)United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. (n.d.). Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Voices Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/5session_factsheet1 .

However, indigenous peoples are often displaced from their lands, are relegated as second-class members of society, and are alienated from the proliferation of capitalism. These unpleasant realities continue to exist.

It is in this context that I sought answers from an Igorot friend of mine. The next part is heavily derived from information I collected through interviews.

An Igorot in Manila

I came to know Libuu (not her real name) in one of my classes in graduate school. She hails from the western part of Sagada, Moutain Province in Northern Luzon and is a member of the indigenous group of Igorot Kankana-ey, particularly its Applai tribe. Sagada is 275 kilometers north of Manila, enjoys a highland rainforest climate, and has a mountainous terrain. People in Sagada survive by irrigating rice which is cultivated in its world-famous terraces. Fruits, vegetables, and root crops are also farmed and livestock such as cows, dogs, pigs, and chickens is raised and is sometimes used in sacrificial ceremonies. According to Libuu, Igorots are sincere and hardworking people who have massive esteem for their culture and traditions that they have unfailingly preserved for centuries despite the attempts to colonize their group even during the 300-year Spanish regime in the Philippines (Libuu, personal communication, September 20, 2015). In the recent decades, Igorots have welcomed migration of people from other places and, in turn, have amalgamated their own culture to that of the newcomers’ as long as their roots and history are respected.

Sagada is located in Mountain Province, which is home to several rice terraces in its different towns. Sagada is also known for its burial caves. The picture on the right shows a part of Lumiang Burial Cave where coffins of the deceased are stacked at the opening of the cave. This century-old tradition is still practiced until now by the Igorots in Sagada.

Sagada is located in Mountain Province, which is home to several rice terraces in its different towns. Sagada is also known for its burial caves. The picture on the right shows a part of Lumiang Burial Cave where coffins of the deceased are stacked at the opening of the cave. This century-old tradition is still practiced until now by the Igorots in Sagada.

The very first thing I asked her was her experience of discrimination in the city. I was almost certain she was to vent out her frustrations about the narrowness of lowland minds. Surprisingly, she did not. She said she was quite comfortable living in the city. More than being a member of an indigenous group, she was more concerned about meeting deadlines, avoiding cramming, and getting satisfactory marks in school. Perhaps, it helped that she belongs to a university where diversity among its students is embraced. College did not hinder her to express herself genuinely and she was not pressured to adhere to urban trends which, consequently, allowed her to enjoy life away from the mountains. Her college education greatly helped her in accepting and appreciating her culture more, her being a member of an indigenous group more. Before her life in the university, she took Igorot culture for granted. She was not the kid who immersed herself with cultural activities. It is said that one needs to get away to learn the importance of unvalued things and places. For her, this was definitely the case. If her classmates and professors did not take an interest in her roots, she would have not realized the substance of her Igorot heritage.

Libuu is studying at the University of the Philippines, the premiere educational institution in the country. She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Community Development and is currently finishing her Master’s Degree in Women’s Development. She ultimately hopes to come back to her hometown and apply there the wisdom she learned from the university.

Libuu is studying at the University of the Philippines, the premiere educational institution in the country. She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Community Development and is currently finishing her Master’s Degree in Women’s Development. She ultimately hopes to come back to her hometown and apply there the wisdom she learned from the university.

When asked about her overall impression of living in Manila, she stated that although she had well-adjusted here, she still prefers to live back home. She does not know how to deal with the overcrowded spaces, higher living expenses, and the occasionally boisterous people. One thing she remarked that startled me was her assessment of the people she encountered in the city. She felt that people are more liberated, not that judgmental, and more accommodating to differences (Libuu, personal communication, September 20, 2015). The people in her hometown are kind, honest, hospitable, and industrious but she does not particularly get excited about the frequent gossiping which she, in the end, shrugged off as commonplace in small municipalities like Sagada.

Life in the mountains is simple. There, she has more physical space to move around that congested Manila cannot offer and a much cleaner place that is without the pollution that the city has imposed on her. But with the increase of businesses and establishments, she is afraid that the indigenous way of life might completely change.

Unlike Manila, Sagada, although geographically small, is not densely populated. The town is tranquil, has a quaint atmosphere and boasts of a clean and green mountain community.

Unlike Manila, Sagada, although geographically small, is not densely populated. The town is tranquil, has a quaint atmosphere and boasts of a clean and green mountain community.

The Future of Indigenous Peoples

When I met Libuu, I always assumed that indigenous people more often than not struggle to cope with the urban life. As I interviewed her, I realized I—and perhaps, most of us—underestimate the capacity of these people to survive life outside of their culture. I was still consumed by the prejudices embedded in me. I was ascribing to the deterministic notions that society has about indigenous peoples. At the end of the day, we are all Filipinos and should embrace one another.

However, although Libuu did not have an oppressive experience away from her hometown, it does not mean that other members of indigenous tribes can seamlessly transition their lives in the city. In reality, indigenous peoples continue to struggle breaking prejudices and stereotypes that are assigned to those of different cultures and geographical spaces. Libuu hopes for more interaction among all of us. If people will have more information and will keep an open mind, camaraderie will be fostered.

Acceptance may be the first step in solving the many problems that indigenous peoples incessantly confront. Libuu stresses the need for education to accept the struggles of indigenous people. In her words, addressing ignorance would treat the problem (Libuu, personal communication, September 20, 2015).

 

By Lea Salen Peralta, ASEAN Correspondent from Philippines

 

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References   [ + ]

1. Cobo, J. M. (1983). Study of the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations. Final report submitted by the Special Rapporteur, Mr. José Martínez Cobo, UN-Document E/CN. 4 Sub.
2. United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. (n.d.). Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Voices Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/5session_factsheet1