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Tribal elders seek ways to revive traditions

Can Philippine tribal traditions dodge extinction?

Conchita Tandica, a tribal healer from Maco town in Mindanao Conchita Tandica, a tribal healer from Maco town in Mindanao
  • Maurice Malanes, Compostela Valley
  • Philippines
  • November 15, 2012
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Conchita Tandica, 75, claims to heal the sick, even those that have been turned away by doctors, a common scenario in the Philippines where people are too often judged incurable or simply have no money to pay for treatment.

She is a balyan, a tribal priestess who says she is guided by her dreams in her search for herbs in the mountains to make tribal medicines.

But Oscar Saragan, a Matigsalog tribe leader from Tagum on the southern island of Mindanao, says this traditional way of life in remote areas of the Philippines is slowly disappearing.

“Unfortunately, logging, mining, plantations and religion threatened and continue to threaten our sacred sites,” he says.

Aside from what he calls the “mad rush” for gold and other minerals, the entry of fundamentalism has also proven problematic for many indigenous communities.

“Fundamentalist Christians regard our local ways of worship and our balyan ways of healing as ‘works of the devil,’” he says, adding that missionaries typically persuade tribal people to destroy their traditional tools, jars, drums and other belongings.

Ponciano Tandica, another tribal elder from Maco town, points out that early Catholic missionaries in Mindanao also discredited traditional tribal rites.

But Justino Cabanzares, a community leader, says the Second Plenary Council or PCP II of the Philippine Catholic Church in 1991, emphasized enculturation which changed the clergy's relationship with tribal people.

Cabanzares says PCP II was significant because bishops and priests "recognized the role of Filipino and indigenous values in helping enrich Catholicism in the country."

Catholic bishops and priests even helped unite and settle conflicts between and among Mindanao’s lumad or indigenous peoples, he adds.

Father Rex Reyes, secretary general of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, admits that Christianity has not always had a positive influence on tribal people in the Philippines.

“They may have a point,” he says.

Nonetheless, tribal people maintain that the key to continuing their own culture is themselves.

"We should re-popularize our own languages which holds the key to understanding the nuances and meaning of our own culture,” says Rocky Valderama, an Igongot tribal leader from Aurora province.

The Ingongot community has just established a community-based informal school where children learn traditional dance, chants, music, crafts and stories from their elders.

But preserving these myriad cultures is not just an exercise in the ancient, particularly when it comes to conversing, says Roldan Babelon, a tribal chief from Carmen town in North Cotabato.

He suggests using tribal language “even in our text messages and in our emails so that we will not lose our culture.”

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