Unequal Christians of Asian Churches

Indigenous people feel abandoned by Philippine Church

The Igorot people's exclusion from parish councils is reflective of their social isolation in wider society,they say
Youth from the Igorot tribe of the Philippines dressed in traditional attire perform a folk dance during Holy Mass at a village

Youth from the Igorot tribe of the Philippines dressed in traditional attire perform a folk dance during Holy Mass at a village. (Photo supplied)

Joseph Peter Calleja

By Joseph Peter Calleja

December 07, 2022 04:40 AM

A group of some ten women stood away from everyone else in a corner of the church as Sunday Mass progressed in San Lorenzo parish, in the hilly tourist district of Loakan in the Philippines.

The women belonged to the Igorot tribe in Mountain Province, a landlocked province in the Cordillera Administrative Region. They looked reluctant to speak with other members of the congregation even after the Mass was over as they were not comfortable conversing in English or in the popular Tagalog language.

They said they would live to participate in things a bit more but have been left with the sense that they do not really fit in.

“We tried to join several parish activities before but we were never voted or even nominated as members of the parish pastoral council. I think those seats were reserved for those who are rich and be of more use to the church in a material sense,” said Manang Trining, who spoke for the group.

The isolation that the Inibaloy people feel in parishes is reflective of their social exclusion within the Church itself and wider society, their leaders say.

The original occupants of Baguio city and nearby areas, their Inibaloy language and culture once dominated the land. But now they are a minority of less than four percent of some 6.5 million people covered by Baguio diocese.

People from the lowlands, who migrated to the city and bought land, have rendered its original inhabitants a minority and pushed them out of their social life, their leaders say.

Igorot tribal youth dressed in traditional attire gather together for a procession during a Holy Mass in a village in the Philippines. (Photo supplied)

Sunk among masses

Around 50,000 to 60,000 tourists arrive every weekend to enjoy the cool weather coupled with the delectable food and beverages of the Cordillera region, a collective of seven provinces and Baguio City, called the summer capital of the Philippines.

On Sundays, churches are packed with tourists and locals. Baguio City’s cathedral offers 13 Masses on Sundays. The number of Catholics increases every year. Last year the diocese recorded some 8,800 child and 3,800 adult baptisms.

Father Joel Calatan, a Baguio priest told UCA News that their parish churches are “packed but many of them are tourists. In fact, we have more English and Tagalog Masses now than before because of demand.”

Filipino schools teach in history that Igorot communities originally occupied Baguio City and nearby areas, living there as farmers and cattle raisers.

They fought against the Americans in the early 1900s, who wanted to settle in their mountain region because of the salubrious climate.

But the tribal people’s bamboo spears and arrows were no match for American guns.

Baguio City had become the summer capital, where the Americans had built parks and camps helping it become a tourist spot after they left.

Trining and her group are aware of their history and how tourism took away their ancestral lands. Trining’s group now travels some 40 minutes by jeep to attend Sunday Mass “because we want to be good Catholics,” she said.

But she said she is used to it and has no complaints about it.

“When I was a child, my parents would bring us to church and it was so far from our house. We did not have a parish then. We would ride in the jeep for almost two hours just to attend a Mass in the church,” Trining told UCA News.


Igorot tribal youths dressed in traditional attire present a folk dance during Holy Mass in a village in the Philippines. (Photo supplied)

Ignored in own homeland

Trining’s parish is composed of some 2,300 members but only five percent of them are like Trining — members of an indigenous community.  Some 60 percent are from lowland provinces like La Union and Pangasinan and the rest are natives of Baguio City.

Trining’s parish is one among several parishes having more than 10 Masses on Sundays but only two are celebrated in the indigenous language, the rest are in Tagalog and in English.

But that should not be considered discrimination, explained a parish priest saying that the language of the liturgy is decided on the need of the people who participate in it.

“Many [parishioners] like English and Tagalog. The decision on language was made after several consultations and meetings with the parish pastoral council,” Baguio clergyman Father Rey Taborgis told UCA News.

The Parish Pastoral Council, the highest consultative and pastoral body in every parish in the Philippines works closely with the parish priest, and plans and implements programs and activities in the parish.

The indigenous people were never part of the council although they wanted to be, Trining said. She said their parish council was dominated by those who are “active” in their parish.

She believes seats on such councils are reserved for parishioners, who can “donate money and other resources to the local church and sponsor church events.”

Igorot tribal men ring traditional gongs during Holy Mass in a church in the Philippines. (Photo supplied)

Poverty based discrimination

Since indigenous people mostly come from poor families, their ability to donate to their parish is extremely limited, which means they “can never be called active parishioners and join local pastoral councils,” she added.

Baguio diocese says it has been culturally sensitive to its indigenous peoples and incorporated indigenous culture into its liturgy.

For example, the cloth and weaving patterns of the Igorot were incorporated into its Mass vestments. Their dances and instruments are used during the offertory and entrance procession.

Yet Trining and people like her feel discriminated against because they cannot determine policies and participate in the governance of the local church.

The parish priest was not a native of the province as well. He came from the lowlands, but had his seminary formation in Baguio City and was assigned there, Trining added.


Members of the Igorot tribal group bring produce from their farms and handmade items as gifts/donations during Holy Mass at a church in the Philippines. (Photo supplied)

Exclusion of poor

Officials at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines said any exclusion of indigenous peoples from parishes councils was “not intentional at all.”

“We don’t think the discrimination if you will call it as such, is intentional but perhaps a product of a certain demography, an outcome explained by the population numbers in every parish,” said Father Paul Dy, the executive director of the bishops’ commission on culture.

Father Dy said the issues Trining’s group discussed “are the same in every Philippine parish” regardless of culture or population.

“There is really discrimination between the rich and the poor in every parish. The voice of the rich is heard more than that of the poor because they are more dominant in the sense that they occupy positions in the Church,” Father Dy added.

But Trining and the group did not entirely agree. For them, their struggle is not only a divide between the rich and the poor but discrimination between dominant versus subaltern cultures.

“We just hope that we get to decide on parish programs for the people, for indigenous people like us who are natives of this land,” she said.

“After all, there are so many ways of serving the Lord, being a pastoral council member is just one,” she said.

Whether they become members of their pastoral councils or not, Trining and her group said they will continue going to church to attend Mass every Sunday.

That’s even if it means they have to stand aside in a corner of the church.

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