The story behind the Indigenous Peoples' Sunday by Karl M. Gaspar, CSsR

by Karl M. Gaspar, CSsR

A Tboli woman displays their harvest as they celebrate their own version of Nutrition Month in a small village of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato Toto Lozano / AKP ImagesILIGAN CITY (MindaNews/07 October) — 10/10/10. In terms of numerology, the three tens placed side by side look quite impressive. 10 October 2010. That is what these three tens are all about: the second Sunday of October this year.

For the Catholic Church in the Philippines, this is the celebration of the Indigenous Peoples or IP Sunday. On this day, priests are expected to give homilies and invited IPs provide commentaries on the sad plight of the IPs as well as encourage Christian lowlanders to express their solidarity with the IPs’ struggle for self-determination.

In dioceses where there are staff people working in IP programs and parishes where there are religious congregations with personnel assigned to this ministry, there are photo exhibits, showcases of the IPs’ arts and culture, concerts, symposia and actions to pressure the government to respond to the needs of the IPs especially the issuance of certificate of ancestral domain titles (CADTs). Various non-government organizations advocating IP rights also collaborate in the conduct of such activities.

No less than the members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) encourage the priests and religious to give full attention to the celebration of IP Sunday.

Unfortunately if one were to make a survey as to how many parishes go out of their way to come up with meaningful celebrations and what percentage of parish priests sit down with the members of their parish pastoral councils to plan out such celebrations, the finding may be a source of disappointment for IP advocates.

The birthing of IP Sundays

The burden of making sure that IP Sundays are celebrated in parishes rests on the shoulder of the CBCP members, and the body tasked to oversee this project, the Bishop-members and lay staff of the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples (ECIP), for it was the CBCP that gave birth to the IP Sunday celebration.

In their July 1978 assembly, the bishops decided that every second Sunday of October would be celebrated as IP Sunday. On October 8, 1978, the first IP Sunday was celebrated across the country.

It was, however, the participants (priests, religious and lay) of an earlier ECTF Convention – with the late Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud of Marawi as the chair of the Commission – who thought of having such a Sunday celebration. They proposed this idea and the Bishop-members of ECTF brought it to the CBCP for discussion.

In the 1970s, IPs were known as Tribal Filipinos, so IP Sunday used to be known as Tribal Filipino Sunday. The ECIP at that time was the ECTF. In the 1990s, following the lead of the United Nations which named those of the first nations as Indigenous Peoples, the ECTF became ECIP. Since then, every second Sunday of October had become known as IP Sunday.

Why a bit late?

But why did it take long for the Bishops and the Church to focus on the IPs and declare an IP Sunday? Why did it take them until 1978?

One needs to look back to the last century for answers.

Immediately after the end of the Spanish regime in the Philippines, there was a further decline in the number of Catholic priests serving the needs of the faithful. At the tail-end of the Spanish colonial period, many Spanish friars returned to their country. Among those who stayed, many left parish work and preferred being with institutions, e.g. schools.

Since the Spanish friars did not promote local vocations, there were not that many Filipino diocesan clergy. From among these, a number joined the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (the Aglipay Church). Thus there was truly a dearth of Catholic priests to take care of the sacramental and liturgical needs of the faithful.

At the beginning of the American occupation, other European and North American missionaries – including the CICMs, MSCs, CSsRs, MSSCs, SVDs, OMIs and others – began to arrive in the country to fill in the vacancies in the parishes set up during the Spanish times.

Part of their missionary task was to win over those who had earlier joined the IFI while re-establishing and expanding parishes among those who remained Catholics, even if only in name. Very few of them ventured into the uplands (e.g. the Cordilleras) to convert the indigenous peoples who hadn’t been enticed to be baptized in the Catholic Church. Besides it was very difficult to penetrate the remote mountain villages.

Their numbers increased after many religious congregations were forced to leave China when Mao Zedong’s revolution led to the setting up of the communist regime. As migrant populations drastically increased across Mindanao just before and immediately after the Second World War, many of them established themselves across lowland Mindanao. Very few were interested to reach out to the tribal peoples in the forested areas and the uplands owing to the great difficulty of reaching these isolated places.

The Protestant missionaries who came during the American occupation and the Commonwealth period were the ones who were more driven to reach out to the tribal communities. As their personnel expanded and with the arrival of other Protestant missionaries in the 1940s-1950s, more pastors and their families established mission posts at the edge of the forests and up in the mountains.

Consequently, there are more Protestant IPs than Catholic ones today across the country.

Mission stations in the uplands

In Mindanao, it was in the 1960s when Catholic missionaries began to also set up mission stations in the uplands. First were the Jesuits in Bukidnon, especially the late Fr. Vincent Cullen.

When the late Bishop Francisco Claver, SJ – himself an Igorot – became Bishop of Malaybalay, the TF program expanded. The Passionists of the Diocese of Marbel also had American missionaries among tribal communities, with Rex Mansmann as the most known. Mansmann set up an ambitious program in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. The Maryknollers and the PIME Fathers also began TF work in the Davao Region. The Columbans had initiatives in Western Mindanao. Later on, women religious congregations also set up their TF programs.

For a while, these individual efforts were isolated from one another; there was hardly any communication among the proponents. There were no collaborative engagements among the early practitioners across Mindanao and the entire country.

In the early 1970s, the Mindanao-Sulu bishops and key pastoral workers connected to the Mindanao-Sulu Secretariat of Social Action (the Mindanao-based office of the National Secretariat of Social Action (NASSA) began to see the importance of building bridges among those doing development and evangelization work among tribal communities. Consultations were conducted. Eventually, a loose group of church people doing TF work began to meet regularly, first in Mindanao and later on the entire country.

This series of consultations and meetings eventually led to the setting up of the ECTF which was initially attached to NASSA but later on became an autonomous commission. The Mindanao-based staff linked to the national ECTF office was with the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference Secretariat (MSPCS) based in Davao City.

In the mid-1970s, Catholics began to collaborate with Protestants doing TF work. Thus was born the Mindanao-Sulu Conference for Justice and Development (MSCJD). (Both the MSPCS and the MSCJD are no longer in existence today, but the ECTF – as ECIP – is still in existence.)

Grassroots Organizing

One can conclude that the ECTF/IP was a product of grassroots organizing among IP advocates since the early 1970s. It was not the outcome of a CBCP initiative. Instead the CBCP responded to what developed among those who were grounded in terms of actual engagements with tribal peoples. It was from their collaborative efforts that finally the CBCP acted on their proposal for the Church in the Philippines to celebrate a TF/IP Sunday.

Looking at the themes of the last three ECIP Convention reveal where the network is at in terms of their IP advocacy. These are the following:

2008 – Renewing Commitment to Indigenous Peoples’ Self-Determination
2009 – The Church and Indigenous Peoples Reflecting on Faith
2010 – Healing for Solidarity: Asking Forgiveness for Sins Against
Indigenous Peoples

Based on the theme, the participants of the 27th ECIP National Convention (2009) came up with this statement:

We, the 75 participants … declare that:

Integral Evangelization with the Indigenous Peoples is witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus, journeying with them in a dialogue of life and faith and celebrating the richness of each other’s values and life-events.

Together, we respect human dignity, uphold the right to ancestral domain and cultural identity and work towards total human development and integrity of creation.

Towards this end, we commit ourselves to: enter into an interfaith dialogue with Indigenous Peoples (IPs) who adhere to their traditional belief systems;
• facilitate inculturation among the baptized Catholic IPs;
• engage in ecumenical dialogue with IPs of other Christian faith;
• heed the imperative of immersion in our dialogue of life with the IPs, entering into their worldview and understanding their way of life;
• support the IP communities in their efforts towards self-determination and genuine empowerment; and
• appreciate and affirm the creation spirituality of the IPs.

It is our hope that as we journey with them, we truly share the dignity of being children of the one God.

This year, the 28th Convention came up with this statement following on the theme for 2010:

We the participants … re-Affirm that:
Integral Evangelization with the Indigenous Peoples is witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus, journeying with them in a dialogue of life and faith and celebrating the richness of each other’s values and life-events. Together, we respect human dignity, uphold the right to ancestral domain and cultural identity and work towards total human development and integrity of creation.

Listening to the call of the Day of Pardon Mass on its 10th year anniversary, we declare that:

Integral Evangelization calls us as a Church to a humble examination of conscience and towards a healing of historical wounds by asking pardon for sins committed against the indigenous peoples.

As we continue our proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, we ask forgiveness for moments when we failed to witness Jesus who loved and respected peoples of all cultures and ethnic backgrounds. As we continue to welcome indigenous peoples into the Catholic community, we ask forgiveness for suppressing their spirit as a people and the moments when we injured their personhood as they took on a new identity as Catholics. As we continue to preach Jesus who embraced vulnerability to walk towards the resurrection and who lived with the powerless and poor, we ask forgiveness for moments when we entered indigenous communities from a position of power, indifferent to their struggles and pains. We ask forgiveness for moments when we taught Christianity as a religion robed with colonial cultural superiority, instead of sharing it as a religion that calls for a relationship with God and a way of life.

With gratitude for the contributions of IPs to the integrity of creation, with contrite hearts and with the hope of healing towards solidarity, we as sons and daughters of the Church commit ourselves to:

• A humble disposition of dialogue that witnesses Jesus incarnate in the cultures and lives of IPs;
• Inculturation, where we are moved by the Spirit that seeks to make the Catholic community a home of all cultures and peoples; and,
• Open ourselves to a deeper solidarity with IPs through the realization of dialogue and intercultural encounter of each other’s spiritualities.

As we walk in renewed solidarity with our indigenous brothers and sisters, we call for:
1. The full implementation of Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) in spirit and letter, that guarantees the realization of the right to self-determination of the indigenous peoples. The implementation should safeguard the exercise of IP rights from abuse of legalistic maneuverings and arbitrary interpretation by implementing agents by upholding the primacy of customary law and practice, which is a basic tenet of IPRA.
a. Fast-tracking of Identification, Delineation, Titling and Registration of ancestral domains/ancestral lands titles; instituting mechanisms /policies to protect the integrity of native titles on ancestral domains and lands.
b. Enforcement of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) in the spirit of IPRA and the formulation of genuine processes/mechanisms/ policies for consent determination, by the IPs.
c. Reconstitute the 2001 Office of the Presidential Adviser on Indigenous Peoples Affair (OPAIPA) process in the selection of National Commission on Indigenous Peoples’ commissioners, directors and personnel
d. Formulation of implementing rules and regulations (IRRs) for the provisions of IPRA

Reading through these two statements, one can conclude that the IP Sunday has sustained its militant stand on behalf of our indigenous brothers and sisters through the years since it began 32 years ago.

Indeed, may 10/10/10’s numerological meaning embrace our strong commitment to support the IPs’ struggles for the fullness of life that comes with the full blossoming of their self-determination!

(Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)