COMMENTARY: Reevaluating and Redefining Ethnic Identity: A Suggestion towards a Unified and Stronger Tribal Body. By TS Sungkit, Jr.

It is a shame I would be writing this in English. But then the state of tribal communities in Bukidnon is yet to provide venue for this kind of “intellectualizing” (if ever this can be considered as such). Besides, I’m handicapped with the fact that I’m yet to establish my fortune which limits me to the more urgent task of feeding my family. So I can only content myself to a limited interaction with tribal leaders from time to time (and this happens rarely). But despite this, I think I’m duty bound to speak my mind regarding the plight of Bukidnon’s tribal communities.

Now, first let me clarify that this article is contextualized on the Bukidnon tribal communities. Also, this article is generally addressed to those who have concern for the welfare of Bukidnon’s tribal communities and specifically to the tribal leaders in Bukidnon.

The present status of the tribal communities in Bukidnon suggests the need to reevaluate and redefine the ethnic identity of the so-called lumads. As time goes by, it is disgusting to see that tribal communities, the Binukid-speaking tribes specifically, are becoming ethnic minorities.

If we are to contextualize this “ethnic minority” label, this is not only politically incorrect but also a misnomer. The status quo however, did little or nothing at all to correct this. In fact, the status quo may have willingly cultivated this idea.

These days, the so-called “ethnic minorities” are becoming more and more “minoritized” (if ever such a term exists). This is a product of many combined factors. And it may help us understand the situation if we will enumerate some of these factors.

Historically, the plantation economy implemented by successive colonizers drove waves of migration. Bukidnon is no exception to this. The advent of banana, coffee, sugarcane, rubber and pineapple plantations brought people from the other islands of the Philippines to Bukidnon. This setup encouraged dumagats (non-lumads) to settle in the central fertile plains and pushed lumads into the margins. We know of course that this is assisted by the colonial governments and the Republic of the Philippines in later years (until now?).

Since the ethnic economy is largely based on land, the plantation economy run by foreigners and dumagats has eroded drastically the tribal strength. The economic power and well-being of the tribal communities were not only diminished but dramatically threatened.

But that is not yet the end of it all. The advent of massive logging operations exacerbated the situation. Logging opened the way for the influx of dumagat migrant settlers into the areas inhabited by tribal communities. Owing to the more advanced education (or more advanced methods of deception in some cases) of the migrant settlers, the ethnic communities are further dispossessed of their lands.

Outsiders would usually put the blame on the tribal communities for their ignorance. Others would accuse the lumads of laziness. But while some observations may be valid, the fact remains that this is abetted by the status quo because those in power benefit in this setup.

The present situation of tribal communities is a testament to the seeming institutionalization of the setup mentioned. I could not help but sigh at the venerable Ludivina Opeña’s story of a Manobo family who was literally reduced to begging. That family once owned almost an entire barangay and now it is homeless and reduced to mendicancy.

Now, there are also derivative factors that contributed to the present plight of the tribal communities. The influx of migrants brought intermarriages with the tribal communities which produced an admixture of people. Usually, the children of these intermarriages develop less affinity (even aversion in some cases) to the tribal communities. This is a result of the pejorative prejudices labeled upon lumads. These prejudices together with the so-called modernization (in the context of social and cultural changes) also affect the tribal youth. There are even tribal youngsters who do not know that they actually have a tribe. And it is common to find young tribal people who are ashamed of speaking Binukid or of being associated with a tribe.

But the list of factors does not end there. One important factor also is the splintering of the tribes. Despite the yearly Kaamulan, the tribes are heading towards more fragmentation. It is sometimes funny but certainly it is no laughing matter to know that in some places, every street or corner has its own supreme datu. Even in just one municipality, a number of supreme tribal organizations exist.

Now we may wonder why this is so. But this can be traced to the fact that one of the “best” colonial strategies is to divide and conquer. The status quo had seen to it that this would continue. The province of Bukidnon today is known for having many tribes (though linguistically and culturally, these so-called different tribes are nearly the same). There could be differences in some terms and customs but it is the same case as with the Tagalogs.

In the face of these realities, tribal communities led by its datus and baes should reevaluate and redefine their ethnic identity. Now more than ever, tribal leaders should be clear on the roots of the traditions they practice. For a start, it would be good if tribal leaders in Bukidnon confer to discuss the roots of their traditions. This I believe would enlighten everyone on the need for reunification as it could shed light on the basis of unity of the tribes. After such kind of conference, similar gatherings should be held in the respective territorial domains (if ever they still have one) of the tribal leaders to enlighten their constituents.

Reevaluating and redefining ethnic identity should be a conscious effort among tribal communities. Reevaluate in a sense that the present generation should be able to conceptualize new course of action necessary not just for the survival of the tribe but also for its progress. Redefine identity in the context that the youth can connect and identify with it. In such process, they will eventually own that identity fully and thus reassert it in the society at large. Also, more should be done to gain the affinity of those born out of intermarriages.

This is to say that tribal leaders should try to explore the idea of ethnic identity not just as a birthright but also as a choice.

The suggestions I have discussed above are but few of the ways to reclaim the rightful status of Bukidnon tribal communities as the original majority of the province. The problems tackled highlight the need for the reunification of the Binukid-speaking tribes into one effective body. For where did this so-called tribes today originated?

Alas! If the tribal leaders only take their epics and nanangens seriously, they would understand that there was only one tribe once. Even some of the Islamized tribes have this in their oral literature.

Now, I know this will reach the present “tribal authorities”. I know for a fact that many of them can understand well this language I’m using. So I challenge them now to prove that their salt can season the tasteless (even bitter) life of the tribal communities.

[T.S. Sungkit, author of Bukidnon’s first epic novel Batbat hi Udan, finished his agriculture degree at the University of the Philippine in Los Banos, Laguna. He is based in Malitbog, Bukidnon where he works in his farm while writing a new novel. He is one of the contributors of Bukidnon Views, the opinion column of Bukidnon’s Central Mindanao Newswatch]