A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Indigenous leadership: A gift and task from God

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On Sunday, 13 October 2019, the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines celebrates the Indigenous People’s Sunday. It might be useful to provide a background how this has evolved. Before Islam arrived in Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines in the 13th century and Christianity in the 15th century, all the people across the country were indigenous or now we call Lumad. When Islamic traders and missionaries arrived in Mindanao, those they encountered like the Maguindanao, Maranaw, Tausug and others embraced Islam, which is why there are Muslims today in Mindanao. But many others like the Subanen, Teduray, Manobo, Mandaya and others held on to their indigenous belief system. When the Spanish colonizers and friars colonized the Philippines, most of those in the Visayas and Luzon who were indigenous—like the Tagalogs, Ilocanos, Bicolanos, Cebuanos, Bol-anons, Warays and others—embraced Catholicism. Thus we can say that the first converts to Christianity were the Lumads.

However, the Moro people in Mindanao remained Muslims and the Lumad remained Lumad. Christian communities became the majority by the time the Americans took over as our new colonizers. This became true in Mindanao with the mass migrations of Christian settlers to Mindanao. Eventually after the Second World War, the majority of Mindanawons were Christians settlers and their descendants. Today the Lumad are just a minority in the country and in Mindanao. According to the 2010 statistics of the Census and Statistics Office, only close to 15% of Mindanawons are Lumad. Thus, of a total of close to 22 million Mindanawons, roughly 3,160,000 people are Lumad. Of all the total indigenous population in the entire country 60% are living in Mindanao.

The first Church presence among the Lumad in Mindanao go back to the late 1500s when the Jesuits arrived in the Caraga Region and built the first church in what is now Butuan City.

But they only reached a few communities. As more migrant settlers took over the land of the Lumad, they penetrated the uplands which were not easily accessible. When the Christian migrant settlers population increased in Mindanao, the priests concentrated their evangelization work and missions among Christian settlers. Very few penetrated the uplands to evangelize the Lumad. It was left to Protestant missionaries who came during the American regime, that a growing number of Lumad communities converted to Protestantism. It was only in the late 1960s when a few foreign missionaries reached out to the Manobo, Tboli, Mandaya and Subanen so a few of the Lumad communities embraced Catholicism. Immersed among them, they saw how neglected the Lumads were by the government and the extent of poverty, malnutrition, disease and how their rights were being violated. In time, they saw how the encroachment of land-hungry peasants, politicians and corporations worsened the Lumad’s situation.

Eventually they started to have assemblies to discuss what can be done to respond to their problems. The Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference eventually discussed these issues which led to the setting up of pastoral programs for what they then referred to as Tribal Filipinos. Then the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines decided to set up the Episcopal Commission on Tribal Filipinos. In order to bring attention to the plight of Tribal Filipinos, the CBCP decided to give birth to a celebration of Tribal Filipinos every second Sunday of October. Later on the name was changed from Tribal Filipinos to Indigenous Peoples which was what was used by the United Nations to refer to the Lumad. Thus this became known as IP Sunday and which is celebrated every Second Sunday of October. This year, it will be on Sunday, October 13 (N.B. for Saturday Mass—IP Sunday will be on Sunday). The theme of the celebration this year is INDIGENOUS LEADERSHIP, A GIFT AND TASK FROM GOD.

If we are familiar with the realities of the Lumad today, we know that they face serious problems. There are still many lowlanders, politicians and corporations who are using all kinds of means to grab the small areas of land that has remained as their ancestral domain. This has led to their dislocations as they are forced to vacate their ancestral territories to give way to plantations and mining operations. When they resist to fight for their land rights, they are harassed and threatened. The ones most affected are their tribal leaders, their chieftains or datus if they manifest a courage to protect the rights of their people. Thus the theme this year of Indigenous Leadership is so appropriate as their leaders now need the strength and courage to face all kinds of challenges.

[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles” launched in February 2019. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw).]

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