A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: A time to speak and a time to listen

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/ 07 March) — Bishop Cosme Damien Almedelia, newly-installed bishop of Butuan, summed up what took place at the Dialogue between Bishops and Beliyan in the compound of his residence in Ampayon, Butuan City last March 3, 2020 as “a time to speak and a time to listen”, as he commented that “we bishops are always the ones to speak; now, is the time for the beliyan to speak and for us to listen.”

And they came in droves from all over the country to be able to express their hopes and joys, griefs and fears to those they consider the most important figures in the Roman Catholic church in the Philippines.

Catholic Bishops join Lumad  beliyans (shamans) during a Higaonon ritual early morning of March 3, 2020 in Butuan City to open the day-long Bishops-IP (Indigenous Peoples) Dialogue in the Year of Ecumenism, Interreligious Dialogue, and IPs. Photo courtesy of FR. RAYMOND AMBRAY

“They” are our country’s shamans whose names varied according to their ethnolinguistic origins. Most are called beliyan, balyan, baylan, babaylan, mabelyan but there are those also known as mangagapog (Higaonon), apog (Aeta), makidipan (Dumagats), mambonong (Ibaloi), mumbaki (Ifugao), ugali (Kalinga), pangat (Balagso) and many more. Most were men, but there were also women among them.  A good number of them are elderly who still carry with them their mama (made of betel nut, apog,  lime, dried tobacco leaves).

This dialogue was convened by the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples (ECIP) as part of the celebration of 2020 CBCP (Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines) theme on Inter-religious dialogue, Ecumenism and Indigenous People with the theme – Dialogue Towards Harmony.  Bishop Almedelia and Fr. Carlito Clase, Butuan Diocese’s Coordinator for the Indigenous People’s Apostolate (IPA) served as host for this event.

Practically all the IPAs across the country – mainly coming from Luzon, the islands of Mindoro, Palawan and Panay and Mindanao – joined this event. The most number, however, were from the local dioceses of Butuan, Tandag, Surigao, Malaybalay and the archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro where most of their spiritual leaders are known as baylans or mangagapog.

The Higaonons – coming from both the Caraga Region (Agusan/Surigao) and Misamis/Bukidnon areas – constituted the core of the beliyans who dialogued with the bishops. Eight of them joined this dialogue, namely Bishops Almedelia, Valentine Dimoc (the ECIP Chair), Jose Cabantan (Malaybalay), Raul Dael and Nereo Ochimar (Tandag), Edwin dela Peňa (Chair of EC-IR), Jose Corazon Talaoc (Kalibo) and Gerardo Alminaza (San Carlos). On the other hand, the core of the Higaonon beliyans who were the first to express their views at the dialogue were Datus Mamlipanya, Malomabyong, Tignaowan, Maampo, Embang, Mandahinog, Lagawlaw, and Pignauwan who were mostly from Agusan Sur and Misamis Oriental.

The dialogue began with the Higaonon rituals of magpakuyab, a cleansing ritual to prepare the ground as ritual site by driving away what would be considered as undesirable for sacred moments such as these which culminated with the slaughter of a chicken. Eventually six more chickens were offered. This was later followed by the pamalas, the ritual of offering to seek favors from the spirits through the slaughter of three pigs (one as offering to the Deity, the second to Mother nature who has gifted humanity with their needs and the third for those gathered at this event). An antique kris was used to kill the pigs. Participants were then asked to join in the offering by touching the blood of the three pigs.  As they convened for lunch, another ritual was done, namely the panampulot, the communal act of partaking of the offerings.

The dialogue took place the whole morning, part of the afternoon and a two-hour session in the evening after supper. In the morning session, the men were the ones who spoke and the bishops responded. In the afternoon session, most of those who shared their thoughts and feelings were women beliyans and in the evening, the dialogue session was attended by Region 13 NCIP Regional Director Ferdausi Sanila Cerna and thus most questions centered on the IPs’complaints against the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).

The recurring themes, realities, lamentations, issues and proposals that arose from the perspective of the beliyans included the following:

A. How Missionaries Treated Lumad’s World View especially their rituals and practices. From what they heard from their ancestors and even they experienced themselves, there was a time when Catholic missionaries looked down on them and told them that their rituals are practices were those of the devil. (Even wearing their indigenous jewelry e.g. beads were discouraged as these were manifestations of their worship of the devil). They were treated very badly compared to how the missionaries treated those who had become Christians, especially the migrants who arrived in their localities. They were considered ignorant, primitive and not worthy of the missionaries’ attention. Part of the reason was because they held on to wearing their indigenous dress and lifeways. They felt they were never welcomed to enter a church as those without shoes (or slippers) or were not dressed properly were looked down upon. They were only interested to inter-act with the missionaries when some began to change the way they treated the IPs. (One name that keep recurring among the Higaonons was the late Fr. Vincent Cullen SJ, who spent an entire lifetime visiting IP communities in the Misamis/Bukidnon territories).

B. Realities of the Lives of Indigenous Peoples:
Up to around the time of the Marcos regime, they were mostly living in peaceful co-existence with lowlanders and migrants, although there were already those encroaching into their ancestral domains. But as there were still available land to share and considering that most of the IPs are generous people who have pity on those who also have needs, they shared their land to those who began to penetrate their territories

C. Issues and Problems encountered through the years began to intensify with the Marcos martial law regime.

1)      When the Presidential Assistant on National Minorities (PANAMIN) was established, they insisted on recognizing only the chieftains who were registered, and backed up with papers. This created confusion among the people as there were datus who either refused or were not in a position to secure registration papers. Today, the main issue in regard to the State’s dealing with recognized IP leaders has to do with the creation of the position of the Mandatory IP Representative (or IPMR) from barangay to provincial levels. They are to be chosen by the IP communities themselves without any interference from the outside. But today, Mayors governors, barangay captains and even the military have appointed them, and their choices are oftentimes contrary to the wish of the communities. This has created major problems among them, contributing to the fragmentation among their ranks.

2)      The land issue has arisen since all kinds of intruders have entered their territories to take over parts of their ancestral domain. This took place as more migrants arrived looking for land to till. This started the dislocation of the IP communities from their ancestral domain. This problem has intensified with martial law given the entry of State agencies and corporate interests/investors (both foreign and local) who are also interested in their domain for all kinds of reasons: logging and now mining, as well as for infrastructure and energy generation projects.  They have found themselves defenseless and for a while as there were still forests, they retreated to the interior.  But lately, they have reached the edge of the forests and they know there is no more land extending beyond what they are now occupying. With still more incursions, some of them have been dislocated and some of their kin had began to migrate to the towns and cities.  Even with the passage of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA), this problem remains.

3)      As they began to see that their only choice was to resist, they began to show force in opposing these incursions.  But only to be met with violence by both State military/police/Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit (Cafgu) forces as well as the guards of corporate firms. This has led to harassment, red-tagging, arrest and imprisonment of their leaders, some of whom have been killed. Militarization with its consequent human rights violations has been reported for so long already and continues to persist until today. Evacuations usually follow when the situation turns ugly. (In fact during the dialogue, news came from Surigao del Sur, that another IP community again had to evacuate because of the eruption of violence).

4)      What has further complicated the problems faced by the IPs, is that most of their territories are in the interior upland areas, many of which are also the guerilla zones of the New People’s Army). Caught between the armed forces of the NPA and the State’s forces, they find themselves caught in the crossfire which explains the bakwit phenomenon among the IP communities. As many of them are seen to be more supportive of the NPA, the military have tried all kinds of ways to deal with this suspicion from outright harassment to enticing some of their leaders to join the ranks of the para-military troops by giving their arms and funds. This has also become a factor of the fragmentation among the IPs.

There were concrete proposals that they presented the bishops. In turn, the bishops – when it was time for them to respond – promised that they will collectively look into what have been proposed and to find ways to assist them in dealing with these.  Most of the proposals centered on how to deal with the issues as well as seeking support for their programs for the education of their youth, their well-being through health programs and income-generating activities e.g. livelihood projects including how they can maximize the productivity of the remaining ancestral domain which they can still claim as their own.  The bishops promised to set up a Technical Working Committee who would review the proposals and make sure actions are taken so that there can be some concrete responses that will help improve the plight of the IPs in the country.

During the dialogue, some of the beliyans claimed that through the years they have been attending all kinds of seminars, conferences and fora where their problems were discussed. And yet their situation has only worsened, and the talk remained just talk.  They hope that this time, this dialogue will yield results.  The bishops shared their frustration at this reality and vowed that, this time, it will not be so.  However, the beliyans themselves also challenged each other that they should not rely only on the assistance of bishops and other outsiders. That they were the first who should find ways to solve their problems. Clearly, everyone in the dialogue were in agreement that a dialogue that leads to harmony necessarily involves processes of empowerment and that this kind of dialogue contributes to the empowerment of the IPs. [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).]