REVIEW: Connecting with our past and seeing our indigenous ancestors as part of our own identity and culture

Book: Handumanan (Remembrance): Digging For The Indigenous Wellspring
Author: Karl M. Gaspar, CSsR
Published by the Claretian Communications, Inc. and the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples

When I was taking up Philippine History as a prerequisite in college, Teodoro Agoncillo’s “History of the Filipino People” became a constant companion. I can still vividly recall Agoncillo’s almost mocking statement about colonial mentality, as one of the obvious consequences of colonization: “We take pride in claiming that we are the only Christian nation in Asia, which absolutely means nothing.” Many years later, when East Timor declared its independence, this isn’t even unique to us anymore. Without this supposedly “unique” feature, what are we as a nation?

Wittingly or unwittingly, Agoncillo’s commentary influenced the way I viewed history as a discipline from then on; and in a sense, his thoughts are echoed in Bro. Karl’s newest manuscript, which in my humble opinion is an important contribution to historical knowledge. Handumanan is a product of its author’s fastidious scholarship and careful discernment. It prompts us to ask critical questions such as: Why do we commemorate the year 1521?

What does it mean for us as a nation? How does it figure in the history of the Filipino people? For most of us, the obvious rhetorical answer to these questions is this: it is the year of Christianity’s serendipitous arrival on the shores of the Philippines, and it marked the beginning of a complex relationship that dramatically transformed precolonial indigenous life, but also created the nation.

While we now consider Christianization as a positive effect of Magellan’s cartographic miscalculation, Bro. Karl’s book invites us to take a step back to remind ourselves that evangelization is an important feature of Spanish colonization, and—as in all colonial ventures, Christian conversion was vicious. Taking a more circumspect position in finding meaning to 1521, Bro. Karl uses the tools of history, theology, ethnography and philosophy. He suggests ways of moving forward and explains how these disciplines can facilitate the process. Thus, his manuscript contributes to these discourses in various ways.

From an ethnographic perspective, he re-examines indigenous societies and cultures, and recognizes that colonization sought to dismantle native cultural traditions. However, he underscores that indigenous cultures persisted as explicit expressions of resistance, but these expressions also relegated them to the hinterlands resulting to their exclusion, displacement and discrimination even up to the present.

As a personal advocacy, Bro. Karl champions the plight of these lumads, and notes that one way of helping them is by appreciating their cultural legacies, especially the less explored potentials of indigenous knowledge and practices. From a historical lens, he thoughtfully reviews written, material and oral evidence, mostly colonial sources—which are abundant, to revise historical narratives.

The historical significance of his paper lies in its inclusion of Mindanao history, with an implicit reminder that Mindanao history is not just about the Moro struggle; equally important are the stories of the Lumads, and their own struggles and responses to colonialism. Bro. Karl’s Handumanan highlights their stories. He shows that these stories also need to be told in Mindanao and in Philippine history. Their inclusion in the national historical narrative is compelling not just as a gesture of rectification, but more importantly, as a way of remembering the greatness of our indigenous past.

From a philosophical and theological perspective, he reflects on the manner by which Christianity was introduced to indigenous societies and discusses how in the process of evangelization missionaries vilified pre-existing religions, including Islam. By highlighting this aspect of colonization, Bro. Karl summons theologians to acknowledge the mistakes of the past, and open spaces for reconciliation in the present. He wrote with a clear sense of mission. He reiterates time and again, the all-encompassing theme of his manuscript, and that is—it is in reflecting on the consequences of colonization and evangelization to indigenous life that we can find meaning in commemorating the 500th year anniversary of Magellan’s arrival. If only because of all the above-mentioned statements, Bro. Karl’s Handumanan is already a masterpiece.

However, his work did more to me than it originally intends. It compelled me to even more deeper reflections. First, it is in remembering that we discover continuities instead of breaks in the development of our society. It is in remembering that we connect with our past and see our indigenous ancestors as part of our own identity and culture. Second, it is in remembering that we can truly appreciate and make sense of our present. It is in remembering that we can identify what we need to keep and treasure. Finally, it is in remembering that we can point out ways of moving forward as a nation that takes pride in its glorious indigenous past. If I go back to my initial question of “what are we as a nation without our supposedly unique feature as the only Christian country in Asia?,” I believe my reflections above are sufficient answers.

(Mary Donna Grace Cuenca is chair of the Political Science and History Department of the Ateneo de Davao University)