R.A. No. 8371 is the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997 in the philippines.
many have asked, ‘what has happened all these years?’ and evidently the media (skipping over ‘cultural festivals’, postcards, and other touristic representations of indigeneity) is still haunted by stories of human dignity and lives lost at the cost of extracted wealth and other colonial endeavours.
i sense that ‘indigeneity’ remains absent in mainstream filipino thought. translated into tagalog, the word ‘katutubo‘ maybe paints the idea better. this person, like a root, a shoot, was planted and grown from this land. no, it does not spell primitivity, inferiority, nor poverty. and although indigeneity is not always visibly ‘marked’ in the philippines (unlike the vivid racial divides at play in latin america), it still remains a powerful and real cultural-political identity here.
i do not claim an indigenous identity. born from a mix (una mezcla) of chinese migrants and a distant visayan bloodline, my life is of many scattered bases and of different tongues. and although mobility and migration do not contradict an indigenous identity (i am still in awe of the scale of the cordillera diaspora worldwide, and of peoples’ constant movement across sierra madres, towns and rivers here), a single particular landscape has not held me, nor shaped me and my ancestors for millenia. unlike those of indigenous peoples.
my recent immersion in community development work with indigenous groups in the philippines has reminded me of one urgent practice: to keep reflecting on my role in all these struggles.
many of these fierce battles –whether against deforestation, hunger, displacement, illiteracy, or other ills– intersect across many fronts. the battle is not always a tribe’s clenched fist against a faceless bureaucracy or monstrous machinery rolling in a protected area; but it is also a wrestle within one’s own village, within one’s own family, and often with one’s own self. the battle cry can be loud like the budyong (conchshell), blown by people calling to belong to a nation, to be remembered as co-human beings, and to be heard by all; but the battle cry is also for reawakening memories buried deep within or long erased by another. laws, policies, and other covenants founded on mutual respect and trust, meant to protect and uphold, already exist in plenty. they are bound in books, published, and read in courts. but where do we all draw the power to put them in practice?
it seems that these battles can be fought standing in a circle with weapons facing out; but they are also fought with dances and prayers to gather forces we cannot see. and the most terrifying ones are also fought with eyes closed gazing in.
these battles are not mine.
the unearthing of burial grounds to make way for a golf course does not desecrate the bones of my grandfather. i do not know how to hold my palm out to beg for coins, uprooted and a wandering beggar in my very own home. my mind does not understand that a flattened mountain is my mother’s breast cut off. these battles are not mine; they are those of indigenous peoples in the philippines, and shared by every single indigenous community worldwide. these battles are not mine, but they are mine to witness, with my entire being, with eyes that refuse to look away, and with a heart that will continue to listen, listen, and listen, like a purse of memories that promises not to burst, that promises to keep all these stories safe inside, so long as there are those who never tire to tell them.
i cannot be apart from these battles. nor can you, indigenous or not. none of us can ever stand far away; every single one of us is a part of all this.