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Preserving ‘tradition’: The business of indigeneity in the modern Philippine context

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 March 2019


What are the practical and cultural consequences of embracing the ‘Indigenous’ label? Despite universalising aspirations, the concept of indigeneity carries distinct political connotations in the Philippines, where the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act has created a bureaucracy that purportedly responds to the special needs of Indigenous Peoples, including the preservation of cultural traditions and securing title to ancestral lands. While laudatory on the surface, in practice the current legal and bureaucratic framework allows the state to impose its own definition of indigeneity, often compelling indigenous minorities to conform to stereotypes in order to acquire the fundamental rights and benefits that, by law, are supposed to be guaranteed. The Philippine states’ requirements for being recognised as ‘Indigenous’ are transforming how Indigenous Peoples maintain and perform their ancestral traditions, often leading to highly divisive internal debates about proper cultural and political representation. This article examines the case of Higaunon Lumads in northern Mindanao, who have been responding locally to over thirty years of national trends in participatory development that require increased engagement with government bureaucracy. I explore how ‘indigeneity’ has been defined and employed by Higaunons in the service of ‘preserving tradition’, the political and other consequences that have emerged in this context, and the perils of representing and commodifying indigeneity in modern Southeast Asia.

Research Article
Copyright © The National University of Singapore 2019 

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1 This includes data from ethnographic interviews, oral histories, surveys, participant observation, and other data collection conducted since 2012 with support from the National University of Singapore (FASS Research Grant No. R-117-000-028-133) and the Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research, United States.

2 This was largely the result of the passage of the Local Government Code of 1991, the proliferation of NGOs within the country addressing poverty and human rights problems, and the global linking of Indigenous rights issues to environmental activism.

3 Indigenous college students in my research area have also reported regularly to me that they are required by school administrators to perform ‘traditional dances’ for visitors, under threat of cancelling their scholarships should they refuse. See ICL Research Team, A report on tribal minorities in Mindanao (Manila: Regal Print, 1979) for examples of this phenomenon during the 1970s. See further Paredes, Oona, ‘Custom and citizenship in the Philippine uplands’, in Citizenship and democratization in postcolonial Southeast Asia, ed. Berenschot, Ward, Henk Schulte Nordholt and Laurens Bakker (Leiden: Brill, 2016), pp. 157–79Google Scholar. See also Noah Theriault, ‘Unravelling the strings attached: Philippine indigeneity in law and practice’, this vol.

4 See Casumbal-Salazar, Melisa, ‘The indeterminacy of the Philippine indigenous subject: Indigeneity, temporality, and cultural governance’, Amerasia Journal 41, 1 (2015): 7494CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For the colonial and nationalist roots of this nostalgia, see Aguilar, Filomeno, ‘Tracing origins: Ilustrado nationalism and the racial science of migration waves’, Journal of Asian Studies 64, 3 (2005): 605–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 See John H. Bodley, Victims of progress (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield). See Sponsel, Leslie, ‘Our fascination with the Tasaday: Anthropological images and images of anthropology’, in The Tasaday controversy, ed. Headland, T. (Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association special publication 28, 1992), pp. 200214Google Scholar.

6 ‘Lumad’, a Cebuano Visayan word meaning autochthonous, came into vogue as a collective term for Mindanao IPs in 1986. Its first official government usage was in Republic Act 6734 (1989), Article 13, Section 8, which mentions ‘upland communities especially the Lumads or tribal peoples’, in reference to approximately 18 distinct ethnolinguistic groups. See also Rodil, B.R., ‘Pagtututol at pakikibaka ng ma Lumad sa Mindanaw, 1903–1935’, Mindanao Focus Journal 29 (1990): 1032Google Scholar.

7 See Caballero-Anthony, Mely, ‘Revisiting the Bangsamoro struggle: Contested identities and elusive peace’, Asian Security 3, 2 (2007): 141–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also the Philippine government's Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process website at for the timeline of the Bangsamoro negotiations between the national government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

8 See Paredes, Oona, ‘Projecting order in the pericolonial Philippines: An anthropology of Catholicism beyond Catholics’, Australian Journal of Anthropology 28, 2 (2017): 225–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 See Hawkins, Michael, Making Moros: Imperial historicism and American military rule in the Philippines' Muslim South (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2013)Google Scholar.

10 Mindanao's demographic reality is somewhat more complex than the model. There is a minority amongst the ‘lowlanders’ category whose indigenous ancestors had converted to Christianity early in the colonial period who are lumped together with more recent settlers. Most Lumads today are Christians of various stripes, while some Lumad groups are closely associated with Islam and are even listed as Moros. Intermarriage and religious conversion have also blurred the lines between all three population categories.

11 I follow here the framework of ‘graduated citizenship’, which recognises a distinction between formal (legal) and informal (cultural) citizenship detailed by McCargo for Thailand, in which some minorities are viewed as less ‘citizenly’ — due to cultural factors — than mainstream Thais, regardless of their actual indigeneity. See McCargo, Duncan, ‘Informal citizens: Graduated citizenship in southern Thailand’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 34, 5 (2011): 117CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 See Kaufman, Stuart, ‘Symbols, frames, and violence: Studying ethnic war in the Philippines’, International Studies Quarterly 55, 4 (2011): 937–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Language pertaining to racialised differences between lowland/mainstream Filipinos and the ethnic minorities has toned down, but as late as the 1990s primary school textbooks contained explicitly racist statements such as: ‘Higit na maganda ang pamumuhay ng mga Malay kaysa mga Negrito at Indones’ [The lifeways/culture of the Malays {the putative ‘race’ of lowland Filipinos} was much better/vastly superior to that of the Negritos and Indonesians {the ‘races’ of the Philippines’ indigenous ethnic minorities}]. This is quoted from a Grade Three textbook, Dimayuga, T. et al. , Isang bansa, isang lahi (Sibika at kultura 3) (Manila: Vibal, 1994), p. 71Google Scholar. Moreover, this ‘evolutionary’ explanation for present-day differences between mainstream and minority ethnic groups remains firmly established in popular thought. For the colonial origins of this racist framework, see Aguilar, ‘Tracing origins’.

14 See further United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), State of the World's Indigenous Peoples (New York: United Nations, 2009).

15 See Turner, Mark, May, R.J. and Turner, Lulu Respall, eds., Mindanao: Land of unfulfilled promise (Quezon City: New Day, 1992)Google Scholar.

16 See Paredes, Oona, ‘Higaunon resistance and ethnic politics in northern Mindanao’, Australian Journal of Anthropology 8, 3 (1997): 270–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 See, for example, Mark Turner, ‘The struggle for peace in Mindanao’, East Asia Forum, 6 Oct. 2016,

18 See Paredes, Oona, ‘Rivers of memory and oceans of difference in the Lumad world of Mindanao’, in ‘Water in Southeast Asia’, ed. Lloyd-Smith, Lindsay and Tagliacozzo, Eric, special issue, TRaNS: Trans -Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia 4, 2 (2016): 329–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Its full name is bungkatol ha bulawan daw nangka tasa ha lana (‘the golden whole and the single cup of oil’). This is the simplest literal translation I have found, after many hours of direct inquiry. The prevailing exegesis emphasises a universal social contract amongst Higaunons, one with supernatural aspects, that remains complete, unbroken, intact — like a solid (specifically round) piece of pure gold or, with reference to the latter part of the name, an unspilled cup of oil.

20 Those without access to beasts of burden will haul logs out of the forest on their own, by tying the rope around their torsos, a method known as ‘dragging’. Secondary-school children sometimes engage in this dangerous activity to help pay for school fees and related expenses. According to local NCIP officials, this is a common income-generating strategy amongst other Lumad groups as well.

21 In the Philippines, ‘ancestral domain’ refers legally to the lands claimed by Indigenous Peoples under the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997. See, Chapter II, Sec. 3(a). However, the term was first introduced in: Department Administrative Order 2, Series of 1993, issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on 15 Jan. by DENR Secretary Angel Alcala. It specified for the first time the ‘Rules and regulations for the identification, delineation and recognition of ancestral land and domain claims’.

22 See Cole, Fay-Cooper, The Bukidnon of Mindanao (Chicago: Chicago Natural History Museum Press, 1956)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 See an overview of the internal conflicts over leadership and representation among Higaunon Lumads in Paredes, ‘Custom and citizenship’. The assassination of datus by unknown assailants has been a regular occurrence in northern Mindanao. In the communities where I have done research, the most shocking killing in recent memory was the 2008 shooting of Berting Pinagawa — see Carl Cesar Rebuta, ‘Cry for justice for the death of anti-logging leader’, Inside Mindanao, 27 Dec. 2009 ( — and more recently a wave of assassinations, including that of the notorious ‘fake datu’ Francisco Baguiz, who was himself blamed for ordering other assassinations. See Jigger Jerusalem, ‘NPA owns up killing retired cop-turned-preacher in Gingoog’, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 19 May 2016. ( However, current reportage on violence in tribal areas tends to focus on abuses and killings by military and paramilitary forces, ignoring the periodic escalations in internecine conflict between leadership factions. See Mindanao Interfaith Institute on Lumad Studies, ‘Stalked by death: Lumad killings continue in the Philippines’, ( and L. Spear, ‘A “civil war” is being waged against Indigenous tribes in the southern Philippines, rights groups say’, Time Magazine, 15 Sept. 2015 (

24 See Paredes, ‘Custom and citizenship’.

25 Jerusalem, ‘NPA owns up killing retired cop-turned-preacher in Gingoog’.

26 There are many rumours surrounding Baguiz's death, including his followers claiming to have seen him resurrected, like Jesus, after his burial. He was believed by many Higaunons to have had supernatural powers, including immortality, which accounts in part for why his abuses were tolerated for so many years.

27 I participated actively in this process after receiving inquiries from a representative of Cultural Survival (United States) whose claims I found suspicious, based on my knowledge of Higaunon culture and personal knowledge of Mandipensa as a lowlander. I compiled online reports of his public talks and fundraising, which I then reported back to the Higaunon datus I knew. An associate of mine also visited the relevant provincial NCIP head to inquire as to Mandipensa's Indigenous status and received an official affidavit from the local Indigenous Peoples representative attesting that he not only knew who Mandipensa was, but also that he was not a Higaunon, did not live in a Higaunon area, and that ‘if [he] is soliciting donations, from Philippines sources or outside the country, no Higaonon Community … has benefitted from the same’ (official statement by Datu Allan Mandokita, signed 21 Feb. 2006, at the NCIP, Provincial Office of Misamis Oriental, Cagayan de Oro city). This affidavit was then circulated to the various international foundations that had given him money, including Cultural Survival, as well as potential funders in the European Union, and the Philippine Studies listserve online.

28 Chapter II, Section 3, item (h) of Philippine Republic Act No. 8371, ‘An Act to recognise, protect and promote the rights of Indigenous cultural communities/Indigenous Peoples, creating a National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, establishing implementing mechanisms, appropriating funds therefor, and for other purposes’; Emphasis added.

29 See Paredes, Oona, ‘Discriminating native traditions among the Mindanao Lumad’, in Old ties and new solidarities: Studies on Philippine communities, ed. Macdonald, Charles J.-H. and Pesigan, Guillermo (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2000), pp. 7490Google Scholar.

30 See McKenna, Thomas, Muslim rulers and rebels: Everyday politics and armed separatism in the southern Philippines (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 7079CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Barrantes, Vicente, Guerras piráticas de Filipinas contra Mindanaos y Joloanos (Madrid: M.G. Hernandez, 1878)Google Scholar.

31 Bangsamoro citizenship, as proposed, does not reference Islam even though being ‘Moro’ is generally understood to mean being Muslim.

32 Santos Magay Unsad, Facebook post, 10 Mar. 2015.

33 See Paredes, , ‘Indigenous vs. native: Negotiating the place of Lumads in the Bangsamoro homelands’, Asian Ethnicity 16, 2 (2015): 166–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 See Oona Paredes, ‘Custom and citizenship’, p. 157.

35 See also Theriault, ‘Unravelling the strings attached’, this vol.

36 This predates the passage of the 1997 Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act and the creation of the NCIP, which has taken over the certification of ancestral domain claims. All land titles — including ancestral domain titles — must still be processed through DENR.

37 The claimants who filed the alternate application were already included as beneficiaries of the approved claim. However, as a rival local faction, they filed a separate claim in a bid to gain administrative control over the ancestral domain.

38 Indigenous poverty is perceived generally by Indigenous rights advocates as being materially worse, because they are more disadvantaged socially and politically compared to mainstream Filipinos. In other words, it is harder for the Indigenous poor to alleviate their economic situation. However, over the decades I have heard quite a few Filipinos express a suspicion that some Indigenous Peoples have a hidden treasure trove in the uplands, and that Indigenous poverty is due to ‘laziness’ or to their leaders’ greed. The common use of the word datu (male indigenous leader) as slang for a wealthy person in Visayan languages probably feeds this perception. Among Higaunons, minor economic differences do exist, and they recognise themselves as being poor generally, but in general they do not see themselves as categorically worse off than other Filipinos who live in endemic poverty. I suspect it is the same with other Lumad groups.