This October, as the nation commemorates National Indigenous Peoples Month, we place a spotlight on the Philippines’ indigenous cultural communities in the continuing struggle for their rights, their ancestral domains, and their autonomy.
In 2009, Presidential Proclamation No. 1906 declared October as National Indigenous Peoples Month, enjoining the people “in the celebration and preservation of Indigenous Cultural Communities as part of the Life of the Nation.” In pursuance of this, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) has hosted the annual Dayaw, a festival held to celebrate the cultural heritage of the Philippines’ many indigenous communities. This year, the theme of the festivities is “Katutubong Filipino: Atin Ang Tagumpay,” highlighting the prevailing optimism and resilience of the indigenous peoples in the face of countless adversities. In coordination with the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), the celebration also marks the Year of the Filipino Pre-Colonial Ancestors (YFPCA), pursuant to Proclamation No. 1128, s. 2021.
The history of the Philippines’ indigenous communities is irrevocably connected with the country’s history of colonialism and its struggle for independence, identity, and national unity. The Spaniards’ drive of Christian instruction and baptism alienated indigenous groups whose religious beliefs and customs had already been in place and cultivated for centuries. The Spaniards’ attempts to assimilate the same into their restructured sociopolitical system also proved difficult, as there already existed among these groups, a level of sophisticated social, political, and economic order. With the emergence of a national consciousness, the country fought for autonomy and a national identity.
However, the othering of indigenous groups remained the same during the American period, as they were viewed as primitive, backwards, and in need of advancement, assistance, and rescue. Attempts at modernization came at the expense of their identity and history. Many perished as they defended their homes and communities from the intrusion of outsiders.
Even as the country freed itself from colonizers and recovered from the rubbles of war, the plight of the indigenous communities remained, if not worsened. Their ancestral domains continued to be encroached upon; their resources depleted; their lives constantly threatened. This became most apparent during the Martial Law years of Ferdinand Marcos. Harking back to the ideas espoused by the Spanish and American colonizers, Marcos launched aggressive development projects in indigenous lands, supposedly for the sake of modernization and assisting the people. Dams. Factories. Logging companies. These projects would bring untold destruction and loss of lives for many ethnolinguistic communities throughout the country.
As they did before – just as their ancestors have done – many of the community leaders and warriors refused to relinquish their lands and their autonomy. These were the martyrs and heroes who stood their ground and asserted their community’s right to defend their culture, their right to protect their ancestral domains, and their right to life – at the expense of their own.
Their struggle continues to this day. Perhaps the theme of this year’s commemoration of National Indigenous Peoples Month, “Katutubong Filipino: Atin Ang Tagumpay,” may be viewed from a different lens. The adversities they face and triumph over are not necessarily natural adversities. They continue to fend off attempts to claim their ancestral domains, rob them of their natural resources, and “modernize” them. Much like the martyrs and heroes who have come and gone, many of their leaders today are facing scrutiny and persecution for resistance to the activities of the government and private corporations. Modernization and economic development should never come at the cost of any sector, especially when those who are affected the most are the ones who have historically served as the vanguards of nature and of their communities.
The history of the Philippines’ indigenous communities is irrevocably connected with the country’s history of colonialism and its struggle for independence, identity, and national unity. Though they may be often relegated to the backdrop of the more mainstream narratives of struggle, martyrdom, and heroism, these communities were present nonetheless. Many of the indigenous peoples fought alongside their Christian and Muslim brethren for their rights and their freedom during the colonial period. They fought as part of the nationwide resistance movement during the dictatorial rule of the Marcos administration.
For us to be able to celebrate and preserve our indigenous cultural communities as part of the Life of our Nation, we must break the cycle of repression and intrusion. Rather, we must assert and support the protection of their land, culture, and identity, which have long stood throughout our history.
“Remembering Macli-ing Dulag and the Anti-Chico Dam Struggle” by the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission: https://thefreedommemorial.ph/latest-releases/remembering-macli-ing-dulag-and-the-anti-chico-dam-struggle/
“The Chico River Basin Development Project: A Case Study in National Development Policy” by Joanna K. Cariño, Aghamtao Vol II (December 1979): https://pssc.org.ph/wp-content/pssc-archives/Aghamtao/1980/05_The%20Chico%20River%20Basin%20Development%20Project_%20A%20Case%20Study%20in%20National%20Development%20Policy.pdf
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“Standing its Ground: An Indigenous Community in the Philippines” by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (22 May 2009): https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NEWSEVENTS/Pages/StandingitsgroundanIPPhilippines.aspx
 “Proclamation No. 1906, s. 2009,” Official Gazette, October 5, 2009, retrieved October 18, 2021, https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/2009/10/05/proclamation-no-1906-s-2009.
 “NCCA leads National Indigenous Peoples Month this October,” Philippine News Agency,” October 1, 2021, retrieved October 18, 2021, https://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1155237.