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Back to Roots: Re-indigenizing the Philippine History

Meg Daupan

April 12, 2022



I don’t know how many museums I’ve been to in different countries, books I’ve read, and movies I’ve seen that portray indigenous communities as savage, lacking knowledge, uncivilized, etc. Much of written history is one-sided and told by those with power. They tell us that they discovered our land, cleansed and civilized our people who lived in jungles, and were brutally treated by the natives.


Figure 1. Portrayal of indigenous people as objects of discovery (“uncharted?” - not to the natives!) with a proclivity for violence. From a museum in Michigan, USA. My own photo. Similar portrayals can be seen around the world.

Unfortunately, many of us were made to believe in the same stories and treat the colonizers as our saviors. We have forsaken our own history, neglected our indigenous communities, discriminated against them, and displaced them from their own land.

In my recent trip back home to the Philippines, I visited my relatives in Sagada, Mountain Province, home to Kankana-ey and other Igorot indigenous peoples. During the trip, I went on a guided tour with my husband who is foreign to the country. He asked one of the tour guides to share more about the history of Sagada. He told us that Sagada was founded by the Americans around the early 1900s. This was strange to hear, especially after passing by the famous Banaue Rice Terraces which were first farmed by the Igorot inhabitants centuries earlier, long before the USA was even a country at all. We should feel pride in our culture and people! When talking about the history of our land, we have to first acknowledge the original inhabitants of the space, our indigenous ancestors. Tell us how the indigenous peoples lived long before any colonizers stepped foot on their land.


Some of you may be familiar with the infamous statement of Carlos P. Romulo, our nation’s representative to the United States and the United Nations from 1949 to 1960s, given as a response to the American portrayal of Filipinos as savages:

“The fact remains that the Igorot is not Filipino and we are not related, and it hurts our feelings to see him pictured in American newspapers under such captions as ‘Typical Filipino Tribesman.’” – Carlos P. Romulo, (1943) Mother America. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co. p. 59.


Figure 2. St. Louis exposition of 1904 forcing Filipinos to eat dogs (left) and fake photograph of an Igorot with tail that got widely circulated in 1925 (right). Photos from igorotage.com.

As a response to this statement, former Congressman Alfredo Lam-en, of the old Mt. Province (1961-1965), stated:


“The only difference between Mr. Statesman and myself is that, whereas, Mr. Statesman wears his NECKTIE ABOVE, I WEAR MINE BELOW.” (Referring to how the Igorot G-string is worn) This is one of the first few stories I heard from Mr. Lam-en’s late sister, Mrs. Mary Omaweng who is married to my great uncle, John.


Growing up, I was made to feel embarrassed to say I am Igorot. When I was a child, on the first day of school one year, we went around the room introducing ourselves. When I said I lived in Baguio city, the teacher thought it was funny to ask me, “Are you torogi?” (a slang word for Igorot) - his condescending and mocking tone made it clear he was amused that an Igorot was in his class. I felt ashamed of my ancestry. Numerous big and small instances of mockery and cruelty, especially against those with less power, happen around the world constantly.


As I learned more about deep-seated white supremacy and environmental injustice in the United States, I began to look back into my own culture and found similar patterns of oppression. Even if the Philippines is not as obviously racially diverse as US, it is home to more than 182 ethnolinguistic groups, of which a majority are indigenous. However only about 10 to 20 percent of the 110 million people in the country are from indigenous groups (https://www.iwgia.org/en/philippines.html). This minority of the population representing rich and diverse cultures have been marginalized for years.


One of the key drivers to land grabbing and displacement of indigenous peoples is profiting from resource-rich land. Take for instance Mindanao, the southernmost region of the Philippines. In terms of mineral abundance, the Philippines ranks fourth in copper, third in gold, fifth in nickel, and sixth in chromite (asiaminer.com), and Mindanao is home to half of the nation’s supplies of these valuable resources. Despite the region’s wealth, its people are among the poorest in the country. The Lumad, a collective community comprising 18 indigenous groups in Mindanao, has been a target of harassment and violence by the military forces and large mining corporations due to their claims on the estimated $840 billion worth of mineral resources in the region.


Figure 3: Protest of Lumad community against attacks on schools. Photo by AC Dimatatac

Indigenous peoples across the globe very often have a deep connection with the land, water, and resources they rely on. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer of the Potawatomi Nation explores this connection:


“In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us.” (Kimmerer, 2013, p. 17)


A similar idea was also expressed by Macli-ing Dulag, who was key to uniting the cordillera region of the Philippines in opposing the Chico River Dam Project led by former President Ferdinand Marcos. To those who are not familiar with Macli-ing Dulag, he was a leader of the Butbut group of Kalinga Province. In the 1970s, President Marcos planned the construction of four hydroelectric dams along the Chico River, a project that threatened to eliminate the Kalinga way of life - estimates showed that about 300,000 people would have been displaced by the project. Macli-ing Dulag organized a peace council to rally opposition against the Chico River dams. Later, Macli-ing Dulag was assassinated on April 24, 1980 by Marcos-controlled military forces. His death unified the indigenous groups of the Cordillera region against the proposed dam. In response, the World Bank pulled its funding, and the Marcos regime was forced to abandon it.

Figure 4. Macli-ing Dulag and his response to Macos-controlled military forces trying to take over their land.

The protection of indigenous peoples’ rights in the Philippines has come a long way in the last half century. One major legislative victory was the Republic Act No. 8371 in 1997, which is intended to recognize, protect, and promote the rights of indigenous peoples as well as create Certificates of Ancestral Domain Titles for certain communities. Despite some progress, there is still much work to be done in supporting our underserved indigenous communities.


My goal for Pinay Artist projects is to help promote and support the diverse indigenous communities in the Philippines through arts and technology. Please comment below to share about the history of your land, and subscribe to my website at pinayartist.com for more updates on my future blogs, events, and other projects.




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