Our goal in Ozamiz (a small city in the Western portion of the island of Mindanao) was to forge a connection with the members of La Salle University in Ozamiz (LSU). and to inspire connections between the arts, hunger action, and ongoing projects at La Salle in a potential partnership with a cluster of indigenous families currently living in the town of Penacio.
Our host for the weekend was Denise Mordeno Aguilar (on the right), newly appointed to the position of Director of the Arts and Culture Center at La Salle (and, like everyone else working in theatre in the Philippines it seems, an old friend of our collaborator Jazmin). Our visit was supported by heroic long distance driving efforts by Carl Vincent Codera and overseen by Brother Butch Antolin Alcudia (LSU Vice President for La Sallian Mission).
We began with a community forum in which we shared the activities of Foodways Philippines activities to date. The LSU faculty shared an overview of their many projects. We all watched a UNESCO video about the many varied thanksgiving ceremonies that the Subanen hold in different regions.
The centerpiece of the visit to Ozamiz was the next day, a daylong visit with one of the eight extant “clans” of Subanen. The site visit was circumscribed by a number of governmental constraints. Because of short notice, this community was selected because there was already an FPIC (“formal and prior informed consent”) in place for interactions with university researchers. However, La Salle has only really just started building connections with this town.
Due to the proximity of on-going, if low-level, armed conflicts, we had lowkey oversight by both police and military both on the road and on site, though the atmosphere was relaxed. Police joined in the dancing and spent much of the day watching a Celtics game against Miami on their phones; they were rooting for the Celtics.
For the occasion, Spatula&Barcode underwrote the costs of a “traditional thanksgiving celebration” (roughly $250 US). When the Subanen leaders asked our La Salle hosts to name a cause for thanksgiving for the event (which must be specified), they suggested the road that is currently in the midst of being constructed to and through the community at Penacio.
The road, which we traveled to reach Penacio, is a work in progress. It is paved until about 15 minutes drive time from the village, which is at about 850 meters in elevation. On dry days, it’s possible for a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach Penacio. On wetter days, we would have walked the final hour.
As is evident in almost all rural areas in the Philippines, the road is a mixed blessing, opening up travel options to the market and to tourism but also making the community more vulnerable to these incursions. Moreover, the road itself cuts the community in half, and creates a space where vehicular harm can occur that must be crossed all day between homes–even the cooking and the eating of our meal took place on different sides of the road.
These costumes tell a great deal about the circumstances of the community, who have been displaced from their land multiple times; combined with their poverty, this has meant that they no longer have traditional garb or musical instruments, nor tools for making new ones. Instead, community leaders asked that the university costume shop provide them with something comparable that could be worn for our visit.
For the occasion, one pig and several chickens were slaughtered. (On most days, the diet is mostly vegetables).
After lunch, there was a brief interval of dancing to recorded music.
We very much enjoyed this interesting and complicated day, not least because of the warmth we felt from our hosts (despite a parallel element that might have been suspicion).
While considerably less awkward than we anticipated, with numerous opportunities for conversations while the food was being prepared, the experience was extremely, inevitably, partial. For example, we were always working across multiple languages: Subanen, Visayan, Tagalog, and English.
There is no question that the encounter had a profound effect on everyone in the delegation, as was evidenced by the complex reflections of our post-visit debriefing with the group. Several of the students learned lessons about the influence of indiginous culture on their own Visayan culture as well as the role of Visayans in the suppression and colonization of indigienous communities.
We learned that the Subanen are most worried about land rights and driving permits. They also spoke passionately about the protection of the forest, which should remain the home of spirits. Members of our group observed evidence of malnourishment in the children, commented on the loss of language especially in households where only one parent is Subanem, and raised additional concerns about the lack of traditional instruments (lost in the many relocations) and attire (clothing is buried with its owner) and the lack of resources to replace them
What’s harder to know is how much of what we learned are merely the answers to questions as they were posed, as opposed to Subanen priorities. Denise beautifully described a meeting like this as the start of a courtship, where the Subanen have shared culture in the hopes that it will yield help: financial, legal, and more.
What are possible outcomes for a visit like this, beyond the emotions and perspectives shaped by the encounter? Will there be an ongoing partnership established? On whose terms? Will there be opportunities to preserve or revive traditional ways and is this something of interest to the Subanen themselves?
One of the partners for the event was the head of the local tourism board, which has an ongoing project to map the living heritage of the region. They provided shade umbrellas for the event as well as this banner. How will increased tourism benefit or detract from their wellbeing and cultural sovereignty?
On the following day, we were able to visit another Subanen project in development. This Eco-Tourism Park, a new and rather sterile environment, is seemingly meant to provide cultural demonstrations alongside housing for both indigenous people and for tourists. Construction is currently paused while political and cultural dilemmas around both preservation and relocation are resolved.