On Cordillera indigenous culture

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

“Tradition and Transformation: Studies on Cordillera Indigenous Culture” by June Prill-Brett, edited by Delfin Tolentino Jr. and published by the Cordillera Studies Center of UP Baguio in 2015 is one of those books I purchased a few years back but never had the time to read until recently. The Japanese call this tsundoku, which means acquiring books and allowing them to pile up without reading them… immediately, I hasten to add.

There are two reasons why I find this book so meaningful to me personally. The first is that I have always been interested in the life of the Cordillera people, about whom so little has been written. The second is that this book was awarded the Elfren S. Cruz National Book Award in social science, a Manila Critics Circle-National Book Development Board initiative I am always happy to support.

The book is a collection of Prill-Brett’s most important works on the indigenous societies of the northern Luzon highlands. It should be obvious to most observers of this region of the Philippines that the people of these traditional societies are rapidly undergoing changes.

At the time of the writing of this book, the author was a professor of anthropology. I believe she continues in this role. She is internationally recognized for her work on Cordillera society. According to William Henry Scott, known as the most well-known writer on Cordillera culture, the author Prill-Brett “has been cited by practically every anthropologist and social scientist writing about the Bontok people of northern Luzon.”

This collection of articles was written over a period of 25
years. The first papers were written during the Marcos years, especially during the period of martial law.

In the Introduction, the author wrote a brief summary of each of the 12 chapters. In Chapter 1, “Cordillera Indigenous Cultural Institutions,” presents a review of the political institutions of the Ibaloi, Kankana-ey, Bontok, Kalinga, Ifugao, Isneg, Tingguian. These are the different ethnolinguistic groups of the region.

Chapter 2, “Local Territorial Boundaries and Resource Control,” was written during martial law. It tried to address a major issue at that time. This was the classification of the whole Cordillera region as a forest reserve which could render all the mountain inhabitants as trespassers and could be evicted from their own land.

Chapter 3, “Bontok Property Regimes and State Policies,” describe the three Bontok property regimes, namely forest land, pasture land and Swidden land, which is land located on gradual mountain slopes.

Chapter 4, “The Bontok: Traditional Wet Rice and Swidden Cultivators of the Philippines,” reviews how Bontok agricultural practices developed because of the interface of the agroeco and social systems. This includes the importance of rituals and the impact of the outside world on this traditional society.

Chapter 5, “Coping Strategies in the Bontok Highland Agroeco System:  the role of ritual,” points out that ritual performances give farmers confidence and some feeling of control over their daily encounters with uncertainty and unpredictability caused by environmental changes.

Chapter 6, “Stone Walls and Waterfalls: Irrigation and Ritual Regulation among the Bontok,” was written in response to the neglect of small-scale irrigation systems in the study. It deals particularly with the Bontok irrigation system, resource distribution and forms of conflict resolution, and the way by which rituals are able to maintain a unique balance between the social and environmental constraints.

Chapter 7, “Ibaloi Customary Law on Natural Resources,” was prepared as a reference document on the evaluation of ancestral land claims through the ethnographic documentation of Ibaloi customary law that governs their land resources, system of land ownership, modes of land use and transfer and the settlement of land disputes.

Chapter 8, “Contested Domains: the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) and Legal Pluralism,” examines how the government’s awarding of certificates of ancestral land claims and certificates of ancestral domain claims and the implementation of the IPRA have affected the indigenous communities’ resource management practices. It also shows ways in which both the state law and local law are manipulated by individuals and interest groups who exploit the discrepancy between the two competing jural systems for their ends.

Chapter 9, “Public/Private Domain: Gender Relations in the Central Cordillera,” highlights theories and models of gender differences like female subordination and male domination are shown not necessarily supported by the Bontok experience. Here, women have a high status and male and female tasks are viewed as complementary and even interchangeable. Men’s and women’s productive contribution are equally valued by society.

Chapter 10, “Tribal War, Customary Law, and Legal Pluralism in the Cordillera,” looks at the dynamics of Bontok traditional armed conflict and identifies the different kinds of warfare and the laws and regulations that govern this.

Chapter 11, “Adult Jar Burial Practice in the Central Cordillera: An Ethnoarcheological Report,” describes the interment of the dead in earthenware jars, a practice that was once widespread in the Philippine archipelago.

Chapter 12, “The Ethnohistory of Baguio from the Pre-colonial to the American Colonial Period,” was written to commemorate Baguio’s centennial in 2009. It looks into the unfolding of events that led to the founding of Baguio based on ancestral memories as narrated by informants and crosschecked with historical accounts.

This is the most detailed historical narrative of the mountain region that I have ever read. It made me aware of how little we know about the Cordillera peoples and the urgency to know more.

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