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A positive and respectful look at traditional Ifugao culture

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man with totem
Man with a totem.

By Jonathan Best

Book Review
Ifugao: People of the Earth
Written and edited by Prof. Delfin Tolentino, Jr., Leah Enkiwe-Abayao, Analyn Salvador-Amores, and Marlon Martin
Published by ArtPostAsia and the Aboitiz Group of Companies

OVER THE last few years the Aboitiz Group of Companies has sponsored several handsome and informative coffee-table books as part of their corporate philanthropy, these are offered for free to schools and educational institutions. The books have ranged from collections of heirloom recipes to illustrated essays on trees and the environment. This year’s contribution focuses on the indigenous Ifugao communities of northern Luzon; their history, traditions and material culture with a strong emphasis on artifacts relating to spiritual rituals.

The editorial team and group of writers for this project was headed by Prof. Delfin Tolentino, Jr., formerly director of the Cordillera Studies Center at the University of the Philippines (UP), Baguio. Short essays were contributed by associate professors Leah Enkiwe-Abayao of the Cordillera Studies Center and Analyn Salvador-Amores, Director of the Museo Kordilyera at UP Baguio, and Marlon Martin who is Chief Operating Officer of the Save the Ifugao Rice Terraces Movement in Kiangan, Ifugao. The overall book and design development is another beautiful contribution to book publishing by Tina Colayco of ArtPostAsia, Inc.

The photographs, both contemporary and vintage images illustrating this book, are as important as the text. The contemporary photos were taken by Jacob Maentz, an American documentary photographer based in Cebu. The numerous vintage photos were sourced from museums and private collections here and abroad, including the Banaue Museum and BenCab Museum here, and the University of Michigan, Newberry Library, and Michael Price Collection in the United Sates, among many other sources — even including rarely seen photos from the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Ifugao: People of the Earth, is not a definitive anthropological study, nor is it just a glossy travel pictorial for local and foreign tourists. It is, in fact, a very well- focused introduction and pictorial guide to the life and especially the traditional social and religious rituals of the Ifugao communities living in the highlands of northern Luzon around Banaue just north of Baguio. The contemporary photographs, almost all of which are of individuals or groups of people or ritual artifacts, are well captioned, giving the indigenous names of celebrations, ritual objects, the names of spirits, deities, and other pertinent information.

To add historical significance to the modern photographs, the book designers have carefully researched numerous photo archives and found vintage sepia and black-and-white images which show the same or similar events taking place a century or more ago. These old photos are carefully inserted beside the full color modern spreads, adding convincing visual evidence of the ancient roots of the Ifugao’s celebrations. These rituals revolve primarily around rice planting and harvesting, rites of passage for the young, healing the sick, and social prestige celebrations for prominent families.

Probably the most iconic images of the Ifugao culture are the ones of the Banaue Rice Terraces and those of their bu’luls, totemic male and female figures carved in wood, usually less than a meter tall, and used in rituals and as guardian figures. Building the rice terraces and the intricate system of waterways they required, virtually by hand, many centuries before the start of the European colonial occupation of the Philippines, was an amazing technological feat which involved the cooperation of the whole community over many generations.

The bu’luls were representatives of, and physical mediums for, the hundreds of spirits, deities, and ancestors that populated the Ifugao’s concept of the universe. These spirits could be called upon to provide omens and give assistance regarding rice cultivation and all other aspects of Ifugao culture and social life. Over the centuries, rituals were kept alive by mumbaki (shamans) and elders, both women and men, who remembered the oral histories of their communities and could repeat these in chanting ceremonies which could last for several days at a time.

The most beautiful and dramatic contemporary photos in the book are of the Punnuk ritual which takes place at the end of the rice growing season. All the villagers dress in their traditional finery, the men in bright red and black bahag (loin cloths) and head scarfs and the women in wrap-around woven skirts of the same material and white blouses adorned with heirloom trade-beads, mouther-of-pearl, feather, ivory and gold ornaments. With much chanting and singing and waving of leafy red dongla (cordyline terminalis) stalks, the men and boys of two villages challenge each other to a tug-of-war across a shallow mountain river. After much good natured struggle and splashing about in the cold river water, cheered on by the women folk, the wet and nearly naked winners take possession of a life-sized kina-ag — a “monkey scarecrow” made of rice stalks bound together with rattan. This kina-ag trophy, amply endowed with a prominent erect phallus as are many of the male bu’luls, is thought to ensure good rice harvests for the victor’s village in the coming year.

Over the last century and a half, the Ifugao communities in Northern Luzon’s Cordillera Central have been visited many times by foreign and local anthropologists, ethnographers, and photographers. The Germans Hans Meyer, Alexander Schadenberg, and Otto Scheerer each made forays into the mountains in the 1880s and 1890s, followed closely by the American naturalist Dean C. Worcester and his photographer assistant Charles Martin, both of whom photographed the Ifugao and other indigenous groups extensively. The American R.F. Barton lived with and studied the Ifugao in the 1920s and wrote about their culture in two sensitive and well-researched books. In the 1950s, Eduardo Masferré produced some of the finest ethnographic photographs ever taken anywhere in the world while living in northern Luzon. Just last year, Filipino photographer Tommy Hafalla published a beautiful retrospective collection of his excellent black-and-white photographs of the people of the Cordillera Central taken over the last 35 years.

Sadly, much of the historical documentation of the Ifugaos has been a record, at times lurid or demeaning, of their decline in the face of constant pressure from the forces of modern “civilization.” Standardized school books and foreign indoctrination has deprived them of much of their rich heritage. As the authors of this book point out, “This penchant for a uniform pedagogy transformed entire generations of Ifugaos to the ways of the dominant Filipino culture.”

This book, Ifugao: People of the Earth, is a happy exception. The photographs are beautiful and uplifting, and the narrative and documentation is positive and respectful. The authors repeatedly show how the current revival of the positive aspects of traditional Ifugao culture, through rituals and oral histories and the preservation of the Rice Terraces, creates powerful sentimental motivation for the local people to be proud of their ancestor’s accomplishments and the strength of their present communities. This book not only makes a positive contribution to the healing and growth of an often neglected people, it also introduces their culture to the greater Filipino community in a new and positive light. If the Ifugao can survive and grow and recapture their heritage, why not so many other ethno linguistic minorities languishing on the fringes of modern Filipino society?

In conjunction with ArtPostAsia and the Aboitiz Group of Companies, the Ortigas Foundation Library in Pasig, Metro Manila is distributing copies of the book for free to school libraries and other academic institutions. Contact Alma Buenafe at the Ortigas Foundation Library (631-1231) or make written requests on your school or library stationary. For students and individuals interested in doing further research on the Ifugao, the book offers an excellent list of reference material and acknowledges the many sources of photographs and ethnographic material used for their research.

 

(Jonathan Best is senior consultant at the Ortigas Foundation Library.)