Natives by Michael Tan (Part 1)



Michael Tan is a professor from the University of the Philippines (Diliman) who writes a column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Pinoy Kasi. If you ever visit the ad-ridden site that is the Inquirer, you can make it worth your while if you read Michael Tan’s column as his commentaries are full of insights about who we (Filipinos) are as a people. Occasionally, he writes articles about indigenous peoples like the one we are reprinting here. We “stole” it from his website (I’m sure he wouldn’t mind) and are reprinting it here in its entirety as it is very relevant to our earlier discussion about the importance of combating the negative stereotypes about Igorots. Thanks Betelnut for the tip.

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Natives by Michael Tan: LAST Friday’s Inquirer featured Frank Fischer, an American who prefers to be called Kiko and who goes around in a G-string while living with the Mangyan-Buhid tribe on Mindoro Island.

The case of this American Kiko reminds us that often it is non-Filipinos who seem to care more about the situation of our cultural minority groups. For most Filipinos, the cultural minorities are “natives,” complete with pejorative connotations of the “backward” and “primitive.”

Such connotations did not come about accidentally. They come from decades of stereotyping and prejudice, dating back to the colonial period. The Americans called all Filipinos “natives” and eventually, the lowland Filipino — Tagalog, Cebuano and other dominant groups — dissociated ourselves from the label and reserved it for the cultural minority groups.

Just think of your own childhood and how you picked up your notions about natives. In my own childhood, the natives were for the most part invisible, known to inhabit the remote hinterlands. The University of the Philippines‘ anthropology department in fact still has a listed course called “Social and Economic Life of Philippine Mountain Peoples,” a terribly archaic name that I hope we will eventually change.

Back to my story. Occasionally, we would see “natives” in the cities, or during summers, when we would go off to Baguio City. But again, it was the differences between “us” and “them” that were highlighted. We were told the Igorot were headhunters, and when we misbehaved, our elders would threaten us, “Go ahead, we’ll give you to the Igorot.” That kept us effectively within the confines of our vacation house.

I remember one time, while we were out playing, an old Igorot woman dressed in her traditional clothing came walking toward our house. Terrified, we all ran back to the house, screaming like we’d seen a ghost.

But there was a paradox here: While we were made to fear the native, they were also exoticized, transformed into objects of curiosity. I still have photographs of our clan’s children — me with my sister in one, with cousins in another — the boys posing in G-strings and holding a spear, the girls wearing a “tapis (native wraparound) and holding a basket. For a brief photographic moment, we were “made” Igorot and native. The pictures were just quaint souvenirs, posing for them etched memories into our psyche of spear-wielding Igorot men and basket-carrying Igorot women.

It should not be surprising that our parents and grandparents held generally condescending views of the natives. I have old textbooks from the US colonial period, in which cultural minority groups were described as “savages” and “barbarians,” complete with photographs to emphasize their “backwardness.”

Has there been change in the negative stereotyped images? Not really. I still have students at the University of the Philippines, aged 16 and 17, asking if there are still headhunters in northern Luzon, or if tribes in Mindoro have tails. The exoticization of the native continues because schools and the mass media are not doing enough to correct the stereotypes. At best, articles are patronizing, at worst, they are blatantly bigoted, still propagating old myths.

We complain about how the Philippines makes it to the international press only when we have typhoons or volcanic eruptions, or bombings. But note too how the native makes it to the news mainly when there’s an epidemic, or famine, or some fanatical cult going on a rampage.

In college, I was fortunate to have joined volunteer groups that sent us to the Cordillera mountain range, an opportunity that allowed me to ditch the stereotypes about natives (and, I would like to think, the natives’ stereotypes about lowland Filipinos). The native did not resist change; they resisted colonialism, first of the Spaniards, then of the Americans and now of lowlanders. The resistance was not without reason. They had seen how land had been grabbed, natural resources plundered, and cultures driven extinct. The situation of the native — the poverty, the high child mortality rate, the famines, the proliferation of cults — was the product of a situation that “minoritized” them.

The “headhunter” image is disappearing, but I actually have mixed feelings here because this fierce warrior stereotype is giving way to even more negative images. There is the native as an urban beggar. Or the native as a comic figure in movies and TV sitcoms. In other cases, the native is there for entertaining tourists with their dances (although in many cases, I suspect the dancers, and dances, aren’t “native”).

I worry, too, about how the current interest in things “ethnic” — clothing, music — takes on a faddish quality, still reducing the “native” to an exotic object of curiosity. This can take rather extreme dimensions. Remember the stories about beauty pageants where contestants tried to outdo each other with “talent” presentations imitating natives, usually by killing a live chicken in some faked ritual? Apparently such gimmicks continue today. I heard that in a recent “Male Exotic Dancer” contest, not just one but three of the contestants pranced on to the stage wearing “native” G-strings and doing their macho dance routines while ripping apart live chickens, feathers and entrails flying all over the stage.

Alas, there goes the “native,” now an object of cheap imitation and pretensions to “authenticity,” a dismal reflection of the lowlanders’ search for an identity long lost to colonization.

At best, our attitudes are patronizing, seeing them as resistant to change. At worst, we view them as lazy and uncivilized.

Such attitudes are deeply-rooted, the Spanish and American colonizers and eventually, our own government, setting up barriers between “us” and “them.” We, the ones who surrendered to the foreign masters, were rewarded and called “civilized” as opposed to these mountain peoples who resisted. “They” were different: pagan, primitive.

We “non-natives” all grow up with rare glimpses into the lives of indigenous Filipinos, except for occasional documentary travelogues, the natives becoming just another part of the scenery and the flora and fauna. Or the occasional newspaper article, referring to the latest epidemic, or famine.

In our childhood, too, our elders would scare us with stories about the fierce native, exemplified by headhunters, these images invoked to threaten us if we misbehaved as I remember from summers in Baguio: “Sige, we’ll give you to the Igorot.”

I’m realizing, too, we rarely heard of, much less saw, native children. During those summers in Baguio, I do not remember seeing the children and I am realizing, now, that they were kept apart from us. I suspect that in part, their parents too were apprehensive and fearful of us, lowlanders, maybe the differences all the more emphasized by our being English-speaking Intsik, many more steps removed from their own culture. Perhaps they, too, threatened their children: “Sige, we’ll sell you to the Intsik!”

To be continued…

SOURCE: Michael Tan’s Website. PHOTO CREDITS: bullish1974 (for the Igorot warrior) and mbsordilla (for the Igorot beggar).

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