Caught On Camera: The Lost Culture Of Philipines Indigenous Panay Bukidnons

In the world of the Panay Bukidnon, a group of indigenous people living in the highlands of Panay in Central Philippines, the word ‘sibod’ has many meanings. It is an expression that signifies the rhythm of life; it means dancing in tune with your partner; it’s about being able to adapt to new influences if they make sense with your own culture and beliefs; it’s also a recognition that people can live in harmony with one another and resolve conflicts through peaceful means.

The Panay’s live by the philosophy of ‘sibud’ that reflects the community’s way of life, even as they try and adapt to today’s fast-paced world. And in her documentary, ‘Ga Sibod Dai-a!’ , Maria Christine Muyco, Assistant Professor at the College of Music, University of the Philippines, gives an insight to this struggle for change. An important account of a nearly forgotten culture, the film – released recently – was made with grant from the Creative and Research Scholarship Fund of the University of the Philippines System. Muyco traversed through difficult jungle terrain to capture their lives on camera.

The talented and gutsy filmmaker’s research on this small ethnic community revealed that Panay Bukidnons are the descendants of 10 Bornean Datus or 10 Bornean chieftains who escaped the cruelty and injustice of Sultan Makatunaw, the ruler of Borneo in the 13th century. They landed on the Panay Island and bought the rich plains of Panay from its original settlers, the Ati tribe. When the Spaniards came to the island several generations later, the Panay Bukidnon retreated into the thick and seemingly impenetrable jungles high up in the mountains.

Of course, there have been people before Muyco, who have tried to uncover the mystery of the Panay people. It was anthropologist, F. Landa Jocano, who first discovered this group of people during his research forays in the Panay hinterlands during the 1950s. He gave them the name Sulod, or people living inside the thick forests. Three decades later, Professor Alicia Magos, the former Director of the Center for West Visayan Studies, University of the Philippines, did her own documentation in the area and renamed the tribe the Panay Bukidnon, meaning people of the Panay mountains.

The Panay Bukidnons are recognised for their rich culture of music and dance, particularly the tradition of singing epics based on the adventures of mythical heroes and heroines, which has been kept alive even today by ‘binukots’, mostly young girls trained to be oral historians.

During her research, Professor Magos found that a ‘binukot’ is the fairest and most intelligent daughter of the community chosen by her parents and siblings to learn special skills. As the “favoured one”, epics are chanted to her and she is shown the traditional song and dance routines so that she can learn them by heart. “Since the epics reflect so much of their pre-colonial culture, in the absence of official record keepers, ‘binukots’ serve as memory banks and in the process became oral folk historians of the Panayanon and the Visayans as a whole,” she explains. The ‘binukots’ are also central to Muyco’s documentary.

Another cultural aspect that ‘Ga Sibod Dai-a!’ focuses on is the ‘binanog’ music-dance tradition that embodies the spirit of ‘sibod’.” ‘Sibod’ as projected by the ‘binanog’ indicates ‘flow,’ regulating the performance through the play of structures and synchronisations.

The ‘binanog’ dance closely imitates the movements of the hawk or ‘banog’ (in Ligbok, their local language), commonly found in the farming areas in Panay. Between male and female ‘binanog’ dancers, there is perfect synergy. The man observes and matches the steps of the woman. It is important that the man senses when the woman will shift her steps. The man allows the woman to lead the direction of the dance. Besides harmonious movement, this dance also reflects the courtship ritual of the Panay Bukidnons. According to Muyco, the representation of the conventional ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in the ‘binanog’ is an “exemplar of how the two sexes in the community adjust their roles according to the demands of the situation or circumstances”. “They may differ in what they do, how they creatively move and negotiate roles, but in the Panay Bukidnon language, these differences are all part of the expressions of ‘binanog’,” she observes.

This same principle of negotiation and adaptation perhaps applies in the way the tribe has coped with social events that have caused significant changes in their way of life. In her research article, ‘The Sugidanon’, Magos writes that between the 1970s-1980s, Sitio Garangan in Panay was the stronghold of armed rebel groups. Communities were driven out of their settlements by militarisation and rebellion, and this resulted in the disintegration and atrophy of the Panay culture.

The government’s education programme in the 1970s encouraged children to go to school and learn to read and write. The transistor radios and television exposed the mountain dwellers to lowland culture, and they gradually began to “leave behind their tradition of epic singing” and other aspects of their indigenous culture. Forced by poverty, the women also had to abandon their traditions to work as domestic helpers to support their families when income from ‘kaingin’ (slash and burn) farming and the dwindling forest resources became insufficient. Muyco also reveals that many female Bukidnon cultural workers migrated to Hong Kong to work as tutors for the future of their children.

But the government has tried, by way of legislation as well as intervention, to preserve the Panay Bukidnon culture. The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act recognises the value of indigenous peoples in the Philippine’s cultural history. And, according to Alfonso Catolin, Regional Director, Region 6, National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), since the law makes ethnicity a primary requisite in a group’s application for the declaration of their land as ancestral domain, every year the Binanog Festival is held to showcase the Panay Bukidnon’s oral traditions, songs and dances. And every edition has drawn vast crowds of locals as well as tourists.

Then, in 2001, the School for Living Tradition, or ‘Balay Turun-an’, was established in Garangan with the help of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), National Commission On Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), UP Center for West Visayan Studies and the local government of Calinog. In the Balay Turun-an, older members of the community teach the younger ones their indigenous knowledge systems and practices so that each new generation takes pride in persevering their heritage.

Of course, the contribution of cultural workers like Prof. Muyco and Dr Magos, who have tirelessly hiked through difficult mountain trails to reach out and encourage more Panay Bukidnons to actively practice the beautiful facets of their almost forgotten culture, cannot be overlooked. And for the two scholars, hearing children like three-year-old Jally Nae Gilbaliga skillfully chant the ‘sugidanon’ is reward enough for their efforts.