As tourists and festival goers flock to Malaybalay City for the annual Kaamulan festival this coming weekend, I could not help but contemplate and recall my week long adventure from Agusan del Sur, Davao City, and finally to Bukidnon. A week long journey has opened my mind to the wisdom of the indigenous people and the reality which they are in. Neither words nor a photograph could truly express the bittersweet lessons I have garnered by talking to the elders of different groups. Though some would refer to this state as enlightenment, I would however like to call it being grounded.
I was commissioned by Easter Luna Canoy (Executive Director of Kitanglad Integrated NGOs) and a pair of investigative journalists for an assignment in Agusan del Sur. The Banwaon indigenous people can only be found in the simple town of San Luis. A town located in the heart of the province is home to Manobos, Talaandigs and the Banwaons. It was there I got to learn about their history and the struggles which they face every day. And although I could never grasp the gravity of their situation, it became clear to me that the Banwaon people are slowly diminishing in numbers. Their fight to reclaim their ancestral domain from different adversaries is a chapter in their book yet to be finished. Coming from a lineage of indigenous people, it pains me to see them forcefully displaced from their land and would have to find other means to survive in strange places.
The conversations with Bae Nene who was recently installed as the IPMR (Indigenous Peoples Mandatory Representative) changed my perception on culture and traditions. At the age of 45, she is considerably quite young to be the bridge and the voice of her people to the government. Little of us know that the IPs (Indigenous People) already had a governing system implemented long before the Spanish came to colonize our land, and ever since that form of government has been in practice and passed down from generation to generation. However, with modernization as one of the main threats to their way of life, these people are nothing less than resilient. This ethnic group which is led by the “Katangkawan” or Supreme Chieftain and protected by the “Bagani” or the warrior, still perseveres through. It was there in the humble abode of the Banwaons I felt a sense of yearning during their “Panampulot” ritual, a sense of spirit that aches to return home to their forest. And with the installation of the IMPR, I hope in all sincerity that these people progress to peace, prosperity, and conservation of their culture.
For the past four years of photographing the “most authentic” festival in the country, it dawned upon me as I sat quietly in the corner of Yaka in Malaybalay City that it has somewhat changed. Upon further discussion with knowledgeable sources, it has indeed evolved from a gathering of the IPs to a competition of municipalities (and on the side a political rally). Though the income from tourist and the curious travellers would be quite substantial to many industries in the locality, I’ve often wondered what the IPs are given in return. It is however through this celebration with a great profound sense of pride that the people of Bukidnon, the 7 Indigenous People groups, can proudly say that this is them.
Them in a light which very few can witness and really try to, them in a manner that even fewer can understand the context of why each step, chant, shout, and hand movement is performed in that sequence. Travelling is fun, no doubt about it. But the reason on why you want to go there either creates a lasting memory in you or may just be a temporary high is up to you entirely. Kaamulan has taught me to dig deeper, to look beyond the bright colours, smiles, and the euphoria that is in the air. Though the highlight of the festival is the street dancing and the tableau presentation, I chose to go off the beaten path this time and look for the people that give their efforts to showcase and pass on the Kaamulan spirit.
Waway Saway who is known greatly for his musical genius performed in the sought after and unfailingly full housed Yaka. Salima Saway was there in the grounds teaching the ways of soil painting to the next generation of tribal artists. It gives me great joy to see that in their own ways, they are upholding and showcasing the culture of the Talaandig for the rest of the people to see. Though I may not be there presently this year to witness the dances and festivities, I hope that the tourists take in the lessons from the triumphs and struggles of the stories that Kaamulan festival will share.
The importance of authenticity is often overlooked. I am guilty of this as a photographer, I who sought out to create photographs of subjects during festivals that stood out before and did not contemplate what stories they tell. Given the colourful costumes and the drumbeats, a photographer’s mind is filled with many considerations on technicalities such as the exposure, ISO, and aperture when in the midst of the beautiful chaos of a performance. But for the longest time, I have seen festivals and rituals through the eyes of a traveller and never through the eyes of the people who safeguard, protect, and practice the traditions firsthand. Understanding the essence of a festival on how it started, why it came to be, and who were the first multitude that gathered for it is a necessary perspective for any writer or photographer. And although by doing this our photographs will become more selective, I personally believe that what we show to our viewers/readers will give them a better understanding for years to come.