By Kirin Macapugay, Kalingas North America Network and BIBAK San Diego
October 14, 2012

The Philippines is a collection of 7,000+ islands comprised of multiracial people speaking 171 various languages.  Igorots, meaning “people of the mountain,” are one of the recognized indigenous peoples of the Philippines’ northern Luzon island, from the area known as the Cordilleras.  The five major tribes of the Igorot people are the Benguet, Ifugao, Bontoc, Apayao, and Kalinga, with various sub-tribes.  Igorots share a unique sociopolitical history within the Philippines, long ostracized and portrayed for being “backward.”  The warrior culture and mountainous terrain prevented Spanish colonizers from establishing a garrison in the mountain provinces for 400 years.  During the Spanish secession of the Philippine islands to America, Americans viewed Igorots as “noble savages,” furthering divides between indigenous people and mainland Filipinos.  However, with little external influence, and appointed American ambassadors who strategically sectioned tribes (in the early 1900’s) while allowing them to retain their traditions, Igorot culture survived.

Igorot tribes historically practiced headhunting, which faded after World War II and the onset of peace pacts, known as bodongs, between warring tribes.  These peace pacts allowed for stronger ties between tribes, reinforcing a collective identity.  Igorots were keepers of the ritualistic tribal tattoos, which men earned after proving themselves successful warriors.  In Kalinga, first-born daughters received their tattoos at the onset of puberty, usually a decade long process depending on the intricacy of the design.  Traditions and practices involved intricate cloth and basket weaving, mummification, bead and jewelry making, mining, pottery, and metalworks.  In a land with rich natural resources, including gold and timber, the Philippines’ famed Banaue rice terraces are a testament to the sophisticated agricultural and engineering methods of the Igorot people.  Traditions, especially music and dance tied to life milestones, continue to be handed down to those who want to retain them, generation to generation, including those who emigrate to America.

As part of the larger Filipino and Asian Pacific Islander population, Igorots in America are often mixed in with larger cultural presentations of the Philippines and Asia. Cultural dance troups tend to theatricize Igorot music and dance.  Igorot arts are directly tied into traditions marking significant milestones, as well as ways to honor ancestors and the belief of their presence in everyday life.  With support from ACTA’s Living Culture Grants Program, two organizations of Igorots—the Kalingas North America Network and BIBAK San Diego (part of a worldwide organization initially formed in the Philippines to ensure Igorots could hold political office in their own land) responded to the growing generation of young Igorot Americans in Southern California requesting greater knowledge and teaching of particular arts.  More importantly, the program helps educate the larger public about traditional Igorot arts, taught by Igorots themselves.

On August 25, 2012, the first canao (gathering) focused on youth ages 25 and below, was held in San Diego.  Families from San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and as far as Maryland, gathered for kinship, and more importantly, to learn new traditions.  As is the traditional method of learning for Igorot generations, elders in family clans teach younger relatives, typically during gatherings and important celebrations. The canao focused on Kalinga bamboo instrumentation and backstrap weaving—utilized amongst all the tribes. 

Backstrap weaving is an ancient method of weaving fabrics, predating the loom.  The method is also practiced by cultures in Bolivia, Peru, Burma, and other countries.  With a handful of aging Igorot weavers in the world, traditional methods have been replaced by major production facilities in Sagada, Philippines.  For the first time as a group, youth in San Diego had the opportunity to learn from Gloria Amiling DeGuzman, who was taught by her mother, master weaver Eusebia Mangayo Amiling, at the age of 13 in Bontoc, Philippines.  Now in her 60’s and residing in Maryland, Gloria taught the group of some 90-100 youth and their parents the differences in cloth patterns between tribes, the ways the fabric was dyed with using juices from berries or soot from burnt pine, the painstaking process of incorporating designs unique to certain tribes.  This was the first time youth had an opportunity to learn hands-on backstrap weaving, as the two known weavers living in Southern California are well into their late 70’s and unable to instruct.  At the end of the day, two belts were woven, with the majority of one belt completed by six-year old Kayla Lay, of Benguet and Kalinga descent.  The hope is to continue to teach a handful of young women who will continue the tradition.

Michael Wandag, Executive Director for the Institute of Native Arts and BIBAK Dance Ensemble, and a member of the Council of Elders for the Igorot Global Organization, taught youth—many who were his cousins, nieces, and nephews—various forms of Kalinga bamboo percussion instrumentation including the tongatongs, large bamboo reeds tuned by height and struck on the floor, played against the palm of the hands to produce rhythms.  Four various bamboo instruments were taught amongst the youth, who took turns learning about the instrument as well as corresponding music, dance, and more importantly, the significance of the dances—to celebrate a wedding, call upon ancestors, celebrate a victorious battle, or to ask for bountiful harvest.

The canao also included learning a traditional song called salidummay, usually sung during gatherings, with interchangeable lyrics.  New songs were learned, played on brass or bronze gongs, or gangsa, the usual instrument played by all Igorot tribes, as well as corresponding dances.  Videotaped, pre-recorded instruction is frowned upon, and must be done in person as part of a collective.  For music and dance, instruction is also a lengthy process, face-to-face, so that players may also learn the symbolism of each instrument, and each player’s “place” in the line of musicians in relation to the family.  For example, the lead gong or instrument player is the “head” or eldest male figure of the family clan.

At the end of the day’s worth instruction, families played music and danced well into the night, to demonstrate what they learned to their elders, as well as show gratitude for gathering together.

With a smaller group in America, Igorot youth have the opportunity to learn music and dance from other tribes, something not typically done in the Philippines.  An Igorot youth in America who is of Benguet and Bontoc descent can learn a Kalinga or Ifugao dance.  During the canao, Gloria’s backstrap weaving knowledge was “shared” people who were not all related to her by blood, when usually she would only teach the women in her family or village.  By extending these traditions to one another, Igorot youth are in America are able to retain and strengthen the traditions their ancestors practiced for hundreds of years, in mountains an ocean away.