A few years ago I was asked to open a new exhibit in UP’s anthropology museum. The exhibit focused on Batanes and the Ivatan culture.
Imagine my horror when the organizers brought in a chicken, slit its throat and had the blood drip on the entrance of the museum, supposedly to reenact an Ivatan ritual.
I thought of that ritual while reading about the Department of Education’s “Guidelines on the Conduct of Activities and Use of Materials Involving Aspects of Indigenous Peoples’ Culture,” which was released last December and featured in Wednesday’s Inquirer.
For decades now, in part because of the Spanish and American colonial periods’ attempts to divide the population into “civilized Christian groups” versus “pagan ethnic groups,” all kinds of stereotypes have emerged around “natives,” the more popular term used to refer to indigenous peoples (IPs). The stereotypes are sometimes racist, as in the depiction of Negrito groups, but in all of the typecasting, “natives” are depicted as backward and uncivilized.
Anthropologists have to share the blame for the stereotyping of IPs, and today there are conscious efforts to make up for the past.
In 2011, the DepEd adopted a national IP education framework that sought to challenge the stereotypes. This resulted in more schools incorporating aspects of IP cultures into programs and curricula. While generally appreciated as a step forward, certain IP groups expressed concerns about how IPs were being represented in the schools, sometimes in ways that reinforced negative stereotypes about them.
The guidelines are comprehensive, covering “artifacts” (cultural objects) as well as textiles, clothing, music, instruments, even “steps/movements.” I was thinking of how some dances end up more like disco dancing… or worse. The guidelines also mention publications and video productions about IPs.
The guidelines can be thought-provoking—for example, advice against using the term “costume” to refer to IP clothing, as the term suggests that the cultural performances are for show only.
Another guideline discourages “imitating the physical appearance of members of the community.” Strictly speaking, this would mean an end to all the Ati-Atihan type of presentations where performers paint themselves black, in imitation of the Ati or Negrito.
The reinforcement of negative stereotypes comes about because cultural representations of IPs are often taken out of context, as in the case of the chicken-slaughtering ritual. That was actually mild compared with beauty contests—whether male or female—where contestants try to outdo each other in the talent portion by purporting to present some “native” cultural presentation—for example, dancing with a snake slithering down the body or tearing apart a live chicken as part of some ritual sacrifice.
The problem is that representation of anyone different from ourselves always results in some distortion. This might sometimes be intentional, as when Filipinos were exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition in the United States. Daily shows included slaughtering a dog for food. These live exhibits were part of a colonial agenda, America’s way of justifying its occupation of the Philippines by showing how “primitive” we were, and how America would civilize us.
There are still vestiges of these condescending attitudes, equating “native” with “primitive.” In other cases, though, there may be good intentions involved, such as a genuine interest to understand IPs, but the tendency is still to look for the exotic, which still results in stereotyping.
The DepEd guidelines emphasize the need to involve “culture-bearers”—the “natives” themselves—whenever possible, and from planning to execution of projects. This is a good recommendation, but involvement of the IPs—individuals or communities—does not necessarily end stereotyping. Sadly, IPs themselves may recreate or reinvent themselves by trying to cater to public taste (or its lack thereof). Think of the “Igorot” offering their attire to tourists who can wear them and having themselves photographed. Pretty harmless, actually, especially when compared with the 1950s and 1960s when we would be dragged to photo studios in Baguio and made to change into G-string and tapis to be photographed, complete with spears for the boys and baskets for the girls.
Problems come about, even when IPs themselves are involved, when there are no attempts to explain the history and evolution of cultural forms. The “Muslim” singkil is an example. It is one of the most popular cultural presentations for school dance troupes, including UP’s, but some professors have suggested banning it because of complaints that the dance actually violates Muslim sensibilities. The original singkil is secular, having nothing to do with Islam, and involves only women dancers.
I would warn against attempts to maintain “authenticity” and “purity” in traditions because cultures are dynamic. Look into YouTube and you will find culture-bearers themselves modifying the traditions. Check out young male teenagers playing the kulintang with a pace almost like in rock bands.
The DepEd directive is mainly intended for public schools, elementary and secondary, but encourages private schools to use the guidelines. I would go further and suggest that the Commission on Higher Education issue similar guidelines for tertiary institutions, and not just for IPs but for cultural diversity in general. What we are seeing today is a move away from the idea of a monolithic Filipino culture, complete with national symbols, and into the multiculturalism that makes us a nation.
The DepEd directive focuses on IPs but can be expanded to help us overcome many other types of discrimination. We have IPs themselves discriminating against other IP groups, Christians against Muslims, Muslims against Muslims, and Christians against Christians—for example, Tagalog against Bisaya, and Bisaya against Bisaya.
The bottom line is that we are a nation divided not just because of regionalistic favoring of our own kind, but also because we marginalize fellow Filipinos who speak a language different from our own, who have a different faith.
The need is not just for cultural sensitivity, but cultural competence. It is not just tolerating differences, but finding ways to address problems that come about because of those differences.
There are many practical applications for cultural competence; for example, Ateneo’s MBA-Health program emphasizes the need for cultural competence in healthcare, dealing with such needs as translation into different local languages, or providing halal food for Muslims, and much, much more.
And given the millions of Filipinos living and working overseas, cultural sensitivity and competence become even more important. The challenge, too, will not just be for Filipinos overseas, but also for the many hyphenated Filipinos (Fil-Am, Japinoy, etc.) who come to live in the Philippines, transforming our concepts and our definitions of Filipino.
(The DepEd order can be downloaded from Deped.gov.ph/orders/do-51-s-2014.)
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