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To be or not to be Igorot

“Parents  ko  lang  po  (Only my parents),” the young lady said when we asked her if she is Igorot. I found her reply arrogant and really annoying. But as time passed, I realized that there was so much in what she said that I had missed.

It is true that bloodline is determinative of ethnicity. But our identity is more than just our ethnicity. Our physicality or physique, and even our gait, may vary depending on our bloodline. However, our DNA cannot vest us with a particular way of life. No one is born with particular beliefs or speaking a particular language or living a particular set of values. These will depend on how we were raised and on our choices once we grow up.

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The thing is, we are so obsessed with the idea of bloodline in determining our identity. I was guilty of this. There were times in the past that I felt like I needed to know who among my ancestors were Kankana-ey (belonging to an ethnic group that is among those collectively known as Igorot) to prove that I am Igorot. I was a member of an organization of students from various indigenous communities back in college. To my mind, my failure to trace my roots meant being considered a sham. Worse, I thought others would view me as claiming an Igorot identity merely for political ends, as I was then a student leader (not really much of a politician, I believe).

But my colleagues proved me wrong. Despite failing to definitively trace my Kankana-ey origins, I was still welcomed by my organization after I was able to prove my sincerity. They treated me as no less than a real Igorot. No one questioned me when I talked about the struggles and issues confronting indigenous peoples from an insider’s perspective. They showed me how identity can be established by self-attribution and recognition of others. Yes, there were times when they talked about their  ili  (community) and their way of life, to which I was not really able to relate. I was not raised as an Igorot, but I know I am one. I chose to be Igorot, and I continue to choose to be.

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Now, I am thinking of the young lady. The way that we responded to the situation was not only improper but also immature. I get that now. We cannot blame her for refusing to embrace an Igorot identity. There is institutionalized discrimination against the Igorot (and indigenous peoples in general). As I learned from my history classes, discrimination against the Igorot dates as far back as the Spanish colonial era.

Unfortunately, the negative notions that were sown by the Spanish colonizers have been carried out throughout history. Remember the classic “Igorot  na  may  buntot” (Igorot with a tail)? At first, I thought it was an exaggeration, as how can people be so stupid as to actually think that an Igorot has a tail? But, much to my surprise, I learned that there are really people who believe so. Furthermore, the media continue to portray the Igorot as exotic, ignorant and backward. This is too much for a young Igorot to handle.

We lost the young lady along the way. Things would have been different if we responded to the situation differently. We failed to understand where she was coming from.  We could have taken the opportunity to educate her and show her how awesome it is to be an Igorot. In the end, she might still have chosen to deny being an Igorot, or she might have embraced the identity.

We will never know, because we were just annoyed, period.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not blaming anyone. It is just that at first, I also did not understand much of the Igorot culture. I found some of our practices unnecessary and backward. Some of my colleagues in our organization were beginning to hate me for being so judgmental and uncooperative. Our adviser talked to those students who were then about to give up on me, saying that they had to understand me and be patient. Otherwise, our adviser said, they would lose me. I could have paid that kindness forward.

It took me a long time before I totally understood and imbibed my Igorot identity. It helped that I enrolled in subjects on indigenous peoples’ history. But for the most part, I learned lessons beyond the four corners of the classroom. I attended discussion sessions, engaged in community immersion, and spent much of my time with other members of my organization from various ethnic communities.

Most of us exchanged cultures, languages, traditional dances, food and stories from various communities. A minority, including myself, started out as observers but eventually became participants. I still cannot play the gongs, and neither can I perform the traditional dances. I would still rather go to church than attend the traditional rituals. But these limitations and beliefs do not make me less of an Igorot.

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Aside from learning to speak Kankana-ey to some extent (of which I am very proud), I learned about the struggles of and issues confronting indigenous communities—the institutionalized discrimination; the general perception influencing even state policymakers, resulting in programs integrating indigenous peoples into the mainstream (as if we live in the dark ages and we have to be enlightened); and the state’s inability to understand the perspectives of indigenous peoples on land and development, which has led to their massive displacement from their ancestral lands.

I am very thankful for this much-needed enlightenment.

The young lady could have learned all these things, too, if only if we gave her the chance that my colleagues and our adviser once gave me. If in the end she still chose to reject the Igorot identity, let her. Identity should never be imposed upon a person. If one will say that he or she is not an Igorot, let him or her be. Do not judge. Do not hate.

After all, being an Igorot is more than just having Igorot parents or being born in an ethnic community. It is about embracing an identity and living a particular way of life, virtues and values.

Hendrix C. Bongalon, 25, is a social sciences graduate of University of the Philippines Baguio and a law graduate of Saint Louis University. He is also the founding chair of UP Dalikan, an alliance of Cordilleran students’ organizations in UP Baguio, UP Diliman and UP Los Baños.

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