News and Features

Our first peoples, our first heroes, our minority

By virtue of Proclamation No. 1906, s. 2009, the Philippine Government leads the country in the observation of the National Indigenous Peoples Month every October. This year, this mandated observation was marred with tension.

On 19 July 2016, the protest of minority groups of indigenous peoples in front of the United States Embassy in Manila culminated to a violent dispersal by the police. But this was less violent than the attacks on lumad – Cebuano for “indigenous”; a self-ascribed collective name since 1986 for 18 non-Moro ethnolinguistic groups in Mindanao since (Rodil, 1994) – communities in Northeastern Mindanao which resulted to killings of several tribal leaders and the displacement of hundreds in 2015.

Their story, our history

Our indigenous peoples have not been significantly absorbed into the three centuries of Spanish rule and have managed to retain their traditions and customs, their way of life. They have taken pride in their valor, in their resistance to colonialism, in their cultural and heritage preservation. The Spanish-Moro conflict lasted for centuries, with the Spanish continuous attempts to expand their rule to the south in Mindanao and the Moros raiding Spanish-built forts and strongholds in Zamboanga, the Visayas, Mindoro, and up to the cabecera in Manila.

We may have heard these stories in civic studies in elementary or high school. We already know Si Lapu-Lapu’s epic heroism (though historical accounts suggest that Si Lapu Lapu is a native of Borneo) against Magellan’s expedition and the Spanish king like a legend, but most of us only know the tale this way: As Datu, Si Lapu-Lapu commanded his men to defeat the Spanish army in a battle in the shores of Mactan Island, resulting to the death of Spanish-commissioned explorer Ferdinand Magellan. What most of us do not know is that this was not simply an act against invaders per se; it was also an act against what in modern-day parlance we’d call as collaborators, such as Datu Zula, also of Mactan, and Rajah Humabon, ruler of Cebu, who paid tribute to the Spanish king and had amicable ties with the conquistadores. In Rajah Humabon’s perspective this is rebellion; in Si Lapu-Lapu’s view, we may see it as pre- and anti-colonial nationalism. (Sidenote: Tepai Pascual’s comic book, Maktan 1521, offers an easy yet substantial read on this, based on several historical accounts.) We also have Sultan Muhammad Dipatuan Kudarat (or, simply, Sultan Kudarat) of Maguindanao who strongly opposed the Christianization efforts of the Spanish colonizers in Mindanao. Some historians attribute the raid in Baybay, Leyte in 1663 to Sultan Kudarat’s men.

They have taken pride in their valor, in their resistance to colonialism, in their cultural and heritage preservation.

Aside from easily identifiable national heroes, thousands and thousands more of nameless indigenous peoples fought against the Spanish, resisting colonial rule. Historical accounts on the Battle of Bangkusay in Tondo on 3 June 1571 refer to “the brave youth from Macabebe” (or Bambalito; historian Pedro Paterno suggests his name was Tarik Soliman, but this was considered non-verifiable) who turned down Spanish Governor-General Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s offer of friendship and braved him with a fight. On 3 June this year, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines unveiled the historical marker for the youth leader of Macabebe, their first time to put up a marker for a nameless hero.


The “nameless hero” marker in front of the Macabebe Municipal Hall. Photo by Leo Villacarlos/The Business Mirror

The Spanish-American War in 1898 culminated into the Treaty of Paris, wherein the Philippines, as a Spanish colony, was ceded to the United States, effectively ending the Spanish Empire and marking the age of United States as a world power.This included the territorial domain of our indigenous peoples, as the negotiations for cession did not include any representation from the First Philippine Republic or Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo’s revolutionary government. While during the negotiations it was raised by the Spanish to cede only Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, and there were recommendations from the Americans to only take Manila and Luzon, U.S. President William McKinley decided that the “cessation must be the whole archipelago or none” (Wolff, 1961). The Philippine Islands ceded to the United States were thus delineated, to include even the non-colonized areas of Mindanao and Sulu.

During American rule, the entire archipelago, including the indigenous peoples, was incorporated into the new republic. To effectively pursue their national pacification agenda towards the previously non-colonized indigenous peoples, the Americans created the Mountain Province in the Cordilleras and the Moro Province in Mindanao. The Land Registration Act of 1902 furthered this subjugation, forcing our indigenous peoples to lose control of their ancestral domain, greatly affecting their resource-dependent way of life. For our indigenous peoples, land ownership is a foreign notion; for them land is a public good for the benefit of their communities. Thus, some indigenous communities were displaced, either seeking for land far up in the highlands or were left with no choice but to accept the laws being imposed upon them.


The aftermath of the 1906 Bud Dajo Massacre.

Political subjugation was not at all peaceful. Revolts against the American rulers ensued and the Moros continued to resist against the new rulers, and these were met with violence. Perhaps the most infamous of this is the Bud Dajo massacre in Sulu in 1906, wherein American troops allegedly engaged Tausug warriors, resulting to the death of around nine hundred Tausugs, mostly women and children who saught refuge in the crater of Mt. Dajo to avoid the firefight.


Grave and statue of Gen. Paulino Santos in General Santos City, finger pointing towards the Sarangani Bay. Photo by Mark Sherwin Bayanito.

The creation of the National Land Settlement Administration (NLSA) of the Commonwealth Government under President Manuel Quezon encouraged Christian inhabitants of Luzon and the Visayas to populate Mindanao, thus diluting the expanse of the Moro population in the island. The NLSA was headed by the then-Commanding General of the Philippine Army, Gen. Paulino Santos, as its General Manager. He established six Christian settlements in present-day General Santos City and South Cotabato and the existing B’laan communities were forced to live alongside their new neighbors until they were eventually displaced to the mountains. Christians from Luzon and the Visayas continued to relocate to Mindanao, effectively outnumbering the Moros and the lumads. This led to tension between the original inhabitants and the Christian migrants, as there were accounts of land-grabbing (the migrants were granted land titles) and killings. Needless to say, prejudice against the Moros and the indigenous peoples became increasingly rampant.

The struggle for self-determination

The oppression of indigenous peoples persisted even under Philippine self-rule. Highland-based indigenous communities experienced tension with mining companies, and intensified militarization in their areas was the response to their resistance. Militarization in Muslim Mindanao also affected the lives of the Moros. The concentration of political and economic power in the national capital have contributed to the underdevelopment of areas of indigenous peoples.

Indigenous groups in the Cordillera and Muslim Mindanao have already been aware of their right to self-determination during the American occupation through their submission of petitions for independence (while it must be noted too that some were petitions for continued American tutelage and further integration into the United States). From the 1960s onward, the call for self-determination were carried by separatist and rebel groups. Notable of these are the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which was founded in 1972 as a splinter group of the Muslim Independence Movement (MIM), and the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA), which broke away from the New People’s Army (NPA). The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)  was formed as a breakwaway group of the MNLF in the 1980s. These groups led the struggle for self-determination for the Moros and the indigenous peoples in the Cordilleras. Armed conflict with the Philippine government further caused displacement of affected indigenous communities, and hampered development in the localities. The CPLA, MNLF, and MILF have separately reached peace agreements with the Philippine Government, but the struggle for self-determination continues on.

The concentration of political and economic power in the national capital have contributed to the underdevelopment of areas of indigenous peoples.

The 1987 Constitution provides for the creation of autonomous regions in the Cordilleras and Muslim Mindanao. However, this provision has yet to be substantially implemented as the Cordilleras at present only has administrative status and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is argued as not ideally autonomous.

Collective action


The lumads march inside UP Diliman during Manilakbayan 2015. Photo from GMA News Network.

Aside from armed groups, our indigenous peoples have, especially most recently, resorted to social mobilization and collective action to address their most immediate struggles. The attacks on lumads in Bukidnon, Davao del Norte, and Surigao del Sur in 2015 sparked outrage even in social media, resulting to the trending call #StopLumadKillings. Various organizations have mobilized for the “Manilakbayan 2015”, a journey of lumads from Mindanao to Manila in October 2015 to protest against militarization in their areas and to call for a stop of the attacks to their schools and communities.

This October, around 3,000 members of indigenous groups all over the Philippines gathered in Manila for the “Lakbayan ng Pambansang Minorya”. Representing the national minority, they call for the rights of the indigenous peoples and protest against the presence of U.S. military troops in the country. The indigenous peoples who participated were aptly called “Lakbayanis”, a wordplay of “journey” and “hero”.

Marginalized descendants of forgotten heroes

Perhaps it is an unfortunate legacy of our colonial history that our indigenous peoples, who have bred numerous heroes fighting against foreign rule, have been helplessly subjugated and placed at the margins. Their noble ascendancy was undermined by the imposed socio-economic and political setup that is inherently unequal and inequitable. And this oppression is known, like a shared history, and is felt by indigenous peoples all over the world. Yet all over the world, indigenous peoples are aware of the right that was taken from them; they call for their right to self-determination.

Social mobilization and protests have been their usual activities, to be as loud and widespread as they can for those who hold the reins of power to hear

The descendants of a brave class, our indigenous peoples of today, no longer fight the ruling class with weapons in a stance of defending their land. While there are those who joined groups who have guns for sickles and swords, this modern-day form of their struggle has taken various forms and many have taken to various forms as well to address their situation. Peoples’ organizations and non-government organizations have been vehicles for their interests and struggles to be put forward to be known in civil society and in the political arena. The ethnic struggle has also been enjoined at times with the leftist struggle, for these people too are peasants, farmers, workers. Social mobilization and protests have been their usual activities, to be as loud and widespread as they can for those who hold the reins of power to hear. But another obstacle is the widespread prejudice of the many, the voice that tells the indigenous protesters in front of the U.S. Embassy when they were violently dispersed, “serves you right.”

As this year’s National Indigenous Peoples Month comes to a close, is it really the case that we can only hope for the equal and proper treatment to the minority, for their envisioned way of community and environmental development, for their practice of self-determination? Can we only long for the month of October that they will no longer have to travel to the national capital to protest? To only hope is not the least they will do.

References and further reading:
Bara, Hannbal (2015). The History of the Muslim in the Philippines.
Dulawan, Manuel (2015). Ifugao in a Nutshell.
Florendo, Maria Nela B. (2015). Ethnic History (Cordillera).
Marohomsalic, Nasser A. (2001). Aristocrats of the Malay Race: A History of the Bangsa Moro in the Philippines.
Non, Domingo M. (1993). Moro Piracy during the Spanish Period and its Impact.
Pascual, Tepai (2011). Maktan 1521.
Pigafetta, Antonio (1800). Primo Viaje en Torno al Globo Terraqueo
Rodil, Rudy B. (1994). The Minoritization of the Indigenous Communities of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago.
Wolff, Leon (1961). Little Brown Brother: How the United States Purchased and Pacified the Philippine Islands at the Century’s Turn.

Writer’s notes:
While unconventional, this article considers the Moro ethnolinguistic groups as indigenous peoples. You may wish to read on the factsheet of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Especially if you find any historical inaccuracies within the article, we highly encourage you to post your comments.

Mark Sherwin Castronuevo Bayanito is an aimless graduate student of Political Science in UP Diliman, and is an accidental peace advocate working at the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process. He is most interested with urban things: urban geography, urban politics, urban design, even urban legends.