by Nahoma Beniga Maentz
Divilacan, Isabela. This part of the Philippines, so beautifully raw in its remoteness, is where I had my first (and hopefully not last) sincere encounter of this country’s first inhabitants. I have had several brushes with indigenous people before in my parent’s birthplace of Surigao, but I was naive and quite indifferent back then. Partly because of my age. I was young and couldn’t have cared less with what was happening around me. Also because no one really properly explained the indigenous peoples existence to me. In short, my idea was that they did not belong, that they lived in the mountains and wore nothing but g-strings. For someone who didn’t know any better, that picture in my mind of almost naked men and women conjure an image of a crazy group of people. The way they were treated by the “civilized” group did not help either.
I carried that thought with me for a long time until this journey to Isabela took shape. My husband Jacob, a former Peace Corps volunteer assigned in Palawan and now a full-time photographer has always shown interest in covering indigenous people. When he proposed the idea of traveling to one of the most remote parts of the country in the hopes of working with a native tribe I had my hesitations. I had thought such groups did not exist anymore. Not necessarily physically non-existent but that they have lost their so to speak “indigenousness.” The Mamanwas in Surigao have been heavily influenced by the large mining companies surrounding them. They have learned to ask for money. They have learned to love money. Even when you approach them and politely ask if you could take their portraits, they will ask for money. Everything now has a price tag for them.
Good thing he was relentless in telling me how much he needed me there (to perform various tasks – as interpreter, organizer, luggage carrier, etc.). Boy, am I glad I went else I would have missed so much relearning who I truly am. A Filipino. The Filipino. And I saw an abundance of that in these Dumagats and Agtas that we met and later befriended. Everything is still fresh in my memory up to this day – the loveliness of the people, the simplicity of life, nature and man supporting each other, depending on each other. Money has little or no value at all. It took me back to a world hundreds of years ago and at the same time, took me back inwards. I only have to think of them and I get my jolt of inspiration when I need it.
I have always been a proud citizen of this country despite the negative images oftentimes portrayed by fellow citizens. That one particular trip however, made me even prouder. Because I have found my roots. As authentic as it can ever get. And it is a beautiful culture, a beautiful world.
Unfortunately, a constant threat is hovering over these people and their land, and time may come when everything about them and their way of life will change. Big businesses, always on the look-out for more resources can barge in at any time. Likewise, if the Dumagats or Agtas wanted a ‘better life’ outside of their place, they would have long been gone. But they are there simply because they want to remain there. That is their land. That is their way of life. This very idea of ‘modernizing’ them breaks my heart. If and when that happens, what I’ve seen and come to love will surely vanish. No doubt, I will also lose a huge chunk of myself.
With such thoughts on our minds upon returning home, Jacob and I came up with an idea to bring about awareness to these cultures. We know that not everyone is familiar of them and their existence. It is a very modern world we live in, but we believe that this project can greatly benefit us, our children and our children’s children. That through photographs, we may always have something to look back with regards to our heritages. With pride.
May it never be lost.
You can read more about the Katutubong Filipino Project that we have initiated at www.katutuboproject.org