Tribal Fever: On the Philippine Island of Mindanao, Popular Theatre Seeks to Reclaim the Ancestral Land and Traditional Ways of Living

By Lu, Joyce | American Theatre, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Tribal Fever: On the Philippine Island of Mindanao, Popular Theatre Seeks to Reclaim the Ancestral Land and Traditional Ways of Living


Lu, Joyce, American Theatre


Some historians and cultural anthropologists believe that Filipinos occupy a marginal space relative to other Asians. They insist that multiple colonizations have left Filipinos with no core tradition--only a mongrel culture that is somehow less "authentic" than those of other Asian countries. The southern island of Mindanao probably faces the worst reputation. The American media consistently represents this island as the site of kidnappings, bombings, wars and Muslim terrorist activity. Even in the Philippines, many Filipinos will quickly tell you that Mindanao is a dangerous jungle full of bandits running amok.

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Despite multiple warnings, I traveled to Mindanao in 2002 with Alleluia Panis, the co-founder and executive/artistic director of the San Francisco-based performing arts organization Kularts. There, I came upon an island that is host to more than 100 theatre groups, many of which are actively engaged in wielding the performing arts as a tool for empowering Filipinos by preserving, encouraging and evolving various indigenous traditions, manifestations and identities--while also resisting the homogenizing and eradicating forces of capitalist modernization and globalization. One of the most significant groups using popular theatre to give voice to local tribes and communities in Mindanao is the Kaliwat Theatre Collective of Davao City.

Kaliwat, which means "ancestry" or "lineage" in Visayan, the main language spoken in Mindanao, was founded in 1988 when artists and cultural workers from the Mindanao Community Theater Network came together under the directorship of Nestor Horfilla. When I first met Horfilla, he was driving a yellow jeep up to the Lakewood Parish--the headquarters for cultural workers in Lakewood, Zamboanga del Sur, the ancestral homeland of the Subanen tribe--and I was immediately struck by how at home he was in this community. Horfilla and two Kaliwat artists were living and working with the Subanen people to develop sustainable agriculture, seek government approval of their claim to the land, and maintain Subanen cultural practices in order to validate the tribe's ways of living in a country where they are often viewed as peasants, heathens or pagans.

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The Subanen--also known as Suba'anun, Subanon or "people of the river"--is the Philippines's largest tribe, numbering 300,000. Scattered across the mountains of the Zamboanga Peninsula, they believe that their land was given to them by God. Over the last century, however, their land has been settled by outsiders; recently, there has been a second invasion of logging and mining companies. The Subanen's protests have been brutally suppressed by the Philippine army, and many Subanen have been forced to leave their homes to escape the army presence. "I was floored by Kaliwat's dedication to the Subanen," Panis says. "The artists immersed themselves in the community for one to two years to create theatre with the community. Their work is both sociopolitical and artistic."

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Kaliwat artists take a three-part "cultural action approach" to their work, according to Horfilla, who uses the metaphor of "the creative harvest" to best characterize Kaliwat's work, which "is guided by the most basic web-of-life principle."

Geejay Arriola, another founding member of the group, speaks of Kaliwat's 1994 theatre piece, Oya, Arakan!, about the ancestral claims of the Manobo people, to illustrate this approach. Beginning in 1992, Kaliwat artists worked with the Tribal Filipino Program for Community Development to conduct ethnographic research on the Manobo tribe of the Arakan Valley. While living in this area, they made the following assessments: that Manobo-Tinananon territory was being threatened by a five-year development program that would turn the land into an agricultural wasteland and wipe away entire communities; that Mount Sinaka, the Manobo people's sacred mountain, was being attacked by illegal logging; and that extreme poverty and debt were forcing residents to sell their land to migrant settlers. …

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