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The Blaan, preserving their culture

Text and Images by Ronald de Jong
October 2, 2016


In the Philippines there are more than 40 different ethnic groups, most of these can be found on the island of Mindanao, the second largest and southernmost island of this tropical archipelago. The Blaan is a tribal community of Southern Mindanao, the name stems from the composed words “Bla and “An” when combined the word “Blaan” means our counterpart tribe. 

It is believed by some that the name of the Island of Mindanao is derived from the Blaan word “Mahin” that means sea and “Lanao” means lake; these combined words make “Mahinlanao”; that means a body of water, referring to Lake Lanao that is considered as the cradle of the Philippine civilization. Others say that the name of the Island is taken from the root word “Danao” which means “Inundation” or “Flooding”.

In early times the domain of the Blaan stretched from Sultan Kudarat to the Davao region, they were outstanding hunters and food gatherers, relying wholly on food from the forests and water from the rivers. They hunted wild animals and were reaping grains, root crops, fruits and herbs in the once vast open territories. Their rich culture, that is more than 7000 years old, is founded in traditions, but many have abandoned their tribal roots and embraced modern life. Nevertheless in several Blaan communities most of the tribe’s members remain proud of their heritage, traditions and their cultural identity. Until today they wear their colourful garments and play their ritual music; they dance their native dances, and sing their tribal songs in sacred chants.

Landan, Polomolok is home to one of the oldest Blaan settlements in Mindanao that has retained their tribal name until today. This tribal village is located at the foothills of Mt Matutum for centuries before the Spanish invaded the island of Mindanao. The hostile conquistadores forced the tribespeople to seek refuge in the mountains. From the early 20th century the Blaan were confronted with the impact of Christianization, Islamization and mass migration from Luzon and the Visayas. But the tribe often avoided struggle because the conquerors were heavily armed. Nevertheless, over the last 500 years this indigenous group was driven of their tribal land again and again. Mt. Matutum is considered as the place of origin of the Blaan ancestors and a historical and cultural place for the tribe. For the Blaan their ancestral land is regarded as natural ally in life and for centuries, the tribal people are able to maintain the ecological balance in the region and live in harmony with their environment.

The tranquil mountain village of Sitio Amgu-o is just one of the settlements of the Blaan tribe; the hamlet is named after a local pine-tree and located deep in the highlands of Landan. It can only be reached by a four wheel drive vehicle, motorbike or horse, it is and enchanting place, where the clear streams of the river “Ba Landan” bring life to the mountains and villages. The word “Ba” means “mouth” in the Blaan language. The water course is used for washing clothes, bathing, and fishing. For the local children the creeks and their banks are a fantastic playground.

Daily life is still blissfully simple in this small town, it starts when the first rays of morning are bursting over the villager and the residents are woken by a cacophony of peppy roosters that are loudly announcing the beginning of a new day. The people of the Blaan tribe live a frugal and hard life, every day they have to prepare food for the household, get their children ready for school, take care of the livestock and once more will work on the land that they have cultivated and harvested for generations. But no matter how hard and demanding they labor is, they always find time to go give their guests a warm welcome with ritual songs and dances and show their hospitality with a generous spread of food and coffee. This peaceful hillside community is regarded as the guardians of Mt. Matutum, a non-active volcano that is one of the favorite climbing destinations in Mindanao.

The remote village is inhabited by good-natured and hard-working people who still preserve their traditional culture and modest way of living. However, sustaining the Blaan culture and in the same manner the protection of their ancestral domain at present is not done by force but by education. The Blaan Dalel Christian Academy is giving the youngsters of the tribe the opportunity to learn about their heritage in their own language. Many of the students come from all over the region to learn the Blaan way of living. Only In this way the knowledge, skills, values, traditions and ethnic culture can and will be preserved and passed on to future generations. 

The small school is owned and operated by the Blaan Evangelistic Mission and the funds that are needed to obtain basic school supplies, to pay for the expenses must come from various sponsors and selling home-made Blaan handicrafts. The school building was partly destroyed by a typhoon some time ago and the students are having their classes in makeshift classrooms. Despite the fact that there is a shortage of almost everything the teachers and students remain enthusiastic and determined.

Another timeworn Blaan community is settled in Lamlifew, a small, hillside village of Barangay Datal Tampal in Malungon, Sarangani Province.  A few sources from which the tribe’s people earn their livelihood is by farming and making brass works, beadwork, weaving mats, baskets and “Tabih”, a finished,  handmade abaca cloth that is woven on back strap looms. But the cloth is becoming a sparse native textile, at present only a few masters still know how to design this abaca fabric. Each Tabih is a work of art; just one piece of the cloth will take a few months to finish. For the Blaan, a Tabih is not just a piece of fabric; it refers to the traditional Blaan tubular skirt and is an inseparable part of their existence. This cloth is their connection with each other and the land they live on.

Just like in Amgu-o this Blaan community is preserving their heritage through education; The Lamlifew School of Living Tradition is showcasing the Blaan culture and traditions, while the Lamlifew Village Museum in upland Malungon exhibits a small but important collection of photographs, antique Blaan weapons and tribal apparel. Next to this, some years ago, several women from the quiet village of Lamlifew formed the Lamlifew Tribal Women's Association, setting up a business that is based on traditional beadwork and weaving. Their products are hand made by the women and children in the village. Visitors can buy the handicraft in the store during their visit. The group was also able to retrieve the wisdom of their traditional food crops and medicinal herbs; they reacquired the art of playing instruments which were in use long time before the arrival of Islam and Christianity into the island of Mindanao.

Both communities of Amgu-o and Lamlifew are, in their own distinctive way, preserving the unique culture of the Blaan tribe, thanks to the perseverance and dedication of several inspiring Blaan tribe members the hope remains that their past, present and their future, just like the “Tabih” will gradually be woven together into a tapestry of unity.

Special thanks to;
· Monique Kawari Sullivan (The Blaan Community, Malapatan)
· Maricel Salinda Kasaligan (The Blaan Community, Malungon)
· Josephine “Arjho” Caturan Latimban Carino-Turner, (The Blaan Community, Landan)
· Jane Basiwal (The Blaan community, Amgu-o)
·         Nonobert Malit, (The Blaan community, Amgu-o)
·         Teddy Masamlok, (The Blaan community, South Cotabato.)

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