Indigenousness in the Philippine highlands: Colonial construct or the real deal?

26. Oct 2008

Katja Kvaale anthropologist (mag.scient.), Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen.

A little over a year ago, on September 13, 2007, the United Nations’ General Assembly finally passed the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples after having debated the wording of the declaration in the minutest of details for more than two decades of drafting. Tellingly, the only votes against the final adoption were four settler states where descendants of European immigrants constitute the majority: USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Thus, most nation-states seem to agree that special collective rights to ancestral lands and self-determination as distinct peoples vis-à-vis a non-indigenous mainstream population is the best solution for the protection of the indigenous minorities within such (often relatively new) nation-states. In fact, this declaration reveals the paradoxical self-contradiction inscribed into the coexistence of UN bodies that are in principle incompatible. Here, regarded as political principles, the pragmatic indigenous rights politics and affirmative action-type rights collide with the very Enlightenment ideals of individual trans-cultural rights upon which the United Nations is founded: While the Enlightenment principles are praised in principle, they have to yield in practice in order to circumvent the countless atrocities committed against indigenous minorities in the name of ‘the common good’.

The fundamental Enlightenment principles of notoriously trans-cultural individual freedom and equality, then, are dispensed from for the correction of historical/colonial wrongs and in order to comply with one of the main goals of the United Nations from the beginning of its existence in 1948, namely a proper decolonization of all people on Earth (at the time, not least in Asia, many nation-states were about to experience independence or had just gained it; e.g. the Philippines in 1946). However, the future status of special collective rights – after the (albeit still hypothetical) correction of colonial wrongs has been obtained – is somewhat blurred. This is the inherent problem in all affirmative action politics: The strategic essentialism applied temporarily for the alleviation of historical wrongdoings is at the risk of being cemented in the process and turn into ‘real essence’, i.e. ontologically intransgressable ‘units’ of peoplehood/ethnicity, gender, religiousness etc. This worry on the level of principles is weighed against the fact that pragmatically, by the adoption of the declaration on September 13, 2007, indigenous peoples worldwide now have a legal and political tool at their disposal that can be used against the often severe oppression and discrimination that they experience within their own nation-states; an oppression that includes top-down expropriation of ancestral homelands due to large-scale mining, logging or damming, extrajudicial arrests and killings, and continuous harsh discrimination on the basis of linguistic, religious and cultural differences.

Anthropologists, too, are divided into the principally worried scholars and the pragmatically oriented advocates so to speak. Furthermore, the question of how to actually define ethnic minorities gets anthropology on the sore point. The irony of the matter is that the growth of the empirical phenomenon of indigenous peoples is inversely proportional to anthropologists’ attempts to conceptualize it. This has several reasons. First of all, the ethnic minorities seem to define and represent themselves within the conceptualizations of old school anthropology, leaning heavily on the essentialistic and unit-like qualities of the classic culture concept. Meanwhile, postmodernism has swept through the academic halls of anthropology, and small scale communities are now conceptualized as ever-changing and continuous responses to globality and as consisting of flexible and entrepreneurial individuals constantly networking beyond the ancestral village.

Obviously, this leaves little room for the quest of understanding indigenous culture, traditionalism, ethnicity and collective compliance with ancestral ways, as put forward by ethnic minorities at the UN. Indeed, in a highly debated article entitled The Return of the Native (2003), British anthropologist Adam Kuper argues that “discredited old arguments may lurk behind new words. “Culture” has become a new euphemism for “race”. He warns against the undisguised essentialism inherent in the ‘indigenous cause’ and calls the defense of it “anachronistic anthropology”. As expected, many critics respond to Kuper’s principal worry on the level of pragmatism by largely legitimizing the use of essence-like culture concepts as long as it is done by socially and politically marginalized ethnic minorities who are fighting for justice and final decolonization. They are, the argument goes, merely complying with the colonial conceptualization and language still prevalent in the legal logic of the UN (i.e. ‘culture’, ‘tradition’ vs. ‘modernity’ etc.) for the benefit of de-colonization.

Thus, the crucial question of just how to conceptualize a community characterized by a certain degree of traditionality amid a wholly (post)modern world is left unanswered. In my opinion, this constitutes a huge challenge to anthropology. Social reductionism and notions of individual entreprenureship and strategic ‘inventions of tradition’ (Hobsbawm and Rangers 1983) – that have been all the rage since the postmodern turn – do not do the trick. We need a subtle conceptualization based on sensitive fieldwork that can embrace the manifold contradictions of local-global and traditional-modern and result in entirely new anthropology: How do people themselves grapple with these (conceptual) contradictions in their lives far from the UN? Are they really contradictions? How are they brought to terms within each – pardon the word – indigenous matrix across the globe? Are there any structural similarities if we compare? In short, what can be said in a systematic way about the subtle reality underlying the political concept of indigenousness?

Admittedly, this is not easy anthropology; not least in Asia. In most cases in the Western hemisphere, including the Americas, Arctic and the Pacific, the indigenous versus non-indigenous distinction is fairly transparent, since the present day population often see themselves as descending either from the people – some would call them colonizers – who came sailing from over seas, i.e. from Europe in the 16th century and onwards, or from the original population who already occupied these shores at the time of European arrival. Indeed, the very notion of indigenous peoples in the political sense developed amongst colonized minorities in the abovementioned parts of the world. In most of Africa and Asia, the question of indigenousness is slightly more complicated. Here, the postcolonial governmental power is often on the hands of a mainstream population that does not (mainly) descend from Europeans; they are simply the largest ethnic group or the ethnic group chosen as the political elite by the colonial government prior to independence. Today, most Asian post-independence governments are facing a population that is highly diverse both ethnically, linguistically, culturally and religiously. In other words, the distinction in these nation-states between indigenous versus non-indigenous is not a matter of colonial versus original population but rather a matter of whose ethnicity is least compatible with –  and therefore suffers most from – state governance.

This is the case with the Igorots of Mountain Province, The Philippines, among whom I conducted field work in 2000-01 and 2002. I shall, as a round up of the above discussion, give a
sketchy impression of how the Igorots can be seen as an indigenous people of the Philippines and how the challenge to conceptualize the contradictions of their ‘(post)modern traditionality’ can be met.

First of all, the Igorots are among the topmost skilled and efficient indigenous representatives at the UN indigenous fora; more often than not their great charm, intelligence and ‘no nonsense’-attitude has benefitted the UN negotiations in dire situations. This political elite are (often partially migrated) children of the first generation of highly educated Igorots, who in fact often turned their back on the pagan and less educated part of the village. Other Igorot migrants work overseas, as do many millions of Filipinos, to earn cash money before they (in the case of Igorots mostly) return. In contrast, the descendants of the abovementioned pagan villagers constitute today the ritual and cultural Igorot expertise and thus the cultural reservoir of Igorothood, that is much sought after by homesick migrants and slightly deculturalized ‘professional’ Igorots. Here, I have identified the social basis of a unique exchange of mutually complementary competences, in unison constituting Igorot society: ‘professionalism’ and cash money, provided by the migrants, is exchanged for ‘cultural authenticity’ and ritual legitimization of village belonging, provided by the stayees. In this manner the Igorots themselves are embrazing – empirically, as it were, in their every day social interactions – the contradiction between the local and the global.

Furthermore, I found that via their extensive mock-headhunting rituals the village Igorots ‘import’ and incorporate the blessings of foreign modernity – be it cash, materials or ‘professionalism’ of any kind – and legitimize it within their own cultural matrix as being truly Igorot. American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1999) has coined this process the indigenization of modernity. Among the Igorots, this is done through an ongoing ritual settlement with the headhunting spirits – i.e. the spirits of ancestors decapitated by neighbouring tribes – who just like migrants and professionals are living among strangers outside the village and therefore constitute the spiritual equivalent of ‘agents of the foreign’. The Igorots consider it very important to adjust and legitimize changes with this generalized and abstract class of ancestors. Simultaneously, through the various death rituals addressing the recently dead ‘plain ancestors’, an intensive negotiation is going on to modernize the tradition and cut back on the time and money spent on rituals and ancestral attention in order to comply with ‘modern’ ambitions. This is done continuously through trail and error via ancestral sanctions. Thus, the gradual balancing and compatibility of tradition versus modernity and of local versus global – which, conceptually speaking, is the paradox or contradiction that anthropology has difficulty to grapple with – is socially achieved by the Igorots on an everyday basis and culturally legitimized, sealed and sanctioned via the rituals.

Let me end by a paradox rooted in the still prevalent theories of constructivism and invention of ‘the original’ and ‘the traditional’. The first anthropologists in the Gran Cordillera Mountains (comprising Mountain Province) in the early 20th century launched a ‘wave migration’-theory in order to explain the ‘ethnic differences’ between highland peoples, such as the Igorots, and the lowlanders surrounding them. All Filipinos that are not of Negrito origin – whose descendants today are commonly known as Aeta – are Malay-type peoples that migrated to the archipelago prior to Spanish conquest but much later than the Aeta. According to the wave migration-theory, the Igorots were descendants of one of the earliest waves of Malay immigration – presumably cultivating their peculiarities in the isolated hinterlands ever since – whereas the rather more ‘civilized’ and certainly more governable lowlanders were of newer Malay stock. This theory was completely dismissed in the early 1960s. Instead – under the skilled influence of USA-born Cordillera historian William Henry Scott, who had spent months studying the colonial documents of Archivo de Indias in Seville, Spain – Igorot ethnicity and minority identity vis-à-vis mainstream lowlanders was explained as a result of a specific minority reaction to the Conquistadores. In short, Igorots descend from that portion of the coastal Western Luzon population (by the South China Sea) that could not and would not put up with the harsh oppression and cruel governance of the Conquistadores. Instead, they fled up into the rugged wilderness of the Gran Cordillera and founded their villages there. In fact, the Igorot Genesis, which is a story of highly active, consciously selective and immensely brave migration from the horrors of the lowlands to the uncertainties of the mountains, is told and retold time and again in the myths and ritual wording at all occasions in the village; it is no secret that the Igorots did not ‘emerge’ from the canyons near which they live. Indeed, categorically, as a mountain people, the Igorots seem to be a product of colonization; not of ‘authentic origin’. With his usual sense of full-fledged paradoxes, W.H. Scott – polemically defending the Igorots’ additional status as real Filipinos that had recently been questioned at the time of writing – explained it as a:

[ ] colonial process which had steadily divided the Filipino people into two categories – the submissive and the unsubmissive, the faithful and the faithless, the good and the bad [ ] By the end of the Spanish regime, this divergence had created a real Filipino majority for the first time in history – those Filipinos who had the same king – the Spanish King. And those who did not were just cultural minorities. Thus by the magic of colonial alchemy, those who changed most became today’s Filipinos while those who changed least were actually denied this designation by a former president of the state university. In this way a cultural minority was created where none had existed (Scott 1982:40-41).

The obvious conclusion is: The Philippines – and not ‘the Igorots’ – is the actual colonial construct! In other words, the Igorots remained closer to the original lifeways on the islands than their lowland cousins – i.e. they remained indigenous in the innocent meaning of the term. Thereby, vis-à-vis the majority of the inhabitants who gave up the lifeways of their ancestors, a colonial ‘ethnic’ classification occurred that much later would be used as the argumentative foundation of the Igorot claim of indigenousness in the political sense of the term – and of the rights connected to this status.

Obviously, this is right up the alley of (de)constructionists and followers of the Invention-school: How can the Igorots conceive of and represent themselves as ‘indigenous’ when their existence as a group does not precede Spanish conquest? How can they do it without applying the colonial lingo in the process and thereby disqualify themselves qua polluted with Western categories and categorical inventions of themselves ‘as seen from the outside’? In short, how can they claim authentic peoplehood when ‘Igorotness’ is a colonial product, construct and invention?

Well, the Igorots themselves see no problem in this; they are immensely proud of their history of consciously selective and active ethnicity-later-to-known-as-indigenousness. Nor do I – either professionally, an anthropologist working in the Cordillera, or from gut-feeling – have the slightest doubt that the Igorots exist regardless of all theoretical qualms. In my opinion, (de)constructivism and the Invention-school have not done this field of enquiry any favour; and by this I mean any favour academically (notwithstanding the obvious political disfavours). Simply applying tedious conce
pts of invention and construction on such complex empirical settings of ethnic identity – thereby satisfying oneself academically by announcing lack of authenticity in the field – is nothing short of academic sloppyness failing to grasp and analyze the real deal. Regretfully, however, (de)constructivism and the Invention-school, that had its heyday in the mid 1980s, can now celebrate its Silver Jubilee as the still prevalent theory in this field despite its analytical bluntness. In fact, we can now speak of an academic Tradition of Invention steadily broadcasting the Invention of Tradition-approach and it is high time to move on! Much sharper and empirically sensitive tools that can actually face, grasp and analytically embrace this immensely complex but equally challenging phenomenon are much in demand.

References mentioned above:

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. UN Document A/61/L.67.

Hobsbawm, Eric and Rangers, Terence: The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Kuper, Adam: The Return of the Native. Current Anthropology, Vol. 44, #3, June 2003.

Sahlins, Marshall: What is Anthropological Enlightenment? Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century. Annual Review of Anthropology, 1999.

Scott, William Henry: The Creation of a Cultural Minority [org. written in 1976]. In: Scott, W.H.: Cracks in the Parchment Curtain and other Essays in Philippine History. New Day Publishers, 1982.