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Nas Daily’s ‘Pinoybaiting’ cheapens indigenous culture

On August 4, Grace Pelicas, grandniece of the famed Butbut mambabatok Whang-Od, wrote a Facebook post calling online learning service Nas Academy a “scam” for advertising a workshop on Whang-Od’s cultural tattoo skills allegedly without the latter’s consent. The post stirred controversy among Filipino netizens who accused the platform of Pinoybaiting, prompting vlogger and influencer Nuseir Yassin—better known as Nas Daily—to try and disprove allegations by sharing a video of Whang-Od signing a contract with his party and supposedly giving her approval of the course.

While the video satisfied some people’s doubts about whether Yassin has the right to feature Whang-Od’s indigenous knowledge on his platform, it has also raised concerns on how content creators, especially those from abroad, engage with indigenous communities and commercialize our local heritage.

A legal snafu

Any activity involving indigenous communities, whether it be academic pursuits, energy exploration, or even humanitarian work, requires the approval of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP). Created through Republic Act (RA) 8371 or the Indigenous People’s Act of 1997, the agency ensures that the rights of indigenous groups are protected.

To be approved by the NCIP, one must observe the rights to Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) of the indigenous community they will work with and obtain a certificate, which can be a long process. It requires an initial meeting between the applicants and the indigenous group, in which they present their proposal to the elders of the community. After the community reaches a consensus, both parties return for a second meeting to decide whether to accept or reject the proposal. 

This arrangement is maintained because RA 8371 defines consent as a communal act: it is not enough that one person agrees to it—the entire community has to be on board with the proposal, as well.

Nas Academy seems to have not undergone such a process. Yassin’s posts lack any mention of coordinating with government agencies, and later statements made by the NCIP imply that they were only made aware of the academy’s plans when the incident went viral. Even the Nas Daily statement of apology suggested that they have just begun to work with the commission.

The fact that Yassin neither consulted the NCIP nor conducted any research beforehand is also apparent in how he dealt with Whang-Od. Researchers who deal with indigenous peoples understand that legal consent is tricky, especially when it is in the context of a business contract. Business contracts are difficult to navigate, filled to the margin with nuance and fine print that even savvy businessmen have to come prepared with a lawyer. Expecting a 104-year-old indigenous person to understand the full implications of a business contract with little legal help is a dubious proposition. 

Furthermore, as mentioned before, the consent of Whang-Od alone would not be enough. The entire Butbut Community would have had to agree before Nas Academy could exhibit their traditions. 

Such brazen violations of Philippine law and intellectual property rights are clear indications of the failure of Yassin’s team to research and understand the cultural and legal nuances that their project required—that is unacceptable. 

Culture for sale?

However, a more far-reaching question comes into play in this fiasco: to what extent should indigenous communities open up their culture to commercialization, if at all? In his initial response, Yassin and his supporters argued that the P750 charged to each participant of the Nas Academy course will go to Whang-Od and her community. 

But just how exactly would this benefit their community? Most indigenous communities have traditional ways of life that existed independently from money. In theory, they should not even need the money. However, encroachment, loss of ancestral land, war, and other factors have caused them to lose their way of life. These intrusive modernization movements forced them to rely on a system foreign to them, compelling them to place a value on things that, to them, are priceless.

More importantly, commercializing the very culture of an indigenous community is a dangerous idea. Culture is not simply some artwork or musical piece that one admires in museums and music halls—or in this case, in an online course—it is a way of life. 

While the tattoos of the mambabatok are visual art, its meaning is rooted in the traditions of the Butbut tribe that date back thousands of years. The mass commercialization of these intangibles can lead to its purpose being lost, leaving it a mere aesthetic. 

There is no worse example of this than when Whang-Od herself was called to sell her craft at the 2017 FAME Trade Fair in Manila. She utterly exhausted herself to produce tattoos for hundreds of people who lined up. Did those people understand the cultural significance of the inked marks on their bodies? Or did they perhaps merely think of those tattoos as an aesthetic they can show off to their friends and family? It is hard to tell. 

Once more, with sensitivity

Yassin and his team have since apologized for this fiasco and promised to coordinate better with the NCIP and with indigenous communities the next time they roll out Nas Academy. This admission of fault is admirable, but consideration for the welfare and development of indigenous communities is something that his team should have been more sensitive to from the very beginning. They may have been well-intentioned, but bypassing the law and not doing their cultural research is brash and reckless. 

Indeed, in their excitement to feature the cultural heritage of the Philippines, they have made grave errors that could have brought more harm than good for Whang-Od and her community. 

Influencers who wish to feature indigenous communities and their practice need to understand that dealing with them requires careful planning and research. One does not simply walk into Kalinga land, bearing deals that they cannot fully understand. Indigenous communities live in a different world, with worldviews and needs very different from our own. This disparity in worldviews has been exploited so many times over the centuries by the most unscrupulous sorts. 

If influencers genuinely wish to use their platform to advance indigenous causes rather than use them to rake in cash, they must take the time to respect their ideas.

By Deo Cruzada

One reply on “Nas Daily’s ‘Pinoybaiting’ cheapens indigenous culture”

Hello. I was planning to share this article til I reached the last part.

Nas Daily hasn’t sent an apology yet. The video that they posted was more like a diversion to the real issue and customised only to be seen ij the Philippines.

Please correct your article, it was NOT an apology.

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