When the torch burns out

Keeping the heritage of indigenous culture alive proves to be a challenge when the community faces threats to their land and livelihood.

“Since our weaving started with a dream, we also dream of how we can protect it.”

These words of a T’boli dreamweaver have remained with me, more than a year after our interview over Zoom. Dreamweaving—the art form of creating textile fabrics inspired by the crafters’ visions of Fu Dalu, the spirit of abaca—is a cultural practice passed on from generation to generation of T’boli women.

Now, the weavers aren’t visited by Fu Dalu in their dreams anymore, nor do they receive divine visions of textile patterns. But they’ve remained as dreamers, hoping that by keeping the tradition alive, they retain the identity and culture of the T’boli tribe for decades to come.

The story of the T’boli weavers is just one facet of a collective ambition to preserve indigenous heritage. With the Philippines being home to 110 ethnolinguistic groups, we proudly declare that Filipino culture is rich and diverse. Truly, that is how it appears on paper.

In reality, indigenous culture is endangered by the evolving cultural and political landscape of society. Government projects are centered on urbanizing the land and building modern infrastructure, so much so that it shrinks the space for indigenous communities to simply exist. When the livelihood, traditional art forms, and ancestral lands of indigenous people are disregarded for another business establishment, another bridge, another dam—the state kills the culture of the people, extinguishing the dreams of its torchbearers.

It doesn’t mean, though, that indigenous art has been completely tossed away. Many people still admire traditional arts and crafts products such as textile fabrics, mat weaves, baskets, and jewelry, to name a few. Some indigenous groups have also successfully launched their own cooperatives and associations that aim to create and distribute these products, wishing to earn money from the cultural tourism market.

However, it is for the same reason that other non-indigenous people would get their greedy hands on the production of these items. These people would mass produce and sell indigenous crafts like it was just another commodity, unconcerned about the actual cultural significance of these items.

Thus apathy could also stem from a general lack of efforts to educate more Filipinos about ethnic culture. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) spearheads a project network of Schools of Living Tradition (SLT), where it identifies a cultural master of a particular indigenous craft to teach young people about the specific creative process behind it. It’s a way to immerse the new generation of an indigenous group, as well as visiting tourists sometimes, into the history and identity of the community, instilling in them the respect required by indigenous people toward their way of life.

At present, the NCCA has launched 28 SLTs across the country, while many private-led SLTs were also founded in other rural areas. The goals of an SLT are inspiring promises of keeping our multifaceted heritage alive and intact. However, little is known about whether each of these SLTs effectively carries out their purpose.

And while cultural bearers strive to involve more young members of the community with the arts and culture of their past, they still have to grapple with impending threats to their community. A threat to the environment is a direct threat to indigenous people; they are most vulnerable to calamities and ecological disasters. The risk to their lives heightens even more when corporate operations intrude on lands inhabited and protected by indigenous people.

It could be recalled in April this year when residents of Brooke Point, Palawan—a municipality imperiled by plans of nickel mining—were harassed and arrested by the police for setting up a barricade to block off mining trucks. For more than a decade now, Palawan natives have been protesting against mining operations in their lands, despite these areas being protected under the law.

The dangers faced by indigenous communities across the country make it difficult for their culture and legacy to live on. When surviving is already a struggle, maintaining traditional art forms becomes less of a priority. How can they uphold cultural heritage when they are already losing their homes?

There is so much focus on how our communities can be rebuilt into something that would keep up with industrialization and urbanization, which in turn sacrifices the continuity of Filipino culture and identity. If we hope to preserve and showcase the beauty of indigenous crafts, it starts with fostering a safe and secure environment for their communities. Empower the educational systems already in place to fully establish the legacy of indigenous culture. Protect the people who simply dream of seeing their art flourish for generations after them.

There is no heritage to pass on when the torch has burned out. Like the T’boli weavers, I hope we remain dreamers for a land rooted in heritage, with its people intent on preserving their identity.

Lizelle Villaflor

By Lizelle Villaflor

Leave a Reply