The Mansaka of Compostela Valley

Compostela Valley, Mindanao, Philippines

Earlier this month I spent a week getting to know and learn more about the Mansaka people who live in and around Compostela Valley, Mindanao. The Mansaka are just one of a number of indigenous groups living in Compostela Valley and Davao del Norte, but they are the most numerous in the area. I had the kind privileged to spend time with a number of Mansaka families, witnessing life as it is today, both in their more traditional rural communities and in the modern city of Tagum. I learned about their many traditions, beliefs and the changes that are happening within the tribe, but more importantly, I witnessed an incredible sense of pride, even among the younger generation, and what it means for them to be called Mansaka.

Mansaka Datu Romeo Pio Tilam Dansigan
Mansaka Datu (Chieftain) Romeo Pio Tilam Dansigan

Considered as one of the 18 indigenous ethnolinguistic Lumad groups in Mindanao, the native Mansaka continued their way of life during the hundreds of years of migrations and inter-marriages of the Malays, Indonesians and the Chinese. Although the Mansaka people evolved over time, they were never heavily influenced by the Spanish during their colonization. However, when the Americans arrived many Mansaka were encouraged to work in coastal plantations and adapt the Christian religion and lifestyle. Today, many Mansaka are Christians although they still embrace many of their traditions and beliefs that have been passed down to them over time.

Mainit Hot Spring
Mainit Hot Spring. Considered the birthplace of the Mansaka people, this hot spring is where the first Mansaka man was from, his name, Inangsabong. Inangsabong had seven wives who eventually settled in different areas of Compostela Valley creating the different Mansaka settlements still present today. Inangsabong’s grave is said to be at the top of this hot spring

Elder Mansaka Woman (Bia) Bia Sheena Onlos

Portraits of an elder Mansaka woman and Bia Sheena Onlos – a young Mansaka leader from Tagum City. There are a number of visual differences in the attire worn by the different generations of Mansaka. In general, Mansaka fashion tends to use a lot of lines in their dress with shapes such as diamonds and squares versus the use of circles. When looking at old photos of Mansaka women you will notice that most had very prominent bangs showing (this can also be seen in the photo above with the older Mansaka woman). Their bangs are part of their fashion which again use the straight line theme. Large earplugs (barikog) in their earlobes, shell and wood bracelets, and circular silver breastplates (paratina) are also common elements of Mansaka dress which are becoming harder and harder to find. The headdress that Sheena is wearing above is a common piece being adapted by the younger generation. Likewise, the panahiyan is the eloquent stitching on the shoulders and is an important part of Mansaka dress (you can clearly see the redish panahiyan in Sheena’s dress above).

Mansaka taking early morning bath by the river
A Mansaka man takes an early morning bath by the river. Many Mansaka still live in rural places like this, however, more and more are migrating to the city as they become better educated and more opportunities become available. The term Mansaka derives from ‘man’ meaning ‘first’ and ‘saka’ meaning ‘to ascend,’ and means, the first people to ascend the mountains or go upstream.
Compostela valley forest after a rainstorm
Dense tropical forest after an afternoon rainstorm. Before traveling to Compostela Valley I had the impression that the area was mostly flat and surrounded by mountains like a typical valley. I didn’t realize that the area, Compostela Valley (ComVal), is actually a very large province with numerous rivers, mountains and settlements.
Mansaka baylan (priest) with traditional dress
Bia Carmen Onlos Dansigan, a Mansaka Baylan (priest and leader) wearing her traditional dress. A Baylan serves their people as a priest and as a healer. They are called by the spirits to the ministry of healing and have a special relationship with the supreme being, Magbabaya (God). They perform the different tribal rituals and can sense when bad things might happen. There are only a handful of older Baylan’s left in Mansaka culture and even fewer remaining that have a close relationship with the spirit of Magbabaya. Traditionally, Baylan’s prefers to live in isolation closer to the forest where they can commune with nature and the spirits. Many of the remaining Baylan’s now live closer to the city and don’t retain that close spiritual relationship. Bia Dansigan is very active and lives in the mountains where she constantly communicates with the spirit of Magbabaya, which is referred to as Diwata.
Hands holding Mama - Betel Nut
Mansaka hands holding mama (betel nut). Betel nut is the seed of the fruit from the areca palm and is communally used by different indigenous groups throughout the Philippines and tropical Asia. Mansaka are also fond of chewing tobacco which is often partially seen on the outside of the lips (you can see this in the photo above of Bia Dansigan). You will also notice the shell and wooden bracelets and the circle silver breastplate (paratina) that were once used by many of the Mansaka women. The material for the wood and shell bracelets were traditionally traded for because they could not be found in the valley.

Today, much of Mansaka life revolves around gold mining as it does for most people living in the area. The valley itself is rich in copper and gold ore and mining has proliferated since the 1970’s. For centuries the Mansaka farmed their land and grew subsistence crops in patches of shifting agriculture throughout the valley. They grew corn, camotes, vegetables, fruits, upland rice and even some cash crops such as coffee and abaca. Although this type of subsistence farming is still present in the region, a number of factors forced many Mansaka to find alternative forms of income. One of these factors during the 1960s and 1970s was the increased number of upland settlers, due to new logging access roads and large mining companies hiring Visayan migrants. The consistent increase of human settlement further up the mountains led to less land and degraded agricultural/soil resources for the Mansaka. Likewise, security tensions over land with armed groups such as the NPA led many Mansaka to look for alternative sources of income. Gold panning started in the rivers which eventually led to more sophisticated means of mining as knowledge increased and larger corporations moved in.

Collecting stones on river edge for gold
A Mansaka man collects stones on the river edge which will be processed with the hopes of extracting a small amount of gold. The Philippines is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire that contains much of the world’s copper and gold resources and Compostela Valley (ComVal) province is often dubbed the ‘golden valley’ or the ‘gold mining capital of the Philippines’.
Small-scale gold mining in tunnel
Collecting soil and rocks inside a family owned gold mining tunnel. Aside from mining companies which employ thousands of local workers, small-scale gold mining has emerged as an increasingly important livelihood for people throughout Compostela Valley, including the Manasaka and other indigenous groups.
Waiting for work to begin outside of Apex gold mine
Waiting for work to begin outside of Apex Mining. Apex Mining, on paper, is the third largest gold mining company in the country and employs hundreds of Mansaka from surrounding barangays. Within two minutes of photographing on the road in front of the mine (I was able to get about 4 frames off), security rushed out to stop us. They told us we needed to obtain permission from them to photograph there and demanded to see my camera to delete any photos I had already taken. Fortunately, I didn’t give them my camera but agreed to leave, was polite and did not make a scene. Apparently, in April of this year their facility was attacked by NPA (New People’s Army) who burned equipment and, although unreported by the company, some of their security guards were killed. I can understand why they were a little on edge. The head of security kept telling me it was private property, with me knowing full well it’s Mansaka ancestral domain only being leased by the company. When my guide told them he was from the tribe, security became very polite with us, however we didn’t push the issue of shooting more even though we probably could have.
River in Compostela Valley
River water has been this color (and is considered biologically dead) since the time Apex mine came into the area in the 1970’s. I was told that before people used to take baths and catch fish in the river. However, many of the tributaries leading into this river still provide a clean water source including the Mainit hot spring. Apex Mining is located on Mansaka Ancestral land, requiring the company to give one percent of their earnings to the tribe, in addition to paying for surface rights. Although the company undergoes the occasional management change, they are behind on their payments in upwards of 68 million pesos which they owe the Mansaka tribe.
Pulling out sacks of earth from a family owned underground mine
Pulling out sacks of earth from a family owned underground mine. According to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, small-scale production such as this brought in roughly 34.1 billion pesos to the Philippine economy in 2011, compared to 88 billion pesos for large-scale gold mining.
Hauling rocks from a tunnel gold mine
A Mansaka man hauling rocks from a small-scale tunnel which will be processed nearby.
Small-scale gold mining
Manually processing gold using mercury and various chemicals such as borax in a Mansaka family run operation. This type of manual processing only yields about 30 percent of the gold that is present in the rock. Compared to the more sophisticated operations like Apex mine where retention is almost 100 percent. This type of work can produce enough family income to elevate their economic status, providing educational opportunities to their children and grandchildren that were not available two generations ago. My guide and his siblings were able to study in Tagum City because of the money provided from this operation.
Gold in its final form after being processed in a small-scale mining operation
Gold in its final form after being processed in a small-scale mining operation. This is roughly one gram of gold taken from a single sack of rock. It’s worth about 1300 pesos ($30) when sold locally.

During my visit I stayed for a few days in the town of Mainit, which is where the Mainit hot spring is located and is considered the birthplace of the Mansaka People. In 2012, Mainit was declared as uninhabitable after it was hit by Typhoon Pablo (Bopha). Because the area is prone to landslides (and with the numerous deadly landslides happening during the typhoon) the Philippine government closed all public schools and barangay halls in the area. In 2008, the towns of Masara and Mainit were also recommended to be abandoned and declared uninhabitable after twin landslides claimed the lives of 20 people. Many of the current landslides occurring are due to the widespread deforestation that happened by large logging companies starting in the 1960’s. Despite this, the Mansaka people who call this home do not want to leave their land and continue living in the area. The land itself is declared and certified ancestral domain for the Mansaka.

Mainit town in Compostela Valley
The sun coming up over the town of Mainit in Compostela Valley. Although this area is now prone to landslides it remains an important area for the Mansaka people. Unfortunately, a decade ago, Mainit also was the primary dumping ground for cyanide waste from the Apex Mining.
Taking shelter in public elementary school
A woman and her child sit outside a classroom at the public elementary school in Mainit, Compostela Valley. The school has been closed since Typhoon Pablo (Bopha) hit in 2012, but is still being used to house families. Typhoon Pablo was the strongest tropical cyclone to ever hit Mindanao, making landfall as a Category 5 super typhoon. The storm caused widespread destruction in Compostela Valley, leaving thousands homeless and more than 600 fatalities.
Mansaka children waiting for free school transport
Mansaka children in the town of Mainit wait for free school transport, provided by Apex Mining, to bring them down the mountain to the nearest public school. The Mainit public elementary school was closed in 2012 after Typhoon Pablo and will not reopen as the area was declared uninhabitable by the government.
Crossing river to attend school
In other parts of Compostela valley, getting to school requires crossing rivers like this.

Life in rural Compostela valley is much like that of other places throughout the country. There is a strong connection to the land as it provides food and livelihoods for most people. Although, there seems to be a little more disposable income because of the jobs provided by gold mining. When compared to other indigenous groups I have visited throughout the Philippines, the Mansaka do not seem to be as dependent on their shifting crops as some other groups still are. It’s also a bit unique in that so many rural families have regular employment that occupies most of their time. Even in these more rural locations the Manaska are highly organized, with a strong leadership structure and written customary laws that should be followed.

Bia Dansigan watching over her grandchild
Bia Dansigan watching over her grandchild while her father is gone to work at Apex Mining. Like many Filipino families, raising children seems to be more of an extended family-based or communal effort.
Mansaka home in Compostela Valley
A Mansaka home in Compostela Valley. Early Mansaka houses were built on treetops or bamboo groves as a precautionary measure against surprise attacks and raids. Today, the most common Mansaka dwelling is a one-room house based on what I was told is a Christian design.
Mansaka boys bathing in Mainit Hot Spring
Mansaka boys taking an afternoon bath in the Mainit Hot Spring. Many local Mansaka will come here to bath either early morning or late afternoon after work.

A traditional method of cooking for the Mansaka is what they call liorot. Meat and often root crops are placed together with simple herbs (lemon grass, salt, pepper, ginger) inside a hollow bamboo tube and cooked over a fire. This is the first time I have tasted or seen this method of cooking although it is also common among some other indigenous groups here in the Philippines. For example, the Aeta around Pampanga are known for this style of cooking as well. There is a bit of preparation involved to cook this way, which is likely one of the reasons why now it is mostly only done for special occasions or when families have visitors.

Collecting bamboo for liorot
Datu Dansigan collecting bamboo in the mountains which will be used for cooking a variety of meat and root crops, called liorot. Traditionally, this type of work would have only been done by the women of the family. Women were responsible for all of the house chores, cooking and farming while the men protected the land. Today, roles have started to change even in more rural communities.
Preparing liorot in kitchen
Bia Dansigan (together with her grandson) preparing camotes (sweet potatoes) and gabi (yam) which will be placed inside a bamboo pole and cooked over a fire. This is a traditional method of cooking for the Mansaka, but today is only done for special occasions or when there are visitors. The root crops were harvested earlier in the day from the mountains and the chicken was killed right before being used. I was lucky enough to have this cooked twice for me during my one week stay.
Cooking liorot over open fire
Cooking liorot over an open fire. After the bamboo is filled with different meats, herbs and root crops it is placed over a fire where it cooks, creating an inclosed oven type of heat inside the bamboo. The result is a delicious meal with simple yet unforgettable flavors.

Mansaka have a wealth of different songs, riddles, stories, poems and other narratives that are shared and told at different times. The Balyan is often the one who recites these, narrating the tribes different customs and traditions. Bia Dansigan even sang a song about my visit there and told me I was now part of Mansaka history. I’m still waiting to get the song translated to see exactly what was said about me. 🙂 The Mansaka also possess a wide array of musical instruments, giving life to their songs and dances.

Mansaka Portrait - Bia Dansigan
Another portrait of Bia Dansigan in her home.
Compostela valley river
One of the major rivers coming out of Compostela valley as it reaches lower elevation closer to Tagum City. Many Mansaka still live along the Hijo river closer to the city and some even commute into Tagum for work. This photo was taken about 25 minutes outside of the city by vehicle and is already very remote without access to electricity.
Datu Aguido Sucmaan - Mansaka Chieftain
Datu Aguido Sucmaan holding his kudlog (two-stringed guitar) in his home off of the national highway leading into Tagum City.

Like Bia Carmen Onlos Dansigan, Datu Sucnaan is one of the last few Balyans or priests of the Mansaka Tribe, a vanguard of the Mansaka culture and tradition. His family were one of the original settlers of Brgy. Pandapan, Tagum City. He recounted to us how the national highway was built and the history of where the city got its name. Datu Sucmaan is also a skilled dancer, though in his late eighties he recounted how he and his wife Bia Maura danced at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and even for the former First Lady Imelda Marcos during one of her birthday celebrations. Bia Maura passed away three years ago and Datu Sucnaan was left to continue teaching younger Mansaka kids about the art and meaning of their traditional dance. Before we left, he showed us their picture as a young couple. He says “its very hard to continue going on when you’ve been married for 54 years, its so lonely.”

Photo of Datu Sucnaan and his wife Bia Maura
Datu Sucnaan shows a photo inside his wallet of him and his wife Bia Maura as a young couple. They had a Christian wedding when they married.

Mansaka children growing up in more urban environments will certainly face different challenges then what their parents or grandparents had to. From my short visit with the Mansaka I felt encouraged that many initiatives are taking place to help safeguard traditions and their peoples history. There is even an indigenous peoples university in Davao City where IP youth can study and get practical education that pertains to them. There is a small museum for the Mansaka being made in Tagum and there is an annual festival (Kaimonan Festival) every October to celebrate the different tribal songs, dances, and music.

Mansaka children in Tagum City
The youngest generation of Mansaka youth. Mansaka children in Tagum City.
Onlos sisters shopping
Sheena Onlos and her two sisters shopping for clothes in the market area of Tagum City. Life for many Mansaka living in the city is similar to that of other urban areas. Sheena told me that she will often wear her traditional Mansaka dress around the city and doesn’t feel any kind of discrimination. Likewise, at the city hall you will see a number of men and women dressed in traditional clothing, those who are working in the office of Sheena’s Father, Datu Onlos, the indigenous peoples representative for Tagum City.
Portrait of a Mansaka woman from Tagum City
Portrait of a Mansaka woman from Tagum City.

I need to give my thanks to Sheldon Silva and Sheena Onlos for inviting me and arranging my stay with the Mansaka people. These two dedicated and extremely motivated individuals reached out to me earlier this year regarding a visit to Compostela Valley. Sheena is pictured in a few of the images above and her father is Datu Onlos. Sheena and Sheldon met during the National Youth Commission – Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program sponsored by Japan last year. During this program they realized that more people needed to know about Filipino indigenous culture, especially the richness of Sheena’s own people. They have been planning a number of initiatives and projects based around the Mansaka, with this documentary being one of them. Meeting people like Sheldon and Sheena really does inspire me, because they are the people on the fronts lines making a difference. Young people, realizing the wealth of their own culture and understanding the importance of holding onto it, albeit with changes, is the basis of keeping traditions, knowledge and culture alive. Thank you Sheldon and Sheena for inspiring me with your energy and enthusiasm.

Datu Onlos attending a weekly city council meeting in Tagum City
Datu Onlos attending a weekly city council meeting in Tagum City. Datu Onlos is the indigenous peoples representative for Tagum City allowing him to make decisions that will help protect local indigenous peoples rights and welfare. The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997, allows mandatory indigenous representation in all policy-making bodies and in local legislative councils. There are also indigenous peoples representatives installed at the barangay level throughout Tagum.
Datu Onlos family telling stories with his family
Happy times. Datu Onlos and his family telling stories one evening while hosting me in Compostela valley. It should be noted that this was the evening of his 30th wedding anniversary, yet he still took time to show me around, share stories of his people and cook some delicious liorot.
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