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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.