Jose Kervin Cesar B. Calabias
Research on Indigenous peoples by Indigenous peoples will always contend with the precarious, almost fleeting, ideas of home and belonging. This matter of (im)permanence in my scholarship was made more apparent to me when my grandmother passed away in 2019 in her home village of Amgaleyguey, a Kankana-ey vegetable gardening community in the municipality of Buguias in Benguet province in the Cordillera Administrative Region of the Philippines. The event made me revisit my autoethnographic research undertaken in 2016 to uncover from family memories and photographs the stories of Indigenous ritual feasts and healing practices that persisted alongside the everyday precarities of being a Kankana-ey vegetable gardener. Central to these recollections are village elders, chanters, and healers whose practices and roles have slowly been slipping away as they age and the gardens they tend continue to grow.
My current research projects seek to unpack the unique global/local precarities of being Indigenous in the diaspora. Research about Indigenous peoples by Indigenous peoples is political and unavoidably personal. Aside from our experience of research that has historically and adversely anthropologized and othered our people and communities, we continue to decolonize research not just to correct the dehumanization of the past but to secure our communities that are hanging precariously on the edge of modernity. It sometimes pains me to engage with this kind of scholarship that hinges on the different forms of vulnerabilities experienced by Indigenous peoples, and I feel that to survive such is to equally write in a personal manner. Choosing autoethnography for this kind of work is not just a stylistic choice but a self-reflexive exercise and assertion of my agency that allowed me to dig deeper into certain experiences buried under Western ethnography’s “thick description” of our colonial past and present. Everything that I have strived to narrate will inevitably come from my own perception of my family that is affected and made more “distant” by the language and context from which I chose to write these in. But what I have discovered and what has constantly shaped the direction of my current projects on indigeneity is this sense of belonging I interrogate wherever and in whatever form it may be. Despite my research expanding beyond the village, I often see scholarship as a homecoming of sorts that allowed me to get reacquainted with a community I have grown far away from.
These autoethnographic reflections are excerpts from a year’s worth of fieldwork undertaken in 2016 for my graduate thesis in Amgaleyguey located over 300 kilometers north of the country’s capital in Metro Manila. The Cordillera region is predominantly the ancestral land of various Indigenous peoples collectively known as the Igorot. The Kankana-ey, one of the ethnolinguistic groups that reside in the provinces of Mt. Province and Benguet, were traditionally a subsistence agricultural community but began participating in the chemically-intensive commercial highland vegetable gardening that developed toward the end of American colonization in the early 1940s. Currently, the reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the widespread terracing of mountainsides that made soil structures prone to landslides have made this agricultural practice ecologically unsustainable. Despite these dangers, it continues to provide livelihood to a significant number of the population consistently making the region one of the major suppliers of highland vegetable demand in the country’s capital. However, as the global market effectively connects the region to the rest of the country and the world, the vegetable gardens are slowly being left for opportunities beyond the village, specifically for the equally precarious industry of global domestic labor: a condition that aggravates our Indigenous sense of belonging.
I was three years old in the summer of 1994 in Amgaleyguey when my grandmother hosted a cañao1 in honor of my late grandfather. A makeshift pen was put up just outside her house where the native black hogs were readied for the feast. I was among cousins running around the vegetable gardens when we saw a huge one being dragged out by three men.
The pig’s squeals made us stop and watch as they carried it out to a fire pit made that day. They laid the struggling pig near the pit, tied its legs together with a rope, and, while holding it down, a mambunong2 who sat close by, murmured his prayers. Moments after, one of my older cousins was told to drive the iwik3 into the pig’s heart. Kneeling beside it, he made a small cut above the heart, and in one swift motion drove the stake through it. The pig’s squeals were deafening, and it seemed it would not let up, but eventually there was silence. The mambunong took the iwik and, while praying, smeared its bloody tip on my cheeks; he also did this to my father and grandmother. I would learn that the buyag4 was done to all members of the host’s family. Later, this iwik was tied to the rafters of the dalikan5, a sort of memento from the feast. I would remember years later that the squealing of pigs and the beating of gangsa6 were sounds of invitation to everyone who could hear, and the prayers the mambunong recited were not prayers at all, but names of our departed ancestors or anito being asked to partake of the feast. In a way, death always inaugurates a celebration of life.
My father comes from a family of vegetable gardeners. His brothers and sisters manage the family gardens in Amgaleyguey and Bayoyo, growing carrots, cabbages, and potatoes. He is the first in his village to become a lawyer and among many who have left the difficult life of gardening for greener pastures in the city.
When my father left his ili or home village for the university in Baguio City in the early 1980s, the colonial road of Halsema Highway was still largely unpaved. This 150-kilometer road that stretches from Baguio City to Bontoc traverses three provinces and several towns in the Cordillera. From a footpath in the 1930s during American Colonization, this road slowly grew into the second highest altitude national highway in the country, reaching its maximum elevation at 7400 feet above sea level in Atok, a municipality beside my father’s hometown. After the Second World War, Halsema opened a mountain trail into the vegetable frontier of the north where the uma or vegetable garden terraces carved the mountainsides. Halsema Highway has effectively connected Indigenous communities and the rest of the northern reaches of the Cordillera to the country’s economy, which also paved the way for modernity to take root that has equally changed the landscape of Igorot life.
Today, almost 75 per cent of the total land coverage of Buguias is dedicated to cultivation of highland vegetables alone, while a little under a hundred hectares are for other produce such as legumes and root crops. In 2015, the Municipal Planning and Development Office of Buguias recorded over a million metric tons produced from the combined harvest of highland vegetables, root crops, legumes, and fruits. That same year, the regional office of the Philippine Statistics Authority logged 262,283 metric tons of cabbage, carrots, and potatoes produced in Buguias that accounted for 83.1 per cent of the entire production of the region. While it would seem that these numbers reflect a lucrative venture for gardeners, in a country devastated by an average of 20 typhoons a year, farmers across the country suffer from the billions of pesos worth of agriculture lost in the wake of storms. But the risk runs higher in highland agriculture as the mountains offer their own unique dangers in the transport of vegetables: landslides, low visibility, and slippery roads, especially during typhoon season. These continue to cause roadside accidents and sometimes deaths among Igorot gardeners who are aware of these “natural” risks. Most gardeners rely on these predictable misfortunes for a “jackpot7” sale—a sale computed by middlemen buyers in the La Trinidad trading post, factoring in weather conditions and the prevailing supply and demand. Luck and chance affect income of gardeners and speed in delivery might be the only factor under their control. Therefore, gardeners literally race through the highways in their trucks, chasing after the best prices for their produce.
Among these stories of risks and bounties was my grandfather who died when his truck fell over the edge of Halsema in 1972. My father was only nine years old then. He tells this story every time we pass by the view deck at Kilometer 52, the highest point marker of the highway. And he tells it again today just as we make the turn to Atok. It was on a rainy August day when my grandfather’s MacArthur jeep8 fell from the highway just a few meters away from the dirt road down to Amgaleyguey. My father was playing in the gardens when he saw a truck falling from the highway, and moments after seeing his cousin running down the path towards the village to break the news. He blames the pine needles, wet from the rain that day, that made the roads slippery and for cars and trucks to lose control. He also says that grandfather might have gotten out before the fall if not for the faulty makeshift lock he installed to the jeep’s door that made it difficult for anyone from the inside to come out, and he even blames a certain mansapo9 in the village who has plagued grandfather for years to have caused this misfortune. My father remembers grandfather complaining the night before the accident, feeling the same symptoms he had from a mysterious illness he fought ten years ago with the help of a mambunong who sacrificed a dog10 in secret to heal him.
My father tells this story as nonchalantly as the gardeners and village officials I have interviewed regarding the frequency of landslides and roadside accidents. For them, it will always be a fact of life in the mountains where every time an accident happens or the roads are blocked by landslide, road clearance is priority. Gardeners are so accustomed to clearing roads that they have their own shovels handy just in case. Today, there stands a view deck in Amgaleyguey built in 2015 by my uncle Leo who was then a Barangay Captain. He built this view deck as part of their Barangay’s tourism project and chose to have it standing exactly where my grandfather’s jeep fell many years ago.
My father pulls the car to the side of the road for me to take pictures of the mountainside gardens. I see vegetable trucks plying the highway, unfazed by the dangers, making their way against a backdrop of a breathtaking view. Storms become an afterthought in the hopes of a silver lining from a jackpot harvest. And whether priced fairly, bought cheaply, or awarded the jackpot bounty, there is no secret to winning the gamble in highland vegetable gardening and gardeners are well aware of these odds. Halsema reveals a people in the seams of risk, relying on the everyday precarities of highland agriculture.
When my father was twelve years old he was rushed to the hospital because of a ruptured appendix. In the few days he was there, my grandmother stayed at home where she made herself busy planning for a thanksgiving cañao, anticipating the recovery of my father. My grandmother was one of the few elders in her village who still practices ritual and prestige feasting believed to be cultural obligations passed on to members of the family. Traditionally, feasts are held as thanksgiving for bountiful harvests, avoiding bad omens and misfortunes, healing, appeasing the spirits, celebrating marriage, and remembering the dead. In all of these rituals, the spirits of the ancestors are always called first to partake. Generally, prestige feasts are exclusive to those with higher social rank and are marked by the number of native pigs one can sacrifice.
Father would often say that my grandmother is the last “pagan” among our family who have already converted to Roman Catholicism. Many gardeners in the community have also converted into different Christian denominations that were established in the region as the mountains have become more and more passable. These converts and conversions are legacies of successful Christian missionaries who trekked the mountains as early as the turn of the 20th century when control of the Philippines was ceded to the Americans by the Spanish empire ratified in the Treaty of Paris in 1898.
The mambunong is vital to these feasts as they act as spirit mediums and conduct the reading of portents from the sacrificed animal’s carcass. They are authorities in this regard but are slowly disappearing. During the course of my research, Calixto Walsie was the last surviving mambunong of Amgaleyguey. He died a few years after. Elders or the laklakay or senior members of the family would sometimes take over these responsibilities, but the provisionary state of these ritual practices reflects the community’s priorities shaped by the increasing commercial demand for highland vegetables. Some have died without passing on other traditions such as my auntie Lensa Igualdo Sagandoy-Martinez, a vegetable gardener and the last manggengey or woman chanter of the village.
Despite some gardeners showing their willingness to continue these traditions, they are preoccupied by their livelihood or are sometimes dissuaded by their religion. The expense of ritual feasting as well is too much for their unpredictable incomes. Younger generations have also moved from the gardens for the cities, leaving a community of ageing gardeners and disappearing traditions.
In the series of sidas hosted by my grandmother from 1994 to 2004, the bunong or prayer was often done by her or her eldest daughter, Lolita, who is the only midwife and rural medical officer in the village. In most recent sidas, my uncle Andrew, husband of Lolita, would also lead the rituals and bunong instead of my grandmother, who had by then grown weaker.
A friend of mine gave me his copy of Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist and insisted that I read “Digging,” the first poem in the series. I was immediately drawn to its portrayal of a family of potato farmers whose son writes with a pen he uses like a spade, digging through his observations of his father and grandfather digging potatoes all day. I cannot help but see similarities of this with me and my father, and my grandfather as well. For generations, we have been tied to the vegetable gardens that have sustained us and, despite our departures, have often been called to go back home. I have felt this connection more strongly during feasts where we believe the ancestors or the ap-apo11 are always in attendance. In a way, tatang and eventually nanang never left the land that took them and gave so much life beyond their death.
The last photographs I have of my grandmother were taken just a few months before her death. She wanted to smoke tobacco near the fireplace despite the difficulty of sitting up and even rolling the leaves to make her cigar. My father helped her with this as she silently listened to the family’s conversations. In June 2019 she died peacefully in her sleep and was laid to rest beside the grave of her husband in their home village.
When my grandfather died, tradition dictated that my grandmother must change her name in order for her to evade the call of death. Elders believed that dead husbands call on their widows to follow. But Delina, now named Benisa, single-handedly struggled to tend to the gardens in order to raise her five children, all the while refusing help from anyone, carrying a heavy backpack sprayer as she tended the vegetable gardens from dawn to afternoon.
In the years leading up to her death, my grandmother suffered from chronic back pains and cough, she had a mild stroke, and was treated for ulcer. Most of these symptoms were dismissed by doctors, and even some relatives, as signs of old age or the consequences of years of hard work. But it cannot be helped that the vegetable gardens and the demands of this industry have caused unforeseen damages often unattributed to the long-term effects of intensive commercialization of the vegetable industry in the region. What my grandmother has suffered in old age, the disappearing rituals, my grandfather’s sudden death, my father’s departure, and myself growing away from the community were all the compounded effects of sacrifice, and sometimes it is hard to see the consequences of burden especially when it has rewarded us with so much.
In the wake of my grandmother’s death, talks of continuing familial obligation to host ritual feasting is now overshadowed by practical concerns of land disbursement and other properties needed to be passed on to surviving family members. While the persistence of ritual feasting is precluded by economic survival, practicality, and the growing participation of a generation of Igorots to the frontier of migration. I realized that I am among cousins who are now professionals and who have sought livelihood elsewhere, leaving the uncertain future of the gardens and the rituals to surviving but older kin. Seeing vegetable gardeners, beating gangsa and solibao12 clad in denim pants and galoshes, ready to go back to work after the feast, makes me wonder how we negotiate between obligation and survival and, in the interim, realize what we end up sacrificing for in our departures and returns. Indeed, my grandmother seems to be the last pagan in the village who chose to stay and die on lands we are slowly leaving behind.
A Postscript to Buguias.
Igorots continue to move out of the village, leaving the risky nature of the vegetable industry often for overseas contractual work. This global industry participated by over two million Filipinos is arguably far more precarious and dangerous than vegetable gardening especially that a little over half of these are women that are mostly engaging in domestic work and other intimate forms of gendered labor. The lure of domestic migration continues to be the most popular solution to addressing poverty experienced by the majority of Filipinos. And Indigenous peoples appear to be the most vulnerable, considering the baggage of historical and cultural circumstances unique to them that they carry across shores.
I have often felt proud of being able to contribute to Cordillera Indigenous studies as an Igorot Kankana-ey. I believe that the progress I have made as an educator and a scholar since this graduate thesis on vegetable gardening made me realize more about what home and community mean for Indigenous peoples especially when the circumstances surrounding place-making in this highly globalized age would often lead us to departures, precarities, and losses that are necessarily done/experienced in order to sustain the villages we live in or have left behind. But these vulnerabilities are aggravated further by legacies of colonization that Indigenous peoples have historically struggled with ultimately expressed in their fight to keep their ancestral lands and domains from state or private ownership. Privatization and state acquisition of our lands have often led to “development” projects such as large-scale mining and mega dam construction that devastate the entire region, and have caused the deaths and disappearances of many Indigenous activists by state forces, activists critical of these violent dispossessions. From colonial invasions down to modern state laws on land tenure and ownership, the struggle for ancestral land rights have remained largely a battle of legalities, formalizing an otherwise abstract cultural and historical form of ownership into papered land titles and formal deeds of property13 a systematic (neo)colonial process that Indigenous peoples across the world resist against or struggle to adhere to.
In my grandmother’s hometown of Buguias, almost all lands are public property since the declaration of the municipality as a government-protected watershed, and vegetable gardeners continue to till the soil with their tax declaration forms as their fragile expressions of tenure despite living in these lands for generations. It is of no surprise that home or the ili is an Indigenous notion of belonging standing on tenuous grounds as more and more of us move out of our “unclaimed” lands for some kind of provisional stability offered by migration. Among these mobilities are domestic helpers, women who, unlike my grandmother, chose to survive on a different kind of gamble where the jackpot stakes are relatively higher. The difficult ageing of my grandmother and her eventual death are not just because of and for livelihood but are also symptomatic of degrading health, culture, and home of the Indigenous peoples of the Cordillera in general as the mountains sink deeper into globalization, modernization, and commercial tourism. But despite these, I remain hopeful as I continue to write about and struggle for an imagined home, a personal ritual of my own for my grandmother, where the sense of belonging and of finally staying in the ili might grow.
Jose Kervin Cesar B. Calabias is an Ilocano Kankana-ey scholar from Baguio City. He earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Language and Literature at the University of the Philippines, and he is currently a research postgraduate student (PhD in Cultural Studies) of the Department of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong where he is working on an ethnography of Igorot domestic helpers made possible through the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme and the Belt and Road Scholarship. Before commencing his fellowship, he taught courses on literature and arts at the De La Salle University in Metro Manila.
- Prestige feast or thanksgiving feast, also called sida/mansida. ↩
- Native shaman. A mambunong oversees various rituals and also offers spiritual counsel. ↩
- Ceremonial wooden stake (commonly pine wood) used to pierce the native pig’s heart. ↩
- The bloodied tip of the iwik is smeared across the cheeks of all the family members hosting the feast. The buyag is done in order for the ancestral spirits to know who feasted in their name. ↩
- Indigenous hearth where most of the cooking for the household is done. It is also the place to smoke meat (kiing). ↩
- Handheld brass gongs, some are made of copper or even gold. ↩
- The term “jackpot” was initially used by Martin W. Lewis in his own ethnographic project of vegetable gardeners in Buguias published in 1992 by the University of California Press titled Wagering the Land:Ritual, Capital, and Environmental Degradation in the Cordillera of Northern Luzon, 1900–1986. I was particularly interested whether the same conditions of risk and ritual he has described then motivated my own family’s gardening practice. My research aimed at continuing his work which posited an “ecological peril and economic uncertainty” of vegetable gardening described by him as a “gamble” of sorts. ↩
- These were military jeeps used by the Americans during the Second World War. Those left after the war were refurbished and customized by locals for more profitable purposes such as transport for their vegetable produce. ↩
- Indigenous “witch” who practices “dark magic” to harm the community or others, often causing sickness and bad luck. There are numerous ways to combat a mansapo’s curse but sacrificing a certain animal recommended by a mansip-ok or mambunong is a common practice. ↩
- According to my father, during this time, grandfather consulted many mansip-oks and mabunongs to cure his mysterious sickness and all of them recommended various animals to be sacrificed, including a horse. It was only when a certain mambunong butchered a dog in secret while my grandfather sacrificed a chicken, that the sickness was cured. This act proved that the sickness was caused by a mansapo close to the family. ↩
- Also refers to ancestral spirits. ↩
- Elongated drum. ↩
- For a more detailed discussion on Indigenous land tenure please see June Prill-Brett, “Indigenous Land Rights and Legal Pluralism among Philippine Highlanders,” Law and Society Review 28 (1994): 687-697. ↩
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