by Gary A. Pekas

By definition, indigenous means originating from or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment. This dictionary definition would make the people of the Philippines, or at the least the overwhelming majority of Asiatic stock who were born in these islands or trace their roots here. This argument is being used by some of us, implying that we are all indigenous peoples, and thus the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997 applies equally to all, or is superfluous and thus unnecessary.

On face value, the dictionary meaning of “indigenous” used to qualify the term “people” does seem to include most Filipinos. However, the term “indigenous people” or IP is now being used in another context, embodying evolving concepts in anthropology and related social sciences. International definitions of the term are mostly generalized, and even if not, the different conditions in different nations have necessitated the formulation of more particular definitions applicable to the unique conditions of these nations.

In the Philippines, the IPRA definition of the term “indigenous people” is generally accepted. The term is now being used commonly in government and the media, and it is safe to say that they use the term in the context of the IPRA definition.

This essay shall focus on two statements in the IPRA definition of indigenous peoples, that IPs (1) “through resistance to political, social and cultural inroads of colonization, non-indigenous religions and cultures, became historically differentiated from the majority of Filipinos” and (2)“ retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.”

In the Philippine context, there is agreement that in pre-colonial times, there was no central or dominant social, economic and political system, and pre-colonial peoples were diverse in many aspects. All of these diverse peoples could claim to be indigenous.

However, colonization imposed a centralized and dominant system throughout the islands, with many of the originally diverse communities accepting colonial influences and becoming the “majority” that the definition refers to. Indigenous peoples, on the other hand, resisted the “political, social and cultural inroads of colonization, non-indigenous religions and cultures, (and) became historically differentiated from the majority of Filipinos.” The resistance made it possible to retain “their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.”

The emergent majority, aided in no small way by the colonizing powers, would then develop a bias against those people who retained the traditional systems. Such bias is of course an extension of the colonial idea of superiority, with our erstwhile brothers and equals condemning the traditional systems in favor of foreign concepts and systems.

The majority accepted the feudal economic system of the Spanish colonizers, the haciendas, the encomiendas, and the Regallian property concepts. The majority came under the political control of a central government, with appointed local vassals to rule over the people. The majority accepted the Christian teachings of the colonizers, and rejected the traditional unorganized religions and belief systems as well as the Islamic faith in the southern islands.

With these came rejection of the cultural practices that bind these systems together. The diverse dialects absorbed colonial influences, eventually merging into dominant regional languages that adopted many foreign terms and concepts. People also learned to dress like Europeans, eat like them, and dream like them.

By definition, those who resisted these influences and retained a large part of the pre-colonial systems became the indigenous peoples. This historical differentiation, amplified by the majority’s discrimination against indigenous people and the systems they retained, arguably reached its peak in the past century. Though the discrimination certainly has diminished in recent decades, it persists up to the present.

It could be argued that in some ways we ceased to be different, and being no different, there became no reason for discrimination.

For, in the meantime, those who resisted colonial influences could not avoid these same influences. Indigenous peoples, like the majority, became part of the central political system. They also became part of the national economic system, leaving their predominantly subsistence economy and actively participating in the commerce and trade of the nation. The colonial educational system reached their communities, and various forms of the media caused many changes in our communities. In the non-Islamic communities of indigenous peoples, Christianity, with its many churches and sects, became accepted, aided in no small way by the educational system that systematically marginalized indigenous belief systems.

Part of the reason why the discrimination against indigenous people has waned is because indigenous peoples have become like the majority in many ways and in some ways even exceeded the majority in the furtherance of colonial influences. We have entrepreneurs and large farmers who are good players in the national economy and our villages are part of mainstream commerce, either as producers or consumers. There are those among us who have become large property owners in previous community-owned areas. Even small property owners learned to “own” their parcels of land not in the traditional concept, but more in the idea of ownership imposed upon us by colonizers. The subject of property concepts must be tackled in another essay, but it is clear now that indigenous peoples of this country are being divided by property disputes that result from our acceptance of these foreign property systems.

The national political system has superseded much of the more egalitarian indigenous political systems. More and more disputes are being settled not in the traditional ways but in the courts of the national justice system; government officials from our ranks presume the wisdom of traditional elders.

We have changed in the interim. We have Christian believers of supreme piety. We have agnostics who question not only Western faiths but also traditional beliefs. In the main, our culture holders are slowly disappearing, with the younger generation reluctant to seriously study the old ways, much less to practice them.

Our dialects are losing their local flavors as we adopt many terms from other languages, as we lose terms that refer to practices and items no longer in use.

True, there are still villages that continue to practice the traditional systems in the main, but it should be clear now that even in those villages, a lot of change is happening, and the direction of change is leading away from the indigenous systems.

In this sense, indigenous peoples of this country are losing part of their indigineity.

This essay does not say that we abandon the struggle for the recognition and realization of our rights as indigenous people. It does not say that we continue to resist ALL outside influence and to insist on maintaining ALL the traditional systems and practices.

It only asks questions that may resolve themselves if we passively let things come to pass without discussion. Or we could provide answers with conscious articulation.

What aspects of our indigeneity should we retain? How could we survive with the continuing assault on all the things that have previously defined us?

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