It was immediately after the communities in the villages of central Sagada have harvested their rice crops that the young boys of the town would group together into “armies.” These armies would engage each other in war games (buknit or buwág).
The locale of the “battles” was traditionally in the rice fields between the villages of Demang and Dagdag, with the armies coming from these places. The rules of engagement dictated that the two groups would start from opposite sides of the rice fields, and meet in the middle, to throw at each other the full force of their “weaponry,” which consisted mostly of pebbles. After one’s pebbles are depleted, it was common to just throw whatever one could pick up from the rice fields, mostly mud.
The boys have varying degrees of accuracy, and indeed some of them would go home with bumps on their heads where pebbles hit them; or with sore eyes when a lump of mud hit them square in the face. Gashes and skin wounds are also not uncommon, either from well-aimed projectiles, or self-inflicted as the boys scrambled on the rice terraces.
Yet the games were generally harmless, and indeed the wounds are part of the business of growing up. If one goes home with a bump, he must merely await another day so he could participate once more in the games, and hopefully escape unscathed.
The group that drives away the other from the rice fields is considered the winner of the day’s battle, though more often the battle is more or less a draw, with neither side succeeding in driving the other away. The “losing side” is often first at the rice fields the next day, raring to wage another battle.
The battles continue almost daily until the fields are plowed for the next rice crop. Some of the fields by then would have already been plowed over by the many small feet of the boys fighting their war, which was one of the reasons why the games were tolerated or even encouraged by the elders of the village.
Boys with leadership qualities naturally take command of the opposing groups, either as a single general, or several who work together as captains in leading their army. These leaders sometimes gain legendary prowess, and strike fear in the heart of the opposing army when they choose to engage in the battle themselves. They are adept tacticians, adopting worthy maneuvers, feints and frontal attacks. Sometimes, prisoners are taken, and the boys learn to parley and negotiate for prisoner release of exchanges.
It was a heady experience of boys acting like men. The boys who join in these games learn those tactics; they become stronger from the physical exertion; and learn to respect their betters and adversaries; they learn to cooperate with their peers. In this way, they become better members of the community.
But what makes it all the more popular is that it is fun. There is perhaps no latter-day equivalent to the pure joy of rolling and frolicking in the mud, dodging missiles and pitting wits with one’s peers. After the battle, the entire army would bathe in the river, and camaraderie would be reinforced.
Occasionally, instead of throwing projectiles at each other, the opposing groups’ leaders would decide to instead have a different contest. They might choose to have wrestling contests (damá). To do these, each side chooses a contender, according to size and ability, and the chosen contenders would try to overcome each other. After a wrestling bout is finished, another pair of contenders will be chosen, then another. It was a way of training the boys in the fighting arts.
Another variation to the battles was for kicking contests (gagtin), where the boys are allowed to use only their feet to hit their opponents. Either singly or in groups, with cheering from both sides, the boys become better fighters.
These games persisted until the early 1980s. By then, however, the people in Sagada and in the neighboring communities have already absorbed many foreign influences.
Parents would no longer tolerate these contests, saying that these were violent. Some parents also adopted the impression that these were “barbaric” and contrary to “modern” values and Christian teaching. Playing in the mud was no longer considered fun.
In the 1970s, the opposing sides also changed weapons. Whereas before they only used their hands to throw projectiles, they now used slingshots. With pebbles projected by the slingshots, accuracy was greatly increased. The damage from the projectiles also increased.
It was also around this time that the boys also learned to take their battles away from the fields and into the trees around the villages. The use of slingshots eventually had its toll, with more serious wounds being inflicted. Some lost their eyes in these war games. The serious wounds bred vengeful rivalries, and instead of promoting camaraderie and fair play, the games taught animosity and treachery.
Eventually, the war games ceased. They ceased because they no longer performed their original function of helping make the fields ready for the next rice cropping. They ceased because parents considered the games “barbaric” or anti-modern, and thus no longer served to physically and emotionally prepare the boys for adulthood. They ceased because the boys now used new weapons and thus devised new rules increasing the violence, and forgetting the lessons of life that the original games taught.
They ceased because we changed.