Recently, a researcher from the University of Asia and the Pacific contacted this keyboard puncher through the Internet to get his views on various issues about indigenous peoples. She got wind of my spirited musings when she came across the Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development and Protection Plan (ADSDPP)of the indigenous peoples of Bakun, Benguet. This writer happened to facilitate the formulation of the Bakun ADSDPP, and also edited the final output, which included the history of the place, an analysis of their situation at the time of the ADSDPP preparation (2004), and what the people foresaw to be the right way to manage their domain.
The Certificate of Ancestral Domain title (CADT) of Bakun was the first CADT issued in the Philippines. It was issued in the name of the Kankanaey-Bago tribe of Bakun, Benguet.
Pasrticularly intriguing to the researcher was the question on the identity of the Bago.
She notes the contention that ‘the Bago are actually “bagong tao,”’ and says that Prof. Nestor de Castro (U.P. Anthropology) said they aren’t really indigenous. (Prof. de Castro denies doing so. Please see comments on this post.)
This observation that the Bago are not indigenous is held by many, but this writer disagrees with the contention.
Indigenous peoples in the Philippines are precisely given that label now in recognition of the reality that in the long years of colonization by the Spaniards, they have become historically differentiated from the rest of the present Filipino people. That is, they have retained to a large extent the pre-colonial social, cultural and political systems while other inhabitants of these islands adopted the colonial influences of Spain. For many of these indigenous peoples, the distinction is rather pronounced, more so because the other Filipinos, mostly the lowland inhabitants, underlined the differentiation through various forms of discrimination.
The people of the Cordilleras are an example of the stark differentiation. The discrimination was not a one-way street, for the indigenous peoples themselves did not look kindly upon the non-indigenous. The differentiation is accepted by both sides, more so when the communities concerned are far apart and thus the differences are more pronounced. It thus was easier for those people high in the mountains of the Cordilleras to admit the differences, and readily acquiesce to a classification as indigenous peoples, or in older times, as “cultural communities”.
But such is not the case for their brethren in the foothills of the Cordilleras, particularly those near the provincial boundaries that tended to superimpose provincial identities to the people.
With the boundaries established in colonial and post-colonial times, identities of people tended to be associated with labels imposed by the colonial masters and government, as well as the generalistic classifications of academics.
Thus were born the Kankanaey, a term that is used to describe an ethnolinguistic group, or a group of communities that spoke a common language. The term has long been confused to mean a people, or a tribe, though this should not be the case. However, through long years of use, the term has acquired that meaning. Even official government classifications lists the Kankanaey as a ‘tribe.’ However, when we refer to a people as Kankanaey, we are merely implying that they speak a language labeled Kankanaey. The label was perhaps not meant to describe a people in the beginning, but since the term was applied by supposed experts in government and the academe, it became commonly used, and acquired its “tribal” or “people” meanings.
The boundaries drawn in Spanish and Americal colonial times and maintained by the post-colonial governments were however arbitrarily drawn, and did not reflect the classifications and differentiation of indigenous people from the non-indigenous population. Thus Kankanaey-speaking people were included in Benguet, Mountain Province, and the Ilocos provinces.
Those in the Cordilleras were identified as Igorots, an identity that they eventually came to proudly champion, even though the term had its derogatory meanings. The Kankanaey speaking population of the Cordillera foothills, but were included in the Ilocos political subdivisions, were at a loss, for they were not Ilocanos. At the same time, their identity as Kankanaey-speaking people was somehow subverted by their being politically divorced from the other Kankanaeys.
The discrimination against Igorots in the lowland provinces perhaps made them deny their affinity with the ‘Igorots’ or Kanakanaeys. This situation of belonging neither to the Kankanaey ethnolinguistic group or the Ilocano speakers gave rise to the term Bago. The Ilocanos referred to them as such, and so did their erstwhile brethren in the Cordilleras.
From the point of view of Igorots, the Bagos are those Kankanaeys in the lowlands, not really identifying them as distinct and separate people, but distinguishing them merely for the accident of being on the wrong side of a boundary line.
What confuses the issue even more is that the term “Bago” has been used to refer to migrants to the Bago communities, even if these migrants were originally known to be Igorots. Further, the term has been used to refer to other indigenous communities in the foothills of the Cordillera, not only to Kankanaey-speaking people, but also Isnegs, Kalinga, Ifugao, Tingguian, Ibaloi, or of mixed ancestry.
Through time, the term became commonly used, and the people the term referred to came to accept it as their identity.
The Bago as used in Bakun is a peculiarity in itself. The Bago come from barangay Bagu in that municipality, so called because they were nearer to the Ilocos than to the other villages in Bakun. (in fact up to now the village accessible only by passing through the lowlands.) so they were more identified with the “Bago” and their barangay named so.
With this background, the people referred to as Bago are indigenous people, in the sense that they indeed have retained much of the pre-colonial systems, language included. They are also known to practice cultures very similar to the other Kankanaey-speaking people higher in the Cordillera mountains.
However, this spirited thinker argues that the term Bago should not be used as the equivalent of Kankanaey (an appropriate term for an ethnolinguistic group). The Bagos are also Kankanaey-speaking, and thus should be included in that ethno-linguistic group.
The question of their identification of themselves as Bago should, on the other hand, not be questioned. After all, self-ascription and ascription by others is the accepted measure of identity as a people. If the Igorots and Ilocanos continue to refer them as Bagos, and they themselves ascribe to that name, then that identity is properly theirs.