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A reclamation of one’s heritage

There exists a certain grudging respect for the culture of most indigenous groups in the Philippines. A token acknowledgment, perhaps, but little seems to stop the curious glances that indicate the smallness of some people’s mentality.

It’s easy for a child of an indigenous community to go into negativity and grow up with a dwarfed self-esteem and a distorted sense of his future. Theirs is a generation disaccustomed from tribal traditions to the point where native speech, learned at their mother’s knees, is in danger of extinction. Among their languages are Mag-indi, Mag-antsi, Abellen, Ambala, and Marivelenyo.

Old prints showing Aetas displayed at the Museum of Anthropology.
Old prints showing Aetas displayed at the Museum of Anthropology.
To help demystify most of the notions surrounding these indigenous people and their culture, there is a need to understand the psychological subculture of class prejudice and come up against the strain of adaptation to the mainstream and simultaneously nurture old traditions.

The National Museum of the Philippines, founded in 1901, has, for its primary mission, to acquire, preserve, exhibit, and foster interdisciplinary study and cognizance of works of arts, specimens, and cultural and historical relics in the Philippines.  

To celebrate the Museums and Galleries and the Indigenous People’s Month with a supplementary program for an exhibition called “Biyay: Tradition, Ecology and Knowledge Among The Philippine Negrito Communities,” the National Museum of the Philippines and the Sentrong Pagpapalakas ng Negritong Kultura at Kalikasan (SPNKK) recently conducted a public lecture and demo of hilot and other Ati herbal healing and medicinal practices. 

Theirs is an alternative way of healing ailments which can benefit even those who subscribe to modern  medicine and pharmaceuticals for their wellbeing. It is also one method to understand the lifestyle of indigenous people like the Negritos.  

Dr. Jaime Galvez Tan, a former Department of Health Secretary, has worked with and documented the lives of these people and the many ways with which they use local plants against sicknesses. He also authored a book called Hilot: The Traditional Filipino Massage.

A female Aeta from Guimaras shows some of the natural medicines from plants and tree barks. 
A female Aeta from Guimaras shows some of the natural medicines from plants and tree barks. 
The SPNKK, an NGO, aims to establish a communal activity by forming an umbrella intercrossing the many Negrito groups all over the Philippines.

The Negritos are members of a dark-skinned people, short in stature, who lived in Oceania and parts of Southeast Asia. They have African-like features (dark skin and frizzy hair) similar to that of the Aeta or Agta group who lived in scattered, isolated mountainous parts of Luzon.  

The Aetas have skin ranging from dark brown to very dark brown, small in frame, with hair of curly to kinky texture. They also possess a higher frequency of naturally lighter color (blondism), and have small nose and dark brown eyes.

Aetas are thought to be among the earliest inhabitants in the Philippines, preceding the Austronesian migrations. They arrived through land bridges from the Asian mainland, one of which was the Bering Land Bridge. Resisting Spanish assimilation, they remained living in the mountains. They brought with them iron tools and weapons, bows and arrows, and were considered to be fearsome warriors.

There are Aeta groups in Northern Luzon, such as the Pugut, from the Ilocano word meaning goblin or forest spirit. Other groups have settled in Zambales, Tarlac, Pampanga, Panay, Bataan, and Nueva Ecija. 

A hilot from Nueva Valencia demonstrates her knowledge during a session.
A hilot from Nueva Valencia demonstrates her knowledge during a session. 
When Mt. Pinatubo erupted in June 1991 the Aetas resettled in the lowlands of Tarlac and Pampanga.  Most of them have become extremely nomadic due to the social and economic strains on their culture and the way of life that they have been used to for hundreds of years. Other groups include the Agta, Ati, Ata, and Batak.

The Aetas of Mt. Pinatubo worshipped Apo Na. They are also animist and believe in the environment spirits (good or evil) in the river, sea, sky, mountain, hill, valley, and in many other places. They also believe in Gutugutumakkan (the Supreme Being), Kedes (god of the hunt), Pawi (god of the forest), and Sedsed (god of the sea).  

The women wore wraparound skirts while the men wore loin clothes. These days, they have adapted to wearing T-shirts, pants, shoes, and rubber sandals.

Their population started to decline in the early Hispanic period in the 1600s because of a high death rate due to encroachments by outsiders, deforestation, depletion of their traditional game sources, and a widespread poverty and disease.

The Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997 aims to protect and help them cope with matters such as access to jobs and livelihood support. Cultural revivals through festivals involving children and a continuing education which does not alienate the youth from their own heritage are also provided.

Recently at the Museum of Anthropology, Aeta communities from Nueva Valencia in Guimaras shared and demonstrated their knowledge of traditional healing. Hilot sessions were offered, plus methods of how to effectively draw from endemic plants their medicinal use. A group of Aetas likewise showed their traditional wear and danced to the accompaniment of their native music.

Old roots do not wither in a night. Indigenous people have always been bound together by close kinships with the same blood strains, skin tone, eyes. Finding their place in an unfamiliar society can be extremely dreadful and painful. Right now is their turn to erase all the scars of disconnectedness, open the door to complete assimilation yet still retain an enduring sense of their own intrinsic history and ethnological beginnings, heritage, and a high sense of their traditional culture.

Topics: National Museum of the Philippines , Aeta groups , Negritos
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