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When Indigenous Peoples Are Evicted or Displaced, We Are All Culpable

If the title of this piece hooked you, then I appreciate your curiosity.

If, like me, you are a non-indigenous person living outside of the Philippines and you feel your connection to a homeland is tenuous, how can there be a connection between the plight of Lumads/indigenous peoples and you, right?

This is what I put my faith in: If we understand the Filipino concept of KAPWAas Shared Identity and the Sacred Interconnectedness of ALL, then the Lumads/indigenous peoples are my Kapwa. Therefore, what happens to my Kapwa happens to me as well. How do we embody this truth that sounds conceptually simple but profoundly confounding and perplexing?

Some scenarios that I’ve been tracking:

  1. A recent news item about the eviction of the indigenous Ati community from the world-famous tourist destination Boracay Island generated an unusually high number of responses from the members of a closed Facebook Group that I monitor. Hurt. Angry. Indignant. Horrified. Sad. Disgusted. There must be something we can do! I posted this news item wondering if it will elicit any response as most postings in this group hardly generate much discussion or reaction.

  2. The visual artist/feminist/actor Maria Isabel Lopez, during her local art exhibit in Sonoma County, CaLifornia, told us of a film project she’s doing about Bai Bibyaon, the only female chief of a Manobo indigenous community in Mindanao. Bai Bibyaon has been fighting against her people’s displacement from their ancestral lands as the government promotes development via the corporate takeover of resource-rich Lumad/indigenous territories. I’ve been carrying the image of Bai Bibyaon’s fiery confrontation with a political figure who was trying to rationalize the eviction of her people. She talked back with all her might and fury. Her courage stayed with me. I, too, want to be courageous like her. When Maria Isabel asked Bai for permission to do a portrait of her per my request, Bai Bibyaon also sent a message: It is good to know that you are aware of our struggle over here. Our land was taken away from us and we have no definite place to stay. We cannot return to our ancestral land, we can only go to the forest. Sometimes for two days my grandchildren cannot eat and I am with them traveling from place to place. We were forced to stay in Davao but sadly the government cannot take care of us. Right now we are in Manila to voice our concerns. Thank you for those people who have listened to me-Bibyaon. Bigkay is my last name. I hope you can help us bring this message over there. My only wish is for my grandchildren to pursue education, unlike me who has not gone to school. My response: Thank you, Maria Isabel Lopez!! Salamat, Isabel, for sending this. I am so touched. But I also felt very sad that Bai thinks of herself as someone who has not gone to school. Please send her the message that her wisdom and courage and spirit comes from the best teachers — the Land, the Ancestors, the Spirit Guides — all of whom have taught her well. Please tell her to never be ashamed of not having gone to school. She is our teacher and inspiration. Thank you for being the bridge in these messages! Love to you and Bai!!

  3. I’ve been watching the “I Witness” documentaries of Kara David on GMA Public Affairs TV on youtube. Many of the documentaries feature the plight of indigenous communities like the the Kabihugs of Camarines Norte, the Aetas of Tarlac, the Tagbanuas of Palawan and other indigenous communities in remote rural areas of the Philippines. These documentaries often represent the indigenous peoples as folks who have been left behind by progress, as folks struggling to overcome poverty and illnesses, and folks whose lack of education render them disadvantaged. At the same time, the documentarians also express admiration for their indigenous ways of being as in when they share the one kilo of rice that they’ve traded for a day’s catch of crabs or eels with all the families in the village; of their reverence for nature by taking only what they need for the day; of their peaceful and gentle ways of being.

  4. In 2006 and 2008, two Fulbright Hays Grant allowed me and my group to visit Lake Sebu and we met a T’Boli young leader, Jenita Eko. My group composed of two dozen California K-12 teachers bought Tinalak tapestries and other arts and crafts and the proceeds enabled Jenita’s village to set up a store in downtown Lake Sebu. Today, her village also has a public school with an indigenous curriculum — thanks to Jenita’s advocacy and leadership. Her most recent work includes being the grant recipient of Gina Lopez’ Quest for Love project. Gina Lopez is a former environmental secretary under President Duterte. She continues to advocate for sustainable economic development for indigenous communities.

  5. In my home province of Pampanga, the Sama Dilaut who were displaced by wars in Zamboanga found refuge in Pampanga and have built villages in lahar-ravaged areas. Now they are again being told to move to make way for new business structures on the land where they have settled for decades. They have nowhere to go.

Why am I tracking these stories?

In the early years of my decolonization journey, I became curious about the indigenous history of my homeland. I became aware of the Schools of Living Traditions supported by the National Commission for the Culture and the Arts (NCAA); the government agency ensures that indigenous traditions and practices are passed on to the next generations. I connected with Heritage and Arts Academies of the Philippines (HAPI) led by culture-bearers Kidlat Tahimik and Katrin de Guia as they organized KAPWA conferences that I was able to attend in 2008, 2012. The conferences brought indigenous elders and youth together with academics and culture bearers; they created a space where scholars and cultural advocates learned about Filipino Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices (IKSP). The Center for Babaylan Studies was eventually organized in 2009 to formally engage issues of decolonization and indigenization via conferences, retreats, symposia,and book publications.

As these academic engagements deepened, my personal longing to grow deep ancestral roots called forth a way of seeing the world through the lens of indigenous perspectives. Wade Davis, National Geographic Resident Exploreroffers this: The diversity of the biosphere (natural environment) and the ethnosphere (human cultural diversity) is the key to the well-being and survival of the planet.

Consider these stats: There are still 375M indigenous peoples who have not been displaced from their original homelands on the planet; there are 5000–6000 languages in the world many of which are endangered. All the remaining unexploited resources on the planet is on the ancestral lands of these indigenous peoples. In the Philippines, there are over 150 linguistic communities and 14–17M indigenous peoples.

While I was learning about the holy trinity of global capitalism (World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization), climate change crisis, and the modern myth of American exceptionalism and all the devastating effects of these narratives on the Global South, I also started to learn about the global grassroots movements that have begun to fight back against the tyranny of the single story of Progress. These movements are often led by indigenous peoples and their allies like the Keystone pipeline protest at Standing Rock in North Dakota; or movements that are informed by indigenous paradigms often called Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) or Original Instructions. The work of indigenous scholars (e.g. Indigenous Manifesto by Alfred Taiaiake, Transit of Empire by Jodi Byrd, Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Simpson, All our Relations by Winona LaDuke Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and many others) feed my hunger for indigenous perspectives that hold me up in my desire to live with an indigenous mind and heart.

Tracking these movements have informed the work that we do at the Center for Babaylan Studies.

The question of “Indigenous”

When I seriously challenged myself to embody what I was learning cognitively, things began to shift internally.

  • How can I keep writing about the importance and relevance of Filipino indigenous knowledge systems and practices if I am not even in the homeland and it can’t be said that the brief sojourns to indigenous communities constitute enough of an immersion?

  • …when our organizational efforts towards maintaining relationships with indigenous communities in the homeland are challenged by limited resources and the limitations posed by our personal circumstances?

  • …when I haven’t even really learned what it means to be in relationship with the Land where I have been a settler for three decades?

The third point above is really the clincher for me. To be indigenous is to be in relationship with the Land and all that implies. This is what I needed to learn more deeply. Isn’t this what the indigenous peoples have been trying to tell us for centuries? That this is relationship is not a metaphor nor is it merely symbolic. To know the Land and the human and non-human beings of the Land where one’s ancestors have always lived is what makes the indigenous consciousness so different from our modern minds. This primary separation from the Land created disconnection, forgetting, and fragmentation that characterize so much of our modern predicament. The problems I mentioned above are the historical consequences of a mindset that believes that the Earth is not alive and therefore can be exploited to serve human purposes.

For years I asked myself what I can do about these problems that feel so overwhelming. Even though I felt burdened by the ecological devastation of my homeland and the displacement of the Lumads from their ancestral domains, I felt helpless. In my helplessness, I was surprised by the answer that whispered to my heart and soul; the whisper brought me back to the importance of the local and the small. The inner voice said that it is only by choosing to act locally can I make a difference, reduce my carbon footprint and reduce the material clutter of my life. Slowing down and narrowing my lens of seeing is antithetical to the culture’s maddening impulse to go fast and scale up and buy more. But the more I slowed down, the more my heart leaned closer to the tone, texture, rhythm, sounds, and shapes of the place I call home now. Keying in to the creation stories of the Pomo and Coast Miwok who have lived in this place for tens of thousands of years, I began to know the sensuousness of Dwelling in a Place. It feels like falling in Love… with a tree, a creek, a mountain.

As I spend more time in the garden weeding, gathering herbs, watering, or simply humming a song as a way of thanking the plant beings; as I spend more time in Holy Tunganga, the art of doing nothing; as I practice a daily walking meditation; as I am cooking for friends and then washing dishes and cleaning house — my drivenness, my impulse to do more, my lofty goals of doing good in the world — all give way to a way of being in the world that simply says: Enough.

I play a thought experiment where I imagine that more and more people in the “first world” are choosing this way of being and I see the slowing down of the economy and the closing down of shopping malls. I see the proliferation of community-based land trusts that takes Land out of real estate speculation. I see alternative communities and economies of sharing and gifting. I see people being happy in their tiny houses. I see people being content to stay home and spend more time creating a hand-made life. I see people wanting to know what that word — KAPWA — means…and they get it.

As people’s modern values and world view change and shift to an indigenous paradigm, then perhaps the madness of resource extraction on the remaining ancestral lands will cease. And indigenous peoples would no longer be driven out of their lands and pushed to assimilate; there will be a movement of peoples wanting to learn indigenous ways of seeing and being.

This is the refrain of a podcast series that I did last year with Rochelle McLaughlin. In these series I was able to tell stories of my evolving practice of dwelling in place, living local and small.

Oh, I know I may sound naive. But I am sure I am not alone. In fact, I feel the stirrings of communities around the world rising up around this movement. Parents are deschooling their children and building Earth Schools. Millennials are creating festivals of transformation and eschewing the materialism of their parents’ generation. Elders are rising up to take responsibility for mentoring the youth. Writers, poets, filmmakers, artists are imagining new worlds. Can you see these emerging cultures?

On culpability- So when I say “We are all Culpable” I am pointing to a reckoning that is informed by a long lens of historical consequences that calls us to think deeply about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as modern folks. I think of the culpability of our educational and schooling system that has taught us a world view that renders indigenous peoples as lagging behind a linear trajectory of development, as primitives in need of rescue and redemption. So they, too, learn to see themselves from a deficit perspective.

Yet, all the environmental philosophers and ecologists who are speaking on behalf of the Earth point to the indigenous knowledge and wisdom of indigenous peoples. As Noemi Klein laments how capitalism killed the climate momentum she also says that “there is nothing essential about humans living under capitalism; we humans are capable of organizing ourselves into all kinds of different social orders, including societies with much longer time horizons and far more respect for natural life-support systems. Indeed, humans have lived that way for the vast majority of our history and many Indigenous cultures keep earth-centered cosmologies alive to this day. Capitalism is a tiny blip in the collective story of our species.”

The indigenous vision is cosmic, Earth-bound, elemental, and poetic. The Earth is Alive and she is speaking. Listen to the voice of indigenous peoples who know this in their bones. We know it in our bones, too, except we have developed cultural amnesia. We can heal from this forgetting.

When indigenous peoples are evicted and displaced from their ancestral lands, I am culpable. We are culpable. To the extent that we have bought into the notion of progress, of becoming civilized, of being educated, of becoming modern — all of the attitudes we internalize and the habits we practice daily contributes to the manic phase of global capitalism that makes resource extraction mandatory.

My grief over my own complicity and culpability is deep. Undoing and unlearning what this modern culture has taught me is going to be my project for the rest of my life. Returning to the wisdom of my ancient indigenous roots and the practice of listening to the Land is my gratitude practice.

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