A day with Negritos

Published October 25, 2018, 12:05 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat



Gemma Cruz Araneta
Gemma Cruz Araneta

You have probably forgotten that October is a month dedicated to indigenous peoples; it is also Museums’ Month and Women’s History Month the world over. So,  you should go to the National Museum of Anthropology, that imposing neo-classical edifice at the corner of Finance Road and Taft Avenue. It used to be the Department of Finance building and in front of it is the recently inaugurated National Museum for Natural History, which used to be the Department of Agriculture before it  reincarnated as the Department of Tourism, where I used to work.

Before October ends, I strongly recommend that you spend a day at the National Museum of Anthropology like I did last week, go to the third floor and immerse yourselves in the  “Biyay: Tradisyon, Ekolohiya, at Kaalaman ng mga Negritong Komunidad sa Pilipinas.” Once and for all, learn about the Negrito communities, our fellow Filipinos who are found all over this archipelago.

Before the “Biyay” exhibit opened, there was a round- table meeting in the morning at the Ayala hall on the second floor.  A group of women leaders of Negrito communities from Luzon and the Visayas were invited to speak about life in their respective communities.

They all have common concerns: Their ancestral domain is endangered due to activities of unscrupulous and greedy outsiders who steal their land. They have to find effective ways to manage their natural resources and make sure that their livelihood is based on the conservation of the eco-system. They do not want to lose their culture or have it diluted by an unsuitable educational system. They want to preserve their mother tongue and make that the medium of instruction. They want to preserve and improve their use of herbs and alternative medicine.

It was fascinating to hear these women leaders, seated in a semi-circle in front of us, declare that gender bias is not a problem among Negritos.   There were six communities represented that morning. Their leaders were Carolina Evangelio of Ibajay, Aklan, Alma Calawod of Malay, Aklan, Veronica Balacanta of Nueva Valencia, Guimaras, Perla Moreno of San Miguel, Guimaras, Fely Cuerdo and Conchita Calzado of Gen. Nakar, Quezon.  They all agreed that like their men folk, they can also hunt wild boar, fish in rivers and the open sea, climb trees, plant and harvest their food, prepare herbal medicine, and teach in their community schools. Significantly, no one invoked motherhood as evidence that women are more than just equal to men.  The male members of the Negrito communities were in the back rows; they refused to sit in front but no one objected to what the women were saying about gender equality.

During the open forum, a man commented that their women folk are endowed with negotiating skills, so when they need to talk to local government officials, business people, or visitors, they leave that to the women.  Obviously, the discrimination is not internal; it comes from the outside, from non-Negritos, from those they call   unat (straight-haired) lowlanders.

Conchita Calzado of Nakar, Quezon, is the head of  “Sentrong Pagpapalakas ng Negritong Kultura at Kalikasan” (SPNKK), which monitors researchers of all disciplines who want to publish erudite tomes about  Negrito life and culture. The SPNKK makes sure that these scholars  include the names of their Negrito contacts as co-authors, not just informants. In the past, researchers would publish copious notes about Negrito herbal medicines and cures without giving credit where it is due. The SPNKK is working with the patent office to protect Negrito rights.

Negrito communities and other indigenous peoples living inside or near declared national parks and preserves are allowed by the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) to extract resources from these areas and participate in forest management. The Indigenous Peoples’Rights Act (RA 8371) is supposed to issue collective legal titles for ancestral domains, but according to some of the women leaders, the law is not strictly enforced

In the evening, I went back to the National Museum of Anthropology for the opening of the “Biyay.” There was a brief ceremony, which began with a chanted invocation by Mr. Sosaid Balintay, a member of the SPNKK.  Then Sosaid danced with Jover Ocampo and two ladies, the men imitated the movements and gestures of playful monkeys, as if teasing the ladies.

I instantly recognized some of the “Biyay” items, which had been on permanent display at the Division of Anthropology when the National Museum was cramped into the National Science and Bureau of Mines buildings on Herran.  We had so little space then, so there were only two display cases with glass tops for Negrito items. With nostalgia, I remembered the shell ear plugs with delicate engraved designs, grass ear plugs that looked like flowers, a variety of rattan necklaces collected by Dr. Robert Fox, chief anthropologist, bows and arrows, spears with deadly poisonous tips, shorter one for blowguns; the wooden tops were still there, so were the delicate necklaces of beads and shells. Assistant Director Ana Labrador told me they could not believe there were thousands of items all in storage and never before exhibited. They discovered some spectacular stuff dating back to the St Louis Exposition in 1904 (for example, a Tubus spear  from Floridablanca, Pampanga).

Dr. Labrador  also said that “Biyay” is a “game-changer” because it shows the diversity and sophistication of Philippine Negrito culture.  The botany department brought out specimens of medicinal plants used by Negritos and the museum zoologists put stuffed birds, monkeys, and a remarkable kalaw on display. There is a large 1885 drawing,”Negritos o Aetas,” by Ramon Jordana of Madrid, prints from the Boxer Codex, contemporary photographs, and a documentary which I did not get to see.

The Negrito communities were euphoric; I heard a lot of oohs and aahs. We took photos of each other in front of the exhibits, a lot of selfies, then we were invited to a merienda-cena at the Ayala hall during which some ladies displayed nito bracelets and bags, medicinal herbs and special oils, strips of silk used by their babaylans during special rituals. I began my Christmas shopping.

Although they are collectively called Negritos, the communities have different names some of which are Ita, Agta, Aeta, Atta, Baluga, Batak, Pugot, Mamanwa, and Dumagat. It was exhilarating to have spent a day with them.  ([email protected])