Luczon: Bagani narratives and the complexities of cultural appreciation

Nef Luczon

THERE was a time that I was invited along with non-government workers to visit a village between the boundaries of Claveria town and Gingoog City in the province of Misamis Oriental. Most of its residents are from the Higaonon tribe. Thanks to a better road network, it was quite an easy hike.

While on location, I was already mesmerized by the village's surroundings especially some classic Higaonon houses built. I took photographs of some of it, until one of the tribal leaders caught my attention, who was also caught in my camera's lenses.

Usually in my encounters with indigenous peoples (IPs), I am greeted with warm welcome. But that time, the tribal elder was somehow perplexed. He looked at me rather blank.

Until the gathering was convened and some opening rituals were made, he took the opportunity to tell us about seeking permission first to the elders before taking photographs. Other than on privacy, it was also about the belief that such device can capture human souls.

It was my bad. And I felt horrible despite me asking for forgiveness and the elder eventually gave a blessing for me to continue taking photographs. Of course, how stupid I was to forget that there are IP communities who hold to such belief system.

In most gatherings with IPs, it is usually commenced with a tribal ritual as opening ceremonies, it has many names: Pamuhat, Panubad, Panagtawagtawag, and Kanduli, depending on what ethnolinguistic groups you happen to mingle.

These rituals signify one thing: asking permission to the holy beings before starting any meetings and whatever activities it may entail.

That is why as modern societies have attempted to homogenize the norms of the world, there were movements coming from the marginalized minorities to preserve the culture, traditions, and customs in order for latter generations see the rich heritage of the past.

So, when a giant broadcasting network allowed its writers to make a fantasy television series, then named it "Bagani" to look like exotic, some IP groups were upset about it, eventually causing a debate among cultural workers and apologist fanatics who are not even doing enough studies on IP literacy.

Bagani, are warriors amongst the IPs, some groups call them as Alamara. These warriors had to earn their keep and social status by defending their communities. Until recently, even prior to the recent TV show, the terms were used in warfare propaganda between rebel-leaning and military-leaning IPs. A reality that IPs are divided even within their circles. Which were common even in the pre-colonial times (tribal wars and land disputes).

For some, calling a TV show "Bagani" without reflecting on the values anchored on IP belief system was a great blunder, and feared that the IP illiterate audience will be getting a wrong impression on what a Bagani looks like. Although in the TV network's defense that they did enough time of research, however, it appeared to fall short on the premise of asking permission from the legitimate IP stakeholders, probably a simple opening ritual could have made as part of the consultation process.

As the debate progressed, it turned out that there are two opposing Schools of Thoughts emanated from this issue: one is the School that wishes to preserve cultural identities, the other, was the School that believes that culture and tribal traditions are fluid.

The believers of this latter School are the ones who see no problem in using the term "Bagani" and transform it into a different take of characterization. After all, cultures change, and adapt to certain degree over time, they argued; citing examples of IPs embracing the mainstream societies for work, and the use of non-authentic materials like commercial beverages and cigarettes in the conduct of some rituals.

And this is where it's getting complicated: the creative in me desired to use IP mythos and lores as references in reimagining their visual style and modernist projections. Similar to how creatives reimagined the American natives in coming up with fictional characters with mystical powers, and recently, how Hollywood celebrated African culture with the success of Black Panther.

However the bigger challenge was how can you project through reimagination, the Filipino IP traditions without sacrificing its actual cultural and traditional identity and values?

The shorter answer can be a realization that while there are already indigenous cultures being referenced in popular culture brought by media, there are also IP groups who still value that their traditional and cultural belief systems must be respected, and if possible left untouched for creative media exploits, unless done responsibly.

But I am hoping that someday the younger generations of Filipinos will find time in appreciating our IPs' traditions and cultural identities and see for themselves that in order to represent better in the world is to simply go back to our indigenous ancestry.