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Sama (Samal) Tribe of the Sulu Archipelago: History, Culture and Arts, Customs and Traditions [Mindanao Indigenous People | Philippines Ethnic Group]

Sama / Samal Tribe of the Sulu Archipelago: History, Culture and Arts, Customs and Traditions [Mindanao Indigenous People | Ethnic Group]

The Sama, also called Samal or Isama, is one of three ethnic groups in the Sulu Archipelago, the others being the Yakan and the Tausug. The etymological origin of the word is not yet clear, although one conjecture is that “Sama” may have derived from the word sama-sama, meaning “togetherness.” The language of the Sama is Siama or Sinama, also called Bahasa Sama, Bisla Sinama, and Pamong Sinama. Other groups speaking the Sinama language or variations thereof are the Sama Dilaut, also known as Badjao, the Jama Mapun (West Sama) of Cagayan island, the Yakan, and the Balangingi of the Samales Island group.

Vintas in Jolo, Sulu during the first Vinta Festival
Vintas in Jolo, Sulu during the first Vinta Festival (Camille Abadicio)

The Sama are scattered in noncontiguous areas on the Sulu Archipelago, the southern boundary of the Philippines, consisting of a chain of volcanic islands between the Zamboanga Peninsula and the northeastern tip of Borneo. The archipelago is divided into island groups, the major ones being Basilan, Balangingi or Samales, Sulu, Pangutaran, Tapul, Siasi, and Tawi-Tawi.

Basilan proper is the largest island in the archipelago. It is inhabited by the Yakan and the Sama, but its surrounding smaller islands are inhabited entirely by the Sama. The Balangingi group has 19 islands, among them Tonkil, Balangingi, Simisa, Tatalan, Bukutwa, Bulinig, and Bangalaw; it is occupied by the Sama. The Sulu group, of which Jolo is the principal island, is inhabited by the Tausug. The Pangutaran group, which consists of 14 islands, the principal ones being Pangutaran, Pandukan, North Ubian, Laparan, and Tababas, has a Sama majority, with the Tausug comprising a minority. The Siasi group consists of 38 islands, among them Siasi, Pandami, Tapul, Lugus, Laminusa, and Kabingaan. Siasi and Pandami have a preponderance of Sama, but the local heads are Tausug. Laminusa and Kabingaan are smaller islands also thickly populated by the Sama. The many islets and coral reefs ringing these major islands are filled with Sama settlements. The Tawi-Tawi group, where the Sama population is concentrated, has 88 islands subdivided into northern and southern sections. The northern section is composed of Bongao, Sanga-sanga, Tawi-Tawi, Tandu-batu, and numerous islets. The southern section consists of the islands of Kinapusan, Bintulan, Tabawan, South Ubian, Tandubas, Sikubun, Lataan, Mantabwan, Banaran, Bilatan, Manuk-manka, and Simunul. This island group, also called “the back door of the Philippines,” became a province on 27 September 1973 according to Presidential Decree 302.

Sibutu and Semporna (Sabah) are two islands on the southernmost tip of the Philippines. When Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States, these islands were not included within the boundaries of the Philippines as defined in the Treaty of Paris on 10 December 1898. In November 1900, a separate treaty ceded these islands, including Cagayan de Sulu, which lies 250 kilometers west of the archipelago, midway to Palawan.

The Sama have become widely dispersed across history, spreading as far as southern Luzon and even parts of Australia. In the north, the Sama have relatives among the Abakunun in Capul Island, Northern Samar; in the south, among the Orang Bajau or Orang Laut of Roti Island, Indonesia. They also have a sizeable number in Eastern Sabah, Malaysia. Primary reasons for these migrations are the impoverished conditions and the conflicts occurring in their areas in Mindanao. Many Sama, like other marginalized rural groups in the Philippines, seek better economic opportunities in metropolitan areas like Manila, only to end up in the congested slums and on the streets. Similarly, the Sama Laminusa occupying the shorelines of Davao City like Isla Verde and Punta Dumalag are in dire economic circumstances. However, they refuse to move to the uplands due to their cultural affinity with the sea.

Because the Sama have several subgroups, they define their ethnic unity on the basis of the following criteria: their orientation to the sea, their Islamic beliefs and practices, their language, and their loyalty to a kin group. However, they differentiate among themselves because of varied historical backgrounds, degrees of orientation to the sea, dialects, habitats, degrees of cultural assimilation into the Tausug, and ecological-economic factors.

Sama subgroupings based on orientation either to or away from the sea are the Sama Paglahat who have settled on land; Sama Talon who live in the interior and subsist mainly on farming; Sama Lipid (Littoral Sama), who live in clusters of stilt houses on the seashore or in coastal waters; and Sama Dilaut (ocean Sama), also known as Badjao or sea gypsies, whose religion is ancestor worship.

Every Sama group identifies itself with the name of its settlement, which is defined by a unique genealogy and history, a specific set of economic activities, or a certain degree of affluence. Various groups may claim descent from the Muslim missionary Makdum Mukthar; from Alexander the Great’s chief aide, Jamiyon Kulisa; from sharifs; or from Chinese traders. The original Sama Balangingi were depicted by the Spaniards as pirates and slave raiders. Many have assimilated into the Tausug group.

Geographic proximity and cultural assimilation have tended to blur distinctions between the Tausug and Sama, and the Sama and the Badjao. Some Sama have assimilated into Tausug society by intermarriage and the use of the Tausug language. They prefer to identify with the Tausug, who are politically and culturally dominant. On the other hand, Badjao groups who have settled on land and worship in a mosque have become indistinguishable from the Sama.

Because of the diaspora of the Sama people, their subgroups may have blended with or descended from other ethnolinguistic groups in the Philipines, as in the case of the Sama in Samal Island and the Samal Kanlao. According to oral histories, the Sama who inhabit Samal Island at the northern end of Davao Gulf were part of the invading forces of the famed Maguindanaon leader, Sharif Kabungsuwan. However, their ship was blown off course as they were traveling from Johore, and they ended up on Samal Island. Across the years, the Sama in Samal Island have been absorbed by the native Mandaya inhabitants. Linguistically, they have been classified as a Kalagan-speaking group and thus, effectively, Mandaya.

Christianized Sama are called Samal Kanlao, kanlao meaning “friend.” It used to be a derogatory term until the group claimed it to distinguish themselves from other Sama groups. In spite of their acculturation to the settler religion, Samal Kanlao still practice Sama (Sulu) rituals and retain variants of Sama (Sulu) traditions.

As of 1983, the total Sama population was 244,160. As of 2007, the total population of the Sama was 475,000, based on combined estimates from 2000 to 2007. This is likely much higher due to the rate of their population increase throughout the years. In Tawi-Tawi alone, the population grew by 5.53% in the year 2000. In 2014, they numbered at 639,618.

History of the Sama / Samal Tribe of Sulu

Folk history depicts the Sama ancestors as living on the coasts of the Simunul among the Timbakkan (a tree species). The first man was Maas-Malakituk, who was converted to Islam by Sheik Makdum Mukhtar.

Sheik Makdum Shrine in Sibutu
Sheik Makdum Shrine in Sibutu (Photo by Noli C. Gabilo in Tan and Resurreccion 2001)

Historians Saleeby (1908) and Orosa (1923) say the Tausug preceded the Sama, the latter group having immigrated from Johore around the 14th century. However, an ethnolinguistic study by Pallesen (1985) identifies Sama speakers who had settled in Zamboanga and then spread out to Sulu by 1000, whereas Tausug speakers started arriving from northeast Mindanao only at about 1300.

Chinese accounts in the 15th century show that there was Hindu influence in the area, going by certain words and titles like adat (custom law) and Maharajah. Trade with the Chinese existed by at least 1000 and certainly thrived during the Yuan dynasty, 1278-1368. Arabian Muslim missionaries came in the 14th and 15th centuries to convert the people, and Islam has been the most pervasive influence ever since.

There were cursory contacts with the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. Except for the Spaniards’ naval suppression of the Sama pirates, Spanish colonization hardly touched the area because their presence was confined to “well-fortified garrison towns” (Pallesen 1985, 7) like Jolo and Zamboanga. Spanish accounts from the 17th to the 19th century reveal that the Sama Balangingi engaged in slave raiding and “piracy.” The accounts referred to them, along with the Maranao Iranun, as “Los Moros Infieles” (the Muslim infidels), who raided the coastal towns of the Visayas and Luzon islands, and the other southeast Asian countries, to capture slaves for the Sulu Sultanate. At that time, the Balangingi were the most dominant Sama group. Their islands had four forts, which were “stockades of two, three, and four tiers of stout tree trunks, packed with earth and coral to a height of 20 feet and defended with heavy cannon” (Warren 1978, 484).

The Sama’s political and economic relationship to the Tausug explains their slave-hunting raids. After Islam was introduced in the 15th century, the Tausug developed the most organized political and economic system in the archipelago. They established the sultanate in Jolo, where the Tausug population is still concentrated, and the Sama became politically subservient to them. Furthermore, because the Sama lived on islands that had little water and vegetation, they were dependent on Jolo for their subsistence.

As Sulu’s local and foreign trade expanded, it required more laborers to gather its sea and forest produce, such as tripang (sea cucumber), birds’ nests, wax, camphor, and mother of pearl. The Sama, having little to offer their Tausug patrons except their boat building and maritime skills, went in search of slaves in exchange for a share of the Tausug wealth and power.

The Visayan, Tagalog, and Malay captives were incorporated into Sama society so that by 1836, they made up 90% of the Balangingi population. Ironically, many of them became boat commanders of slave expeditions, and their knowledge of their previous localities and their native languages was especially useful.

Spanish Governor-General Narciso Claveria y Villora, during his term from 1844 to 1849, enforced a war policy against the Balangingi. In 1849, three fleets of Spanish soldiers attacked Balangingi, killed 400, and captured 150. Governor-General Urbiztondo, who succeeded Claveria, continued the policy of Muslim suppression, and the Balangingi were dispersed to Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga, and East Borneo. Those who transferred to Zamboanga became traders of their own sea products and farmers. The Tawi-Tawi group tried to continue their old way of life but were defeated by the Spanish navy. By 1870, the era of slave raiding had ended.

The Americans were slightly more successful than the Spaniards in colonizing Sulu because they established a public school system and won over the traditional leaders. The Kiram-Carpenter Agreement, which curtailed the power of the Sulu Sultanate and is seen by many as an act of capitulation to the United States, was signed on 22 March 1915. Internal colonization by Christian settlers began, leading to alliances between the Sama and the Protestant missionaries to build evangelistic schools. During World War II, Tawi-Tawi became a stronghold of anti-Japanese Filipinos and Americans. The conflict culminated in the “Battle of the Philippine Sea” on 19 to 20 June 1944. It dealt crippling losses on the Japanese navy and became one of the greatest victories of the United States in the war.

American economic and cultural influence on the Sama continues, mainly as it filters in through the national culture, but Islamic culture remains dominant. At present, the archipelago is incorporated into the national government structure, but civil unrest exists in some areas.

The late 1960s witnessed the Jabidah Massacre, an incident which focused the attention of the Muslim world upon the Philippines. In 1967, the Philippine Army started a secret unit called Merdeka, which was composed of young Muslim trainees, most of them Sama. At year’s end, they were transferred to Corregidor Island, and the project was renamed Jabidah. However, the trainees became dissatisfied, especially because their pay had been delayed, and they demanded to be returned to Sulu. Under the impression that they could go, they complied with orders to go to an airstrip in groups of 12. Here, soldiers fired at them. It has never been ascertained what Jabidah’s real mission was.

The Jabidah Massacre became the catalyst for the armed struggle of many Moro groups in Mindanao who strive for self-determination. Two months after the Jabidah Massacre, the Muslim Independence Movement (MIM) was formed by Datu Udtog Matalam, aimed at preventing a repetition of the incident by means of collective action. The MIM received supplies from Malaysia, to which it also sent men for military training. However, its call for independence did not resonate as strongly among the Moros as MIM might have hoped. Matalam was a Cotabato-based Maguindanaon politician, but most of the victims of the massacre were from Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Thus, Matalam was not deemed a credible leader of the reaction.

In 1972, a Tausug Sama, Nur Misuari, formed the armed rebel group Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which started taking control of large areas in Mindanao with the aim of creating an independent Moro state in Southern Philippines. It was not until 1987, after Marcos was removed from power, that a constitutional amendment provided for the creation of an autonomous region in Mindanao. Hence, in 1989, during the presidency of Corazon Aquino, Republic Act 6734 was signed into law, creating the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The Sama became part of this region, as the province of Tawi-Tawi voted for inclusion along with Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, and Sulu. A comprehensive peace agreement was signed in 1996 during the term of President Fidel Ramos, and Misuari was subsequently elected governor of the ARMM.

However, splinter groups have arisen since, foremost among them the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which refuses to recognize the ARMM and continues to fight for Moro independence. On the other hand, the Abu Sayyaf group, which claims to have a separatist and fundamentalist stance, engages in acts of terrorism, such as kidnap-for-ransom (Soriano 2006, 11).

The Livelihood of the People of the Sama

The most important occupation among most Sama groups is fishing. At the same time, shell and seaweed gathering for the international market has become a primary occupation for some communities. Traditional sea products that are still gathered are pearls, mother of pearl, tripang, seashells, and tortoise shell. Besides cassava, which is their staple food, tenant and small landowning farmers produce rice, coconut, and hemp. In the southern part, the Sama combine both farming and fishing. A few have become middlemen, taking over some of the trade dominated by the Chinese.

Transporting of wood in Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi
Transporting of wood in Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi (Estan Cabigas)

Some women in communities far from central markets have resorted to retail trading of dry goods in makeshift stalls. Otherwise, Sama retailers concentrate on the fish market. Other occupations are logging, hunting, small entrepreneurship, and private or government employment.

Some Sama communities have become identified with their particular economic activities. For example, the Sama Simunul are known for buras (rattan mat with painted designs) and pottery making; the Sama Sibutu, for boat building and wood carving; the Sama Balimbing, for drying food and sea products; the Sama Tapul, for producing atis (sugar apple) and mandarin oranges; the Sama Laminusa, for tepo (pandanus mats) weaving, bag making, and pearl diving; and the Sama Manubul, for fishing.

Mamahi (stars) play a significant role in the lives of Sama fisherfolk, seafarers, and farmers. These are used as navigation guides, omens, and indicators for the various aspects of fishing and planting. The constellations are named after their fishing and sea-related activities: mamahi kagang (crab), mamahi pagi (stingray), bunta (puffer fish), sahapang (three-pronged spear used to catch fish), bubu (rectangular bamboo fish trap), and anakdatu (a fisherman poised to spear a puffer fish with his sahapang). Sama seafarers rely particularly on the mamahi uttara (the North Star) for direction. The other stars are used as reference for specific routes as well. The appearance of the rectangular constellation bubu is seen as a good omen because it “traps” many stars inside it, thus indicating a good catch and good weather for the fisherfolk.

Sama farmers consult the constellations when they are planting crops. The appearance of saloka (the coconut constellation) marks the season for planting coconuts. The appearance of batik, which represents a spear trap used in hunting wild pigs, indicates when it is time to set the dates for clearing the fields for kaingin farming.

In 2007, Tawi-Tawi was identified as part of the Coral Triangle, which comprises several regions with the highest diversity of marine life in the world. In these areas are concentrated 76% of all known coral species, 2,500 types of reef fish, six species of endangered sea turtles, and other types of endangered fishes and marine mammals in 1.6% of the world’s waters. However, while the seas of Tawi-Tawi boast the whole wealth of these resources, dynamite fishing, cyanide poisoning, and poaching, compounded by damages brought about by typhoons and climate change, have compromised the conditions of their marine ecosystem. Unsustainable and illegal maritime activities affect not only the environment but the food security of the people in the region. In 2006, the Provincial Fatwa on Marine Environmental Protection and Conservation was declared, prohibiting blast fishing, cyanide fishing, and overfishing, and mandating the protection and conservation of fish habitats as fardhu kifayah (collective obligation). The fatwa (legal opinion based on Islamic law) thus sees these maritime activities as not only illegal but haram (sinful).

Tawi-Tawi is the biggest producer of seaweed in the Philippines. Seaweed production in the province accounts for roughly a fifth of the total volume of seaweed produced annually in the country. Recognizing this strength, the ARMM has been trying to formulate policies that improve seaweed production and seaweed trade. In preparation for ARMM’s transition to the Bangsamoro, the regional government in 2014 announced its plans to create a special economic zone in Tawi-Tawi to further encourage trade between the province and Sabah in Malaysia. It is hoped that this economic zone could bring more investments to ARMM, owing to the massive production of seaweed in Tawi-Tawi (ARMM 2014).

Among the ARMM provinces, Tawi-Tawi ranks first in economic progress. Since 2006, when it was listed as the country’s poorest province, the number of people living below poverty line has dropped from more than 50% of its population to less than 30%. However, significant problems continue to hamper economic development in Tawi-Tawi. The water borders between Tawi-Tawi and Sabah have created numerous backdoor channels that have made the province a passageway for human trafficking and a gateway for illegal emigration. Local officials regularly intercept potential trafficking victims in various seaports and the main airport in Bongao, the provincial capital. Every year, hundreds of illegal emigrants are apprehended on their way to Malaysia to seek employment or facilitate easier transit to other international destinations. Facilities like temporary shelters and halfway houses are lacking, and budget for anti-trafficking operations remains inadequate.

Sama Old Sultanate and Current Political System

In pre-Islamic times, the Sulu Archipelago was composed of small communities called banwa, each defining its own island territory and headed by a datu or chief. With the introduction of Islam and the institution of the Sulu/Tausug sultanate, these independent banwa were gradually subsumed under one bangsa (nation) in the 19th century. The sultan was the bangsa head; he was advised by the ruma bichara, a council of representative datu. The Sultan appointed a Tausug datu to uphold the sultanate’s law, but he also appointed Sama panglima, usually those already accepted as leaders, to be his immediate and visible representatives. The last sultan who reigned in the Sulu Archipelago was Sultan Mohammad Amirul Ombra Amilbangsa.

Sultan Mohammad Amirul Ombra Amilbangsa, last reigning sultan of Sulu
Sultan Mohammad Amirul Ombra Amilbangsa, last reigning sultan of Sulu, 1937 (Amilbangsa 2005)

Notwithstanding the attempts at integration into a larger polity, the Sama’s allegiance is primarily toward his or her tumpuk (cluster), a kinship group living in a cluster of houses. The cluster is headed by an elder, who is also a panglima or imam (religious leader). Other titles that he may have are datu and maharajah. A settlement that may or may not be a kin group is the kawman, whose unity is defined by the members’ participation in activities related to their langal (mosque).

Some island villages disapprove of the practice of some kinship groups of using mosques exclusively for themselves. On the island of Ungus Matata, however, this practice is the norm. Overseeing the mosque and its activities is the pakil (the class of religious leaders). From the highest to the lowest rank, the pakil consists of the imam, hatib, and bilar.

Datu Hadji Ayu Mandi and wife Genera Mandi of the Sama group, Zamboanga
Datu Hadji Ayu Mandi and wife Genera Mandi of the Sama group, Zamboanga, 1900s (Colorized by Ivan Bilugan, US Library of Congress)

The national government is represented at various levels by officials like the mayor and councilors, but the barangay captain is usually the datu or panglima, who is elected because of the following qualifications: he is a descendant of kasalipan (the nobility); is gifted with ilmuh (wisdom); professes traits appropriate to a leader, such as honesty and fairness; officiates at religious celebrations; and arbitrates and counsels in matters of dispute. He bases his decisions on both the adat and national laws. Some datu or panglima are believed to have the magical powers of busung (curse that can cause illness) or barakat (blessings). On the other hand, the duties of an official who is not a traditional leader are to inform the community about government policies; to collect taxes for the sultan who claims property rights over certain products such as pearls; to supervise government projects; and to resolve disputes beyond the panglima’s jurisdiction.

The archipelago is also divided into three sections based on the territory over which the agama (religious courts) have authority. Established during the American colonial period, the agama cover the following sections: the northeastern part of Jolo Island, the southeastern part of the same, and the southern islands of the archipelago. These courts handle cases arising from the violation of Muslim customs and practices. Penalty is in the form of fines.

Despite such attempts at integrating the Sama, each subgroup has adopted aspects of the bigger political structure in its own particular way. The Balangingi, for example, practice local autonomy and do not subscribe to the rigid social stratification characteristic of the Tausug-influenced Sama. The Pangutaran, on the other hand, recognize an aristocracy composed of the datu and the salip (men or women claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad).

The Sama population in Tawi-Tawi falls under the jurisdiction of the ARMM government. A governor, who serves as the chief executive, heads the regional government. The Regional Legislative Assembly, which is composed of three members per legislative district and sectoral representatives, oversees matters of legislation. Tawi-Tawi has one legislative district and is therefore eligible for three seats in the assembly.

However, the many-layered conflicts in the area have created problems in Tawi-Tawi during election periods. Elections have failed due to threats of or actual violence, such as the arson of a polling center in 2007 and the abandonment of precincts by terrified election officials in 2010. In 2013, half of all barangays in Tawi-Tawi were recommended for declaration as areas of immediate concern. These incidents may be read as indications of the problematic political system imposed upon the Sama in the efforts to subsume them under the Philippine nation- state.

Sama Tribe Culture, Customs and Traditions

Traditionally, the Sama social structure had three classes: the barbangsa (aristocracy), which was subdivided into the kasalipan and kadatuan; the mahardika (free people); and the ipun (slaves). Vestiges of this structure remain in the present system, which consists of two classes—the elite minority and the lower-class majority. The elite’s sources of wealth are the following: inheritance of the property of the traditional ruling class, trade with north Borneo, and education as a means of entry into a profession. The last two factors allow for some social mobility.

Sama women wearing borak or face mask
Sama women wearing borak or face mask (Photo by Noli C. Gabilo in Tan and Resurreccion 2001)

The cohesiveness of a Sama group is based on strong kinship ties. A kin group lives in one place, where the members build their cluster of houses. Therefore, neighbors and fellow villagers are also relatives. In some communities, a kin group builds a mosque for its exclusive use. It is the kin group that defines the individual’s rights and obligations, and mutual loyalty is expected between each member and the group. Loyalty is elevated to the status of an alliance when members of two groups marry.

The mataan (nuclear family) usually lives initially with the husband’s family as a dependent unit, especially if the couple are young. The magdanakan is a household consisting of more than one mataan. A couple that lives as a separate unit builds a home near the family of the wife or the husband. Kampung is the kin group, members of whom ritually affirm their closeness during important holy days in an act called mag-ampon, when they clasp and kiss one another to symbolize mutual forgiveness of past transgressions.

Rituals marking stages in the Sama life cycle are a mixture of Islam and folk practices. Folk belief regarding a woman’s pregnancy mandates that the husband avoid participation in death rituals in order to ensure a long life for his child. In the presence of the expectant mother, no one should linger at the foot lest the infant also linger in the mother’s womb. Sharia (Islamic or divine law) warns the mother against abortion. It is also believed that the infant becomes “ensouled” by the fourth month, and therefore the mother must be especially careful then.

Sama panulak or cleansing ritual
Sama panulak or cleansing ritual (Photo by Noli C. Gabilo in Tan and Resurreccion 2001)

When the infant is born, the bhang (the Ajan prayer) is prayed if it is male and the kamat (a portion of Ajan) if female. The umbilical cord is cut at the point where the cord reaches the forehead from the navel. The cut portion and the placenta are wrapped in white or black cloth to keep the evil spirits away, placed inside a baung (coconut shell), and buried near a mosque. The imam or the infant’s father, who carries the shell, must look directly in front as he walks toward the burial site so that the child will not be cross-eyed. When the cord falls off the baby, it is hung over its sleeping place indefinitely. The child’s family name is the same as the father’s first name. Its first name is usually a Muslim name, such as Fatima or Muhammad. There is no special festivity or ritual for the naming of the child.

Magsaw-duruh, a nursing mother’s act of sharing her breast milk with the baby of another family, is a common practice. It is decreed by adat that magsaw-duruh children are siblings; hence, marriage between them is incestuous. In the past, the penalty for violating this rule was death by drowning.

When the child turns one year old, the parents perform a folk ritual called magkaja. The child is brought to the tampat (ancestors’ graveyard), considered sacred, to prevent the Sayitan (evil spirits) from causing ill fortune for the family or the child’s illness or death.

Two Islamic rituals held on the same day for the year-old child are the paghakika and pag-gunting. In the paghakika, the imam ritually slaughters a year-old goat. Its blood is poured into a hole in the ground, which contains a piece of white coco cloth with the child’s name written on it. The goat’s meat is served to the guests. This ritual affirms the child’s genealogy and ensures recognition of his or her father on Ilaw Damuli (Day Hereafter).

The pag-gunting is considered by some subgroups as the child’s baptism to Islam. The child’s forelock is washed in the water of a young coconut. Then the imam cuts the child’s hair in three different places while it is carried by an adult who must be free of any physical or mental handicap and whose parents must still be living. This guarantees the child’s physical and mental health in its lifetime. The lock of hair is placed inside a young coconut, which is then suspended from a tree. A feast is served to relatives and friends to celebrate the occasion.

Most celebrations such as the pag-gunting and weddings have a maligai as the centerpiece. This is a small replica of a wooden house, with its roof made of native cakes into which are planted peso bills arranged like flags. The tray on which the house stands is piled with various dishes and fruits. Adding to the festive atmosphere is the talian, a bamboo pole decorated with multicolored buntings. Both structures symbolize the celebrant’s maligai, which may also mean one’s dwelling in heaven.

Pag-islam (male circumcision) is done between ages seven and 10, and as the term suggests, signals the boy’s entry into the Muslim fold. It is done by either the imam or any qualified male adult. No special celebration or ritual attends this operation. The procedure is done in a corner of the house, with the boy covering himself with a bedsheet. Coffee ground to a fine powder is applied to the wound, which is covered with a white cloth. To ensure rapid healing, the boy should avoid stepping on chicken droppings and walking over a linsungan (rice pestle). Pagsunnat (female circumcision), rarely practiced now, is a solemn occasion, attended by lelleng and igal, the community ritual of singing and dancing, respectively. The girl’s face is made up and she is dressed in traditional style. Hidden from public view with a blanket, her clitoris is slightly scraped by the panday (medicine woman) to decrease the possibility of sexual arousal.

Upon reaching puberty, children of both sexes are no longer allowed to intermingle. Gender differentiation is also stressed in their training. The virtues of “chastity, perseverance, and tidiness” (Jundam 1983: 40) are emphasized to the girls, whereas physical strength and kuntau (self-defense skills) are underscored to the boys. A magical skill that both sexes may be taught is ilmuh pagkal’ula, a curse psychically or orally recited to injure or kill an enemy.

Courtship may be enhanced by the parkata-an manusiyah, which is a boy or girl’s ilmuh to win the loved one’s attention. A girl, however, can counteract the power of the boy’s ilmuh with a habay, a piece of white cloth on which verses are written. This is wrapped in black cloth and worn like a belt. Its power is strengthened if it is exposed to incense smoke on an early Friday evening.

A young couple’s marriage plans are made with the parents’ consent, but other relatives are involved as well. The boy’s relatives, bringing along some food, make the first visit to ask for the girl’s hand formally. Each family chooses a spokesperson skilled in negotiating for the aheka or ungsug (bride’s dowry).

Once a final agreement has been reached and the wedding date has been set, the boy’s family is given enough time to raise the dowry in the form of cash, cattle, rice, and jewelry. Both families celebrate the end of negotiations with another repast offered by the boy’s family. The boy meets his future in-laws for the first time when his relatives accompany him to the girl’s house to serve at the table. He may also be expected to render service at the girl’s house for some time. For 10 days before the wedding, the girl undergoes the tambu-un (isolation from the public). Drums announce the wedding day two or three days in advance.

The festivities on the wedding day start in the morning when the guests gather at the bride’s house to sing, dance, and exchange stories. Behind a partition, the imam gives the bride a ritual bath in a corner of the house while entertainers sing the wedding lelleng. Female relatives then prepare the bride with special makeup, her best clothing, and jewelry. The traditional wedding makeup is borak, white rice powder that transforms her face into a white mask.

At noon, the groom, clothed in white trousers and shirt, arrives with an entourage of relatives. He sits opposite the imam on a buras. The imam, wearing a headcloth, places incense in a coconut shell before himself and the groom. He removes his headcloth, clasps the groom’s hand over the incense smoke, covers their clasped hands with a cloth, and chants Arabic verses. The groom repeats the imam’s Arabic chant and ends with a vow in Siama that he will take good care of his wife and family.

Male guests join the chant. The groom and the imam then each take one end of the imam’s headcloth, and the imam leads the groom toward his bride, who is still hidden behind the partition. This is removed, and the imam asks the bride three times if she accepts the groom. After her third assent, the groom leads the bride out of the house, each of them holding one end of another cloth. They go to his house, followed by all the relatives. The guests chat and laugh noisily during the ceremony, and only the couple and the imam behave solemnly.

The young couple then stays with the wife’s family, but the marriage is not consummated until the third night. Lingkod tul’lu or tabad lingkod tul’lu, preparations for this night, begin on the morning of the third day, when the groom’s family visits the bride’s, bringing balanja (presents and good cheer). That night, white coco cloth is placed on the bed of the newlyweds to determine the bride’s virginity, which is believed to be signified by drops of her blood on the cloth. If no such evidence is found, adat requires the bride’s family to return the ungsug, double the price. If the groom’s family wishes, the marriage may be dissolved. Evidence of the bride’s virginity is proclaimed to the community on the seventh day, with a celebration called the tibaw-pitu.

Islamic law allows polygyny up to four wives, who all must be treated equally. However, polygyny is usually practiced only by the datu or the affluent. The husband must secure the permission of his first wife and parents-in-law. The first wife is dominant over the other wives when it comes to housekeeping. In case of divorce, which Islamic law also allows, the bridal dowry or a fraction of it is returned to the groom, the amount depending on the length of the marriage, number of children, and cause for divorce. A long marriage requires no settlement.

Death rituals are a mixture of Islamic and folk rituals. The corpse is washed, wrapped in a shroud, offered ritual prayers, and buried within 12 hours. It is placed in a liyang (niche), instead of a coffin, and buried in the ground 1.8 meters deep. A sunduk (grave marker), pointed or round shaped for the male and scalloped for the female, is placed on the burial site. Sometimes a kubul (grave frame) surrounds it.

A week of vigil, mourning, incense burning, and reading of the Holy Quran follows. A non-Islamic practice is for the family to place the deceased’s clothes neatly folded on a miniature bed called patulihan, meaning “place for lying down.” Food and a glass of water are offered to the spirit of the dead. On the seventh and last day of mourning, a group of pakil sits around a buras on the floor and offer the duwa-a (ritual prayers) for the dead. Food offerings covered by turung dulang (dome-shaped plate covers) are laid on the buras. The duwa-a is repeated on the 20th, 40th, and 100th day after the death. Every year thereafter, a ritual in memory of the dead is observed.

Sama Tribe Religious Beliefs and Practices

The Sama’s belief system has been described as folk Islam because it is a combination of Islamic and folk beliefs. Like other Muslims, they believe in the Five Pillars of Faith, celebrate Islamic holy days, and congregate at designated times of the year to listen to the khutba (imam’s sermon). They also believe that the world is divided into Dar-al-Islam (Muslim territory) and Dar-al-Harb (non-Muslim territory), and that if Dar-al-Islam is invaded, every Muslim is obliged to defend it, to the extent of waging jihad (holy war).

Jabu-jabu, drum used for calling people to prayer
Jabu-jabu, drum used for calling people to prayer (Photo by Noli C. Gabilo in Tan and Resurreccion 2001)

The Five Pillars of Faith are the declaration of one’s faith in one God and his messengers: “There is but one God, and Muhammad is His prophet”; prayer five times daily at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and night; obligatory and voluntary almsgiving; fasting during the Ramadan; and pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime.

The Ramadan is a month-long period of fasting, when Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, and any other form of pleasure from sunrise to sunset. It commemorates the month when Allah revealed the Quran to the prophet Muhammad. The Quran is the source of all the principles and ordinances that Muslims live by. It covers all aspects of a Muslim’s religious, social, and political life. It defines the Five Pillars of Faith and includes civil and criminal laws on marriage, divorce, adultery, and social relationships. It is part of the curriculum in every Muslim school, where it is learned in Arabic verse.

One prays daily in the direction of the ancient mosque Kaaba in Mecca. Male Muslims are obliged to attend prayer congregation every Friday at the mosque, where they also listen to the khutba, which is guided by the teachings of Islam, namely, the Tawhid (oneness of Allah), Sharia, and preachings on the social, political, and religious way of life. The sermon is also delivered at the Hariraya Puasa, which marks the end of the Ramadan period, and at the Hariraya Hadji, which marks the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Kanduli (food offerings) and prayers specific to each occasion are made on Muslim holy days, such as the official start of Ramadan, or on the day of Ashura, also locally called Tulak-Bala, when significant events in the history of Islam are recalled. These include Allah’s return to Adam after his exile from Paradise; Allah’s rescue of Noah from the ark; Allah’s rescue of Jonas from the belly of the whale; and Allah’s appearance before Moses. A folk practice is the panulak balah (cleansing day). Offerings of yellow rice, a live chicken, eggs, betel nut, and native cakes are placed on a raft that is allowed to drift out to sea, as observed among the Sama Sisangat (Ducommun 1962) and Manubul (Rixhon 1969). The offerings may also be done in a house. There is a great diversity of cultural practice among the various Sama subgroups.

The essence of good is personified by Tuhan, and that of evil by Sayitan or Saitan. Both terms are of Arabic origin. Although Tuhan is perceived as more powerful than Sayitan, the Sama’s concept of him is vaguer than that of Sayitan, who seems to have definite, human characteristics. Sayitan causes illness and death among humans. When the panday (midwife) or angubat (medicine man) cannot diagnose the cause of a person’s death or illness, it is assumed that “Sayitan has eaten one of the internal, vital organs” (Ducommun 1962, 100).

A sick child who is believed to have been possessed by Sayitan is entrusted to the angubat, because his curative methods do not offend the spirit. The cure is a combination of herbs and the tawal, prayers in Arabic taught by an angubat to his apprentice. There is a tawal for every type of illness. To ward off Sayitan’s attacks, one may offer special prayers or food, and wear anting-anting or ampes (charms).

Langgal, local house of worship
Langgal, local house of worship (Photo by Noli C. Gabilo in Tan and Resurreccion 2001)

The Sayitan is also conceived as the spirits of dead ancestors who demand attention from their living relatives by causing illness in the family. Some Sama use Sayitan synonymously with djinn; others conceive of djinn as the spirits of dead ancestors under the leadership of Sayitan. Sayitan may also mean the numerous spirits in the environment who dwell in rocks, especially black volcanic ones, and various tree species. Miscarriage is caused by the komeng (the blood of a pregnant woman), which, in a man’s form, appears to a pregnant woman in a dream and has intercourse with her. The balbalan appears as a flying bird; the pangguah is “the spirit of the dead not properly buried” (Rixhon 1969, 6).

A dying person’s last breath is the ngawa, the spirit escaping to travel to the afterlife. Some Sama believe that judgment is rendered on those who have died, the good going to sulgah (a place of happiness) and the bad to nalkah (a place of fire). Many of them believe in the lutau, ghosts of people who have led evil lives. The lutau kill people by sucking their blood or the air out of their lungs. They emit a strong, foul odor and take a variety of horrible forms such as a “white tentacle-like shape” (Ducommun 1962, 103). The lutau cannot swim, but they can float over water or hitch a ride on someone’s boat. They live in the mountains.

On 28 December 1953 the Apostolic Prefecture of Jolo was established and on 12 July 1958, was raised to an apostolic vicariate. Although the propagation activities of the Vicariate of Jolo were focused on the islands of Jolo, Bongao, Siasi, Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi, Bato-Bato, Sibuto, Sitangkai and Tabawan, their mission in Tawi-Tawi did have a profound impact on the life of the Sama. Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) missionary priests in the vicariate set up Notre Dame schools, which admitted both Christians and Muslims. In 1951, the Notre Dame of Tawi-Tawi in Bongao was founded by Bishop George Dion and Father Emile Laquerre. Their mission included the improvement of the people’s well-being by means of economic projects: housing, education, cooperatives, social development projects, and health programs. These have added considerably to the influence of the non-Muslim outsiders on the Sama.

Catholic nuns have also done missionary work in Tawi-Tawi. In 1968, Medical Mission Sisters Loreta De Guzman, Scholastica Los Baños, and Lina Raeldones opened the Holy Family Hospital (HFH) in Bongao, the second working hospital in the entire Sulu Archipelago since the first was built in Jolo. In 2003, the Medical Mission Sisters turned over the management of the HFH to the Parhimpunan Paghambuukan ha Pamaranan sin Kauman (PPPK), an organization composed of local community health workers. The Sama’s interactions and collaborations with Christian missionaries and settlers have since resulted in changes in their culture, livelihood, and general way of life.

Sama Tribe Traditional Houses and Community

A Sama kinship group of 100 to 500 members lives in a cluster of houses, usually standing on wooden pilings on the seashore. Each group is affiliated with the nearest mosque. This Sama community may be located within a larger non-Sama town.

Sama community
Sama community (SIL International)

An architectural structure that was declared a national historical landmark in 2013 is the Sheik Makdum mosque in Tawi-Tawi. In 1380, Sheik Karimul Makdum arrived in Simunul and established a Sharia justice system, convincing local leaders to convert. He built a mosque in Bohe Indangan and was buried next to it. Many Muslims in Mindanao still visit both the mosque and the grave of Sheik Makdum.

Sama houses built on dry land belong to those who are engaged in farming. In western Sulu, the houses are “completely over tidal mud flats or reefs” (Gowing 1979, 92). In eastern Sulu and Basilan, water reaches the supporting posts only at high tide.

Most of the Sama who occupy the smaller coral islands of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi build their houses on piles driven into the reef floor but still connected to the shore and to one another by a labyrinth of walkways and bridges. The elevation of the house depends on the maximum high tide level in the area. This is necessary in order to accommodate their outrigger fishing boats, which are tied underneath the house when not in use.

The Sama may also form strand settlements called komkoman, which are accessible only by boat. A komkoman consists of four to six houses, spaced five to six meters apart to allow for the passage of a vinta. Members of the komkoman, when they go out to sea as a fleet, comprise a munda’an. The munda’an’s fishing activities are highly organized, with each boat assigned a task to accomplish the munda’an’s collective goal.

The typical Sama dwelling is made of bamboo and nipa, coconut lumber and bakawan (mangrove); nipa or sawali for the roof and walls; bamboo for the stairs and flooring; and coconut wood, bakawan, or other tree trunks for the posts and other structural supports. Instead of trusses, horizontal beams supporting the weight of the roof are placed outside rather than inside the structure because the roof is low.

The pantan (open porch or terrace) is a prominent feature of Sama dwellings. Usually facing the east, it serves as a space for drying fish, woodworking, and preparing cassava. It is also the children’s playground, a gathering place for families, or a place to hold rituals. Normally, a shed is built right along the porch to serve as the kitchen.

Traditional houses used to be very tall and large, some of them two stories high, with balconies and elaborate carvings. These were large because the typical household was an extended family ranging from two to 15 nuclear families under one roof. This type of house, however, is becoming extinct. The Sama house now consists of a single room for lounging, sleeping, and dining. There are no partitions in the house and, depending on the economic status of the owner, it may be sparsely furnished or richly decorated with buras. The door faces out to sea, and boats moored face the open waters to make escape easier should invasions or raids occur.

The space below the house serves not only as a shelter for the boat and fishing paraphernalia but also as the bathroom and laundry room. Nipa and corrugated iron are used as roofing material. Rainwater from the roof is collected because it is the Sama’s main drinking water. Wood for walls, floors, and planks, which used to be hand-cut by the Sama from local trees, are now bought from stores.

Wood Carving Tradition of the Sama People

The dominant art form in the Sulu Archipelago is called ukkil, which may mean the act of carving wood or the design which characterizes the people’s textile, wood carvings, mats, and metal engraving. The ukkil design is a “curvilinear design which combines stylized scroll, leaf, and vine elements in a seemingly infinite range of abstract variations” (Szanton 1973, 33). Motifs of this design are the following: birduh, consisting of vines growing horizontally, vertically, or diagonally; magoyoda, consisting of the naga, a dragon or serpent figure occurring in a series or used as the centerpiece; pako rabong, a fern growing upward used as the centerpiece from which other designs spread out; niaga, a combination of the naga and todi, “elaborations of leaves, vines, and flowers”; armalis, fern, leaf, and bud combinations; and lubid-lubid or tiali-tali, coiled rope used almost universally as a border (Baradas 1968, 135). The human form is rarely represented because Islam prohibits this.

Sama female sunduk in Manubul Island, Siasi, Sulu
Sama female sunduk in Manubul Island, Siasi, Sulu (Amilbangsa 2005)

The Sama are best known for their ukkil designs on their tepo, buras, and sunduk (grave markers), the pako rabong being the favorite motif. The Sama generally prefer to make realistic, rather than stylized or abstract, designs. In spite of the extensive use of these motifs, each work is unique, for Sama artists create variations.

The sunduk is a wooden or concrete sign, 60 to 90 centimeters high, which is placed on a grave, in the ground, or on a base. It may come in the form of a box, boat, bird, horse, or crocodile. The sunduk for the male is cylindrical and round, or pointed on top; that for the female is a tablet, that is, standing flat, with the ukkil design topped by an incised comb. Occasionally, the grave is fenced around by a rectangular or boat-shaped kubul, usually with the bird motif; used as the centerpiece, it culminates in a bud or flower. The ukkil incisions are painted red, white, green, and blue enamel.

Some Sama attempts at representing the human form are evident in sunduk that are hexagonal and topped by a knob, which may represent the head. In the Muso community at Siasi Island is a set of sunduk representing four men, each standing on a boat. The facial features are clearly etched and, although without limbs, each sunduk has a clearly defined neck, head, and torso. The sunduk on Laminusa Island are painted and set with cowrie shells. Siasi has the only known sunduk that are carved in coral. The hardwood or coral of which the sunduk were traditionally made have been replaced in recent times by concrete, such as those of the Sama Diliya and the Sama Dilaut, though these still bear the same ukkil design of curling leaves, scrolls, and vines.

Ukkil on a Sama pot
Ukkil on a Sama pot, Ayala Museum Collection (Amilbangsa 2005)

Ukkil carving is done on the wooden handles of knives. The gayang’s handle is cylindrical with cord wrapping. Its end, however, is “densely carved with fish, frogs, dogs, and goats, often in the act of swallowing one another” (Szanton 1973, 22). Its taguban (wooden sheath) is also decorated with ukkil on the middle and tip. The upida or pedda (handle of the barung ) is curved like a hook, with a pointed projection at the curve and a pyramid-shaped end. The lenget (hooked end) carries an ukkil design. Kok kalis or the handle of the kalis is also called nay kura (horse’s foot) because of its shape. Engravings of mother-of-pearl are sometimes added as decorations.

Other items containing ukkil carvings are the tungkud, a walking cane which sometimes conceals a blade; tungkud rikiriki or swagger stick, sometimes decorated with painted faces; and sanduk panayam, a coconut shell ladle for making ja, a fried dessert made of rice batter. The wooden frame for the Sama’s percussion instruments is shaped like a bird, a fish, or a houseboat. Barrio Ubul, Simunul is unique in its use of massive wooden gates in front of houses. The ukkil is done on the horizontal beam connecting the vertical posts of the gate. Since the gate is not attached to a fence, its purpose is ornamental.

Maritime Heritage of the Sama People

For fishing and travelling, the Sama have the vinta or lepa, which is a swift-sailing double-outrigger boat. The ukkil carvings on the stern and prow are referred to as manukmanuk (birdlike). The stem is adorned with the pansal, a bifurcated projecting shaft with ukkil designs. Decorations on the prow are the sangpad (a truncated rectangular plate) and the ajong-ajong (projecting shafts with carved tips). Vintas are also noted for their colorful sails.

Video: Tribong Sama Banguingui, kinatatakutan raw noon? 

Sama shipwrights embodied the pinnacle of the maritime heritage of the Philippines. As renowned boat-builders, they constructed beautiful wooden balangay (plank boats), which, aside from being remarkable feats of sea craftsmanship, established the Sama firmly in the grand maritime tradition of Southeast Asia. Made of fine tropical timbers, lateen-rigged, and constructed in the technical tradition of “lash-lugged and stitched-plank” Southeast Asian sea crafts, the delicate beauty and solid construction of the balangay required great skill to build (Hontiveros 2011, 235-36). Knowledge of the Sama boat-building tradition was virtually obsolete until the unearthing of several balangay in Butuan, and since 1976, there have been reinvigorated efforts to revive the craft and preserve the Sama maritime heritage.

Sama Tribe Traditional Costume 

Sama traditional clothing
Sama traditional clothing (Filipinas Heritage Library)

The traditional attire of the Sama consists of either everyday wear or elaborately embroidered costumes for special occasions. The patadjung, a ubiquitous tube-shaped cloth found in Mindanao and the Visayas, is large enough to fit any person, and is worn by both men and women. It has many uses. It is worn either as a skirt or a gown tucked in place at the chest level. It can serve as putung (head cover), waistband, sash, blanket, hammock, shoulder bag, cradle, pouch, hood, or pillow.

Patterns woven into the patadjung are checks and stripes. More elaborate ones worn for special occasions may have batik prints or tie-dyed floral and geometric patterns. The sawwal kantiu (loose trousers), also worn by neighboring ethnic groups, is made of plain or printed cotton cloth for everyday wear. The sawwal that is made of richer fabric is reserved for special occasions and worn by the women with a sablay or a biyatawi. On such occasions, men wear it with a badjuh-lapi (jacket).

The women’s sablay is a loose-sleeved blouse reaching down to the hips. A simpay (band) forms the front opening and extends to the back to form a small collar. The fabric determines whether the sablay is for everyday wear or special occasions. It is fastened in front with ordinary pins or a karusang (a set of three brooches). The sablay is worn with a patadjung or a sawwal kantiu, and topped by either a kamban (silk or brocade shawl) or a papanda (scarf of filmy material).

A blouse worn for special occasions is the long-sleeved, tight-fitting, dark-colored biyatawi. It has a deep keyhole neckline and sides that flare from the waist. Running stitches and tambuku (small metal or gold buttons) run along the seams at the wrists, shoulders, neckline and, if any, the collar. The panyuh (a large handkerchief) is worn to cover that part which the biyatawi’s keyhole neckline leaves bare. The biyatawi may also be worn with a siyag (a more elaborately embroidered patadjung), also called habul or hos, which is worn with one corner slung on one shoulder or arm.

The men roll up the patadjung or sawwal kantiu and tuck the upper corners at the waistband to make the bahag, which is more convenient to wear to work, either pearl diving, fishing, or wood carving. For special occasions, the sawwal kuput-mahabah (long, tight-fitting trousers) are worn. It is held at the waist by a strip of cotton cloth called a kandit. A tasseled kandit, made of katsa (muslin) and embroidered with blanket stitches in vibrant colors at both ends, is the sapu-tangan, used for religious occasions. Worn with the sawwal is the badjuh - lapi, a hip-long collarless jacket with long, tight sleeves, always worn open in front. Both sides of the opening and the seams under the arms and on the shoulders are decorated with silk or cotton cord and tambuku. The pis is a large kerchief, folded, and draped to make several variations of a headgear, or to be used as a handkerchief, carry-all, or sling. The pis siyabit, with handwoven geometric patterns, is used by the relatively well-to-do. During prayers, some men wear the kuppiya, a headgear made of black velvet and beaded for special occasions such as weddings or special Muslim holy days.

Sama Tribal Crafts: Weaving, Engraving, Metalwork and Pottery

Mat from Laminusa Island in Siasi, Sulu
Mat from Laminusa Island in Siasi, Sulu (CCP Collections)

The Sama are known for weaving two types of mats: the tepo and the buras. Tepo is a pandan sleeping mat with four types of dyed and inwoven designs: jali (stripes), tabanas (varicolored squares), kusta (checkered pattern in white and another color), and biyu-biyu (zigzag). These four basic designs may be combined to make more complex variations such as the palang borus (varicolored rectangles), kabang (large squares in alternating colors), binaliku (complex zigzag pattern), kusta sina (combination stripes and diamonds), balintung (combination zigzags and diamonds), malasa (small hexagons), and tinibi (boat form). Colors are green, orange, red, violet, and blue.

Mat from Laminusa Island in Siasi, Sulu
Mat from Laminusa Island in Siasi, Sulu (CCP Collections)

Buras is made of rattan stitched together by a man to make a mat 1.2 to 1.5 meters long or 2.3 to 6 meters long. It is then painted with designs by a woman. She begins by outlining the design in black and white paint using a rattan stick. Then she fills in the pictures with red, yellow, green, white, black, pink, orange, and blue. It is used as a wall screen or a floor mat for special occasions. A smaller buras is used as a prayer mat in the mosque.

Buras was originally plain, except for the buraswaysaga, which had designs burned in with live charcoal. After World War II, geometric patterns made with enamel paint covered the whole expanse of the mat. A later design was a centerpiece that was framed with a border pattern. A subsequent stage in the development of buras designs was the series of smaller designs with partitions between them. In 1957, Hadji Idarus started copying prints of Mecca and Medina onto his buras. Other buras makers elaborated on this by adding ukkil designs around the painted scenes.

Tepo weaving of the Sama, Tawi-Tawi
Tepo weaving of the Sama, Tawi-Tawi, 2004 (Renato S. Rastrollo, NCCA)

Other woven items are hats, kitchen items, and traditional war implements. The cone-shaped saruk (male hat) is made of woven nipa or pandan leaves, whose natural creamy color is retained. Geometric, spiral, or concentric lines are sometimes painted on the hat. The wide-brimmed salakut (female hat) also has a cone-shaped top. Its materials and weave are like those of the saruk. Although usually woven in the natural colors of the leaves, there are those that are “richly dyed and exquisitely crafted” in Sibutu (Amilbangsa 1983).

The taming is a fish-shaped shield made of woven rattan, and now used solely as part of the paraphernalia for the Sama fight dance langka-sayaw. Turung dulang are dome-shaped plate covers with a diameter of about 75 centimeters. The turung dulang rikiriki are smaller plate covers that are also used as wall decor. The inner layer is of coconut leaves, the outer is of buri. Dyed and folded pandan leaves provide the decoration.

Engraving is done on jewelry and colored combs. The gallang (bracelet) is the most popular ornament. The most common is that made from sulau (letter cone) or kima (Tridachna gigas). Other pieces of jewelry are the gantung-liug (pendant), aritis (earring), singsing (ring), hukut-liug (necklace), and galungsung (anklet). Metalcraft designs can be classified according to the following types: the repoussé, relief hammered from the reverse side; arabesque, incision of interlocking curves; and filigree, tracing with thin gold, silver, or brass wires. Although the favorite ornamental material is bulawan (gold), precious and semiprecious stones, turtle shell, colored glass, nacre, and black coral are also used.

The sudlay is the ornamental comb made from wood, coconut, or turtle shell and inlaid with jewels. The tambuku, the hundred or so small buttons encrusted on the male or female jacket, may range in shape and style from the simple round to the embossed floral or filigree design. A special metal ornament used only for dancing is the sulakengkeng, also known as saling-kukkul or janggay, worn as long artificial fingernails made of gold, silver, brass, or tortoise shell. The panumping, a crown worn by a bride or as part of a dance costume, is made of paperboard covered with tinfoil of all colors, sequins, beads, and tassels.

Metalwork is done on knives of which there are three major types: the gayang (made solely in Sibutu), the barung,and the kalis. The gayang is long and slender. The barung has a long curved edge and may be used for chopping and piercing. It has incised designs on the handle and scabbard. The kalis, a long double-edged knife, has three types: the kalis tulid, which is straight; the kalis taluseko, which has three waves near the handle on the side opposite the bladed edge; and the kalis seko, which is wavy along its whole length. All three types of kalis are elaborately decorated on the guard, which “has a series of decorative notches on one side” and a bella, a carved representation of an eagle’s open beak, on the other side (Szanton 1973, 20).

A craft that has become rare among present-day Sama is gong making. The Sama used to make bronze gongs with the cire purdue process (lost-wax casting). Many gong ensembles called kulintangan are embellished with ukkil designs. However, the lack of materials has caused many musicians and makers to migrate to Semporna, Malaysia and ship back finished instruments at a higher cost. The scarcity of resources has led some Sama groups to find alternative materials such as brass to produce gongs.

Of the ethnic groups in Zamboanga City and Sulu, only the Sama engage in earthenware or clay pottery making. Their pottery centers are the following: a part of the Muslim section in Sangali, Zamboanga City; Kaulungan Island, off the southeast coast of Basilan; Tara, whose pottery industry flourished in 1963 but declined by 1969; and Papabag, which used to supply the clay for Simunul but now manufactures its own pottery, causing the decline of Simunul as a pottery center. The items produced are banga (rice pots), simpi (cassava toasting pan), lapuhan (cooking stoves), and bingi (storage jars for fresh water or uncooked rice).

The banga is globe-shaped, with a narrow neck. Sometimes it is incised with a herringbone series on the neck or a zigzag band on the lip. A smaller pot at Papabag has an ear on each side for handles and a cover with a V-shaped handle at the center. The simpi is round, large, and shallow, with a diameter of 40 centimeters. A smaller one, 22 centimeters in diameter, is produced in Papabag; its lip is decorated with double zigzag incisions. The lapuhan comes in three shapes: oval, round, and triangular. It invariably has three supports for the cooking pot. Zigzag incisions may decorate the rim. Also globe-shaped is the bingi, which is 25 to 30 centimeters high, with about the same measurement at its widest point. A decorative pattern may be a diamond series just below the neck, with dots running vertically across the middle of each diamond. An unusual type of storage jar once produced in Simunul was an imitation of Chinese jars: it had flower and fish decorations in bas-relief and was painted yellow and green, or blue and red.

Poetry, Folktale and Stories of the Sama People

Literary historians tend to fuse the literary history of the Sama and the Tausug of Tawi-Tawi and Sulu because Tawi-Tawi was part of Sulu until its political separation in 1973. Some of the Sama pre-Islamic traditions shared with the Tausug are the kaawn (creation story), kata-kata (folktales), kissa (sung narratives), and usulan (origin story). Other traditions, such as the salsila (genealogical narratives of Sulu rulers), developed later during the Islamic era.

Early Sama and Tausug poetic traditions include the daman and tarasul, which are poetic dialogues characterized by heavy symbolism and imagery. The influence of these poetic traditions echoes in the language of their riddles, called tigum-tigum or tukud-tukud, and masaalla, both highly compressed literary forms.The tigum-tigum is in verse, whereas the masaalla is in prose.

The Sama narrative prose or folktale, generically called kata-kata or kana-kana, is a term also used to refer specifically to its trickster tales, with Pusung as the central character. Other Sama narrative forms are origin myths, animal tales, numskull tales, magical tales, and novelistic tales. The Sama have kata-kata to explain the origin of food, stars, and formations of land. They also have tales about dragons, angels, ogres, princes, and princesses.

Sama folktale about the huge naga or dragon
Sama folktale about the huge naga or dragon (Illustration by JC Galag)

Three origin myths are the following: A long time ago, some old men were rowing a banca with the “stout stems of growing grass” when one of the stems broke. Drops of the stem’s juice reached one man’s lips, and he was surprised to discover that it was sweet. And that was how sugarcane was discovered.

A housewife was using the tubers of a certain plant to support her stove while she was cooking. One of the tubers broke, and some burning hot pieces of it flew to the woman’s hand. She sucked her burnt hand and tasted the baked tuber. And that was how gabi was discovered.

There was a naga that was so huge that it could swallow 10 carabaos. Its tongue had nine venomous forks. The swing of its tail was as devastating as a hurricane. It preyed on all the people until only a couple and their son were left. This family climbed the top of the mountain to implore God to end the destruction wrought by the dragon. They had hardly finished praying when the dragon came crashing toward them. But suddenly, it rose higher and higher until it became suspended in the sky. It became the broad sweep of innumerable stars that we now call the Milky Way. One can sometimes see one of its tongues shooting down. At the end of the world, this dragon will come to life again and “devour all the wicked” (Ziegler 1973, 117).

The oral narrative parangkang is considered the Sama counterpart to the Tausug oral epic Parang Sabil. However, unlike most ethno-epics, the episodes of the parangkang so far recorded do not anchor themselves strongly on an ancient past nor to a strict theological tradition. One of two episodes of the parangkang recorded in 1987 tells the story of five nakurah (leaders) from Bintawlan, Tabawan, Ubian, Bannaran, and Mantabuwango; they go out to sea to intercept trading boats that encroach upon their territorial waters. After the putikaan (fortune-telling) confirms the ideal time to undertake the task, the party sails forth and soon apprehends a Malay boat. The captives plead to be spared because they are Muslims like their apprehenders, but the pleas are ignored and the encroachers are killed. Hearing of the massacre, the government forces in Siasi and Sanga-Sanga catch up with the five nakurah and engage them in combat, which lasts for hours. Two women, Janaida and Selma, are the last of the five nakurah to fall.

The parangkang shares thematic similarities with the parangsabil, such as the pursuit of honor and self-fulfillment, but it does not bear the parangsabil’s martial temper to the same degree. Instead, the slow and emotional episodes of the parangkangconvey the Sama’s longing for emancipation, aspirations for social progress, and assertion of their identity across a history of diaspora.

The Sama also produce retellings of Arabic myths such as the Mi’Raj story, which details the prophet Muhammad’s ascent to heaven. While classical Arabic writings of the story have been relatively short and austere at one or two pages, the Sama version goes into lavish detail and stretches to 40 or 50 pages. One known Sama version of the Mi’Raj story is told with the rich, vibrant, and sensuous detail that characterizes the literature of Sufism, which is a more mystical interpretation and expression of Islam. These retellings of religious texts have found their way into the Sama’s own literature, such as the Sama Dilaut’s Silungan Baltapa epic, in which details of Silungan’s ascent to heaven closely resemble those of Muhammad in the Mi’Raj story.

“Ballabutu” is a sung narrative about a child who is such a voracious eater that he must leave home to find his fortune. In his journey he defeats, first, Makalubu Bud, the Mountain Destroyer; and second, Makasakkat Kayu, the Wood Splitter. The three travel together, and they come upon two sultanates that need rescuing. Ballabutu succeeds; his two companions are each rewarded with marriage to the princess in each sultanate while Ballabutu chooses to travel on. He arrives at the richest sultanate, where the test is to dig a well. Although Ballabutu succeeds, the well has very little water. Owing to his plea, Lahing, a coconut, supplies the land with water. Ballabutu marries the princess and becomes the Supreme Sultan. He invites his poor parents to stay in the palace with him and share in his wealth.

Sama ballad about a fairy who jumps from a winged horse and turns into an ugly lady
Sama ballad about a fairy who jumps from a winged horse and turns into an ugly lady (Illustration by JC Galag)

A lengthy ballad tells of Sultan Ismael’s son named Puruk Kaq Indang Bunsu. On a hunting trip at break of dawn, Indang Bunsu sees seven fairies bathing in the river. He steals the youngest fairy’s wings, causing her to be left behind by the other fairies. She recoils from him when he approaches her, but he invokes his lineage to the deities. He puts the lady on a winged horse, but she jumps into a dirty river and turns into the dirtiest, ugliest lady imaginable. He asks his mother for help, and she instructs him to give the lady his apologies and a container of gold. The lady recovers her beauty and is subsequently wed to Indang Bunsu. Years later, Indang Bunsu decides to take another wife. His first wife’s children discover her wings under the stove. She helps him prepare the bride price of 44 different types of cake, but when the wedding procession begins, she puts on her wings and flies past the procession. Indang Bunsu goes in search of her everywhere. He finally finds her in heaven, about to be married. The lady’s father announces that the man who marries his daughter must first win the game of sipa by kicking the rattan ball into the twelfth layer of the maligay (a decorated bamboo or rattan house). The bridegroom-to-be fails but Indang Bunsu, disguised as a man with a skin disease, succeeds. Hence, he and the lady are remarried.

Another story is about a sultan whose three sons are asked to care for their father’s elephant, which is kept in a cage. One day, the youngest son frees the elephant in exchange for getting his toy ball back from its cage. Learning of this, the sultan beats the boy, who runs away but is joined by the elephant. The sultan falls ill and the remaining two sons must find the elephant’s tusks, which the healer has prescribed as the only cure. In the forest, they meet their youngest brother, who in turn asks the elephant for its tusks. The youngest brother hands the tusks to his brothers on condition that he mark their bodies. The sultan recovers and the boy claims his reward, pointing to the marks on his brothers. The sultan bequeaths him with his riches, including the elephant.

In the Pusung stories, Pusung always outwits his superiors. Pusung gives the sultan a tribute of cakes. The sultan finds the cakes delicious, and being informed that they are made of the hair of Pusung’s pet dog, lays claim on the dog. One day, he has its hair served to him and of course finds it inedible. Realizing that he has been tricked, the sultan sends his guards to arrest Pusung. When they find him, he tells them that the culprit has black buttocks, whereas he has yellow buttocks. So the guards return to the sultan empty-handed.

Another favorite trickster is Abunnawas, whose loyalty to the Sultan of Jolo does not stop him from frequently outsmarting the sultan. For instance, he makes a bet with the sultan that he can walk on top of a piece of wood, and he proves it by walking on stilts. Abunnawas’s greatest achievement, for which he wins his sultan’s admiration, is his marriage to a sultan’s widow who has been vainly courted by many men, including the sultan himself. This widow sleeps beside her husband’s bones. Abunnawa puts some human bones in a bag and pretends to the widow that they are his dead wife’s bones. The widow sympathetically invites him in. That night, as the widow sleeps, he mixes her husband’s bones into his own bag of bones. The next morning, Abunnawas points to the two sets of bones now mixed together and claims that, even in death, her husband has been unfaithful to her. She then decides to end her mourning and marry Abunnawas.

One novelistic tale concerns a woman who borrows money for her husband who has sailed away to seek his fortune. She borrows from seven officials of the sultanate: the panglima, maharajah, urangkaya, datu, bilal, hatib, and imam. Unable to pay her debt to them, she offers to marry each one, who does not know about the six others. As they arrive at the woman’s house one hour apart, she hides each in a cabinet. The sultan’s guards search for the seven officials, and the woman gives them away. Thus, the sultan learns of their improper behavior; he gives the woman the reward money for the missing men, who must also pay the woman a fine.

Kissa are quasi-historical narratives about contemporary issues of the Sama. “The Story of Jawaji” is about a Bangsamoro soldier, Jawaji, who is recruited in Parangan in the 1970s. The army comes under heavy gunfire and shellfire from government troops. Jawaji goes on leave and falls in love with Sitti Dumsa. Unable to raise the money for her bride price and learning that her family is leaving for Sabah, he shoots himself. His family, friends, and comrades attend his funeral.

In the kata-kata “Tandanan: A Sama Dilaut Respected Leader of Tong Bangkaw, Belatan,” the hero defends his people from bombs and bullets with his rituals and prayers. He can control the movement of sea crafts and naval vessels by willing the wind to blow or keep still. Thus, his powers foil the police at every turn.

A children’s book, Ya Duwa Magbagey Sama ma Tawi-Tawi (Two Sama Friends in Tawi-Tawi), 1995, written by Adjaip Salapuddin in Sinama, with Filipino and English translations, details the lives of the Sama through the characters Abdul and Malik, who, in the aftermath of a storm, try to catch cuttlefish to take home to their mothers. The book depicts the Sama’s livelihood, family relations, and the everyday issues that the society faces.

Sama People Musical Tradition

The Sama musical tradition is closely related to those of the other groups in the Sulu area. The oldest musical form, the luguh, is sung in religious and social functions, and has a melancholy tune and slow tempo.

During anangkaliyaq (deep-ocean shark fishing), fisherfolk sing kalangan sellang, an ocean song to lure sharks to take the bait (Malabong 2012):

O, maqay na si tilaman/si babagan

Suq na piqinaqan sulayan

Sangkaliyaq indaman.

(Where is the hammerhead shark?

Let him come and try

the borrowed shark hook.)

The suwah-suwah (sprouting citrus seed) is a sprightly, cheerful tune that accompanies the pangalay dance. The tenes-tenes, a relatively recent form, is a ballad that may be sung extemporaneously on any occasion like fishing, and by anyone, but especially by a young man for his sweetheart. The same melody may be used for different sets of lyrics. Like the tenes-tenes, the lelleng is an improvisational song for any occasion. It is chanted, rather than sung, by anyone of any age: children at play, a boy teasing a playmate, a youth singing about a faraway sweetheart, a man fishing or resting. It is also chanted on special occasions like weddings, haircuts, or circumcisions.

The tenes-tenes remains popular among the Sama. Younger generations of Sama may sing the tenes-tenes on social occasions like weddings and community events, with more contemporary features such as pre-composed lyrics and to the accompaniment of a keyboard or synthesizer, which carries a 12-tone octave rather than the pentatonic scale of the traditional tenes-tenes. Despite such modern adaptations, the singer’s traditional chanting intonation is retained.

Not of Islamic origin but nonetheless used for religious ceremonies and dancing is the kulintangan ensemble consisting of the agung or tunggalan, duwaha, gandang, and kulintangan. The agung is a large brass gong hanging from a tripod, bamboo pole, or wooden frame, whereas the duwaha or tungtung is the smallest gong in the ensemble. Both are played with a lilisag-agung (wooden stick padded with cloth) and the hands. The kulintangan consists of a row of eight to 11 knobbed brass gongs, in graduated sizes, the biggest gong producing the lowest tone and the smallest, the highest; it provides the main melody.

The different subgroups of the Sama vary in their use of the kulintangan ensemble, selection of gongs, and tinik or tunis (repertoire). The Sama Dilaut call their kulintangan ensemble tagunggu, the Sama Tausug mangulintangan, and the Sama Bihing tangunguan. Gender difference may also determine variations among the subgroups, but whereas the Sama Dilaut assign the large gongs to men and the kulintangan to women, the Sama Tausug make no such specific gender distinctions.

The gandang, a cylindrical drum with a slightly bulging middle, is made from a hollowed-out block of wood and is covered on both ends with goatskin. The instrument is laid on the drummer’s lap, held vertically between the thighs, or suspended from an abaca cord around the neck.

A favorite instrument is the gabbang, a bamboo xylophone arranged in size and tone like the kulintangan. A variation of the gabbang and kulintangan is the bintang, a xylophone with knobbed metal bars. Stringed instruments are the gitgit and biula .The former is a native guitar, made from coconut shell and two strings of horsehair. It has a long wooden handle. The biula is a four-stringed violin.

The woodwind instruments are the bamboo flutes suling, sawnay, and pulaw. The suling is 38 centimeters long and 2.54 centimeters in diameter, with three to six holes. Its mouth hole is wrapped with a thin strip of dried palm leaf. The sawnay is 20 to 30 centimeters long and 1.25 centimeters in diameter, with four or five holes. From midway down to its end is a pandan or coconut leaf-bell. The pulaw is a bigger and longer flute that produces a deeper sound. In addition, the kulaing is a bamboo mouth harp 30 centimeters long and 3.8 centimeters wide and very thin. Its sound is produced by a six-centimeter strip that is partially cut from the middle. One end is held in the mouth with one hand while a finger of the other hand taps the strip to make it vibrate.

Sama Tribe Folk Dance Traditions and Rituals

Sama women performing the igal or pangalay, Busbus, Jolo
Sama women performing the igal or pangalay, Busbus, Jolo, 1976 (Joseph Fortin, CCP Collections)

The Sama dance traditions have much in common with the other ethnic groups of Sulu, especially the Tausug. The basic traditional dance movement is the igal or pangalay, which is performed by the female. The attire for the igal is the sablay or biyatawi and the sawwal. The hair is preferably pulled back in a bun, although it may also be allowed to hang loose. The dance is accompanied by the kulintangan ensemble or simply by a gabbang. Almost all traditional Sama dances are variants of the pangalay, or igal, and kuntau. They may be classified as entertainment or exhibition, occupational, and religious or ceremonial dances.

Video: PANGALAY Folk Dance

In the igal or pangalay, the sinalayan begins the dance. The hands are held in front, making a scooping motion, going up and down, with the palm facing down as it descends while the other hand is being raised. In the meantime, the feet are performing the palalay-lalay, shuffling steps on bent knees. After this first movement, the dancer may choose from any of the following wrist, hand, and elbow movements: nilimbayan (to swing), of which there are two types—the nilimbayan nidakan with the arms stretched outward from the chest and the palms facing outward, and the nilimbayan nibukutan (to swing backward) with both hands behind the lower part of the body; sinagang or pataud-taud (rocking) with the arms making a pushing motion from the elbows to the fingers; niloboran tanganku (circular movement of the hands) in which the wrists are rotated; binaliku (to fold) with the hands a short distance from the chest, and palms alternately circling while facing outward; and magdambila (both ends) with the movement of the hands shifting from left to right and vice versa.

The fingers are kept together while they are stretched as far upward and backward as they can go, especially the thumbs. The hand movements are done together with the nikelengan or maglingad-lingad (tilting of the head to look at the movements of one’s hands). The hands are constantly making either niliboran (circular motions) or nilimbayan (swinging motions). The torso does not move, but the posture is pinatudik (buttocks protruding).

The feet have five positions: tinukunan (to stop), at a standstill; nidaganan (to pull someone to go with you); deyo-deyoan (to go down), knees bending; nilangkahan, knees bent while dancing, related to the langka, the basic position of the kuntau; and the pabolibod, a circular movement while standing in place.

The dancing style is smooth and flowing; there should be no pauses between movements. There is also no marked ending, although the dance always begins with the sinalayan. There is no fixed sequence of movements, no fixed number of dancers. The igal is performed to mark the various stages of the life cycle, such as the child’s first haircut, ear piercing, male and female circumcision, or a wedding.

The basic male dance movement is the kuntau, a stylized imitation of the indigenous martial arts. It is said that this form of martial arts was taught to the Tausug by a Malayan warrior, who was stranded in Sulu in the 16th century. The basic position of the kuntau is the langka, with feet apart, knees bent, arms raised to the level of the chest and stretched a bit to the front, palm facing outward. It is related to the nilangkahan movement of the igal.

The performer’s kuntau may vary from tender and graceful to energetic and warlike. He invariably begins with the “greeting-and-obeisance” movement, in which he flips his hands at chest level, skips and lands cross-legged at a deep knee bend, and flips his hands again at chest level. A variant is to slap his hands overhead, bring them down to ear level with palms facing outward, slap his hands again at chest level, stretch his arms sideways, bring his palms together at the chest, pivot, flip the hands, and finally, bow.

Dances imitating the movements and behavior of animals are usually comic dances. The male dancer mimics an angry monkey in the langka-baluang; a boar tires to crack open a coconut in igal kussah; and mating butterflies are shown in kabah-kabah and a mating rooster in pangasik. The last dance may also be performed with a female.

Bulah-bulah is a pangalay in which both male and female dancers use bamboo or shell clappers. Two courtship dances that are variants of the pangalay are the pangilok and eringan, the latter differing from the former only in its use of the sulakengkeng. In each, the male and female dancers tease each other but are careful not to touch nor make any suggestive movements.

The pamansak, also called igal ha taas pattung, is a pangalay of a woman dancing on top of a pair of bamboo poles which are carried on the shoulders of two men. When she is lowered to the ground, one or two men join her and perform the langka-kuntau. The dance ends with the woman returning to her bamboo perch and being carried away.

The langka-sayaw is a mock fight between two male dancers, each carrying a shield and a budjak (lance), which they place on the ground. The objective is to pick up the war implements first and to prevent the other from doing so. Hence, they dance around the implements, kicking sand into each other’s face. When they have retrieved their lance and shield, they vigorously engage in a mock battle until one “defeats” the other.

The tauti depicts a fisher who fails to make a good catch with hook and line and resorts to using the sap of tubli (a poisonous vine). In his excitement over his large catch, he clumsily gets pricked by the fish’s poisonous spine and the dancer jumps, writhes, swims, skips, and crawls home in pain.

The sambulayang or pangalay pangantin is a wedding dance in which the bride is hidden from the groom’s view by a sambulayang (flag) that is tied to a bamboo pole. She is followed by the groom, who indicates his readiness to defend and protect her by continually touching the hilt of his kalisor kris. The male carrier of the bamboo pole does the same. The dance is highlighted by the bride dropping her sulakengkeng to the floor one by one, with the groom vigilantly picking these up. The dance ends with the groom ceremoniously handing the sulakengkeng back to his bride.

A pre-Islamic dance ritual or exorcism which is mimetic is the magomboh, named after Omboh (Lord ancestor). It is a ritual to cure one whose illness has been diagnosed to have been caused by the sayitan. The center of this dance is an offering of green lotion called “tonix,” betel nut, and food. These are set on a tray that is placed on a wooden bed enclosed in a mosquito net. The panglima or imam enters the net and prays. He then emerges from the net in a possessed state. He takes a budjak and makes thrusting movements toward the nets as he dances around it. Occasionally he thrusts the lance at another person who has also fallen into a trance and dances with the shaman. Near the end of the ritual, the panglima hits the patient with his headkerchief.

In some magomboh rituals, an effigy of the Omboh is made out of a basket through which a piece of wood, representing the arms, is inserted. The effigy is then dressed with a sablay. The panglima dances about while carrying the Omboh and imploring the spirit to enter the Omboh. He then holds a dialogue with the Omboh, whose answers are conveyed in signals that he deciphers.

The Agal-Agal Festival is held in Tawi-Tawi every 25th of September to showcase its seaweed industry and to celebrate the history and culture of the Sama, the Sama Badjao, Jama Mapun, and Tausug. One of the highlights of the festival is a parade of floats that feature indigenous houseboat designs. Traditional dances like the pangalay, kuntao, silat, and igal are danced on the streets to the beat of the kulintangan, agong, and gandang. As a tribute to Tawi-Tawi’s largest industry, the costumes of the street dancers are adorned with seaweeds.

Sama Tribe as Featured in Media and Movies

In the 1980s, the Sulu Tawi-Tawi Broadcasting Foundation, which was formed with the initiative of the OMI missionaries, established the DXGD-AM in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi (OMI 2007). DXGD-AM operates daily from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. Among its news and public affairs programs are the Sinama Newscast in the mornings and the Tausug Newscast in the afternoons. A program called Islam Hour airs on Saturdays while Live Mass airs on Sundays (CMN 2014).

Nora Aunor in Movie Sinapupunan (Thy Womb)
Brillante Mendoza’s Sinapupunan (Thy Womb), 2012 (Photo courtesy of Centerstage Productions and Brillante Mendoza)

The life and culture of the Sama in the island municipalities of Tawi-Tawi are featured in the film Sinapupunan (Thy Womb), 2012, directed by Brillante Mendoza and starring Nora Aunor. Aunor plays Shaleha, a midwife who herself cannot bear children. She is married to Bangas-An, played by Bembol Roco, who longs for a child but is reluctant to adopt one. Shaleha selflessly embarks on a search for a second wife for her husband and finds a suitable woman in Mersila, played by Lovi Poe. The film ends with Shaleha herself helping deliver Bangas-An and Mersila’s child. As with all her clients, Shaleha asks Mersila if she can keep the baby’s umbilical cord.

Sinapupunan unfolds silently, focusing on the internal world of Shaleha’s emotions. However, it is also punctuated by glimpses into the everyday lives of the Sama: gunshots firing as Shahela and her husband fish together, turtles laying eggs by the sea, traditional wedding rituals, customs, celebrations, and dowry negotiations. It depicts the Sama people as a community of tradition striving to live in harmony with the world even as they are surrounded by turmoil. The film has won several awards internationally, including the Bisato D’Oro prize for Aunor, and the La Navicella or Venezia Cinema prize and P. Nazareno Taddei Award Special Mention for Mendoza at the Venice Film Festival.


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  • This article is from the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art Digital Edition. Title: Sama / Samal. Author/s: Rosario Cruz-Lucero, with additional notes from Corazon A. Hila (1994) / Updated by Louise Jashil R. Sonido, and Jake Soriano (2018). Publication Date: November 18, 2020. Access Date: September 15, 2022. URL:


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