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Yakan Tribe of Basilan: History, Culture and Arts, Customs and Traditions [Mindanao Indigenous People | Philippines Ethnic Group]

Yakan Tribe of Basilan: History, Culture and Arts, Customs and Traditions [Mindanao Indigenous People | Philippines Ethnic Group]

Yakan refers to the majority Muslim group in Basilan, an island province just south of Zamboanga peninsula. “Basilan” may mean “the waterway into the sea” or may derive from the Yakan word for “the way to the iron” because of the presence of minerals in the island. It measures 1,358 square kilometers, the largest in the Sulu archipelago. Located at the northern end of the Sulu archipelago, it is bounded in the north by Zamboanga City; in the south by the Sulu archipelago, with Jolo as the major island; in the east by Mindanao; and in the west by the Sulu Sea and Sabah (North Borneo). Basilan enjoys good weather because it is located below the typhoon belt. Abundant rainfall throughout the year keeps the soil wet and fertile.

The island province has a mountainous terrain, with some peaks up to 1,000 meters high. There are three main waterfalls that provide waterpower: Kumalarang Falls, Busay Falls, and Bulingan Water Falls. The land is fertile and abounds with coconut, rubber, and fruit trees. However, this island province has not been spared the ravages of environmental abuse. Basilan’s virgin forests are virtually gone. It suffers from water shortage because of unabated illegal logging, which has destroyed Basilan’s forest reserves at the rate of 2,000 hectares annually. Forest denudation has reduced by over half the water outflow from its watersheds, caused heavy siltation, and dried up the two main rivers, Busay and Aguada.

Basilan is part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). It is inhabited by five ethnic groups: the Yakan, Chavacano, Sama, Tausug, Sama Dilaut or Badjao, and Visayan. The 2000 government census reports a total Yakan population of 153,635, with 137,545 in Basilan and 16,090 in Zamboanga City. They compose 41% of Basilan’s total population of 332,828, thus outnumbering the four other ethnic groups in this island province.

The Yakan have Malay features. They are small of frame, with brown skin, slanting eyes, and black hair—characteristics similar to the Dyak of North Borneo, leading to speculation that they originated from this race.

They speak a language known as Bahasa Yakan, which is closely identified with Sama Dilaut and a variant of the Sama and the Tausug languages. These languages all belong to the Malayo-Polynesian family of Austronesian languages. Bahasa Yakan is written in the Malayan Arabic script, with adaptations to sounds not present in Arabic.

History of the Yakan Tribe

Basilan’s nearness to Borneo has led to the theory that the Yakan originated from the Dyak, but certainly Basilan’s history is related to that of the Sulu archipelago. The Sultanate of Sulu became a center of power in the 1700s after defeating the Sultanate of Maguindanao. Its seat of power was Jolo, and it ruled over the island of Basilan although nominally, having little influence over the Yakan because they lived in the interior. The Yakan, though, paid a yearly tribute to the sultan.

Yakan datu, center in dark jacket, with his retinue
Yakan datu, center in dark jacket, with his retinue, circa 1910 (US National Archives and Records Administration)

Islam is said to have started in the Philippines in 1380, but some scholars believe that Islam spread in some areas of the archipelago during the early 1200s. Then and now, the inhabitants of the Sulu archipelago have been described as Muslims although they have retained many of their pre-Islamic beliefs. This folk-Islamic culture was because Islamic conversions were mostly undertaken not by full-time religious teachers but by Arab Muslim traders who traversed the Malacca-Borneo-Sulu-Luzon-Taiwan route.

The Spaniards’ first recorded sighting of the island of Basilan was in 1521, shortly after Magellan’s death. His surviving crew sailed past an island called Tagima, known for its many pearls, which, by his chroniclers’ description of its location, is presumably the present-day Basilan. Unknown to them, the island might have been named after a type of shell locally called tagima. During the Spanish colonial period, the Spaniards called the Yakan Sameacas and considered them aloof and sometimes hostile hill people. They made several attempts to control Jolo but failed. However, Catholic missionaries were able to penetrate Basilan. By 1654, there were about 1,000 Christian families living on the island.

By the 1840s, colonial interests other than Spanish focused on western Mindanao, particularly the territories under the Sulu Sultanate. The British, French, Germans, and Americans all became interested in these rich islands. In reaction, the Spanish government in 1842 established Fort Isabela in the northwest coast of Basilan. The area then grew into a Christian settlement, which also became a trade and commercial center.

In 1844, the French government tried to occupy Basilan, intent on establishing a network of naval stations to protect French trade. The inhabitants of Basilan fought against the French for a year, resulting in a French withdrawal, as formalized in a proclamation dated 5 August 1845.

In the latter half of the 19th century, the Spanish government found an ally in Basilan against Moro attacks in a Tagalog who was an escaped convict. In 1842 or 1845 a bandit, Pedro Javier Cuevas of Cavite, had been meted the death penalty for a crime against a Spanish guardia civil. After his father pleaded for his life, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment at the San Ramon Penal Farm in Zamboanga. In 1874, Cuevas and six other prisoners killed three of the Spanish prison guards and escaped. They sailed southward in a vinta toward Malamawi Island in Basilan.

Cuevas gained control of several Yakan villages, thereby making himself chief of a large number of the Yakan. A few years later, he saved the Spaniards from a Moro attack on Zamboanga and Fort Isabela in Basilan, in exchange for a full pardon. In 1882, Datu Aliudi of the Sulu Sultanate sent Datu Kalun, also known as Kalung or Kalum, to challenge him to a duel. Cuevas fought and killed the datu, whose position and name he then took for himself. Cuevas, now renamed Datu Kalun, married Panglima Atao’s daughter Maniya to secure his position among the Yakan.

In 1895, the Sultan of Sulu sent his bravest general, Datu Julkanayin, to regain control of Basilan, only to be defeated by Datu Kalun’s forces. The ensuing peace encouraged more Christians to settle in Basilan. The Spanish government, having already pardoned Cuevas, also known as Datu Kalun, now considered him an ally. As Datu Kalun, Cuevas instituted meaningful sociopolitical changes in the Yakan community: he consolidated the Yakan, imposed a justice system, introduced efficient farming methods, led battles against the invading rulers from Jolo, and rid Basilan of pirates and marauders.

By this time, the Katipunan (revolutionary organization) had been gaining momentum in Luzon. In Mindanao, Muslim resistance contributed greatly to the weakening of Spanish colonizers. Moreover, the Spanish campaigns against the “Moros”—the derogatory term used by the colonialists against the Muslim Filipinos—caused heavy casualties and depleted Spanish resources by millions of pesos. One example is the Muslim attack on the Spanish garrison in Jolo, which dealt a heavy blow on the Spanish forces in Mindanao in 1897. The military attack was considered an important anticolonial revolutionary effort, although the Muslims themselves did not join the Katipunan.

While Zamboanga and Sulu were the centers of Spanish-Muslim hostilities, Basilan inhabitants, especially the Yakan, remained fairly unaffected by the social upheavals. Still, the Yakan were among those natives called “Moros” by the Spaniards.

American intervention did not start until 1899, although a US survey mission had already gone to the Sulu archipelago as early as 1844 to study its potentials. The American strategy of integration was more acceptable to the Muslims than the Spanish strategy of conversion. The new colonizers were received openly by the Muslim elite. On 19 May 1899, American troops took over the Spanish garrison in Zamboanga, one of the last strongholds of the Filipino revolutionaries in Mindanao. By December 1899, the Americans, led by Colonel James S. Petit, occupied the Spanish naval base of Isabela de Basilan. In Basilan, an old and sickly Datu Kalun supported the new colonizers.

The Philippine-American War was raging in Luzon. So as not to spread out their forces, the Americans employed the classic divide-and-rule tactic. Major General E. S. Otis, commander-in-chief of the US Forces, sent General John C. Bates to negotiate with the Sultan of Sulu, and an agreement was reached. Known as the Bates Treaty, the agreement provided for the exercise of American authority over the Sulu archipelago in exchange for the recognition of Muslim culture and religion.

Barely two months before the creation of the Moro province, the American colonial government declared and classified all unoccupied Muslim and tribal ancestral lands as public lands. Immediately after the declaration, American investments entered Mindanao. Mass migration of Christians was encouraged, displacing many Muslims and tribal Filipinos from their ancestral lands.

Group of Yakan women with face painting and a child
Group of Yakan (Donna Louise Branhall)

Hence, the peace created by the Bates Treaty did not last. This became evident when the Muslims repudiated the Moro province, a politico-military government in Mindanao lasting from 1903 to 1914. The growing Moro resistance was manifested in the form of military attacks against American troops and outposts. There were bitter Muslim revolts and uprisings during the succeeding years: the Panglima Hassan uprising in Jolo in 1903; the Pala uprising in 1905; the uprising led by Datu Laksamana Usap of Sulu in 1905; and the battle of Bud Dajo from 1906 to 1909.

Datu Kalun died in Basilan on 16 July 1904 at the age of 58, soon after his first contact with the Americans. His nephew, Gabino Cuevas Pamaran, became his successor and adopted the name Datu Murusalun. Murusalun, also pro-American, founded the town of Lamitan, which became an American model of civil government and development. Murusalun worked for the material progress of Basilan and sought ways to fight banditry and piracy in the area. During this time, a famous pirate named Jikiri was attacking the rich Muslim, Chinese, and American traders. He was as much a threat to American rule as the Muslim “insurgents.” Although the Yakan were not involved in the growing resistance, they provided sanctuary for the activities of Jikiri, who was eventually slain by the Americans on 2 July 1909.

There was a resurgence of Moro resistance when General John J. Pershing assumed governorship of the Moro province in 1909. He ordered the complete disarmament of the Muslims through a system of cash incentives, but most refused to sell their weapons. Many Muslims, in fact, decided to resume the fight against the Americans, who were then backed up by Muslim members of the Philippine Scouts, which was the precursor of the Philippine Constabulary. Fierce battles at Bud Dajo and Bud Bagsak in Jolo ensued, forcing the Americans and local counterinsurgency forces to employ the most brutal military tactics against the Muslims. A majority of the victims were women and children, for which Pershing received severe criticism.

Alongside military suppression came a policy of education. Public schools were built, but Muslim enrollment was way below Christian school attendance. Muslims considered education a threat to their culture and religion.

To ensure Muslim participation in government affairs, the Americans soon adopted a “policy of attraction” for western Mindanao. Moreover, the Philippine Constabulary (PC) replaced the United States Army units pursuant to colonial efforts to reduce American presence. The replacement of American troops, mostly by Christians under the PC, increased the hostility between Muslims and Christians. In the political sphere, the management of Muslim affairs, through the organization of the Department of Mindanao and Sulu in 1914, was unsuccessful, as leadership in the department fell into the hands of Christians. Thus, the Muslim leaders were historically opposed to the idea of independence, which meant the incorporation of Muslim areas into a political system dominated by Christians. Their fears were not baseless. As demonstrated by the Commonwealth government, President Quezon and other Christian political leaders failed to incorporate the development of Mindanao and Sulu into the national development plan.

The outbreak of World War II disrupted Commonwealth operations. Christian and Muslim officers and men of the military district in Mindanao and Sulu shifted to guerrilla activities against the Japanese. A civil government called Free Sulu Government administered war activities in the locality. The Japanese Occupation forces established a government in Basilan to govern both Zamboanga and Basilan. The Japanese Occupation of Basilan was rather uneventful; it barely disturbed Yakan society, except in terms of Japanese demand for food for their military machinery. No Japanese atrocities were documented in Basilan. In fact, Datu Murusalun and his family watched, without much interest, the American bombings of the Spanish fort and naval hospital in Isabela, which signaled the retaking of Basilan by the American troops in 1945.

During the next two decades, the hostile relations between Muslims and Christians culminated in a civil war in 1970 with the formal organization of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Bangsa Moro Army (BMA) as its military arm. The MNLF would separate the Bangsa Moro homeland of Mindanao, Sulu, Basilan, and Palawan from the rest of the Philippines.

History is kept alive by such first-person accounts as that of Tawara Ilul, who tells of her family’s evacuation from the hinterlands of Basilan when she was a child in the 1970s (Behrens 2007). The story begins with a burst of gunfire that Tawira and her mother heard near the river where they were collecting water into their passuk (bamboo-tube container). Later, they learned that the gunshots had come from the ilaga (non-Muslim vigilantes) who had killed several people. For a week, Tawira’s family stayed in hiding in a makeshift tree house. Deciding that their isolation put them in greater danger, they began a journey down from the mountains in search of a well-populated place. They brought their gongs, one chicken, some cash, and their carabao.

On the mountainside, they stopped to watch a wedding celebration, which was soon interrupted by the sound of gunshots, cannon fire, and bombs being dropped on nearby Camp Uno. Tawira’s family journeyed on and found people living and hiding under rocks in the middle of the dry riverbed. For a few days, Tawira’s family lived in the underbrush under a makeshift canopy, emerging from hiding for food. At one stop, the fields where they had camped caught fire. They stayed in the middle part of the field, choosing the risk of fire over an encounter with the ilaga. They arrived at the house of Tawira’s grandmother by the Linggisan River but continued to live in hiding, using palm leaves for shelter. With every move, they were careful to keep the gongs from making a sound, because this would give their presence away. Finally, they settled at Libaken village, where they could now sleep in a house.

As a coconut and coffee bean trader, Tawira’s father stayed in the town of Lamitan, where he joined the Barrio Self-Defense Unit (BSDU), composed of civilian volunteers organized by the government to protect their villages. Hearing that war would erupt again in the hills near Libaken, he fetched his family to take them to Lamitan. On their way, they came upon a group of 10 gun-toting ilaga, who mockingly brandished their barung (machetes) at them. One was sucking a bottle containing a habay (amulet; Filipino anting-anting). As Tawira’s family froze in terror, they laughed and let the family walk on.

From the Limo-ok evacuation center, they traveled to another in Zamboanga, where refugees were said to be better fed. Tawira’s father stayed behind in Basilan as a member of the BSDU and to continue in the coconut trade. At the evacuation center in Cawa-Cawa, Zamboanga, Tawira learned to weave, becoming particularly adept at forming the different bunga sama patterns.

In Cawa-Cawa, provisions soon dwindled and they returned to Lamitan, where they shared the upper floor with an uncle’s family. The lower floor was a disco. They were now reduced to penury. Tawira’s father had left the BSDU, and trading in coconuts in the hills had become a dangerous business. He became a kalgarul (porter) for Mayor Teng Ramos, carrying sacks of rice for 20 centavos each. The family could not go back to the war-torn hills, where they could have lived off the land. One day two Merikanu (Caucasian) women came to live with them to learn the Yakan language. When the two foreigners moved to another house, Tawira moved with them. Tawira’s family later moved to Limo-ok, at a government housing project by an estuary. It had three bunkhouses, with 10 rooms each, each room allotted to one family. Thus ends the saga of a Yakan family caught in the Mindanao war.

Fighting between the government and the MNLF-BMA escalated after martial law was declared in 1972. By 1974, MNLF strength rose to some 30,000 armed combatants. It gained political control over significant areas of western Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, including Basilan. The MNLF gained international Muslim support through the Islamic Conference, which facilitated negotiations between the Marcos government and the MNLF in 1976. In December 1976, the Tripoli Agreement was signed, providing for the granting of local autonomy for 13 Muslim-populated provinces; however, it was never fully implemented by the Marcos government (Noble 1987, 194). Differences within the MNLF regarding the Tripoli Agreement created a breakaway faction led by Hashim Salamat, who established the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in March 1984 in Maguindanao.

On 1 August 1989, under Corazon Aquino’s administration, Republic Act (RA) 6734 created the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which consisted of four out of the 13 Muslim-populated provinces of Mindanao: Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. Basilan voted against its inclusion in a plebiscite held in November 1989.

In 1992, a Yakan-Tausug and former MNLF member, Abdujarak Abubakar Janjalani, founded the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), originally aiming to push for an Islamic State through jihad. The ASG is based in Basilan, where Khadafi Janjalani took over the leadership after the ASG founder, who was his brother, died in a military encounter in December 1998. The ASG has since splintered into several groups and is identified more with acts of banditry and kidnapping-for-ransom than with the Moro struggle for self-determination. Moreover, it has been remarked that agents of the Philippine military and police may be involved in the ASG’s extortion activities (Noble 2014). Although the other Moro organizations like the MNLF and MILF have denounced the ASG’s criminal acts, they also assert that such acts of rebellion would continue unabated for as long as the government does not solve the root cause of what it may have oversimplified as the “Moro problem” (Alim 1995).

In 2001, the ARMM was expanded through RA 9054 . This time, six of Basilan’s municipalities voted in its favor, thereby allowing the addition of Basilan into the ARMM, together with the Islamic City of Marawi. Presently, six out 13 Muslim-populated provinces compose the ARMM.

Livelihood of the Yakan People

The Yakan are basically agriculturists whose products include rice, coconut, cassava, abaca, lanzones, cacao, and corn. The farm knife that they use for cutting and digging is the duhung, which has a sharp blade that widens from the handle toward its pointed end.

Yakan woman weaving a mat
Yakan woman weaving a mat (CCP Collections)

Basilan’s fertile land presently yields cash crops like coconut and rubber, which are cultivated in plantations that are owned or dominated by the rich Christians of Basilan. The coconuts are processed into copra, an export product.

Yakan planters in the hills who process the coconuts themselves require a mata badja (plowshare), a koprasan (copra shed), and a lugitan (a long, rectangular piece of iron). First, the coconut husk is removed from the shell with the sharp-pointed mata badja. This is attached to a tripod that is strong enough to hold the weight of the coconut being forced down onto the point of the mata badja. The koprasan functions like a stove. It is a small hut, roofed and walled, with a floor of bamboo slats. The split coconuts are placed on the floor, under which is a fire pit that emits heat and smoke, thus curing the coconut meat. The meat is pulled away from the shells with the lugitan,its sharp point curving upward. The lugitan is attached to a bench, which the copra maker straddles as he hooks and twists the meat off its shell. The pieces of meat are separated into two piles, one for those sufficiently cooked and the other for the undercooked meat, which will have to be re-cured over the fire pit. When all are sufficiently cured, these are placed in sacks and taken to the market to be sold.

The Yakan have a system of labor exchange in farming so that time for plowing is shortened through collective work by friends and relatives. Their agricultural practices are replete with traditional beliefs and customs. Their favorable working days are Mondays for planting trees, Tuesdays for a faster pace in work, and Thursdays for abundant water supply. There are days in a month favorable for specific types of plants. During a “root day,” one should plant root crops; on a “stem day,” stem products like sugarcane; on a “fruit day,” fruits; and so on. When the noise of wild fowl or bees is heard during the first attempt at planting, a good harvest is expected. Rice is the most valued among all crops, with the planting and harvesting accorded rituals and prayers led by the imam.

Rice is believed to have its own sultan and hierarchy of leaders. Thus, the Yakan talk to the “king palay” (king of the rice grains) to lead the other seeds to bring forth a bountiful harvest. The first bunch of ripening palay heads are handled with utmost care so as not to frighten away the rice. They also observe silence in harvesting since noise might bring winds that would blow the rice away or make difficult the transport of harvest through the river. New rice is stored in a different way from old rice, for the old might frighten the new. New rice is always eaten with a thanksgiving prayer; and leftovers may be fed to chickens but never to dogs, as these are considered unholy.

The Yakan are also good hunters; they use spears and sophisticated traps. They use the leppas for trapping birds, niyas for trapping wild chickens and rooster, and bubu for catching fish from the river (Sherfan 1976, 102-104). The women earn additional family income through loom weaving of traditional Yakan cloth and garments famous for their beautiful designs. Cattle raising thrives on grazing lands. The seas surrounding the island provide abundant marine products. There are vast mangrove swamps that make ideal fishponds.

However, political turbulence and population growth on the island as well as employment opportunities elsewhere have caused out-migration in increasing numbers.

The Yakan Community

Sovereignty in a Yakan community is believed to emanate from Allah. A traditional Yakan community is ruled by law made by the people as well as the Sharia or God’s law. The Yakan believe that the consensus of the people must be achieved in the formulation of laws that should also be consistent with Islamic tenets.

Yakan warrior from Lamitan, Basilan
Yakan warrior from Lamitan, Basilan (Francisca Reyes-Aquino Collection)

In the traditional Muslim community, the sultan is the supreme chief who appoints the datu and important officers. The sultan is both a religious and a political leader. The most prominent sultanate in the Philippines was the Sultanate of Sulu, with Jolo as center of government. Despite the rivalry between Yakan and Joloanos, Basilan was under Jolo for four to five centuries. It was only during the reign of Pedro Cuevas that Basilan was freed from Jolo’s domination. The sultanate in Basilan had its headquarters in Lamitan, Basilan.

The datu usually comes from the rich upper classes of society. There are three kinds of datu: datu balbangsa (royal blood); datu giyulal (appointed datu); and datu hangan (self-proclaimed datu). The Yakan datu belong to the second category.

The sultan is represented by the hadji (male) or hadja (female), and the pakil at the village level. These leaders implement orders promulgated by the royal council. The hadji is an individual who has the means to go on a hadz (pilgrimage) to the holy city of Mecca. Some hadji are elected to the position of barangay leader in Basilan.

Pakil or pakir is the generic term for religious leaders who may be categorized as imam, khatib, and bilal. They gain their position because of their exceptional knowledge of Islam and exemplary qualities such as piety (Jundam 1983, 22). The imam is a religious and political leader. Among his duties are to lead the people in prayer and in religious ceremonies, and to set the dates of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, which culminates in the Hariraya. The imam also acts as the community leader who hears cases of common grievances and offenses. If a case cannot be settled at the village level, he elevates the case to the sultan. At the village level, the khatib or bilal represents the imam. One trains to become an imam by first becoming a khatib. The duty of the bilal is to supervise the Islamic practice of praying five times a day.

The Agama court is the Yakan judicial court where family conflicts involving land, marriage, and petty crimes are resolved through the application of Islamic and Yakan custom laws. The Agama court traditionally has many branches and officers with specific functions (Sherfan 1976, 176). The sultan, as the supreme head, may preside over important Agama court sessions. The ladjamura (vice sultan), datu, bilal, and khatib comprise the members of the Agama court. A panglima, who is not equal in stature as the leaders, advises on minor cases. According to a Yakan legend, a court called Sarah Keppepuanantedated the Agama court.

Today, the Yakan submit to the national government. The panglima has been replaced by the municipal counselor they call kunsihal, who is one of 12 councilors elected for a three-year term (Behrens 2002).

Yakan Culture, Customs and Traditions

The traditional classes of Yakan society still exist today, except for the slave class, which was abolished when the Moro province was created by the American colonizers. Today, there are datu, pakir, and the common tao. The tarsila or genealogies of sultanates in Mindanao and Sulu, trace those leaders who truly belong to the royalty. This is politically important since a datu, to qualify as sultan, must have parents of royal blood.

Yakan dancing and playing the kwintangan, an instrument of five to seven bossed gongs laid in a row used for courtship and celebrations
Yakan dancing and playing the kwintangan, an instrument of five to seven bossed gongs laid in a row used for courtship and celebrations (National Commission for Culture and the Arts)

Yakan society is patriarchal, with the amana (father) as the head of the family. Yakan kinship is also bilateral. Thus, an individual is born to two sets of kinship groups: the usba or the father’s, and the waris or the mother’s, with a slight bias in favor of the father’s side.

Kinfolk are very close emotionally and physically. In every problem, event, or family conflict, any individual can seek the help of his or her usba-waris (kin). Distant kin called damikitan are also ready to help in times of tragedy and joy. Their houses are built very close to one another, and relatives are brought together by various social and religious activities.

The individual seldom acts as such but is always conscious of the honor, social standing, and reputation of the whole group. Any Yakan who starts a fight should first of all consider the number, wealth, and power of the adversary’s kin. On the other hand, the encroachment of state-imposed laws since the American colonial period has eroded the strong kinship ties among the Yakan. Kontara (conflicts between families and clans) have been primarily caused by land disputes, the root of which can be traced to the American colonial period. The Torrens system of land titles created misunderstandings between those who registered and those who did not, and this sometimes led to violence. Political rivalry, the second highest cause of kontara, is the result of the statewide electoral system. Other causes are nonpayment of debts and affiliations with either the ASG or the Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU).

Affinal relations rarely create any sense of obligation in a family feud. But if a man or a woman’s affines are also blood relatives, the relationship becomes even closer. Important Yakan traditions do not permit quarrels among relatives; if any ensues, it is quickly resolved by the elders. An imam may also be called to deliver a prayer of reconciliation in the presence of the bickering parties. But if it remains unsolved, the case is brought to the Agama court.

The life cycle of the Yakan is full of taboos inspired by Islamic and pre-Islamic beliefs. During conception, the mother must be given all the food she craves for, or both the mother and the baby’s health will be adversely affected. After the first trimester of pregnancy, the lekkad ceremony is held, in which the panday (local midwife) massages the woman’s abdomen while praying to drive away or shield the mother and child from evil spirits. Coconut oil and chicken’s eggs are used after the massage to soothe the muscles of the abdomen. A pregnant woman is not allowed to eat certain types of food such as twin bananas, which may lead to the birth of twins. Coitus during the last month of pregnancy is allowed except on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays, so that the coming baby will turn out to be intelligent, obedient, and healthy, and have a long life.

The panday, who assists the woman who is about to deliver a baby, is also assisted by the mother of the expectant mother, or by any woman who has had previous experience in delivering a baby. As soon as the child is born, the first words uttered by those in attendance are “Ya Allah, ya rasallullah” (Allah, we thank you for giving us a child) so that what it hears first are the holy words of Islam. Diapers are in any color except black or white. Sharpened bamboo splints are used to cut the umbilical cord. This and the placenta are buried within the vicinity of the house, or better yet under a coconut tree, so that the child will remain and die in its homeland.

The newly born child is given a name right after birth. Most common names are Muhammad for boys and Fatima for girls. A weighing ritual called pagtimbang is performed, in which the child is placed on a scale held by a blanket while offerings are hung on the left to counterbalance the child’s weight. Four imams lead a ritual prayer as the child is weighed. The ritual is also performed when a baby is born on an unlucky day. The pagtimbang decides the destiny of the baby in its favor as against the claimant evil spirit, a serpent named Malikidjabaniya.

The pagtamat is the Quranic graduation ceremony. Before the age of puberty, young girls and boys are expected to have learned to read and study the Quran.

Boys and girls undergo the pag-islam (circumcision) at an early age. Accepted as a religious and cleansing rite, the circumcision prepares the boy for adult responsibilities and marriage. The Yakan female circumcision, the pagsunnat, is given when the girl is about four or five years old. It begins with the pagpandih (bathing process) as a tawal (whispered prayer) is uttered by the child’s ear in preparation for the ceremony. The girl’s pag-islam is a process of gently scraping the labia majora. The Kah Dayang (circumciser) makes sure not to cause any bleeding. Another tawal is uttered and the ritual of female circumcision ends.

Girls are not supposed to tell anybody except their mother and sisters about the onset of their first menstruation. Young women wear an anting-anting around their hips to protect their virginity and to make them attractive to the opposite sex. In the past, maglegnas (teeth filing) was done at the onset of puberty.

Yakan traditional wedding
Yakan traditional wedding (Private Collection)

Puberty marks the marrying age. Traditionally, marriages are arranged by the usba-waris. In marriage negotiations, men have more rights than women. Women have almost no voice whatsoever. The girl’s parents, particularly their descendants from the patrilineal line, have the final decision. Marriages between cousins are common because they keep the family wealth within the group or clan. However, marriage between second cousins is prohibited because this is believed to cause misfortune to the community. This is consistent with the Yakan belief that the number two divides rather than unites. In the past, marriage with non-Muslims or non-Yakan was prohibited since such unions would bring impurity to indigenous traditions. However, this is no longer strictly followed.

The Yakan adat (custom law) recognizes various types of marriages: muli (with parental consent), magtambul bay (the shotgun; Fil. pikot), magpasumbali (suicide), magpalah’i (elopement), and ngalahi (abduction).

Modern courtship rituals have replaced the traditional practice of parental arrangement for a boy and girl’s marriage. However, when the young man decides to marry, he informs his parents, who will then initiate the steps leading to the marriage proposal. Various pre-wedding rituals take place over several days or weeks. First the groom’s spokespersons, in circumlocutory speeches, present the marriage proposal to the bride’s spokespersons. A few days later, they call upon the bride’s family to present the bintak (token of the dowry), which is a gift of considerable value, such as gold jewelry, cash, or an heirloom piece. Then they deliver to the bride’s house the turul bintak (following the token of the dowry), which is simply a dulang (mound of cooked rice). A series of negotiations will lead to the magjari, which is the mutual agreement between the two families concerning the ungsud (dowry or bride-price), the wedding date, and the venue. The ungsud may be in the form of cash, work animals, jewelry, and land. The day before the wedding, the pagpalahi-palahihan (taking away the bride ceremony) takes place, where the groom, with a noisy entourage, must fetch the bride from someone else’s house. Here, she and her own entourage of young women are each covered with a cloth, and the groom’s relatives must find her or pay a fine. There is much merrymaking, such as gong-playing, singing, and games.

The next day is the wedding proper, which used to last three days but now has been reduced to one. During the ceremony, the bride stays under a kulambu (canopy), which is shaped like the common mosquito net but decorated with kaban buddi, a row of geometrical appliques running along each side. The kulambu is suspended by a string tied to long bamboo reeds, inserted into its upper hems. The day ends with the sibohe ceremony, in which the groom, sitting beside the bride, offers her rice, water, and a cloth, all of which she refuses three times.

The first marital night is a highly ceremonious affair. The groom first kisses the bride on the forehead to ensure marital harmony until death. Before the first intercourse, the wife makes sure that the husband considers her his wife and not a harlot. Thus, so that their marriage will be transformed into a spiritual affair, the bedding items are renamed liturgically by the wife. The husband also renames their sexual organs liturgically. The vagina, called puki in Yakan, is renamed Landasan Allah; the penis, commonly called botoo, is renamed Mohammad Laza Tunggal.

The residence of newly married couples is patrilocal; they move to the residence of the man’s parents or in its vicinity, where they are assisted physically, materially, and socially. Traditionally, the kulambu becomes the newlyweds’ room, which provides them some privacy if they must share the one-room house of the groom’s family. However, the kulambu has now become a rare family heirloom, which a bride borrows for the wedding and returns afterward.

In the past, magkasa or jina (adultery) was punishable by death, causing severe feuds that wrought havoc in the home and community. Now, however, the Agama court merely exacts fines on both erring parties. Polygamy is allowed. A man can have more than four wives as long as he can provide for all the wives and families financially and emotionally. The first wife is considered the real wife.

Magbutas (divorce) is allowed in Yakan society for reasons ranging from long-term suffering to a spur-of-the moment decision. Divorce can be granted by the Agama to a wife with an irresponsible, absentee, or promiscuous husband; to a husband who simply wants to marry another; to a couple who seeks it after a quarrel; or to a husband or a wife who is generally dissatisfied with his or her spouse. Traditionally, the woman returns the bride-price after the case is settled by the Agama court. A tulak lasa (divorce settlement), literally “to leave love,” is paid by the spouse seeking the divorce. The tulak lasa may be in cash or in kind, such as rice and corn. If one does not pay the tulak lasa, the aggrieved ex-spouse may appeal to the Agama court to resolve the matter. The Agama’s function is to apply social pressure on the offending party, while avoiding reprimanding either party; it does not have the legal means to compel the offending party to comply with the terms of the divorce.

Yakan elder
Yakan elder (National Commission for Culture and the Arts)

Death is but a return to God. A dying Yakan, upon sensing the end, calls a family meeting to ask for forgiveness for offenses committed against family members. It is believed that God will not forgive those who have not received forgiveness from offended parties. Dying with eyes closed means peaceful sailing to the next life, whereas dying with eyes open means bad luck. A ritual is held to shut the deceased’s eyes. Those present at the deathbed are not allowed to cry because tears are strong currents that may hinder the travel of the departed to the next life. The Yakan observe four death rituals: washing of the body, shrouding, prayer, and burial.

Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Yakan People

“Folk Islam”—a combination of Islamic principles and traditional beliefs—best describes the Yakan belief system. The Yakan classify various spirits in heaven and in the natural environment into good angels and bad angels. There are believed to be 99 angels roaming around the earth. The bad angels or saytan were created to occupy hell. There are four known types of saytan: samaaniya, chief of the saytan; malikidjabaniya, abductor of babies born in the month of Sapal; idjadjus, cause of temptation; and the hawiya, caretaker of captured angels brought to hell. The Yakan believe that some sicknesses are caused by saytan. Such malignant spirits inhabit the natural environment. They may be offended when mortals cut trees indiscriminately, throw waste in their dwelling places, and the like.

A young Yakan recites part of the Koran as part of his graduation, Lamitan, Basilan
A young Yakan recites part of the Koran as part of his graduation, Lamitan, Basilan, 2012 (Photo by Lester G. Babiera, first appeared on Philippine Daily Inquirer - Arts and Books)

These beliefs indicate the lingering influence of pre-Islamic religious beliefs among the Yakan. Their pre-Islamic practices are combined with Islamic rituals, such as in the planting rituals, death rituals, spirit worship, and ancestral offerings. Thus, the Yakan also believe in some characters of Islamic mythology, such as the djinn, intelligent and helpful creatures who are neither humans nor angels but who can handle tasks beyond the capacity of human beings. The djinn should be befriended to win their trust and good will.

As Muslims, the Yakan have an immense respect for Allah or Awlahu Taala (God Almighty). They view Allah in an anthropomorphic way. Although they believe that Allah is omnipotent, they picture Allah with a body like that of a human being albeit sexless and with infinite senses. They believe in the Five Pillars of Islam: the sahada, which says that there is no other God but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet; the salat or prayer; puasse or fasting during the month of Ramadan; pitla or charity to the poor; zacat or tithes to Muslim religious leaders; and the maghadji or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

For the Muslim Yakan, the world is divided into two: Dar-ul-Islam, the abode of Islam, and Dar-ul-Harb, the abode of the unbelievers. Jihad is the holy war waged by Muslims to protect Dar-ul-Islam from foreign invasion and against those who seek to harm their religion, people, and properties.

Magsabil (juramentado in Spanish) is a small-scale jihad aimed at protecting personal property and family. The magsabil kills anybody who comes his way, exposing himself to death by reprisal. The belief is that whoever kills more during the magsabil will have more servants in heaven. But unless the act is justifiable and the person is a firm believer of Islam, the magsabil will not go to heaven. Every believer must have a strong faith in Allah, in his Messenger and angels, and in the judgment day and destiny. Heaven for the Yakan is a place where the soul can find happiness, joy, and peace. Heaven has eight classes, the eighth being God’s dimension, which cannot be reached unless one works hard for it on earth.

When one dies, the soul goes to ahirat (judgment place) where it awaits the verdict: to go to heaven or to hell. Good deeds on earth will be rewarded on judgment day. Every sin done on earth has its own corresponding place in narka (hell). This is where adulterers, murderers, and prostitutes go, unless they are saved by belief in the Quran and in Muhammad. Even religious leaders are not exempt from punishment in hell if they have sinned on earth.

A grave marker in Basilan
A grave marker in Basilan (CCP Collections)

The Quran is the divine revelation of Allah addressed to all people, regardless of belief or race. Islamic doctrines are learned through the madrasa schools or merely by listening to the khutba or sermon during Friday prayer. The ulama is a religious scholar who teaches in a madrasa, or religious school. Male believers are required to attend Friday prayers, whereas women may not be as religious in their attendance. Women who attend the prayers are separated from the males and, except for their faces, are fully covered. Only a few Yakan, however, observe the five-times-a-day daily prayer.

Yakan Tribal Houses 

The houses of the Yakan are either spaced far apart or clustered around the langgal (native mosque), which is the center of Yakan political, religious, and social life.

Basilan Provincial Capitol
Basilan Provincial Capitol (Estan Cabigas)

There are different types of traditional Yakan houses: luma, the Yakan residence; payad, the guard house; kamalig, the granary; and luma hadji, the imam’s grander house. Those who have assimilated the westernized, lowland culture live in the balangkas, which is the standard modern house. The luma is a huge rectangular building with a floor area varying between 30 to 100 square meters, standing on high posts some two to three meters off the ground. The high posts keep out the mud in the rainy season and hold enemies and wild animals at bay.

Traditionally, the Yakan house faces the east because the Yakan believe that the husband’s bedside must be on the east so he will outlive his wife. Even the piling of building materials points toward the east to signify that family members are united in their purpose of house-building. There are taboos in the selection of building materials: crooked wood signifies a corpse’s elbow, a post with a hole symbolizes the dead and should be avoided, posts with cracks must be smoothened to avoid illnesses, and tree trunks entwined with vines attract snakes into the house. There are also beliefs relating to house construction: the number of rooms and the number of steps of the stairs must be an odd number since even numbers mean death and bad omen, and the house usually has two doors facing the east to signify life and new beginnings.

The steeply pitched sapiaw (ridge roof) is concave and traditionally thatched with cogon or nipa. Recently, the more durable G. I. sheets have been used, though these are unsightly and unsuitable for the traditional Yakan house, which has no ceiling and few or no windows.

There is a belief that bad spirits could come in easily through openings. Thus, there is only one tandiwan (window) located on the front side of the house. Another tandiwan, however, may be added on the end wall opposite the kitchen or cooking shed.

Walls are made of either the horizontally placed wooden planks, or the cooler sawali (plaited bamboo slats or reeds). For flooring, the choice is between split bamboo poles, with the convex sides upward, or timber for the main room. The kitchen floor is usually of bamboo slats used for practical reasons, since waste can easily be thrown through its spaces. Even the kitchen walls are plaited so that smoke can easily escape. If a wooden floor is used for the main house, a small piece of bamboo is inserted, or a hole is made on the floor for betel expectoration.

The luma has three parts: the main house, kitchen, and pantan (porch). The main house alternates as sleeping quarters, the women’s weaving area, and a reception area during celebrations.

The kitchen, which is on the lower level, is a smaller version of the main house and is used for cooking and dining, except during celebrations when food is served in the main house. It is connected to the main house by an open platform or the pantan, which stretches between the main house and kitchen. It may either be covered or left open. A second ladder is placed against the platform leading to the kitchen. The pantan is also used for hanging and drying clothes and for storing long bamboo water containers called dagtung and water jars. There is one doorway connected to the platform, which, in turn, leads to the kitchen and another doorway that opens to the roofed porch that leads to the main house. The porch, made of split bamboo poles, is used for entertaining guests and for the relaxation of family members. It also serves as the entry to the house since this is where a bamboo or wooden ladder is attached. The angkap (mezzanine), where young girls may hide themselves from aggressive boys, is sometimes added to the house.

In Isabela City are modern-type buildings like the Basilan Provincial Capitol, which has Islamic motifs.

Yakan Arts and Crafts

The Yakan have pagpeneh (designs or motifs) used repeatedly in all their visual arts and crafts. The pussuk labbung is a sawtooth design used for cloth baskets and the kris. The bunga sama, used for table runners, monuments for the dead, and trunks, is a symmetrical design made of rectangular figures. The kabban buddi is a set of triangles, squares, and other geometric shapes used for cushions, pillows, casings, mats, and hats. The baggang kettan combines incised triangles and rectangles, and is used to decorate the kris. The ukil lagbas consists of a combination of various lines—wavy, crossed-wavy, and straight—used on shirts, windows of houses, and boats.

Traditional Yakan hat
Traditional Yakan hat (Chito Sarte)

Since the 9th century, the Yakan textile has been exported to different parts of Southeast Asia. Tennun (weaving) is an artistic ability that is a source of pride for Yakan women who are famous for their beautifully woven traditional costumes of cotton and pineapple cloth. When a girl is born, the panday cuts the newborn’s umbilical cord with a bayre, a wooden part of the loom used for beating the weft. This practice ensures that the female infant will grow up an expert weaver.

Yakan weaver from Zamboanga City
Yakan weaver from Zamboanga City (Eric Montalban)

Embellishments that are woven into the textile are the suwah pendan, which resembles intricate embroidery; the suwah bekkat, which is a cross-stich pattern; and the sinelu’an, which are the stripes on the men’s trousers. The bunga sama, of which there are several variations, is the most common textile design though not the easiest to make. Two types of thread are used: the thicker threads of yarn, which must be of seven different colors, and the thinner red sewing thread, which serves as the solid-color background. Before the weaving begins, the weaver already has the design in mind. She then mentally counts the threads that will go into the pattern. This abstract process is the most difficult part of the weaving process. The weaving begins when she ties a bundle of yarn to each row with a tabid (piece of yarn). Each bundle of yarn is long enough to last until the whole piece is finished. A beyre (bamboo sword) is placed underneath the bundles of yarn. It is stood on its side to raise the rows of red thread into which the sulip (colored threads) will be woven.

The Yakan weaver uses the body-tension loom or the backstrap-tension loom. She sits on the floor and controls the loom with her body. On her waist is a belt called awit. A warp beam called deddug is suspended on a house beam, diagonally in front of the weaver; the front beam is the esusen. A sud (bamboo comb) is run through the thread so that the spaces between them are equal. The loom is managed with the feet braced against a tindakan, a piece of wood.

Yakan visual art includes Yakan kitchen utensils and household implements. Metalware includes the talam, a beautifully decorated bronze tray, and the sanduk or ladle used for special occasions. The poga is a covered clay jar used as water container.

Yakan basketry is both colorful and functional. The tutop is a food cover made of bamboo leaves. The peliyuk is a clay jar with a cover used for cooking. The baling is a decorative day jar treasured as an heirloom. The kombo is a lidded container for rice storage. A lakal is a bamboo frame used to hold the cooking gadget when placed on the ground. The tempipih is a big basket carried on the back. A conical basket called the saan is used as a liquid strainer. Baskets are also used to measure and weigh objects. The gantang is bigger than the government ganta. The batil measures nine gantang. The laga is 10 gantang. The ilug is 30 gantang. The lukung is equivalent to 100 gantang.

Palm leaf art among the Yakan consists of rice pouches made of various shapes and sizes. The most common is the pyramid-shaped pat bette (cow’s hoof), which is also what it resembles. The star-shaped tinumpei, named after the backpack they call the tumpei, is a bigger rice pouch for traveling long distances. A fist-sized pouch for a mere mouthful of sticky rice is the tamu lugus, named after the bundle of areca nuts hanging from its tree. The goat-shaped kambing is a pouch for rice offerings in prayer rites. Now scarcely remembered except by a few Yakan elders is the cylindrical-shaped rice pouch that they call hellu or wooden pestle.

Yakan Tribe Clothing

The basic garment for men and women consists of a tight-fitting shirt called badju and tight-fitting trousers called sawal. The badju is open in front from lapel down to the waist, with up to 40 sequined or golden buttons. To close the shirt, a long string is crisscrossed from one button to the other so that when tightly drawn, the shirt closes from top to bottom. It is embroidered on the front and back, with cuffs decorated with batawi (gold buttons), which are status symbols. Usually the men’s shirt remains open because the string is often lost. The shirt is decorated with a pair of jambu, tassels of silk threads, sewn at the collar. The women wear the white, short-sleeved blouse, which is closed by a string tied to buttons or with a pentagonal chest covering. The blouse has a wide collar called lambung.

The Yakan trousers display a below-the-knee joinery line called bakiyaq. Sapid, a braid made of intertwined threads, is stitched at the section where the woven cloth is sewn together and around the part of the leggings that reach the ankle. At the lower portion of the pants, the jambu are attached to represent the horse.

The difference in male and female apparel lies in accessories. Men wear a handwoven pis, a square headcloth measuring a meter or more, and a 15-meter-long kandit (belt or sash) made of red cloth called gilim. The kandit serves as “protection” from spears and knives during combat. The women wear olos, a short tubular skirt over the trousers, over which seputangan, a square, meter-sized, woven cloth with geometric designs, is worn. This cloth is the most expensive part of their garments because it is woven with silk threads on a cotton background.

Men and women wear the saruk, the Yakan nito hat worn to make one look more attractive and elegant. Some wear the hat over the turban and use it as a purse for betel nuts, tobacco, and money. The Yakan also wear functional gadgets. The pegupaan is a bamboo container for all the betel chew paraphernalia. The sappa or lutuan, a small bronze box with engravings carried at the waist, has a similar function. In addition to the basic garment, women wear dublun (coin brooches), gallang (bracelets), pammang (earrings), barung barung dende (long blade with the scabbard inlaid with mother-of-pearl and silver coins), and sugley (comb of gold and bedecked with stones). The men wear lella (long blade with the scabbard wound with nito vine). In times past, Yakan warriors wore a bulletproof shirt prepared by hadjis and imams who wrote Arabic script all over the shirt.

Pattern used in Yakan textiles
Pattern used in Yakan textiles (Donna Louise Branhall)

Pattern used in Yakan textiles
Pattern used in Yakan textiles (Donna Louise Branhall)

Pattern used in Yakan textiles
Pattern used in Yakan textiles (Donna Louise Branhall)

Pattern used in Yakan textiles
Pattern used in Yakan textiles

The Yakan weaving production and the wearing of traditional garments have undergone significant changes over the years because of the scarcity of raw materials, technological advancement, and tourism. The traditional garments are now worn only for festive events. For informal occasions, the men may combine traditional clothing with Western clothes. The women wear loosely-hanging thin blouses, either with a long skirt or loose pants.

Traditionally, ornaments such as necklaces may be worn as charms. A crocodile tooth, polished and with a hole at the base, is believed to bring good luck when worn as a necklace. The Yakan also wear habal (amulets) against bullets. These contain unreadable symbols, are wrapped in black cloth, sewn in triangular form, and tied around the neck. Belts made of snake bones are strung together to protect them against bodily pain. One charm that protects them from sicknesses due to evil spirits is the manik tegiyas, a necklace or bracelet made of the fruits of a flower beaded together. The manik sembulan is made of a bamboo stern cut into short pieces, strung together either as a necklace or bracelet, and serving as added protection against sickness inflicted by evil spirits. To gain more strength against evil spirits, men and women wear the habal. This consists of a string with a piece of cloth containing beads as pendant.

Weapons like knives and swords are part of the Yakan’s visual arts. The punnyal is a small knife that can be hidden within one’s clothing. The barung is carried with pride because it is a symbol of strength and is also acceptable as bride wealth. The taming is the traditional shield used along with two types of spears, the budjak and the sangkil, now used only in war dances. The bangkung has become a rare type of bolo. The pira is a traditional weapon that boys take when going on a long journey. The barong and the kris, although popular, are less valuable or admired among the Yakan.

A unique form of visual art is the facial makeup done on brides and grooms. After creating a foundation of white powder, the make-up artists proceed to paint dots and lines in various patterns on the faces, creating the effect of formal and elaborate masks which match the ornate costumes of the celebrants (see logo of this article).

Yakan Literary Arts: Riddles, Folktales and Stories

At large gatherings, the Yakan entertain each other with untukan (riddles). The subjects of the riddle derive from their natural surroundings, such as in the following (Behrens 2007, 213, 216):

Anak datu’ maglalin,
Magsa’il nuhut lan. (Buwani)

(Children of the chief moving their belongings,
Singing ballads while traveling on the way. [Bees])

Tinanem kuwe’ impen,
Buwa’nen kuwe’ lengngen. (Batad)

(What is planted is like a tooth,
Its fruit is like an arm. [Maize])

The most prominent example of Yakan literature is the origin myth or legend. Two related origin myths narrate the story of the world and of mankind. First, there was only darkness until God created light, and then water, which the wind scattered all over. Then God created the trees, which bore 7.7 million fruits. Next, he created a bird, which died after eating the last fruit. After the bird’s death, God created 70 Adams, one after another, each with a life span of 70 years. The last Adam is supposedly the ancestor of the people.

Yakan creation myth about Adam, Eve, and Angel Gabriel
Yakan creation myth about Adam, Eve, and Angel Gabriel (Illustration by Jonathan Rañola)

God also created the mountains. Adam then stood on top of the highest mountain, realized that he had no wife, and complained to God. A spirit appeared and told him to come back on Friday. On that day, the spirit drew a woman’s figure and instructed Adam to have sexual relations with it. His sperm flowed to the mountains and seas, producing the poisonous animals on land, but the sperm that reached the sea produced the good animals or fish. Then, the Angel Gabriel, with God’s permission, put Adam to sleep, removed a rib from him, and transformed this into a woman named Sitti Hawa (Eve). God told Adam to gift his wife with a formula: “La Ilaha illalah,” which means “There is no god but Allah.” They had four children, two boys and two girls. The boys were Kain and Habil. Two were white and two were black. Marriage between the children of the same color was incest, therefore forbidden. From them, the various races of humankind were created.

The origin of the Yakan people was preceded by a great deluge; then in the west, a yakal, or hardwood, split open to produce the first man of Basilan. In the east, there was a mountain range called Tong Magtangal. From an anthill came Punso, the first woman of Basilan. The two met, fell in love, and had four children. Each of their children was given land. The eldest girl was named Kurnalang after a river called Bohe Kurnalang in the west. In the north resided their son Gubawan, whose name was derived from a river. Their son Turnahubong was given the southeastern part of the island, where a river of the same name was found. The last child, a son, was named Basilan, after a river Bohe Basilan in the east. One day, a trader named Julol from Borneo came and fell in love with Kumalang. The parents of Kumalang would agree to their daughter’s marriage if Julol could bring seeds of mangoes, coconuts, and marang. He did. Thus, Basilan today is full of fruit trees.

Yakan animal folktale about the conflict between the monkey on the one hand, and the birds and butterflies on the other
Yakan animal folktale about the conflict between the monkey on the one hand, and the birds and butterflies on the other (Illustration by Jonathan Rañola)

One animal folktale is about the conflict between monkeys and butterflies. One day, butterflies, ducks, and birds go paddling, with a big leaf and a sugarcane for an outrigger. One monkey eats up the sugarcane, so the leaf capsizes, taking the animals with it. The angry birds refuse to take the monkey ashore, but the monkey convinces one butterfly to do so. When he reaches the shore, the treacherous monkey crushes the insect to death. This angers the butterflies, sparking a major fight between butterflies and monkeys, though the butterflies know they are no match for the monkeys. The leader of the butterflies then comes up with a strategy: pit the monkeys against one another. They alight on the monkeys’ noses and then swiftly fly away, so the monkeys start hitting one another. All but one pregnant monkey die because of this clever strategy. But the monkeys multiply again, so they are still around to this day.

In “Sultan Seyitan duk Keymangohin” (King Demon and the Mangrove Crab), Sultan Seyitan orders Sultan Manabasal, the snake, to bite the Prophet Muhammad, whose wife he desires. The snake protests that the prophet, who gave him life, can also kill him. Sultan Seyitan instructs the snake to hide in the prophet’s mat. Keymango the crab overhears them and, being grateful to the prophet for having given him life, wants to warn him but is reluctant to disturb the prophet’s sleep. So it stands on the mouth of the water jar. When the prophet awakens, he goes to his water jar and the crab warns him against the snake. The prophet goes calmly off to pray while the snake withers to death. The grateful prophet inscribes on the crab’s back the promise that, though kedca crabs will be edible for human beings, the keymango (mangrove) crab will be forbidden to them.

Antonio Enriquez, in his novella The Voice from Sumisip, 2003, narrates the chaos that filled the island of Basilan and the whole of Mindanao. The novella gives a vivid glimpse of the corruption of those in power, the destructive effects of martial law, the Muslim rebellion, the Christians’ own sense of alienation in a land to which they have migrated, and the plight of the Yakan people caught in the crossfire. At the end of the novella, the Yakan datu, also a chanter of tales, delivers a lamentation over the long period of oppression and violence in their sacred world but concludes with the Yakan’s certainty that they will prevail.

Yakan Tribe Musical Tradition

The Yakan have a rich musical tradition, which may be broadly divided into instrumental and vocal. Yakan musical instruments are made of bamboo, wood, and metal. Their musical instruments also demonstrate the influence of the traditional cycle of rice production in their lives. Several instruments are used in each stage of rice production. The daluppak is a digging stick with a bamboo clapper called kopak-kopak. The kwintangan kayu is a percussion instrument consisting of five graduated wooden beams played after planting the palay, to enhance plant growth. The tuntungan is a wooden percussion plank with jar resonators, also played after harvest season for thanksgiving.

The gabbang is of bamboo split into five lengths and arranged like a xylophone. Small children play this near the fields to guard the crops against prying animals. The kwintangan batakan is an earlier form of gabbang that has six, seven, or nine bamboo pieces. The suling is a bamboo mouth flute used by the men to court women. Another bamboo instrument used by the men in expressing love or admiration is the kulaing.

The kwintangan tumbaga consists of several bronze gongs arranged according to size and used during celebrations such as weddings and graduations. It is also played by any individual in the home and after work, for self-expression and relaxation. The agong is a percussion instrument used to announce marriage or for tolling for the dead. The jabujabu or djabu-djabu is a type of drum that summons the people to prayer.

There are three main types of Yakan vocal music: the lugu and other melodies used in reading the Quran and other religious books; the kalangan (songs), which may be further reclassified into jamiluddin and lunsey; and the katakata, nahana, yaya, lembukayu, and sa-il. The kalangan, jamiluddin, katakata, nahana, and yaya are sung solo, while the lunsey, sa-il, meglebulebu seputangen, and lembukayu are musical jousts, sung by soloists from two groups answering each other. During social gatherings, the maglebu-lebu seputangan is sung by a group of men answering a group of women. Each group has a soloist who sings the kalangan, expressed in metaphors.

The kalangan, jamiluddin, lunsey, and lembukayu are courting songs. The katakata, jamiluddin, and nahana may also narrate the history of the Yakan people. The katakata is a long traditional song narrating the lives, loves, and historical backgrounds of people who lived during early times. The Yakan believe that such stories originated from people who lived in another world. The katakata is sung only at night, at a big gathering with food served by the host or hostess. The singing, in episodes, may last for several nights. The singer lies on a mat, the back supported by several pillows. The audience either sits or lies around the singer. The jamiluddin relates love stories. At present, it is also sung when families discuss marriage engagements. Wise men and women of the tribe sing both the katakata and jamiluddin.

One type of sa-il is sung during the magtammat (Quranic graduation). Generally, however, the sa-il, as well as the lunsey, is sung during a wedding ceremony, with messages revolving around good advice regarding married life. Although the traditional sa-il is a musical joust between two soloists, an example of a humorous sa-il (ballad) sung solo at a wedding is the following (Behrens 2007):

Sa-il Paglola-lola

Tagna-ku megkasa,
Sarang ku kemiskin so-osa;
Wa sawallkun sanyawa;
Bedju-kun kamiseta;
Bu ku pi ngandaya;
Bessikun pira-pira
Kenetankun lupis baka;
Bettengkun wa pilet hadja;
Kokkun kehug hadja;
Ga niya bisan pamara;
Bu ku pi ngandaya.

Nabut pe lime andakun;
Sakayi ne tempo Hapun,
Libbeg ne be matakun;
Na gey ne ku tau tennun
Palla ne usahakun;
Lo megsasa andakun
We-ey gey megsasa
Bisan kinakannen ga niya.

Kadja-anin kuwe-itu
Meke ne kew binantu,
Bang niya tahuyu
Lagi pe niya kenna piniritu;
Magbalung taman siku,
Mangan ne gey kasayu.
Bang mangga impennen,
Gey untul penellennen;
Megeddu bikellennen,
Lagi bang sepi tuwas;
Bang tinellen, peluwas.

(A Humorous Ballad

In the name of God.
When I first courted,
I was very poor;
My pants were always underpants;
My shirt was an undershirt;
And then I went and became rich;
My weapon was a small bolo;
My sword-belt was a string of abaca fiber;
My stomach was always cut into (by the string);
My hair was sticking out;
I didn’t even have any pomade;
And then I went and became rich.

My five wives made matters worse;
During the time of the Japanese;
My eyes were already cloudy;
So I couldn’t weave anymore;
My earnings were all divided;
My wives were always quarreling;
Why shouldn’t they be quarreling;
They didn’t even have any food.

At celebrations nowadays,
You will become famous
If there is soy sauce;
Especially if there is also fried fish;
Moisten food up to the elbow [eat lots},
Eat not being aware of doing so [just keept eating].

If a person has no teeth,
He cannot easily swallow;
His throat will make a loud noise,
Especially if the beef is tough;
If swallowed, it will come out.)

The yaya is a lullaby. The magsambag is a method of studying the Quran in which a mulid (student) follows the Quranic singing of the teacher. The student and teacher are not allowed to sing together.

The Yakan have songs for their daily activities. In keeping watch over rice fields, they sing the jamiluddin and kalangan. While resting at home, they sing the katakata, jamiluddin, and nahana. Children at play imitate the adults in singing the kalangan, jamiluddin, lembukayu, and lugu.

Yakan Traditional Dance 

Yakan war dance tumahik, Basilan
Yakan war dance tumahik, Basilan, 1962 (Francisca Reyes-Aquino Collection)

The only traditional dance that originates from the Yakan is the tumahik war dance. It is performed at pegkawin (weddings), where the pangantin lella (groom) dances to simulate a fight against an imaginary enemy who is there to ruin the wedding ceremony. If the groom does not have the skill to perform, any wedding guest may dance in his place.

Video: Magigal-Paunjalay Folk Dance (Pre-nuptial Dance) - Tribal Muslim Dance [Cultural Heritage & Traditions Philippines]

The pamansak, a Bahasa Yakan term for dance, is adapted from the igal or pangalay, although the Yakan have developed their own movement patterns and characteristics. This dance is sometimes called the paunjalay. Gandingan is a more refined variant of pamansak. The variations of these two dances are pansak si laley, which is dancing on top of seven plates; pansak si bangku, rice threshing; and pansak si karendehan, maiden dance.

The Yakan performing arts as well as cultural beliefs and practices are showcased during the Lami-Lamihan festival, which combines merrymaking and a conference. It is celebrated every year from 26 to 28 June in Lamitan, Basilan province. This festivity traces its origins to the time of Cuevas, also known as Datu Kalun, when meetings among chieftains were held after a bountiful harvest. The Lami-Lamihan festival serves as a venue for the Yakan to promote and preserve their culture.

Yakan People in Media Arts

Sheron Dayoc’s short film, Angan-angan (Dreams), 2008, tells the story of Satra, a nine-year-old Yakan girl who is torn between following her dream and marrying at an early age as traSourcesdition dictates. Satra’s family is against her plan of studying because she might become like her mother, an educated Muslim convert who joined the Bangsamoro movement and was killed in battle. The family fears that education might expose Satra to ideas different from their norms and beliefs. The film ends with Satra’s father finally allowing her to follow her dreams, a resolution that rather glosses over the complexity of the conflict between culture preservation and modernization. Set in the island province of Basilan, the film features Yakan textile weaving, traditional garments, music, and wedding face painting.

Yakan Kid with face painting
Sheron Dayoc’s short film, Angan-angan, 2008 (Sheron Dayoc)

Dayoc’s documentary, A Weaver’s Tale, 2009, depicts the obstacles faced by the Yakan weaving culture. The film documents the predicament of a rich cultural tradition that is facing extinction due to the ongoing war in Mindanao.


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