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Agusanon Manobo Tribe of the Philippines: History, Culture, Customs and Tradition [Agusan Manobo Indigenous People | Ethnic Tribe]

Agusanon Manobo Tribe of the Philippines: History, Culture, Customs and Tradition [Agusan Indigenous People | Ethnic Tribe]

“Agusanon” is derived from agus, meaning “stream”; an, meaning “place”; and on, a suffix denoting people and their language. Thus, the term refers to “the native people inhabiting the territory drained by the Agusan River, their culture and language.” However, as the native peoples have been crowded out of their lands by Christian settlers, the latter are now dominant and in possession of the flat lands in the Agusan Valley. The earlier population has been driven into the mountainsides and slopes by Islamization, which may have begun around the 15th century, and Visayan immigration. Hence, it is actually more accurate to call these native people Agusan Manobo, the second word being the Hispanized word for Manuvu, the original name.

The Agusanon Manobo belong to the original stock of proto-Austronesians who came from south China thousands of years ago, earlier than the Ifugao and other terrace-building peoples of northern Luzon. Ethnolinguist Richard Elkins (1984) coined the term “Proto-Manobo” to designate this stock of aboriginal non-Negritoid people of Mindanao. The first Manobo settlers lived in northern Mindanao, specifically Camiguin, Cagayan, and the areas of Bukidnon and Misamis Oriental. Descended from the Manobo are the groups that speak 19 Manobo languages and major dialects. Other sources claim there are 21 groups, including the Bagobo, the Tboli, and the Ubo.

The eastern Manobo count among their number the Agusanon Manobo, who are found in the two provinces, Agusan del Norte and Agusan del Sur. Two major studies that have been made on them include those that inhabit “the whole Agusan Valley as far as the town of Buai on the upper Agusan and on the eastern side of the Pacific Cordillera” (Garvan 1931, 3), and “those inhabiting the riverine communities at the confluence of the Agusan and Adgawan Rivers” (Montillo-Burton 1985, 13). The Manobo are concentrated in Agusan del Sur, though some inhabit the southeastern part of Agusan del Norte and the southern part of Bukidnon province.

Before the American Period, the two Agusan provinces, Agusan Del Norte and Agusan Del Sur, were under the administrative jurisdiction of Surigao. In 1914, Agusan became an independent province and in June 1967 was divided into Agusan Del Norte and Agusan Del Sur. On 25 February 1995, through Republic Act 7901, the Caraga Region was created, encompassing Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, the Dinagat Islands, Surigao del Norte, Surigao del Sur, and the six cities of Butuan: Cabadbaran, Bayugan, Surigao, Tandag, and Bislig. Butuan was designated the regional center of Caraga.

In 1988, the whole Manobo population numbered 250,000, of which the Agusanon Manobo was a large fraction. In 2002, the population of the Agusanon Manobo in the three provinces of Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, and Surigao del Sur was 60,000.

History of the Agusanon Tribe

The history of the Agusanon Manobo is a mixture of documents written by the Spanish missionaries and their oral tradition, in which warriors and enemies are remembered as giants and monsters. An 1897 account by a Spanish friar mentions that Magellan landed in Butuan in 1521 and that a cross was planted at the mouth of the Agusan River to commemorate the first Mass celebrated there. Spanish religious missionaries attempted to propagate the Christian faith by integrating the Agusanon Manobo into the reducción system, the Spanish method of remapping and centralizing communities through the establishment of capitals, towns, and barrios. In 1591, Butuan became an encomienda (land grant to an individual Spaniard) and tributes were collected. However, the construction of a fort in Linao in 1625 indicates the Agusanon Manobo’s fierce resistance to colonization. The fort was built to defend Spanish possessions from Muslim raids. Years after it was overrun by the Agusan River, it generated folk stories still told among the Agusanon Manobo, of Spanish boats being sunk during the war; of an image of Saint John saving the natives; of Muslim pirates raiding the fort; of lumbia palms protecting the fort; and of Muslim datus, cast as giants, fighting and destroying the Agusan Valley. Historical documents from Spanish missionaries corroborate these narratives as Muslim raids.

Records of Christian conversion probably refer to the Visayan lowlanders, since all attempts made by the Spaniards to make the Manobo conform to the pueblo system were futile. Between 1881 and 1883, for example, all the newly formed pueblo in lower Agusan were burned and abandoned by the Agusanon Manobo. By the close of the 19th century, when the Philippine Revolution was only beginning elsewhere in the country, the Spanish missionaries and troops had already withdrawn from the upriver area, and the few Agusanon Manobo who were converted to Christianity had fled back to the mountains. However, towns along the main river and around Butuan, now the capital city of Agusan del Norte, had been transformed into rancherias (Spanish settlements).

The settlements were easily taken over by the American colonizers and eventually absorbed into the national government system through a resettlement program that encouraged the influx of Visayan-speaking settlers into Mindanao. This had a profound impact on the daily life and culture of the Agusanon Manobo, as people from Eastern Visayas and other parts of Mindanao settled in Agusan and began to use the resources of the land for themselves in ways that were detrimental to the indigenous people. During the 1950s and the 1960s, logging activities leveled broad tracts of land and forest in Mindanao for timber that sold well in global markets.

Relations between the indigenous peoples and the outsiders became more strained when the Philippine government began to put Christian-Visayan settlers, rather than native inhabitants, in positions of authority over Mindanao lands. Today, the warrior class and warrior chief are gone and, in their stead, government officials implement the policies and laws of the national government.

The choice of giving bureaucratic power to the Visayan was allegedly due to their familiarity with the writing technology practiced by outsiders, whereas the Manobo still had a dominantly oral literary culture. The apparent ascendancy of the language of the settlers is also seen in their interactions with the natives: While the Manobo shift to the Visayan when addressing the lowlanders, the reverse is not true for the lowlanders. These conflicting notions of literacy, modernity, civility, and ideal public behavior are only some of the cultural differences that continue to be difficult to reconcile due to the forced cohabitation of the Christian settlers and indigenous people.

The present-day Agusanon Manobo communities are characterized as “organically mixed,” with at least four groups of people living together and differentiated by the languages they speak: the Agusanon Manobo, the Cebuano- and Hiligaynon-speaking Visayan settlers, the Butuanon immigrants, and the other lumad (indigenous) groups lumped together as “Manobo” by Visayan immigrants. However, these lumad groups, which include the Banwa-en, Dibabawon, Umayamnon, Tala-andig, and Binukid, are also linguistically distinct from, albeit mutually intelligible to, each other. The Agusanon Manobo’s exposure to other cultures and the belittling of indigenous cultures vis-à-vis the settler cultures has led to threats of cultural erosion. Presently the indigenous culture of the Agusanon Manobo, especially embodied in the religious beliefs and rituals, is still recognizable. However, this aspect is now mixed with Christian elements, such as the lighting of candles and the offering of animal sacrifices and food to saints.

The presence of armed rebel groups in their area has exposed the Agusanon Manobo to the dangers of increased militarization. The operations of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, has drawn battalions of counter-insurgency soldiers into the area. The Manobo natives, caught in the crossfire between these two forces, are compelled to serve as intermediaries for the armed forces, some being enlisted as auxiliary paramilitary forces.

All of these changes in the Manobo landscape have deeply affected the Manobo imagination and worldview, as perceived in their evolving arts and practices.

Video: The Agusan Manobo Tribe

Agusanon Manobo Way of Life

The upland Agusanon Manobo used to practice swidden or slash-and-burn farming, whereas those inhabiting the valley practiced wet-rice farming. The men cut down the trees then the women cleared the fields and did the planting, weeding, and harvesting. Today, swidden farming is no longer the practice except in more remote, less integrated areas. The incursion of Visayan settlers and big logging companies has limited the mobility of Agusanon Manobo farmers for shifting cultivation sites and caused a competition for land. Now they use a more intensive farming technique, using only a single plot of land repetitively. Nevertheless, the practice of conducting agricultural work communally, with family, neighbors, and friends, remains. Those who participate are paid through baliga (reciprocal labor) or yupog (share of the harvest). Their main agricultural crops are rice, banana, and coconut. Supplementary crops include camote (sweet potato), sugarcane, and vegetables.

To the man fall the tasks of house building, hunting, fishing, and trapping. When the family falls into debt, he tries to earn additional cash by boat making, mining, and basket making. He prepares the rattan strips and abaca fibers for the woman to weave into baskets and cloth. He fashions the implements for fishing, hunting, and trapping, and he engages in trade. In the past, the man was expected to defend the household members and the settlement. This was especially so before World War II, when they engaged in much intertribal fighting.

Typical morning scene in Lake Mihaba, 2014 (Neil Daza)
Typical morning scene in Lake Mihaba, 2014 (Neil Daza)

The woman, on the other hand, is engaged in pot making, mat and basket weaving, cloth weaving, sewing, embroidering, bead making, and food gathering. She does all the household chores, such as cooking, caring for the children, tending the sick, and drawing water from the source, which is usually a considerable distance from the house.

Agusanon Manobo drying fish in Panlabuhan, Agusan Marsh, 2014 (Neil Daza)
Agusanon Manobo drying fish in Panlabuhan, Agusan Marsh, 2014 (Neil Daza)

In the past, other major means of subsistence of the Agusanon Manobo were fishing, hunting, and trapping. However, these activities have been reduced by the decrease in forest cover, due in large part to the rapid extraction of resources by settler corporations. This has compromised the living environment of wild game like deer, monkeys, and wild pigs. While the indigenous people see land as owned by spirits from whom they must ask permission in order to cultivate it, the settlers see arbitrary legal statutes and titles as sufficient proof of land ownership and thus sufficient license to exploit the rich raw materials.

Still, the forestland remains a huge part of the economy of the Agusanon Manobo. Forestland comprises 71% or close to three-fourths of the total land area of Caraga, the administrative region where the two Agusan provinces belong. Even if forest cover is decreasing, the Caraga region remains well known for its wood-based economy and natural water and mineral resources. The mines of Caraga are rich with iron, gold, silver, nickel, chromite, manganese, and copper. These resources have continued to attract many logging and mining firms looking to make large profits in the guise of industrialization and development in the rich lands of Mindanao.

The Agusan River has always been vital to the economic affairs of the Agusanon Manobo and the other people who reside in the areas where the river flows. Riverine commerce was established through trading posts set up along the riverbanks in Agusan Valley to facilitate trade with farther areas. The Agusanon Manobo, who used to live mostly inland, engaged in inland-coastal commerce with the Butuanon, extracting natural resources that were delivered to Butuan and exchanged for salt, coins, porcelain, and gongs. The capital city of Butuan, its name deriving from the native word meaning “to open up, display, or show something,” used to be a coastal trading port, with maritime trading links to many parts of Asia. As early as the 10th or 12th century, before the Spaniards arrived, the Agusan River had already allowed for trade relations between Butuan and the southern Chinese port of Amoy or Xiamen. Archaeological digs in Agusan Valley have revealed Chinese porcelain, metal weapons, and gold ornaments. With the influx of Visayan settlers before World War II, the Agusanon Manobo began to engage in small-scale trading with the settlers, exchanging rattan, abaca, mats, and baskets for household items like matches, canned food, shoes, and tobacco. Later, objects of trade shifted to garden products, cash crops, and handicrafts for consumer products.

During the American colonial period, the Visayans were allowed more rights and privileges in their trade relations and economic exchanges with the Agusanon Manobo. These unequal relations persisted until long after the boom of the logging industry in the 1950s and the 1960s, when Visayan-speaking people began settling and acquiring the Agusanon Manobo domains for little to almost nothing.

Wage work, or working on a salary basis, was introduced to the Manobo during the American Period, when Filipinos were made to work for the colonial government. However, the system permeated more deeply after World War II, during the logging boom in Mindanao. Roads were built to facilitate access to the vast tracts of land in Agusan Valley identified as “timberland areas.” These areas were divided as concessions among large logging corporations, such as the Agusan Wood Industry Inc., Royal Match Inc., and Valentina Development Corporation. These logging operations ensured the supply of plywood, timber, and hardwood for export abroad. Mechanized techniques, or the use of machines to cut down, collect, and transport logs, were employed alongside traditional techniques or “manpower logging,” which involved having workers chop down the trees using a line of carabaos to drag the fallen trees to skids or felling trees along the riverbank to let them float downstream into a “log pond.”

The barter system persisted in smaller-scale transactions. By the 1960s, the Manobo had become attracted to retail goods like jeans, shirts, and battery-powered phonographs introduced by the Visayan settlers. They began to settle into what would develop as a sedentary town life associated with a cash economy. Today, the economic divisions in Agusanon Manobo society consist of the sweldado (middle-class wage earners and buy-and-sell workers), the negosyante (propertied businessmen and owners of capital, whether in terms of land, cash, or machinery) and their sakop (subordinates and loyal supporters), the mang-uuma (capitalized farmers), and the small-scale traders, entrepreneurs, service providers, and manual laborers.

Political and Clan System

Each settlement consists of a clan ranging from 20 to 200 members who are headed by a chief bagani (warrior). In 1910, anthropologist John Garvan (1931) noted that there was no separate title for the headman except for bagani, a title that he shared with other members of his class. The term “datu” was used by the Visayan traders for this headman but not by the Manobo. The Spaniards called him masikampo, derived from maestre del campo, and the Muslim called him kuyano or kulano. Today, the headman is called the hawudon, also maniga-en or maniga-on (elder). His wife is the bae.

A bagani was chosen to be the headman if he had killed at least five persons, was fluent in speech, was knowledgeable in the custom law, was generally just and kind to the community members, and was favored by the gods. In battle he was the bravest and strongest. A banquet held by the chiefs of neighboring settlements indicated their recognition of him as the chief of his settlement. However, he enjoyed no special privileges as the headman, and his influence was derived more from his wealth and power as a warrior than from his position. As a member of the bagani class, he also wore distinctive clothing: a red jacket, trousers, and headkerchief. All these pieces of clothing were embroidered with yellow, blue, and white yarn. He was protected by the war god Tagbusau. When on a war expedition, he tied his hair in a bun and covered it with a wooden headpiece.

Although there was no assembly house in the settlement, he occasionally called a kahimunan (assembly) to get a consensus of opinion of the people. The elders’ advice was always respected for as long as they could still participate in deliberations. Community decisions, however, always conformed to custom law. The headman was the arbiter and judge in matters of dispute between the members of the settlement. As the priest of the war god Tagbusau, it was also his duty to satisfy his god’s thirst for blood. He was believed to have a kometan (magic power to harm an offender). He wore a tahilan (a charm that derived its power from an enemy’s blood). He was also a healer, for he was called upon to officiate curing rituals for people suffering from hemorrhage or any other illness involving the flow of blood.

The bagani achieved the highest rank by degrees, depending upon the number of enemies he had slain and certain manifestations by the gods. The bagani of lowest rank was the manikiad, who had killed one or two men in battle; his distinctive mark was a headkerchief of striped red and yellow. The hanagan had killed five enemies but would qualify as a headman only if the gods favored him by possession. The tinabudan was a chosen one, as proven by his being tagbusauan (possessed). In this state, he performed certain ritual acts, specifically falling into a trance and eating the enemy’s heart and liver. He was then allowed to wear the red headkerchief. The kinaboan, having slain 7 to 27 enemies, wore a red jacket. The luto (cooked/finished) had slain 50 to 100 and could wear red trousers. The lunugum was believed to be a favorite of the gods for having speared a dead man in an enemy’s house. For this peculiar feat, he was dressed entirely in black.

Manobo society was a warrior society in which revenge was considered a religious act. Therefore, custom law was based on the right of revenge, usually committed as a ritual act. Revenge by killing was allowed for the following crimes: adultery, fornication, rape, and homicide. If one could not avenge himself on the culprit, he had the right to declare a vendetta on a culprit’s relative. All other crimes were settled by the imposition of fines. Custom law upheld respect for one’s person and property.

For crimes like theft or nonpayment of debts, testimony and arbitration were combined with a trial by ordeal, such as the plunging of the accused person’s hands into boiling water, diving in water, or placing one’s hands over a candle. Innocence was proven if one came out of the ordeal unscathed.

During the American colonial period, revenge killing was outlawed. A military outpost was erected in Waloe, Agusan del Sur, to ensure that the Manobo did not practice blood debts. These restrictions, along with the new requisition to secure cedulas (residential certificates) from the government, facilitated the transition of the Agusanon Manobo into a consolidated political unit.

Although there were generally no female chiefs, there was in 1910 a highly influential woman named Sinapi, who lived on Simulao River near the settlement of San Isidro. Her influence, however, extended to upper Simulao and Bahaian, because she traveled from one settlement to another “like a chief” and was consulted on matters that the headmen could not arbitrate. Jesuit documents in earlier times mention another influential woman named Pinkai, who lived on the Argawan River.

Today, the datu system institutionalized by the national government has supplanted the authority of the bagani. This imposition has given rise to a number of problems in the political life of the Agusanon Manobo. It has created an elite class of Manobo who draw authority not from their warrior honor but from the political power and privilege that enable them to solicit patronage from their areas of dominion. Furthermore, Visayan settlers dominate the government bureaucracy. The uneven power relations between Visayans and appointed chiefs have impelled some datu leaders to acquire arms in order to back up their authority. Historical alterations and distortions imposed on the political system of the indigenous inhabitants of Mindanao have caused corruption and warlordism, violence, and the impunity of its perpetrators.

Agusanon Manobo Social Organization, Customs and Traditions

The traditional social structure consists of the bagani, baylan, commoners, and odipon (slaves). The bagani class, now gone, defended the community and went to battle. The baylan, still existing today, are male or female priests and healers. They read dreams and omens, foretell the future, and heal the sick with herbal medicine and elaborate mystic rites, during which they are invariably possessed by the diwata (spirits). Their powers are either inherited or conferred upon them by the spirits. The commoners were farmers; and the odipon, who had been seized in raids, belonged to the ruler and were usually given away as part of the bride-price.

Betel nut quid is an important social and religious item, for it is believed to be the gods’ favorite food and is part of the ritual offering. Among the Manobo people, it is offered as a sign of friendship and hospitality. It is considered an offense to refuse it when it is offered.

Certain rites attend significant stages in the Agusanon Manobo’s life, such as childbirth, courtship, marriage, and death. When a wife becomes pregnant, the couple strictly follows certain taboos. The husband avoids working with rattan strips, for these symbolize the infant’s umbilical cord, which could strangle it. For the same reason, no necklaces or any kind of binding is worn. When the woman sits, one knee is left uncovered. Both husband and wife avoid using speckled or dirty firewood, or else the baby might resemble it. When descending the ladder, visitors or the couple must not stop midway and go back up again.

During the woman’s delivery, rattan is a central ritual item because it symbolizes the fleshy bond between mother and infant. The midwife burns it where the smoke will reach the patient. It is burned to symbolically cut the bond and make the delivery easy. In difficult childbirth, the female baylan is called in. She places lemon and sasa reed under the house and invokes the evil spirits to keep away. The placenta is then either buried under the house or wrapped and suspended from the floor under the house.

There is no ceremony for the naming of the infant. The name is taken from that of an ancestor, a culture hero, or an event related to its birth. There is, however, an elaborate birth ceremony that must be held within a month. Called the tagun-on or tekey, it is held in honor of the god Mandait, who determines the character of the infant’s two umagad (souls).

Agusanon Manobo mother and child (Charles Buenconsejo, photo courtesy of Jose Buenconsejo)
Agusanon Manobo mother and child (Charles Buenconsejo, photo courtesy of Jose Buenconsejo)

There are no special rituals at the onset of puberty, although as the child approaches it, both male and female undergo the filing and blackening of teeth and tattooing. The boy is also circumcised.

Betrothal is traditionally arranged by the parents years before the children marry, because negotiations sometimes last over a number of years. There is much circumlocutory language and the speeches are delivered in a declamatory fashion. The first present that is given to the girl’s father is a spear or knife with silver decorations. On the second day, a pig, spears, bolo, daggers, plates, and jars are presented to the girl’s family. The end of negotiations and gift-giving is marked by a great feast in which the man’s family gives the last set of gifts. Finally, the girl’s parents in turn give a feast, in which they return to the boy’s parents half the value of all the gifts that had passed from father to father. The exchange of gifts, called panakin and subak, between the families of the bride and groom signifies the severance of their natal ties to their parents.

The marriage ceremony is held when the girl reaches puberty and the boy is 18 years old. The bride and groom, seated on a mat, exchange a handful of rice. They then transfer the rice from right to left hand seven times while proclaiming their marriage. The guests then burst into much shouting and laughing, naughtily shouting sexual innuendoes at the newlyweds. Then, the female baylan reads omens on seven betel quids.

Although polygyny is allowed, it is practiced only by those who can afford it. The first wife must give her consent, and she retains her position as head wife. When the husband dies, his family can choose a new spouse for his widow, who commands a lower bride-price than when she was first married.

Illness is believed to be caused by evil spirits. When an epidemic occurs, a small raft full of food offerings is floated down the river to appease the water demons.

It is believed that a person with certain mystic powers can harm an offender through a kometan. For example, prolonged sickness and eventual death result if one eats food that has been mixed with a certain part of a particular type of bamboo or with woman’s blood exposed to the sun and to the moonlight, then mixed with human hair. A man wishing to win a woman’s love concocts an aphrodisiac made of ki-ut (the wax produced by an insect and tree ashes).

Rituals also enhance social relations in Agusanon Manobo society. The ritual pangujab is meant to drive away negative feelings between two persons. Related acts are the kujab, which drives away bad feelings arising out of a conflict, and limpas, which drives away inherent negative traits or defects on a person’s body. In the act of lihas, the blood of a sacrificial animal is smeared on the palms and/or foreheads of the affected parties to remove ill will.

When a person dies, the body is washed and dressed in its best clothes. Burial takes place within a day of the time of death to avoid decomposition. The coffin is a hollowed-out log, cut lengthwise in half for the main part and the lid. Each half is three-faced so that the covered coffin is hexagonal.

The brief vigil begins with the baylan placing a betel nut offering beside the coffin. The mourners address the dead, extending an invitation for both the deceased and all the inhabitants of Ibu, the afterworld, to attend the death feast.

As the coffin is carried into the forest to be buried, there is much wailing and shouting, partly in mourning, partly to keep evil spirits away. A thatched roof is set above the grave and a pot of rice with a hole at the bottom is hung up under the roof. The bagani, weapon and shield in hand, stand in wait behind trees for the evil spirits. If the dead is male, he is buried facing the east; if a woman, she is buried facing the west.

Before entering the house after the burial, the mourners purify themselves with a mixture of water and herbs contained in a coconut shell cup set by the doorway. Then the baylan presides over the death feast. A winnow containing cooked rice and bananas is placed on the floor in the house. A banquet is laid around the winnow. The mourners sit in a circle and place their betel nut offering on the winnow as they implore the deceased not to haunt the living. The head of the family takes a handful of rice and shapes it into a human figure. As this figure is passed from one person to the next, each one takes a nip. Meanwhile, the spirits of the dead are invited to partake of the feast. After the meal, the contents of the rice winnow are tossed into the air, and everyone hastily falls back to avoid being touched by the food offering. Then there is dancing to the sound of the drum, gong, and chanting of the baylan. On the ninth and last day of prayer, the katapusan ritual is conducted. For acculturated Manobo, the ritual is conducted on the 40th day after the person’s death, conforming to the traditional Christian memorial practice.

Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Agusanon Manobo People

The Agusanon Manobo are polytheistic, although they seem to acknowledge Magbabaya, the Creator, as their supreme deity. The beneficent deities are collectively called the umli, of which little is known because they hold themselves aloof from the human race. They are believed to have brass intestines and to use a gold limba (chain) to pull up into their divine abode anything from the earth. Some versions of the creation myth do not mention Magbabaya. One identifies Makalidung as the creator. He resides with a python in a pillar supporting the earth, which is shaped like a mushroom. When he is angered, he shakes the post, thereby creating an earthquake. Another myth has a female creator named Dagau, who also controls the world. Repelled by the sight of human blood, she punishes the human race whenever blood is spilled by commanding her python to shake the pillars of the earth or by causing famine. The goddess of Maibuyan, the afterworld, is Ibu. Maibuyan is reached through a river on a boat ferried by Manduyapit.

Magbabaya’s messengers are the diwata, invisible and powerful lesser gods who can possess human beings, especially the baylan and the bagani, through whom they communicate with ordinary human beings. Diwata are also called engkanto (enchanted beings), ispiritu (spirits), or jatot, which is a derogatory colloquial term. In rituals, they are referred to as kena’n anged kanami (not one of us).

Agusanon Manobo performing a ritual during the filming of Bwaya as witnessed by the film’s cast and crew, 2014 (Neil Daza)
Agusanon Manobo performing a ritual during the filming of Bwaya as witnessed by the film’s cast and crew, 2014 (Neil Daza)

They can be bound to human beings as spirit familiars if they like a person enough. Based on their medium of communication, the diwata can be classified as nonchanting or chanting. Based on their abodes, they may be classified as celestial or terrestrial. Terrestrial diwata live in those parts of the earth over which they have dominion. A third classification is based on their functions in relation to human affairs. An example of a nonchanting celestial diwata is Inadyaw or Inaiyu, who dwells on a lakeshore in heaven. He is the god of thunderbolt and lightning, and of wind, rain, and storm. He punishes breakers of taboos with the anit (a curse which causes physical deformities or skin diseases). The god of the thunderbolt is also named Anit. Umowiwi is the cloud spirit. Libtakan is the god of sunrise, sunset, and good weather.

Tutud-omon (chanting diwata) communicate through the baylan, who chants their messages when he or she is possessed. In curing rituals, these diwata are the abyan (helpers) of the baylan. The baylan functions as the medium between the supernatural world and human society. A baylan is initiated through a ritual called suyad or suyad buya, in which her body becomes the site of attack of spirits, causing symptoms of grave illness that indicate the abyan’s desire. The baylan then undergoes seven cycles of the suyad ritual, in which pigs or chickens are offered to counteract the force of the illness. After this, she becomes a legitimate medium.

Several other groups of diwata are the malevolent, the agricultural, the forest, and those concerned with human affairs. The malevolent diwata, collectively called busau, are the tagbusau, pana-iyang, tame, and the epidemic busau. The tagbusau are the diwata of bloodshed and revenge and, in the past, incited the bagani to wage war in order to appease their craving for human blood. The pana-iyang cause ordinary persons to run amuck, killing everyone in their path. With the disappearance of the bagani class, the tagbusau and pana-iyang are often considered one and the same. These malevolent diwata punish people by causing hemorrhages or making them vomit blood. The tame is a giant in the jungle that “beguiles the traveler to his doom” (Garvan 1931). Epidemic busau come from the posud to dagat (navel of the sea). A particular group of epidemic busau is believed to sail up the Agusan River from Homonhon to attack the coastal towns. The sundo ritual is performed in their honor at harvest time in November.

Agricultural diwata are Taephagan, Hakyadan, and Tagamaling. Taephagan is the goddess who guards the rice granary; Hakyadan is the god of rice in its various stages of growth from sowing to harvesting; and Tagamaling is the god of the other crops. The taephagan ritual is performed for all three deities at planting and harvesting times.

Diwata of the forests and the hunt are the tagbanua, and the spirits Taebobong, Sandiganan, and Sugudun. The tagbanua, producers of rain, must be given a ritual offering before hunting expeditions and other forest occupations. They dwell in balete (banyan) or lawaan trees, which no one must disturb or point at. To do so will cause a person’s arm to wither.

The three other gods are guardians of wild animals and hunting dogs, who must likewise be propitiated before a hunting trip so as to prevent illness in the hunter’s family.

Diwata of bodies of fresh water are the yumod, with a human body and a fish’s tail. They guard the fish and hide in rocky places or in deep pools in rivers, lakes, and streams, and they cause people to drown.

Some diwata function in relation to human affairs. Those affecting the physical well-being of people are Mandait and Manaug. Mandait is the diwata who gives every newborn its two souls or umagad, one of which is its kadengan-dengan (double). The tagun-on ritual is performed in Mandait’s honor so as to ensure the good health of the child. Manaug is represented by a wooden idol that can cause eye diseases. Meanwhile, Tagabayau is a goddess who incites incestuous love and marriage, and Agkui is a semi-diwata, semi-busau who incites lust and incest.

Another classification of the deities identifies three groups: nature spirits, bound spirits, and unbound spirits or personal spirits. The first category refers to the diwata who comprise the everyday world but do not directly interact with humans in prayers and rituals; neither are they invoked for help or assistance. Some examples are the anyasing, a black creature that lives in the baley (pandanus plant), which laughs uncontrollably at the sight of a human; the tama, which waylays forest trekkers; the tim-aw, a malevolent spirit that manifests as a decapitated human head; the wak-wak, a black bird that preys on pregnant women; and the tungok, a creature that is half-human, half-monkey. Visayan influences have also added the dwindi (dwarves) and sigbin (werecat) to Manobo cosmology.

The second category refers to the tawaganen, spirits that are called upon from time to time. These include many of the spirits living in cliffs, caves, waters, skies, and the underworld. Many of them are bound to the places where they live, but an unbinding can occur when they either temporarily attach themselves to humans to confuse them or permanently do so to become their spirit familiars.

The third and last category refers to the abyan, also called bantey (guides) or sugujen (spirit companions). These are the unbound spirits that have personal relations with their baylan. They may also be called tawaganen or tumanenen, but they are invoked within the specific context of being the officiating baylan’s spirit helper. A baylan can have three or four abyan, though some have reported having as many as 18. Abyan may be possessive, that is, able to enter the body of a spirit medium, or nonpossessive. The umli, which recovers lost things, is nonpossessive and may be invoked by nonreligious specialists.

It is believed that every person has two umagad and five lesser souls like shadows of the self. A twin, called untong, is born in the other world at the same time as the person on earth. Illness occurs when an umagad wanders away from the body and is kidnapped by an evil diwata. Then the other umagad languishes in the absence of its companion. The baylan is called to invoke the daligmata, a kind of umli, to recapture the lost umagad in a curing ritual in which the remaining umagad’s weeping and moaning are heard through the baylan.

Other entities, such as souls of people, plants, or animals, can also cause illnesses. For instance, an animal may steal the hangkes (smell) of a person and cause him or her to become sick. It is believed that the diwata are able to know people through their distinct smells. Destructive speech spoken against another person can also cause one to become ill. This is called buyag in Visaya or usug in Tagalog.

The Agusanon Manobo view death as the taking away of a person’s ginhawa (breath) by the spirits. It is said that people become umagad or souls after death. Even if they are only an essence, the umagad may be sensed by the living; they may even visit their relatives and leave behind footprints.

There are two recognized classes of priests: the baylan and the bagani. The diwata communicate with human beings through the baylan whom they possess. Manifestations of dunaan or yana-an (possession) are sweating, perspiring, belching, having spasms, foaming at the mouth, and falling into a trance. They officiate in rituals involving the everyday affairs of the people, such as curing, harvesting, rainmaking, and housebuilding. The bagani were considered as “war priests” because they manifested the same signs of possession, were induced by the gods tagbusau to declare war, and performed rituals in honor of their war gods with the use of paraphernalia similar to the baylan’s, except the betel nut offering. The officiating bagani also included in his invocation the names of all those he and his ancestors had slain.

The two most important items used in rituals are betel quid and the blood of the sacrificial pig or chicken, believed to be the diwata’s favorite food and drink. The blood offering is the central point of every ritual. A lance or bolo is thrust into the sacrificial victim, which is either a pig or chicken. A bowl catches the blood, some of which is smeared on the altar and on the central participants, such as the patient in a curing ritual. In rituals where the baylan is possessed, the blood of the pig or chicken is either sucked from the wound or caught in a bowl from which the baylan drinks. In the past, after a victorious battle, the bagani sucked the blood and ate the heart and liver from a slain enemy. The baylan did the same in their rituals, with slaves as human sacrifices. It was their belief that the gods who had possessed them were doing the eating and drinking. During the American regime, the use of human sacrifices was prohibited; hence, pig or chicken was used as a substitute.

In the panimaya, or ritual of divination, the baylan observes omens from eggs, the budakan (a kind of vine), dreams, the cry of birds, snakes, and fowl. The bagani observed bird omens before a war expedition. A rainbow moving toward a settlement was read as a sign of an impending attack. Plants that are used against the busau are the sasa reed, uag vine, and sua (lemon) tree, all of which the baylan places at the openings of houses. Fire and smoke, loud shouts, offerings of betel quid, meat, and rice also keep the busau away.

Fire is a central motif in Agusanon Manobo religious rituals. All ritual offerings, including peripheral symbolic implements, are called sinugbahan (thing placed on fire). The sinugbahan is a concept of gift or payment to the deities. For the Manobo, burning an offering is equivalent to signing a contract with the diwata. Fire is also alluded to in the Manobo ritual sugnod (to fuel fire) conducted during All Saints’ Day to commemorate the dead. It entails a ritual offering of unscaled fish, broiled chicken meat, boiled root crops, tobacco, and coconut wine. The ritual symbolically rekindles the forgotten flame of relations between people separated by life and death.

Living in communities with Visayan settlers has had a profound impact on the customs of the Agusanon Manobo. Ritual possessions, which used to be elaborate and festive affairs, are now performed only in town outskirts. Hybrid rituals have emerged. The guitar has taken the place of the drum and gong in ritual possession rituals invoking the spirits. Furniture and ingredients not indigenous to the group are now used. The sangga (table) has taken the place of grass mats on bamboo floors to hold the food offerings to the spirits. Food offerings are now cooked with salt, when they were left unseasoned before. Offerings may include biscuits and candies. Drinking raw pig’s blood has been replaced with drinking other liquids like beer or orange soda mixed with the sacrificial egg. Finally, the rituals and ceremonies have become bilingual, and the spirits are called upon in both Agusanon Manobo and Visayan languages. Some acculturated baylan even have Visayan-speaking spirit familiars called amigo.

Christian vocabulary has given the diwata the label of “false gods” and “demons” and identifies them with the alibadot (malevolent and predatory spirits), witches, or black sorcery. Christianized Manobo, especially those living at the town centers, have learned to publicly disavow their traditional religious beliefs to avoid Visayan ridicule. Despite their public renunciations, many of the acculturated Manobo still call upon the baylan to cure their ailments, which they believe may have been caused by spirits. Rituals that are done in the privacy of homes, such as the inajew (a curing ritual), pangujab or the ritual for getting rid of negative feelings, tagun-on or birth ceremony, pangandila (candle-lighting), and padugo (bloodletting), continue to be observed. Even as the Agusanon Manobo have adopted Christian traditions and adapted to settler cultures, they essentially retain their indigenous worldview.

Agusanon Manobo Houses and Community

The slash-and-burn agricultural system of the Agusanon Manobo determines where he builds his house, that is, wherever he decides to make a clearing, usually in a virgin forest. The farmstead, consisting of both the residence and surrounding cultivated fields, is the Manobo domicile. Hence, households of one settlement are dispersed rather than concentrated. The settlement has no assembly house. One nonresidential structure in the settlement is the baylan’s kamalig, a wooden shed where the religious paraphernalia are kept erected near his or her house.

The traditional Agusanon Manobo house has one square room, standing 1.5 to 8 meters from the ground. The house itself is about 5 meters high. A total of 4 to 16 posts are used to support the whole house. Rattan strips or hagnaia (Stenochlena) vine are used to fasten the parts of the house together. One enters the house by a ladder made of a log on which notches have been carved for footholds. The ground floor underneath the house serves as a pigpen, rice granary, and storage room for the rice mortar and pestles.

Floating house in Lake Mihaba, Agusan Marsh, Agusan del Sur, 2014 (Neil Daza)
Floating house in Lake Mihaba, Agusan Marsh, Agusan del Sur, 2014 (Neil Daza)

The roof is four-sided and positioned like a gable. The rafters are supported by four beams, which are tied with rattan strips to the posts of the house. Four main rafters support the gable; hence, these are positioned at a 45-degree angle from the posts. A vague carving of a human figure is made on the ridgepole. At both ends of this pole are attached a pair of one-meter strips of wood on which are the impressions of a crested rooster’s head in low relief. From the ridgepole, which is supported by the rafters, extend lighter rafters laid parallel at distances of 40 centimeters. These extend 50 centimeters beyond the side beams, so that the thatched roof that they support shades all four sides of the house. The thatch consists of rattan fronds. In times of war, strips of bark or split bamboo were used for roofing in order to deflect flaming arrows.

The walls are wooden or bamboo poles piled horizontally one on top of another and fastened to vertical poles or posts at certain places for support. The walls reach only up to the shoulders of a seated person and do not close the house entirely. The space between the roof and the top of the walls makes the house airy. It was also originally meant to be the opening from which the people could shoot arrows at the enemy. The floor consists of split bamboo or palma brava laid side by side and running across the house. A raised portion of the room is designated as a sleeping place. Across the room from the door is the fireplace. It is a rectangle consisting of four pieces of wood, 1 meter long and 10 centimeters high. The wooden rectangle is filled with earth and mounted with stones to support the pot while cooking. Firewood is stacked on a frame built above the fireplace. Kitchen implements, tools, fishing and hunting equipment surround the fireplace.

Today, Manobo communities are organized according to the system of the barangay, purok, and sitio. Houses are concentrated in town centers, where there is electricity and commerce, and spread out more thinly toward outlying regions. Some houses are built to float on water. Households are typically contained to one nuclear family, although members who marry prefer to build homes close to those of their kin, creating clusters of related households. Houses are built like bungalows, with the sleeping quarters separated from the receiving and dining areas by elevation. Materials used in the construction display one’s economic status: houses near the town center use concrete, wood, iron grills, and glass windows, while poorer citizens use thatch and bamboo. Similarly, household items and decorations have become status symbols, such as carved hardwood furniture and expensive electronic appliances.

Agusanon Manobo Arts and Crafts

Agusanon Manobo embroidery is called suyam. The designs are woven from the imagination of the weaver who is guided by the taephag or spirits. As an artistic act, embroidery is attended by elaborate rituals. The embroiderer lights a candle so that its smoke suffuses the ritual offerings of plates, incense, egg, wine, tobacco, rice, leaves of ikmo, and coins placed on an altar. A chicken or pig may also be offered up as sacrifice. Chewing betel nut with a tubao (kerchief) or banoy (palm fronds) in hand, the embroiderer chants a ted-em (a type of traditional song) until the spirits descend upon her, after which she dances the binaylan or payukuban to the rhythm of drums and gongs. Once her body is possessed by the spirits, she goes into a frenzy and loses consciousness. Upon waking, she waits for the spirits to descend upon the cloth before commencing her embroidery. Silence is required during embroidery so as not to displease the taephag.

Typical decorative colors are red, yellow, white, and blue. Colors have symbolic value to the Agusanon Manobo: pu’ti (white) shows cleanliness or purity; yogdong (red), strength and ferocity in battle; itom (black), mystery or knowledge; and ya’hag (yellow), labor and servitude. Colors are taken from various plants in the Agusanon Manobo environment: white from abaca, red from the bark of the keleluza, narra, or sikarig trees, black from the sap of the apitong, tagum,or talisay trees, and yellow from ginger or duwaw.

Binain or decorative patterns are geometric shapes such as diamonds, rectangles, squares, and triangles; horizontal lines and zigzags; and representational figures such as a dancing man, stars, leaves, and crocodiles. Geometric designs include binawe (rectangle), which represents the four elements; binuju (heart), which comes from the ikmo leaf used to wrap betel chew; dinyamante (diamond), which resembles the stars; inikis-ikis (x-shaped), which alludes to lightning and weather conditions; kinwadro or bawe (square), which invokes the home and the ancestral domain; pinayuhod (bent knee), which symbolizes faith in the indigenous religion; and siniku (triangle), which represents the environment. Special embroidered designs are called samoy. They may show figures of animals, flowers, or everyday objects: binaoo (sea turtle), binaki (frog), binakosan (snake), binuada (crocodile), dinadragon (dragon), ginibang or inibid (monitor lizard), linawa-lawa (spider), inisda (fish), kinabuyaminandaget (eagle), kinagang-kagang (butterfly), minanuk-manuk (cosmic bird), sinalipitsipit (scorpion), tinuko (lizard), binayoy (vine), hinijup (palmera), kinamagsi (flowers), tinampuso (banana heart), binalangay (boat), binokyad (a style of tightening the bowstring), and ginoo (paddle). Other designs are religious motifs, such as the diniwata (deities) and kinuros (cross), landscapes like kalibongan (mountains) or binawod (waves), and anthropomorphic figures like minaskada (mask) and minata-mata (eyes). These designs may also be seen in their carvings and other forms of visual art.

Agusanon Manobo Costume and Traditional Attire

Traditional fabric for clothes was abaca or hemp but has since become cotton cloth obtained through trade. The umpak, a jacket for both men and women, is closed so that it is pulled over the head. It is always embroidered on all the seams: the cuffs, shoulders, sides, neckline, and hemline, which is at the waist level. The men’s jacket is short, moderately close-fitting, square cut, and long-sleeved. Besides being embroidered, the seams of the jacket are covered with cotton tufts of red, yellow, and dark blue. A strip of cloth of a different color from the jacket is sewn between the sleeves and the body of the jacket. The top of the jacket’s back is covered with an embroidered band, 4 to 6 centimeters wide. In central Agusan, this band at the back of the jacket consists of six to nine horizontal, inwoven stripes of blue yarn.

Agusanon Manobo Tribe Costume sinuyaman no kabo, a contemporary blouse with embroidery
Artists Robilyn Coguit Canto, left, and Ebeng Coguit sporting the sinuyaman no kabo, a contemporary blouse with embroidery (Photo by Grace Nono and the TAO Foundation)

In upper Agusan the jacket is made of fine, black abaca cloth or black or blue cotton trade cloth. Color contrast is achieved by the addition of narrow strips of white cloth a little above the cuffs, on the seams of the upper ends of the sleeves, or on the hemline around the waist. An unembroidered jacket is decorated by tufts of cotton yarn over all the seams. On the other hand, an embroidered jacket would be decorated on the back, on the seams at the shoulders, and down two sides of the sleeves with bands of intricate designs 5 to 7 centimeters wide. Although the typical colors are used, red is the dominant color. At war, the men used to wear an armor made of thickly braided, multicolored cords of abaca sewn together.

The men have two kinds of sawa, also called sawae or sawal (trousers): one for working and the other for festive occasions. Both types reach to just below the knees. The working trousers are close-fitting and plain. The festive trousers are square cut, baggy, and embroidered in the typical colors and designs on the sides and cuffs. A fringe of cotton yarn is sewn between all the seams except at the waist. The trousers are kept in place with a drawstring, to both ends of which are attached tassels in the typical colors. In upper Agusan, beads and small bells are added.

The men’s hat consists of two pieces of bamboo, joined to form a conical peak and overlapping at one end to form a tail. Decorations consist of beeswax dottings and tracings, white seed beads sewn around the rim or around the peak, beaded pendants with cotton tassels, dottings of cotton tufts, and the shimmering green wings of a beetle on the top. On the back are attached five or six rooster plumes. The hat is held in place by a pair of braided and beaded cotton or abaca. A plainer hat, sometimes worn by women, is made of sago palm or bamboo, a circular squat cone.

The men’s headkerchief may be adorned with teabang, a decorative cloth wrapped around the head from which hang small beads or bells that indicate how many the person has killed or how many fierce animals he has conquered. For the hawudon or headman, the teabang is folded toward the front in a cobralike design to show his authority.

The men carry their betel quid in a kamuyot, a square abaca knapsack, usually decorated only by a fringe of multicolored yarn that is attached around the seam. It is worn with the arms passing under two strings attached to both sides. If elaborately decorated, it is surrounded by tassels and covered with beads and embroidery.

The hawudon or maniga-on usually wears a white umpak and sawae. His clothes are finely embroidered with symbolic designs. A triangular padding with a pointed edge is sewn to the shoulders to indicate the hawudon’s authority and responsibility. Small triangles are embroidered at the seams of the sleeves and a piece of semicircular cloth covers the hands. He typically wears a number of body ornaments and tattoos. His sawae may also be in bright colors like red, yellow, or black, intricately designed, with two pockets on each side. Persons in authority tend to wear brighter colors than slaves and commoners.

The baylan wear black embroidered umpak with red stripes and longer sleeves. The length of their sawal reaches down to the ankle or heel. The attire of female baylan is also black with bright-colored stripes. However, instead of sawal, they wear abaca skirts, called sada or malong, folded at the waist and secured with a belt. The teabang worn by male baylan are red and black, with designs concentrated at the back. They often carry a tubao or banoy for use in ritual acts.

Agusan Manobo Crafts Detail of an anahiwan grass mat
Detail of an anahiwan grass mat designed by Ebeng Tawede (Photo by Grace Nono and the TAO Foundation)

The chief of the bagani had a special attire, which was predominantly red. The red jacket and trousers were embroidered in the same colors and designs as the ordinary man’s attire. His red headkerchief was embroidered with white, blue, and yellow cotton yarn at the corners.

Part of the traditional garb of men are their weapons, such as the bangkung and kampilan (warring knives), sable nu sundang (curved long knife), budyak (spear), busug awpana (bow and arrow), kaesag (rectangular shield), and taming (rounded shield). Spears and arrows may be decorated with kayung kayu, little round brass bells that tinkle as the weapons move during battle.

A war implement of carved wood is the shield, made of kalantas wood. The center has a knob so that the reverse side provides space for the hand to grip the shield. Lying across the upper end is a piece of wood to reinforce the shield. Further reinforcements are provided by two strips of palma brava or bamboo, or by three panels sewn across the shield with rattan strings. Ornamentation consists of a beeswax coating, a scalloped tracing of beeswax and soot along the borders, and two rows of the same design running vertically on the center. The knob is laminated with a shiny object (e.g., the inside part of a seashell). Tufts of a slain enemy’s hair may be inserted into holes 3 centimeters apart, along the two vertical sides of the shield. The upper and lower sides are cut straight, while the vertical sides are slanted toward the middle, in a moderate hourglass shape.

The bagani’s sheath consists of two sheets of wood fastened together by an overwrapping of rattan strips regularly spaced. A beeswax coating preserves the wood and gives it a polished look. It is decorated with black bands on the center, upper end, and edges; beads and cotton tassels are also attached.

The odipon or slaves wore sleeveless vests, dominantly yellow, with simple and minimal embroidered designs and dyed strips of cloth. Their umpak was shorter than that of the others, barely reaching the waist, indicating their lack of economic power. Poorer slaves went about their work topless. They wore their umpak with ordinary shorts or bahag (loincloth). Yukos (workers) and sabandae (servants of the hawudon) also wore simpler umpak, shirts, and trousers. Their heads were covered with the tubao. Female odipon, called aylang or bohi, wore barely adorned palda (skirts) or malong.

The woman’s blouse was traditionally made of fine abaca, dyed red or black. Now it is of trade cotton cloth or a combination of both kinds of cloth. A distinctive feature of the blouse is that the body and the sleeves are of different colors. The usual color of the body is red and the sleeves are black, blue, or white. Occasionally, a blouse with a black body and white sleeves is used. The color of the cuffs matches that of the body. Embroidery is profuse on the front of the blouse. In upper Agusan, the blouse is similar to the man’s jacket, although the body and sleeves are more tight fitting. Bands of embroidery in alternating colors cover the seams and the oval-shaped neckline. No embroidery is done on the hemline. On the back near the shoulders is a band of intricate embroidery 5 to 6 centimeters wide. In central Agusan, the blouse is more loosely cut and the embroidery more profuse. Each cuff has a slit for the hand to slip in easily. Attached to the front of the woman’s jacket is a silver disk 7 to 10 centimeters in diameter. It is incised with concentric circles or other such geometric designs, combined with a series of small triangular holes.

The skirt, called malong, was originally of abaca but now of cotton cloth. It is shaped like a long barrel and is folded over so that one half is inside the other. It is gathered at the left side and tucked in at the waist. It is almost always red, with inwoven horizontal designs such as black bands or alternating bands of red and black, with white stripes in between. When not worn as a skirt, the malong serves many purposes: as a blanket, crib, mosquito bar, or carrying bag.

Manobo Beaded accessory
Beaded accessory crafted by Nide Tawede (Photo by Grace Nono and the TAO Foundation)

The skirt is held in place with a waistband consisting of braided nito or human hair, the ends of which are prevented from unraveling by a strip of cloth. Attached to each end are multicolored strands of yarn and strings of white-seed beads. Hanging from the waistband, on the right side, are pendants that hold hawk bells, seashells, additional strings of beads, and medicinal and magical charms of strong-smelling seeds, roots, and grass.

Said to have been originally purchased from the Mandaya group, a more valued skirt is one made of heavier abaca cloth inwoven with ikat designs, which are stylized crocodile and female figures bordered with lines like those on a snakeskin.

The baklaw (armbands) and tikkos (legbands) of braided nito, 1.5 centimeters wide, are worn tightly around the forearms and just below the knees. Sometimes these are covered with beads. Besides being ornamental, these are believed to strengthen the men’s limb muscles. The pugnot (tight-fitting wristbands 6 millimeters wide) are made of braided, glossy black agsam vines and are believed to work as a charm against scorpion bites.

The Agusanon Manobo wear a variety of accessories indicating their rank and wealth. Some decorations worn by both men and women are anting-anting (talisman), aritis (earrings), baedi (bead necklace), paliot (colored necklaces), and paetina (long string of beads with a carved brass pendant) that drapes down the chest.

Hanging from each ear of the woman is a wooden disk 3 centimeters in diameter and laminated with silver, gold, or beaten brass wire. Red cotton yarn passes through a hole in the ear disk and the hole in the ear lobe, with a tuft of the cotton yarn left over the ear hole. Another type of ear ornamentation is made of four strings of beads 30 centimeters long, hanging from each ear. Cotton tassels are attached to the ends of the beads. The colors of both the beads and tassels are red, white, black, and yellow.

Necklaces are made of multicolored small-seed beads, small shells, and crocodile teeth. Another type of necklace is the necklet, wound closely around the neck and about 2 centimeters broad. Each band of beads consists of one of the four favorite colors and strung to form geometric figures. Thus, the necklet may consist of a triangle of yellow beads, a rectangle of black ones, and so on. It is fastened at the back with a button from which a string of beads hangs, falling straight down the back. A bride wears additional accessories of bead necklaces, from which hang pendants of crocodile teeth and pieces of mother-of-pearl; bracelets of large white seashells, plant fiber, and coral; a comb, beaded and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and from which hang cotton tassels; and leglets of braided plant fiber.

Women wear more numerous and more elaborate armlets and bracelets. Highly prized armlets are those made of sagai-sagai (black coral) because these are believed to contract around the wearer’s arm to warn of impending danger. Another armlet is made of taklobo (seashell), which is used for its whorl whose cross section is triangular. About five of the black coral and white taklobo armlets are placed alternately and worn all at once, usually on the left arm.

Bracelets are bands of beaten brass wire, each a centimeter wide, or braided bands of plant fiber covered with white beads. The baloso is a shell bracelet. A woman could also wear a hollow brass bangle with a piece of lead inside it so that it tinkles whenever her arm moves. At festive occasions, the women wear dutus (anklets), 6 millimeters in diameter, two to each leg. Together with the hawk bells hanging from the belt, these make tinkling sounds as the women dance. Bagkos or tagaemu are belts made from bamboo or tree bark, worn by pregnant women to protect their unborn child and ensure safe delivery.

The traditional hairdo for both sexes is called poyo, a bun and bangs cut straight on the forehead from one side to the other. The woman wears her bun on the crown of her head, whereas the man’s bun is lower, halfway between the top of his head and his nape. The woman’s bun is fastened in place by a bamboo comb with incised decorations or inlaid mother-of-pearl bits of circles, squares, and triangles. The man binds a headkerchief around his head.

The only body painting both men and women resort to is the blackening of their lips with soot taken from the bottom of a pot. Teeth filing is done on both boys and girls when they reach puberty. Fourteen front teeth are filed down to the gums, and the final effect is that the upper teeth appear to jut out over the lower teeth. The teeth are then blackened with the juice of the mau-mau plant.

Everyone carries inside his mouth a mixture of the mau-mau juice, tobacco quid, lime, and soot compressed into the size of a marble. It is placed between the upper lip and upper gum, and removed only when the mouth is used for other purposes. Hence, there is usually a little bulge on the upper part of everyone’s mouth. This mixture is replaced whenever it loses its flavor.

Both sexes have their ear lobes pierced, although the women enlarge the holes up to 2.5 centimeters wide with tufts of the pandanus grass. Two smaller holes may be added on the upper part of the ear lobes. The face is kept hairless; hence, both sexes shave their eyebrows, and the men prevent beards from growing by plucking.

Tattoos, called pangotob, are worn for ornamental purposes. The men wear these on their chest, upper arms, forearms, and fingers. The women wear theirs on the same parts of the anatomy, but the most elaborate tattoos are done on their calves. Tattoo designs are the same as those embroidered on their clothes, with the addition of the binuada (crocodile figure), ginibang (iguana), binuyo (betel leaf) and other leaf designs, and stars.

Agusanon Manobo Handicrafts

The Agusanon Manobo have numerous types of baskets made of either wickerwork or plaited rattan: fish baskets, rice baskets, storage baskets, betel-nut baskets, pack baskets. Other implements of basketwork are fish traps, chicken traps, and ceremonial trays.

The frame of a basket is a cylindrical piece of wood with a flat top and bottom. Rattan strips are woven around this frame. The upper rim is reinforced with a circular band of bamboo. The whole basket is made watertight with tabon-tabon seeds filling up all spaces.

The bubo is a fish trap made of rattan strips. The cage is about a meter long, cigar-shaped, with one end larger than the other. A cone-shaped trap, made of bamboo slats, is placed inside the large end to allow the fish to enter but not to escape. A similarly constructed fish trap is the cylindrical da-ing used in the swamps for mudfish.

The Agusanon Manobo use betel nut boxes of metal, which may have four or more sides. The betel chew components are placed in separate compartments in a box or have separate boxes. The exterior of the boxes may be ornamented with geometric designs. Wooden idols are carved for curing rituals. The form is only vaguely human, with no limbs, and the facial features are drawn with charcoal. The diwata Manaug, who causes eye infections, is represented by a length of wood with no body features except for the upper half, which tapers into a neck topped by the head. There are slits for the eyes and nose. A string of beads fits snugly around the neck. Some images have clearer features (e.g., the eyes are of berries, and other features are drawn with sap). Distinctions are made between the male and female idols: The male has a headpiece and genitalia, whereas the female has breasts and a comb.

Religious ceremonies make use of wooden trays, tables, platforms, and sections of bamboo poles. The bangkaso is a rectangular wooden tray decorated with palm fronds and incised, traced, or carved designs. The talidung is a sacrificial stand, consisting of a wooden disk standing on one leg. Offerings of betel nut, rice, meat, and others are laid on it. The angka or angkaw is a sacrificial table, its top consisting of split bamboo bands laid side by side, with narrow gaps in between. Palm fronds arch over each side of the table, and more palm fronds hang down like tassels from the edges. On top is laid the sacrificial victim or the ritual offerings of six china plates of uncooked rice and betel quid, two glasses of water, six candles, and six raw eggs. The overall effect is festive.

In the tagbusau ritual, one implement is a crude bamboo carving of a crocodile 30 centimeters long, to which a betel-nut palm is attached. It is suspended in the baylan’s kamalig. The symbol for the tagbusau is the binuka, made of a 1.5-meter bamboo pole, one end of which is cut like a crocodile’s gaping mouth and to which palm fronds are attached. The symbol for Sugudun consists of a piece of wood carved into a triangle and hollowed out for a saucer to fit in. Betel nut fronds are tied around one side and betel nut quid are contained in a cup placed atop the saucer.

Used in curing rituals is the sinengseng, a 1.5-meter bamboo pole, one end of which is split into several strips and stretched outward to form a funnel, which holds a plate of rice and betel quid. The saekat is used for the tekey or tagun-on. It is either a small replica of a canoe or a bamboo rack made of split bamboo bands interlaced to form a checkerboard top. Palm fronds fringe each side. On it are laid the food offerings, and then it is suspended in the house for an indefinite period.

Agusanon Manobo Literary Arts

The Agusanon Manobo have the following proverbs, which use images from nature to highlight a truth:

Anoy man tu karabaw nu upat tu kubong di

paka hidjas.

(If a carabao with its four feet makes a

wrong step, how much more a man?)

Bisan bato nu bantilis mai duon panahon nu ug kahilis gihapon.

(The hardest stone is eroded by constant

dropping of water.)

Tu buhi angod tu atoijog.

Basta nwbuong on

kunad ug kaulin.

(A woman is like an egg.

Once it is broken,

it can never be repaired.)

The national educational system and deliberate interventions by outsiders, whether well-meaning or not, continue to erode Mindanao’s indigenous traditions even as the lumad groups struggle to preserve their own traditions and languages. Sikami’n Lumad (We Are the Indigenous People), 2005, is an anthology of prose and poems that are the product of a creative writing workshop held in Davao City and exclusively for individual representatives of various lumad groups. Included in this anthology is the poem “Hintawa tu Mapuslanon, Kauswagan o Kaguyanganan?” (Who Is More Useful, Progress or Nature?) by Agusanon Manobo Lucy P. Rico (Mindanawon 2005, 38-47). This poem, written in Cebuano, is a balagtasan (poetic joust), which is a Tagalog form. In compliance with the balagtasan’s conventions, it ends ambivalently, thus shirking a resolution to Mindanao’s troubled history.

Agusanon Manobo myths are called sugilanen. They are typically set in the very distant past but can also refer to contemporary events. Numerous sugilanen explain the origin of natural forms and natural phenomena. They say that the ocean waters go in and out of the posud to dagat, the navel of the sea, which is an enormous hole near the edge of the earth. This is what causes high and low tides. The rainbow appears when the umli, celestial gods, are at war. Dark colors indicate a slaughter on the divine battlefield; a predominantly red band indicates that the war gods are “engaged in hand-to-hand combat” (Garvan 1931). Thunder and lightning occur when the god Anit is angered by people’s derisive behavior toward wild animals. The lightning is his tongue, which he flicks at the culprit.

Anit may have been responsible for turning Ango and his family into the stone formations on Binaoi Peak. They were punished because Ango had ridiculed the croaking of frogs during a hunting trip. As he walked, little stones and then bigger rocks pursued him. When he arrived at his clearing, he slowed down in exhaustion and a stone stuck to his finger. His wife and children came when he called for help, but though his wife sprinkled lime around him to keep the evil spirits away, they all turned to stone within three days.

When an eclipse occurs, the Agusanon Manobo say that a giant tarantula is devouring the moon. Much commotion then ensues because the men try to drive the tarantula away by rushing out of their houses, shooting arrows at the spider, beating tin cans and tree trunks, playing their bamboo instruments while dancing frenziedly, and shouting at the spider. The women stick needles in the wall of the house in the direction of the moon.

The myth of the eclipse Illustration
The myth of the eclipse (Illustration by Harry Monzon)

Evil spirits and mythic giants explain why hunters occasionally lose their way in the forest and never return. Tama is a giant busau who dwells in a balete tree and tricks travelers into losing their way in the forest so he can devour them. A long time ago, Apo (Grandfather) Bohon went hunting and shot a monkey with his bow and arrow. Although he built a big fire, the flesh of the monkey could not be cooked, and it only turned black with soot. Apo Bohon finally ate the meat raw, but he never left the woods again, for the monkey was a busau. Persons who happen to meet Apo Bohon in the woods must offer him betel quid or else he will eat them.

There is a myth that explains the origin of the stars, sunset, and sunrise. The Sun and the Moon were once happily married, and they had two children. One day while the children were napping, the Moon, as is the wont of Manobo wives, decided to go out to gather food. She bade her husband to keep away from the children as he would singe them with his intense heat. While she was gone, the Sun, in his fondness for the children, kissed them, and they melted. When the Moon came home, she scolded him so that he finally threw taro leaves in her face and left. He soon softened, but when he came back, the Moon was gone. Since then the Sun has followed the Moon, who eternally flees him, her face still scarred by the taro leaves. Thus go the Sun and Moon, round and round the earth. The stars follow her, and when once in a while a shooting star flies her way, it is the Sun’s messenger with his plea for her to return to him.

One creation myth reflects the Manobo worldview of the seas and the mountains as the boundaries of their place of habitation. It also cautions against incest and greed. Dagye-an and Dehonajen are a couple of sago makers who mistreat some orphans in their care. One day, an old woman beseeches the children for help. When they offer her some water, she transforms it into food that they all share. When she approaches the sago makers, they refuse to share their food with her. The sago makers are turned into crocodiles with a strike of lightning because they had committed incest. The taboo committed causes the bubungan (mountain) to split and melt. Out of the chaos, the cosmos takes shape: habitation, flora, fauna, and other life forms. The crocodiles are relegated to the “lower rungs” of the cosmos downriver, while the children go up to the “higher realms” in the mountain forests, accompanied by the old woman, who transforms into a young maiden.

A sugilanen about a Manobo unable to pay his debt to a Visayan depicts the tensions between settlers and the Manobo. A Visayan named Pablo takes coconut wine from Juan the Manobo, with a promise that it will be paid for by God. Juan’s trade goes bankrupt because of this, and he goes on a search to find God. Juan never sees God, but in the course of his journey, he meets a Manobo maniga-en or elder, who explains to him the notion of God; a farmer who discusses with him unequal sharecropping arrangements (the landowner-tenant system introduced by the Visayans); and a warrior who speaks vehemently against people who resist arbitration in a conflict. In the end, Juan returns home and finds payment of thousands of paper money rolled up in his trunk.

The mythical Tama creature Illustration
The mythical Tama creature (Illustration by Harry Monzon)

Two good-natured giants are Mandayangan and Apila. Mandayangan was once a great bagani, now a god of war who participates in the battles waged by the Manobo. Apila is a giant whose greatest pleasure is to have wrestling matches with Mandayangan.

A legendary giant because of his extraordinary strength was Dabau, who, when he journeyed up the Agusan River on a bamboo raft, had to warn the people to protect their rice fields from the mighty waves that he would cause. He used the trunk of a palma brava tree for a pole. His equally strong sister could throw a whole bunch of bananas to him on the next hill.

The story of the ikugan (tailed men) seems to have a historical basis, as it may be interpreted to be the Muslim invasion of Mindanao in the late 14th century. According to the tale, Agusan Valley was invaded by the Tidung people. The men had tails like daggers, and the women, like adze. After 14 years of atrocities and killings, the Manobo disappeared from the Valley because they had all either fled or been killed. There was one woman left because she had hidden in the runo reeds of the Argawan (or Umayam) River. She continued about her daily business, gathering food and weaving to keep herself busy. One day she found a pigeon’s egg in her weaving basket, but she soon forgot all about it, and so one day it hatched a baby girl. The woman raised the girl as her daughter. One day a Manobo scouting party came upon the woman and the beautiful girl. The chief bagani asked for her hand, and the foster mother consented on the condition that he place a married couple upon every river in the valley. Thus was Agusan Valley repopulated.

“Pakigbisog sa mga Manigaon: Sa Kasaysayan sa mga Manobo sa Agusan” (The Struggle of Chieftains: In the History of the Manobo in Agusan), told by Datu Mandagase and written in Cebuano by his daughter Lucy P. Rico, is included in the anthology Sikami’n Lumad, 2005. It is powerful because it contains personalized accounts of the forced migrations of a clan, dating from Spanish colonization to present-day logging concessions; of the consequent transfer of Manobo land to outsiders; and of the dogged resistance waged by the clan patriarchs through the generations.

Agusanon Manobo Musical Instruments

Musical instruments used only for religious purposes are the gimbae (drum), which is made locally, and the agung (gong), which is purchased from the Visayans. They are always kept in the baylan’s house. The gimbae is made of a hollowed-out trunk of a palm tree, with both ends covered with a piece of animal hide such as deer, monkey, lizard, or dog. It is played on either end with the hand. It is said that the people can recognize and name 20 to 50 different rhythms played on the drum. Generally the left hand plays the regular beat, while the right hand improvises in rhythm with the left. Some drum tunes are sinakaisakay (like the movement of a raft or canoe); kumbakumba to usa (like the sporting of a deer); kinampilan (like the flourishing of the kampilan sword); minandaya, derived from a Mandaya rhythm; tinaga-untod (in the manner of mountain spirits); and binaylan (in the style of the baylan).

The gimbae is played to accompany religious and secular dances, to sound an alarm, or to call to an absent one.

Manobo man beating on a gimbae or drum
Elderly Agusanon Manobo beating on a gimbae or drum (Charles Buenconsejo, photo courtesy of Jose Buenconsejo)

The agung is always played with the gimbae. Triangles decorate the face of the agung. It is beaten on the knob at the center with a piece of wood. It is played in rhythm with that played by the drummer’s left hand. A soft rhythm called beteng-beteng is played during bajew, the sanctification of food offerings.

All the other instruments are played at any occasion. The bamboo instruments are three types of flute, four types of guitars, a violin, and a mouth harp. The strings are of vine, bamboo, or abaca fiber. The three types of flute are the paundag, to-ali, and sabai. A fourth, called lantui, is mentioned in some scholarly accounts but not described. The most common flute is the paundag, which is a bamboo section 1 meter long. It has one hole at the end of one side and four holes evenly distributed on the other side. It is played while held in a vertical position. The to-ali is a shorter and higher-pitched variety of the paundag flute. The sabai has a thin bamboo piece 2 centimeters long, which is loosely attached over the hole near the end where the lips are placed. This is struck while the player blows on the flute. When it is played, it is held in a horizontal position and has a lower pitch.

There are two types of vine-string guitars: the kudlung, which is smaller, and binijaan, which is bigger. The neck, fingerboard, and boat-shaped body are all of one piece. The head curves like a scroll and is carved to represent a rooster’s head. Each guitar has two strings made of the inner part of the bislig vine. A bamboo string guitar is the tanko, made out of one section of a large variety of bamboo. It has two bass strings and three treble strings.

The takumbo is one section of bamboo with the joint at either end. The joint partition of one end is removed so that it is cut straight through, while the other end is cut like a gaping crocodile’s mouth or a bishop’s miter. Two strings are created by lifting strips from the surface of the bamboo and held up by wooden pegs wedged underneath. This pair of strings is beaten with a little bamboo stick in time with the gimbae. A hole in the center increases the resonance.

The violin has a hollowed out coconut shell for its body. The bow is a long bamboo stick bent while it is still fresh and pliable. The bowstring has two strings consisting of several abaca fibers attached to the ends of the bow.

The kubing is a bamboo mouth harp; its sound is produced by a 6-centimeter strip that is partially cut from the middle of a thin and narrow piece of bamboo. One end is held in the mouth with one hand while a finger of the other hand taps it to make the strip vibrate. Some mouth harps have a spike protruding at one end, and this is tapped to produce the vibrating sound.

Bamboo stampers are large bamboo sections with one joint partition removed. It is held vertically, with the open end up, and stamped on the floor in rhythm with the drum and gong. Bamboo sounders are attached to weaving looms to create rhythmic sounds as the weaver works.

Agusan Manobo Folk Songs and Music

The ted-emor ted-em ne personal (personal songs) are chanted in a style called gugud, which is semi-declamatory, with long slurs, a recurring series of staccatos, and abrupt endings. It is sung solo and can be performed either for religious or secular purposes. Even war songs are chanted in the gugud style, the difference being that they are delivered more loudly and rapidly. The religious gugud is believed to be taught by the tutudu-mon no diwata. It is the diwata’s way of communicating with human beings through the baylan. It is thus extemporaneous. The musical narrative is the dasang. The songs are improvisations, with frequent repetitions of the same ideas in different words.

The sugilanen are told in conversational language, as opposed to the more elevated ritual speech style of the sung gudgud or gudguden (narrative of personal history), which are used to invoke abyan. Sugilanen are performed in small private spaces, usually in households, and are didactic in function.

Today, Agusanon Manobo songs continue to reflect the group’s relationships with each other and with neighboring groups and outsiders. A buwabuwa (lullaby) called “le-ugan di’t leugan,” describes a person going to a market town dressed in modern clothes, with a baseball cap, trousers, and combat shoes. The Agusanon Manobo have also adapted foreign influences into their indigenous music, such as the balitaw, asung duet and word joust; harana, a song for courtship; and church songs like gozos (hymns) and the pasyon. Their lyrics and songs tell narratives of their experiences, new and old, such as priests impregnating native maidens or escaping during war because of cowardice.

Agusan Manobo Dances and Rituals

The Agusanon Manobo do not traditionally engage in group dancing, for they dance only one or two at a time. For dancing, both men and women wear the malong and their most elaborately embroidered umpak. Each hand holds a tubao by the corner. The women wear brass anklets to add to the lisag (dance music). Instead of the tubao, palm fronds are held by the baylan and bagani for their religious dance.

In the past, before a war expedition, the bagani performed a ritual dance in honor of their war gods. Attired in their armor and carrying their shield, spear, bolo, and dagger, they moved frenziedly to the lisag, following the rhythm of the gimbae and agung. The dance was interrupted at regular intervals by invocations to the war gods, invitations for them to come and partake of the food offering laid out for them, and prayers for them to help secure the bagani’s victory. The chief danced the finale, thrust his spear into the pig’s heart, and sucked the blood gushing from the wound. The other bagani then caught the blood in their own bowls, from which they drank it. Then they examined the gallbladder and liver for omens on how they would fare in battle.

After a victorious battle, the tagbusau possessed the bagani chief, who slashed open a slain enemy’s chest, pulled out the heart and liver, and ate it. He then performed a frenzied dance around the enemy.

The baylan is similarly possessed by the spirits to whom he or she addresses himself or herself. In this state, the baylan loudly voices the spirits’ message to the assembly (e.g., assurances of a plentiful harvest, the recovery of a sick person). If the baylan is possessed by a chanting diwata, the baylan chants the message. Dancing is always accompanied by the lisag. For the ritual, the baylan and his or her assistants wear the elaborately embroidered umpak and the malong.

Agusanon Manobo performing a ritual inside a floating school in Panlabuhan, Agusan Marsh
Agusanon Manobo performing a ritual inside a floating school in Panlabuhan, Agusan Marsh, 2014 (Neil Daza)

Based on participation and purpose, there are two types of rituals: public and private. The public rituals are of community interest, such as the binuya (curing), taephag, sundo, and suyad buya. For these, a kahimunan is called. Private rituals are arranged by an individual for himself or a member of his family, such as the tagun-on to bata, sugnod, and sugudun (hunting and fishing).

Generally a ritual is divided into three stages: the first stage is the inapogan or panawagtawag (invocation), which begins with the baylan inviting the diwata to chew betel quid. This is parallel to the Manobo’s social practice of offering betel quid to each other as a sign of hospitality. In a curing ritual, the baylan is possessed by his or her abyan. Occasionally, the baylan breaks into a dance or an ecstatic seizure in between parts of the invocation. In rituals honoring the umli, such as taephag or sugudun, the baylan is not possessed.

Aguasanon Manobo woman performing a ritual dance
Aguasanon Manobo woman performing a ritual dance (Charles Buenconsejo, photo courtesy of Jose Buenconsejo)

In a curing ritual called binuya, preparatory rituals are the saliling, or sinaliling, and the sinuyad. The sinaliling is the ritual offering of a chicken and raw eggs, placed on the angkaw. The baylan implores the spirits to transfer the patient’s illness to the chicken and eggs. A promise is made to grant the spirits’ wishes, as long as it is humanly possible. The sinuyad is a welcome or acceptance dance in honor of the diwata who comes and identifies itself through the baylan’s gugud. The purpose of this ritual is to admit the diwata into the baylan.

In the second stage, the sacrificial victim, often a pig or chicken, is killed with a bolo or a spear. The blood is caught in a bowl and smeared on the altar and the central participants, such as a patient. Sometimes, the baylan, in a trance, drinks the blood. In the past, the human sacrifice was speared in the neck, from which the diwata, through the baylan, sucked the blood. The chest was then slashed open and the heart and liver eaten.

The third stage, the hakyad or hakyadan, is the invitation for the diwata to partake of the food offering of cooked rice, meat, and eggs. The sanctification of the sacrificial food is called bajew. Then the baylan pours a glass of water around the altar. This is believed to be drunk by the diwata. Ritual participants are also expected to offer round, shiny objects, such as coins or eggs, as panyajag (personal offerings) to ensure the effectiveness of the ritual.

In rituals that last for three days, the pig’s head is the center of attention on the last day. The baylan and her assistants take turns dancing around it and jabbing it with their bolo. This is meant to rid the area of the busau. The pig’s rear end is carved into a binuada or crocodile figure. This is attached to the binuka, which is held by the baylan as she dances. The baylan and a former bagani take turns dancing. This dance was once exclusive to the bagani because it was part of the tagbusau ritual. It has now been incorporated into the curing ritual and the suyad buya, which is the initiation ritual for an apprentice baylan. A final ritual is the sprinkling of water on the assembly. The diwata then departs from the baylan when she makes one loud, final belch.

These kinds of large, elaborate, and festive rituals are called hihinang. Throughout these rituals, various speech acts, which the Agusanon Manobo call dumahan te kebebet-en (that which is accompanied by breath or will), are performed. They may be categorized into three types: invocation to the spirits, “magical” spells, and spirit-human conversations.

Another curing ritual is the sampeyeng, in which the baylan channels energy into the patient by placing a palm over his or her head. When the sampeyeng is done during a spirit-possession ritual, it is called paninsing. Sea-dwelling spirits are also believed to cause illness, which can be expelled by the panundoq ritual.

Sinundo or singangga is the dance ritual to ward off epidemic busau. It is held at sunset. When the busau are believed to have traveled up the river, the ceremony is held at a selected riverbank. If it is supposed to have traveled by land or air, the ceremonial area is the baylan’s backyard or a public assembly place. Children are not allowed to attend this ritual because the busau might take a fancy to them and take them. The sundo is a dialogue between the people and the epidemic busau.

The panubad-tubad (to speak so things become equal) is a ritual speech act conducted to counteract negative energies generated out of dreams communicated by bound spirits. It is a response to the speech of the spirits and is conducted with the use of traditional ritual objects and ritual acts in a séance.

Badly performed rituals, called su-ang, can have adverse effects on the ritual participants, such as illness befalling the baylan. A ritual performed in unfavorable conditions can be su-ang. Hence, the changing landscape of the Manobo has caused apprehensions among ritual practitioners. For instance, the traffic of pump boats on the rivers and the presence of outsiders or spectators can cause rituals to be su-ang, as spirits are believed to prefer tranquil places far from intrusive human activities. This is why panyajag are required even of non-Manobo onlookers.

Aside from ritual, some dances may be considered protodramas. The pangaliyag is a courtship dance, in which a tatamista (lad) is expected to choose his love partner. It is usually danced during a ceremony attended by the clan and invited guests. Conflict may arise when another suitor or other suitors join in the dance. Sometimes, the dance develops into the sinaet, war dance, at the end of which only the bravest and strongest suitor is left dancing. The dance paraphernalia are shields, spears, and bolos. The kinugsik-kugsik (squirrel dance) was first recorded among the Agusanon Manobo in 1969. It mimes the mating dance of three squirrels—two males competing for one female.

The pangasawa is a marriage ritual, a finale of the pangaliyag dance. It is performed at the bride’s residence, which is heavily guarded against spurned suitors.

The following dance, witnessed by Garvan in 1910, was not identified by its local name. This bathing dance is performed by a man, who pretends to be an overly modest woman cautiously disrobing beside a stream. He starts from one end of the dancing area, apparently the woman’s house, and pretends to carry upon his shoulder a heavy object, a bamboo tube for gathering water. Then he walks with feminine gait to the stream, while casting glances around him. The stream is represented by the edge of the dancing area. He pretends to drink from the stream then disrobes with exaggerated cautiousness, and proceeds to bathe. There are frequent interruptions that represent threats to a woman’s modesty. Finally, fearful of the approach of a man, he finishes his bath with the appropriate gestures, puts on his dress, and leaves the stream, pretending to carry his bamboo tube of water.

The apian dance presents a man gathering honey from a bee’s nest. He mimes the operations—getting his materials together, making a torch, lighting it, and climbing the tree. Then he makes sudden frenetic movements, indicating the attack of the bees on him. The effect is comic, especially when he pretends to be stung in the pubic region.

Another comic dance is the depilation dance, which shows a man plucking out his body hair. He contorts his face in pretended pain and constantly glances around him in pretended fear of being seen.

A sexual dance ends in a simulated act of sexual intercourse. The man stealthily enters the lady’s house and walks toward her sleeping figure, which is represented by a piece of bamboo. He advances and retreats, circles, hesitates with a hand to the ear, and so on, until he finally fulfills his desire on the woman.

The dagger or sword dance presents a fight between two men, who brandish either Mandaya daggers or war bolos at each other. There are “appropriate flourishes, parries, lunges, foils, advances, and retreats.”

The saet or war dance is a spectacular war dance of the Agusanon Manobo. It is performed by one or two men holding either a spear or war bolo and a shield. The men wear the bagani’s red garments and accessories, including the hat and tangkulo (headkerchief). The music is provided by the drum, which is beaten on both ends simultaneously by two players, so that the music is a continuous roll. The feet and head movements of the dancers resemble those of a fighting cock. The two men charge and retreat, shadow and engage each other, thrust and parry, in a simulated hand-to-hand combat. They peer savagely at each other, now over, now at the side of their shield, while their tongues flicker in and out like a snake’s. Occasionally they fall to the ground on one leg while constantly moving their heads and spears rapidly behind their shield. Each holds his spear pointed at the other, and this is thrust rapidly forward. Shoulders and shield move up and down in rhythm with the drum. The whole dance takes only five minutes.

Today, state appropriation of Manobo culture has integrated their traditional performance into public parades and programs. Ted-em, for instance, have become intermission numbers in events. Responses to these kinds of appropriations are mixed, depending on the level of acculturation of the responding Agusanon Manobo.

The Agusan Manobo in Media Arts

The Agusanon Manobo is the subject of the film that won the Best New Breed Full-Length Feature prize, among others, in the 2014 Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival: Bwaya (Crocodile), written and directed by Francis Xavier Pasion. Based on real events, the film is set in a village of Agusan del Sur. Divina (Angeli Bayani) and her husband are preparing for the celebration of their daughter Rowena’s 13th birthday when they find out from the town mayor that Rowena has gone missing. She and a friend were playing at the marsh when they were attacked by a crocodile. Divina, overcome with grief, performs her pain in front of the community in a frenzied dance. A ritual precedes the search, which ends in the finding of Rowena’s disfigured body in a clump of mangroves.

Scene from Francis Xavier Pasion’s Bwaya
Scene from Francis Xavier Pasion’s Bwaya, 2014 (Neil Daza)

Bwaya merges documentary and narrative filmmaking to create a mix of fact and fiction—between moments that are acted out by professional actors and the interview with a Manobo couple who had lost their daughter to a real crocodile who face the camera and answer Pasion’s questions. During the filmed scenes, a voice-over recites lines from Manobo folk literature, describing and musing on the relationship between humans and nature. The overall effect is not just a visual ethnography of the Agusanon Manobo but a reflexive analysis of the art of documentary filmmaking, problematizing the balancing act of objectively documenting the tragedy while at the same time making transparent the filmmaker’s role as the subjective eye that frames the factual truths. 


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