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Batak Tribe of Palawan: History, Culture, Arts, Customs, Beliefs and Traditions [Indigenous People | Philippines Ethnic Group]

Batak Tribe of Palawan: History, Culture, Arts, Customs, Beliefs and Traditions [Indigenous People | Philippines Ethnic Group]

The word “Batak” is said to be an old Cuyonon term which means “mountain people.” The Spaniards used to refer to the Batak as Tinitianes, from a place called Tinitian on the coast north of Puerto Princesa and near Honda Bay on the east coast of Palawan, between Diente Point and Tularan. Because of their physical characteristics, the Batak have been classified as a Philippine Aeta group or as having Aeta affinities. They comprise the smallest aggregate of relatively unassimilated mountain ethnic groups of Palawan.

The Batak are said to be Palawan’s “vanishing tribe” and the most endangered because of its population’s decline over the years caused by a high mortality rate and malnutrition, which in turn causes low fertility among couples. A Kayasan Batak household, for example, maintains an average of 4–5 members, but this reasonable number is due mainly to high infant mortality: For every ten births, four are premature deaths, two to three die before reaching age one, and only two would survive.

Although marked by certain fluctuations, their population over the years has remained relatively constant: at a minimal range of between 250 and 700 from the early 1900s to the late 1990s: 600 to 700 individuals in the 1900s; 391 in 1939; 400 to 500 in the 1940s; 393 in 1970; 259 in 1990; and 450 in 1995. While other indigenous groups and migrant communities in Palawan have been increasing, the Batak population has remained statistically constant, thus causing what is actually a declining trend in ratio. In 1995, the Batak population stood at 0.55% of Palawan’s total indigenous population, and a mere 0.05% of its total population. This signifies an alarmingly tiny population number.

The Batak live mainly in small, temporary settlements north of Puerto Princesa, some of which are now part of Roxas town. They have settled chiefly in mountainous areas and river valleys near Honda Bay and the interior of Babuyan and Tagburos. Near the east coast, these are the valleys traversed by Babuyan River or places near these valley communities: Tanatay Maoyon, Tanabag, Sumurod, Tarabanan or Tarabanun near Pasco Point, Langogan, Malabosug, Tinitian, Tagnipa, Caramay, Bindoyan, Quinaratan, Malcampo, and Buayan. On the west coast, they settled at Caruray on Tibbon Bay and Tagdunan. Other settlements, some of which are coastal, include Mapnod, Dugiyanun, Siyaklang, Pagpisangan, Gumaud, Bulo-bulo, Tubuwan, Talabigan, Pilotan, and Bayogun. In recent times, Batak settlements have been in river valleys that open out to the Sulu Sea. Their dispersed habitat only serves to underscore their scant population, since each Batak group would only have a maximum of 91 and a very low minimum of 10 members, with at least two to eight groups having more part-Batak members, that is, unmarried offspring of exogamous marriages, than full-Batak ones. Batak territory includes a narrow plains area abutting into the north Sulu Sea where the Batak come down to during the rainy season.

Batak or Binatak is the language spoken by the group. The Batak language belongs to the Philippine Super Stock that developed circa 1300 BCE. Unlike the two other groups the Palawan and Tagbanwa, the Batak have not adopted the ancient syllabary and script of Indic derivation, despite the fact that most of their ancestral territories adjoin Tagbanwa areas.

Video: Biyahe Ni Drew: Kilalanin ang 'Batak Tribe'. Aired (April 26, 2019): Binisita ni Biyahero Drew ang Batak Tribe ng Puerto Princesa, Palawan. Kilalanin sila sa video na ito.

History of Batak Tribe 

The exact origins of the Batak have not been determined. Based on their Aeta characteristics, it can be assumed that they comprise the remnants of a formerly more numerous group of Aeta who settled in Palawan in an early period. What is known is that for a long period, they were a nomadic group roaming vast areas in the north, settling in a place long enough to find food, then moving on to other places to continue hunting, gathering, foraging, and trading. They were described in early accounts as a very timid and peaceable people who had limited contacts with nonlocals. While the Batak have resided in coastal villages during certain periods, they lived exclusively in the interior upland of northern Palawan in the earlier days.

Batak Tribe family in Palawan
Batak family (Miller 1905, colorized by Harry Monzon)

The history of Batak settlements tells the history of their displacement. During the Spanish period, the Mapnud Batak, attempting to escape either slavery or conscription as soldiers, resettled in refuge sites. In the early 1900s, the Kayasan Batak, fleeing epidemics of smallpox and measles that ravaged Batak settlements in Caruray, resettled in new dwelling places for health reasons. The Sumorod, Maoyun, Tagabinet, and Tagnipa Batak —some of whom came from Tinitian—were driven out by the influx of Tagbanua and Christian settlers from Luzon and the Visayas. The Batak of Langogan and Bindoyan chose their area as new sites for food gathering. In recent times, the Kayasan Batak have resettled near mining and logging sites, having been drawn into the labor pool of such companies owned by capitalists and politicians exploiting Palawan’s resources.

Despite contacts with other Palawan groups and settlers from other islands, the Batak’s material culture has not changed from its seminomadic character. Only a few woven material and several basket types are produced by them. Although very much isolated, the Batak have had trading relations with outsiders, such as neighboring groups or the Christian settlers along the coast. Through these brief and intermittent contacts, the Batak have learned a little Cuyunon and Tagalog.

Batak society continues to be severely affected by disease and malnutrition due to poverty. The Batak, as in the case of all other Philippine Aeta groups, have been critically influenced and affected by contact with the outside world. Acculturation and displacement have altered the ways of some members of their group and have led to a decline in their material conditions, as well as in the dynamism of whatever artistic expression they traditionally possessed.

Batak People's Way of Life

Video: I-Witness: Isang araw sa buhay ng pinakamaliit na tribo sa Pilipinas. Sa pangangaso at pagtatanghal para sa turista nabubuhay ang Batak ng Palawan. Sinilip ni Mariz Umali ang buhay nila roon.

The Batak are primarily food gatherers, hunters, forager-traders, and horticulturists. In recent times, they have also been practicing a rudimentary form of agriculture in the form of planting rice, root crops, and bananas, having learned this industry from the Christian settlers living nearby.

Their subsistence-related activities are bound up with an extensive system of geographic place names numbering in the hundreds but which can be classified into four geographic features: libtong or deep-water spots along the main river; simang or streams on the watershed; patag or floodplains and flat places; and bulod or hills, ridges, and mountains. Examples of specific Batak place names in the Langogan riverine system are papandayan and nanag for river confluences; girek, mabitia, tabid, ogis, kiaswagan, and kokodiawan for rapids; agutay, linwasan, bangkal, and piamenglayan for deep water; and ablay and paglaglagan for cliffs. Identification of these places provides the Batak with cues on resources they can collect or utilize for their subsistence.

They use dogs to hunt wild pigs and deer, and the sapukan (blowgun) and the bow-and-arrow to hunt fowl. Knowledge of the reproductive cycle of trees informs the Batak of the hunting season for wild pigs. The simbolan, the time when fruits on trees become overripe and begin to fall to the forest floor, prompts the peak of hunting because wild pigs feed on these fallen fruits and the animals become easy prey to hunters during this season. The hounds chase and corner their quarry for the Batak hunters to close in with their spears. The carcass may then be cut up and divided on the spot or brought to their settlement for partition, every member being entitled to a share. They prepare the meat by roasting or boiling it. They have no way of preserving meat, although a kind of salt from ashes can be made. Other traditional animal foods, which they catch with traps, are the dugian (porcupine), tuldo (Palawan stink badger), bay’i (anteater), amantoton (Palawan bear cat), mire (little leopard cat), denger (small-clawed dwarf otter), bakes (macaque), ka’may (Palawan tree shrew), bats like paniki (fruit bat) and kalagbeng (insectivorous bat), and squirrels like beyatat, bising,and soysoy. Jungle fowl they hunt for food include the tandikan (Palawan peacock pheasant), katian (wild chicken), and manmatok (birds); reptiles include bay’o’ (pond turtle), mataniyog (python), and balinaynay (water snake).

They fish in inland streams by drying one side of a riverbed and catching the fish that get impounded or trapped. They do less fishing along the coast, although saltwater fishing is no longer strange to them, having acquired this skill in recent times. In earlier centuries, the Batak fished only in rivers and streams, since they hardly ever ventured out from their forest habitat. Another method used to catch fish is the use of natural plant poisons from vines such as the tubli, although this is a practice known throughout Palawan and the Visayas.

Batak women and child fishing
Batak women and child fishing, 2016 (Robin Moore, Global Wildlife Conservation)

Men and women dig wild yams such as abagan, ayabe, banag, carendang, kudot, su’dan, suga’ok, and wanday; and taro like dar. They collect succulent leaves, nuts, pako-pako (ferns), mushrooms, and fungi from the forest. They also catch edible insects, beetles, ants, and certain kinds of spiders; and gather the eggs of birds, turtles, and lizards, as well as the honey and the grubs from decaying trees and plants. Aside from wild food, the Batak collect forest products such as rattan and bagtik (almaciga resin). These items are used for exchange for clothing material, salt, rice, or metal implements from the lowland traders.

Contemporary economic activities that provide the Batak with their daily subsistence and much needed cash income are kaingin (slash-and-burn farming), collecting taro (honey), gathering bejuco (rattan), and tapping bagtik from almaciga trees.

Batak farmer winnowing rice
Batak farmer winnowing rice (Lara Frayre,

While farming does not figure in Batak subsistence as in other indigenous cultural communities and Christian settlers, the Batak carry out low-impact kaingin, characterized by dispersed sites and incomplete clearing, which are ecologically beneficial practices. They select kaingin sites on the basis of a “test plot,” a small area of cleared forest where one spends the night. A bad dream means the land is inhabited by a panya’en (malevolent spirit). He tries another land elsewhere and will keep searching until a good dream visits his sleep. The Batak leave trees standing that are too large to cut down or are protected by prohibitions. A Batak helps other Batak in clearing the fields in return for help in his own field. Current kaingin practices, carried out with assistance from nongovernment organizations in some Batak territories such as in Calbayog and Mangapin, include the construction of fire breaks prior to burning; the construction of erosion-retarding dikes across hillside fields, where they keep collected unburned debris; and intercropping maturing fields with tree seedlings. Rice supply in cleared areas remains minimal, lasting for only a few weeks or months, but these practices ensure the maintenance of primary growth forests, specifically in territories claimed as ancestral domains. Rice farming in kaingin has become more sedentary than before, however.

The Batak have coconuts, breadfruit, and jackfruit. They also have small gardens planted to cassava, sweet potato, yams, and other root crops, and bananas, squash, pepper, and tobacco. There is practical division of labor between men and women. The men hunt, construct boats, cut trees or prepare the clearing; the women plant the rice and do general domestic chores.

They collect a conservative amount of honey from two principal bee species: the potiokan and the nigoan, which differ in appearance, locality, hive-making habits, and seasonality of producing honey. The hives of potiokan are usually hanging from lateral branches near the tree tops, whereas nigoan hives are usually in holes in logs or tree stumps. Potiokan season runs from January to May, whereas nigoan season is typically from February or March to August. Potiokan hives yield more honey, but nigoan are more frequently encountered and collected; thus, both types of honey contribute equally to the subsistence needs and cash incomes of the Batak.

Certain plant species are associated with bees that produce different qualities of honey. Dumaresa (Shorea contorta) and bayoso (Pometia pinnata) attract bees that produce first-class quality honey; banegbegan (Pterocymbium tinctorium) and balisangkad (Nephelium lappaceum), second-class quality honey; aropag (Eupnoria dicyma) and bogo (Gnetum gnemon), third-class honey; and ulayan (Quercus apoensis), fourth-class honey. The Batak’s knowledge of the structure and growth stages of the beehive, especially the tado (the honey-bearing section) and its keyanendan (the stage at which pollen and honey are present in equal quantities), determines the peak season for collecting honey.

Batak gather different species of rattan but not as extensively as lowland migrants do. Locally important rattan varieties are the ariingan, bugtong, colombi, dagket, kalabang, lapsik, lipi, palasan, and sambolagan. Noncommercial varieties used mainly for subsistence are the dakawan, morowa, and omagas. The Batak are aware of how to harvest which species, depending on their characteristics. The palasan and the bugtong, for example, grow only one cane in their lifetime and must be allowed to flower, bear fruit, and allow to reseed before they are cut to prevent the extinction of the species.

Lowland migrants who gather rattan in their territories, however, generally cut down any rattan species, which they market to town centers. Also, nonlocal markets have forced some Batak, especially in the Kayasan ancestral domain areas, to harvest more than what their specific communities require.

The Batak, like neighboring Tagbanwa and settler communities, tap and trade copal, a resin used in the manufacture of paint varnish and other industrial products, for both the local and international markets. Early Batak practice of collecting resin was not through tapping; they either climbed the trees to collect the resin near the top or simply picked up those that fell to the forest floor. The practice of tapping tree barks, which is done near the base of the tree to facilitate the flow of the resin, was introduced by lowland migrants, mainly concessionaires or their agents, as early as 1961 among the Kayasan Batak and 1965 among the Calabayog Batak. Most Batak copal-collecting trips last from two to five days, in contrast to more commercially oriented collection trips by migrants and Tagbanwa that usually last for a month. However, starting in the late 1990s, some Kayasan Batak would collect copal in the forest interiors for 20 to 22 days. Sacks of resin were sold to traders in a junction on the main road; these traders then brought them to the town center for more extensive trading in several local and international markets. Unsustainable practices such as this have depleted copal resources in Palawan, including many Batak communities.

Batak Political System

Being traditionally nomadic, there is no groupwide central authority in Batak society. The semblance of leadership is found in the band, which may be a hunting, food-gathering, or foraging-trading group of families, usually composed of members who may or may not be related to one another by blood. It has no fixed designated leader, except that the members are expected to be compatible in working together as a group. Several bands may comprise a settlement, especially during the wet season. There may be subgroups in smaller settlements, and all these social units have a chief called kapitan, a term obviously borrowed from the Spanish. The members recognize his authority to control or regulate the behavior of the community, supervise sanitation, determine the time for planting, coordinate the activities of work groups, and settle minor disputes. The kapitan is chosen by the adult members, based on leadership qualities and hunting or fighting prowess.

Group of Batak men and women
Group of Batak men and women, 2016 (Lara Frayre,

An institution exists for the adjudication of cases that primarily concern the relations between men and women, such as matters arising from divorce, as well as polygamous or polyandrous relationships. This is the surigiden, a council of arbitrators composed of all resident adult males in a large local group. Each group would normally have a masurigiden (specialist on Batak custom law), but all decisions are made by the surigiden as a collective body.

Complications and conflicts have arisen in duties and functions because the national government has instituted the barangay of local government. Matters related to “cultural preservation,” as well as issues related to the recognition and protection of indigenous people’s rights and their ancestral domain, have been under the jurisdiction of government agencies concerned with the country’s cultural communities.

Some Batak communities, however, have responded positively to challenges posed by social arrangements with government and nongovernment organizations, particularly in light of the granting of certificates of ancestral domain claims (CADC) to indigenous cultural communities beginning in the 1990s. New structures of sociopolitical management have been established by the Batak, in alliance with civil society groups. For example, the Kayasan Tagbanua in Tagabinet, whose CADC borders the taraw (limestone karst) of the Saint Paul Subterranean National Park, also known as the Puerto Princesa Underground River, has a council of elders still called the suriguiden, which stands at the apex of their social organization. A powerful member of the suriguiden is the pagbulngen, a man or a woman hereditary leader who heads the council of elders. The pagbulngen is equivalent to the masikampu of the Tagbanwa. Following the suriguiden is the tribal council, which supervises recently formed people’s organizations that were established in collaboration with nonlocal groups.

In the past, women were not allowed to serve as elders in the legal and political affairs, except the tinetilla, the nominal leader of the women in bands that form settlements during the rainy and flood seasons. In some Batak communities, female members have recently begun to participate in the decision-making process involving the council of elders.

Batak Tribe Social Organization, Culture, Customs and Traditions 

Three social groups are recognizable in Batak society: the family, which may be nuclear or compound; the band, a hunting or food-gathering group composed of several families; and the settlement or camp of all the families who occupy a semipermanent site. The kinship system is generational. The spouse is called asawa; grandparents, great grandparents, and their siblings are called apo; the father, ama; the mother, ina; the father’s and the mother’s sisters, as well as all female descendants of the grandparents, great grandparents, and their siblings who fall in this same generation, dudu; the uncle and comparable male relatives, tata; the older sibling, owa; the younger brother, oyag; the younger sister, nanaw; cousins, rogud; and grandchildren, apo. Other affinal terms include ipag (sister-in-law), bayaw (brother-in-law), agya’o (wife’s brother), punyungan katlalaki (father-in-law), punyungan kat baba’i (mother-in-law), balay (grandparent-in-law), apid (twin), and kuway (multiple spouses).

Batak mother and child
Batak mother and child, 2014 (Michael Turtle,

Crime exists in Batak society, and a system of justice is in place. Traditionally, the punishment of offenses and crimes less than murder and adultery was whipping. Murder was punished by granting the brother, father, or other relatives the right to exact retribution in kind, or else to demand a fine in currency from the wrongdoer.

Sadunun (courtship) is intiated by a Batak male who chooses the female he wants to marry. Upon her acceptance of his marriage proposal, the man and his family inform the parents of the woman about their decision, bringing with them an amount of money for the bandi or kapangasawa (bride-price). An orako (wedding ceremony) need not be held for a marital relationship to be recognized. It is presided over by a Batak elder, also called the “orako,” in the presence of a man and a woman acting as tataksilan (witnesses). Facing each other as they sit on the floor, the bride and the groom feed each other with cooked rice scooped by the hand. After they have done so, the orako pronounces them man and wife. In Batak society, polygamy and polyandry are allowed, but these do not happen often because of the financial obligations involved. The Batak seldom have cash on hand, and paying the bride-price, in addition to paying the first wife a certain amount of money for taking in a new wife, can often impoverish one completely.

In the past, divorce was unknown in Batak society, and not even adultery could dissolve a marriage. In lieu of divorce, adultery was punishable by public whipping. Nevertheless, should the husband consent, his wife could go with the offending man, who would, however, have to pay a certain amount as fine. Or, both men could live with the woman, with the second husband acting as no more than a servant for the first husband, who would exercise all authority and the right not to work.

In recent years, there have been cases, although rare, of divorce among the Batak. At present, the practice is that if a man wants to divorce his wife, he calls for a surigiden to hear the case. Before this body, he lays down the reasons why he seeks a divorce. If the body rules in his favour and he is granted the divorce, he is required to pay the woman a certain amount of money in exchange for the separation. On the other hand, when a woman takes a second husband, the latter supports not only the woman but also her first husband and all his children by her. An unfaithful wife or husband is called kalakadan.

Aside from deciding cases involving relations between men and women, the surigiden is also expected to be present at all the ritual activities usually observed for the curing of illness. In these rituals, there is a babaylan (shaman or healer) who presides. Each group of Batak would have several such persons who specialize in curing various kinds of diseases, using either the diwata (a kind of song or incantation) or the tarek (dance), as well as the trance curing the affected.

In contrast with the neighboring Tagbanwa, there are no women mediums, not even midwives, among the Batak. All deliveries are performed by men. Only the midwife, his assistant, and the delivering woman’s female relatives are allowed to watch the delivery. A babaylan is called and a religious ceremony called the pagdiwata is performed when a woman is having difficulty delivering the baby. Batak names are traditionally derived from plants and trees, although Christian names were introduced as early as the 1800s. Abortion is reported to have been practiced by the Batak.

Inter-household food sharing is common among the Batak, spreading out even to non-kin community members. Such a practice significantly helps households suffering from hunger during the cyclical season of food scarcity and is maintained even during relative food abundance. Food that is given by one household to another may be indirectly distributed through several households because of the communal practice of food sharing. This is one of the ways by which social obligations may be called upon in times of need.

Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Batak People

Like other Aeta groups in the Philippines, the Batak are an animistic group. They believe in good and bad spirits who dwell in trees, rocks, and mountains. Some of these spirits are Batungbayanin, spirit of the mountains: Paglimusan, spirit of the small stones; Balungbunganin, spirit of the almaciga trees; and Sulingbunganin, spirit of the big rocks. In Batak cosmogony, there are gods who are to be feared because of the retribution they can inflict upon mortals. There are also gods to be thanked for the many favors they give to people. In old Batak lore, there was a god named Maguimba, who in remotest times was summoned by a powerful babaylan to live among the people, and he supplied all the necessities of Batak life, including all the cures for illnesses. He even had the power to bring the dead back to life.

The Batak believe that spirits and supernatural anthropomorphic beings inhabit the natural environment, such as trees, bamboo thickets, rocks, caves, and streams. These may be classified into two broad categories: the benevolent diwata and the malevolent panya’en. The diwata spirits guide them in their hunt, provide them with good harvests, and keep them in good health.

All the diwata help the babaylan in curing people by providing him with medicinal roots. Chief of the diwata is Piyongpo’anen, who lives on a high mountain. Other diwata who live in mountains are Singkaranen, Palaysgen, Bunkayaw, Sinyang, and Manlitaknen. Baybayanen is a diwata who lives in the mountains, married a panya’en, and hence became a malevolent spirit. The diwata who dwell in bagtik trees are Balungbunganen and Tebed. Other important diwata are Salibanen, who lives in the sky and helps the babaylan dance well; Mamamulay, who lives in the sea and dances and sings well; Basadnen, who lives in the underworld and can cause sickness; Rinsaban, who lives in a big tree on the Babuyan River; Maningas, who lives in a big tree in the Maoyun region; Nagsiyungdol, who lives in a large stone near Maoyun. Ariburusanen, who lives in the anibong tree, is the spirit of the wind and the most powerful diwata. He can make one cold and cause the eyes to burn.

Batak men and women beating a long piece of bamboo as part of a ritual
Batak men and women beating a long piece of bamboo as part of a ritual (City Tourism Department of Puerto Princesa)

The panya’en spirits cause sickness, bodily harm, crop failures, misfortunes, and even death to those who disobey their will or trespass on their place of residence. Prominent panya’en are Bulalakaw, also known as Ri’ensadanen, who lives on the horizon or in shooting stars, eats people, causes dysentery and other unknown diseases; Mama’en, who lives in the sky and produces unending rains; Buwalawanen, who lives anywhere, travels with the wind, and causes malaria, dysentery, and headaches; and Pangalkagen, who lives in the mountains, eats people, and causes malaria, headache, stomach ache, and fever. Ungaw, a major figure in the Batak spirit world, is a panya’en who jealously guards bees.

The Batak relationship with nature is premised on the belief that the forest and riverine resources that they utilize or visit belong to these spirits. Central here is the Batak term epet. The term implies that the spirits are caretakers of or are responsible for these resources. Epet is not actual ownership in a strict legal sense: The spirits will allow human beings access to these resources, provided that they respectfully collect these in amounts sufficient only to their needs and not in excessive, hence wasteful, quantities.

The Batak believe in a principal soul, the kiyarowa, which resides in the head of a person, and four other minor ones. The other four souls are called pa’yo, which dwell in the hands and the feet. During sickness, the soul leaves the body, and it is only the shaman, performing the necessary rituals, who can recall the soul and bring back the man to health and life.

The Batak believe in a deity named Angoro who lives in basad, a place beyond this world where the souls of the dead go, and it is there where they come to know if they are to proceed to lampanag (heaven) or be cast into the depths of the basad, where fire and boiling water await these hapless ones. There are also lesser deities in the Batak pantheon, some of whom are Siabuanen, Bankakah, Paraen, Buengelen, and Baybayen, deities of great strength.

Because they are beholden to their deities, who must be placated, supplicated, or invoked in whatever life activity in which they are engaged, the Batak perform rites and ceremonies that maintain the links between their natural and social world, and the world of the spirits. They have rituals which may be considered smaller-scale versions of the Tagbanua’s diwata or inim. They make use of incantations, and depend on a male babaylan who performs ritual dances. Music is provided by female instrumentalists who pound on rudimentary drums and strike bamboo tubes with sticks.

Sanbay is a ritual in honor of a diwata spirit, who is asked by the people to bless them with generous harvests of palay (unhusked rice) and honey. This ritual takes place inside a forest, about 2–3 kms from the beach. Two huts are constructed for the ritual. Palay is placed in one of these huts. A replica of a beehive, meanwhile, is situated in another small hut. The babaylan recites prayers to the diwata, after which the people in attendance gather together in festive eating, drinking, and dancing.

In considering the natural environment as the abode of spirits, the Batak have adopted certain attitudes toward objects. For instance, no Batak will cut down a balete tree without first asking the spirit who lives in the tree if it is quite willing to transfer to another tree. To ascertain the spirit’s response, a stick is leaned against the tree. The following day, the Batak return for the spirit’s answer. A stick lying on the ground means no, the spirit cannot move out, and therefore the tree cannot be felled, whereas a stick still upright against the trunk means yes, the spirit has moved on, and the Batak have its permission to cut down the balete tree.

Batak Tribe Houses and Community 

Most Batak settlements are found in river valleys, between the mountain regions and the seacoast of northeastern Palawan. Each settlement tends to be permanently associated with a particular river and its watershed. Within the settlement, the Batak have built their simple dwellings, which are patterned after those of neighboring groups such as the Tagbanwa. In earlier times, several families lived in a single nipa hut, divided only by lines or sticks on the floor to mark the limits allotted for each member-family of the household.

Their houses have remained basically the same, made with thatch, bamboo, and wood, with a short ladder made from bamboo poles, the rungs of which are smaller and shorter lengths of bamboo fixed in slots along the parallel poles. A handrail made of bamboo runs from a post at the foot of the staircase up to the doorway of the house. Medium-sized wooden posts, sometimes supported by smaller, shorter lengths of wood diagonally thrust from the ground, hold up the main frame of the house. The thatched roof has a rather high pitch. The fireplace where food is cooked is located underneath the house and consists of stones where fire is kindled and the food cooked. The fireplace is sometimes positioned under the edge of the house floor, which is raised some 1.5 meters above the ground or under the center of the living area, depending upon its function, which is either for cooking or for giving warmth at night. The raised floor of the house provides a clearing underneath, which becomes a storage space for an assortment of tools and equipment. These include a large water container, which is a long piece of bamboo with several nodes punched out through the bore, except for the bottom. A smaller container functions as an intermediate type of water container. There is also a wooden mortar and pestle for pounding rice. The mortar sits on the ground, and the pestle usually stands or leans against one of the house supports.

Batak dwelling with sawali walls
Batak dwelling with sawali walls, 2014 (Michael Turtle,

A fence fashioned from tall, thin reeds or bamboo poles lashed together is sometimes built around the house. This and the house itself comprise the more permanent structures that the settled Batak build.

A multilevel Batak hut
A multilevel Batak hut (Lara Frayre,

The Batak construct temporary shelters or transient houses they call sambuang, which are usually found some distance from the dwellings and reserved for bands of Batak hunters and foragers. The sambuang is similar to the sanggukad of the Tagbanwa in Kayasan, also called sarumag in other Tagbanwa communities. The sambuang contains no more than the items and provisions needed by the Batak in their hunting and gathering activities in the forest. These items include rattan poles, packs of resin, containers of honey, and baskets filled with edible tubers.

Paniain are sacred places where the Batak perform and hold traditional rites and ceremonies. Graves for the dead are also considered sacred places. Elders delineate the location of the paniain. No settlement, kaingin, hunting, and gathering of forest products are allowed in these areas. Violating the sanctity of the paniain constitutes a grave offense punishable with the highest possible sanction.

Batak Tribe Clothing and Attire

The present-generation Batak wear clothes similar to those of lowlanders, although a few, especially the elders, continue to wear their traditional garments. These consist mainly of bark cloth called aga, which they prepare from a species of mulberry tree. For the lower-body covering of the men, long strips of bark are cut, the outer portion removed, and the fibrous part pounded with a wooden object called bankag, until it becomes a soft fluffy material. The men wear this loincloth, locally called rag, by winding it around their waistline, down between the legs and back, with the loose ends tucked in and allowed to hang out. The Batak male usually has two sets of bark cloth. One is for everyday use and is undecorated. The other is decorated and colored, usually yellow and red, colors extracted from vegetable dyes. Tied to his bark cloth is a small rattan or bamboo container for tobacco and betel nut. He wears his hair long and uncombed, and occasionally winds a headband around his hair. Another accoutrement on his body is a bamboo pouch which contains the necessary fire-making elements of flint and steel and sometimes tobacco. He is not usually given to ornamentation, although he sometimes puts on narrow bracelets, armbands, and small rings. Often, he would be sporting a tattoo on his chest or arms.

The woman fashion their lower body covering out of the same kind of material, except that being skirtlike, their bark cloth is wider, wound around their lower body, and loosened in front. Some have acquired cotton cloth which is then cut into a variation of the tapis (wraparound). Like the menfolk, Batak women do not cover their upper torso. Adult women usually strap a band around their waist, made of several rings of colored rattan strips. To their tapis belt is tied a container for their betel chew and tobacco leaves. During special occasions such as feasts, Batak women put decorations on their hair, usually colored bands festooned with flowers, colored leaves, and grasses. They may also tuck fragrant roots into their waistline. They wear rattan ringlets, metal anklets, and red-and-black seed necklaces with attached squirrel’s tails hanging from the back. At the age of seven, Batak women start shaving their heads about 5 centimeters from the hairline of the forehead, in a semicircle from one ear to the other.

A few Batak men have retained the practice of body tattooing. The tattoo design is called sipra or marka, from the Spanish marca (mark). The tattoo is applied on the arm or chest with a sharp pointed piece of bamboo or needle, which has been dipped in soot obtained from the smoke of burning oil or fat. Tattooing is a painful process as a ritual of manhood and for the beauty of the designs. The Batak have a fetish called tapa, an object which they believe possesses the power to ward off evil. About 20 centimeters long, it could be made from roots, herbs, and cotton ball tassels.

Batak Handicrafts

Hardly any cloth weaving is done since they import most of their clothing material from outside, but basketry has similarities in execution and design with those of the better-known basketcraft of the Palawan and the Tagbanwa. For their basic basket-making materials, the Batak use lawas (bamboo), arurung (rattan vine), kulagbaw and balingasaw (kinds of leaves), and bagtik. Their two basic tools are a big knife called payda, and a smaller one called sundang. The Batak make their baskets by weaving one set of blackened bamboo strips through another set of browned bamboo strips (the spokes) in various ways to produce a wide range of designs. The basket weavers have certain beliefs and customs related to the craft of basketry. For instance, the weavers are reluctant to give the name of the design of the basket when it is being woven, and they simply call the unfinished basket a kawa-kawa (like a frying pan), even when the specific design or shape has already become discernible. This is because the basket makers do not plan the designs in advance; it is only when the basket is half-finished that the weavers realize the design into which the basket will eventually be shaped. Batak women acquire the knowledge of basketry from childhood from the older weavers. Among the Batak, the baskets are considered to be owned by the individual rather than by the family.

Basket weaving
Basket weaving (Lara Frayre,

There are six basic designs in Batak basketry: kawa-kawa, which means “of unfinished shape;” kerumata, libo-libo, timogrok, bianig,or inaupan, meaning “many eyes;” tinlo pinalagsanan, “alternately crossing one over the other;” liangub or langub, “like the swell of waves;” putak-putak, “the falling of the rain;” and tiakdan or piakdan, “like the steps of the staircase.” These different designations have something to do with the Batak’s communal activities and perceptions of objects around them. The transformation of the Batak from a purely mountain-dwelling group to periodic commuters between mountain and coastal plains is reflected in these designations. While the sea may not be part of their daily and customary environment, the Batak nevertheless have patterns depicting both low tide and the welling up of the waves. Apparently, their once-a-month trip to the coast for trading purposes has thoroughly familiarized them with this new environment.

Batak winnowing basket
Batak winnowing basket (Lara Frayre,

Different kinds of baskets are woven for different purposes. The most common, the bugyas baskets, are made for carrying seedlings to be planted, rice stalks that have been harvested, and the palay itself for storing. They range from 15 to 28 centimeters in height, and 18 to 31 centimeters in diameter. Similar to the popular southern Palawan variety, the bugyas basket has a square base but is topped with a round rim. It uses the over-two, under-two weaving technique, with superimpositions through the weave of black contrasting strips, sometimes producing geometric designs.

Since they are and have always been marginal agriculturists, the Batak now weave carrying baskets much bigger than earlier ones and with wider rims to accommodate bigger loads of agricultural crops from the fields to the house or to carry honey and almaciga sap to the town market nearby to sell for cash.

Another kind of basket is the tilagsa, used for storing personal effects. This is from 14 to 15 centimeters high and 15 to 17 centimeters wide. It has a slightly concave square base, topped off with a round rim. A cloth sling is attached to it for ease of carrying. There are smaller baskets woven to hold seedlings, as well as freshwater shells and fish collected from the rivers and streams.

The common Batak field basket used for carrying products is said to be similar to the harvest basket traditionally made in the Calamianes, the northernmost islands of Palawan, as well as to some baskets of the Mindoro Mangyan, because of decorations such as overlays of slit nito, and the use of soft-strip buri or a seagrass with a nito overlay on it. The dwindling number of Batak means, in practical terms, fewer baskets and basket makers.

Aside from baskets, the Batak also make the following items: the apogan, a lime container made from cone shells; the tangal, a container for lime and tobacco, which is a small bamboo tube with a matching bamboo cover that has a coiled sling knotted through its two sides; a blowpipe used for fanning embers, basically a small bamboo tube; a basket sheath for the bolo, woven in the same way as the bugyas, cylindrical in form but flattened at the base which is of carved wood, with a braided rattan strap fastened to the sides; the kiyalandagan, a rectangular mat made from pandan leaves, of herringbone weave design; a container for tuba (coconut toddy), made from a large bamboo internode, with a carved wooden handle lashed to the body with rattan bands; the kereban, a quiver for carrying darts for the hunter’s blowgun, tied to the waist during a hunting foray; the balata (darts), made of palm with spurs fashioned from pith of palm midribs; the sapukan, blowgun made from two lengths of bamboo joined together by means of resin sealant; the ugyong, arrows made from long palm reed rods with alternating decorative bands, and with arrowheads of bamboo attached to the rod with nito strips; the busog (bow), made from wood of palm, with a rattan bowstring whose ends are tied to the bow ends with nito strips; and the pasil, a top used by children as a toy, which is pointed oval in shape, with a knob on the upper end.

Batak Tribe Stories and Legends

Batak oral tradition is a compendium of various forms of folk speech containing traditional wit, humor, and knowledge, as well as stories about the world of people and the world of spirits. The first includes liwad-liwad (jokes) and paigumun (riddles). The presence of the native term for riddles lends evidence to their existence, but no Batak adult would admit to knowing them. Hence, no Batak riddles have yet been recorded.

The stories have varied types: tuturan, a generic term for all kinds of stories told among the people; tultul, humorous but untrue stories about unknown people; kwinto (from the Spanish cuento or story), an imaginary story about some person; panya’en, stories about evil spirits; diwata, stories about medicinal herbs and the art of curing; and surubli’in, stories about inheritance.

Some tultul represent a kind of origin myth, often recounted by old men in the evening when work has stopped and the members of the hunting-gathering band are assembled around the fire. Stories about the origin of the Batak have a self-deprecating tone and a theme unravelled in a humorous manner.

Evil mountain spirits called panyaen
Evil mountain spirits called panyaen (Illustration by Leo Kempis Ang)

Representative of the tultul is one which explains the origin of the Batak thus: Four sons came upon their sleeping parents. The eldest laughed at his mother’s nakedness; the second son only mildly laughed; the third remained silent; but it was the fourth son who covered his mother. From the oldest son came the Batak people; from the second emerged the Tagbanwa; from the third, the Moro; and from the fourth, the Spaniards.

Another origin story similar to the first ends with an explanation of how fire came to the Batak. After the younger son laughed at his father’s nakedness, the older son reprimanded him and covered up their sleeping father. The younger boy turned into an ugly man wearing a loincloth and became the first Batak. The older son became a wise and wealthy man. The father instructed his Batak son to find a stone, a piece of steel, and tinder in order to build a fire. The Batak boy made the first fire with the use of these objects.

According to Batak folklore, the woman was originally a man who was transformed into a woman. An old man sent his two sons to guard his trees. The younger son ate some of the fruits and hence grew breasts on his body. Later, the older son married the woman who used to be his brother. And this was the first marriage.

The Batak’s story of the origin of rice also explains the origin of plates. In the earliest days, when food was scarce, a man was told in a dream to kill his child and plant it in the field. He did so, and after cutting up his child into tiny pieces, he scattered these all over the field. The pieces began to sprout, and the first palay of the Batak came forth. The man then scattered the child’s bones all over the field, where they turned into bandi (plates). And so the Batak came to own plates, which they would use to pay for fines or the bride-price.

Another story explains the origin of certain customs during the wake for the dead. Long ago during the second day of a wake, the corpse suddenly sat up and proceeded to eat the people at the wake. One man hit the corpse with a pole, which killed it again. The people tied down the corpse and placed the pole across the chest to keep it permanently still. To this day, the Batak still tie a pestle across the body of a dead person.

One panya’en story is about a vine called malabnang. A long time ago, there was a flat stone wall in the eastern mountain which was believed to be the home of evil mountain spirits called panya’en. A vine grew from the ground and clung to the wall. This sturdy vine became the ladder of the spirits in their dwelling.

Batak Tribal Music, Dance and Rituals

In placating and supplicating the divinities of the spirit world, the Batak use incantations, music, and dance in ritual performances called pagdiwata. A healing ceremony is called magkabaro. A pre-planting ceremony is called sageb, during which this short prayer is chanted: “Patubo’un tu paray men” (let our rice grow). The adidao is a chant that calls on the guidance of good spirits:

Adidao, madali kamo, kay ne

Tabagan mo kami, kabiling-binganen

Kaw kandaw mo ako, tabangan mo kami, kay ne.

(Adidao, hasten, come please,

Help us, you, from the Balimbing tree

Listen to me, help me, please.)

Batak woman with flower ornaments
Batak woman with flower ornaments, 1964 (The Dances of the Emerald Isles by Leonor Orosa-Goquingco. Ben-Lor Publishers, 1980.)

A male babaylan performs the magdiwata (ritual songs) and magtarek (dances). Other performers in the pagdiwata are the mag-e, who repeats every word sung by the mandidiwata babaylan, and the nag-awaw-aw, two or more female singers who provide the background for the shaman by elongating the last syllables of music phrases.

Batak man playing the native guitar, Langogan, Puerto Princesa City
Batak man playing the native guitar, Langogan, Puerto Princesa City (Lara Frayre,

Instrumental music is provided by female players who pound on rudimentary drums and strike bamboo tubes with sticks. The drums, called kalag, are usually made from dried animal skin drawn tight over a piece of hollowed wood by means of a coiled rattan ring. Other musical instruments used are the tipano, a 47-centimeter long flute with six fingerholes, made from an internode with a small diameter; the sabagan, a piece of li-it softwood about 3 meterslong, played by means of drumstick-shaped pieces of wood; and the lampung, also a wooden instrument suspended from the house beams like the sabagan. There is also mention of the guimbal, agong, and bobandil in relation to the pagdiwata ritual. Moreover, the Batak have three special instruments: the lantoy, a nose flute with two holes; the kodian, which is about 1.8 meters long, with two barks of fiber, and used for the traditional accompaniment in the singing of the “Abellano”; and the budlong or lagongan, a guitarlike two-stringed instrument. The set tunes of the pagdiwata songs are euphonic. For instance:





During the healing rites, the babaylan goes into a trance by lying flat on the ground and singing the sukilan, the wawaen, and the runduman. In this state he dances with vigor and power. At one point, he stands still, almost motionless; then he starts to shake and tremble, taking small steps at a time as he continues on to bigger and more strenuous steps. Dancing stops only when he falls exhausted and out of breath. He then announces the best cure for the ailing person. This usually entails an animal sacrifice and the recitation of prayers to appease the offended diwata. Another healing dance is called the kendar, which is also performed by a male shaman while in a trance. Sometimes the kendar is performed during the rice harvest rituals.

The tarek is a traditional dance performed by a farmer and his family as part of a preplanting ritual to ask the diwata of the fields to guard the newly opened fields and to bring a good harvest. It is also performed during a lugu, before the start of the fishing season. Before the tarek is danced, food and animal offerings are placed on field altars set up for the ritual. Both the kendar and the tarek, as well as dances called leyan-leyan and sadonkaya, are performed by the babaylan. The women do not participate in ceremonial dances although they are familiar with routines.

Batak men performing the tarek or war dance
Batak men performing the tarek or war dance (City Tourism Department of Puerto Princesa)

Three dances exemplify the present Batak hierarchy of dances: the sarunkay, the first dance executed by the healer during the healing ritual; the bugsay-bugsay, an enjoyable dance for one or more persons; and the patarusan, considered the highest in the hierarchy because it is the fastest and most exciting but perhaps the easiest to learn. Other dances are the sambulagan, a fast-paced type of dancing, and the kansaan, characterized by a frenzied tempo. These dances can be complex, with much stomping while arms hang loosely at the dancer’s side or are crossed at the back or even raised from the elbow, as in an inverted T position.

The prototheatrical rituals of the Batak, represented by the magdiwata and the magtarek, are performed to appease spirits through song and dance. These are the kuma, the group reidentification ritual; runsay, the group ancestral spirit worship ritual; and sagda, the vengeance ceremony. On the other hand, in certain Batak communities like that in Kayasan, the sagda is a ritual performed before they embark on any major economic activity. In this variation of the sagda, they ask for permission from spirits who they believe hold the rights over these resources. They offer food, forest products, and other items related to economic production to appease them. The sagda, held in a place they regard as sacred, must be attended by all members of the production unit, such as a band of Batak intending to gather beeswax. In recent years, the sagda has become more of an individual obligation than a community activity, performed as a simple ceremony in one’s household.

The lambay kat taro is a ritual aimed at either restoring or maintaining the equilibrium between humans and bees, particularly when humans have offended Ungaw, the panya’en of bees who makes it difficult for hunters to locate hives or makes individuals ill because of their wasteful beehive collection practices. This “honey ritual” is a ceremonial cycle: It requires the suspension of the search for honey for 15 days. During this period, members of the band are required to observe collective “good behavior,” avoid interpersonal conflicts, and to only “think cleanly” about their neighbors. The cycle ends in a culminating ritual, after which the search for honey begins anew. The ritual is still practiced by the Batak because honey collection continues to be an important livelihood for many.

There are also dance enactments of the bees’ search for honey, battle scenes, and courtship episodes. A common version of the courtship dance has the girl pretending to spurn the advances of her suitor—a comical piece mostly improvised.

Batak People as Featured in Documentaries and Films 

The Batak have been featured in a few documentaries that were produced both by local and international agencies. The 50-minute documentary Batak: Ancient Spirits, Modern World, 2000, by ethnographer and filmmaker J. Scott Dodds, in collaboration with sociocultural anthropologist James Eder, focuses on the Batak’s hunting and foraging cultures and their struggle to protect their identity and territories in the face of the negative impacts of contemporary economic, political, and environmental changes (Films Media Group 2000).

In 2012, Ancestral Land/Domain Watch (ALDAW), an advocacy network group of indigenous peoples, produced the 15-minute documentary Palawan: Our Struggle for Nature and Culture, 2012. The film begins with three Batak men narrating the myth of Kawali and the Father of Bees upon which the lambay tradition is based. The film then proceeds to show the locals residing in Brooke’s Point, Palawan, strongly protesting mining operations by large corporations that continue to devastate their lands and contaminate their waters (ALDAWnetwork 2012). One of the video’s filmmakers, social anthropologist and environmental and human rights defender Dario Novellino, who had also engaged with Batak communities in 1987, worked on an earlier project with the Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Conserved-Areas and Territories (ICCA) Consortium in 2018 and produced short videos about the Tanabag Batak’s life and their sustainable farming, all which can be found on the ICCA Consortium’s YouTube channel (ICCA Consortium 2021). Together with the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, the Coalition Against Land Grabbing, and the Batak Federation, Novellino also published an 80-page photo-narrative book called Batak: The First People in the same year (Novellino 2018).

Palawan-based photographer Pedrito Ensomo has documented in several high-definition videos Batak traditions, such as the lambay ritual, pagdiwata, and the tarek dance (ensomo 2021). GMA News featured the six-minute documentary Batak: Ang Naglalahong Tribo (Batak: The Vanishing Tribe) in a segment of an episode of i-Witness that aired on 10 July 2013. Host Mariz Umali joined a few Batak men on a hunting trip in the forest for honey and wild boar (GMA News 2013). Also on GMA, a four-minute segment of an episode of the TV magazine program Biyahe ni Drew featured the Batak of Puerto Princesa City that aired on 30 April 2019. It provided a glimpse of the Batak’s traditions of weaving, bowhunting, and making temporary settlements (GMA Public Affairs 2019).


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