Tag Archives: ethnic community

Photo Collection: Mountains and Tattoos

First stop, Bontoc

Mind the betel nut you chew

The Sleeping Beauty Inn

The Mountains of Kalinga

Buscalan from afar

A day in the village of Buscalan

A Kalinga House

Whang-Od preparing her tools

The art of tattooing

The Eye


Note: These photos can also be found in my flickr account, alon89

Of Mountains and Tattoos

By Kert

It was deep in the evening when we left the hustle and bustle of Manila to go on the 12-hour drive to Bontoc, Mountain Province. The bus went through several towns, provinces and countrysides; getting colder every hour we’re on the road. There were many tourists and people who were going home for the holidays. Tourists right at our back were on their way to the bonfire in Sagada.

9 AM – we arrived at Bontoc. It was cold. Mountains were in every corner of our sight. A town in the middle of the mountains. We missed  the 9AM jeep to Tinglayan, Kalinga-Apayao so we had to wait for the 1PM jeep. It was already late in the afternoon when we arrived in Tinglayan. The guide told us we should stay the night in the town. We couldn’t trek the mountains in the dark and it was raining. It was the first moment we broke our itinerary. We stayed the night at the Sleeping Beauty Inn and cooked the noodles and canned goods we were supposed to eat up in the mountains. Two travelers were also at the inn when we got there who would come with us later to the village of Buscalan.

I was particularly excited when I woke up the following day. I have heard of the legendary Whang Od from other Anthropology students who have been in Buscalan before me. She is the last expert Mambabatok (tattoo artist) in Buscalan and she’s teaching a 16-year old apprentice, Grace, who is also getting to be a good Mambabatok. Whang Od has been teaching Grace since the girl was 10 years old. Six years in training and she didn’t flinch at the sight of blood and wounded skin.

Whang Od herself is over 90 years old, but her eyes and hands are still as keen as ever. She is amazingly quite strong for her age. The fruits of good diet and clean environment. I saw her feed her pigs and go up and down a ladder with the ease of a 20-year old. She also has the kindest face which reminded me so much of my late grandfather. She has a bright smile and twinkling eyes. Even though we couldn’t understand each other (she spoke her own native tongue and a few English phrases), I found myself reaching out to her.

A living legend (Image via Bruce Liron)

I was tattooed (or hammered) at 1PM; the third person that day to be tattooed. I asked her to decide the design for me and she chose the “eye” motif for spiritual guidance and awareness. It was a two-hour ordeal and I tried to steady myself as I was shaking from the pain and the impact of the thorn being hammered on my arm. I didn’t look as I never really liked the sight of blood, but I was very excited. I have a couple of tattoos on my body, but this was the first time I was getting one with a deep cultural and historical value. It was literally culture imprinted on my skin.

It was late when Whang Od finished tattooing us. I was still amazed how she was able to handle 4 people in one day. However, we couldn’t hike down the mountain as planned. We planned to meet other friends in Sagada that day to see the bonfire. But it was already getting dark and the trail was slippery. One wrong step and we’d be sending ourselves down a cliff and into eternity. We had to cancel. We spent the night at Whang Od’s house with the other travelers we hiked with in the morning. Anyway, it’s always nice to hear stories from strangers.

Early the next morning, we started descending from the village of Buscalan to Bugnay to wait for the jeep to Bontoc. It was high noon when we arrived in Bontoc and we were contemplating if we should go straight to Manila or claim our reserved bus tickets in Baguio. We settled for the latter.

We circled the beautiful mountains of Benguet. The sights were breathtaking. Terraces are sculpted at the sides of the mountains and they were filled with lush vegetables. Many a-times we caught ourselves looking down upon clouds and mists. It felt like being in The Hobbit really. Everything was so green and teeming with life. Eventually we got ourselves talking about Lorax and environmentalism. I wondered how much of the Philippines still look as green as the sights we were seeing from the bus.

It was a very dizzying ride as the roads were never straight, always in a zigzag. Baguio is distinct from the rest of Benguet. It was easily distinguishable that we were approaching the city as the trees and terraces were replaced with houses and structures that one can no longer recognize the mountains. I wonder if the spaces were thoroughly planned. Baguio is prone to earthquakes after all.

We started the trip at night and we also ended it at night. Three days in the mountains. We barely had a shower but it was indeed one of the most memorable experiences of our lives. As a friend said, the good thing about traveling up north is you’ll never know what to expect. There’s always something different and memorable in each visit.

Admittedly, I had troubles with the hike. Being a sedentary teacher, I was really out of shape. But I will indeed come back again and see the beautiful highlands and visit Whang Od too of course.

Note: Photos of the trip will be posted later. And a post about the trip from one of the travelers we were with: Kalinga: Buscalan’s Whang Od, the Pretty Tattoo Artist

Secrets of the Tribe: A Film Review

By Kert

Don’t mess with people or they might associate with tiny figures that have engorged penises (Image via Cleveland International Film Festival)

Secrets of the Tribe is a documentary dealing with the anthropological conquests among the Yanomamo of various researchers. It takes on different perspectives on the ethics of the studies conducted among the Yanomamo. Of course, the center of it all is Napoleon Chagnon. Indeed Chagnon’s career as an anthropologist was fueled by his studies among the Yanomamo of the Amazon. His book Yanomamo: The Fierce People can be considered one of the most famous anthropological books of all time and is widely used as a textbook in different universities worldwide. It is also one of the most celebrated texts in sociobiology.

The documentary revolves around the question: Were Chagnon’s (and his colleagues’) research and treatment of the Yanomamo ethical? How, as members of the academe, should we react on what occurred in the Yanomamo territory with the entrance of researchers?


There has been a long debate between the party of Napoleon Chagnon and the party of Kenneth Good regarding Chagnon’s study — the correctness of the interpretations of his data — and the ethical standards of the two as they entered Yanomamo community. See, Chagnon is accused of paying the “natives” for information and also for introducing James Neel (who purportedly conducted a research at the expense of the lives of the Yanomamo) and Jacques Lizot (who was said to have had sexually exploited the Yanomamo). Kenneth Good, on the other hand, has also a fair share of controversy for marrying an underage Yanomamo woman.

The issues also pulls several other anthropologists such as one of the “Anthropology Gods”, Claude Levi-Strauss who sent Lizot to Venezuela. Also, anthropologist Terence Turner and journalist Patrick Tierney and many others (which I can’t remember as of the moment)

The Rashomon Effect

The only way in knowing what and how a Yanomamo lives is by actually living in them. Researches saying they are peace-loving and on the other hand, greedy and fierce people might be considered contradictory. But then again, human lives in general are contradictory. We might be seeing something in the Social Sciences which is called the Rashomon effect (Heider:1988)  — meaning different ethnographers may have different perspectives about one community. One may see the peace-loving part while another may see the fierce part. But then again, humans around the world can be both peace-loving and really fierce at the same time.


Ethics is an issue which is a constant struggle in the academe, especially in the social sciences where we are faced with different situations all the time. Ethics can sometimes be context-based, meaning it all depends on the researcher to act according to his moralities. But of course there are baselines, especially in anthropology, for these ethical responses. First is cultural relativism (which is also a contested issue). The next, in my opinion, is to never exploit thy subjects. We are also taught in the university never to give money to any of our informants. There are more, but the latter two are relevant to the film.

Indeed Lizot’s and Neel’s actions were unacceptable. And it baffles me how they could do such horrid things. Good’s case, I find ethically ambiguous — here cultural relativism shall be put into test. However, I find the last issue I outlined above interesting. Indeed, it doesn’t seem appropriate to pay informants. However, can anthropologist not help the people s/he consider as friends? I admittedly done this bludgeon once as I offered money to an IP (indigeous people) woman who was crying as she told me her story of suffering and defeat.

Indeed the line that we should draw between ourselves and our informants is very difficult to discern. Can we truly be friends with them? Can we not fall in love with them? Are we supposed to just be robots in the name of knowledge and science?

The ethical questions in the incident with the Yanomamo is not exclusive and confined to those events. Questions like these and more should and are pondered by researchers as new set of contexts and incidents are encountered. We always have to continually ask ourselves whether what we are doing is right and just (though these things are very relative and highly ambiguous).

Yanomamo: The People

What I like most about the film are the interviews with the Yanomamo as they expressed their thoughts and feelings towards the researchers. How much of it was edited by the director, I wouldn’t know. But at least there were snippets and their voices heard.

Whatever really happened, the Yanomamo was still on the losing side and people in the academe should always reflect on the incident in Venezuela. We may not be able to change the past, but we can change the future.


More substantive comments and blog posts about the film, Secrets of the Tribe

Secrets of the Tribe by Barbara Rose Johnston

Secrets of the Tribe by Louis Proyect

Anthropologist Bites Dog by Savage Minds

A Rather Curious Artifact

ImageThis is an artifact I was able to acquire from Cagayan de Oro. I have no idea what it is. Obviously it’s some sort of container, but container for what? The kid in the hut selling souvenirs told me it’s a pencil case, but I highly doubt that. The kid is not from the ethnic group that made this thing. The vendor told me that an ethnic group from Bukidnon make them. The souvenir hut is theirs, but the vendors are not from the group.It has very interesting designs. Except for the sun, I can’t decipher what the other inscribed designs. Here’s another photo, more up close:




Chada!: A Trip to Northern Mindanao


A dance performance of Lumad children in an Eco-tourism part in Cagayan de Oro.

Personally, I dislike the term Lumad as it connotes non-Christian non-Muslim indigenous peoples living in Mindanao. In my view, there’s something wrong about categorizing people based on their religion. But at the moment, I don’t have anything else to call them so I’m going to use the name. I also kinda feel iffy that their culture is being commercialized but on the bright side, performing in front of tourists earn them a living. I also got something from the shops owned by an indigenous group from Bukidnon. I find it rather interesting as it has a very curious design. But no one could give me explanations about the inscribed artwork as the shopkeeper is not from the indigenous group that produced the artifact. Maybe I’ll look into it in the future. I’ll post a photo of the artifact tomorrow. I have no idea what it is. One of the children said it’s a pencil case, but I highly doubt that. I am sure, though, that it is a container of some sort.