Updated: Mar 27
by OONA PAREDES
Assistant Professor of Southeast Asian Studies,
University of California Los Angeles - Department of Asian Languages & Cultures
This statement was revised for brevity and presented by Dr. Paredes as one of the discussants of the first of the two-part roundtable discussions entitled "What's in a Name? Views from Anthropologists on Lumad" organized by UGAT in partnership with the Philippine Social Science Council and hosted by University of San Carlos held on March 25, 2021 via Zoom.
Those of you who are familiar with my work with the Higaunon already know that I use the term ‘Lumad’ very actively in my presentations and publications. It was already a commonly used term by the time I started my academic career, so I’ve been using it for a very long time. In fact, for my ethnohistorical book, A Mountain of Difference (Cornell University/SEAP, 2013), I subtitled it The Lumad in Early Colonial Mindanao. In this particular case, I made the conscious decision to apply the term ‘Lumad’ retroactively, as a way to talk about the collective experiences of the Indigenous Peoples of Mindanao without delving into the specifics of the individual ethnic groups.
Part of the justification for this is the fact that the current ethnic groupings as we know them cannot necessarily be projected back to time immemorial, because we know from understanding historical processes that took place in the Philippines that the cultural diversity we see in the Philippines today – including the division of people into our present-day ethnic groups – was influenced very strongly, or perhaps even created by, the process that William Henry Scott called ‘colonial alchemy’. Moreover, the group names themselves can be misleading – we know that in Southeast Asia both ethnic identity and naming can be quite fluid, and that the names some populations had in the past do not necessarily correspond to the similar ethnic group names we use in the present. So the term ‘Lumad’ was and is a simple, shortcut way to refer in a general way to the ancestors of this specific category of people, the non-Muslim Indigenous Peoples of Mindanao.
Of course, all the IPs or katutubo of the Philippines have many comparable experiences and they share many of the same kinds of struggles. They also share many significant commonalities with IPs all over the world. But those of us who work with and care about the Lumad IPs know that there are also specific historical, political, cultural commonalities they share that are unique to the Mindanao context. I know that, for the same reason, it’s also useful for the Lumad themselves to be able to communicate, cooperate, collaborate, and otherwise bond with each other as they share a common plight. For this reason, I think it’s quite important to have a way to talk about the Mindanao IPs as a collective. And ‘Lumad,’ like it or not, has been that collective term for the past few decades now.
As an academic, this is my response to the current statement by NCIP.
But as a Lumad ally and as a Mindanawon myself, I have more profound concerns about a statement that strongly implies limiting freedom of speech as well as freedom of thought – not just for outsiders like academics, NGO workers, and others – but for the Lumad themselves as well. I’ve had some conversations with IP friends in Mindanao to hear their thoughts on this issue. The universal response has been that they don’t mind the term Lumad at all, and really don’t understand why there is a problem with it all of a sudden, when it’s been in use for a long time now. In other words, while they don’t have a deep attachment to the term, they also don’t think the government response to eliminate the term altogether is warranted. I should point out that many of the people I work with have no love for the NPA, having had some very negative encounters with them, especially in the recent past. Nor are they supportive of anyone they may perceive as remotely “leftist” (some of them may never forgive me for convincing them to vote for an Akbayan senatorial candidate back in 2016). In fact, most of them have been enthusiastic supporters of the current president who regularly post stuff on Facebook against his critics, and had bragged that their whole area went 100% to Duterte in the previous election.
Some IPs I know are somewhat less enamored of the president and are more sanguine about the realities they are facing in this situation. In terms of those who have the burden of leadership roles in their communities -- or more commonly, across multiple communities -- they fear that this will make them vulnerable to being red-tagged just for being community leaders, given that a lot of what they do involves making sure their peoples’ voices are heard and that their needs are addressed. They are keenly aware of how easily their actions might be politicized by others – and not just by the government – when voicing a community issue can very easily sound like a protest or critique. This is likely because when we hear voices from the margins – such as the voices of IPs, who we normally look down upon and treat patronizingly – we are forced to face too many uncomfortable truths about our own failures as a society. The sad reality is that, to be an IP in our society is to be forced to advocate for yourself and your community on a daily basis. It’s absolutely wrong to interpret IP self-advocacy as political activism when it is really about basic survival and basic human rights, as well as a basic exercise of citizenship. It seems the basic act of being an IP today is already too “political.”
Yet this resolution gives inappropriate significance to one small sector of the political spectrum, giving their agenda and their efforts an outsized importance when it comes to the struggles of the Lumad and other IPs. This resolution effectively negates or erases the incredible amount of community organization and self-help that Indigenous communities have undertaken on their own initiative. The efforts of IPs are already routinely downplayed in mainstream public discourse because they are not being promoted in the media, or lauded on social media, or supported by any form of propaganda. They don’t have any national objectives or ideologies to promote. They don’t have fancy websites or fundraising campaigns to attract international support from concerned Filipinos in the diaspora. No, they are primarily concerned with the uncontroversial work they are undertaking in their own communities, or across several communities, often under difficult circumstances, without seeking any public acknowledgement.
For example, right now, the field of “Lumad education” is so intimately linked in the public imagination with organizations that are not run by the Lumad themselves. However, there are actual examples of IP education programs that are successful, such as the IPed program in Misamis Oriental province, conducted under the auspices of DepEd-Gingoog City Division, which serves the most remote IP communities known as “last mile schools.” It was conceptualized, initiated, and has been implemented for several years now, by the local IPs themselves, many of whom have earned college degrees in the field of Education. They fundraise locally, mostly from among other IP’s and rely on donations from other local residents for school supplies. I know there are more examples in other IP areas. So why has the public debate over “Lumad education” or “IP education” been overtaken so completely by the politics of outsiders, while the remarkable, successful work of IPs themselves is forgotten?
I want to be clear that when I say that the IPs are being treated patronizingly by “others,” I am referring to anyone who presumes that IPs are somehow not conscious enough, or educated enough, or sensible enough to have their own voice and make their own decisions. It doesn’t matter in the least if your politics are “right-wing” or “left-wing.” I am referring to anyone who is not IP but presumes to speak for IPs or in place of IPs. I am referring to anyone who imposes their own agenda on them, and expects or demands total compliance. I am referring to anyone who stands in front of IPs, puts words into their mouths, and slaps their own slogans on top of their struggles. I’m referring to anyone who feeds factionalism within IP communities in order to further their own political, economic, or self-aggrandizement goals. I’m referring to anyone who frames IPs as helpless, hapless, benighted victims, and presents themselves as their savior. I’m referring to anyone who is shouting so loud that they drown out the voices of the actual IPs.
I want to be clear that I’m critical of anyone who does not listen to what IP communities have to say, or let them say it in their own words, or otherwise respect absolutely their right to self-determination. The only agenda that deserves support here is whatever the agenda of each IP community might be. Each community has the right to have their say, set their own agenda, and decide on their own path, without interference. I think that there are too many of us – including those of us in the academe – who believe we know what’s best for the Lumad and other IPs. But we do not. Nor do we have any right to impose our own ideas on them. And we all need to do better. All of us.
When I first heard about the resolution, my initial thought was that I would have to rethink much of my research, because of how often I use the term “Lumad.” I had assumed that there might be a widespread sentiment among IPs in Mindanao that this term was offensive, which therefore warranted the resolution in question. I approached it with the commitment to stop using this term if the communities I work with stop using it. But as I spoke to the Lumad IPs I knew, I heard from them that they did not know whose idea it really was to ban the word, that they did not necessarily agree with the ban, and even found it problematic because of the other potential dangers posed by the resolution.
Let’s not fool ourselves. Even if we stop using the term Lumad, we can still be red-tagged. The point is not whether one word is allowed or disallowed. The point is to shut down any potential for dissent, in order to compel a level of compliance that is incompatible with democratic governance and Indigenous self-determination, among other things. Especially if anyone even mildly critical of the government can be so casually and absent-mindedly labelled as a member of “the left” as if we are not allowed to think for ourselves. And while the “ND” types are the target right now, let’s not forget that, in the previous decades, other sectors, such as the Church and its affiliated actors, also became deliberate targets. Neither our silence nor compliance will save us. Nor will it save the IPs who are caught perpetually in the crossfire.
As to doing anthropology, how do we proceed? I think the only way to proceed is to strive to do better anthropology, so that our work benefits rather than harms the communities we work with, especially the IP communities. A good trend here in the U.S. is what is called collaborative research, wherein your former research subjects or informants instead become active participants as your co-investigators and co-authors. This means involving the community from the very start, beginning with your research design, formulating the research questions, making decisions about what methodology to use in collecting data, and what research outputs to work towards. I have been trying my best to do this with my current project, which was conceptualized in the first place upon the strong suggestion of a datu that I worked with. The current methodology was also the result, in part, of the free prior and informed consent (FPIC) process I undertook with several different communities, under the guidance of the local NCIP office. Rather than try to convince them to allow me to do my project, I presented it to them humbly for consideration, and then I closed my mouth and just listened.
The many discussions that took place showed me the strengths and weaknesses of the project, and allowed me to make several critical adjustments that improved it significantly. The fact that the communities were actively involved in the research also made a huge difference in terms of the cooperation I received, leading to some amazing Ph.D.-level epistemological discussions about representation among people who are routinely dismissed as uneducated, unsophisticated, simple-minded. I started learning things that I never expected or imagined. I also learned that some things that I had presumed to know about them – after almost two decades by that time – had been wrong.
While there are those who will advocate for collaborative research as a matter of doing the “right,” “good,” and “inclusive” thing, I have come to see it as an essential element of good anthropological research, period. Indeed, it is simply better research to do things collaboratively with the IPs as co-investigators who have the authority and the voice to participate in it as equals. In this manner, they benefit because our work finally focuses on what is actually interesting and relevant to them and reflects their lived reality. Rather than focusing on what appeals primarily to an outsider’s political, cultural, or career agenda – be they a civil servant, a government lackey, a Communist agitator, a humanitarian worker, a religious missionary, or even a Filipino anthropologist.