Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, site of one of author’s reflections. (Photo by Jojie Alcantara)
I remember reading Vera de Chalambert’s piece, “Kali Takes America: I’m with Her” (2016) in the aftermath of Trump’s election in 2016 and being struck by the counter-intuitive insight: we need to let Holy Darkness have her way with us, that it’s only in Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, that our illusions of false hope can fall away that then prepares us for the ministrations of the Divine Doctor. And how much we need those ministrations! A xenophobe, narcissist, misogynist, White Supremacist, climate change denier, pathological liar, taking hold of the biggest bully pulpit in the world. And this after decades of unrelenting neoliberal plunder and business-as-usual indifference to ice caps melting and ecosystems collapsing. And then like a kamikaze exclamation point—a virus pandemic, upending everything that the civilized world had taken for granted as “normal.”
The Dark Night of the Soul—the work of the Underworld—seems to be our nearly ubiquitous course today as a species. When Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen was interviewed at the release of his fourteenth studio album, You Want It Darker, he was noted to have remarked that, contrary to what many had interpreted as an expression of hopelessness, his album was really about “offering ourselves up” when the “emergency becomes articulate” (in de Chalambert, 2016, emphasis added). But emergency doesn’t just come into speech on its own—was my thought reflecting on his meaning. For that to happen, something other than the default condition of emergency has to become apparent as well; otherwise, all we get is a seamless experience of catastrophe in moving from one exigency to the next. There is need for a contrast apparition, a vision of something different in order to bring the given state of emergency into stark relief.
I am someone who, for decades now, has been compelled by an alternative report on the world to what might be called “the prize winning story” of civilizational triumph (Kremer & Jackson-Patton, 212-217), in which human beings are represented as having at last conquered the world by gradually, over the course of millennia, wresting their fate from the maw of barbarism, backwardness, and precarious living (unlike those that cannot but bow to the “will of the gods”). Within the logic of this much venerated story, the constant state of emergency that has come to define the modern condition—the sense of there never being enough time, resources, energy, wealth, etc.—is hardly seen as such, but simply the price that must be paid for homo sapiens’ triumph.
Dr. S. Lily Mendoza is a full Professor of Culture and Communication at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. She is known for her pathbreaking work on the politics of indigeneity and critique of modernity, in particular, within the Philippine diasporic and homeland context. She has published widely around questions of identity and belonging, cultural politics in national, post- and trans- national contexts, race and indigeneity, and, more recently, on ecology and questions of meaning in the face of climate change and eco-systems collapse. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Babaylan Studies, a movement for decolonization and indigenization among diasporic Filipinos.
The reasoning goes this way: we were made for this—for endless advancement, for accelerating progress, for the hard-fought assemblage of ever better ways to live. And, although the price of this “progress” is sometimes lamented as regrettable, it is deemed “nevertheless worth paying” (Wolloch, 2013, p. 108). Hence, emergency simply becomes the air we breathe. Without an alternative story, we indeed flounder, but just grit our teeth, make do and (all too often) ask no further questions. But this narrative begs challenge. It is neither natural nor inevitable.
My own schooling in an alternative story irrupted into my life unexpectedly a few decades ago. It happened, quite unwittingly, in a seminar at the University of the Philippines where I was doing graduate studies, serving as a watershed moment in my life that now frames all my subsequent transformative journeying. This life-defining moment, the overturning of the conventional, received worldview and the uncovering of layers of richness and subtle beauty rooted elsewhere that I had not known previously except in my bones, has become the foundation of my hope today.
The title of the course was “The Image of the Filipino in the Arts,” taught by an ethnomusicology professor who brought into the classroom samples of the works of art of the Philippines’ various Indigenous tribes—their fabrics, weaving designs, basketry, dances, epic chants, architecture, etc.—and what they expressed by way of a different mode of being in the world. That first-time encounter with indigenously-authored beauty opened me up to a whole new world—one only peripherally glimpsed in my colonial upbringing as a world we, Filipinos, had to leave behind if we were ever to “advance” and come into our “full humanity.” In that colonized view, life on the land was “eewww” (!)—no better than animal-like existence, conjuring images of dirt, pitiful privations of subsistence living, and back-breaking labor just to eke out a living. Who in their right minds would want such? Hands down, we choose the prize winning story (of modern convenience, surplus production, and mesmerizing technological wonders).
The tree sentinels and water lilies at the Agusan Marsh. (Photo by Jojie Alcantara)
In that class, however, I was smitten. I fell in love, awestruck not only by the beauty of Indigenous design, but by the ritual subtlety and cosmological complexity of the worlds that gave birth to such brilliant artistic creations. Here were peoples whom I had only heard talked about previously as “napag-iwanan ng panahon,” “left-behind by the times.” Yet, the effect of that first-time encounter with their different way of being as revealed through their works of art was a quickening of what British mythologist Martin Shaw calls “bone memory.” Like a lab-raised chick shuddering when a hawk-shaped shadow is passed overhead in the lab when it has never seen a hawk before and does not shudder at other shadows, I, too, responded with bodily tremor. But from recognition the opposite of fear! Walking out of every class session, heaves of emotion and copious tears would overwhelm me, flooding me with homecoming relief after what had seemed like an interminable exile from my own Indigenous soul–the consequence of years of unrelenting psychic disconfirmation through colonial tutelage growing up. Bones shook and re-birthed flesh; hope for myself and for a different kind of world began to make themselves felt like an ancestral visitation from a time before my own existence.
I speak of that transformative moment as one that now allows me to find the emergency of our time keenly articulate in every fiber of my being. The progressive story I had swallowed whole, sugar-coating a violence that now begins to appear global in scope, no longer shapes my longing. It rather grates within like jagged glass, its contradictions and impossibilities broken open by an older and deeper vision whose wisdom gives stark warning. There is no vaccine for what we have unleashed on the earth, no “normal” to return to that is not itself more deadly than the virus we currently suffer. Our moment is indeed “emergent” like apocalypse, disclosing a doom that could well spell not only our own end as a species but a terminus for much of the rest of life on the planet. In the gloom of such we may well try to persuade ourselves that it is the moments just before daybreak that are darkest. But if dawn is to come, its clemency will be Indigenous, a deliverance not new, but ancient as the sun, as recurrent as seed.
There is no vaccine for what we have unleashed on the earth, no “normal” to return to that is not itself more deadly than the virus we currently suffer.
In ancient Indian prophecies of the Eagle and the Condor in both North and South “America” (cf. SOTA, 2013), we are told that the intelligent, powerful, masculine energy of the Eagle from the North that invents, explores, and makes things happen will once again—after its separation by the advent of Euro-colonialism—reunite with the feminine, more intuitive, energy of the Condor from the South that feels as the Earth Mother feels, that seeks interconnection with all beings. When that time comes, the question for the rest of us is whether or not we will become part of the throng that will “offer themselves up,” as Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” album intones. If and when the emergency finally becomes “articulate” to us as emergency, and not simply business as usual, will we rise up to the demand?
In what follows, I share three meditations coming out of my schooling into the alternative story I mention. My hope is that they might help in throwing into sharp relief the arbitrariness of our modern civilization’s emergency and its naturalization as “just our given human condition.” The message is simple: Things don’t have to be this way. The meditations come out of my journaling entries as I reflect on a number of rare opportunities to spend a stretch of time with the Condor peoples in my home country, the Philippines—those who still live and carry memory of life outside the roiling emergency. Though unspared of its effects (and in fact the recipients of its worst impacts), they remain remarkably grounded in the summons of that alternative world that they, and their ancestors before them, have sought to keep alive through generations. They are the Earth peoples, the rememberers. And I smile recalling all that they have taught me. Whatever tinge of hope I have, whatever possibility of a different future I can imagine (different from that augured by the architects of the not-yet articulate emergency already here), I owe to their witness.
Agusan Marsh Diaries
Journal Entry #1
There are no words to describe the magic of our time in Agusan Marsh, a wildlife sanctuary in the Southern Philippines in the island of Mindanao where a Manobo tribe lived in a floating village called Sitio Panlabuhan. There were three of us women, namely, Grace Nono, head of Tao Foundation, and Mila Anguluan and I, elder-collaborators from the Center for Babaylan Studies, who were self-commissioned to do an advanced reconnaissance of places we might include as part of the programming for a gathering called Pamati, a Visayan word meaning “to listen.” It was a meeting of Philippine tribal elders and youth learners (both local and diasporic) scheduled for the following year. The Agusan Marshlands presented a good opportunity, given its proximity to the main gathering venue in Bunawan where Grace’s family’s ancestral home was located.
Our trip began with a three-hour boat ride going from Bunawan to the site with the accompaniment of new friends from the local community in Agusan del Sur. Catching sight of the floating village of Sitio Panlabuhan was breathtaking, with children skillfully rowing slender bancas (small dug-out canoes) on their own, and community members welcoming us ever so warmly.
The transformation was magical—mud and water taken over in a single night by a breathing emerald carpet! It isn’t for nothing that marshlands have been called the “kidneys of the Earth.”
Entry into the village (comprised entirely of houses and structures floating atop either cut bamboo or big plastic barrels) meant parting the thick stretch of water lilies as we approached the village area. Now and then our competent rowers would step out of the boat into the shallow waters to stir the boat through the lush green. We’re told that crocodiles routinely inhabit the waters but that only the domesticated ones (!) eat humans. That’s because there are unwise people who take baby crocs as pets, putting red bead necklaces around their necks as identifying tags and getting them accustomed to being fed instead of letting them learn to hunt for food on their own. The day comes when their “owner” fails to feed them and they go hungry, and that’s when they take the first flesh they could find, often an unsuspecting human. The natives know this and thus refrain from messing with the wild creatures that actually command respect in their own right. (They also know not to go to regions in the water known specifically as their abode, placing well-defined limits on human habitation.)
Punctuating the floating landscape, or rather, waterscape, were tall thin trees with trunks curiously covered with long downcast leaves, standing silently like noble sentinels guarding the place with a watchful eye. One wonders how tall these trees really were–how far into the water the trunks extended before they hit solid ground. Everything here is alive. Looking out from the balcony of the main building structure, one is overtaken with a sense of awe at the beauty of it all—with Father Sky kissing the gentle waters on the horizon as the stately tree sentinels looked on. Occasionally, a splash here and there announced the presence of finned relatives, although, increasingly, village folk lamented the destruction of their kind by the recent practice of illegal fishing that used kuryente to electrocute or shock these living creatures into paralysis, thus making them prone to easy capture. Often even baby ones get killed and those that manage to escape become sterile, their reproductive capacity rendered permanently nil. This practice drives the fish away, we’re told, and makes life harder for the people of the sitio who rely mostly on fishing for their sustenance.
Author’s visit to the floating village of Sitio Panlabuhan of the Tribung Manobo, Agusan Marsh with host tribal Elder Boyet and other community members. (Photo by Grace Nono)
When we arrived, Datu Boyet, the president/elder of the Tribung Manobo of Sitio Panlabuhan, performed a simple but moving ritual requesting the spirit guardians of the place to grant us safety and protection as we visited, assuring them of the goodness of our intentions. We had come prepared with the requested items for ritual offering: sweet candy, biscuits, rum, beer, Royal Tru Orange (!), coins (one from each of us), cigarettes, and lit candles. Invoking first the Ginoo (supreme being), then the Amigos (spirit ancestors/guardians of the place), Datu Boyet made humble supplication in his native tongue for our gifts to be accepted. Then the drinks were poured out into the water, the biscuits and candy as well. Lastly, we were asked to throw in the coins while silently reiterating our personal reasons for coming.
It must have been the sincerity of the words spoken, or the spirit with which Datu Boyet prayed, but the tenderness of the ritual so touched me that I was moved to tears. Amazing how such a simple gesture of asking permission served as a cautionary announcement, reminding one of local conviction that courtesy was required to come, not as a tourist, but as a guest, humbly seeking the sufferance of one’s intrusion from the beings of the place–the waters, the land underneath, the trees, the fishes, along with the human hosts. Later, everyone was invited to share in what remained of the drink, candy, and biscuits, with the kids only being allowed to partake of the Royal True Orange, not the rum, or beer. (Whether such items were innovations from the surrounding commercial culture, I had no chance to figure out for sure. But not unlike in other parts of the world where commercial items of commodified intrusion (like Coca-cola) are taken up in Indigenous genius and re-deployed, alongside more native offerings, in service of respect (cf. Nelson, 1997)–and some such even taking on the aura of magic or a fetish–I could only imagine so).
Banca ride to and from the Agusan Marshlands with Grace Nono. (Photo by KKen Toyong)
In the afternoon, it rained hard and the water rose a bit. After it stopped, we decided we wanted to go check out the langgam (migratory birds) that we were told liked to come through that area, but that really come from places far away as none of them were native to the place. Datu Boyet obliged and, again, we reveled in being out on the water, this time, bird-watching.
We had brought our own food for lunch and dinner—chicken and pork adobo prepared by Grace’s expert cook, Arcing, the trusted caretaker of her family as far back as Grace could remember. Manang Diding, who had a PhD in Home Economics, with the assistance of her med tech daughter KKen (Kiken), made sure everything was laid out just so. It was quite a feast by candlelight. The marsh took on an eerie feel as night fell slowly and all you could see were the shadows of the tree sentinels in the not too far distance.
Since there was no electricity, we decided to head early for bed, as our “civilized” bodies reluctantly eased into Nature’s circadian rhythm. Our hosts had laid out sleeping mats on the floor with mosquito nets—Mila, Grace, and I under one large mosquito net, and Nang Diding and Kken in another. As usual, Mila was out cold right away while Grace and I yakked away sharing life journeys. Then it was time to sleep even for us.
When we awoke early the next morning, the whole marsh was solid green! The water lilies had closed in and formed one big giant island, stopping only short of the long bamboo demarcation barrier placed at the entrance of the water village. The transformation was magical—mud and water taken over in a single night by a breathing emerald carpet! It isn’t for nothing that marshlands have been called the “kidneys of the Earth” (in the way forests are described as the “lungs of the Earth”). Besides serving to strain out upstream pollutants, they filter “muck” into vibrant beauty, granting “nearly a billion human denizens a bounteous living by way of farming, fishing, tourism, or transportation and serving as ‘nursery’ for around 40 percent of the world’s species” (Gibbens, February 2, 2021).
Our hosts caught and broiled gurami and dalag and donated a giant cucumber from their floating garden and also cooked the rice that we brought with us. The sawsawan (sauce) was sili (hot pepper), suka (vinegar) with toyo (soy sauce) and chopped onions. We decided to eat right at the bamboo platform outside instead of inside the structure and again, what a feast!
Then it was time to go to the next village by Lake Mihaba, also on the marsh. En route, we stopped to greet Datu Dinagat, whom we caught finishing the building of a nice boat all by hand. He was trusted by both the insurgent NPA (New People’s Army) and the military, an unusual feat, and was a strong leader in his community.
Sakahang Lilok Organic Farm, Tanay, Rizal. (Photo by Lester Valle)
The village of Lake Mihaba was a different story altogether. Arriving there next, we found a sense of depression and deprivation that we didn’t find in Datu Boyet’s Sitio Panlabuhan. The people also complained of illegal fishing by those they call “techno killers” (the loggers, the miners, the illegal fishers, etc.) but it seemed that, in their case, they’ve had nowhere to go with their grief and anger. Not surprisingly one of us caught a whiff of alcohol on the resident baylan (shaman) who performed a ritual for our entry into the area that included, this time, use of a sacrificial chicken (that we had supplied), along with the usual candy, biscuits, coins, cigarettes–and this time we had to “offer” apologies, as we had already used up the rum, beer and Royal Tru Orange in the previous sitio. It was a hard place for us and we all felt the heaviness when we debriefed afterwards. The other community had exuded joyful wholeness and spiritual strength despite their challenges, but this one was different. Modern aggression had left its usual mark.
Then it was time to go home—another three hours on the banca. This time, we were all mostly quiet and exhausted—and feeling it especially on our butts (!) from sitting on hard planks of wood for long periods. Our guide, a boy merely eight- or nine-years old, sat at the front end of the banca. I had noticed him even earlier on, on our way there, sitting quietly the whole time, looking out at the marsh. His presence reflected the waters themselves—clear, fluid, undisturbed. And I was struck by the sudden recognition: no need to worry about kids like him getting hooked on drugs or needing gadgets to distract them from boredom. Their untrammeled capacity to engage with their own Wild “home” granted them an entrancement and fascination unparalleled by artifice or substance. They lived in the kind of ecstasy for which all of our species is designed.
Once back into town, we stumbled into another juxtaposition of emergency and its alternative—the story of ceaseless crises versus the longing for more natural fluidity and mutuality. The crisis was at the immediate doorstep. It turned out that Grace had been dealing for some time with an encroachment problem on her parents’ land where a developer had begun cutting meters into their property. So as soon as we got to her house, we again hopped on a tricycle—this time to the barangay captain’s office to request a stop order to the construction going on until further investigation. Luckily, the barangay captain was more than happy to oblige.
On the other hand, the next morning, Mila and I were supposed to head back to Butuan City for our flight back to Manila later that day when Grace decided we’d pay a courtesy call on the president of the State Agricultural College of Bunawan. So off we went on another tricycle, only for her to realize it was only seven o’clock in the morning and no one was at the office yet, so back we went to have breakfast, then back again to the president’s office where we were welcomed warmly. When I mentioned that I teach culture, communication, and Indigenous studies, the president immediately said that’s the kind of program he wanted to build in his college! Ancestral yearning is never far under the surface! And so we brainstormed a bit and committed to helping develop a curriculum for teaching, research, and extension.
The bus ride to Butuan City where Mila and I were to take our flight back to Manila left me with much to mull on, my heart filled with a mix of dread and longing. And looking out the bus window only amplified the feeling starkly. Here were huge logging trucks loaded with murdered tree beings all along the way! More grief! How long could Earth-loving peoples keep watch over the land and waters and preserve the beauty they revered intact? Re-visiting those moments for this writing, I am struck by a recently encountered article. “When a wetland disappears, it’s like pulling a linchpin out of a healthy environment,” says National Geographic correspondent Sarah Gibbens (February 2, 2021). Fifty years since the Ramsar Convention in Iran to protect wetlands, “more than 35 percent of the world’s wetlands have been drained for urban development or agriculture, polluted, paved over, or lost to sea level rise,” she adds.
Journal Entry #2
How to capture in words seven days of glorious communing with Indigenous elders and fellow urbanized participants and with the lush vegetation, waterfalls, springs, and mountains of Tanay, Rizal and the sacred mountains of Apo Banahaw, and Mariang Makiling? This is the longest time I’ve been away from my laptop and cellphone screens, thanks to the forbidding distance from civilization (and perhaps to the energies of the sacred mountains for which human-made electronic signals were no match?).
The Philippine High School for the Arts at the foothills of Mount Makiling (view of Makiling partially obscured by cloud cover in the background). (Photo by Gino T. Manalastas)
It was the second Pamati gathering convened by Tao Foundation and its co-hosts in the summer of 2017. Those of us modern-schooled, and no longer living on the land came to listen, to learn from the elders, to have our bodies and souls remember the old ways again.
Writing this, I feel a deep sense of gratitude to our gracious venue hosts—Sakahang Lilok Organic Farm, Nature Villa Banahaw (c/o traditional healing arts practitioner Boy Fajardo), and the Philippine National High School for the Arts at Mt. Makiling, a publicly-funded school for gifted youth artists (courtesy of alumna Grace Nono and Director Vim Nadera, whom I finally got to meet in person for the first time). To Sakahang Lilok I owe special thanks for teaching our bodies to fall in love again with the simple deliciousness of (mostly) plant-based slow-food cooking and the totally respectful and sensible concept of zero-waste living (where even our human waste becomes “ambag”/useful contribution for other earth beings). I was grateful, too, for the permeable walls and bamboo structures of our sleeping quarters that allowed the elders’ contagious laughter and loud uninhibited bantering to wake us up in the early morning, sometimes even before dawnbreak–the one thing I’d probably miss the most from this year’s gathering!
I imagine this is how it must have been when we still lived embedded in the generosity of the natural world and in the face-to-face sociality of our Indigenous villages: waking up to the first rays of Grandfather Sun whose westward trek is aided by the cacophonous voices and toothless laughter of elders (and the running about of happy children’s feet); ordinary conversations spontaneously breaking into song or poetry at a moment’s inspiration (I will miss Datu Makalipay and Manong Rodolfo’s mellifluous duets of love songs!); work life spared of tedium by the rhythmic accompaniment of song to motion and/or the trading of tsismis (gossip); young people’s bodies naturally synched up to the rhythms of nature’s circadian clock and quick to take to the beat of gongs, drums, and other native instruments–the energy of dance and movement climbing up their spine and out their nimble limbs without so much as effort or trying. And when death, sickness, or conflict occurs, the gathering of the whole village to grieve, deliberate together, and perform rites of healing and/or reconciliation.
Pamati gave us but a tiny taste (a “patikim”) of that earth-based life that we all used to know (and perhaps, to a degree, still know in our bones) before a part of our species had the (supposedly) brilliant idea of breaking away and building a culture (purportedly) “more advanced” and unconstrained by the collective necessities of village- and land-based living. And indeed, given my overly domesticated body, a part of me, like an addict in withdrawal, craved, while at Sakahang Lilok, the usual comforts of unhampered electricity, sanitized flushing toilets, and piped in water supply (that didn’t remind one of the preciousness of water and the deleterious effects on the ecosystem of the water closet and the toxic chloro- and hydro-chlorofluorocarbons and other greenhouse gases from air conditioning).
Building of a Manobo Tinandasan Hut using no nails. (Photo by Lester Ngawit Valle)
So much so that by the sixth day, when we got to the Imeldific structures (yes, designed by the famed “patroness of the arts” herself–Imelda Marcos, the grandiose, shoe-loving wife of the former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos!) of the fully air-conditioned executive suites of the Makiling Philippine National High School for the Arts where we were to close out our gathering, it was as though the drug-starved neurons of the ease-addicted civilized body instantly started firing, having finally found their “stash.”
Alas, whatever pleasure the initial “hit” brought, it wasn’t long before grief’s reality check followed suit. The feeling was akin to what my hubby and I had once experienced in a five-star hotel stay in Bangkok (courtesy of a conference host), where, upon entering our luxury room and lighting a ritual candle to pay homage to the new place and taking note of the exquisite wood paneling, the stone, and metal that graced the tastefully designed interiors, we found ourselves imagining what grandmother tree (or rock or iron) had to be sacrificed and forcibly taken from its wild abode to be tamed and reshaped for another purpose by human ingenuity. In the lavish executive lodgings of the School for the Arts, I likewise wondered what sort of ritual permission and honoring, if any, were performed in the building of these luxury structures that allowed one the glorious panoramic view of the nearby Mount Makiling from the unalloyed convenience of one’s individual veranda.
Completed Manobo Tinandasan Hut. (Photo by Lester Ngawit Valle)
I cry now writing these reflections, realizing once again my own domestication that causes my “oh-so-civilized” body to flinch at the slightest bit of discomfort and to revel–despite awareness of the cost to other beings and to life itself–at the (mostly non-ritual) invention of modern conveniences. When I heard one elder ruefully remark on what he thought was their mountain’s “relative disadvantage and undesirability” in comparison to the sleekly paved Mt. Makiling foothills, I knew I wasn’t alone in my discord. But as if to affirm the complex relations between human-tamed and wild places, another elder replied, “Pero mas malakas pa rito ang energy ng mountain namin” (“But the energy of our [wild/untamed] mountain is even stronger than this one”).
There have been many learnings for me. Despite the limitations of the framework of Pamati (that artificially brings together in the span of eight days a roughly equal number of Indigenous elders and Indigenous root-seeking urbanized Filipinos both in the homeland and abroad for mutual listening), there is something powerful even in such a brief encounter. For the younger urbanized participants, the copious tears and heartfelt expressions of gratitude to the elders for their unstinting generosity in sharing their gifts and stories and for the sense of community created is testament to the need for such initiatory opportunities for mutual encounter. For the elders, to find such openness of hearts and eagerness among the urbanized participants for a taste of what they had to offer was deep affirmation of their sense of self–in contrast to the racialization and devaluing of their ways of being that is just their default experience living cheek-by-jowl with mainstream culture. The mirroring back to them by the younger participants of what they still have–the memory of how to live in a good way on the land that the young ones have lost and are only now seeking to recover in a world of amnesia–creates a fertile ground for mutual love and transformation. “I see you,” they seem to say to each other–and in that deep seeing and affirmation of generations is the seed of wholeness, healing, and recovery of well-being.
I saw this in the eyes of the students of the Philippine National High School for the Arts, elite young scholars all, that we were privileged to engage on the last day of our gathering. Here were students schooled almost exclusively in the Western arts (what were deemed “the real arts” worth learning, not the dubious so-called “arts” of “primitive” peoples like those gathered with us at Pamati). I saw during our time with them the hunger in these students as they listened to the testimonies of our own young participants. And as they joined the workshops conducted by the different groups of Indigenous cultural masters, we saw them gamely try their hand at native instruments (kulintang, gong). We witnessed them move their bodies to the vigorous guitar rhythms and dance steps of the Ayta and to the graceful movements of the Maguindanaon kuntao (martial arts). We saw their curiosity to learn about the Indigenous healing arts (hilot, herbal/plant medicine) from the elder practitioners.
Even after the formal plenary where each group reported on their learning experiences, a number of students persisted in playing the various native instruments. One 15-year-old student came to me unable to hold back her tears, sharing her grief at being forcibly severed from what she recognized as her gift of “third-eye” seeing that she said she possessed from a very young age, of being able to connect deeply with nature spirits, and of being friends with unseen beings, until her parents, now Christian, performed a ritual to close up that third eye and effectively banished her spirit guides from her. This she now experiences as a deep loss. She said the testimony of one of the diasporic youth who shared her story of being deemed “mentally ill” from her possession of a similar gift (until she was able to find Indigenous teachers who helped her make sense of her experience) resonated deeply with her.
Such resonances were many at the conclusion of our time together. As well, questions and struggles of where now to go with this kind of rich learning and experience. A lot of our process in the co-convening group has answered to the proverb “we make our way as we go along” knowing the kinds of times we live in–dire times of climate change, species extinction, ecosystems collapse, war and more war.
For me, that “way” has especially been portended by the example of another antique people, whose starkly apocalyptic encounter in 1976 with the planet’s capacity for fierce disruption of any human pretense to control has been remarkably detailed by shaman-initiate, Martín Prechtel (2012). On February 4 of that year, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake had decimated many mountain villages in Guatemala (ultimately killing more than 31,000 and displacing more than 180,000). Prechtel had survived the initial tremor and then had set about trying to bring relief (food and water) to stranded highlanders, when he and fellow volunteers came upon the gathered remnants of five villages in the upland environs of Cuchumaquic. Some 300 people were huddled out in the open in extended family groups, exhausted, famished, and in pain, convinced the world was ending everywhere, but resolved to live their last moments together with all the beautiful honorifics and respectful courtesy they exhibited in everyday life under normal circumstances. Prechtel much later wrote:
[T]hey had come to pass the world’s end at the place all Mayans, every village and tribe, know as their rumuxux or the “umbilicus of the world.” They wanted the symphony of their thousand years’ struggle to live in the arms of the corn seed’s earth to end here where it had begun: at the place of their mutual origins. In this way they themselves would become spiritual seeds and their passing become temporal humus from which the Divine could regrow a world beyond their own time. In their parallel understanding of vegetation and human culture, they wanted to be rooted in the Earth’s memory of their having been there, even if they as humans had to disappear. After all, all the mythologies said that they as people had themselves sprouted from a time previous to any of our own presence, and like seeds had resprouted themselves from the compost of a world of previous human failures. (P. 46-47)
The trick was not to seek the fantasized comfort or the falsely anchored dependability that civilization promises. Instead of the illusion of security, it’s better to get good at riding out [Earth’s] motion like a bone cell heaving in the ribs of Her breathing chest–and heaving She was. (P. 25)
Their witness was and is astonishing—putting virtually every “modern” reaction to similar kinds of emergency to shame. There was no frenzy, no opportunism, no crazed hysteria seeking self-preservation. There was just calm acknowledgment of an irreducible magnificence that would continue to grace this world’s wild fierceness of motion and life whether death would come quickly or wait another time. The example is epochal and for me, epic. I feel this is a time when, like the people of Cuchumaquic, we no longer come together “just to have a better chance at survival” but rather to learn to prepare for a time beyond our own, to sow seeds of love for the Holy in Nature that can resprout after the dying or even something as radical as extinction.
Offering Ourselves Up When the Emergency Becomes Articulate
Journal Entry #3
It has been a remarkable year—full of endings and new beginnings, the shock of unexpected death (and near-deaths) in the family, the deep tutelage in grief and survival and the many questions why. Yet the world goes on, and I go on—taking up new mantles of responsibility, learning new roles, letting go of old struggles, and stepping in faith into new ways of being that, soon enough, the body recognizes as really old and familiar.
“Written in the bones,” the Wise Ones would say, from ancestry long forgotten, but not finally extinguished. It is these embers of old ways of being that now demand hallowing in this new season of life—capped ceremoniously in the homeland by the gift of ritual cleansing by an elder from the North, a communal celebration of Ayta brothers and sisters in the Plains, and, finally, the witnessing of power, spirit, and resurrection (of Indigenous memory) in a gathering of healers and elders in the South that I have yet to find words to fully describe.
Yet the world goes on, and I go on—taking up new mantles of responsibility, learning new roles, letting go of old struggles, and stepping in faith into new ways of being that, soon enough, the body recognizes as really old and familiar.
I have glimpsed life-giving beauty—the building of a Manobo tinandasan
hut using no nails, with each piece of bamboo, nipa, or rattan, sang to and praised before harvest until permission is granted, master builders still retaining memory of the old way of doing things; people who co-exist and honor the crocodiles on their marshlands as the Spirit Guardians of the waters (in stark contrast to the town Mayor’s bloodlust upon capturing–and eventually killing–the crocodile Lolong, touted as the largest in the world); a woman Indigenous leader being ministered to in ceremony by Muslim patutunong
healers so she could finally accept her calling to become a healer herself; native youth taking up the mantle of leadership in fighting corporate encroachment of their ancestral lands; the laughter of Manangs
as they told their stories, and the beautiful chanting of other elders in response.
It is these kinds of encounters–with our Indigenous Peoples and those working on the ground alongside them–that now serve as the homeward beacon for me. Just like native peoples everywhere else around the globe threatened by the relentless incursion of the now globalized initiative of extraction into their territories, our own Indigenous kin in the Philippine homeland struggle bravely to keep their beautiful ways of being alive amidst the assault. The grief (at their beleaguered condition) compels, but so does the grace, beauty, and courage of their spirit.
I have studied—and written—extensively about indigeneity ever since the start of my decolonization journey, but not until recently have I allowed my body to be part of that process of knowing in any significant way. “You cannot exit one cultural formation without entering another,” I hear my hubby, James Perkinson, say. To me, that “other” would no longer be just the “nation”—land of my birth and home country prior to diasporic exile. To the extent that the national cultural formation (urban, modern, schooled, civilized) re-enacts on its cultural “others” (rural, Indigenous, unschooled, “unwashed”) the same colonizing logic imposed upon it by its foreign oppressors, it is just as culpable of the ongoing genocide and oppression of its internal unassimilable (Indigenous) “others.”
The crisis of our time–whether of climate change, species extinction, dying oceans, or disappearing forests and marshlands–is rooted finally in our civilized world’s insistence on separating itself from the Earth womb whence we all come from. The slow-cooking required by that Earth life in crafting lives of ritual subtlety, beauty, and nuance brooks no shortcuts, and no time-saving gadgets and other lords of efficiency; rather what it calls for is a kind of diligent tending befitting a courtship relationship with the Divine Life-Giver. Face-to-face with the Condor peoples still living and accepting both the gifts and vicissitudes of Earth-based living, I could only echo Prechtel’s (2012) sentiment when, confronted with Cuchumaqic’s astonishing counter-example in the face of mortal hunger and decimation, he says:
At least the few of us…who could see it knew that both we and the civilization we came from were the starving ones, searching all our lives to be fed by this indescribable thing that the world we were born from could not comprehend, much less maintain. (P. 61)
He calls that thing we’re starving for “seeds of peace.” Real peace (or what I would call rest from our modern lives’ ceaseless striving), he reminds us,
…cannot be obtained, taken, bought, or stolen, nor can it be bestowed. This kind of peace was always there; it just had to be accepted and lived, if even for a few minutes. This peace said that people were not here to succeed in taking over the world; they were here to feed the beauty of being a human to the Holy in Nature. By keeping such seeds alive we become beautiful enough to keep the Holy alive. That [is] peace. (P. 61)
Today, I no longer just want to “study” the katutubo [indigenous], but to strive to become at least partially re-shaped in their image (without thereby fooling myself that I have become “Indigenous” myself). Entering into some kind of ongoing relationship with them no matter how fraught and constrained, no matter my grief at air travel (that is so destructive to the planet) is part of the pedagogy. For now, I choose my poison, not knowing how much longer this body (and this planet!) can abide such means of mobility that alone, in my current exilic condition, makes possible the bodily tutelage to this other way of being.
But for now, I’m grateful there is yet a bit of that other organic life right outside my window (here in Wawiiatanong, the post-industrial city of Detroit)–the generous world of soil, air, trees, rocks, squirrels, birds, bushes and other growing beings–requiring just as much pamati (deep listening) to feed and tutor my soul’s natural being. I know in my bones that the time is coming when we shall all realize that the future is Indigenous, as our Jesuit scholar-friend, Fr. Albert Alejo, likes to say. For as long as the Wild remains and we have ears to hear and eyes to see, we, too, may yet experience the summons of that other world calling us to “offer ourselves up” for the work of witnessing to its reality, once the emergency of our times has finally been “made articulate” and appalingly apparent to us by this other way of seeing.
1. Shaw, M. (Nov. 30, 2016).
2. A Philippine grassroots organization committed to cultural regeneration and revitalization of local ancestral and traditional knowledges and practices in the Philippines and primary host of the planned gathering.
3. A movement for decolonization and indigenization among diasporic Filipinos on Turtle Island (US and Canada)
4. Here, I will occasionally refer to what modernity labels “objects” as personal beings who are alive, to honor the worldview of the hosts themselves as well as serve notice to “rational objectivity” that such is a cultural construct betraying capitalist bias, not an actual “truth” about such realities.
5. And is a Tao Foundation trustee.
6. A town east of Manila.
7. Namely, the Center for Babaylan Studies (CfBS), GINHAWA, Institute for Spirituality Asia, and the Carl Jung Circle.
8. I.e., without honoring and without asking permission from the living beings now reduced into mere “resource” or “raw materials.”
9. Witnessed at the first 2015 Pamati.
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Prechtel, M. (2012). The unlikely peace at Cuchumaquic: The parallel lives of people as plants: Keeping the seeds alive. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Shaw, M. (Nov. 30, 2016). Trailing the Gods back home: An interview with Dr. Martin Shaw. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g28G7GOym_I . Last accessed 2/7/2021.
SOTA [Shift of the Ages] (2013). Indigenous leaders share the reunion prophecy of the Condor and Eagle. Last accessed 12/06/2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHMXHoO8f4s&feature=emb_title
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