PAMATI: Listen to the Water and Songs of the Ancestors was a gathering I attended July 1-10, 2015 at Balay Agusan, in the Municipality of Bunawan, Northeastern Mindanao, Southern Philippines. My FB friends have been helping me process my experiences by sending their questions about my recent trip.

Lisa OH asks: What did you learn about yourself?

I learned that in a gathering of indigenous spiritual leaders, you can’t be invisible… at least not for long.

Before I left for Bunawan, I set in my heart the intent to be open to the experiences that I would have and the teachings that would be shared with me. My Lummi elders have impressed upon me the importance of listening; I’ve been awed by their ability to sit for long periods of time during protocols and witnessing. Speeches are typically an hour long, perhaps more, and the idea is to listen and learn without taking notes, an ability I have yet to master.

This idea of listening was reinforced by the title of the event I attended; pamati means ‘listen’ in Cebuano. Grace Nono, the organizer, encouraged us to come with open ears and hearts, to let go of our expectations and our timelines, to be willing to go with the flow of the gathering. I took all these things to heart especially when I realized that I likely wouldn’t be able to understand what was being said most of the time. I speak only English fluently; my parents raised me in a time when immigrants were discouraged from teaching their home languages to their children in order to speed along the assimilation process. I heard Tagalog, Ilocano, and Pangasinan spoken at family events, but I always answered in English, if at all. I anticipated that the leaders gathered at PAMATI would speak their tribal language and maybe Tagalog, but there was no mention made of English translators in the event information. I anticipated relying on my own ears and the kindness of other Filipino Americans who might be willing to translate during the event.

I also had the overwhelming need to not be “that American,” the tourist come to take away information and leave nothing behind except tourist dollars. I also didn’t want to arrive with “answers to everything”, that strange phenomenon currently called “mansplaining,” but what is really just an extension of the “save the savage” syndrome of colonialism. I figured if I kept my trap shut, I was unlikely to spout of off some awful America-Knows-Best stuff and just embarrass everyone in the process. It seemed safest to wrap myself in a kind of invisibility cloak, to not draw attention to myself, and to just listen and learn.

Being invisible is an artifact of being a minority in the US; people of color tend to be overlooked unless there’s violence involved, and I tend to be a compliant person. More than once, I’ve been complimented on how well I navigate mainstream society: “I forget you’re Filipino! You speak English so well…You’re just so /normal/.” I’ve used it to my advantage more than once, cloaked myself as the easy-going, assimilated woman of color that wouldn’t ever be controversial. Better to be unseen than to be a target of oppression. This kind of invisibility has kept me safe but it’s also made people underestimate my skills and abilities, something I’ve found frustrating many a time. Still, invisibility is something I believe I can do well, and something I thought I could take with me to the Philippines as a way of learning and listening.

Even with my intention of not-being-seen in place, I realized that I would have to shift my invisibility cloak once, right at the beginning of the event, in order to deliver a message. Before I left, I asked my Coast Salish and Muskogee-Creek friends if they wanted to extended greetings to the tribal leaders of the Philippines. Some were enthusiastic at the idea, and I spoke on their behalf at the opening of PAMATI, explaining where the Native American tribes were and what their hopes for the future as indigenous peoples. My greeting created curiosity among the T’boli, Obo Manobo, Ifugao, Kalinga, and Magindinao leaders, I think, and the next thing I knew I was being asked to reflect on the teachings of the day in various ways over the course of the event.

So much for being invisible.

As a performer, you’d think I’d be used to being in front of crowds speaking, but since I’d come in with the idea of being invisible, it was a bit startling to be on stage so much. I did come prepared with stories from North America to share if asked, but the leaders were not as interested in folktales as they were about my experiences teaching at a tribal college and what I knew about the struggles of the tribes in North America for sovereignty and self-determination. I heard the tribal leaders speak of their concerns about land-grabbing, climate change, and cultural loss, and I felt compelled to let them know they were not alone in their struggle, that there were organizations dedicated to bringing awareness of tribal concerns to the greater social consciousness. I saw how they worried about their youth who seemed more interested in modern life than they were in learning traditional ways of seeing and experiencing life. I spoke of the ways I’d seen the tribes in North American address substance abuse and poverty through the revitalization of cultural practices.

You’re not alone, I kept saying. You are not fighting alone. All the indigenous tribes around the world are fighting to be seen, to be heard, to be respected, and left alone to their own ways of being. We began to pray for not just the welfare of the tribes represented at the gathering but for the tribes an ocean away. We began to connect on a global level while still recognizing that we were trying to preserve a very local way of life no matter where we were. I learned that it was more important to be connected to others than it was to remain invisible because listening is connection, speaking is connection, and through connection we are no longer isolated.