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.

JuanitaJ asks: Are women happy to be women…Joyous! Always seem smiling and radiant! What’s it really like for them?

My Lummi elder asks an apparently simple question that soon dives deep as it turns over in my mind.

Are women in the Philippines happy to be women? Or more directly, were the women I met recently in the Philippines happy to be themselves?

Yes, all of us smiled, we all laughed, we all walked around with a sense of both joy and irony dancing on our lips and hips. How could we otherwise in this strange modern time in which we live where gender and race are in constant conversation?

Yet, I resist this simple answer too because it’s given through the Western dominant lens of feminism, a relatively new lens in comparison to the traditional knowledge that pre-existed Western contact with the Philippines through Spanish Colonization in 1521. I have to ask – how did these women I met, especially the female babaylan, view and value themselves traditionally?

One origin story of the islands tells of the emergence of man and woman, Malakas and Maganda – Strength and Beauty, from one single node of a bamboo stalk. Romantic imagery usually shows Malakas extending a hand to Maganda as she steps from the bamboo, but I prefer the idea that they both stepped forth into the light created by the crack in the bamboo. The Sky and Sea and Wind were there before them, but these two humans emerged together and began the human race. Differing from the Adam and Eve story of the rib and the apple, this origin story points to an equality that manifested itself into a kind of egalitarian social system. Men and women had roles within their tribes and families, gendered in some ways, but neither gender saw the other as superior. I come from a family of strong women – my grandmother raised six girls during WWII and the Korean War as well as immigration to the US in the mid-‘50s. My mother is eldest and her sisters have deferred to her leadership for as long as I can remember. I grew up with the expectation that I would not be dependent on any man for my livelihood; my mother often advised me to have my own bank account so I wouldn’t have to “rely on what was between my legs” to survive.

The elder babaylan women I met had this same presence and strength. They did not feel compelled to show their knowledge and abilities except when invited to share. They did not compete with each other or the male babaylans for prestige or position. They were each completely self-contained, yet generous with their wisdom and skills when needed. They were each a study in efficiency – no movement wasted, no words given without import. If they spoke their concerns, we listened intently because we all instinctively knew they could sense something we could not, see something that we had not taken into account. At the very beginning of the event, one babaylan voiced her concern that a protocol of sharing had not been established. She brought to light the potential for conflict among very powerful beings as a result. The moment shifted from one of formal prayer to one of negotiation and mutual respect. She saved us all the potential for future disruption because our gathering had not created the needed balance among leaders of many different tribes.

At the same time, these elder women were joyous and fun-loving. They loved a good pun and turn of phrase. They reached out to us in the diaspora with generous spirits, seeing us, I think as long lost children come home finally. They encouraged us and taught us simple things about their culture – weaving, chant, dance – giving us glimpses of the richness of their knowledge. They were also on their own adventure to Bunawan and the Agusan Marsh. Three of the babaylan in my canoe home from the Marsh had never been on the water before, were very concerned about falling in the lake. They were glad for the opportunity, but there were moments like the sudden rocking of the canoe where I could see that they were also very human, still learning and growing in their own understanding of the world.

Then there were the younger babaylans, those in their 20’s or early 30’s, activists with families who feared for their personal safety, the safety of their families, and the safety of their people as they fought the government for recognition, against military factions who were fighting against the government for territorial control, against foreign corporations bent on taking their land for mining and wood. Displacement of groups either through relocation or ‘disappearing’ seemed to be standard procedure for these entities bent on eradicating the tribal people, ‘blocks to progress.’ With the UN recognition of Indigenous Rights, however, the tribes have found platforms to bring their concerns to the greater public, to bring awareness of abuse to the outside world and hopefully preserve their people and way of life. I witnessed these younger women babaylan cry in fear then stand in resolution believing that their cause to preserve their people’s way of life and land was a righteous one. I have never witnessed such bravery, nor been so afraid for them. After the gathering they would go into the hills once more and speak against forces with semi-automatic weapons and worse at their disposal. I pray for their survival and hope to connect them with outside organizations who can better support their struggle.

Finally there was my friends, the transgender man and two lesbians, each with tales of trying to maintain personal safety in the midst of great prejudice. All spoke of their fear of “rape therapy” and how it restricted their movement in the city and countryside. Asserting their identities was a matter of life and death for them, but how can one live in fear for long? At what point does it become more important to say “This is who I am” in order that others like you can stand up, be acknowledged, and respected? They all work with youth in some capacity, providing support to voices who would otherwise be silenced. Still, they live with the very real risk of death because of identity, and like the young babaylan activists, I pray for their safety and stand in awe of their bravery.

Are the women of the Philippines and their sisters in the diaspora happy to be who they are? They are more than happy, more than beautiful, because they are themselves, women in action, women in being, women with a purpose, each in grace and fortitude. Like the women who fed me every day, breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks (oh the snacks!), the women I encountered lived lives of sustenance for others, worked toward sustainability and sovereignty. All with smiles on their lips, and a little bit of humorous irony on their hips because otherwise, how will we dance this dance of global change, of deep indigeneity?