Redemptorists of Australia and New Zealand

Australia, New Zealand and Samoa

Province of Oceania

Bringing Good News to the World

With tribal Filipinos

Interview with Fr. Peter Robb, C.Ss.R.

Fr. Peter Robb C.Ss.R. served for many years in the Philippines. In an interview during October, 2007, he reflected on his time living with tribal Filipinos in the forests of the Sierra Madre mountain range. Fr. Peter describes this time as “the most enriching years” of his life.

How did it begin?
In 1973 I had a severe attack of typhoid fever and was hospitalised in San Juan de Dios Hospital, near Baclaran, Manila. Quarantine was rigid, however, a Philippine bishop and a good friend paid me a visit. During his visit he told me about 150 families who had resettled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains. They had been squatters around the Manila Cathedral for many years.

After a couple of warnings to relocate, 15 6 x 6, ten-wheeler army trucks arrived to take the people away. There was great consternation! Within one hour the men-folk had arrived from their jobs or casual labour. Despite great anger, nothing could be done. Each truck had an army man with an American M15 attack rifle. The squatters were taken about 40 kilometres away to the town of Montalban, then across the upper reaches of the Marikina River and inland some 6 kilometres on roads accessible only by 4 four-wheel drive army trucks.

Tree hut The bishop asked me to visit the people when I was able. This I did after some months. a I spent three months living with them. While there I met a group of Dumagats, one of the major groups of indigenous people living in this area. They were a different physiognomy from the locals – a bit taller, quite dark, very kinky hair and dressed in G-strings. I chatted with them in broken Tagalog on their part and also on mine. “Where do you come from?” I asked. They gave a nod of the head with a movement of the eyebrows towards the mountains. Then one of them gave the Gospel invitation: “Come and see”. That’s how this apostolate began.

“Is it far to your place?” I asked? “For us, three hours; for you, maybe four hours,” they replied. “Two days from now, I will meet you here at this time,” I said. Sure enough, they turned up. I gave them a stick of pressed tobacco to chew with their betel nut and off we went. It did take me almost four hours, climbing steep tropical mountains and down to the rivers. They told me: “Halik tuhod ‘yong bundok”, which means: “You kiss your knee while you climb.” It was a good novitiate for the years to come. On arriving at a community of about 15 lean-tos for homes, the kids all fled to the surrounding bush.

They had never seen Kapre (a giant from popular fairy tales) before. “Kapre”, they shouted. The women-folk retired to their lean-tos and covered their breasts for the present. I spent two days with them, ate their diet of carbohydrate roots from the mountains and the tender tips of different plants (Mga talbos). It was a very nutritious diet! Each lean-to had three stones arranged as a stove for cooking. After the simple meal, we gathered around the fire. There was no light of any kind except for the fire. This became the pattern of my life for 12 years. The night was dark. The log caught fire. I could see it in the eyes of all intently looking at the fire. The fire of the Holy Spirit was in our midst. Conversation was very quiet and sporadic.

It was time for “bed”. We all slept on the ground around the fire. The log had been smouldering all day and the ground around it was warm. Next morning, before sunrise, we were awakened. The fire was rekindled and all of us sat with smoke curling from the morning fire. Few words were spoken. The tribals are very comfortable with silence. They can sit around in one another’s presence without words for long periods of time. This doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. They are highly sensitive to non-verbal communication. A part of the understanding of silence as a spiritual value has to do with waiting and not being impatient

Sleeping around the fire was something I experienced for a number of years. Sometimes the ground was damp after heavy rains but it was always warm. After a couple of years I developed kidney trouble. The solution: cut a few branches with my machete (itak) and sleep in them. We all bedded down together; men on one side, women on the other, and children all over the place. The dogs were also with us. If the ground was a bit dusty there was the possibility of a wee mite or insect called a niknik. When it nicked you it was very painful. In the early hours of one morning I was nicked in the groin area – once, then twice. It was painful so I headed to the mountain river about 100 metres away and sat in waste-deep water to cool off. A couple of men-folk had followed me. Next morning around the fire, my night predicament was the source of great merriment. The padre’s family jewels had been attacked by the niknik!

Who are these people – about 100 families – I worked with?
My information comes from the Ethical Studies and Development Centre (ESDEC), a department of the University of the Philippines (UP). We worked closely together. They came with me to the mountains. Most of my reflection comes from my living with these people.

Dagat means “sea”; people of the sea; people who came by the sea; Island hoppers from southern Philippines, possibly from the Celebes of Indonesia, even western Papua, New Guinea. So why did I find them in the deep forests of the Sierra Madres? When they arrived on the east coast of Luzon, they found their way up the rivers to the upland streams (UP). They are animistic in background, but most have arrived at monotheism (one spirit who is number one in every way). I didn’t find any who are henotheistic (each major tribal group with their god or gods). What follows are a few thoughts on animism from my exposure to it.

Animism gives primacy to the spirit. It is a sign and symbol of transcendence; a sense of God; a sense of mystery which is often lacking in our scientific, technological, secular society which has little appreciation of the sacredness of nature and men and women. In my time, there were many conflicts between transnational agro-industrial business corporations, government logging and mining concessionaires and tribal peoples about their forests and lands.

The Dumagats were still hunters or food-gatherers. In my time, there was little introduction to the ‘cash economy’.

On two occasions I took members of the Ethical Studies Centre with me. In the late seventeenth century, numbers of the distant village (barrio) people refused to submit to Spanish rule. They returned to the mountains (Re Mons) where they inter-married with Dumagats or Agtas and assumed a tribal way of life. They have more ‘social mobility’, engage in upland rice cultivation (dalatan), build a better type of home, and encourage children to take some study in the village school (if any).

I brought out four or five members of the Ethical Studies Centre to a barrio, found a small dwelling and provided simple provisions. They came on Monday in the morning, about 12 kilometres and returned on Friday afternoon. They persevered for  four years. Remontado parents also seek baptisms for children. It’s a social ceremony with little religious significance.

Where are they?
Remontados are located in small, enlarged family groupings in eastern Rizal, east of Manila, on the Lenatin River’s upper reaches, stretching towards Bulacan, and the Limutan River, part in Rizal, part in Quezon Province. They have long distances to walk; very steep tropical mountains; up to 35 kilometres walking. They are also present along the Umiray River in the heart of Quezon, which takes all day to walk with guides. The Sierra Madre Mountains run down the eastern Pacific coast like a spinal column.

1974-1978: First stage of my journey with the tribals
I call this the missionary stage in the former understanding of the word “missionary”. The tribals invited me to their many groupings. I joined them, and to a certain extent, immersed myself in their families. I didn’t really know the people, but their basic needs were obvious. Government and private agencies were contacted and teams were formed.

Some of the agencies who helped over the years included:

ECTF Episcopal Commission for Tribal Filipinos
KAMP Alliance of Filipino Tribal Citizens
ESDEC Ethical Studies and Development Centre (UP)
LUSSA Luzon Secretariat for Social Action
LEGAL ASSISTANCE CENTRE for Indigenous Filipinos

The help was rather sporadic but useful at times. This included social services, health and education, while I inserted instruction and elements of faith.

Gradually, I realised the paternalism of this approach. It was condescending. I had everything to give and they had nothing. It was creating situations of dependence. No true personal relationships were established. I was a slow learner.

1979-1981: Stage of immersion, sharing and being ONE with them
For 18 months I lived with the tribals, shared life and hardships, asked for no exceptions, worked with them, ate their simple diet of root-crops, slept together around the fire at night, made myself dependent on them, tried to show that we were equals, and to some extent captured their values, attitudes and rhythm of life. Any talk of ‘belief’ was useless. It didn’t register. But when any hint of “experience” of my ‘Makedypat’ (or God) came up, I could share with them my experience of my ‘Makedypat’. I suppose I was a sort of “commodity” to be shared. That was evangelisation.

1981-1989: Stage of service as equal partners
Tribals became subjects not objects of evangelisation. I recognised some important features of the tribal outlook on life and their way of life, learnt from experience and reflection. I suspect that many of my reflections here would apply to Australian Aborigines within the framework of their “Dreaming”. I speak as one less wise!

Fully in touch with “being”
The tribal is not interested in becoming and achieving. Hence they are co-operative and not competitive with nature and with one another. They see themselves as a part of creation and nature. They experience the harmony and rhythm of nature, the land, the forests and the people as a part of each other. In an unspoken way, they show gratitude and thanks to their “Makedypat”. This attitude was of immense help to me to realise what I knew all the time. In my Eucharist, I not only give thanks for creation but with creation. The bread and wine are thanks offerings to God who gave them to us. I affirm the whole of creation which Christ affirmed in the incarnation.

Fully in touch with reality
They co-operate with nature and do not compete against it. The destruction of forests and environment by logging companies is inconceivable. Their swidden or slash-and-burn systems are environmentally astute. For centuries their system has thrived on the lush, forest slopes. Their technology in the shifting cultivation is economically non-destructive. They cultivate their one to two hectare upland plot for one season only and leave them for five to six years before returning. This gives ample time for the land to renew itself. But low-landers, who come and see the semi-cleared land, proceed to harvest year after year consecutively. This destroys the land and depletes the top soil.

Relationships within the tribal family. One does not compete with one’s neighbour (kabalat). Frequently, I heard them say: “We are all brothers”. If one has no sweet potatoes or mountain roots, he approaches his neighbour and they share what they have. There is no question of payment or barter. “Food is the gift of the Makedypat for us all.” Steeped as they are in non-material values, their lives are independent of riches and material well-being. Concepts of hoarding wealth, acquiring possessions and saving for bad times are foreign to them.

Concept of time
The tribal lives in close harmony, a partnership with the forest and rivers, the flora and fauna, the land and nature. From this is derived his concept of time. Time, as divided into small segments – weeks, days, minutes – has little significance. They are not people of the clock or watch. They don’t have any. Time is the rhythm of nature – the rising of the sun, midday, the setting of the sun, the succession of days and nights, light and darkness.

Time is the rhythm of the two seasons – the dry season and the wet season. The tribal’s yearly cycle, which for many years I became part of, can be described roughly as follows. Life revolves around the annual cyclical phases of the upland rice season (for the Remontados). The kaingin are one or two hectares plots. Between January and February, the kaingin sites (environmentally non-destructive) are chosen. Between March and April, clearing the lots – burning and cutting vegetation – is done wisely. In late April, the corn crops are planted. At the end of May, with the onset of the monsoon wet season, sowing rice seed begins. In August, the crop is weeded and protected from birds, rats, monkeys and wild pigs. This is the job of the women and children. Corn and root crops are harvested after three or four months and upland rice after six months. At the end of October harvest rituals are held.

Rituals are associated with the selection of site, the first planting, and of course, the harvest. The only one I became acquainted with was the Harvest Ritual. Harvest season is the end of October. I went up three days beforehand, a very steep three hours to a rather extensive plateau. The Remontados told me: “halik tuhod po iyan”, which means very graphically and truly: “you kiss your knees as you climb.” How true! I joined them in their final preparations for this important yearly event.

The day arrived and I had set up a rickety bamboo altar.  Fifteen or twenty men had dried half-coconut shells containing the new rice. A couple of women led the rhythmic dance to the altar. I joined them with my bread and wine and danced the ‘light fantastic’. All the gifts were placed on the altar. Then we squatted around and discussed the meaning of it. My approach was in no way peremptory. I was one less wise looking for help to understand. Why do we do this each year? Thanks to the Makedypat. But why do we say thank you? Because He gives us our daily food. And why is that important? It keeps us alive; LIFE! This was the springboard for discussing the Mass. We all stood around the altar holding high our gifts. In the meantime, the women-folk were cooking some of these first fruits. We sat around the altar, men and women, and shared our communion!

For the Remontados, it is a must to plant a small section of glutinous rice called lagkitan. It is used to make sweet rice cakes, pinipig, sometimes ginamis. The making of pinipig is inevitable in the kaingin cycle. It calls for a celebration and one is expected to join. It seems to be some kind of ‘offering’ to the rice (palay), and if neglected, the rice harvest will not be good. They say, “nagtatampo and palay”. The rice is sulking or “in a huff”. I thought this experience worth sharing.

Time is the life cycle
Birth: Couples live together at an early age – early teens – but there is no marriage at this age. Tribal marriage occurs when the couple are 19 or 20 if there’s a child. If there is no child, there is no marriage. After the formal marriage, they are very faithful, more so than the Christian lowlanders, despite what the government maintains.

Dying: Death holds no fear for the tribals. It is a part of the holistic concept of life. Death is a returning to Mother Earth, the resting place of the mga ninuno, the ancestors. I recall a conversation around the fire (siga) at night. The soil beneath us is sacred. It is rich with the dust of our ancestors and our parents. We will go back to join them. Memories of those who have died are very much a part of daily life but not in an oppressive way. Time and space does not separate us.

A reflection: The tribal Filipino has not escaped from time and things. Rather, he lives with their essential rhythm. To some extent, he has assimilated the deepest core of life and things. Living with this interior harmony and rhythm of nature is a kind of secret prayer. Something I learned: Is not this interior harmony a secret prayer, a pre-fabricated liturgy hidden in the visible universe? Silently, it awaits the person of reflection and prayer to capture, disengage and make it known in all its splendours.

In their own unsophisticated way, the tribals have done this. Twenty-five years ago, I spent an evening with a Dumagat in his lean-to with the evening mists coming in, an apology for a roof. He had stoked the fire (siga), throwing on it some special leaves to make it smoke vigorously and drive away the mosquitoes. Lying on the ground beside the fire, we talked about his roots, his people, his experience of the Makedypat, and way of life. It was an amazing acceptance of a Caucasian, a foreigner. I asked him if he ever talked to the Makedypat. Almost indignantly, he answered “No! I live with Him. Tomorrow we go up the mountain to check the bitag, the traps. Maybe... I have trapped a mountain cat or rat or a baboy damo, a wild pig. Our companion is the Makedypat. If we catch something we come down, two hours’ walk, and share it with the enlarged family. The Makedypat is happy because we are sharing His caring for us.”

Here was a contemplative in a G-string, completely unschooled but experiencing the presence of God at the heart of his life. Apart from my lying on the ground, the thought of my own penury prevented sleep for a long time. One of many inspirations with these beautiful people, taught to me by Palasapis, the name of this old man, a contemplative in a G-string. He experienced the presence of his Makedypat at the heart of his life. Lying beside that fire I realised more profoundly that this is what my life is really all about – to live fully this presence to God, to ourselves and to our Filipinos.

Work:  For us, work is an activity occurring within a defined portion of the day. Not so for the tribals. Work is defined or determined by the needs of the day and the seasonal cycles. Work is a part of the ongoing and unified activity of being and living. It is an experience to live and join them in their completely unstructured attitude towards work. In recent years, as a result of more contact with logging and mining companies, and the army and lowland settlers stealing their land, they have inevitably been introduced to the cash economy.

Education:  For the Dumagats, there is one school on the upper Limutan River. It is the Province of Quezon and the teacher spends two days to get there from the town of General Nakar. The Dumagats attend off and on depending on the movements of the family. The Remontados generally attend if possible. Not always so! In general, tribal children are not encouraged to question, to explore ideas and seek understanding. The patterns have already been determined by ancestors and they are taught to accept these patterns. They learn by rote, observance and imitation, rather than inductive or deductive thinking.

Functional Literacy:  This programme was initiated by a Brazilian Educator, Paulo Freire (1921-1997). He had great success training community leaders and social activists. The key question: What is it that people really want to happen in their communities? How can we help them to achieve it? Two questions asked in the meeting:

1)    What issue or problem do the people feel strongly about? What fires them up?
2)    How to get large numbers involved? Leaders are not experts. All have important contributions. All are teachers; all are learners; channel strong feelings towards practical action.

One can see the possibility of encouraging subversion here – action from the masses. The army under Martial Law was very suspicious and we had our moments. I became a sympathiser, possibly a collaborator of the NPA, the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party. Two tribals who had been dragooned into the army to spy on their fellow tribals warned me: never bring my jeep, cream colour, into the mountains. It identifies you. And never go alone on those long treks, up to 30 kilometres. Contact the village first and ask the pangulo or leader to pick me up with five or six men. There is safety in numbers. For two years that situation prevailed. It was quite inconvenient, but necessary.

The Land: The land is a very pervading concept for the tribals. So often I heard them say: “The Land is our Mother”, our Ina. The land provides everything, nourishment for living, a welcome for the dead. It is a part of the life of each person. Our ancestors returned to this land we stand on, we came from it, and to it we will return. The land is not only the soil; it is the plants, trees, creatures of the forest. All are part of the land, the whole world. No one owns the land. It belongs to the Makedypat. We have the use of it, not individually, but a defined area for the tribal group.

I recall that two or three well-to-do lowlanders came with three armed soldiers to claim the land. They waved Torrens Title Deeds. The leader of the Remontado group asked to see the papers. Publicly, he proceeded to tear them up. I jumped up and stood beside him for support. “What’s this he shouted? A piece of paper, just a piece of paper.” (He couldn’t read it). Then he tore it up and shouted: “Who named the mountains? Our ancestors! Who named the river beside us and all the streams? Our ancestors, hundreds of years’ ago. What is the use of a piece of paper?” I then took over: “Kapitan, thanks for reminding us all. It’s time to go home.” I then spoke to the soldiers: “My friends, we cannot solve this problem here in the mountains. A judicial solution is necessary.”