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Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2002

In the name of the Father: the assault on indigenous culture in the Cordillera


"Spanish colonials built a Church on a foundation of native religions that worshipped a plethora of gods, goddesses and demigods . . . The Spaniards did not obliterate these earlier religions, but brought in a more powerful God."
"The Philippines: Land of Broken Promises,"

by James B. Goodno

The urban poor jostle to see the procession of the Black Nazarene, to touch a statue of the infant Jesus, or to watch as a handful of the zealous are nailed to the cross as a test of their faith and God's ability to grant divine favors. But members of minority groups like the Tingguians, Kalingas and Ifugaos make their own devotions, with offerings to a collection of "bulol" (rice-god statues) under the smoky rafters of thatched cottages in the still remote Cordillera mountains.

News photo
An Ifugao elder on the terraces of Banaue in the Cordillera (above). Despite centuries of strenuous efforts by Christian missionaries, strong animist beliefs and customs survive in the remoter parts of the Philippines (below).
News photo

This northern range, the homeland of unsubmissive tribes, its terrain conducive to popular resistance and guerrilla warfare, was the bane of the sword and cross-bearing 16th-century Spaniards who occupied the islands. The Catholic Church's first missionaries were its friars, a tireless breed of evangelists who, even as the population of the islands were succumbing to the Catholic doctrine, came, ironically, to symbolize the evils of Spanish colonialism.

Advocates of a feudal land system favoring the new colonial masters and a handful of elite locals who supported them, the friars were also responsible for eradicating much of the indigenous cultures they found blocking their way, including much of the oral culture of the Cordillera that existed in precolonial era: the epics, folk tales and musical verses that the Spanish authorities regarded as "works of the devil." Periods of resistance and a strong anticlerical streak characterize the Spanish period in the Cordillera. When the Spanish eventually decamped, thousands of ostensibly converted tribals simply reverted to their traditional beliefs.

A second wave of missionaries no less determined than the friars came with the arrival of American colonials. Mining corporations and timber companies in the early 20th century began the exploitation of the Cordillera, a process that was accelerated during the Marcos era, a time of massive corruption when whole hillsides were stripped first for lumber, then for gold and other minerals. Missionaries were able to take advantage of improved roads and commercial bases established in hitherto inaccessible regions of the mountains.

Even today, it seems that the coexistence of wood carvings of likhas (pagan deities) and santos (saints) in homes and souvenir shops on the margins of the animistic highlands and the Christian lowlands is just too much for the godly. The missionaries who infest the Philippines today largely belong to fundamentalist Protestant missions of the "born again" variety. Such organizations are highly contentious as they fix on the meekest and most vulnerable, often teaching a brand of early 19th-century Christianity with a strong emphasis on Genesis. Creation myths are common to most tribes, allowing the Christian telling of events, with a little adjustment, to be superimposed on tribal versions.

Missions supported by the religious right are well funded, their efforts manifest in the Jesus rallies of TV evangelists allotted air time on the national networks, in the distribution of Bibles and other published materials and in the presence of visiting religious celebrities.

During the last days of the Marcos era, the American preacher Jerry Falwell was among those who arrived in the capital on a mission to rally fundamentalists behind the embattled dictator. The event, billed as a national prayer breakfast to which gospel groups from the southern states of America were flown over to perform, did not take place in the slums of Tondo in Manila or against a background of depravation, but in front of an audience of businessmen and their families at the Manila Hilton.

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