Freedom from Misrepresentation: A Dimension of the Struggle for Human Security
Albert E. Alejo, SJ, Ateneo de Davao University

I would like to share with you this Foreword I wrote for the book Lumad Sikami, a forthcoming anthology of new writings by young people from various indigenous peoples in Mindanao, generically called the Lumads. The anthology is the product of several research, writing and art workshops conducted among the Lumads, with the support of the Toyota Foundation. I hope that in a future paper, I would be able to show more convincingly that ‘freedom from misrepresentation’ must be placed at the core of the struggle for ‘human security’ (cf. Sen 2002). The threats to the survival and productivity of marginalized people need not be limited to ‘freedom from fear’ and ‘freedom from want’. Equally grave is the insecurity caused by the perennial possibility of becoming the subject of inaccurate and sometimes debilitating labels and representations by other people. The Lumad Training for Local Research and Self-Representation conducted by the Mindanawon Initiatives for Cultural Dialogue at Ateneo de Davao University is an initiative toward achieving freedom of self-representation.


“When they talk about us, they do not talk to us. When they write about us, we become like vanishing tribes or victims of development. Despite their good intention, academics and activists do not seem to understand us. We have to have our own voice.”

Exaggerated? Unfair? Or just stylized for impact? At any rate, the feeling that it conveys, I believe, is sincere. It is a young Manobo’s critique of the way some academics portray the Lumads in their ethnographies and how some activists picture them in protest posters. I guess we are witnessing today the emergence of a new breed of indigenous peoples who want to have control over their representation. Former informants want to become their own researchers. Local historians record and revise their own maps and memories. With caution, children of datus (tribal leaders) and baylans (tribal prophets) make use of modern communication in order to express indigenous tradition. They want to be heard the way they want to be heard.

Why write? Why not?

This is a signal that the struggle of the Lumads in Mindanao cannot be reduced to the retrieval of artifacts or the gaining of access to resources. It involves a demand for recognition of their existence and difference. Recognition, strictly speaking, cannot be demanded. It has to be won. Hence, the Lumads themselves need to learn how to speak out—and write!

In response to this need, the Mindanawon Initiatives for Cultural Dialogue facilitated a series of writing, research and arts workshops. The workshops form part of our program for cultural regeneration. Our project aims at accompanying a select group of young Lumads in their desire “to become creative, critical and articulate writers, artists and researchers.” In the first four workshops held in 2001, Mindanawon assisted thirty-five (35) participants, representing fifteen (15) out of the eighteen (18) ethnolinguistic groups of Mindanao. Ten of the participants attended at least two workshops. Our focus on a small group of individuals provides a more personal approach to training. The cultural diversity of the group also enriches even their informal conversation and cultural presentation. Most of the participants are now members of an emerging Lumad youth organization. And the result is this multi-lingual anthology, the first of its kind – Lumad Sikami, an anthology of new writers by the young Lumad.

Metaphors as movement

Whenever I mention to friends our Lumad writing and research training, they express their sincere doubts. Why go literary when what they need is literacy? They want land, not literature. They weave baskets, not books, don’t they? They would rather hunt the remaining wild boars than run after historical footnotes? Aren’t you destroying their traditional forms of storytelling by exposing them to print? I suggest we simply have to go and get a feel of the products.

In poetry, for example, most of the entries here appear like ordinary school versification. I do not deny the unevenness of the quality of their metaphors. Along the way, however, you detect a different sentiment behind the veneer of modernity. The primordial cry of the land could heard, for instance, even in the prosaic lines of Janice Colmo from Cotabato:

Yutang kabiling tinubdan sa kinabuhiGiilog gikan sa triboNiadtong mga tawong kung susihonWala may kalabutan kay Apo…Apan istorya sa yutang giilogWala natapos dinhi,May mibarog ug nakigbisog sa triboPagpanalipod yutang gibalaan…Sa diwata’g sa kabatan-unanNga naglaum sa bahandi ni Apo. Ancestral domains our source of life Grabbed from the tribeBy people who, under scrutinyHave nothing to do with Apo Sandawa…But the story of the grabbed landDoes not end herePeople stand and fight for tribeIn defense of the sacred landWith the mountain gods and spiritsThe youth must join handsThey who hope in Apo’s heritage

More interestingly perhaps are the gems of local colors expressed in concrete images. The same politicized Mt. Apo that Colmo refers to becomes imbued with divine light in the artistic lines of Ettok Umpan. In this poem, Tanggapow Iddos Ginawa Ku (Receive my Love), the sacred mountain starts as a sanctuary of biodiversity, but personified as a hospitable god, opening the gates of wisdom, reminiscent of the Greek Parmenidean goddesses, to those pure of heart:

Duwon mammis no kobukaranNod dopotton ahad ingkon no mga manuk.Otin vo ondy iddos bonnaNod kopiyan ka-ay no kovukaran kuNo dii ku od elleyan.Otin ondoy iddos od kopiyan nod penekOd sondihan ku to dipallaOd luakatan ku to sobbangan. There is a sweet flower gardenVisited by diverse kinds of birdsWhoever with a pure heartDesires to be in this flower gardenI will not stop him.To whoever wishes to climb up hereI will remove the door barAnd lower down the stair for him.

Notice the play of the unique images drawn from the traditional architecture. In the Manobo house, which is hardly seen nowadays, the stair is made of a bamboo pole with notches serving as steps. The owner of the house welcomes a visitor by removing the bar of the door and more importantly by lowering the bamboo stair. The stair is ‘opened’ by turning the notched slide of the pole facing up, and it is ‘closed’ by turning the notched slide facing down, or by lifting the whole stair altogether and keeping it inside the house.

It is amazing how, from this earthy description, the poet takes us into a contemplation. From being a sanctuary of biodiversity, Mt. Apo is experienced as a source of mystical light, illuminating even the innermost being of the climber-poet.

Su sikkow en iddos timbang buwanWoy mgo bitu-onNod pokotaddow ka-ayt lawa ku,Nod se-aa ka-ayt pusung ku.Pomon to nose-alan kos koddin pusungKonna ad od ipanow diyon to mosukiromNotorawwan don kos pusung kuWoy iddos daan kuWoy iddos kod ginawa ku. For you are like the moonand the stars that shine on my bodyThat illuminates my being.Now that my being has been illuminedI will no longer walk in darknessMy heart is now aglowAnd so with my footpathAs well as my love.

In history, we are given a distinct motivation for documenting the present as past – it is for the sake of the future as well as for personal wholeness. Lucy Rico, an Agusanon Manobo, prefaces her narrative by connecting history and biography:

Some reflective moments of my life moved me to write this history. In May 2001, when my father’s sickness turned serious, he stayed in bed for many days. His loud cry mixed with his writhing in pain. I was afraid that he would die without being able to write down the history that I treasured. That’s why I took paper and pen, stayed close to him and listened to the story that he has been wanting to be documented. Since I learned to think, he has desired to tell me this narrative. I grabbed all the chances to ask him questions and revise some details in order to make the story more concrete. Through his narration and my attentive listening to the stories of the other elders, this history has now come to be written.

Here, we are invited to listen to how knowledge could emerge from the interweaving of the lives of Lucy, the young engaged documentor, Datu Mandagase, the old custodian of memory, and “other elders” who also have their input in the validation of the narrative. The other historical accounts offer raw ethno-historical data, from which sensitive researchers could hope to confirm or confute their theories. More importantly, these stories about the origin of place names, the background for battles and the ritual resources for peace, could definitely enrich our conversation in and out of our classrooms.

A gift of a book

Lumad Sikami, the book, can boast of several features. It contains original poems, riddles, stories, and ethnographic accounts of rituals, cultural movements and struggle for survival of young Lumad writers and artists. Most of the research done on Mindanao tribes relies on the oldest surviving oral tradition. Lumad Sikami opens up space for the sense and sensitivity of the young Lumad. It represents almost all of the eighteen Lumad tribes of Mindanao, from the Manobo on northern and eastern Mindanao, the Subanon and Badjao of western Mindanao and the T’boli of southern Mindanao.

This edition also provides a translation in the national language for use in schools and literary circles as well as non-government organizations. Illustrations, done also by the Lumad artists who participated in the Mindanawon workshops, enhance the text. The new curriculum of the State education provides ample opportunity for the use of this type of material.

Unlike most publications on indigenous peoples, this collection recognizes the creativity of individual authors and artists by presenting their photographs and brief profiles. At the end, it also provides a glossary of some important terms, including the name of rituals, tools, literary genres and special flora and fauna. Assisting in the editing and production of the anthology are professors in the Humanities and Social Science Divisions of the Ateneo de Davao University.

While the textual production is already an achievement, the cross-cultural and inter-tribal process itself is worth all our pioneering efforts. I feel confident that the participants share my joy in this modest but significant contribution to the cultural regeneration of initiatives of Lumad communities in Mindanao. This book is certainly a great gift from their “we” to “us”.


Sen, Amartya. 2003. Basic Education and Human Security. (4 March 2003). 7 pp.

Alejo, Albert E. [Forthcoming]. What are we in fieldwork for? Ethics and Politics of Ethnographic Research. In A Moral Critique of Development. London: Routledge.

Alejo, Albert E. 2000. Generating Energies in Mount Apo: Cultural Politics in a Contested Environment. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Tabang Mindanao. 2003. Human Security Program for the Indigenous Peoples. Quezon City.