February 22, 2020 (9:36 AM)

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SADSAD 2020. The recently concluded indigenous and folk dance competition highlights culture and arts in the University. Photo by Mariah Johanna Uy

I was observing a focus group discussion (FGD) among indigenous peoples last September when I realized how little I knew about their culture, despite the fact that I was taking an anthropology elective and that I was practically exposed to indigenous art forms every day in campus—from cultural performances by various student groups to indigenous textiles and images predominantly found at the University Chapel.

I thought it was normal, and therefore, okay to appropriate. 

This all changed when I listened to one of the tribal elders in that FGD. Aimed at discussing the issue of non-Lumad dancers dominating the Kaamulan Festival street dance competition in Bukidnon, the FGD tried to gather the indigenous peoples’ thoughts and opinions regarding cultural appropriation. Strikingly, one of the Datus expressed that they feel disrespected whenever their dances and indigenous attires are performed and worn by non-Lumad people. For him, it was a form of kawat or stealing. 

Culture and arts in the University

With the University’s current thrusts for culture and arts in Mindanao, there is, evidently, a flourishing of indigenous art forms as manifested in the promotion of different events and student organizations. Foremost among these is the Ateneo Sidlak Performing Arts Collective (ASPAC), which prides itself in being an ‘indigenous and folk dance company’. 

“The ASPAC was established to revisit indigenous expressions such as dance and folk music that will truly represent Mindanao’s diversified cultures,” Mr. Jesus Montajes, Founding Director of the ASPAC, explained. 

Guided by five mission statements, Montajes further highlighted the ASPAC’s dedication to advocate and promote indigenous artistic expressions.

“As an indigenous and folk dance company, we want to showcase and promote, strengthen even, the indigenous forms of these dances and songs,” he said.

“So far, we already performed dances of the Tausug, Maranao, Bagobo, and Maguindanao. But we’re also looking into exploring other indigenous dances,” he added.

Recognizing the lack of promotion of indigenous cultures in the local level, Montajes stressed that this motivates them even more to popularize the rich cultures of Mindanao. In order to do so, the ASPAC conducts extensive research prior to every performance.

“We make sure that we appropriate or stylize a particular narrative that is based on research. Another thing, I immerse myself as the director and then I echo it to them through a series of lectures and other formative sessions. I also assign them to watch videos that are also research-based,” he explained. 

While actual field immersions could also be good avenues to learn about indigenous cultures, Montajes admitted that these have not been formally institutionalized by the ASPAC.

“As much as we want to immerse, our artists are not scholars so we are not compelled to really bring them there, so that’s why we create other venues for them to be exposed and to know these communities,” he stated.

However, Montajes emphasized that the ASPAC is making field immersions a top priority for the next school year.

“It’s really different if secondhand information lang na from videos and researches. In the community, you will really feel the authenticity of their tradition because they see it as a way of life,” he expressed.

ASPAC and cultural appropriation

Gaining distinction last year as the grand champion in the Asia Pacific Arts Festival, the ASPAC has been regarded as one of the University’s most in-demand performing arts groups. In spite of this, it finds itself susceptible to allegations of cultural appropriation. Not a far cry from the situation of the Kaamulan dancers, the ASPAC currently stands with a population of 50 students, of which only eight are Lumads. 

Montajes acknowledges that the ASPAC engages in some form of cultural appropriation. However, this appropriation is mediated since they undergo research to shape their performances.

“Categories are contentious. We all appropriate. It’s all a matter of research. Though performing arts is not authentic, the artist should undergo research and seek proper point persons para maging makatotohanan,” he emphasized.

“Lahat naman siguro cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is bad once it does not respect the cultural integrity of that community,” he added.

In terms of maintaining cultural integrity, the ASPAC puts primacy on certain ‘protocols’. These include the sewing of their attires by indigenous peoples themselves, prohibition from borrowing of the said attires by non-members, and asking permission from indigenous leaders, among others.

“We are proud to appropriate because we follow the protocol of how to wear it. We did not bastardize it. Hindi naming dinegrade ang form,” Montajes declared.

“The word kawat is too harsh. I think the right term is borrow,” he added.

Cultural appropriation or appreciation?

Amid rich debate on the issue, there are also competing arguments that the dances performed by groups like the ASPAC are a form of cultural appreciation rather than appropriation.

Fr. Ulysses Cabayao, S.J. from the AdDU Anthropology Department, shared his insights on the matter.

“Cultural appropriation is the harmful adaptation of another culture’s practices, symbols and artifacts by another culture. Harmful in the sense that what is crucial in terms of cultural appropriation is the question of power. Meanwhile, cultural appreciation is an attempt to understand the context in which the cultural artifact that you are promoting is coming from,” he explained.

Far from equating cultural appropriation with appreciation, Cabayao further stressed the importance of problematizing the notion of ‘borrowing’. 

“One of the things that people say against cultural appropriation is the whole idea that it is just borrowing—in a sense we all borrow certain aspects of another culture, but the thing there is that the borrowing that often happens, happens in the context of an asymmetrical relationship,” he claimed. 

While celebrating and promoting cultures is often used as a justification for cultural appropriation, in some cases, this is rendered useless and even extractive especially when indigenous peoples would feel that outsiders are stealing what they consider to be sacred and important.

“For some people, part of reclaiming their own indigenous identity rests on the fact that they can call some practices as their own. Now what happens when everyone’s doing it and in a sense, that this particular cultural practice does not make them distinct anymore?” Cabayao expressed.

Certainly, not all instances of cultural appropriation would lead to a feeling of kawat or stealing among indigenous peoples. However, banking on the experience of the Kaamulan dancers in Bukidnon, we see how culture is complex, yet utterly irreducible to simple categories. Although it may be a fact that we all borrow, this should be done in a way that seeks to humbly understand how indigenous peoples live their lives. And yet, we question whether the means of educating ourselves about them from videos and researches supersedes learning directly from them by actually eating, sleeping, and living with them.

While it is important to acknowledge the efforts by various organizations to represent indigenous cultures, the zenith of these endeavors could be reached only when we have fostered a sense of empowerment in the community and established real solidarity with the people. Until then, the struggle for true representation continues.  



End the silence of the gagged!

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