The Mountains Taught Me: A Photo Essay

Timuey Ronaldo Ambangan, a tribal leader of the Erumanen ne Menuvu tribe in North Cotabato, speaks to an audience at the State of the Indigenous Peoples Address last 24 July.

THE MOUNTAINS TAUGHT ME Notes from the Field A photo essay by Garret Pangket

Human beings are social animals so they say. It is, however a prerequisite that for us to be a community, we need a common connection. May it be a common goal, an activity, common history, or experiences. For the indigenous peoples, there is a common understanding that land is life. It is not owned by individuals, but collectively as peoples. The VOICE team in the Philippines recently visited indigenous communities within the Bangsamoro Region in Mindanao, Southern Philippines. In this trip, I was able to reflect and understand better the plight of my fellow indigenous peoples. Timuey Ronaldo Ambangan, the tribe chieftain of the Erumanen ne Menuvu has a well of wisdom that makes him one of the most effective and inspiring leaders I met. “Timuey” is a title given to tribe leaders, from the root word “Timo” meaning to gather. The Erumanen tribe was awarded an ancestral domain title by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples covering 13,751 hectares in North Cotabato in Mindanao.

Timuey Jo might be the most poetic leader one can converse with.

“To compose a Statement calling (the government) to stop Human Rights Violations/Red Tagging of Indigenous Peoples.”

One particular encounter with Timuey Ronaldo, also called “Jo” or “Jojo” was at the State of the Indigenous Peoples Address (SIPA) last July 24. The activity led by our partners at the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC), was simultaneous with President Ferdinand Marcos’ State of the Nation Address (SONA). Indigenous groups from all over the country gathered to collectively reflect on the current struggles of indigenous peoples, and listen to how the president might address these in his SONA.

A tribal leader leading a ritual to open the State of the Indigenous Peoples Address last 24 July 2023

To the disappointment of everyone, President Marcos never even mentioned the indigenous peoples in his address. While everyone expressed their disappointment and disgust, here came Timuey Jo, saying “Maganda ang nangyari ano?” (what pleasant event, right?). Jo carried on by saying, the body present at the event was given an urgent task, an opportunity to campaign harder, and reach out to more people, so that in the next SONA, the president will have no other choice but to think of ways to address the plight of the indigenous peoples in the country. He further emphasized that the indigenous peoples’ campaign for land, rights, resources and self-governance is a continuous battle, that even a change in the country’s top leader will not immediately win us our campaign. What seemed to be a nonchalant response at first was actually his poetic way of saying that we have to continue fighting.

A house from near the tribal hall of the Erumanen ne Menuvu

Dried coconut preserved by the community for various uses.

Indigenous peoples in the Philippines have a strong connection to their land and environment. Their traditions often revolve around agriculture, hunting, and fishing, and their knowledge of sustainable practices has played a vital role in preserving the country's natural resources. Their art, music, and dance forms are also integral to the cultural landscape of the Philippines. Despite their cultural richness, indigenous communities in the Philippines continue to be the most oppressed sector in the Philippines. Indigenous communities often find themselves in conflict with government agencies, corporations, and even settlers over land rights. Many have been displaced from their ancestral lands, leading to a loss of their traditional way of life. Indigenous peoples are among the most economically disadvantaged. They have limited access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities, leading to high poverty rates within their communities. Indigenous leaders and organizations often find themselves in the forefront of dehumanization and harassment from government forces. They are being branded as terrorists of left-leaning for their campaigns for the respect of indigenous practices, and rights to ancestral domain.

“Sa pag-ibig lang hindi pwede mamangka sa dalawang ilog. Sa Gawain, pwede.” (You cannot ride in two rivers only applies when it comes to romantic love, not in the work we do) In this picture, Timuey Jo introduced us his children, currently in high school and grade school. In one of our conversations, he mentioned the above-quoted statement. He referred to his tactic of being adaptable as a leader, when confronted by opposing sides. Indigenous peoples are often find themselves at the center of conflicts, whether it be political, or armed conflicts. In cases like these, a leader should be able to face two fronts when protecting the people.

Timuey Jo introducing one of his children to the VOICE team

The quote further relates to his role as a tribal leader and a father at the same time. While both tasks are complicated, he should be able to do both. Jo remarked that the youth needs to be actively involved in the learning and teaching processes of their culture and traditions. He emphasized that immersion in culture is the most important way to learn for young people. We can only go so far when we converse as a learning process. To learn the culture is to live it. To live it, is to better understand. To understand is step one, but a step to the right path.

He is guided by the same principle when confronted by parties from conflicting sides. He elicits meaningful conversations by sitting them down while attempting to understand their purpose. Ronaldo shared that their campaign as indigenous peoples within the Bangsamoro Region starts with an appreciation of indigenous practices and traditions, be it by the non-indigenous and their fellow indigenous.

“A leader cannot be a papaya tree, that when it is knocked down, it is unable to grow back up and bear fruits. A leader should be like a banana tree instead. Once it grows, produces, and gets knocked down, shoots will grow back up after it and continue life.” Timuey Jo likened his leadership to a banana tree. Once it has peaked, it is almost certain that the younger generation will carry on, carry better. The culture and tradition that we practice is not made-up by its current leaders nor their predecessors. It has been practiced since time immemorial, and passed on through generations. As a tribal leader, one realization Timuey Jo had is the need to adapt to the current times. Our initiatives must be relevant while not veering away from our practices.

As I showed the photos to Timuey Jo, I noticed his eagerness to see through my lens. He emphasized that our conversations with people build trust, empathy, and a common ground. His tactics, when confronted by opposing sides, helped me realize that any campaign for systemic change cannot be fast-tracked. It is essential that we slow down, tell our stories, empathize, and understand each other better.

The Erumanen ne Menuvu, like many indigenous groups, play a vital role in the rich cultural mosaic of the Philippines. Their distinct language, customs, and traditions are a source of pride and identity. However, they confront various challenges, including land disputes, poverty, discrimination, and cultural erosion. Despite these difficulties, their resilience and efforts to protect their culture offer hope for the future. Recognizing and respecting the rights and contributions of the Erumanen ne Menuvu and other indigenous communities is crucial for preserving the cultural diversity of the Philippines and ensuring a more inclusive and equitable society.

Erumanen ne Menuvu Tribe leaders with the VOICE Ph team and LRC at Barangay Aroman, Carmen in North Cotabato 1 June 2023.

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