Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Tolay: An Ethnography of the Ibanag People

Photo from Google
By Chester B Cabalza
(Copyright @ 2014 by Chester B Cabalza. All Rights Reserved).

Manuel Castells (2010:6) argues that by identity, there is a process of construction of meaning on the basis of cultural attribute, or a related set of cultural attributes, that is given priority over other sources of meaning. For a given individual, or for a collective actor, there may be plurality of identities. Yet such a plurality is a source of stress and contradiction in both self-representation and social action.

Scholars (Richard Jenkins [1997:342-399], John Ikenberry [1999:130], and Howard Adelman (2000:8]) say that anthropologists and sociologists trace back ethnicity from its ancient origins which means ethnos, referring to a range of situations in which collectivity of humans lived and acted together, hitherto, typically translated as people or nation. Others collectively agree that ethnicity can be lost, discovered, or simply invented, since ethnicity and ethnic identity are social constructs and identity is subjective based on beliefs about common ancestry of shared historical past.

There are also those who say that an ethnic community consists of people who identify themselves or identified by others in cultural terms, such as language, religion, tribe, nationality, and possibly race.

Ibanag nak: an embedded ethnic identity

The Ibanags belong to an original ethnic group that occupied the northeastern portion of Luzon. The name came from “bannag” meaning “river” as they lived along the banks of the Cagayan River. In other words, they were the people who lived on or from the banks of Cagayan River (Talla 1999, Wein 1987, Gatan 1981, and Llamzon 1978). Based from ethnographic accounts, documents provide that they belong to the lowland Christian groups according to the then Ethnological Survey of the Philippines Office, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) during the American period, and based from today’s National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).

More so, Manuel Castells (2010:7) deems that the construction of identities uses building materials from history, from geography, from biology, from productive and reproductive institutions, from collective memory and from personal fantasies, from power apparatuses and religious revelations. But individuals, social groups, and societies process all these materials, and rearrange their meanings, according to social determinations and cultural projects are rooted in their social structure, and in space/time framework.

From Ibanag riverine community

            The original homeland of the Ibanag is an ideal coastal maritime trading center and inland secondary trading center locations. Wernsdent and Spencer (1967) believe that the Ibanags used to occupy the Babuyan channel coast before venturing to the lower half of Cagayan Valley in the late sixteenth century. The Cagayan Valley mirrors a general pattern seen all over the Philippine archipelago wherein we see plural societies with upland people bringing down forest products and ores to river delta coastal maritime trading centers which has maritime trade links overseas (Junker 1999).

            The Cagayan River, also tagged as the Rio Grande de Cagayan, is the longest and largest existing river in the entire Philippine archipelago. This mighty river proudly flows through the provinces of Nueva Vizcaya, Quirino, Isabela, and Cagayan. Along the Cagayan River, whose waters drain originally from the heights of the Casecnan watershed in Quirino, as well as its larger tributaries in Magat in Isabela, and then accumulate larger deposits of sediments level enough to become a flood plain. It is along this plain that the Ibanags have settled and do agriculture because the fertile soil is good for raising all kinds of crops such as paddy rice, corn, tobacco, beans, and peanuts (Valdapeñas 2008:2).

            The legendary river is surrounded by a valley as the homeland of many Ibanags which is bordered to the east by Sierra Madre Mountains, to the west by the Cordillera, and to the south by the Caraballo Mountains.

            Early settlements in Cagayan bordered by thick forest on the side, and a body of water either the river or sea, on the other side. The barangay refers to plank-built boats with outriggers. Larger vessels were called biray or biwong, dug-out canoes from a single tree trunk were takuli, a raft referred to as dalakit, and bamboo tied together were called gakit. This shows the role of water carriers in Ibanag community and it is no surprise then the strong maritime culture of Ibanags is alluded to in its literature (Scott 1994: 265).

            Based from beliefs of elderly Ibanags, the bannag (river) is sacred to them because their daily dose of activities revolves around the Cagayan River. For many Ibanags, after they catch fish from the river or toil hard from their farm, they would say nababannag nak (I’m so tired) in reference to the river.

While I was traversing the river, according to my parents (both Ibanags) and based from folklore, our ancestors thought that langi (sky) is regarded as heaven representing the place of all-powerful God called Makapangngua. For the Ibanag when he gazes up to the langi his disposition makes him at peace and happy. Oftentimes, the Ibanag exclaims kagitta na langi (it is like heaven) referring to the state of happiness.

Ibanag language as forms of identity and speech community

            One can easily identify an Ibanag when he speaks the Ibanag language. According to linguists, the Ibanag language is distinct in that it features phonemes and double consonants which are not present in many other languages in the country. The Ibanag language is using all the complete letters in the adopted Roman alphabets in Filipino since Ibanag words have embedded y / f / v / z /j / in its phonemes.

            Based from ethnographic studies, the Ibanag language is the lingua franca of Cagayan Valley and the mother language of other indigenous peoples (IPs) in the region such as Itawes, Gaddang, Yogad, and Iraya. It is spoken from Pamplona to Gattaran up to Tuguegarao City in Cagayan. This language is also widely spoken in Cabagan, Tumauini, Ilagan, Gamu, Echague, and Santiago City in Isabela. According to Valdapeñas (2008:18), he originally cited chronicles of Dominican friar Pedro Salgado, writing that the Spaniards crossed to their minds that having a common language would help the conquistadores in their governance. Therefore, they adopted and enforced the use of Ibanag as the official language for the rest of Cagayan Valley. 
Online facts about the Ibanags recount that we originated in the region around the mouth of the mighty Cagayan River. The group gradually dispersed southward within the last 200 years influencing other languages in the region. Based from Ethnologue, a database of languages throughout the world, there are half a million speakers of Ibanag. It is not a small number although the figure dates back to 1990. But somehow there might be a decreased number of Ibanag speakers now.   

Manuel Castells (2010:7) believes that identities can also be originated from dominant institutions; they become identities only when and if social actors internalize them, and construct their meanings around this internationalization.

Recently, the Department of Education (DepEd) used 12 major languages when it introduced the Mother-Tongue-Based Multi-Lingual Education (MTB-MLE) program last year. Tagalog, Kapampangan, Pangasinense, Iloko, Bikol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Waray, Tausug, Maguindanaoan, Maranao, and Chabacano include the first batch. To enrich and widen the program, seven new mother tongues embedded in the program including Ibanag, Ivatan, Sambal, Akianon, and Kinaray-a, Yakan, and Surigaonon. These Philippine languages are currently used or will be used as a medium of instruction from Kindergarten to Grade 3. Since Ibanag language has now been successfully included in the second batch of the vernacular languages to be used in public schools under the K to 12 reform program of the DepEd, it is expected that Ibanag native speakers will increase and its community will be bigger in the future.

However, John Gumperz (2009:71) cautions that language loyalty may become a political issue in a modernizing society when socially isolated minority groups become mobilized. Their demands for closer participation in political affairs are often accompanied by demands for language reform or for the rewriting of the older, official code in their own literary idiom. The replacement of an older official code by another literary idiom in a modernizing society may represent the displacement of established elite by a rising group.  

Global Ibanag community

            Diaspora has led many Ibanags to Metro Manila and in different world cities as students, professionals, migrants, and overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). Because of deterritorializing world, the Ibanag Heritage Foundation Incorporated (IHFI) was organized by a group of Ibanags headed by the Founding Chairman Jejomar C Binay, a half-Ibanag through his matrilineal descent, who primarily wants to preserve and enhance the cultural heritage of the Ibanags, their way of life, and their Valley. The vision of the organization is to aspire for a close-knit global community of Ibanags who share immense pride in their history and strong kinship, bound together by a rich cultural heritage that serves as their wellspring of empowerment. And the mission is to foster unity among Filipinos of Ibanag descent or affiliation and harness their combined power and resources to lay the cornerstones of a lasting legacy that sustains their growth as a community of outstanding citizens, making their mark on the global map as professionals, entrepreneurs, artists, peacekeepers, community leaders, and public servants [1].
Photo from IHFI
           Among the famous and successful personalities in different fields that has Ibanag lineage who may influence ordinary Ibanags to love their distinct identity and Ibanag community are Vice President Jejomar Binay; Kontra-Gapi founder and retired UP professor Edru Abraham; singer Freddie Aguilar; actors Derek Ramsey, Coney Reyes, Michael V and Maja Salvador; basketball icons Jerry Codiñera and Rommel Adducul; and seasoned senators Bong Revilla Jr and Juan Ponce Enrile.

            However, the Ibanag Heritage Foundation Incorporated encourages our members to search for a global Ibanag that would embody the Ibanag culture, language, and community in a global scale. In our search, we have found Diosdado Banatao – philanthropist and computer engineer – a.k.a the Bill Gates of the Philippines. From his very humble beginnings from Iguig Cagayan Valley and going big time to Silicon Valley in the US, he never forgot his roots as an Ibanag. He pursued his secondary education in a Jesuit run school, the now defunct Ateneo de Tuguegarao. After finishing high school, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering at Mapua Institute of Technology and graduated cum laude. He later completed an MS Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Stanford University in 1972 in order to enhance his craft as design engineer for Boeing in the United States. According to http://www.forbes.com, he is the founder and has been Managing Partner of Tallwood Venture Capital (Tallwood) since July 2000. From April 2008 to June 2009, he served as Interim Chief Executive Officer of SiRF Technology Holdings, Inc. (SiRF), a publicly-traded company that was acquired by CSR plc in June 2009 (SiRF). From October 2006 to August 2007, he served as Interim President and Chief Executive Officer of Inphi Corporation. Prior to forming Tallwood, he was a venture partner at the Mayfield Fund, a venture capital firm, from January 1998 to May 2000. Among his achievements, he co-founded three technology startups: S3 Graphics Ltd in 1989, Chips & Technologies, Inc. in 1985 and Mostron, Inc. in 1984. In his comeback to the Philippines, he continues to offer scholarships to bright students in Cagayan Valley and is willing to donate millions of dollars to resurrect his defunct alma mater Ateneo de Tuguegarao. 


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Ikenberry, G., 1999. From Culture to Ethnicity to Conflict: An Anthropological Perspective on International Ethnic Conflict, Foreign Affairs, New York: Vol 78, Iss. 4, p 130.
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Valdapeñas, V. 2008. Ateneo de Tuguegarao: The Jesuit School UP North (A History of Generosity), Don Bosco Press, Inc.

Wein, C. 1987. Ibanag Songs, Folklore Studies Program, Cebu City: University of San Carlos Press.

Wernstedt, F. & Spencer, J.E. 1967. The Philippine Island World, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[1] Cited from Ibanag Heritage Foundation Incorporated (IHFI) and available at http://www.ibanagheritage.org/about-us/mission-and-vision/#sthash.HJsymlOF.dpuf, accessed on 28 Janaiuary 2014.

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