ILOILO CITY ? Perla Zaragosa Moreno, 47, one of the last five fluent speakers of Ati language in Tisa village Hamtic, Antique province, rued the little interest among the young Ati to speak and study their native tongue.
?Ginakahuya nanda maghambal Inati (they are embarrassed to speak Inati),? she said.
Tisa is an Ati settlement of 50 households served by the School of Living Traditions (SLT), a place to learn the culture of the Ati, one of the indigenous peoples on Panay Island.
Moreno teaches Ati children the crafts, songs and language of the community.
The craft, she said, is picking up because there?s market for Ati pouches that are updated as cell phone holders. ?Sosyal na (It has become fashionable),? she said. But the problem is the language because the educated youngsters believe it is inferior to the dominant Kinaray-a, which is widely spoken in Antique, and Hiligaynon that is spoken in Iloilo City.
Scholars and cultural workers have argued for the preservation of indigenous tongues because language is tied with a unique way of life, literature and worldview. In the case of the Ati community in Tisa, the death of the few remaining fluent speakers would mean that valuable aspects of the Ati culture, such as history, legends, rituals and myths, might disappear with them.
The SLTs could be a way to preserve the surviving indigenous culture. During the day-long symposium entitled ?Keepers of Memory in the Fast Food Age,? on June 28, participants said there is a need for children to be exposed to culture bearers to ?strengthen the values and foundation of the community.? The schools are to keep alive the indigenous traditions eroded by, among others, formal education, religion, discrimination, out-migration due to poverty and loss of ancestral land.
The symposium was held on the third day of Kapwa-2, an international conference on the relevance of indigenous knowledge held at the University of the Philippines in the Visayas in Iloilo City from June 26 to 28.
Scholars, artists, students, cultural workers and representatives of several indigenous communities attended the gathering. Scholars presented papers on the impact of globalization on the indigenous culture.
Kapwa-2 organizers include the Akademiya ng Sikolohiyang Pilipino, Pambansang Samahan ng Sikolohiyang Pilipino, UP Visayas Centennial Commission, National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and Japan Foundation.
Moreno thinks their language is dying because it is not taught in schools like English and Filipino. But their SLT may keep it alive, she said.
The NCCA website showed that at least 60 Schools of Living Tradition all over the country receive grants between P50,000 to P200,000. The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples and the local government units have provided support to some schools.
Datu Victor Saway said the school of Tala-andig culture in Bukidnon is now enjoying support from the community. The Tala-andig?s SLT, which started in 1995, is a big house with a hearth. It teaches dances, chants, sports and storytelling techniques to young people. ?It?s where culture can come home to and take shelter,? said Saway.
The indigenous Panay Bukidnon, people living in the mountains of central Panay, also had a similar school teaching children to learn the chants and dances, play musical instruments and learn the traditional embroidery art.
Established by a grant from the NCCA, the school is run by brothers Federico and Romulo Caballero and their families. Federico was named the 2000 ?Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan? for his knowledge of Panay Bukidnon epics and facets of their culture committed only to memory.
But now weighed by age and health problems, Federico has left the school in the hands of his brother and is now staying in Iloilo City.
Slowly, others skilled in embroidery, dancing and musical instrument-making have started teaching in the school. But the school has a limited reach and Federico said there should be more of it in other areas in Panay. The other members of the community said it would be better if the teaching of their culture would be included in the local school curriculum to ensure its preservation.
Saway said the Tala-andig school is slowly becoming self-reliant with some teachers doing their work without receiving honorarium. ?They consider teaching the responsibility of the elders,? he said.
Representatives of the Hanunuo Mangyan and T-Boli said a school could stay long if teaching and learning are a community effort.
On the other hand, Panay-Bukidnon leaders said the school should be linked to livelihood programs to generate income for the community. It will also prevent teachers or masters from migrating elsewhere. For example, some Panay Bukidnon master-embroiders have left their communities to work in the lowlands, losing a chance to train young people in this vanishing art.
The Ati SLT receives modest support from the government but is nowhere near the more established schools of indigenous culture.
Moreno said recognizing the elder means compensating them for their efforts as some Ati elders depend on marginal farming to survive.
For example, their tradition of gathering and selling medicinal herbs and roots has been taken over by traders.
But more than the school, they want to have a permanent settlement as they are squatting in a private property. ?We have no sense of home because we can be asked to leave any time,? said Moreno.