Panay Bukidnon’s last ‘binukot’
At age 3 or 4, she is already kept by her parents from the rest of the world. She is not exposed to the sun, allowed to be seen by others, or made to work. She is either the only daughter or the prettiest daughter of a family of good standing in the community.
She bathes in the river at night, concealed by a makeshift enclosure. She has female servants to do work for her. She spends her days learning oral lore, traditional dances and embroidery.
At 13 or 14, when she is ready to marry, her parents ask for a big dowry.
She is not a character from a fairy tale, nor is she the heroine from some other story. She is a “binukot,” similar to a princess in the Panay Bukidnon tribe of Iloilo province. She has grown up to become a fair-complexioned, frail and long-haired woman who brings prestige to her family.
In Garangan, a barangay (village) in Calinog, Iloilo province, I met a binukot, who was probably the most popular and the last of her generation. She was Lucia Caballero, a cultural master and wife of Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan (Gamaba) awardee Federico Caballero.
Because of the time the binukot spend in isolation, they become excellent in their crafts and chants. Lucia is an expert in the binukot embroidery called “panubok.”
Each design of the panubok has a story and meaning, culled from the tribe’s rich culture. Lucia knows all of them. She also knows her tribe’s traditional musical instruments, chants and dances.
She was garbed in the traditional costume of rich red emblazoned with panubok; jewelry made from coins strung together; a headdress also made of old coins, and layers of “patadyong,” a colorful tribal cloth.
We were inside Gamaba Learning Center, one of the schools of living tradition in the mountains of Iloilo, where she and her family pass on knowledge of their culture to younger “tumandok,” or tribe members.
Schools of living tradition
In these schools of living tradition, children learn not science, math, English, Filipino and civics, but their epic chants. Their oral tradition, called “sugidanon,” which uses archaic language and traditionally chanted while lying down in a hammock, is the longest in Asia.
The chants tell stories about the legendary warriors of the tribe and their heroic exploits. There are stories about a dog with extraordinary powers, a strange-looking bamboo tree, a man-eating witch and a hermit who accepts two girls as payment for a misdeed. The maidens are locked down in a golden chamber, cared for and become binukot.
Children also come to these schools to learn their dance called “binanog,” a courtship dance that mimics the flight of a mighty bird and that involves the use of scarves or a piece of cloth to catch or elude a partner.
The children also learn their tribe’s lore, including 48 phases of the moon and names for the constellations. They also learn to read sky patterns and predict the weather.
These schools, which arose from legislation authored by Sen. Loren Legarda, still run on a measly budget provided by the National Commission for the Culture and the Arts. In Gamaba Learning Center’s case, the school operates also on the allowance given to Federico Caballero as National Living Treasure awardee.
The purpose of our travel was not primarily to chase binukot but to help them with their mission of keeping their culture alive through the schools of living tradition.
Years ago, I met Elsie Caballero Padernal, grandaughter of Lucia and Bato Balani Foundation’s The Many Faces of the Teacher honoree, who told me about these schools and her effort, together with her clan, to promote their culture.
Caballero showed me a worn-out notebook where she had written down every detail of her tribe’s identity that she had learned from her elders.
She also shared with me their struggles as indigenous people. They are, just like the other tribes in the Philippines, not exempt from discrimination. They were branded as “mangmang” (ignorant) because they have no Western-style education.
Caballero recalled that once a tribe member called her attention for performing their native dance in public. That person thought it was better for them to just blend in and not brag about their being indigenous people.
As their identity is also our identity as Filipinos, I took it as a personal mission to come back and help with the group I initiated and cofounded, Trails to Empower Kids, or Trek (www.trailstoempowerkids.com).
For almost eight years now, Trek has been conducting outreach programs for the benefit of indigenous communities. It was our way of giving back to them the fulfillment of our passion—mountain climbing.
We have reached out to the Dumagat of Aurora province, the Hanunuo Mangyan of Oriental Mindoro, the Kankanai of Benguet, the Ilongot of Quirino, the Kalinga people, the Aetas of Zambales and other tribes.
It was the first time we conducted an outreach program outside Luzon. Our group is not a formal organization and we do not have a budget for logistical expenses. Whenever we go out, we take care of our own expenses so for a long time we have been reaching out to tribes that we can reach by bus.
Fortunately one of our most active volunteers, Ailene Mae Leal, is from Calinog’s neighboring town of Lambunao. She got her family and friends to help.
A local group called Kulas assisted us with logistics. We were also linked up with the Panay 4×4 Club, which helped us transport donations.
The road up the mountains of Iloilo was not paved and afternoon rains added to the challenge. No public vehicle operator would take us up the mountains.
We initially planned a two-day activity but there were reports of ambushes in the mountains so we decided to squeeze all activities into one day.
From Lambunao, we trekked to the first school on our program, Masaroy School of Learning Tradition, which was also the farthest. There was no electricity in the area and most of the people there were farmers.
We were welcomed by the sounds of gongs and drums. I almost ran on the trail in excitement, except that I couldn’t because I was still recovering from an injury I had suffered in a climbing accident.
We brought blackboards, teaching and school supplies for the kids’ weekend classes. We also brought sewing machines, cloths and threads so the kids could have costumes when they practiced dance.
We also brought tools for minor repairs to the classrooms, and rice to help the community with its feeding program.
We also gave the community a mini-library of storybooks and gifts for the kids, including bags, hygiene kits, toys and loot bags—all donations from our families, relatives, friends, colleagues and people we met online.
We visited the place two months earlier to check its viability as a beneficiary and research on the needs of the schools.
That morning was about festivities though. The kids danced while the elders led the welcome chant. And we thanked them for sharing their culture with us and handed them the gifts.
After the turnover, we rushed to Garangan, where Federico and Lucia Caballero resided. Immediately, the tribe started the “panimo,” a ritual to bless the newly harvested rice.
Part of the ceremony was drinking rice wine, which I tasted for the first time. It was an honor accorded to the group that heeded the call for help in maintaining their school.
After the ritual, I was invited to lunch with the Caballero family. There were no fine linens and fancy china, but there was something a lot more beautiful—a table covered with grass cuttings and flowers.
Then they served us “binakawan,” a traditional pork dish, and “binakol,” both cooked in bamboo tubes. They also served as “dinuguan.”
They spoke Hiligaynon, which I could not understand but I didn’t mind. We were all smiling and laughing. I understood enough.
After lunch, even with rain clouds darkening the sky, we went outside to watch Lucia and her sister-in-law, Teresita, who was also a binukot, dance. Their years as binukot clearly showed in the grace of their movements.
I learned that binukot dancing is always the highlight of any important Panay Bukidnon event.
The movements of the binukot were different from other binanog dances, which imitated hawks. Theirs were closer to the movements of ducks, which they said was the style of dancers in Tapaz, Capiz province, where Lucia is originally from.
By the time the program finished, rain had started to pour and we had to rush to our last stop, the Agcalaga School of Living Tradition, where we barely had time to turn over donations and where I got, as gifts, two traditional musical instruments carved from bamboo from a fellow volunteer.
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