Episode 18: Mindanao (Uncertain and misplaced...) Origins


(Music starts)

            The interior of Mindanao is occupied by some ten pagan tribes, […] These tribes are all remarkably alike in culture; much more so, in fact, than any other similar group of peoples in the Philippines; and this culture shows a close resemblance to that of the tribes in the interior of Borneo. In the development of their myths and of their religious beliefs, these peoples occupy a middle position between the more primitive and the highest developed types of the Philippines. – H. Otley Beyer

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            I'm quickly growing more frustrated with H. Otley Beyer. (Pause) Wow, that's a great greeting. New year, new abrasive intro. It's not going to be a permanent one, trust me. This is a combination of holiday exhaustion and genuine frustration with someone who is quickly becoming a regular on this show. Because, look, while I've always been aware that there was something problematic or at least not ideal in having an outsider be "the Father of Philippine Anthropology" as it were, it seemed to come to a head this episode. Like, this was not a good week to be him. For that to be true it would be possible to concern yourself with my particular frustration from beyond the grave, which is unlikely but whatever give me that one.

            You see, in this unit, I've been somewhat reliant on his accounts. I’ve been drawing from the way he describes the origins stories of the ethnolinguistic groups together. Which may be my fault, but let me just say I never thought I could run into this many problems. I was young, naïve, idealistic, and podcasting has a very low barrier of entry. But it did make sense, at the time, for me to take this approach. It seemed poetic because he is an origin point in and of itself, but not a great one and on the other hand, despite how often he is wrong or how poorly some of his theories are holding up, he's still respected in his field. Also, his accounts are bare enough that I really have space to add my own creativity, however limited. Which was what I wanted to and the sort of treatment other mythologies get to have. Did I think I biting off a bit more than I could chew? I probably would have had I had thought much more about it... But maybe you can see what the problem was on that front.

            Now, however, H. Otley Beyer has forced the question. He's forced many a question in my mind, but this is the one I’m going to talk about.

            Here's a rundown, if you didn't listen to a prior episode... Beyer is considered the "Father of Philippine Anthropology" but he's not Filipino. You may or may not have assumed that given the title of this episode. Maybe his name gave him away, although when is the last time you heard the name “Otley.” Or you didn’t think about it at all. Either way. There’s some grand takeaway to be had from each of those potential reactions, but who knows, it’s not relevant here. That’s your business.

            But to fill you in, Beyer was a young man from Iowa who just happened to see an exhibit on the Philippines in the Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exhibition in St. Louis, Missouri way back in 1904. And maybe hearing isn’t leaving you incredibly optimistic. After all, if there was no studies being done of the Philippines and no experts to ask questions to, how could they exhibition planners possibly make it educational? Obviously, they didn’t. I mean, think back to the times. The show was mostly about selling things. It was like a giant themed mall that was just super temporary. Okay, that’s a bad comparison, but maybe you get it. Maybe.

            When I first started this show and first encountered him, he seemed genuine in his interest or as genuine as someone could be given the situation. He moved to the Philippines initially as a volunteer teacher, but he did build a life there. He married a local woman and raised a child in the Philippines. As for his career, he spent it building up the intellectual infrastructure of the country, and he was accepted by the resulting academic world, receiving many accolades and honors in his day.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            He genuinely seemed loved and respected as a reflection of the treatment he had always given his newfound home. So when I first did this research, it seemed like this was a genuine reciprocated relationship with admittedly very real limitations. And it’s still not an ideal situation, yes, but at least, he cared. Not everyone who goes into a (quote) “pagan” place has that level of care for it. But now, I’m not so sure. Once again, though I have spared you most of the other examples, I find sweeping generalizations in his work that—as a Filipino—I’m put off by. In this case, it’s not entirely my fight, but that’s splitting hairs.

            Here’s the thing, sometimes Beyer seems to acknowledge the real cohesiveness of different groups and their own identity, but it almost seems like he does it when it’s convenient. A large group gets to keep its recognition because by virtue of being a large group that line becomes harder to ignore. You won’t or can’t superimpose your own interpretations on something that large. You can try, but because failure would be so obvious, you have a very good reason not to.

            So maybe, my so-called beginner’s luck with some of the other groups and their treatment at Beyer’s hand really was just about that. It was easy to give them this. He didn’t have to step out of his own comfort zone, which wasn’t something he wasn’t aware he needed to do. And then there are these smaller groups who need not be lumped together so blatantly but were. They coexist but not as one cohesive group like others and in failing to recognize that point and respond according, it makes finding other defining characters of these groups that much harder. If at all possible.

            The thing about being a trailblazer is that your poor navigation will live on just as much as your achievements do. Any cracks in your foundation are going to jeopardize you manage to build upon it.

            Think back to the quote I started off with at the beginning of this episode. It reads in a very (quote) old-school formal tone. In which other people who look very different from you aren’t considered people, not in an obvious way. They aren’t even reduced to abstract conceptions of personhood: person-shaped but lacking a personal trajectory but subjects akin almost to animals or non-sentient things. Without the sense of urgency that comes from dealing with actual people, details aren’t tended to so diligently and can be lost along the way. Which might be what happened here.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            Maybe this was the best approach. Maybe that’s how all these tribes need to be consider, but we’ll never know, and I’ll never feel completely comfortable trusting Beyer’s judgment calls. Because here’s the thing, and it may be something you’ve already noticed if you are more familiar than I am or than I was when I first started. Mindanao isn’t an ethnolinguistic group. At least, not one that’s immediately recognizable. It’s a place made up of people who proudly declare a variety of identities. More specifically, it’s the southern-most island of the Philippines. One that has seen more than its fair share of conflicts in recent years. Maybe you heard about all of that, about the violence, the martial law, and the fear that fills the region. Maybe you haven’t.

            Personally, I was vaguely aware of this. It’s something my mother will mention from time to time. It’s something she laments, but at the same, it’s something that just seems inevitable or she’s just resigned to. And while we may dislike it, we’ve never managed to change it.

            While the crisis has certainly escalated, the island has likely never been a fully cohesive whole or a solid block of loosely related people. And before anyone gets tempted to straw man me here, I’m not trying to blame Beyer in any way for the conflicts in the region that would happen later. Though I will say that colonialization or invasion of any sort necessarily helped that situation. But that’s not a really about Beyer at all.

            Sure, he might have been playing into a larger problem, but his culpability is limited. What’s the worst thing he did? In this context, Beyer took these tribes and grouped them together, citing the similarities between these groups as a justification for doing so. Not that he directly defended himself in any capacity. I’m reading between the lines, here but you know what, that’s the more generous way of doing it.

            But back to the point, yes, there are similarities between these groups, and it’s clear in their stories. It’s clear in a variety of things, actually… As a result of their proximity, they had one figurative toolbox to pull from. And when you have similar pieces, the broader pictures are going to be similar while still maintaining distinct characters. The connections are there, but really, that’s not definitive nor is it obvious. It’s something only certain eyes are inclined to see, even if those eyes are just laze ones.

            Honestly, you can chose to see them or you can chose to ignore them. For this reason, I’m inclined to pull back some of my harsh critiques against Beyer. Yes, he got a lot of things wrong and could be clueless from time to time. But there is some value to having his perspective at all though not as an end all and be all.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            Let’s say I have a desk. (Pause) Okay, bad word choice. I do have a desk. Obviously, but in this example, I have a desk of mystery of some sort. I’m trying to better understand or study this desk. To do so, I can look at it from the top and see all the stuff on it. From there, I can see what I use the desk for, what may be getting in my way of using it most efficiently, and maybe make some other conclusions about myself that I’ve actually been hiding from, i.e. I’m a hot mess who is bad at throwing away receipts.

            But on the other hand, if you get under the desk, you could see if a screw is missing, which may actually be the case because my cat found a random screw last week, and I don’t know where it came from. But you can tell me more about its structure and how sturdy it is. Maybe you can tell me how much longer this piece of furniture could last.

            Clearly both perspectives are important in different ways. And maybe, yes, one person should be able to do both. But suppose the person who is looking at the top of my desk has bad knees and a bad back, so she can’t bend down. And if the person who was checking the underside of my desk isn’t familiar with pop culture or technology, then maybe a glimpse at the top is meaningless.

            There is a Filipino anthropologist who could be considered Beyer’s equal. I’ve mentioned him before. His name is Felipe Landa Jocano, and he’s actually known as “the country’s first and foremost cultural anthropologist,” but I’m holding off saying too much about him because I wanted to give him a more in-depth treatment later. He should have his own episode or series of episodes, so if you want to subscribe, there’s another reason.

            Here’s the actual point. While Beyer isn’t the ideal expert on Filipino anthropology by any stretch of the imagination because he was both a product of his time and an outsider who didn’t have the same investment or level of empathy that you may hope, it’s not that we can’t pull some scrap of value from his observations, even if we really have to dig for it.

            As for me, this is one piece I feel comfortable offering. In the beginning, there was only connections here and everywhere. We were together spatially and peacefully and built up our worlds with the same pieces. We were cut from the same cloth and found other common cloths to cut. So obviously, we can’t have fundamentally differences at our core to keep us apart.

            Not that it actually changes anything. It’s not an actual solution, and I’m not trying to pretend that it is. But I do think, on the other hand, that we can’t solve a problem until we understand what got us here. And in this observation, simple but forgettable, conflict wasn’t inevitable. A turn in our shared road created it, and perhaps, in that turn, we can find our solution. But to pretend that groups are fundamentally different to the point that reconciliation is not something we can even hope for. Well, that’s not going to help anything. Helplessness creates nothing.

            But neither will preaching, I guess, so let’s get to the story.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            I have heard it said that no one really knows how the world came to be. And looking around, I can see with my own two eyes that this is true. Or hear it with my own two ears, as it were. From time to time, the various tales filling in the air will sink down and find their way into my ears. And they are always different.

            I’ve heard, for one, that the world was created by a being called Makalídung, but the storyteller was not sure how per say. He did not know many of the tales of this great being, and it seems as if no one does anymore. But it does not seem to bother him. Nor does it seem to bother this great being. For Makalídung is not the type of being to want his accomplishment recited upon every hill top and every road.

            Or that is what I think. For in the space of unknown feats, rumors are free to take root.

            But they do say that Makalídung took the earth and secured it to several posts (that some say were made of iron) with largest and strongest rod in the center. At the base of that central post, Makalídung built his home. He still resides there with a large python as his only companion. One would think he’d be unhappy like that, with only a snake to keep him company, but I’ve never heard someone say that. I have heard them say other things. When mankind displeases him, Makalídung shakes the post, creating an earthquake to compel us to fall in line. And we must, truly, we must. For if the trembling were to continue on, the world would crumble to dust.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            They also say that once upon a time the sky was once much lower. So much so that we could reach up and touch it if we tried hard enough and stretched our body out enough. Not that anyone wanted to touch it. In fact everyone was afraid of hitting their heads, and so they moved around carefully, bowing their chins against their chest to keep from striking it too hard.

            And then one day a woman was out pounding rice just outside her home, and they say her children had spent the morning causing mischief and breaking things throughout their home. They were young children you see, and perhaps such things are too be expected, but all the same, it wore her down. She was tired, but with so much still to do she had to push on.

            The rice, in particular, was on her mind. It needed to be prepared for dinner, but the chaos of her home left it untended until well into the afternoon.

            By then, her body ached, but in the absence of her usual energy, she had frustration to push her forward. And while that force let her go on and made her stronger, it also made her unaware of the true extent of her actions and unable to respond properly.

            She raised her pestle high as she pounded out the rice, higher and higher just to be able to throw it down with the full force of her anger. The sound of the crashing filled the air, so loud that the rice. Her children ran and hid from her in fear. As young as they were, even they knew, that her anger would know no limit other than a spatial one, and if they were to be in her arm’s reach, there would be a price to pay. So they ran.

            But our dear sky remained, just above her head, the pestle starting to brush against it, then flying higher and higher until one final crash

            The woman strike the sky the heel of the handle, and with so much anger and force, the sky was pushed back to where we see it today.

            Or that’s what some people say….


            People say a lot of things, do they not? Our lives are filled with words and tales, and some just have to wait a week or two. Actually two. Very obviously two.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            This has been a production of Miscellany Media Studios. Thanks for listening! If you like what you heard, consider subscribing, we’re on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Player FM, and other players. Find us and transcripts at miscellanymedia.online or on Twitter @miscellanymedia for updates on current and future projects, including Night and Ink. Do you want to maximize your productivity? Do you want to create all the things while balancing your day job and personal wellbeing? Let us sort through the advice found across multiple dimensions and bring you the best and the worst, if it’s funny.