Coffins and Cordilleras

Hey all, can you believe it’s almost April already? Since my last post, I’ve mistaken the month to still be January at least a few times. I’ve also had the opportunity to wrap up the fundraiser at my work placement and to move houses. This is because my beloved host family will soon be returning to their home near a southern city called Davao for summer in the Philippines. My hopes for my remaining four months in country are that I may pour into communities here to the fullest extent possible, and continue to learn from these relationships and this special place.

As part of the YAV program, we recently visited a northern island in the Philippines called Luzon for our third quarterly retreat. Myself along with fellow volunteer Lauren and site coordinators Dessa and Cobbie were able to participate in reflection activities about our volunteer experience to this point, while simultaneously learning about the people of the Cordillera mountain range, named by the Spanish to mean a long winding rope. I have to give that one to the Spanish because truly, I’ve never experienced such winding and jerky roads as our overnight bus ride from Manila- and what’s more, we couldn’t believe the speed at which our driver was taking those mountain roads. At one point in the middle of the night, Lauren exclaimed loudly from the back, “What is this bus driver doing?! He’s going to get us KILLED!” A mortified Cobbie quickly shushed her as to not call too much attention to the foreigners in the back (us).

After a safe (phew!) arrival in Sagada, a remote town famous for its symbols and preservation of indigenous culture, we stayed with an old friend of our site coordinator Dessa. Mary is an expressive and passionate woman who was eager to tell us legends of the mountain people, as she has roots back to the Igorot people on her mother’s side. Her house was a cabin made of and surrounded by pine trees that covered the mountains at the high elevation; listening to Mary’s stories and eating lemon pie next to a warm fireplace made us feel like we were in a different country!

Mary shared with us that Igorot is a term widely used to describe the Cordillera mountain peoples. Today it consists of roughly seven major ethno-linguistic groups who resisted Spanish colonialism. Traditionally these groups traded salt, jewelry and clothing with lowlanders, occasionally engaging in “headhunts” or territorial disputes with nearby Cordillera groups. They lived in thatched huts with wood turned a smoky black color from fires to keep the interior warm.

A sign of the preservation of Igorot culture to Mary is that Tagalog, one of the National languages in the Philippines, is not spoken in this region. Not only has native culture been preserved, but it has been forced to adapt as human threats to natural resources have increased. In the 80s, when the Philippines was under martial law under dictator Ferdinand Marcos, warring tribes came together to create a peace pact to stop the administration from building a harmful dam that would cut off the water supply to these regions. Some parts of the Cordilleras are the top producers of oil and copper in world according to Mary, yet resistance to mining in these communities continues even today, with the Benguet region where Sagada is located having passed a law declaring corporate mining illegal. One famous story included a row of bare-chested female elders forming a human chain to stop a bulldozer from creating a mining site; the symbol a blatant way of reminding miners that they were destroying not only an environment, but a culture deeply attached to thar environment.

A form of resistance that Mary engages in to protect the rights of Igorot people is running a development radio, which started in different locations around the Philippines 70s thanks to a German grant and donated Swiss equipment. The radio costs about 60,000 pesos a month to run (a little over $1,000 USD) and informs rural women about their rights in accordance to laws on reproductive health and divorce. Mary brings in a local doctor for a health hour every week with a Q&A hour to follow; she also allows call-in greetings and country music sets on the daily show. Here’s a photo below of us getting to visit the studio.

Also in Sagada, to see a bit of Igorot legend we visited a series of hanging coffins nestled in limestone cliffs in the forest where Igorot elders are placed to rest. They rest inside the coffins in fetal position as that was the way in which they came into the world, and to qualify, elders must have grandchildren, and have passed from natural causes. The Episcopal Church came to Sagada in the early 1900s, bringing with it schools, a hospital, and a desire to “Americanize.” Though the church’s presence remains powerful in the town today, sacred ceremonies today include both an Episcopal priest and a village elder to lead parts of the ritual. According to our guide at the hanging coffins, this is seen at burial ceremonies still today.

Locally grown fruits, mountain rice and coffee fueled our days in Sagada before we took another windy bus ride to an enormous city in the mountains called Baguio. This bus ride featured the highest point on the Filipino highway. In Baguio we learned about the U.S. Missionary headquarters located there and the resulting “Little America” that was planted in this urban center in the middle of the mountains, complete with a Burnham Park with rowboats comparable to parks designed by the same architect in Chicago. We visited an art museum & enjoyed fresh strawberries and vegetarian meals thanks to the abundance of local veggies. Our last stop was a bus ride to Manila for the last two days to meet with PC(USA) Mission Coworker Cathy Chang, catch a showing of the movie Black Panther, and for me to meet up with a Filipino artist friend for another set of museum tours. Hope all is well with readers in the Philippines, States and abroad- shoutout to fellow YAVs, sending love to you & you’re not alone!

Peace always, Emma

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