High up on the contours of the colossal Cordillera mountains, North Luzon, Philippines, live the impecunious indigenous Ifugao people. Famed for their 2000 year old rice terraces, their resistance to Spanish colonisation and their outlandish inland outfits, Ifugao culture, visual identity and livelihood appears to be on the precipice of extinction.
In February 2016 I was accompanied to Banaue on a whirlwind tour with the Philippines Department of Tourism. There I was able to discuss life’s hardships with a few local ladies busking for photos on a viewpoint, and learn of the fading Animist practices rapidly being replaced by Christianity from a self taught Shaman.
Bent over double, the frail blind women shuffled over to the bench outside the gift shop before waving her hands underneath in search of something. “I’m sorry”, the Ifugao lady next to me apologized, “Why?” I asked. Right then the crippled blind member of their company pulled up her skirt and pee’d into the 2 liter 7up bottle she had been seeking moments before. “She is blind and deaf” She proclaimed to me and the other tourists whilst holding her steady. “She has no family. We all look after each other.”
Artagan was the most well presented Ifugao women of the group. She bared a gentle and dignified demeanor, and had aged gracefully for someone who’d spent the majority of their life outside working the land. Her silver hair was neatly combed into her hand made feather head dress, her clothes were in good condition and she spoke relatively good pigeon English. After sitting with the women for 15 minutes Artagan divulged that the other ladies and herself had been coming to this view point every day for the past 8 years. “Photo with us of for donation? No matter how small…” she murmured at the trigger happy tourists standing by the shop entrance.
“It’s important that I look good for the photos” she shared,
“All of our husbands are dead and our children have grown up and gone. I didn’t go to school, there was no school for me, my family were very poor. I had 8 children. Thats all there was for us to do back then. Go to work and have children. But now we can’t work on the rice terraces any more. We can’t even walk because of our backs are bent and broken. So we come here everyday and stay together. Life is very hard for the few of us left here. We are so poor.”
“Did you make your clothes? Did you weave these fabrics” I inquired. “No. We don’t weave any more. Nobody has looms. We just buy from the shop”.
Since being added to the Unesco World Heritage list in 1995 the Banaue area has benefited from national and international tourism, giving rise to a new generation of ambitious locals seeking education and employment opportunities outside of their agricultural traditions. In recent years it has become more obvious that some of the rice terraces have fallen dormant and into disrepair. With little interest in farming and new opportunities for a somewhat better life elsewhere, Ifugao cultural practices, people and places are eroding away.
However a urgent campaign led by the Department of Tourism -Cordillera aims to prevent any further decline. The current project aspires to revive the Ifugao traditional rice farming methods by implementing farm to table initiative. The DOT is looking to connect farmers with restaurants and stores across the Philippines to sell their special homegrown products directly. They believe that if farmers could once again earn a living off the land by utilizing their traditional organic techniques, there will be a higher chance of the Ifugao culture surviving in the coming years.
As we drove through the town towards our hotel I saw no signs of indigenously dressed Ifugao people in the streets. Unlike places such as Sapa in Vietnam, all but the few ladies we met at the view point had converted to modern clothes for convenience and conformities sake.
The following morning my car pulled up outside the DOT office in Banaue city. To my disbelief there was a man in his late 40s walking towards me wearing little more than a G-string, a blanket and birds head on his hat. Alfodo was a apprentice Ifugao shaman and our tour guide. Whilst on route to Banga-an rice terraces Alfodo spilled the sauce on life as a shaman in Banaue. He told me how only 80 years ago Ifugao people still practiced head hunting. This is a ancient custom where men would fight to the death and the victor would then take their victims heads home to perform rituals sabotaging their afterlife.
Ifugao shamans follow a Animist approach to faith, believing that none human entities from nature (stars, rain, trees, mountains etc) possess spirits and/or are gods. When I asked Alfodo what he thought was the biggest threat to Ifugao shamanism was he replied “Christianity. So many Ifugao people are Christian now. The teachings are being lost because not enough people practicing any more”. Alfodos role is chiefly called upon these days for blessings of abundance during the rice harvest, healing rituals for the sick, births, marriages and the bone feast for the dead, but every now and again he still asked to perform black magic ceremonies that would hinder the welfare and fortune of ones enemies.
“There aren’t many of us (Shamans) left. Just a handful in the whole region. Practice for me is very hard. But we have to try and remember or our culture will be lost”
The Bone Feast
Walking down the steep path along the rice terraces towards Banga-an village we encountered a gathering of sorts outside a local house. Across the clearing women could be seen sat in a circle playing bingo and the men were drinking rice wine whilst boisterously playing card games. Strewn across the floor were various pots with remnants of rice and other left overs from lunch. “This is a Bone Feast.” Aldofo proudly announced. “I will just ask the host if you can join.” Alfodo was warmly welcomed by everyone at the event, and thus in turn, so was I. “What’s a Bone Feast??” I asked,
“A burial ritual for the dead. Three years after somebody dies in your family, you exhume the bones, clean them off and hold a family festival in their honor. This party is big because there are 3 bodies wrapped up over there by the dog”.
From the Bone Feast we walked down to the traditional Ifugao village where Aldofo shared his sacred sartorial secrets in a interview with me. Watch the video to learn why he wears a horn billed birds head on his hat, and how Ifugao people record the amount of days they have worked on their clothes.
Bolo – Knife
Moma – Betel Nut Bag
Uloh – Blanket
Wanno – Loincloth
Although my visit to Banaue was brief, it was both insightful and significant to my research. I have meet shamans in the past that were unable to speak English making my engagement with Aldofo a unique experience. Sandwiched somewhere between antiquity and modernity, the remaining few aging Ifugao in Banaue today are the last generation of authentic indiginous people with traditional skills and stories to share. Such is life that times change and communities and cultures evolve, but it would be of huge detriment to the district and country if more was not done to protect the life style of people still living in the remote mountain villages. I don’t imagine that any new young women will take the place of the view point ladies when they pass away in the coming years. Now is most certainly the last time you will have the opportunity to speak with them of their experiences before their visual identity can only be seen at cultural festivals and in museums. However I believe Aldofo to be a anomaly to this case. At the age of 49 the apprentice shaman leads as close to a authentic, indiginous and spiritual life parallel to contemporary society one could hope for. Combined with his social attributes and popularity, I hope more people like Alfodo can inspire a new generation to be proud to practice their unique heritage as the hill people of the Philippines.
Have you visited the Ifugao in Banaue before or do you want to go? Do you know any other tribal groups in the Philippines? Please share your experiences, ideas and suggestions in the comments box below.
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The rollercoaster ride from Baguio city to Banaue is not for the faint hearted or weak stomached, which is why it was awesome that the evening before I took this 8 hour drive of snakes and ladders, I inconveniently was up all night with food poisoning. If you have read my blog before you’ll know that I am no lightweight to mountainous adventures and road trips, but seriously, the Cordillera range is not only the most dramatically breath taking and plummeting landscape to fill my field of vision, but also the most tummy tumbling. 3000 meters of above sea level switchbacks every 50 meters. You’ve been warned.
To book a tour Department of Tourism Cordillera Region or get any further advice please contact
Where to stay in Banaue
I stayed courtesy of the DOT at the Native Village Inn just a short drive from the center of Banaue city. Sleeping in a traditional Ifugao stilt house was one of the best night sleeps I’ve had. The resort boasts fantastic views and a excellent restaurant serving Filippino and European food. www.nativevillage-inn.com
Regional Director Marie Venus Q. Tan email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Department of Tourism – CAR Baguio Tourism Complex, Gov. Pack Road, Baguio City Tel. No. (63)(74)442-7014 Tel./Fax (63)(74)442-8848