Scattered in stilt houses surrounding scenic Lake Sebu live the textile tribal people known as the Tboli. One of the Philippines 80+ indiginous ethnic linguistic groups, the Tboli people live a simple life balancing modernization with their traditional culture of farming, fishing and craftsmanship.
Labeled as the the Dream Weavers the Tboli are famous for diligently transforming the natural Abaca plant into a magnificent mystic material known as the T’nalak. These distinctive sacred symmetrical designs are inspired directly from the visions in their dreams and taught in T’boli schools of living tradition. More fascinating than the process of the T’nalak, is that the Tboli women’s distinctively adorned cultural dress was only implemented a mere 60 years ago, when Christian missionaries brought new materials and skills into the region.
Within moments of researching Filippino tribes I was awe struck by the resplendent regalia of the Tboli people. Their elaborate hair combs, intricate jewelry, colourful weaving and mysterious motifs. I wanted to learn everything about them and felt filled with excitement of the prospect of connecting with new ethnicities after Vietnam. This was to be short lived reaction when moments after my discovery a well respected travel professional (and good friend) advised me that it would be near suicide to ever see the Tboli in person. Since the 1950s parts of Mindanao Island have seen a brutal civil war between Christian and Muslim freedom fighters, with off sprung terrorist groups regularly kidnapping western tourists for ransom.
Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to be told that you can’t go somewhere and research these amazing people because of terrorism? It sucks. So I let it go, thinking I would have to be bonkers to ignore his and a million other websites advice.
Fast track 1 month later and I’m sat with the general secretary of the Department of Tourism in Manila, discussing where and whom to visit on my tour of the Philippines. “You have to see the Tboli!” he said, “I really really really want to see the Tboli, their textiles look phenomenal”, “You have to go and see them”, “But is it safe? (mum stop reading), I read that there was a rebel shoot out on Lake Sebu only a few months ago??”, “Yes it’s safe, that was a one off incident. I will guarantee your safety, you will be with our people the whole time. You must go and see the Tboli”.
Meeting the Tboli
A short 1 hour flight from Zamboanga city after meeting the Yakan tribe and bonkers Donna was greeted by the regional director of tourism Nelly Dillera at General Santos airport. We took a 4×4 through the pineapple fields and up the the mountainous terrain to the pretty and picturesque Lake Sebu. As I stepped onto the stone driveway a tribal fusion of brass, leather and wooden instruments spilled out of the long house to greet my arrival.
Meeting the Tboli’s for the first time was a overwhelming sensory experience. Smiling men and women were dressed in full regalia, the walls were dripping with decorations, fabrics and jewelry, and the music engulfed me like the warmest welcome i’ve ever received. Before investigating the tribal textile techniques and traditional dress I was treated to a charming performance of Tboli rituals, music and dance.
Tboli Traditional Dress
Remarkably Tboli tribal visual identity was only created as we know it today 60 or so years ago, when Christian missionaries arrived in the area bringing with them mother of pearl beads, cotton fabrics and threads. Before this date Tboli women only wore simple silhouettes made from natural woven abaca fibre with no resounding design features.
Tboli traditional dress is the most impressive tribal ensemble I have seen to date. Traditional colours are jet black, scarlet red, pearl white, canary yellow and tropical green. Outfits are comprised of a hand woven sarong skirt tied into a knot at the front, folded over at the waist and secured in place with a wide beaded belt fringed with brass bells. Long sleeved v-neck blouses have a zip opening on both side seams and are decorated with embroidery, cross stitch, applique ribbons and sequins or beads. The jewel of the crown is the famous hand carved wooden head dress.
Land of the Dream Weavers
The Tnalak is the traditional woven textile of the Tboli people. Mystical symmetrical patterns inspired by their dreams are created from memory and transferred in to fabric using the Ikat method. Ikat is a time consuming and tedious technique only used by the most patient artisans. Yarns covered in bees wax are tightly wrapped around the warp threads in patterns before dying and then being placed on the loom. During the dyeing process, the tied parts are resistant to the dye, when the binds are cut they will retain the natural colour of the original fibre underneath.
The Abaca plant is native to the Philippines and is used as the main fibre in Tnalak fabric. Cousin to the banana plant, Abaca trucks can grow up to 22ft in just 8 months. Once they are cut down the trunk is halved and stripped into 1 inch ribbons before shredding with a knife into individual lengths of fibre suitable for weaving. Natural dyes from leaves and roots grown locally are boiled with the Abaca to create the traditional Tnalak colours of black, red and beige.
The Tboli tribe are a mix of Animist and Christian faith. They believe that non-human entities such as animals, plants, and mountains etc possess a spiritual essence, along side worshiping Jesus Christ. The Abaca plant itself is known as the spirit god ‘Fu Dalu’. The making of Tnalak fabric is seen a very special gift from nature and the spirit world, therefore it is forbidden to step over or walk on Tnalak fabric at any point. It was brought to my attention that a fashion designer recently bought bolts of Tnalak fabric and manufactured shoes with it. This was seen as sacrilege to the Tboli people.
During my visit to the Tboli weaving centre Manlikika Bayan, it was evident that they were still mourning the loss of their leader, grandmother and National Living Treasure Awardee Mrs Lang Dulay, who’s memorial grave lays opposite the entrance. Lang Dulay was known nationwide as the originator and master weaver of Tnalak. Weaving since the age of 12, Lang Dulay translated over 100 designs from her dreams and made it her personal mission to instill her passion and vision for Tboli culture on her family, by taking her 18 grandchildren and great grandchildren out of school to train them in the making of Tnalak. Tourists from all over the Philippines would flock to see and buy Tnalak from the living legend and her aspiring proteges, but last year at the age of 91 she passed away from a stroke leaving behind a financially dependent family of weavers with little other employability skills. The family are now desperately trying to find the balance between economic stability and continuing their cultural heritage now that Lang Dulay the master dreamweaver has gone.
“The lives of T’boli women are meaningless if they don’t know how to weave T’nalak,” Lang Dulay
For me the Tboli are certainly the most diversely skilled textile artisans I have encountered on my travels. I am indeed in awe of their traditional dress and both bewildered and impressed that they only created such an inspiring visual identity a mere 60 years ago.
The fact that so many tourists are afraid to go there is a real detriment and threat to their economic and cultural survival. The T’nalak is reknown as the cultural emblem of the Tboli, but with out visitors could the weavers dreams and traditions be over as quick as it started? It is my hope that preservation of T’boli culture and craftsmanship is not only the regional pride of South Cotabato and Mindanao Island, but for the whole of the Philippines.
I am so glad I went to meet the Tboli tribe after all the drama surrounding their circumstances. Communities living on Lake Sebu live uncomplicated lives detached from the violence known in other provinces of Mindanao Island. One woman told me that the robbery at a local factory a few months previously (which resulted in a shoot out between the authorities and culprits) was nothing to do with the indiginous people of the area, but this one off event had dramatically effected tourism and thus the livelihoods of people living there.
I did not feel unsafe at any point on my visit to Lake Sebu. I drove around in blacked out jeep and was accompanied by 2 members from the department of tourism at all times. Would I go there as a solo female western backpacker?? Probably not, but I think hiring a tour guide and a vehicle for a few days is a feasible, sensible and safe solution for visiting the area and meeting the Tboli Tribe.
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Due to recent civil conflict in the region it is advised that all tourists contact the Department of Tourism in advance to seek travel advice and recommendations. To visit the Tboli in Lake Sebu, please contact the Regional Director Nelly Dillera at firstname.lastname@example.org