The Yakan are a indigenous Muslim tribe native to the tropical island of Basilian. Located in the Sulu Archipelago in the most southern region of the Philippines, Yakan people are recognised for their remarkable technicolor geometric weaves and the distinctive face decorations used in their traditional ceremonies. The Yakan are kind and loving people that embody a non-materialistic culture and live in close-knit communities.
Back in the day Yakan women traditionally made textiles for their cultural dress (know as the Semmek), accessories and interiors from abaca, pineapple and bamboo fibers grown on the island. But in the 1970s Yakan people relocated from Basilian to Mindanao Island after political unrest and armed conflicts drove them away from their homeland. Since moving to Mindanao the natural textile designs have been replaced with vivid colored cottons resulting in a much more audacious aesthetic. Today Yakan people live peacefully in settlements predominately in Zamboanga City and earn their living from fishing, farming coconut and rubber, weaving and carpentry.
The decision to come to the Philippines was made when I realised that there was a limited amount of resources available online about Filipino tribes but substantial evidence that they still existed. At that point I contacted the Department of Tourism directly with a proposal to work together to bring these fascinating tribal cultures and their traditions to light. Mindanao Island especially appealed to me because so few western tourists travel there, let alone visit tribal settlements. Yakan culture particularly called to me due to their beautiful face decorations and bold geometric weaves. But the decision to visit Mindanao was not made lightly, with many official government websites declaring the island unsafe for tourists. I had to seek full reassurance for the department of tourism that my trip would be fully escorted and organised every day.
Yakan Wears (Semmek)
- Trousers – Yakan Sawal, striped trousers with zig zag and diamond repeat patterns made from bamboo fibers.
- Mens button up shirt – Badju Yakan designed to match the trousers.
- Head scarf – Yakan Pis, geometic intricate weave worn to cover the hair on a daily basis.
- Apron– Seputangan Teed has many different designs but is the most time consuming and decorative weave of the Semmek.
- Sash – Sakan Pinalantupan is made from a mix of Pineapple and bamboo fibers.
- Brides button up jacket – Pagal Bato is made from satin or cotton cloth and sometimes mixed with lurex threads.
- Brass buttons – Batawi, hand made and worn on the women’s jacket.
Face decoration – Tanyak Tanyak is a face painting custom is unique to Yakan tribal culture. Worn only for wedding ceremonies; circles, spots and diamond patterns are printed on the skin using bamboo implements and a thick mixture of white flour and water. The patterns are said to have no symbolic meaning but have been used for centuries as a form of cosmetic decoration long before commercial products were accessible.
In February 2016 I had the great honor of being invited to a Yakan village in Zamboagna city to watch a reenactment of a tribal wedding ceremony. Here you can see the traditional Semmek worn by both the bride and groom, live music, tribal war dance and the humorous customs of the Yakan people.
Yakan weaving uses bright, bold and often contrasting colours in big symmetrical patterns. Inspiration for designs comes from island living and Islamic sacred geometry.
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The Yakan people from the the village were so kind, conscientious and creative during my visit. The settlement had such spirit and the weavers were the pride of community. Speaking with store owner Angelita Pichay Ilul of Angie’s Yakan Cloth alongside the other female patrons of the tribe, I was able to interpret the immeasurable emphasis of how important weaving was to Yakan culture and their livelihood. With farming on the decline, climate change on the up and jobs in short supply, these women wrap on their back straps day in and day out weaving their wear’s to keep a roof over their head, traditions alive and a fractionalised community united. It is easy to see why their designs are seductive to both traditional and trend setting consumers, when the never ending variety of weaves are available in a wide range of products from backpacks to table runners. I think there’s room for a little Yakan spirit in everybody’s life’s.
Are you a weaver? Have you visited the Yakan tribe before or 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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To buy Yakan Cloth please contact Angie’s Yakan Cloth on Facebook to place a order.
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 book a to visit the Yakan Village in Zamboanga City please contact the regional director Mary Bugante at firstname.lastname@example.org