“ART, haan ka unay nga agdurdursok”. This was one of the unforgettable advices said to me by an elder during my early practice as a covering government reporter in the Cordillera. I was told not to be too intrusive in going about my expected tasks and that was indeed a lesson learned. There are age old customary practices in the uplands and villages of North Luzon that compels anyone to abide especially when trekking on sacred grounds. I have been chronicling the Cordillera people's way of life since the time I acquired a camera that I needed to capture photos as visual references for my paintings. I have also captured on film traditional dances, rituals and other customary practices long before digital media became accessible. Although there are those who question the authenticity of my work because their mindset probably dictates that they should be seeing men clad in G-strings and women without upper coverings, it’s really hard to disassociate the classic image of Cordillera tribal folks as being primitive and uneducated.
I am proud of my culture and I believe that the customary practices of the people in the uplands are not only for history books, museums, galleries and academic discussions. In fact, my thesis painting depicts life in the uplands showing village folks in their festive moment amidst the cloud kissed mountain backdrop. When I joined the team to document the return of the legendary Apo Anno whose mummy was taken from the National Museum and brought back to his original resting place in Sitio Nabalikong, Buguias, Benguet in 1999, several customary practices based on Kalanguya and Kankanay culture were observed. On our part as covering journalists, we were cautioned to observe museum rules such as the non-use of electronic flash while aiming our cameras at a human carcass that can be subjected to radiation caused by intense light by the electronic strobe.
Izikias “Ike” Picpican, the curator of Saint Louis University Museum was consulted by my wife Helen who heads the Philippine Information Agency-CAR and senior members of Baguio media to recommend things to follow during the coverage and Ike said we also need to undertake a “Daw-es” which is usually performed by mourners and relatives of the dead. We remained unusually sober at the site intently listening to the chants and rituals. During the solemn revelry, visitors were also asked by the elders to say something about themselves and my Bago-Kankanay tongue helped me relate with “men-kali” explain to them why we needed to document the return of Apo Anno.
It is interesting to note that during that coverage, we had a briefing on how to document a cultural artifact such as centuries old mummy. We were told several taboos and museum protocols including odd reminders not to sneeze near the mummy. The late Philippine Star Chief Photographer Val Rodriguez thought that it was a form of respect and reverence to offer a wine to Apo Anno so he poured a brandy to a glass as an offering while at the museum’s laboratory. I myself whispered to the mummy asking for permission to take a picture of him as he was bare and without any garb for covering. Apo Anno was accorded with the appropriate Benguet Burial following the Kalanguya customary practices and in May 1999, the mummy was sealed from public view.
My topic for the Cordillera Indigenous Month Celebration this October 19 at the Baguio Cinematheque will deal with cultural sensitivity as there are certain things that outsiders or lowlanders need to know when treading or going about in the uplands. This is not only for their safety but it is also likened to diplomatic relations where there is a pre and prior informed consent especially in areas where sensitive situation is happening. In most parts of Mountain Province for example, an outsider cannot just enter a village whose populace is in a state of mourning. We were in Sagada back in 1995 together with the Late Peppot Ilagan when a “Tengaw” was declared by the elders at the “Dap-ay” or village hall. This is likened to state of solemnity where no one is allowed to go work and menfolk in the village has to attend the feast in the Dap-ay a day prior to the start of planting season. A Baguio based photojournalist who was with us then was caught taking pictures at the rice field and he was practically summoned by the men in the Dap-ay and was asked to stop what he was doing and fined according to village rules.