CITY OF MALAY BALAY, Bukidnon -- Long before settlers came, long before there was the so-called Moro conflict, even way before the founding of Asia's longest-running communist insurgency, there were the boundary keepers of 12 indigenous tribes in what are now the provinces of Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental, and Lanao del Norte keeping the peace.
When there were but the oral traditions and indigenous peoples (lumads) chanted their history, their beliefs, and their stories of both epic and trivial proportions, there were Apo Genuluhan, Apo Genupakan, Apo Penanangkelan, Apo Penaneeban, Apo Agbebelen, and Apo Genamayeen, the forefathers of the 12 tribes now known as the Talaandig-Bukidnon-Higaonon, Manobo-Matigsalug-Tigwahanon-Pulangiyen-Aromanen-Kirinteken-Umayamnon and the Malanaw, Magindanaw.
The boundary keepers were given the most important task of keeping the peace among the tribes, specifically at the headwaters of Tagoloan River, which straddles the mountains where all the domains of these tribes share boundaries.
Every year since time immemorial, tribesmen and descendants of the boundary keepers gather for the Panendan, an annual ritual commemorating the historic landmark of traditional peace agreements at the headwaters of this river. The few times the Panendan wasn't held, Datu Migketay Victorino "Datu Vic" L. Saway of the Talaandig tribe said, were the years when the tribes hardly have any food, much less animals to offer and feast on. But these were far in between.
For as long as they can, he said, they hold the pilgrimage to inculcate among the descendants the importance of their culture and old practices that have ensured peace among a diverse people.
"Simple ra kaayo ang pamaagi sa atong katiguwangan, kantahan ra mahusay na, ngano himoon pa man natong complicated (Our ancestors have shown us the way, through songs and chants they settled issues, why should we make the peace process so complicated)?" Datu Vic said.
Datu Vic is recognized as the Panlintauwan Traditional Boundary Peace Keeper and traces his roots from Apo Agebelen.
On the site where the annual pilgrimage is held, on a giant clay urn marker, are the words: "Since time immemorial and without interruption the Tagoloan indigenous peoples faithfully kept their traditional worship in this hallowed ground."
It is also the time when all the tribes in the area get together and tackle issues that concern them, specifically their ancestral domain and cultural mores. On the night before the Panendan, the datus and traditional boundary keepers from Bayug, Ticalaan, Landang, Kalilangan, Pangantukan, Tagulwan, and Panlintauwan were raising their concerns and agreeing on solutions well into the first morning light.
Exclusion from Moro provinces
High in their list of concerns is the apparent generalization of all Mindanao land as Moroland.
The way government has been negotiating with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the indigenous peoples have not been given attention and it seems that even government negotiators are not aware of the vast ancestral domains of the tribes.
Thus, among the agreements the datus came up with in last week's Panendan was the joint declaration calling for government to recognize that the descendants of the boundary keepers -- Lantung of Linembakan, Balagwan, Gunsi, Kelaba, and Pintu -- have long established the traditional territories of the Talaandig, Higaonon, Bukidnon/Tagolwanon, Manobo with the Malanaw and Magindanaw through a "Tampuda hu Balagen" (a peace pact).
The territory covers the three provinces.
Datu Vic was quick to clarify that this is not about any conflict with the Moro people, but just an assertion of territories and a call to recognize the indigenous peoples who have inhabited what used to be just vast forestlands.
In the invitation to the Panendan signed by Retired Regional Trial Court Judge Benjamin Estrada, also known as Datu Lumalambong-Manlumakbaw, he said that this year's gathering is doubly important as the the Traditional Peace Treaty Councils known as "pasagi" will be affirmed as customary governing councils of Indigenous Nationhood asserted by indigenous communities in the provinces of Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental and Agusan.
Estrada, who retired just last April 12, is a Tagolwanon Traditional Boundary Peace Keeper, and descendant of Datu Mansikiabo-Datu Mampaalong.
The morning of the Panendan was welcomed by the chanting calling on the Creator to bless the gathering.
"Kada buntag na, sabay sa tilaok sa manok, aron ipaabot sa kinatas-an ang mga pangamuyo mentras dili pa busy ang channel (Chants to call out to the Creator is done as the first cock crows; while the channel to the Creator is not yet busy)," Datu Vic quipped.
Even before the chanting ended, the ritual tables and the animals for slaughter and offering were already being prepared.
By the riverbank, a white chicken was slaughtered, its blood made to drip on the river after which a bottle of gin was poured on a tiny raft carrying some eggs, pieces of red and white cloth and betel nuts which was made to float out past where the descendants, both young and old, were gathered.
Datu Anilaw Inlantong (Erwin Marte) said this was called "Panalawahig". This is a ritual to cleanse the human spirit and to ask forgiveness from the spirits of the river for the use of its waters and for despoiling it with garbage by humans.
Datu Anilaw, nephew of Datu Vic, is a Balagwan Traditional Boundary Peace Keeper.
Up the riverbank where a long table was laid with more offerings made up of betel nuts, bottles of alcoholic drinks, softdrinks, and coins was held the "ritwal hu kagbanwa hu datu daw bai", a ritual for community governance where favor is asked from the spirits for good leadership and governance of the tribes.
Farther uphill, after the "kagbanwa" ritual, was the “padangag”, which is some sort of affirmation and promise to the Supreme spirit of leadership (Tagulambung) to abide by whatever is agreed on during the gathering.
It's a pact more binding than one signed with blood, because these agreements are made while seeking the divine guidance of the Supreme spirits.
It will take some time to truly understand the rituals, the issues, and the depth of their belief in the integrity of their leaders.
But as Datu Vic said, their forefathers have shown them how through oral traditions that chant and sing and tell stories of how it was before and what spirits are to be called upon.
"Those trying to forge peace have gone to college and earned post-graduate degrees and yet couldn't forge the peace they are trying to negotiate for.
While the indigenous peoples are just whistling and chanting for peace. It is that simple, and our ancestors have long figured that one out, so why complicate things?" Datu Vic said in the vernacular.
Out there where rivers and streams had to be crossed and hills lie across you and your destination, the sun and the clouds formed what could be interpreted as a face as the day before the gathering was about to end. Was nature painting an image of the great spirits to look over its people? We can only make presumptions as the datus were already gathered to start their whole night discourse, while hoping that whatever they have discussed and agreed on were indeed blessed by the Supreme Being. The smiles on their faces and the pride by which every datu and bai wore their costumes seemed to show that indeed, peace has once again been forged and the centuries-long understanding between tribes have once again been reinforced.