IT WAS your regular program in the villages where every visitor wears a lei and is made to sit in front. As all programs go, it started with a prayer by a datu who spoke in the dialect of Bagobo-Tagabawa. The emcee asked the people to remain standing for the Pambansang Awit.

A young lass in the Tagabawa attire stepped forward and conducted the group to sing the national anthem... in their dialect.

It was a pleasant and refreshing sight and sound. The surprise was apparent in the faces of the visitors. For indeed, a national anthem feels more fervent when sang in a language close to the people’s heart. In the mountain villages of Davao City, that is not Tagalog, not even Bisaya.

Many a tribal elder even need interpreters to understand my very basic Bisaya.

This underscores the diversity of our country that not one ethnic group can rightfully rule over without their consent.

How assuming indeed that for so long, the dominance of one interest group has been imposed on us, which we in general have allowed all because we thought that was the norm.

Of course, there were those who resented that and became restive. If you only look with discernment, you will come to realize that all kinds of rebellion has its roots on the marginalization of the people indigenous to the land. The Moro people had for half a century been waging their secession movement, which through the decades-long talks has been negotiated to autonomy. The communist rebellion may have started with the ideologies of its leaders that they imported from Europe and China during the industrial revolution, where the people saw exploitation in the low wages of an industrial hierarchy and where the poor are the exploited masses. But well into its third to fourth decade, the unity of the labor force to take up a communist cause could no longer sustain a so-called national revolution. The northern areas have gone ahead and split away. Now, we see that the rebel forces are strongest in number among the indigenous peoples — the most marginalized.

The stronger and more assertive tribes are hacking out on their own, many even finding solidarity with fellow tribes who may have variations in their dialects and culture but find similarity in their ancestors’ high regard for the earth, which they collectively regard with respect for having sustained their lives. While they find commonality with the rebels who also carry environmental issues in their campaign versus development aggression, cultural differences in dealing with outside aggression couldn’t gather a solid mass of supporters without having to use aggression as well.

For a tribe whose roots go back for centuries and who still holds remnants of their beliefs and culture, a Marxist-Leninist-Mao Ze Dong ideology cannot fit in, in the long run. The disconnect can be felt when you are up there and talking with the tribes.

With the focus given by government through the Indigenous Peoples Reform Act of 1997, no matter how infirm it remains to be, has planted the seed of recognition from which the tribes who are used to having so little have thrived with and brought back pride in who they are. This same pride was almost subdued when they as a group — before the moves to assert their identities that brought forth the Ipra — were regarded as uneducated and worse, as pagans and wild.

Assertion of who they are was fanned back to life as tribes realize their uniqueness and further find strength for the shared experiences and history with other tribes. We witness this through the growing wave among tribes to bring back their culture and to teach their children to take pride in their attires and dances and songs.

The gains may be regarded as token, some even saying too shallow, as yet. But by garbing their young in their colorful traditional attires, and like the Bagobo-Tagabawa, translating the national anthem in their dialect, they have asserted recognition of the Filipinos’ identity that not one ethnic group must subjugate.

To sing it with pride, manifests acknowledgment of a nationality that is strengthened by deep-rooted pride in an identity that has nurtured their people since the beginning of time.