Carriers of TraditionBy Philip Dominguez Mercurio
THESE backpacks hailing from a region of the Philippines known as the Northern Cordilleras are now on exhibit at the Hohenthal Gallery of the Treganza Anthropology Museum of San Francisco State University.
Their beauty and exceptional craftsmanship is unlike any other – just another example of the wonders that have remained relatively hidden in the mountains of Luzon for so long.
Representing 10 ethno-linguistic groups – the Apayao, Tingguian, Kalinga, Gaddang, Bontoc, Kankana’ey, Ifugao, Kalanguya, Ibaloi, and Illongot – all of the bags come with their own style, shape and distinctive design, each retelling their own unique story.
Now, these bags could well have been mistaken for the more fashionable items paraded around the runways in Milan, but their essential purpose is more akin to the backpacks made by the likes of Jansport or Eastpak.
Sturdy, reliable and light-weight, such backpacks were the perfect outdoors utility carrier, ideal for hauling rice out of the rice fields, tobacco leaves from the plantations or tubers like ube or kamote from the farms. Perhaps even more intriguing by standards based on our trendier world is who used these bags of unique exquisiteness – the men.
Apparently, it’s the men, not the women, who not only sported around these fine backpacks but also wove these beautiful bags into existence. Because the bags were primarily used for hunting and farming, traditional “manly” occupations, the bags therefore became part of the man’s realm. How funny it is that times have drastically changed.
The backpacks or pasikings are usually made out of either rattan, a fiber from a spiny palm or bamboo, a plant found in the grass family. It takes several days to hand-craft one of these babies.
Using special rattan sizers, rattan could be shaven down to the proper size.
Now, don’t think you could just grab some rattan and start weaving away.
The rattan has to be at the correct moisture to be done properly. If it’s too dry, the rattan would become brittle and easily destroy the pasiking.
What may not exactly be understood by the modern world – where being materialist is in and ownership is prime –is that some of these bags are not owned by a single person. These bags are instead owned by a family or by the entire community and passed along from generation to generation; a fact which emphasizes the kinship held among Filipinos during that time.
For example, the tabka, a sacred backpack representing the ancestors, is a fine example of such communal ownership. “These backpacks are taken out when someone dies a usually violent death or an accident and are appeased to memorialize the victims with a certain type of ceremony,” says Charisse Aquino, senior student in anthropology and curator of the exhibit.
In fact, such bags have been passed down from person to person for so long, these backpacks have lost their former color. “You usually put these ceremonial pasikings by someone’s house, by the hearth. That’s why they have that charcoal smoky type of look and they actually smell like smoke,” Aquino says.
Unfortunately, such cultural practices have been slowly disappearing, thanks to the influx of modern culture and globalization. What was once an unaltered cultural landscape, unblemished by the waves of commercialism, has finally succumbed to the realities of a modern world.
Traditional basket weaving has lost much of its uniqueness; the materials and equipment have been modified and transformed away from what was considered customary; even women and children are now weaving such pasikings, not for their original purposes but to appease the throngs of tourists.
Even with this newly-found market, the culture of pasiking weaving also suffers simply from a disinterest in this formerly appreciated art. “People don’t want to weave anymore for there are so many other things to do in this fast-paced society,” says Aquino.
She also cites the missionaries as another factor to the pasiking’s demise. “There are so many missionaries trying to change the way the people live up here… they try to teach them all these westernized ways.”
But perhaps the greatest enemy of this endangered weaving society is poverty itself. Faced with the new challenges posed by globalization, these formerly secluded groups have been forced to choose between keeping their beloved treasures at the risk of starving or selling out to at least survive until the next day.
Knowing the people’s dire conditions, many foreign collectors loaded with cash have taken advantage, seizing some of the people’s most valuable pasikings, sometimes just for a pair of Levi’s.
In fact, so much hoarding has occurred that it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the United States and not the Philippines, has acquired the most Philippine artifacts in the world.
It’s a sad story – one in which these backpacks become simple trading pawns, caught up between the distraught world of poverty and the frenzied world of relic collecting. Any way you put it – it’s a tragedy in the making.
“Now I’m thinking, how much of our priceless treasures were stolen from the Philippines and now hang on people’s walls or stuffed in somebody’s attic?” says Danilo T. Begonia, a professor of Asian American Studies at SFSU.
“How much of this has been deprived of generations and generations of young minds, Filipino minds?”
Who knows? According to Begonia, not only have these priceless gems been removed from their place of origin, their relevance is also misrepresented during public displays. “See the thing about taking an artifact out of its organic source, is that often times, it’s seen simply as an artifact, as an object out of the context of what it means symbolically, spiritually, religiously, historically, culturally for those people.
So, although other folks who have stolen these artifacts pretend to want to educate the public, they know very little about the culture in which these artifacts were stolen from.
A lot of times these objects are rendered and presented in ways that actually are ignorant or worst yet, their histories and descriptions are distorted because often times the people don’t understand the language that they come from… and if language codifies culture, then you’ve missed the point completely.
Such distortions compound the original thief in that not only are you stealing stuff, but you’re inventing stuff; that’s not right; that’s not true, that’s not accurate.”
Such misinterpretations not not only limit our understanding of our own roots, but also give credence to the notion that certain cultures are “backwards”.
“Historically speaking, imperial countries that colonized countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas, have taken the treasures of those countries, the soul of those cultures, and brought them out of the country and used it for whatever purposes, to advance their own status as an imperial country,” says Begonia.
“Oftentimes the stuff is brought out to promote the stratification of culture as being superior and inferior and so they put these artifacts in museums and say, ‘This is the arts and crafts of primitive or savage people,’ all under the guise of scientific inquiry and historical documentation but in the overarching context – it’s used basically for propagandistic purposes. Often times, they’re not complementary or noble goals.”
Thankfully though, with the efforts of those at the Treganza Anthropology Museum exhibiting a collection from Armand Voltaire B. Cating, who is half Ibaloi and half Ilocano and other international collections from around the world, we can all appreciate a piece of our heritage that could have been lost forever.
“For me, this exhibit is great because it’s owned by Filipinos,” says Begonia. “Filipinos are using this for the purpose of educating Filipinos as well as other people of the beauty and grandness of Filipino culture.”
And what a beautiful culture it is. – PDM
See this article,"Carriers of Tradition" in Philippine News. Click here.