Robert L. Domoguen
SunStar Baguio, Wednesday, April 29, 2009

CULTURE is not a private reserve. It is a common offering by a people for the people, if you will, of their ways, practices, norms and expressions of life.

Accepted and affirmed individually and practiced in community, culture defines and shapes the consciences and lives of those who belong and own-up to its ways and demands.

Upheld and adhered to individually and collectively, good cultural practices protect and nourish the lives of the people in the community and other beneficiaries. It certainly provides community members, a means for coping with the daily challenges of their lives together.

For instance, during the search and rescue operations for the presidential chopper that went down in Mt. Mangingihe, Eheb, Ifugao, last April 7, 2009, the natives went out, volunteering time, efforts and resources in the race against time, to locate the missing aircraft and possibly save its surviving passengers from dying.

The reason why the natives in all the communities around Eheb did what they have done is because their “ugali” or culture demands it from them to help, save and care for their fellow human beings during times of distress, weakness or helplessness.

With good reason, culture is cause for celebration. During the 5th edition of Mountain Province Lang-ay, I learned more about the word “lang-ay” which is rooted in the native people’s “ugali” or culture.

“Lang-ay” is not a cultural show but a practice among the natives that reinforces their need for community. It means to dine or celebrate with neighbors; to eat and drink in someone’s home after a good harvest, a long journey; or the “obligatory” practice of a woman in the community of sharing her breast milk to a needy child because the mother is not around.

The vastnesses of the Cordillera mountain range is peopled by indigenous tribes and sub-tribes whose members comprise about 92 percent of the region’s total population.

These groups have their own distinct cultures and practices that are truly an offering to humanity’s quest for civility and best ways of existence. Sure, there are bad elements of a people’s culture. These must be purged while those that are good must be retained, enhanced or improved to suit the times. This, all the more, gives us reason to celebrate our culture.

Sadly for me, the joy for such an advocacy currently resides in the realm of my imagination. The reality is all the more saddening as I see much of the native culture being replaced instead.

Inherent in the ways of our forefathers was the designation of their village settlements from the forest and watersheds; whether these are clan or community owned or managed. In our daily quest for survival, one hardly encounters this as an individual or collective reality in the imagination, memory or consciousness of the locals anymore.

The end result of our current ways and plans (if we have any) has come down to “anything goes in any piece of Cordillera land nowadays.”

In the past, the “dap-ays” are the seat of community government in most villages in Mountain Province. Here the elders gather with the young boys and men every night to talk about community affairs, tell stories or instruct and advise them.

The “dap-ay” also serves as a place where the elders and their constituents deliberate on community action, if not make judgment on important issues and concerns.

In those days, elders were respected and leaders and constituents serve the community without salaries or remunerations. This system has now been replaced with a new one that is largely dependent on cash if it has to do anything meaningful for the community or the people.

My wife narrated to me the story of a Christian missionary couple, Dr. Keith Benn and his wife, who were associated with the Summer Institute of Linguistics and assigned in Tucucan, Bontoc, Mountain Province in the late 1970s.

The couple documented the people’s culture, chants and songs before “these gets lost to modernity.” They also studied the local dialect and from their understanding of the local culture and its expressions, translated the Bible and Christian prayers in the native tongue.

To me the couple’s interest, acceptance and respect of the local culture played well with the pursuit of genuine community development. The construction of a modern footbridge and improvement of the community’s water work system at very minimal cost was a testimony of how new and potentially good technologies and ideas for the people’s welfare are to be introduced without despising and eliminating indigenous culture altogether.

These good projects were completed in record time through “ob-obfo” or “bayanihan.” These days, such projects would cost millions to pay for labor and all required materials which are sourced outside of the community.

In some instances, the projects come with the admonition for the locals to change their old ways at great cost to their pride and sense of dignity. At least don’t expect them to keep silent when they find proof that the gravel and sand used by constructors for the cementing of some portions of the second phase of the Halsema Highway were sourced all the way from Naguilian, La Union.

Don’t expect them to accept blindly the current line of reasoning that local sand and gravel are inferior construction materials. The missionary couple’s activities have a long-lasting impact. I find the singing of the Lord’s Prayer in the native tongue and tune inspiring and affirming.

The bridge they constructed and the waterworks project they introduced still serves the community to this day, some forty years after the fact. What they accomplished convinced me that a tribe’s good and best cultural practices when appreciated, accepted, participated in, respected and improved by the people with the help of well-meaning “others” serves genuine development.

A local culture enhanced this way rightly belongs to all humanity and binds people together in their quest for higher living and true humanity. In this light, current development workers must really reconsider how they are pursuing their activities in the rural communities of the Cordillera or elsewhere in this country.