Search This Blog

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Ullalim Festival and Ethnic Identity Construction (with notes)

A Kalinga performer displays his peacock feathers during the 2010 Kalinga Day celebration held at Easter School, Baguio City. smsaboy photo

[For lack of space, citations and notes to my article in the maiden issue of Culture Matters magazine were not included -- something which will surely be frowned upon by my colleagues in the academe :) .  So I am posting the essay with notes.  I welcome corrections should our kakailian find factual or other errors in the article.]

The Kalinga Igorots’ orature includes three ethnoepics – Gassumbi/Gosumbi, Dangdang-ay, and   Ullalim.[2] Among the three, the latter is arguably the best known representation of Kalinga's collective literary and artistic treasures. Although the Gasumbi has been the subject of a few scholarly studies, [3] it has not generated as much academic interest  as the Ullalim has in Philippine Literature.  Meanwhile, the Dangdang-ay seems to have gone unnoticed by researchers. 
This epic was officially brought to the attention of the academic world with the publication more than three decades ago of two landmark ethnolinguistic studies of Fathers Francisco Billiet and Francis Lambrecht (CICM) [4] in which they critically examined the poetics and language ecology of six versions of the epic.  To date, theirs are still the most exhaustive works on the Ullalim. The first book provides profuse details on the musico-literary features of the different versions of the Ullalim (genre, themes, prosody, musical characteristics), its language ecology (e.g.  Kalinga cosmology, social institutions, rituals), and its antiquity based on external and internal evidences. It also supplies the reader the texts of four epic versions -- two from Madukayong, one from Tanglag, and another from Taloktok. The second book supplements the first with another set of annotated bilingual texts of one long Ullalim from Taloktok and a short piece from Lubo. Coben published an updated comparative analysis of the Gassumbi and the Ullalim, building on earlier studies.[5]
Kalinga educators also recently bared their plan to integrate Ullalim Banna into the elementary and secondary school curriculums.  Proponents of the project explained that the mainstreaming of the epic into the regular school system will reveal “the soul of the Kalingas to the world” since literture reveals something about the people who produced it,” adding that there is a “need [for the Kalingas] to open up to the world and be understood as a people to be appreciated.” [6]
Finally, Kalinga affirmed the primacy of the Ullalim in their cultural repertoire with its institutionalization of the “Ullalim Festival," which is now among the more than 600 festivals held all over the country each year.[7] It is a three to five-day agro-industrial fair and cultural gathering in the capital town of Kalinga that celebrates the founding anniversary of the province. It boasts of a wide array of agricultural produce and handicraft, technical competitions, indigenous games, ecotourism activities, and artistic performances. Trumpeted by its promoters as a “Festival of Festivals,” it brings together all the municipal fiestas of the province, namely: Manchatchatong (Balbalan),  Lumin-awa (Lubuagan), Salip (Pasil), Pasingan (Pinukpuk), Matagoan (Tabuk),  Podon (Tanudan), Unoy (Tinglayan), and Pinikpikan (Rizal).[8] The trade fair has shown a steady increase in revenues as reflected in the sales from 2008 to 2011 -- PhP 1.385M, 1.65M, 2.19M, 2.280M. [9]
The brainchild of NCIP-Kalinga Director Natividad Sugguiyao, it was launched in June 1995 and eventually grew into a huge local tourist attraction with increasingly varied programs and activities that display Kalinga's "rich cultural heritage and bountiful resources in pursuit [of] peace and development." [10]
The festival's twin goals  of "peace and development" betray a long-standing concern about the image of the Kalinga historically encapsulated in different forms -- the general branding of the Igorots as los salvajes by the Spaniards,  and Lieutenant Governor Walter "Sapao" Hale's portrayal as one who was "just as much of a wild man as any Kalinga." [11]  This picture of the savage (i.e., morally deficient and economically backward) Kalinga persisted even after the American occupation, slowly becoming less pervasive and pronounced recently. 
The current provincial governor of Kalinga Jocel Baac himself underscored this continuing  stereotype in his interfacing with local media during the 2011 Ullalim Festival. One news item on the interview reports: [12]
Baac, during the Ullalim festival, said he wants to scrap the image of the province as a land of tribal wars as it scares away tourists and investors.

Baac said even Kalinga students in Baguio have been reported to have a difficult time finding boarding homes because homeowners are frightened of the province's supposed notorious image....

"The province is perceived by outsiders as a dangerous place to travel and visit by personal impressions and by the media," he said.

The governor lamented news items often exaggerate tribal wars, adding there is no such happening going on today....

Baac, however, admitted before any change in image can take place, change should also start from the Kalingans. "We should talk about this among ourselves first."

This news excerpt reveals the internal and external forces that shape ethnic classification (characterization of a group imposed from the outside) and identification (the group's view of themselves). The natives' real and perceived (mis)conduct or peculiarity conspires, as it were, with media narrative and tourist gaze to create a reified ethnic identity.  Illustrative of this process of image construction is the following introductory narration to Lars Krutak's Philippine segment of his popular television documentary on Discovery Channel, "Tattoo Hunter":
The Kalingas live in the rugged Cordillera mountain. They are a fierce warrior tribe known for taking human heads. Kalinga means “outlaw” and for hundreds of years they were known to brutally slay their enemies. For every head taken a Kalinga warrior received a tattoo...

But today headhunting is a lot less common so the Kalinga tattoo tradition is in danger of going extinct… This is a great opportunity for a tattoo anthropologist like me but it’s also dangerous… A little bit nervous… here.  You’ll never know what can happen…

During 400 years of occupation in the Philippines first by Spain and then the United States, the Kalinga were one of the only tribes not to come under foreign rule. This was due to their fierce fighting skills and their contempt for strangers. Even today, they are wary of outsiders…[13]

The documentary's virtual portrayal of a Kalinga fraught with conflicts finds resonance with the perceptions of many non-Kalingas and among a few Kalingas themselves who tend to generalize isolated cases of personal vendetta and clan feud and to conflate the 32 [50 in another listing -- see "Brokering Peace Among Tribes: How HPI is Ending Hunger Tribal Wars in Kalinga"; the number is still to be finalized pending consultation with knowledgeable Kalinga elders] subtribes [of Kalinga into a homogeneous ethnic group.  What comes out of this production of meaning is a combination of the truth and the untruth, a common issue in  the representation of the ethnic.  As  Michael Ryan explains:

Ethnicity is also one of the languages with which we think about the  world. And like so much of the information that circulates in the media and in everyday discourse (rumor, gossip, small talk, etc.), ethnic information is a mix of truth and inaccurate or incomplete representation. Indeed, the danger culture poses for the issue of ethnicity is that cultural representations exist on a spectrum from the objective and factual on the one end to the fictive and conjectural on the other. With cultural representation, we make fictions, but we use the same tools to make truths about the world, and the two often blend and mix in ways that can be harmful. [14]
Incidentally, the reference to head-taking recalls the exploits of warriors in the Ullalim which, in turn, reveals a symbolic incongruity in the elevation of  an epic that glorifies the head-ax into an icon of peace, unity and progress. And it is in this confluence of a primitive past and a refined present where the festival finds its genius in its attempt at constructing the image of a  society struggling to cling on to its indigenous roots (made alive by native costumes and dances, or cultural artifacts and performances) while grasping the shoots of modernity (as shown by elaborately decorated floats and sophisticated-looking pageant beauties, or newly developed and homegrown food products and hybrid musical compositions).  In this sense, the Ullalim Festival pictures out James Cliffords' assertion in relation to indigenous peoples and festivals:

New dimensions of authenticity (cultural, personal, artistic) are making themselves felt, definitions no longer centered on a salvaged past. Rather, authenticity is reconceived as hybrid, creative activity in a local present-becoming-future. Non-western cultural and artistic works are implicated by an interconnected world cultural system without necessarily being swamped by it. Local structures produce histories rather than simply yielding to History. [15]
Kalinga’s grand gala serves as a site of events that feed the performative production of historical chapters in the proverbial book of the Kalinga.   The years will tell whether this will add colors to or cause the shedding of feathers for the “Peacocks of the North.”

[1] This essay is a preliminary discussion of the topic and is part of a larger work on the Ullalim, Festivals and Tourism.
[2] Francisco Billiet and Francis Lambrecht,  Studies on Kalinga Ullalim and Ifugaw   Orthography (Baguio City: The Catholic School Press, 1970), 48.
[3] See, for example, Felicidad Prudente, "The vocal tradition of the Buwaya Kalinggas: The unchanging musical process in a changing society," Philippine Humanities Review 1 (3&4): 150-59.
[4] Francisco Billiet and Francis Lambrecht,  Studies on Kalinga Ullalim and Ifugaw   Orthography (Baguio City: The Catholic School Press, 1970); Francisco Billiet and Francis Lambrecht, The Kalinga Ullalim II (Baguio City: Igorot Culture Research Studies, 1974).
[5] Herminia Coben, Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities: Poetics, Society, and History (Quezon City: ADMU Press, 2009), 50-86.
[6] Geraldine Dumallig. "Kalinga epic seen to improve teaching methods in Tabuk." Baguio Midland Courier, 14 March 2010, (accessed 20 January 2012).
[7]I counted 622, with the highest numbers in February (60), March (81), May (60), December (76). See complete list and descriptions at,,, (accessed January 30, 2012).
[8] A news report on this year's festival has "Among chi Vochong" as the name for Lubuagan's local fiesta. See Geraldine Dumallig. "Ullalim Fest takes center stage Feb.10-14." 03 February 2012, (accessed 20 January 2012)
[9] Data culled from reports of Philippine Information Agency (PIA)-Kalinga in an email received from Peter Balocnit.
[10] Geraldine Dumallig. "Kalinga sets Ullalim fest from February 14 to 16." Baguio Midland Courier, 01 February 2009, (accessed 20 January 2012).
[11] Cited in Gerard Finin, The Making of the Igorot: Contours of Cordillera Consciousness (Quezon City: ADMU Press,2005), 45.
[12] Catajan, Ma. Elena. 2011. "Kalinga sans war image pushed.” Sun.Star Baguio, (accessed, 20 January 2012).
[13]  A detailed analysis of the narrative is intentionally left out here.  I first learned about the docu from Oxford scholar and UP Baguio professor Ikin Salvador-Amores who critiqued the film in relation to her work on the Kalinga tattoo.
[14] Michael Ryan, Cultural Studies:A Practical Introduction (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 83. 
[15] David Gus, The Festive State: Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism as Cultural Performance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 4.

No comments: