Literatures of Conflict of Mindanao

Mindanao is home to thirty-three ethnolinguistic groups, thirteen of which are Islamized, nineteen are Lumad or indigenous groups, and Christian settlers composed of third and fourth-generation migrants from Luzon and the Visayas. The Lumads are our prehistoric forebears; around 14th century AD some of them converted to Islam thus evolving into a distinct entity, the Muslims, who formed their sultanates. These Muslim states—the Sultanate of Sulu and the Sultanate of Maguindanao—were formed before the unification of the islands was undertaken by the Spanish. Thus, they predate the 1896 Philippine Revolution and the short-lived Philippine Republic declared by Emilio Aguinaldo in 1899. Although the periodic attempts of the Spanish colonial government to convert and subjugate the inhabitants of the southern regions were met by stiff resistance by the Sultanate of Sulu and Maguindanao, these incursions drove both Lumad and Muslim upland and inland.

During American rule the resettlement program, initiated by the colonial administration in order to contain Moro rebellion, facilitated the migration of peoples from the northern islands, among them Cebuanos, Ilonggos, and Boholanos, to the region. Moreover, the Ameri-can colonial and the Commonwealth government ushered a number of foreign businesses, including logging and mining firms, in the region, which totally altered its landscape. For instance, Blaan Lumads in South Cotabato were dispossessed of their land in order to make way for the Dole pineapple plantation. In the early 50s, under Quirino’s presidency, people from Luzon and Visayas were induced to settle in Mindanao to assuage the insecurity of peasants in Central Luzon who were threatened by the Huk rebellion. This initiative was maintained by the Magsaysay administration, which relocated Huk surrenderees to the region. Since then, Muslim and Lumad had lost a large area of their ancestral lands to government-sanctioned businesses, which denuded Mindanao forests. In the 60s, 3,000 hectares of Lumad lands in the Bukidnon-Davao area were ceded to foreign agribusiness.

Despite the fact that Mindanao was never fully colonized by the Spaniards and the Americans, within less than sixty years since the American colonial regime the Muslims and the Lumads would become marginalized in their homeland, while the migrant settlers would become the majority population.

The foregoing discussion encapsulates the struggle of both groups to maintain their way of life which, in turn, depends on securing their rights to their ancestral land. For both Moro and Lumad peoples, the value of land was not associated with individual ownership or property but with origins, family, and livelihood. Land for them was more closely summed up by the concept of “ancestral domain.” As researchers of the Tri-People Consortium for Peace, Progress and Development of Mindanao (TRI-COM) who interviewed them put it:


Ancestral domain includes the spirit guides that dwell in the trees, rivers, and lands. Without the spirit guides and the spirit of their ancestors, the ancestral domain is just a piece of land bereft of its bond to the past and to the future. The ancestral domain is also diminished when it cannot generate the waters that flow to its rivers and streams to satisfy the thirst of the land and its people. It is further lessened when gold, silver, and mineral veins are taken from the bowels of the earth, because these are the treasures of the generations.

Without these minerals and other resources, the ancestral domain will simply be a piece of land that cannot nurture life. It would just be a space where no birds soar, a barren land where no trees, flowers, and crops grow, where no beasts run free. What use has a piece of land when it •cannot feed several generations of its people? What use has a piece of land when it cannot offer wonder and awe to the children of the future? What use has the land if it can no longer link them to the creator? 

What this transcript makes evident is both peoples’ collective and spiritual relationship with their land. Moreover, land ownership among Muslim comes from Tawhid, meaning “oneness” or “unity.” Muslims also consider inheritance as the basis for the right over land use or usufruct. The major Muslim groups subscribe to the idea of land as pusaka, “heirloom” or “ancestral property,” which gives them the rights even to uncultivated lands, which really belong to the old sultanate. The indigenous concept of land as ancestral domain clashes with the hegemonic notion that land is either privately- or state-owned.

These conflicting notions about land inform the context of Ibra-him Jubaira’s short story “Blue Blood of the Big Astana.” Written in 1941, the story is set in Sulu during the transition between the Spanish colonial regime and the ceding of the Philippines to the Americans.

In “Blue Blood of the Big Astana“, Jafaar, the narrator, reminisces about his life as a young servant in the household of a Dam. In a long flashback, which forms the main plot, we are introduced to the narrator as a harelipped young boy whose only living relation is an aunt. Although they love each other, she is too poor to take care of him and surrenders him to the care of the Datu. Jafaar becomes the servant of the Datu’s daughter whom he falls in love with despite her haughtiness and impetuosity. Their growing up together is described by the narrator as alternating between his admiration of her delicate nature and her “blue blood,” and his awareness of his status as a lowly commoner, which her cruel sense of humor makes apparent. The daughter every so often would poke curiously about his harelip that he grew accustomed to it and would laugh with her even as she was laughing at him. Note the following passages: 

“Remember? I was your favorite and you wanted to play with me always. I learned why after a time, it delighted you to gaze at my harelip. Sometimes, when we went out wading to the sea, you would pause and look at me. I would look at you, too, wondering. Finally, you would be seized by a fit of laughter. I would chime in, not realizing I was making fun of myself. Then you would pinch me painfully to make me cry. Oh, you wanted to experiment with me. You could not tell, you said, whether I cried or laughed: the working of lips was just the same to your gleaming eyes.”

“After resting for a while, we would run again to the sea and wage war against the crashing waves. I would rub your silky back after we had finished bathing in the sea. I would get fresh water in a clean coconut shell, and rinse your soft, ebony hair. Your hair flowed smoothly, gleaming in the afternoon sun. Oh, it was beautiful. Then I would trim your fingernails carefully. Sometimes you would jerk with pain. Whereupon I would beg you to whip me. Just so you could differentiate between my crying and my laughing. And even the pain you gave me partook of sweetness.”

Soon enough they both grow up and the daughter marries a rich young datu from Bonbon, which the narrator describes as her equal. On the night of her wedding, Jafaar manages to escape from the Datu’s house and in seven years becomes a cattle merchant who now owns the property, which used to be part of the sultanate’s territory. The daughter, in contrast, fares badly since her husband, the datu, is now in a prison in Zamboanga for fighting the American colonial government. He had refused to pay taxes for his family’s property, which the Ameri-cans claim belongs to the state. More tragically, the government confiscated their lands when her husband surrendered, leaving her and her children only a small plot to subsist on. One day on a business trip to Bonbon, Jafaar runs into her and her children, and he is surprised to see her tilling the land. Although both are pleased by the chance encounter, both could not overlook the reversal of fortune that had taken place. He pities her as he observes her reduced circumstances and its effect on her appearance: her hair is lackluster, her hands are rough, her eyes are rimmed by dark circles. She, on the other hand, is clearly embarrassed that her former servant, the harelipped boy, had seen her humbled state. Jafaar maintains a respectful tone even when his observations border on condescension: “Poor pretty Blue Blood, also work-ing hard.” As Jafaar walks away from her, he considers asking her and her children to live with him in his own farm if only to console her and make her happy once more, but he dismisses the idea right away since he “had no blue blood… only a harelip.”

The story is a complex interweaving of romance and history. On the one hand, it demonstrates the drastic transformation that occurred when the Americans started to consolidate the colony under their governance. Both the parents and the husband of the princess, who Jafaar refers to as Dayang-Dayang, meaning “noblewoman,” are dispossessed of land that has been theirs ever since Sulu had established itself as a sultanate, an autonomous state. On the other hand, “Blue Blood” can be read as a political statement that reveals the bias of the author for the assimilation of Muslim territories into the Christian state. Observe the tone of reproach that underscores Jafaar’s sentiments about her family’s decision to resist the American government:

“And Allah’s Wheel of Time kept on turning, kept on turning. And lo, one day your husband was transported to San Ramon Penal Farm, Zamboanga. He had raised his hand against the Christian government. He has wished to establish his own government. He wanted to show his petty power by refusing to pay land taxes, on the grounds that the lands he had were by legitimate inheritance his own absolutely. He did not understand that the little amount he should have given in the form of taxes would be utilized to protect him and his people from swindlers. He did not discern that he was, in fact, a part of the Christian government himself. Consequently, his subjects lost their lives fighting for a wrong cause.”

Thus the romance plot never quite takes off although it makes the story all the more poignant. We cannot help but sympathize with Jafaar, perhaps because the story has portrayed him as an underdog. His improved fortunes vindicate his social class as well and here we may recall that it was the poverty of his aunt, a mat weaver, which prevented them from staying together. Nevertheless, in the story, he is able to transcend his social class but only at the expense of Sulu’s failure to defend its autonomy against two colonizers. At the very least, the story’s resolution is unsettling.

Exploring Texts and Contexts

What are cultural monuments? Why is it important to remember the past? Read “The Kiram Building” (2010), a nonfiction piece by Christian Cabagnot and Karlo Antonio David published in Dagmay, an online literary journal of the Davao Writer’s Guild.

In 2005, the Mindanawon Initiatives for Cultural Dialogue published the book anthology Sikamin Lumad: Bagong Panitikan ng Katutubong Mindanaw. It is a collection of poems, myths, ethnographic accounts of rituals and cultural movements written by 27 writers representing nearly all of the eighteen indigenous tribes in Mindanao. One poem, “Ang Nawala” written by Retchor Umpan, an Obo Manobo, narrates a moment in the past of a father recounted by his son. The father’s story recalls his experience as a student when a teacher, without his consent, renamed him “Romeo Umpan” since Lumiyok, the name given to him as a member of the tribe, strikes the teacher as strange and unintelligible. The father is likewise dismayed that later on, he would encounter similar advice in the form of the general sentiment: “Upang hindi raw maging ignorante/Dapat daw baguhin katutubong kostumbre.”