I tried to prepare myself for what I was told was ahead in our journey, but I never expected it to be so difficult. We left at 5:00 am and had been hiking for approximately eight hours with backpacks full of supplies and video equipment in forty degrees’ heat with very little water and shelter from the direct sun. Every step I took felt like it would be my last as I struggled to get enough energy for the next. When I looked ahead all I could see was more “up” and as I looked back it echoed the accomplishments of what I had already passed and gave me hope to continue. Just then, when I thought it couldn’t get any worst, my friend in front of me began staggering and collapsed. What were we going to do? There were no cell phone connections to call for help. We were somewhere on the side of Mt. Halcon in the Philippines but no one really knew where we were. And for the next 45 minutes I sat next to my friend waiting and hoping that everything would be ok.
In 2009, I was asked to join a team of researchers whose purpose was to visit an indigenous tribe on the island of Mindor in the Philippines and visually document their existence and extreme living conditions. (I use the word “existence” because many people are not aware this Mangyan tribe exists.) I decided to accept the offer to join the team and undertake the challenge and adventure of a lifetime. I have chosen to insert four photos into this ethnography as a form of visual presentation, similar to the photovoice method of research. I believe my experiences detailed in the text below combined with the field photos will better illustrate the culture of the Mangyan tribe and add a dimension of realism to the experiences. I have identified four primary cultural elements clearly visible within the Mangyan tribe: tribal isolation, daily survival, family life, and commitment.
Photo #1: Tribal Isolation
Coming back to my story at the beginning, after 45 minutes my friend regained enough strength to get back to his feet and begin walking. I had no idea this was only half way to the tribes village and I felt like a little kid on a long journey asking our guide over and over, “how much farther.” It was beginning to become very clear to me the isolation this tribe faced and the challenges of reaching “civilization” for supplies or medical purposes. (Isolation is a primary identifying dimension of the Mangyan culture. It takes two days to walk to the nearest hospital from the village.) Approximately 14 hours after leaving our camp in the valley, we reached the Mt. Halcan Mangyan tribe. Photo #1 clearly illustrations the terrain and environmental conditions faced by the tribal community. They have no direct form of communication with the “low landers,” as described by the mountain people, by phone or radio. The Mangyans actually regard the towns people as “bad” and avoid contact as much as possible. The Mangyan have their own language but many can speak the national language of the Philippines called Tagalog.
Photo #2: Eking Out An Existence
When we finally arrived at the village, the experience and visual reality of what I was seeing for the first time was overwhelming. The thought that myself and other Canadian friend were the first Caucasians this tribe had ever seen was very hard for me to comprehend in the cultural and social diversity we experience constantly in Canada. As illustrated from photo #2, the tribes people were scared by our visit at first and hid behind straw huts and fences. Eventually curiosity got the best of them and they decided to come check us out but kept a safe distance away.
It was almost dark and we quickly setup our tents for the night and much needed sleep. As I lay in my tent I could hear the sound of quiet voices, but words I could not understand. And then a soft sort of eerie sound of a mother chanting a lullaby to her baby rang out. The Mangyan’s family and community closeness was already becoming very apparent to me. Nothing could really be kept private because of the small feeble huts that each family unit occupied. Quickly I fell asleep with these thoughts resting on my mind.
At 5 am I woke to the sound of people moving about outside and the familiar vocal conversations quietly spoke among the tribes people as they passed by our tents. I wished I could understand what they were saying. I’m sure it had to be something about our presence to their habitat. As I crawled out of my tent the reality of where I was began to sink in. I guess it seemed a bit like fantasy looking around at the huts and Mangyans, but my aching body parts screamed out a reminder of the day before.
After breakfast the tribe leader offered to give us a tour through the small village. It consisted of approximately 10 straw huts each with a single floor. Some huts were home to ten or more people.
Each hut was built on stilts and the animals were free to move about under the floor. The sanitary conditions gave literal meaning to the expression, “living in a pigs pen.” As I walked and listened to our translator explain what the tribal chief was telling us, I learned that the hut was the place where the family cooked and slept. Every new day became a challenge for survival. I was told the nearest water source was 1 km away and required hiking down over the backside of the mountain.
Another major challenge faced by the tribe is the weather conditions. I was told that for three months each year the mountain becomes completely clouded over and in result to the lack of sun becomes very cold. Most Mangyan tribes in the higher regions of the mountains have no blankets and many have no clothing or very little.
Photo #3: Family Life
As soon as the new babies are weaned off their mother’s breast milk, older siblings are expected to take care of them. As you can see from photo #3 the “little mothers” are very young themselves. Childhood is in fact very short lived, quickly replaced by heavy responsibilities and work. Kids have very little time to play and have fun. From the many experiences I received during my visit with the Mangyans, what I remember most are the kids smiles. They melt my heart.
Photo #4: Commitment
I want to finish with a fascinating story that happened on the day we were leaving. During the hike up we were told there was a sick lady in the village but we had no idea of the severity of her condition. Photo #4 shows the lady on her brother’s back and husband following behind. (This story illustrates the strong espoused values this tribe puts on family, community and life in general.) It became evident to us that the lady wasn’t just sick but was dying. Our translator spoke to the family about bringing the lady down the mountain with us so we could get her to a hospital. The response was clear, “If she dies, she dies.” (Superstition is a strong part of the culture.)
It was another early morning as we started to hike back down the mountain. At approximately half way down I spotted someone from a distance coming behind us on the trail. That’s when I realized it was the family of the sick lady bringing her down the mountain for medical help. My group and I stopped and watched as the two men hiked bare foot down over the mountain taking turns carrying their loved one. What an experience to witness this commitment and self-sacrifice.
I chose to write this ethnography about the Mangyan tribe because of my life changing experience with them and the many clear and defining cultural elements defining who they are. The four primary cultural elements I focused on above are just a few of the values, beliefs and assumptions held by the Mt. Halcon Mangyan tribe today.