Among the most important groups on Mindanao were the Manobos (a general name for many tribal groups in southern Bukidnon and Agusan del Sur provinces); the Bukidnons of Bukidnon Province; the Bagobos, Mandayas, Atas, and Mansakas, who inhabited mountains bordering the Davao Gulf; the Subanuns of upland areas in the Zamboanga provinces; the Mamanuas of the Agusan-Surigao border region; and the Bila-ans, Tirurays, and T-Bolis of the area of the Cotabato provinces. Mindanao tribes were renowned for their elaborate embroidery, appliqué, and bead work. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to “On Mindanao live 18 tribal Filipino groups. The most well known are the T'boli and the B'laan (or "Bla-an"). The other groups are the Ata, Bagobo, Banwaon, Bukidnon, Dibabawon, Higaunon, Kalagan, Mamanwa, Mandaya, Mangguwangan, Manobo, Mansaka, Subanen, Tagakaolo, Teduray and the Ubo. Most characteristic of these 'indigenous groups' is that they live in a traditional way, comparable with how the ancestors lived centuries ago. The collective name for the 18 indigenous groups on Mindanao is "Lumad". It is just another word for 'indigenous' .These ethnic groups distinguish themselves by their language and culture. The cultural heritage is visible in their clothes and ornaments they wear. Housing, economic activities, cultural habits and often religion are all very traditional. Some groups learned to know tourism as a good alternative to earn extra money. In general however, the indigenous groups still live like in the past. [Source:]

The Cotabato Manabo is a group that has traditionally lived in the southwest highlands of Mindanao. Also known as the Dulangan and Tudag, they are mostly Christians and have been largely assimilated and their traditional culture has disappeared. In the old days in Northern Cotabato, after Manobo boys and girls filed and blackened their teeth, they underwent a ceremony of tasting new rice which qualifies them for admission into full manhood and womanhood. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993), Teresita R. Infante, [Source:]

The Ilanon lives inland from Polloc Harbor on Moro Gulf on Mindanao. Also known as the Ilano, Ilanum, Ilanun, Illanun, Iranon, Lanon, they are closely related to the Maguindanao and have a history of being pirates. In the old days Ilanaon boats rowed by slaved were notorious for staging raids in Borneo and Malaysia. See Maguindanao [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) <<<]

The Kalagan is a group that lives in the uplands inland from the western coast of the Davao Gulf on Mindanao. Also known as the Calagan, Kagan, Karagan, Laoc, Saka, Tagakaolo, they are closely related to the Maguindanao and have converted to Islam relatively recently and retain many of their traditional beliefs. Some and slash and burn agriculturalists. Other are laborers and fishermen. See Maguindanao. <<<

The Kalibugan is a group that lives in villages on the west coast of Mindanao. Kalibugan (Kolibugan) means mixed breed. It refers to Subanun who have intermarried with Tausaug and Samal. See Subanun

The Sangir is a group that lives in the Sanihe and Taluad islands between southern Mindanao and northern Celebes. Also known as the Sangirezen and Talaoerezen, they are also found in Mindanao and Indonesia. Most are Christians although some are Muslims. Most have been assimilated into the national culture. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]


The Bagabos are a group that live in a very mountainous region of Mindanao between the upper Pilangi and Davao rivers. Also known as the Manobo, Manuvu, Obbo and Obo, they are divided into two main groups: the coastal Bagobo who were influenced by Christianity, plantations and were largely assimilated; and upland Bagobo, who traditionally practiced slash and burn agriculture and derived about 25 percent of their food from hunting, gathering and fishing. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]

Some upland Bagabo villages are very small and consist of only a few families living on a hill top. Others are larger. Bagabo culture is characterized by strict incest prohibitions, the formation of vengeance groups and the production of long epic poems called tuwaang. The Bagabo believed in spirits who inhabit a sky world and demons who bring sickness and death to incestuous couples. Their villages and have traditionally been grouped into districts led by chiefs called datu.

Bagobo youth used to follow the same beautifying treatment as the Mandayas. Once their teeth were properly filed and blackened, a young man or woman were deemed ready to enter the society of older people.

Origin of the Bagobo Myth

In the beginning there lived one man and one woman, Toglai and Toglibon. Their first children were a boy and a girl. When they were old enough, the boy and the girl went far away across the waters seeking a good place to live in. Nothing more was heard of them until their children, the Spaniards and Americans, came back. After the first boy and girl left, other children were born to the couple; but they all remained at Cibolan on Mount Apo with their parents, until Toglai and Toglibon died and became spirits. Soon after that there came a great drought which lasted for three years. All the waters dried up, so that there were no rivers, and no plants could live. [Source: Mabel Cook Cole, Philippine Folk Tales (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Company, 1916), pp. 133-134]

"Surely," said the people, "Manama is punishing us, and we must go elsewhere to find food and a place to dwell in." So they started out. Two went in the direction of the sunset, carrying with them stones from Cibolan River. After a long journey they reached a place where were broad fields of cogon grass and an abundance of water, and there they made their home. Their children still live in that place and are called Magindanau, because of the stones which the couple carried when they left Cibolan.

Two children of Toglai and Toglibon went to the south, seeking a home, and they carried with them women's baskets (baraan). When they found a good spot, they settled down. Their descendants, still dwelling at that place, are called Baraan or Bilaan, because of the women's baskets. So two by two the children of the first couple left the land of their birth. In the place where each settled a new people developed, and thus it came about that all the tribes in the world received their names from things that the people carried out of Cibolan, or from the places where they settled.

All the children left Mount Apo save two (a boy and a girl), whom hunger and thirst had made too weak to travel. One day when they were about to die the boy crawled out to the field to see if there was one living thing, and to his surprise he found a stalk of sugarcane growing lustily. He eagerly cut it, and enough water came out to refresh him and his sister until the rains came. Because of this, their children are called Bagobo.

Bilaan and Their Creation Myth

The Bilaan is a group that lives in south-central Mindanao. Also known as the Balud, Baraan, Bilanes, Biraan, Blann, Buluan, Buluanes, Tagalagad, Takogan, Tumanao, Vilanes, they live in houses scattered among gardens and are also ruled by datu. The Bilaan people of Mindanao wrap their dead inside tree barks. Being enveloped as such, the dead person's body is then suspended from treetops. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993),]

According to Bilaan Story of the Creation: In the very beginning there lived a being so large that he cannot be compared with any known thing. His name was Melu, and when he sat on the clouds, which were his home, he occupied all the space above. His teeth were pure gold, and because he was very cleanly and continually rubbed himself with his hands, his skin became pure white. The dead skin which he rubbed off his body was placed on one side in a pile, and by and by this pile became so large that he was annoyed and set himself to consider what he could do with it. [Source: Mabel Cook Cole, Philippine Folk Tales (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Company, 1916), pp. 139-140]

Finally Melu decided to make the earth; so he worked very hard in putting the dead skin into shape, and when it was finished he was so pleased with it that he determined to make two beings like himself, though smaller, to live on it. Taking the remnants of the material left after making the earth he fashioned two men, but just as they were all finished except their noses, Tau Tana from below the earth appeared and wanted to help him. Melu did not wish any assistance, and a great argument ensued. Tau Tana finally won his point and made the noses which he placed on the people upside down. When all was finished, Melu and Tau Tana whipped the forms until they moved. Then Melu went to his home above the clouds, and Tau Tana returned to his place below the earth.

All went well until one day a great rain came, and the people on the earth nearly drowned from the water which ran off their heads into their noses. Melu, from his place on the clouds, saw their danger, and he came quickly to earth and saved their lives by turning their noses the other side up. The people were very grateful to him, and promised to do anything he should ask of them. Before he left for the sky, they told him that they were very unhappy living on the great earth all alone, so he told them to save all the hair from their heads and the dry skin from their bodies and the next time he came he would make them some companions. And in this way there came to be a great many people on the earth.

According to a another Bilaan creation story: In the beginning there were four beings (Melu, Fiuweigh, Diwata, and Saweigh), and they lived on an island no larger than a hat. On this island there were no trees or grass or any other living thing besides these four people and one bird (Buswit). One day they sent this bird out across the waters to see what he could find, and when he returned he brought some earth, a piece of rattan, and some fruit. Melu, the greatest of the four, took the soil and shaped it and beat it with a paddle in the same manner in which a woman shapes pots of clay, and when he finished he had made the earth. Then he planted the seeds from the fruit, and they grew until there was much rattan and many trees bearing fruit. [Source: Mabel Cook Cole, Philippine Folk Tales (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Company, 1916), pp. 141-142.]

The four beings watched the growth for a long time and were well pleased with the work, but finally Melu said, "Of what use is this earth and all the rattan and fruit if there are no people?" And the others replied, "Let us make some people out of wax." So they took some wax and worked long, fashioning it into forms, but when they brought them to the fire the wax melted, and they saw that men could not be made in that way.

Next they decided to try to use dirt in making people, and Melu and one of his companions began working on that. All went well till they were ready to make the noses. The companion, who was working on that part, put them on upside down. Melu told him that the people would drown if he left them that way, but he refused to change them. When his back was turned, however, Melu seized the noses, one by one, and turned them as they now are. But he was in such a hurry that he pressed his finger at the root, and it left a mark in the soft clay which you can still see on the faces of people.


The Bukidnon is a group that lives in the highlands of north-central Mindanao. Also known as the Binokid, Binukid, Higaonan and Higaunen, they have traditionally been farmers who raised corn, rice, sweet potatoes, bananas and coconuts and used water buffalo to plow their fields. Many have been assimilated and most are Catholics. The ones who remain closest to the old ways live near the headwaters of the Pulangi Rover on the slopes of Mount Kitanglad or Mount Kalatungan. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]

The Bukidnon used to live in communal houses with as many as fifty families but now they live in single-family houses. Those that live in remote areas live in villages set up along trails or logging roads in raised houses made of thatch and bamboo. Those that live along major roads live in houses made of cinder blocks or wood, with a metal roof.

The Bukidnon never practiced head hunting but did in engage in ritual sacrifice of captured enemies and kept slaves up into the early 20th century. Most slaves were captured or the victims of debt bondage. The Bukidnon generally avoided conflict but occasionally settled matters with violence. In 1975, hundreds of Bukidnon fought representatives of the Philippines government, leaving at least 34 and maybe as many as 200 dead.

Bukidnon Life and Culture

The division of labor among the Bukidnon favors men in that women do much of the work. Villages and districts are headed by chiefs called datus. Arranged marriages and even child marriages were once common but these days most couples choose their own partners. Some couples have two marriage ceremonies: one using traditional rites and the other in the Roman Catholic church. It is common for couple to move in with bride’s parents for a couple months, so some worker for them before into their own house.

Among the Bukidnon, people who act as go-betweens and are good at settling disputes are held in high esteem. Even among Catholics a belief in spirits remains strong. These spirts have human characteristic and are appeased with sacrifices of food and drink. Many Christian rituals, images and ceremonies are simply substitutes of traditional practices. The Bukidnon tend to seek religion for short term gain rather than long-term salvation.

The chief religious practitioners are Catholic priests but in villages that do not have priests villagers turn to shaman known as baylan. Both men and women can be balyan. Their primary duty is to preside over healing ceremonies. Most Bukidnon prefer Western medicine but seek out baylan when no other alternative is available. Traditional music and dances, some mimicking birds, are rarely performed anymore.

According to the Bukidnon Story of How the Moon and the Stars Came to Be: One day in the times when the sky was close to the ground a spinster went out to pound rice. Before she began her work, she took off the beads from around her neck and the comb from her hair, and hung them on the sky, which at that time looked like coral rock. Then she began working, and each time that she raised her pestle into the air it struck the sky. For some time she pounded the rice, and then she raised the pestle so high that it struck the sky very hard. Immediately the sky began to rise, and it went up so far that she lost her ornaments. Never did they come down, for the comb became the moon and the beads are the stars that are scattered about. [Source: Mabel Cook Cole, Philippine Folk Tales (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Company, 1916), p. 124]


The Manguindanao live in south-central Mindanao. Also known as the Maguindanao, Manguindanaon, Magindanaw, they are the largest group of Muslim Filipinos. They speak a language that is in the same group as most other Philippines languages, including Tagalog, and are believed to have converted to Islam around the 15th and 16th centuries. According to legend, they were converted by a Malay prince from Johor named Sarip Kabungsuwan, who was a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and married a local who was born miraculously from a stalk of bamboo. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]

The Manguindanao have traditionally lived in villages along waterways and the coast, and moved around by boat and dominated trade between other groups in the area where they live. Large settlements, towns and cities grew up at major trading centers. Chiefs known as datus traditionally lived in large communal houses while ordinary villagers lived in single-family dwellings made of homes wood, bamboo and nipa thatch. This patterns was disrupted after the arrival of American administration and the building of roads. Then, communities sprang up on roads rather that waterways.

Manguindanao society has traditionally been hierarchically organized with datus and their families at the top and status defined by one’s maratabat ranking, often determined by a claimed descendent from Sarip Kabungsuwan. One’s position in this system determines whom you can marry and what opportunities are open to them. Datu, and the sultans above them, make many important decisions and are treated with great respect. Households are usually comprised of extended families with uncles, aunts and grandparents and other relatives participating in the childrearing process.

Maguindanao Life

The Manguindanao have traditionally raised a variety of crops, trapped fish and obtained wild woods and other materials from marshes. Wet rice is grown in the lowland and dry rice in the highlands. Yams and sweet potatoes are another important food crop. Coconut are a food source and major cash crop. Coconut milk is widely used in cooking. Goats, freshwater fish and saltwater fish are the main protein sources. Water buffalo are slaughtered when they are old for meat. Even today Manguindanao produce most of their own food.

The Manguindanao have traditionally been traders and subsistence farmers and didn’t produce many goods other than some mats and crafts for sale. In the old days, salt, metal goods, Chinese pottery, cloth and beads were major trade items. Land was communally owned. All this has changed in recent years. Trade is largely gone and it hasn’t been replaced by modern economy.

Muslim customs shape many aspects of Manguindanao life. Polygamy is allowed but is generally only practiced by men wealthy to afford to be able to care for multiple wives. Bride prices are paid and divorces are relatively easy yo obtain. Children memorize the Koran. Manguindanao Islam is shaped by folk beliefs, including a belief in spirts ad the magical powers of Sarip Kabungsuwan.

Bloods feud have been a feature of Manguindanao life. Triggered by a death that a family feels has to be avenged, the can go a long time and result in numerous reprisal killings. Sometimes the feud can be averted in the early stages by the payment of a cash settlement from the killer’s family to the victim’s family, based on the rank of the victim, or through the capture of the killer by authorities and meting out of harsh penalties under jurisdiction of a datu.


The Mandaya are an animist ethnic group that lives along the Mayo River. In the old days, Mandaya youth filed and blacken their teeth upon reaching puberty. These acts were considered aids to beauty which helped a young person find a suitable partner for marriage.

According to the Children of the Limokon myth: In the very early days before there were any people on the earth, the limokon (a kind of dove ) were very powerful and could talk like men though they looked like birds. One limokon laid two eggs, one at the mouth of the Mayo River and one farther up its course. After some time these eggs hatched, and the one at the mouth of the river became a man, while the other became a woman. [Source: Mabel Cook Cole, Philippine Folk Tales (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Company, 1916), pp. 143-144]

The man lived alone on the bank of the river for a long time, but he was very lonely and wished many times for a companion. One day when he was crossing the river something was swept against his legs with such force that it nearly caused him to drown. On examining it, he found that it was a hair, and he determined to go up the river and find whence it came. He traveled up the stream, looking on both banks, until finally he found the woman, and he was very happy to think that at last he could have a companion. They were married and had many children, who are the Mandaya still living along the Mayo River.


The Maranao is a group that lives mainly around Kale Lanao in northwest Mindanao. They are the second largest Muslim group after the Manguindanao. They have traditionally been an inland people which makes them different from other Muslim groups which has traditionally been coastal people. They converted to Islam relatively late but have been leaders in the resistance movement against the Spanish, Americans, Japanese and Philippine government.

The Maranao have traditionally been fishermen and farmers and lived in villages made up of a few households but the households have often been large with several families living together in a large unpartitioned house with people sleeping along the walls and the rear of the dwelling serving as a communal kitchen. Fertile soil in their homeland has meant food has never been a problem and surpluses have been traded along with cloth, mats, wood carvings and gold and silver jewelry. Rank is determined more on the basis of skill and merit than hereditary status.

Maranao Islam has a strong Sufi influence and incorporates many pre-Islamic beliefs in spirts, particularly those related to the agricultural cycle. Sufism is manifested in chants and rituals.

Darangen Epic of the Maranao People of Lake Lanao

The Darangen is an ancient epic song that encompasses a wealth of knowledge about the Maranao people who live in the Lake Lanao region of Mindanao.Comprising 17 cycles and a total of 72,000 lines, the Darangen celebrates episodes from Maranao history and the tribulations of mythical heroes. In addition to offering compelling narrative content, the epic explores the underlying themes of life and death, courtship, politics, love and aesthetics through symbol, metaphor, irony and satire. The Darangen also encodes customary law, standards of social and ethical behaviour, notions of aesthetic beauty, and social values specific to the Maranao. To this day, elders refer to this time-honored text in the administration of customary law. [Source: UNESCO]

Meaning literally “to narrate in song” in the Maranao language, the Darangen existed before the arrival of Islam in the Philippines in the fourteenth century. Being part of a wider epic culture that is connected to early Sanskrit practices and extends through most of Mindanao, it offers insight into pre-Islamic cultural traditions of the Maranao people.

Though the Darangen has been largely transmitted orally, parts of the epic have been recorded in manuscripts using an ancient Arabic-based writing system. Being cherished as heirlooms by certain Maranao families, these manuscripts are highly valued for their antiquity and prestige value. Specialised performers of either sex sing the Darangen during wedding celebrations that typically last several nights. Performers must possess a prodigious memory, improvisational skills, poetic imagination, knowledge of customary law and genealogy, a flawless and elegant vocal technique, and the ability to engage an audience during long hours of performance. Music and dance sometimes accompany the chanting.

Nowadays, the Darangen is infrequently performed owing in part to its rich vocabulary and archaic linguistic forms that can only be understood by practitioners, elders and scholars. Indeed, the growing tendency to embrace mainstream Filipino lifestyles represents a serious threat to the survival of this ancient epic.


The Subanun is a group of animist slash-and burn agriculturists that live in the forest interior in southern Mindanao. Also known as the Subanen (Eastern Subanun), Subano, Subanon (Western Subanun), they are quite different from the lowlanders who live around them who are either Muslims or Christians. The Subanun have a history of being exploited and taken as slaves by their coastal Muslim neighbors. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]

The Subanun live in widely scattered settlements and raise crops almost totally by hand, without plows or even hoes. They gather a wide variety of forest products, hunt wild pigs and deer and fish and collect crustaceans from streams. The division of labor between men and women is very equal. Women even do much of the heavy labor such as clearing trees and slashing undergrowth.

Polygamy is sometimes practiced but is rare. Marriages are generally arranged between neighbors and kin. Bride prices are paid. If the groom’s family can’t raise enough money the groom may perform bride service for a year or more for the bride’s family. The Subanun believe in a coterie of spirits, demons, gods and ghosts. If these are not treated with respect they can cause illnesses or disrupt agriculture. Mediums are sought for their curing capabilities and to send curses.

T'bolis of Mindanao

The T'boli (pronounce "Tiboli") people live in the southern part of the province Cotabata, in the area around Lake Sebu, west of the city General Santos. It is estimated that are between 100,000 and 150,000 T'boli. In the past the T'boli practiced "slash and burn" agriculture. "Slash and burn" means that the people will clear a part of the forest by cutting the big trees and burning the lower and smaller trees and bushes, after which they use the cleared plots as arable land for some years without any fertilization. Rice, cassava and yams were the most important agricultural products. Next to that, the people went hunting or fishing for additional food. [Source: <=>]

These days slash and burn agriculture is no longer possible. The forests have been lost to intensive economic activities and deforestation. At present The T'boli live in the mountains. Agriculture is their only source of income. Some foreigners, in cooperation with the aid organization Cord Aid, have provided aid to the group. Still the T'boli are very poor. The T'boli distinguish their selves, like all other "tribal Filipinos", by their colorful clothes and specific ornaments like rings, bracelets and earrings. <=>

Only a few T'boli are Christians or Muslims. More than 95 percent still practice their animistic religion. They were hardly influenced by the spread of the Islam on the island. The Spaniards too, didn't succeed in Christianizing them during the Spanish colonial period. The main reason was that the T'boli withdrew to the hinterlands in the uplands. The T'boli and members of other indigenous tribes like the Higaunon, still believe in spirits who live on several places in the natural environment. <=>

Unusual T'bolis Customs

The T'bolis of Mindanao have a bizarre funereal ritual. All night the dead man's body, housed in a bamboo coffin is trotted around his hut while his friends sing and chant. The body then gets a chance to relax for 15 days. After that the coffin is lashed to stalks in a bamboo grove where it stays until it falls apart. As a final gesture the man's hut is burned so it can not shelter his soul. Otherwise the T'bolis believe malevolent spirits would gather there and devour it. The T'boli men also, have a ritual where they place burning pieces of wood on their arms and see how long they can stand it.

The T'bolis and Ubos have another interesting custom. When a special male guest is invited to a man's house, in a demonstration of hospitality, he surrounded by a group of girls and women who for an hour or so gently fondle him, kiss him on the lips and coo seductively. Girls as young as six take part in this as do both married and single women. Because of the heavy doses of make-up it is impossible to accurately ascertain the girls' ages and their marital status. In reality it is all done out of friendship and hospitality not sexual desire. What is unforgivable however is touching a married woman on her heel or elbow.


The Tausug is a group that lives in the Sulu Archipelago. Also known as the Joloanos, Jolo Moros, Suluk, Suluk Moros, Sulus, Taw Sug, the are a Muslim seafaring people that once presided over an empire that stretched from the southern Philippines to Borneo. The are the most dominant people on the Sulu island of Jolo and are present in large numbers on other Sulu islands and in southern Mindanao. They have traditionally occupied parts of the coastline suitable for agriculture, leaving the low islands and coastlines to the Samal. Of the 400,000 Tausug about half live on Jolo. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]

The Tausug appear to have come to the Sulu islands from southern Mindanao and converted to Islam possibly as early as the 11th century. Their sultan was at the peak of his power in the 18th and early 19th century and grew rich largely from trading slaves, many who were Christian Filipinos. The slave trade was ended by the Americans who took over Jolo town in 1899 but were not able to control the island until 1913, and even then only nominally so. Jolo today is at the forefront of the Islamic separatist movement.

Tausug Life and Culture

The Tausug are primarily agriculturist who grow a wide variety of starch crops, vegetables and fruit. They live in thatch-roof, timber- or bamboo walled houses set close to family fields. Households or clusters of two or three households make up many communities. Large villages are organized around a core kin group. Boundaries of villages tend to be ill defined and this has led to feuds, which can be quite nasty, involving battles with a 100 people on each side. Coconuts and smuggling are major economic activities. In the past coastal raiding and piracy were common forms of employment.

The Tausug are fairly conservative. Children attend Koranic school and study the Koran with tutors. Even so beliefs in spirits and superstitions endure. Children wear amulets for protection and sick people seek help from folk healers.

Children of both sexes undergo hair cutting ceremonies when they are one or two. Boys are circumcised in a garden ceremony when the are in their early teens. Girls are circumcised when they are 5 or 6 without a ceremony and after that are generally kept in seclusion. Marriages are often arranged or take place after an elopement or abduction and involves the payment of a bride price. Polygyny is allowed by rate. Divorce too is rare.


The Yakan is a group that lives on the island of Basilan south of Mindanao. They have traditionally lived on the interior of the island, particularly in the east central and southwestern parts, while Samal ad Tausug lived on the coasts. There are around 100,000 Yakan and they make up half the population of Basilan.

The Yakan are believed to be the original inhabitants of Basilan. The Samal and Tasuag arrived later from the Sulu islands and Christian Filipinos came from the north. During the 1970s the Yakans suffered badly when rebels took over much of the island and many Yakan were evacuated. They continue to suffer as a result of Islamic insurgents basing themselves there.

The Yakan are Muslims and the language they speak is similar to that of the Samal. They live in bamboo-wall and thatch -roof houses set up in middle of fields. The houses are often widely scattered to the point it is difficult to figure out where one village ends and another begins. They are primarily farmers who raise dry rice and a variety of vegetables and fruit and keep water buffalo as plow animals. Coconuts are an important cash crop.

Women have never been veiled. In the past young women had a lot of freedom to do what they wanted but that is no longer the case. Marriages involve the payment of a bride price to the bride— who must return it after she has had children—and presents, which she gets to keep.

A number of pre-Islamic beliefs remain, including a varieties of ceremonies associated with the rice agricultural cycle and beliefs in spirits and a special devil that attacks people in February. Graves are marked with a markers that symbolizes a boat which is supposed to take the dead to the afterlife. In recent years Muslim missionaries have visited the Yakan with the aim of teaching them proper Islam.

Yakan Honeymoon Rituals

The Yakans of Basilan Island observe interesting rituals during the honeymoon period. In the afternoon, just before the first night the new couple spend together, each of them will be given a separate bath, so the children will not only be born clean but also stay clean throughout life. In their first sexual intercourse, the girl makes sure that she is accepted as a wife and not as a harlot by asking questions about her status. The groom has to answer adequately that she is his wife. [Source: *^*]

Just before the sexual act, the boy should first step on the right foot as heavily as he can. This symbolizes strength. The first hand to touch his wife should be the right one, for strength and long life. The first kiss should be planted on the forehead for oneness of mind, with eyes opened so that his children will not be born blind. He should breathe lightly so that later in life he will have fewer problems.*^*

The girl wants to be assured that her marriage is accepted spiritually and that she will be his wife even after life. For this reason, the bedding items have to be sanctified and be named in a liturgical language. Permission is also granted to the groom to own the body of his wife and also name her anatomical parts in liturgical speech. *^*

Any sexual intercourse that is not done according to the natural way is considered abominable in the eyes of the Yakan and will bring punishment from God on the culprit and his family. groom is taken to the river to get a bath. The groom is taken to the river to get a bath, just before the wedding ceremony starts. *^*

Samal Sea Gypsies

The term Samal is used to describe a diverse group of Sama-Bajau-speaking people who are found in a large maritime area with many islands that stretch from central Philippines to the eastern coat of Borneo and from Sulawesi to Roti in eastern Indonesia. Also known as Sea Gypsies, Badjaw, Bajao, Bajau, Sama, Samah, Samal Moro and Turijene in the Philippines, and Bajo, Luwa’an, Pala’au. Sama Dilaut, Samah, and Turijene in Indonesia, and he Bajai Laut or Ornag Laut in Malaysia they are generally associated with the Sulu islands, the southernmost islands of the Philippines. Samal is sometimes treated as the plural of Sama. Most Samal are Muslims. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]

The Samal traditionally spent so much time on the water that it was said they only came ashore to die. Some still live in traditional outrigger houseboats that can be moved to different points, bury their dead on sacred islands and exchange services for spring water at coastal settlements of other groups. Now most are land based. The boat-based groups are found mainly in the Sulu islands and southeastern Sabah.

The Samal are a highly fragmented people who are unified by their traditional seafaring ways and Sama-Bajau languages. They usually identify themselves with their dialect and the area they are based and have links to their country that has domain over their base islands and the dominant ethnic groups on their base islands— the Tausug and Maguindanao in the southern Philippines, Malaysians and Bruneians in western Sabah, and the Ternatans, Bugis and Makassarese in eastern Indonesia. Notable Samal groups include the Abak of Capul Island, northwest of Samar; the Takan of Basilan Island and coastal Zamboanga.

There around 700,000 Sama-Bajua speakers. Those in the Philippines referred to as Samal are the largest groups. There are maybe 300,000 of them. There are also 130,000 Yakan; 30,000 Jama Mapun. There are maybe 80,000 in Sabah and between 150,000 and 200,000 in eastern Indonesia. The largest Samal communities in Indonesia are in Sulawesi. They are also found near Balikpapan in East Kalimantan and islands off the east Borneo coast. Other are widely scattered on islands between the Moluccas and Timor and around the islands of Nusa Tengarra (the islands east of Bali).

History of the Samal

Based on linguistic evidence, the Samal are believed to have originated in southwestern Mindanao and the northeastern islands of the Sulu archipelago, and began dispersing in the A.D. 1st millennium. According to legend the event was triggered by the loss or abduction of a princess. Most moved southward and westward and appear to have been motivated by Chinese trade and the purist of maritime resources. Early groups carved out ecological niches for themselves, with some falling into land-based groups while others being part of sea-based ones.

The Samal’s place in the world and their migration patterns were affected by the rise of the Tausug dynasty in the 13th century, the founding of the Sulu and Brunei sultanates of the 15th century and the bech-de-mer trade and competition from Bugis and Makassarese trades. Bech-de-mer (sea slugs) are a Chinese culinary delicacy and purported aphrodisiac.

With the rise of the Tausug port of Jolo as a major entrepot for slaves, the Samal in some areas became actively engaged in piracy and the slave trade and conducted regular slaving raids until their operation was shut down by the Spanish in 1848.

The secessionist conflicts in the Sulu archipelago in the 1970s resulted in the dislocation of thousands of Samal. Many fled to Zamboanga, Taitawi and the Subutu group or crossed the Malaysia border into eastern Sabah. At the same time large numbers of Tausuh moved from Jolo and Siasi, centers of Islamic extremism, onto the former Samal islands of Tawitawi and Sibutu, forcing more Samal to migrate westward to Sabah, where they became regarded as refugees.

Samal Religion

Most Samal are Sunni Muslims of the Shafu school. Every Samal parish contains a mosque, which is a center of worship and community activity. Mosque officials are appointed by parish elders. Religious officials known as paki preside over various ceremonies and serve as religious counselors. Allah is called Tuhan.

Pre-Islamic beliefs about spirits and ghosts remain. Most spirits are regarded as malevolent. Mediums, diviners and herbalist-healers are consulted for health problems. The sick are treated with trance dances performed by cloth-waving shaman.

Islamic burial customs are practiced. The deceased are buried under grave of crushed coral and sand with their heads facing Mecca. Sometimes they are buried on special islands with betel nut boxes. For seven nights after the burial family members gather and read passages from the Koran. During the month of Shaabam God, the Samal believe the souls of the dead return to earth and at this times graves are cleaned and special prayers are said.

Samal Marriage

Samal marriages are generally between kindred of around the same age, preferably between patrilineal, parallel cousins, and may be partially arranged by parents with the help of a go-between. The marriage may by initiated by an elopement or in some special cases by an abduction. In all cases a bride price is paid, with a particularly high one being paid in the case of an abduction.

Weddings have traditionally been the biggest and most grand Samal gatherings. The ceremony is presided over by an imam or group of religious officials, who witness the transfer of the bride price. In a traditional weddings of boat-dwelling Samal the groom is doused with seawater, the bride's face is painted with chalk and her eyebrows are shaped into triangles, girls dance on boats and men throw bananas at each other. The climax of the ceremony is when the father of the bride takes the finger of the groom and places it in the head of the bride and then her breasts. These days the bride often wears a white dress and the groom an Arab headpiece from Mecca. Sometimes newlyweds are pushed out to sea on a boat.

Newlywed couples may live with the bride’s or groom’s family and are expected to set up their own households by the second or third year of marriage, often with the house near the bride’s family cluster. Polygyny is allowed but rarely practiced. The frequency of divorce varies with the group, but is said to be common among some groups.

Samal Family

Samal households are defined as a group that eats together and is usually comprised of a nuclear family with a few additional relatives. The division of labor is pretty equal with men specializing in boat building and iron works and women specializing in pandanus mat weaving and pottery making. Both men and women engage in trade. Among nomadic groups men have traditionally done the fishing while women engaged in inshore gathering.

Family members are expected to attend funerals, children’s weddings and thanksgiving rites; lending and borrowing of property, food or money; and exchanging visits and hospitality. Children are highly valued. They undergo a ritual hair cutting and weighing ceremony. Both sexes are circumcised. Girls are circumcised between the ages of two and six in small private rituals attended only by women. Many children receive some kind of training in the Koran. Reciting the Koran is a greatly valued skill.

After puberty girls are expected to stay close to home. They assist in household chores. Boys are given more freedom. They often help their fathers fishing. Children attend school but generally only for a couple of years. Three days after a child is born his father swims with him to introduce him to the sea.

Samal Society

Samal social and political organization varies with the group. Some groups are egalitarian. Others, often the larger ones, have a hierarchal structure with nobility and commoners, and in the past slaves. These days hereditary privileges are largely a thing of past but titles still carry prestige.

Political organization begins at the cluster level and may advance to the parish and district level among larger groups. It is manifested primarily through the establishment of networks and coalitions between Samal groups and with non-Samal groups and governments in the countries that have jurisdiction over them. Many Samal groups are subordinate to dominate Tausug, Maguindanao and Bugis groups. In the past some groups were treated as the property of local sultans.

Mosques are a center of social, community and religious life. Clusters and parishes are generally led by elders, cluster leaders and religion leaders. Incidents of armed conflict are relatively rate, although raids and vendettas sometimes occur. Disputes are settled with the help of cluster, parish and villages leaders. Incidents involving different groups are often settled using Islamic law.

Samal Settlements

Samal villages generally consist of closely-clustered houses situated along well-protected stretches of shoreline. They are often built directly over the sea in channels or tidal shallows, often behind a fringing reef. Household are often grouped in clusters of related kin with their own chief. The houses are often built near of nipa near mangrove forests, where residents work as thatch- and woodcutters. Large clusters are often organized around a mosque. Schools, mosques and clinics are usually located inland. Some villages are entirely on land and even built somewhat inland.

Houses are raised on piles one to three meters above the high water mark or the ground and are usually comprised of a single room attached to a kitchen, often a room without a roof where various chores are performed.. Those of poor people are typically constructed of split bamboo and have thatched roofs. Many are poorly constructed and too small to allow a person to stand up straight. Those belonging to wealthier families have timber walls and floods, corrugated metal roofing and have additional sleeping rooms. House built over the water are connected by catwalks.

Nomadic groups traditionally have been made up of communities of scattered marriage groups that return regularly to common anchorage sites. These groups were formed around family alliances of two to six closely related boat-dwelling families. who share food, pool labor and fish and anchor together and are intermarried and make regular visits to other groups. The boats they live on vary in size. The small ones are generally dugout vessels with double outriggers. Larger ones lack outriggers and have a solid keel. Both types have a roofed living area made of poles and kaang matting and a portable earthenware hearth used to prepare meals. Typically one nuclear family lives on each boat.

Samal Life

Samal arts includes dancing, singing, and music produced xylophone, drums and gongs. Gongs are used to provide the melody and they are often played by women. Their main dance, the daling-daling is performed mainly at weddings. and often involves the exchange of verse between men and women. Among the Samal crafts are dyed pandanus mats, food covers, ornaments made of shell and turtle shell, weaving and textiles, and decorative wood carving, often featured in houses, burial markers, boats and machete handles.

Samal textiles feature rectangular design elements and figurative motifs. Some men wear square head clothes known as destar. Nomadic Samals wear no clothes before the age of 10.

Samal girls often look like ghosts. They put white cake on their faces called borak which is made from rice, fruit and nuts. What does it do? It moisturizes the skin of course.

Samal Economics and Piracy

Samal have traditionally made their living from fishing, farming, seafaring and trade, and sometimes piracy and smuggling. The nature of their work is often defined by where they live and who their neighbors were. Some Samal in the Sulu islands run guns between Borneo and Muslim insurgencies in the southern Philippines

Samal fish using traps, spears, hand lines, long lines, drift nets and explosives. They catch dolphins and other sea mammals and sea turtles and collect shellfish, crustaceans, turtle eggs, sea urchins, pearls, mother-of-pearl, and edible algae and sea weed. Drift netting is often done with the fall tide, especially during new and full moons. Most fish are dried and salted for sale in markets. Many earn money from shark fins. Coconuts are a major cash crop for land-based Samal. They also grow dry rice, maize, beans, sugarcane and other crops.

Property rights are exercised in connection with fishing grounds and reefs and farms and residential land. Among nomadic groups overlapping fishing grounds have generally invited cooperation rather than fueled feuds. Inheritable possessions includes livestock, farm land. fishing boats, jewelry and gongs.

Most groups practice some kind of farming. Different groups specialize in producing different crafts such as pandanus mats, pottery, roofing, weaving, blacksmithing, and making shell bracelets, tortise shell combs and other items. Boat-building is an especially valued skill. The Sibuti Samal are known as being the best Samal boat builders. Trade is important to the Samal, who have traditionally relied on it even for necessities. They traditionally traded with all comers and exchanged products they gathered from the sea for things like grain and fruit. They also acted as middlemen for trade between other groups.

The Sulu islands between the Philippines and Sabah is ripe with pirates even today. It is not unusual for boats to go missing on perfectly fine days. Many of the pirates have normal day jobs when they are on land.

In Sulawesi Samal still dive for trepang, pearls and other marine products. When Chinese and Bugis introduced compressed air, which allowed them to dive longer they failed to explain about the bends properly. In one area alone more than 40 men were killed and a large number were crippled for life. Today they swim sometimes using homemade wood and glass goggles and handmade spear guns and little else.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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