Should “Tribe” Be Used for Cordilleran IP Groups?

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✍ Scott Magkachi Saboy

Should Igorots still use “tribe” to refer to the various ethnolinguistic groups in the Cordillera?

This question sometimes arises in discussions among fellow academics who question the appropriateness of the term. On a minor note, the term bears a colonial baggage (e.g., Finin 2005, 26-30) and the notion of the philistine — notwithstanding the claim that contemporary “[a]nthropologists do not associate the term tribal society with anything negative” (Ferraro and Andreatta 2014, 320).

More importantly, it does seem to be an inappropriate term based on its general definition given by cultural anthropologists: “a culturally distinct population whose members consider themselves descended from the same ancestor” (Nanda and Warms 2018, 175). Thus, anthropologist Jesus Peralta (2008) argues, there are “technically… no tribes in the Philippines”— only “ethnic groups” or “ethno-linguistic groups”—because traditional communities in the country are characterized by a bilateral, not a unilineal, kinship system. He also maintains that since these cultural groups are, to a large extent, organizationally overshadowed by the state, they cannot qualify as real tribes.

However, I have long observed that the Kalingas unproblematically use the term to mean “ethnic community” whether referring to themselves in general or to their specific ili, just as it is used in this sense by other Filipino scholars — e.g., Cariño (2012) and Leo (2011, 381). It seems to me then, as a Kalinga, that the term can be used simply as a descriptive word to refer to an aggrupation of indigenous peoples without necessarily invoking colonial or racial prejudices. Besides, who should dictate upon us what to call ourselves, anyway, given the fact that terms like “ethnic group” and “ethnolinguistic groups” are arbitrarily imposed labels on societies?

Further, while it is true that there are no “pure” tribes today (Ferrarro and Andreatta 2014, 318), the term may not at all be inappropriate in reference to the native communities in, say, Kalinga for they share at least three characteristics of tribes as understood by cultural anthropologists themselves—the presence of pan-tribal structures within each group (e.g., Banao Bodong Tribal Association, Inc.) or across Kalinga (Kalinga Bodong Council or the bodong system itself), non-centralized/informal leadership, and consensus-based decision-making processes (Ferrarro and Andreatta 2014, 315). The fact that the Kalingas or Ifugaos or any other ethnic groups in the Cordillera are politically overshadowed by the Philippine state doesn’t necessarily mean that “tribe” is no longer an appropriate term to for their respective communities; it simply means that they are no longer wholly autonomous as before (see a discussion on the ever-evolving definitions or characteristics of tribes in Kottak 2017, 153-174).

Finally, jettisoning “tribe” and replacing it with “ethnic group” does not make the distinction any clearer since the term is itself problematic — i.e., (a) it continues to be contested term just as it was when Julian Huxley and A.C. Haddon first introduced the term over 80 years ago as a substitute for “race” (see Eller 2016, 110-118); and thus, (b) its various definitions can actually also refer to “tribe” as understood by Igorots who comfortably use the term.

Works Cited:

Cariño, Jacqueline K. 2012. “Country Technical Notes on Indigenous Peoples’ Issues Republic of the Philippines.” Accessed November 3, 2014. english/indigenous/pub/ documents/ tnotes/philippines. pdf.

Eller, Jack David. 2016. Cultural Anthropology: Global Forces, Local Lives. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge.

Ferraro, Gary and Susan Andrea. 2014. Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective. 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Finin, Gerard A. 2005. The Making of the Igorot: Contours of Cordillera Consciousness. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Kottak, Conrad Philip. 2017. Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

Leo, Mark Sabas. 2011. “Indigenous Folk Dance and Performance.” In Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife, edited by Jonathan H. X. Lee and Kathleen M. Nadeau, 380-82. Santa Barbara, CA: ABCCLIO, LLC.

Nanda, Serena, and Richard L. Warms. 2018. Culture Counts: A Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.

Peralta, Jesus T. 2008. “Why There are No Tribes in the Philippines.” Accessed November 4, 2014.

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