Chicken Blood for the Holy Spirit: Our Stay with the Bukidnon Tribe, Philippines
“No,” she said firmly and took away the plates that I wanted to carry to the table. “You’re not allowed to help us yet. You have to go through the ritual first and sleep one night at our tribe’s place to be accepted by the Holy Spirit. This is our tradition.”
These were the words of our translator and Bukidnon tribe-member Merly shortly after welcoming us in her village in the Mt. Kitanglad highlands. And of course her words made me immediately curious about how the ritual will look like. I am used to helping wherever and whomever I can, and till now no one has refused my help so firmly. But I quickly realized that I had to be careful with what I do because the rules and traditions of our hosts differ a lot from ours.
But before I tell you about the voodoo-like ritual let’s start from the very beginning…
Where we are & how we came here
We are currently in the Philippines, on the southern island of Mindanao, in the city of Cagayan de Oro. We came to Mindanao hoping to meet some of the 18 Filipino ethnic and tribal groups who live here, but also to enjoy an island which is not usually visited by many tourists.
After several days of getting to know the place we headed to Malaybalay, to take part of the 100th anniversary of the Kaamulan Festival. We we hoping that this one month-long celebration would be a good chance to meet and photograph some of the tribes dancing and singing in their colorful costumes, but we quickly found out that this will only be possible on the two last days of the festival, and we did not have the time to wait that long.
So we asked around for ways and directions on how to visit the tribes on our own. Stunningly, after finding the right person, it took only a short phone call with one of the Baes (a female elder) of the Bukidnon tribe to arrange everything. “Your contact person’s name is Marina, and she will meet you in two hours in Barangay Dalwangan, just north of Malaybalay. She’ll tell you about our requirements and will lead you to the village. You can spend two days and one night with us.” This was extremely spontaneous, but we were very happy about this opportunity, so we cancelled the hotel in which we’d just checked-in an hour ago, packed our backpacks and found a Jeepney to take us to Dalwangan village. Here Marina, Merly and two guys with motorbikes were already waiting for us, and this is how our adventure began.
First we drove to a simple village store where we bought sprite, rum, wine, cigarettes, sweets and a few other items, and finally we exchanged some money into many one Peso coins. We’d also have to buy three live chickens later, but this we could do directly in the Bukidnon village.
We packed the purchased items in our backpacks and drove on the backs of the motorcycles for about 20 min to Sitio Damitan, the last “modern” village on the slope of the Mt. Kitanglad. Here the street ended and we had to walk. “It’s only half an hour” the two girls said and asked us if we feel comfortable in our sandals.
At first we didn’t understand why they asked us that, but after a while the narrow path turned into a narrow river bed with some small and slippery rocks to step on, but within minutes we were standing in water and mud up to our ankles. Luckily two guys from the tribe came to meet and help us with our big backpacks. They had rubber boots on, so they just went straight through while we tried to hop from rock to rock for another 40 minutes. Only after we reached the village did we have a chance to really look up and realize how beautiful the surrounding area was.
To our surprise one of the houses was made of brick and had a metal roof. We had arrived at the Mt. Kitanglad Cultural Heritage Center, which was built in accordance with the Bukidnon tribe’s rituals and beliefs to host their cultural heritage, offer them a place to meet and to be a home to the few tourists who come to visit the tribe. And it was going to be our home for the next two days.
No access without Pamalas — the cleansing ritual
The whole village came to meet us and watch the spectacle. The ritual is done under the authority of a Datu and a Bae — a male and a female elder, both dressed in traditional clothes. They are considered to be the leaders of the tribe, but also mediators within the tribe and in dealings with other tribes. The Bae prepared a white and a red cloth in front of the secret altar, which she the decorated with the peso coins as well as cigarettes, bottles, cups and sweets. White and red are the dominating colors of the tribe: white represents peace and red the blood of the tribe.
Three chickens were brought in: crowing and struggling to get away from the wooden stick they were tied to.
Then silence. The Datu started to mumble, obviously talking to the Holy Spirit, explaining our motivation of visiting this tribe. From time to time we heard our names and Datu pointed towards us. Then he took the first chicken and cut its throat with a giant knife. This is not nice to watch and I felt really bad about these creatures having to die for us, but if we want to get an insight into the Bukidnon culture we must accept this ritual as well. So I closed my eyes and waited. With a feather Bae put chicken blood on some coins, on our hands and on our camera. Then the same process was repeated with the two other chickens. The first chicken is for our cleansing, the second is a gift for the holy spirit and the third one is for our and the tribe’s prosperity.
For the second part we had to wait until the chicken was cooked and prepared with rice. Datu again had a long conversation with the spirits and then we had to take a bite from each plate with chicken and rice and had to drink from each of the three bottles: Sprite, wine and rum. The Holy Spirit seemed to have accepted us and the gifts we brought for it and the tribe, so the rest of the food and drinks were now be shared by the community. Interestingly the cigarettes and the rum were gone pretty quickly ;).
Who are the Daraghuyan Bukidnon tribe
This is just one of the traditions of the Bukidnons — “the people from the mountain”. They have a strong belief in their god which they refer to by “the Spirit.” We learned about many habits and got a feeling for their tribal life, social hierarchy etc. Here are just a few examples:
- Bae and Datu are respected tribal leaders and mediators with cultural expertise, knowledge on healing, indigenous spirituality and mediation skills. The Bukidnon tribe consists of 5 clans or families (Docenos, Omarol, Bungcasan, Linoy, Ruiz) who are led by 8 Bae and 8 Datu. They intervene in relationships to keep peace and harmony in the community. The spirit only talks to them (by going into their body in the middle of the night — like a shaman) and reminds them of what is right and wrong and what to do next. When a young person has a question for example that Bae or Datu cannot answer he has to give one peso to Bae or Datu who will then pray to the spirit and the question will be answered.
- Before the Bae dies the holy spirit will tell her who should replace her. There is no election or hereditary succession.
- Since we are not married yet, Bojidar and I were asked to sleep separately from each other. Otherwise the spirit could get angry and the people of the tribe might get sick. So of course we followed their wish…
To gain acceptance by the Filipino government, the Bukidnon send younger tribe members like Merly to University where they learn English and can make their life and culture known to the world. That’s why they are happy about visitors and the opportunity to tell them about their tribe. With the help of an NGO the Bukidnon built the Mt. Kitanglad Cultural Heritage Center and even have a Facebook page.
During their everyday life the Bukidnon wear western clothes, but for rituals and for visitors they put on their traditional clothes and sing, play music and dance. In order to preserve the tribal traditions, the adults encourage the children to join in every dance and song. Sadly the children didn’t want to dance with me, but their feeling of rhythm was already very good so they shook their little booties to the melody, which was really cute:
The world outside: Stories from other cultures
The Bukidnon were also very interested in us and our lives, asked a lot of questions and were very happy that we shared some stories and our experiences with them. After dinner Bojidar offered to show some images from our travels, and they couldn’t get enough of it. They gathered around us and the laptop and watched and listened with big eyes and ears. The images and stories from the indigenous people in Africa and India were the ones that interested them most. It was a great evening for everyone.
During the next morning I taught them a dice game from my childhood. Children and adults joined in, and we laughed a lot.
Before leaving the Bukidnon thanked us many times for spending time with them and for eating with them on the floor. They said that sometimes there are visitors who don’t interact with them at all or who eat separately on the table. Yet others don’t speak English, so the conversation is limited to looking at each other.
Getting in touch with other cultures and experiencing their way of life is not always easy, but it’s very much worth it. When we walked up to the village I was not sure if I would want to recommend the trip to others but after these two days I would do so without any doubt. So if you ever get the chance to spend time with people from a different culture — grab it, even if it means getting out of your comfort zone.
We took part in the everyday life of a small indigenous tribe, saw where and how they live and enjoyed traditional dancing and singing, which broadened our horizons once again.
If you too want to visit the Bukidnon tribe, please don’t hesitate to contact us for Merlys telephone number and e-mail address. She will be happy to give you further information and introduce you to her tribe. If you want to bring presents, bring sugar, salt, oil, raincoats, rubber boots, or paper and pencils for the kids.