Of the 60 million Filipinos [in 1991... Eds.], seven million are indigenous. They are all over the Philippines: in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. One of the six major tribal groups is the Negrito or the Ayta tribe. There are 130,000 Aytas found all over the country. Hence we are called the "scattered" or "nomadic" tribe.
Due to foreign conquest, we suffered continuous displacement from our lands and the subsequent destruction of our culture. Unlike the Igorots of Northern Cordillera and the Lumads of Southern Mindanao, our tribe lost its ancestral lands and, with it, our culture. The wanderings and scattering of our tribe were not inherent to our culture. Rather, we were driven into it by the necessity of looking for food.
Sad to say, in the Philippines, the indigenous people are called the "cultural minorities" or the "little natives". This nomenclature came from the Spaniards. Under the Spanish government, the natives who refused to be baptized were marginalized and classified as the "cultural minority" a name deemed unworthy of the baptized Christians. The term "minority" was reserved in a derogatory fashion for the "pagans", the unbelievers, the untutored and the illiterate, the voiceless and the powerless.
Most of our indigenous peoples have a low self-image in spite of the fact that we were the original inhabitants of the Philippines. This is the result of a long history of oppression. We have been victims of various types of exploitation and have been driven from our lands countless times. Our ancestors once lived by the riversides and along the seashore. Now we have been pushed to the summit of the mountains. Coupled with our anxieties caused by the endless waves of displacement was our difficulty in procuring food. We live by the produce of our farms, but many of us still survive by hunting wild boar, deer, birds, and also by fishing in the rivers. We have a council of elders who settle disputes in the village.
...When the Church people introduced the literacy program, I was one of the first to learn. This was so because of Paulo Freire's methodology of teaching. This method if very encouraging. It is owing to this that I can now speak to you about people empowerment.
Learning to read and write enhanced our self-confidence. Now we are no longer subject to the deceptions of the middlemen and the military. We now control the prices of our products. Gradually we are moving from the barter system to cash economy. Slowly we are being liberated from the clutches of middlemen and from the pitfall of eternal debts.
...It is not only education that will empower our people. We also need to organize. We know there is power in organized groups. We started organizing our villages... under an umbrella organization called LAKAS, literally meaning "power"... The binding force of LAKAS derives from its commitment to such important concerns as self-determination, ancestral domain, human rights and sovereignty.
...Education and organization are useless if people are not moved to action. The true measure of people empowerment is this: In the face of oppression, stand up and work for self-liberation.
...To summarize, our literacy program liberated us from both ourselves and our oppressive social structures. We have overcome our low self-image. We can now walk tall and look straight into the eyes of others. We can now speak in assemblies such as this even if we still feel nervous. We know and we feel that we are now recognized and accepted as persons.
We grew in critical thinking and analysis. Organized, we ceaselessly seek the truth. We courageously uphold our rights and human dignity and strive to improve our livelihood. We struggle for political, social and cultural freedom. And we constantly abide by our principle: "Oppress no one and let no one oppress you."
- Text and photo above:
Eruption and Exodus, LAKAS, 1991