Do we give proper credit to the creators of our indigenous textiles?

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Mary Umli, at 65, helps weave textiles to be sold for the Likhang Habi Market Fair in Makati on October 20 to 22. Photo by ANNA BUENO In photo: Photo by ANNA BUENO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Beside the Peace Museum in Kiangan, Ifugao — the site of Yamashita’s surrender — is a school housing some of the local community’s most treasured possessions: artefacts, hymns, musical instruments, and in full splendor, various woven textiles that tell of the Ifugao people’s cultural heritage.

In one of those rooms sit three women weavers, their hands gentle yet exact as they work threads through looms. Behind them are the products of their labor. One of them is called ga’mong. For the untrained eye, it looks like a magnificent blanket lined with red and black at the borders, with two middle pieces spun in black and white, and various symbols woven in between. One may be tempted to use the textile as clothing.

But the ga’mong is not for use by the living. Ga’mong blankets are blankets for the dead, says the text accompanying the textile, and is the outer blanket among two funerary blankets. Relatives of the dead usually go to great lengths to secure ga’mong, and the Ifugao pay a high price for it.

Textiles woven by indigenous weaving communities are representative of their ethnic identity or culture. They reflect religions, agricultural roots, a people’s resistance. They represent a way of life. Hundreds of kilometers away, however — in urban areas, such as Manila  — the meaning imbued in these textiles sometimes gets lost in translation.

Photo-71 (1).jpg Marlon Martin, chief of Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement and founder of Ifugao Heritage School, aims to promote greater awareness of local culture in a country with heavy western influence. Photo by ANNA BUENO

Recently, for example, Chanel has been accused of appropriating or disrespecting indigenous Australian culture by selling a wood and resin boomerang for £1,130 (approximately ₱77,000), an amount that is 10 percent of the average annual income of indigenous Australians. In the Philippines, the risk of cultural appropriation comes with the proliferation of products created by indigenous groups, sold in the city, and utilized without regard for their origins or value.


Cultural appropriation is ultimately disrespect for a culture not one’s own, by using it against the intentions of that culture, by excessively profiting from it, or by failing to give credit to the culture, says Marlon Martin, chief of the Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement and founder of the Ifugao Heritage School. Martin, an Ifugao educated in Manila, serves as a bridge between the women weavers of his hometown and organizations such as the Habi: Philippine Textile Council, which has been promoting the use of indigenous Philippine textiles and local materials, such as cotton, to reinvigorate the industry.

Photo-68 (1).jpg A textile used as a skirt, more commonly used by the Bontocs, but shared with other neighboring peoples such as those in Central Banawe. Photo by ANNA BUENO

CNN Philippines Life tagged along with some members of Habi to Kiangan, Ifugao, to talk to Martin about weaving heritage, how cultural appropriation happens, and the ways it can be prevented. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

There’s a trend in making woven textiles an object of high fashion. Do you think this is an appropriation of the culture of the indigenous weavers who made the textiles?

Sometimes it’s more about intent. ‘Wag mong titingnan ‘yung isang bagay tapos i-judge mo siya as cultural appropriation. But of course, cultural appropriation is using somebody else’s culture and profiting from it. It’s the intent of whoever made it. You buy something from the Ifugao, and you come up with this magnificent-looking gown or barong suit or something, and then you use it somewhere else. Now, alam mo ba kung saan galing ‘yun? Do you acknowledge or give proper credit?

Cultural appropriation is ultimately disrespect for a culture not one’s own, by using it against the intentions of that culture, by excessively profiting from it, or by failing to give credit to the culture.

A few weeks ago, there was an entire page sa Inquirer, an entire collection making use of Ifugao textiles. Not a single mention of Ifugao sa text. They presented it as summer collection of indigenous Filipino traditional weaving … which indigenous peoples? We have more than a hundred indigenous groups in the Philippines. Ba’t ‘di man lang nabanggit ‘yan?  ‘It came from the north. It came from Ifugao.’ Not a single mention. This is cultural appropriation. How much are they selling the gowns for? Magkano ‘yung bili nila ng tela?

If your intent of using somebody else’s culture is to profit from it more than the weaver profited from selling the fabric, that would be cultural appropriation.

Photo-60 (1).jpg Weaving requires a controlled hand. The young weavers in Kiangan are guided by older weavers. Photo by ANNA BUENO

We are also proud that we’re seeing all these things, na ginagawa namin dito are being used by high-end fashion designers — but pwedeng pakibanggit na nanggaling sa amin ‘yan?  ₱1,500‘yung bili ko lang diyan tapos ibebenta niyo ng ₱15,000. 'Yun lang sana.

So to avoid cultural appropriation, one must give the amount due to the weaver …

Ang textiles naman, sa lahat ng societies, these are things of commerce. Talagang binebenta ang mga ito. Pero it also defines a culture, defines the identity of people. Tapos ‘di mo i-recognize ‘yun? Eto pa, ‘yung iba they’re strutting sa catwalk ‘yung mga Philippine summer something …. tapos to the tune of native American music! So ‘diba? Sinong indigenous peoples ‘yun? So that’s total cultural appropriation. It doesn’t matter to the mainstream people, or the designer, pero ‘pag kami ang nakakita … akala ko ba, tinuturuan niyo na, we are marginalized, tapos ganyan. So it’s a question of propriety din.

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You give credit to whoever’s the original creator of the textile. ‘Yun lang naman. Dalawa lang naman ‘yung basic na cultural appropriation. Una is you have no knowledge of the textile, ‘yung cultural significance. Second is wala kang respect. Kunwari, funerary blanket tapos ginawa mong evening gown. Ginawa mong bedsheet ‘yung [textile] para sa patay. That’s lack of respect. If you’re ignorant of the textile, and you’re using  it in a way na hindi ‘yun ang dapat na gamit niya. That’s already cultural appropriation.

There’s a very thin line between what is cultural appropriation and what is not. Like ako, I’m 100 percent Ifugao. I was educated in Manila, so alam ko kung ano ang kalakalan. So uuwi ako dito – ‘di naman alam ng mga taga-Manila ito, I get a textile that is beautiful as perceived by lowland Filipinos, then gagawin ko siyang anu-ano, kahit na may particular na gamit siya dito sa amin, like something for the dead.

So would I be appropriating my own culture? In that sense, ‘yung intent mo rin is to gain from it, profit from it, and not respecting my own culture, so that is still cultural appropriation. Even though ‘yung academic description kasi, is somebody from outside using somebody else’s culture.

Tell us about the partnership with Habi.

Their advocacy is the use of Philippine textiles made from Philippine cotton, which is fast disappearing. Bakit nga ba hindi tayo nagpo-produce ng sarili nating cotton, we can actually do that naman? So ang sa amin naman, our ikat weaving requires the use of cotton, ‘di pwedeng polyester. Nakita ko rin ‘yung advocacy nila‘di naman nare-reach ng ordinaryong Pilipino ‘yung  mga tao ng Habi, ‘di ba? Magkaaway ‘din kami dati … but we became good friends [Laughs].

Photo-54.jpg Traditional Ifugao textiles designed as women's clothing. Photo by ANNA BUENO

It’s nice working with people, nandiyan ‘yung [concern for the] deeper purpose of textiles. Ano bang nakikita mo sa textiles, lalo na ‘yung mga traditional textiles natin? Well, it talks about heritage, culture, indigenous Philippines, something original. This is the romantic side. Ang practical side niyan is, it makes money, pero if ‘yung money ‘di napupunta sa gumawa — not being a socialist or communist naman — pero ‘di ba?

Look at Kultura. Maraming shops sa SM. Mostly gawa ng poor communities ‘yung products nila. And you know how long they pay their consigned goods? Aabot ng six months. Ano na ‘yung nangyari sa weaver? Namatay na sa gutom, ‘di ka nagbabayad.

"Ang textiles naman, sa lahat ng societies, these are things of commerce. Talagang binebenta ang mga ito. Pero it also defines a culture, defines the identity of people. Tapos ‘di mo i-recognize ‘yun?" — Marlon Martin

Eto minsan ‘yung sinasabi namin na … well if you’re not buying in cash, eh ‘wag na lang, kasi kawawa ‘yung weaver. You weave it for a week or two weeks, tapos … ‘yung mga weavers natin, walang puhunan ‘yan. Mahal ang thread ₱350, Habi pa ‘yun ah. ‘Pag bibilin mo sa … ₱700 per kilo.

Sige let’s say a traditional skirt costs ₱1,500. ₱1,200 actually ‘yung benta dito. Alam mo kung magkano ‘yung bayad, net, sa weavers? Parang ₱300, ₱400 ‘yung kita niya doon. Parang iisipin mo: is it worth it? Nagtrabaho ka ng ilang araw, tapos ₱300 lang. Pero walang magawa ‘yung mga weavers. Kasi ganoon naman talaga.

So that’s what we’re trying to change din. We need a niche market na kaya na, who are willing to pay more for something that’s created, a labor of love.

How do you make an ordinary person realize the limitations of appropriating a culture?

Education is the answer to a lot of questions. So you have to educate them, like ‘yung ginagawa namin, we try to integrate local culture in schools. Pero [for those in Manila], at least sa packaging mo, at least there’s information na dito ang pinggalingan niya, sila ‘yung gumawa. Through social media rin. Maraming namang paraan to inform people. Problema lang ‘pag di nagbabasa.

Photo-59.jpg Inside the Ifugao Heritage Museum, one can learn about the history of Kiangan's agricultural community among many others. Kiangan prides itself as the birthplace of the Ifugao. Photo by ANNA BUENO


Of course, responsibility ng lahat ng like-minded people to educate each other pagdating sa ganito. We have a small window to the outside world. Pero itong small window na ito, pinipili rin namin ‘yung mga tao na pumapasok sa bintana namin. ‘Pag lumabas na sila, at least, like kayo, you also become advocates of our cause.

It’s a worldwide movement, ‘yung nangyayari sa cultural appropriation. Everybody’s being called out now. This has been a problem since years ago, ngayon lang sumisikat. So if you’re one of us, you should understand … it’s a universal rule naman. Respect, love, and all of those things, everything human. We educate ourselves, so we can educate other people. It’s the best way to combat exploitations by cultural appropriation.


To learn more about cultural appropriation and Philippine indigenous textiles, visit the 7th Likhang Habi Market Fair on October 20 to 22, 2017, at  the Glorietta Activity Center, Palm Drive, Makati.