Is ‘Bagani’ culturally appropriating indigenous peoples?

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To a number of indigenous peoples in the Southern Philippines, the word “bagani” goes beyond being a generic term for someone deemed brave or heroic. Communities across the island of Mindanao, which include the Mandaya of the Davao region and the Manobo of Central and Northeastern Mindanao, consider the bagani as a warrior class that is deeply ingrained in their social organization. Photo from ABS-CBN ENTERTAINMENT/YOUTUBE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “The Philippine Islands were discovered in 1521 by Magellan, who died here in the same year, and a few years later the Spaniards, under Villalobos, took possession of the group and named it in honor of King Philip II of Spain.”

- “Facts About The Filipinos,” Philippine Information Society (1901)

Colonizers like to name the lands they chance upon and eventually claim to own. There are places whose names are said to be based on trees, rivers, or birds. In the case of the Philippines, Ruy López de Villalobos arrived in what is now called Samar and Leyte in 1543, and named the islands Las Islas Filipinas which roughly translates to “islands of Philip.”

In the 1898 declaration of independence, the “Philippine islands” were said to be liberated from the “yoke of Spanish domination.” Inhabitants of the Philippine islands finally had the “right to be free and independent” and were “released from all obedience to the crown of Spain,” with every political tie to Spain deemed “completely severed and annulled.”

And yet our country remained Philip’s islands, suddenly a nation of peoples bound by a colonizer’s claim.

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 “Mekeni mekeni tugtug do re mi.”

Kenneth Cadiang watched as the child recited the odd incantation, coupled with hand gestures. He asked the child where she learned the chant; it was from the new T.V. show “Bagani,” she said. In a scene where Enrique Gil's character, "Lakas," is presumed dead, "Gloria," a babaylan or healer played by Dimples Romana recites the incantation as she heals him.

As a teacher in the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV), Cadiang is familiar with the traditions of the Manobo. A number of his students come from the said ethnolinguistic group, and he knows that while the bagani is real and essential to Manobo communities, “mekeni mekeni tugtug do re mi” isn’t.

But the child was already engrossed in the series, and this presented a difficulty as Cadiang tried to explain the meaning of the bagani for the Manobo peoples.

 

“It was frustrating. The show has such an effect on how we build narratives, in the same way a child builds her own image of the bagani based on magical fiction instead of actual facts,” Cadiang said.

In another episode, a scroll containing a message showed text that were a mix of stylized Greek characters among other random-looking characters.

But words of the indigenous peoples are not the only things taken from their communities or erased in national narratives. Where Cadiang teaches, ancestral lands of the indigenous peoples are under constant threat of mining and plantations.

“The appropriation of indigenous concepts and cultures only furthers the exclusion of indigenous peoples while diluting indigenous peoples’ struggles, which are hardly ever recognized in mainstream media and popular culture to begin with. Shows like “Bagani” bury the reality of the Lumad, as it exploits and misrepresents their culture,” Cadiang added.

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The word “bagani” traces its Austronesian roots back to the Proto-Malayo-Polynesian word “barani,” which means “hero or war-leader,” also “dare to do.” It has many derivatives in the Philippines — the “bayani” as adjective in Kapampangan (brave, strong), and as noun in Tagalog (hero), along with the “bagani(h)” as noun in Aklanon (hero).

But to a number of indigenous peoples in the Southern Philippines, the word “bagani” goes beyond being a generic term for someone deemed brave or heroic. Communities across the island of Mindanao, which include the Mandaya of the Davao region and the Manobo of Central and Northeastern Mindanao, consider the bagani as a warrior class that is deeply ingrained in their social organization.

Among the Mandaya, the bagani is a “warrior chief” whose leadership is second only to the likid, a community elder known for the wisdom he passes on to the younger generation through oral tradition, constantly providing counsel in times of conflict. Maria Olivia Domingo, in her 2004 study on indigenous leadership and governance, noted that, in the absence of the likid, the bagani takes on the responsibility of settling disputes within their community.

"Shows like 'Bagani' bury the reality of the Lumad, as it exploits and misrepresents their culture."

 

 

 

On the other hand, there is a strain of the sacred and supernatural in the bagani of the Manobo. In John Garvan’s “The Manobos of Mindanao,” the bagani is known as a “warrior priest” who has found favor in the eyes of a deity. He is known for his strength and skill in battle, sometimes even returning to the community unscathed. This is partly due to the deity who affords him the ability to heal, in the same way it affords him the power to kill.

In the cases of the Mandaya and the Manobo peoples during the 19 century, a man needs to kill in order to earn the title of bagani, and the required number of lives taken varies from one community to another. While a man may inherit the title of bagani from his father, he still needs to fulfill the same requirements his father fulfilled to fully earn the title, which includes earning the trust and respect of his community.

Note the complexity of the bagani, and how specific it is within the cultural construct of the peoples of the south. The bagani of Mindanao’s indigenous peoples is not just courageous or charismatic in the same way that the bayani of the Filipino is; he is a definitive part of their community’s structure and is not merely an abstract figure in the annals of indigenous peoples’ history.

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When ABS-CBN, a major local network, released their trailers for “Bagani,” a show that claims to be “greatest fantaserye inspired by Filipino mythology,” people were quick to notice. The two-minute trailer released online was a collage of existing local tropes — the names “Lakas” and “Ganda” echoed Filipino folklore mainstays, “Malakas” and “Maganda;” an intermarriage between two distinct classes of society was used to imply a cause of conflict; and the gods interfered with the affairs of humans.

The fantaserye seemed poised for success, banking on the love team of Liza Soberano and Enrique Gil, LizQuen, as they are fondly called, have established their star power both on television and film, with no less than the 2014 primetime series “Forevermore” and the 2017 romantic comedy film “My Ex and Why’s.”

But as the trailer gained traction, conversations regarding casting and colorism caught on as well.

There is a captive audience for a fantaserye like “Bagani” in a country that takes pride in being a melting pot of cultures, but equal rights and opportunities fall through cracks on the proverbial pot. Bearing the weight of more than three centuries of colonial rule, a “post-colonial, internalized racism” renders the features of Soberano and Gil as ideal, effortlessly meeting Eurocentric beauty standards.

What the network has failed to recognize, however, was a rare opportunity in having a show like “Bagani.” It claims to be inspired by a Filipino mythology, which includes no less than a creation story that deems the kayumanggi as the image of perfection. In an industry that often favors the fair, the people behind “Bagani” could have chosen to cast an actor often sidelined because of his skin color for the lead role.

And yet Gil was cast as the lead, but not without his complexion rendered darker with makeup or a tanner. Soberano’s accent also became a point of discussion, to which the actress responded with an affirmation of her Filipino-ness — in a now deleted tweet — owing to her father’s nationality and her love for sinigang.

But it was not a question of their nationality, because they are Filipinos. However, it was a question of equal opportunity and representation, casting them when other actors would have been a better fit given the requirements for the role.

With a time and tested formula for ratings consisting of a strategic timeslot and a solid fanbase, it seemed like the fantaserye could do no wrong. But it did.

***

When Melissa Claire Barrera, a Manobo-Bagobo woman descending from a line of datus, wrote her open letter to ABS-CBN regarding the use of the word bagani in its latest T.V. offering, she didn’t expect it to go viral. Now with more than 1,200 shares, her open letter has led to the formation of a small collective of indigenous peoples from Mindanao who are now in discussions with the network.

“Some of us were happy when we heard that an upcoming series was entitled ‘Bagani,’” Barrera shared. “Representation of indigenous peoples in mainstream media and popular culture is rare, so we looked forward to it until we saw how they appropriated the bagani,” she said.

This wasn’t the first time the word bagani was used in a context outside of an indigenous community. "A paramilitary group with suspected links to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, alleged as suspects for the 2015 killings of ALCADEV's executive director and with two Manobo community leaders, is known as the Magahat Bagani, while the New People’s Army has a Pulang Bagani Battalion which operates in the Davao region and adjacent areas. In previous years, both have been called out because actual bagani of indigenous communities have become targets for both armed groups.

“This is precisely why we insist that the bagani must not be taken lightly,” Barrera said. “The bagani is not recruited but anointed by Mondaangan, and is sacred to the Manobo peoples.”

"The bagani of Mindanao’s indigenous peoples is not just courageous or charismatic in the same way that the bayani of the Filipino is; he is a definitive part of their community’s structure and is not merely an abstract figure in the annals of indigenous peoples’ history."

 

“There is a difference between sharing in our culture and stealing it,” she added. “We have a Higaonon representative in our group and the elders of their community initially wanted to stop the use of the word in the series, because the bagani of their people does not revel in attention or publicity.”

Prior to their first meeting with ABS-CBN, a disclaimer already marked the beginning of every “Bagani” episode. They suggested that the disclaimer be edited to a version that is unequivocal in saying that the bagani  is real and not just a figment of the imagination.

Legal aspects of the use of indigenous concepts were also discussed during talks with the network. Section 32 of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (Republic Act No. 8371) was noted in particular, since it highlights the need to secure the “free and prior informed consent (FPIC)” of indigenous peoples before taking their “cultural, intellectual, religious, and spiritual property” and without violating their “laws, traditions, and customs.”

A memorandum of agreement which guarantees that ABS-CBN will secure an FPIC for future projects involving elements of indigenous cultures is set to be signed by representatives of Barrera’s group and the network in mid-April, and will be finalized with a thanksgiving ritual performed by the elders of their indigenous communities.

***

Critical discussion surrounding “Bagani” has died down, with chants like “mekeni mekeni” on television now inciting laughter instead of frustration. This is, after all, the reality of the news cycle — one issue is eventually replaced by another, unless the former develops into a related but seemingly different issue.

The struggle of indigenous peoples takes a different turn every one or two news cycles. Usually the struggles that get precious airtime and column inches are linked to ancestral lands, which are inextricably linked to their survival. But whether or not indigenous peoples are in the news, there is a constant need for them to assert their rights over what has always been rightfully theirs way before islands were named after a king, before lands were named by colonizers who, in a foreign language, asked for his location but was instead told the local name for a tree, or a river, or a bird.

The great tragedy is that we call ourselves Filipino only because we no longer know how else to name ourselves, our identity bound to a name of a king we never saw. Meanwhile, those who continue to take pride in their indigenous roots are forced to fight for their land and language — their existence defined by the defense of their local culture and traditions, and assertions of truth that are only heard when rendered in the nation’s official, but no less foreign, language.