Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When Butuan-born Lori Rago-Marte wed her husband Anilaw Marte, a Lumad tribe leader in Bukidnon, the elders gave them a most exquisite gift. It was ikam: a soft and pliant banig (mat) made by women weavers of the Tagoloanen tribe, woven out of sodsod, a grass-like plant endemic to Bukidnon.
Back then, the art of mat weaving by the Tagoloanen was vanishing. “Hindi mo na nakikita ‘yung mga banig na ganito, wala kang nakikita, kaunti lang,” says Rago-Marte. After marveling at her wedding gift, she looked for its creator, interviewed women weavers, organized them, then decided to put up the Tagolwanen Women Weavers Association (TWWA) in 2012.
TWWA aims to promote and preserve the mat weaving tradition of the Tagoloanen. “Nagtayo [rin] kami ng social enterprise na naging marketing arm ng asosasyon, para mahanapan ng wider market ‘yung mga produkto,” adds Rago-Marte, who now stands as TWWA’s president.
“’Di lang pagbebenta [ang pakay namin], pero pinapakilala namin ‘yung mga gawa ng mga Lumad ng Bukidnon Tagoloanen,” she says. “Kung ano ‘yung merong kayamanan ng isang tribo. Eto, kayamanan ng tribo na minana pa mula sa ancestor.”
Thirty-one-year-old Grecil Guirra, a master weaver of the Tagoloanen women and a member of TWWA, started learning the art early. “Natuto ako sa mama ko,” she says. “Noong nine years [old] pa lang ako nagsimula.”
For the Tagoloanen people, mat weaving is a sacred art passed on from generation to generation. The manglalala (mat weavers) must ask permission from the maulinlin sacred spirits before they start weaving, through a set of complex rituals or pamaulin.
The women of the TWWA still practice this ritual, says Rago-Marte, lest they suffer consequences. “Sabi nila ‘pag nag-weave [na hindi dumadaan ng ritual], mabigat, nagkakasakit ‘yung weaver. Madalas ‘di siya tumatagal as a weaver, wala ‘yung pasensya, matagal matututo din.”
The ritual is not just a perfunctory tradition; it is an essential prerequisite for those who want to be initiated into mat weaving. “Kailangan ng guidance para mabilis sila matututo, mas magaan ‘yung paggawa nila, at mas marami pang blessings na darating,” she adds.
People of the river
The Tagoloanen (sometimes ‘Tagolwanen’) are the people who live along the source of the Tagoloan river in Mindanao, one of the largest river systems in the Philippines. “Ang headwater ng Tagoloan river, siya ‘yung cradle of civilization ng mga Lumad noon,” says Rago-Marte.
Today the Tagoloanen people are more known as the peoples of the Bukidnon, Higaonon, and Talaandig tribes. Their main source of livelihood is farming.
While waiting for the harvest, or during planting season itself, women would weave into the night and until dawn. The Tagoloanen women usually weave at this time, when the air is cool, because the heat will make the sodsod for the ikam brittle.
Sodsod is usually not cultivated but harvested in the wild. Guirra, who has woven mats since she was nine, says in Bisaya how difficult it is to source materials for ikam. The materials may only be found in the ricefields or wet areas (marshlands), she says, and may be unavailable during the dry season.
Sometimes areas where sodsod grow are used to cultivate rice instead, since sodsod is considered a weed. Or sometimes, carabaos eat the sodsod.
When there is enough sodsod, the weaving commences. According to Elmer I. Nocheseda, author of “Rara: Art and Tradition of Mat Weaving in the Philippines,” the designs of the Tagaloanen ikam sodsod are “Intonda, imbilin, and indamogo.”
Intonda designs are “God-given through dreams and by performing the annual panandig ritual,” used for religious purposes, are passed from generation to generation, and therefore must be treated with reverence. When designs are entrusted to a family member, they are imbilin, and must be treated with honor.
“Kailangan alagaan ang [paghahabi], na ‘di mawawala, na importante siyang ituro talaga, kasi ito ang identity nila bilang Lumad.” — Lori Rago-Marte, president of the Tagolaonen Women Weavers Associaton
An indamogo design is given through a dream and considered special. “Only certain people are worthy of it,” writes Nocheseda.
In the HABI Pop-up of Culture in Mandaluyong, Guirra demonstrated how she wove ikam. The design? “Naisip ko lang,” she says, as her fingers move expertly, as if by muscle memory. The design looks like it’s from a technique called bukanayo, or “the repetition of small refined design details and arranging them into a crisp gridlike fashion,” according to Nocheseda.
Sometimes the weavers’ designs are also inspired by the environment, says Rago-Marte. A significant example is the binakesan, a design which beautifully mimics snake skin. Another is the binulakbulak, or flowers (bulakbulak), the local word of which also means to decorate.
The Tagoloanen generally prefer three design forms or guwat, writes Nocheseda. Tinulisan are diamonds, squares, and rectangles arranged in straight rows and columns; binakusan, those arranged diagonally; and bukanayo (mentioned above). The designs are incorporated not only into mats, but also into table runners, baskets, placemats, and handbags.
Weaving for the future
Guirra is only one of the 80 active women weavers of TWWA. Two out of her four children — two young girls — are set to learn the art of ikam sodsod, consistent with the tradition to promote, preserve, and pass on the Tagoloanen’s cultural heritage.
“May naturuan kaming 20 na younger generation na mga anak nila, pamangkin,” says Rago-Marte. “Pagbalik namin [sa Bukidnon], balik sila ulit sa training para sa advanced, para sa paggawa na ng design. Mabilis sila matututo dahil dumaan sa ritwal,” she adds.
Guirra’s two daughters are 14 and 11 years old, a bit older than she was when she started to learn weaving. While it seemed that interest for mat weaving has waned among younger generations, the families in TWWA, at least, intend to keep the tradition alive.
“Minsan sa bahay ‘pag gumagawa ako, tumitingin sila,” Guirra says of her daughters. “Interesado naman sila, alam naman nila na nakakatulong sa amin ‘yun.”
Rago-Marte says that since TWWA was formed, many young women were inspired to take up mat weaving. “Nakikita nila na nakapag-aral na sila, maraming products na gawa namin, kaya na-a-appreciate ng anak nila.”
Weaving a circular mat takes a week or two weeks. For master weavers like Guirra, it takes a week. Rago-Marte is quick to emphasize that after an item is done, the weavers are paid immediately — unlike previous cases where weavers had to wait for payment in installments, if any at all.
Since TWWA also aims to “assist Tagolwanen women with a self-sustained livelihood program,” members also receive a share of the profit by the end of the year.
It’s an improvement from when people were disinterested about mat weaving in light of preference for mattresses, but of course much can still be done. “Marami na rin nakaka-appreciate sa handmade na gawa ng Lumad, pero marami pa ring ‘di nakakaintindi,” says Rago-Marte.
People still bargain for lower prices for the woven items (a bag may cost around ₱2,500, mats around ₱4,000), notwithstanding the time and process that go into their creation, she says. “Sana maintindihan din kung paano talaga gawin ‘yung isang handmade na gawa, gaano kahirap ginagawa ng isang weaver, compared sa isang machine na branded, mabilisan. Ito labor of love,” she adds.
What Rago-Marte says is the value of the Tagoloanen mats goes beyond price, beyond commodity, beyond anything tangible. “Mahalaga ito dahil ito ay treasure. Minana pa itong salinlahi. Heritage natin,” she says. “Kailangan siyang alagaan, na ‘di mawawala, na importante siyang ituro talaga, kasi ito ang identity nila bilang Lumad.”
TWWA will participate in a national trade fair in the Megatrade Hall in SM Megamall, Mandaluyong, in August, and in Manila FAME in the World Trade Center on Oct. 17 to 19. Visit their website to learn more.