Cañao: Glancing Into an Ancient Filipino Tradition

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“The preservation of culture in the midst of modernism is a remarkable endeavor.”


An Igorot male and his gong.

An experience of Benguet especially in the Municipality of Mankayan, which is the northernmost part of the province in Luzon, Philippines, gives a glimpse of the primeval period in the Filipino’s celebration of life. This ancient celebration is called the Cañao of the Kankanaey people and the rest of the tribes in Cordillera.

Cañao is a festival or ceremony, a liturgy or service, a rite or ritual and offering. It is a celebration for productive economic activities where animals are offered in thanksgiving known as Iya-ey. Ths is also done during marriages, healing, birth, burial and voyage where prayer plays a significant role. They invoke spirits with offerings of animals, food and other material things prescribed by the native priests.

The Kankanaey believes in the existence of an invisible creature that stem from the skyworld to the underworld. As Pelmoka said, “There is the apprehension or conviction of the existence of the supernatural being.” They are believed to have power over human beings, but men can control them. People in the outmost endeavor try to win the favor of the spirits through prayers and material offering in a ceremony. They also believe that spirits had given favors and protection to those who progress and succeed and anyone whose life was spared from any harm.

The classification of spirits in accordance to their hierarchy can be perceived through knowing their authority and impulses. The maker of the universe known as Adika-ila is the highest and the most powerful that resides in the skyworld. Kabunian or the deity is the second in the hierarchy. The Spirit of Ancestors or the Ap-apo and those who have just died called Kakading (the third ones) are believed to freely move from the skyworld to the underworld and go back as they would want. Those who dwell on the earth are called Anitos. They are vicious when offended and intruded upon that they could cause disease, bad luck and even death to men.

Despite the havoc that these spirits can bring, the Kankanaey tribe considers all spirits to be good, but the kindness or ruthlessness depends on their perception of human action. The gravity of misdemeanor against the spirit is also the gauge of his penalty, which can be cured through appeasement. To appease Maeya or the kind spirits, Kabunyan, Ap-apo, Kakading, a thanksgiving ritual must be done, comprising of animal offering, food, rice wine and other material things. On the other hand, an appeasement ritual called Dilus is offered to the spirits that are easily hurt and cruel. These spirits are known as Makedse, of which the most notable ones are Tomongaw, Pinten, Amlag and Pinad-ing.

There are also solemn rituals especially for healing known as Sedey where only the family members gather. Cooking of the food is done inside the house and that is called Lubon. On one hand, Lawit is the calling of the spirit of the living not to wander and also the spirits of the dead to partake with the living, to take and receive what was being offered.

Another is Kosdey, a ceremony for the fertility of the earth. It is observed when the rice blossoms during the rising of the May moon. Tchugas is a purification rite. It is a ceremony that intends to avenge the ghost of the enemies who killed their people, whose heads were cut off and brought home, symbolizing victory.

The native priests in Kankanaey tribe are categorized into three. The Mansip-ok determines and sets the necessary ritual and he tells the celebrant what to do. Then the Manbunong will administer what the Mansip-ok prescribes. The Mankotom unravels the omens and signs aside from confirming whether the butchered chicken, pig or even a carabao or cow is good and accepted by the god. If not, they have to butcher another until they find the proper augur through “reading” the liver.

Dancing their way

Dancing is also part of Cañao. There is this two-person dance of a man and a woman. The man hangs blankets woven in an indigenous pattern or design over each shoulder while the woman wraps a single similar blanket around her waist.  The man leads the woman and they dance in a circular motion with a hop-skip tempo to the beat of sticks and gongs. The dancing continues until a member of the audience decides to honor the dancers with a shout, “Ooo wag, Hoy! Hoy,” ending the dancing.

Bindiyan is another traditional dance. It is a group dance in two lines, separating men from the women, which start from opposite directions towards each other.  Once they meet, the women dance in an inner-circle in one direction while the men dance in an outer circle on the opposite direction.

The leader yelling, “Bi-nukawan,” means that the dancers would stretch out their arms sideward and do the motion of a flying hawk, flipping their hands away. When the leader shouts, “Kinitangan,” all the dancers will put their hands on their hips, still dancing the circular motion. Finally, when the leader proclaims, “Kinedjangan,” the dancers will make the motion of striking a spear.  If the leader feels that they had performed all the movements, the two groups will exit in opposite directions.

The elders and other respected members of the community are expected to join in the dancing. As a spectator, to be invited to dance with the group is a great honor.

Only one of its kind

Just like in the present big religious rites such as matrimonies, christenings or baptisms, ordinations and patronal fiestas, after the Eucharistic celebration the feasting comes after, which is mostly extravagant. Cañao practices the same pattern. They call it Watwat. This is their way of partying, of sharing the food after the ritual is done. The butchered animal, traditionally a pig, is cooked in a big cauldron with nothing else but water and a small amount of salt. Sliced as big as a quarter of a kilo, it is shared directly by hand to all from a big basin. The meat is best eaten with rock salt while the soup is served directly from a big bath. All feasted on by hand, no utensils!

But before anybody else can have their meal, the native priests are given first with the best part of the meat, including the liver. There are also cauldrons of rice and other menu aside from the traditional meat. Not only do they feast on food but also Tapuy (rice wine) floods the celebration, which is the traditional drink of the feast.

It is a mortal sin however to leave leftovers on the plate.  It has been a tradition that if one cannot consume everything that it has to be brought home. It is believed that when a family receives a blessing they have to share it to others and those who were given must take and receive the grace.

Kankanaey Tribe

A Catholic lay minister presides the prayer in transferring the remains of a dead relative from another graveyard.

In Cañao, as the number of butchered pigs increase to five or more, it requires that a carabao should also be offered. It is not therefore a surprise if a Cañao can feed the whole barangay. The way they butcher the pig is much different from the usual where they first burn the animal’s hair before they have it sliced.

One traditional mark of Filipinos in this celebration is the bayanihan where neighbors would share vegetables, rice and other root crops for the Cañao. Anyone is invited during this celebration, friends from another town or another tribe, even passersby and unexpected strangers.

More than the Ritual

Cañao is more than a ritual of healing, appeasing spirits and thanksgiving for abundant harvest and good health. It goes beyond the spiritual activity purposely for good life. It is also a political gathering especially when the good understanding between tribes and among the tribes is invoked. It touches, too, the economic aspect as they ask for a productive livelihood.

It is also socialization and celebration of life. They commune, party and share each other’s presence where entertainment, cultural shows and festivities are highlighted. The celebration is of course incomplete without the gongs and dances — a showcase of ingenuity, music, the arts and the richness of culture.

Foremost, Cañao is safeguarding the ancient Filipino way of life for the next generation. As houses are made of concrete materials nowadays and in no way can be physically transferred that resembles the spirit of bayanihan, the Kankanaey has transcended from being vanquished by modernism. Today even if most of the Kankanaey are Christianized, adapting the modern way of living, it is good that they still able to preserve what their forefathers have handed to them from generation to generation. Whether it is a Catholic or any other denomination’s activity, there is the enculturation of their customs and traditions. It is shown in the dances they make in the masses, a victory in a contest, or the Watwat they have every time there is a big celebration, not necessarily a Cañao.

A local historian in Barangay Suyoc, Mankayan, Pacita Betuagan-Aoisan, has said that as much as possible they still practice what are worth maintaining and applicable in our time to preserve their culture.




Pacita Betuagan-Aoisan, Retired History Teacher, Brgy. Suyoc, Mankayan, Benguet

Antonio Pasadeo, Brgy. Capt. Suyoc, Mankayan, Benguet

Florendo F. Fajilan, Executive Assistant to the Resident Manager, Lepanto Consolidated Mining Co., Mankayan, Benguet


The Cordillera Region Website

The official website of Benguet Provincial Capitol


Arthur L. Allad-iw, “Kiniing: the Benguet Kankanaey Ham”, Nordis Weekly, March 13, 2005.

Laarni Ilagan, “Benguet to forego traditional ‘cañao’ due to govt austerity measures”, Manila Times, September 22, 2004

Florante Solmerin, “Panagyaman fest unfolds Tuesday”, Manila Times, May 24, 2005

Juana Pelmoka, Ph.D., Pre-Spanish Philippines, 1996 Phil Graphic Arts Inc. Caloocan City

Accessed 3 June 2013

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