What is Kanyaw?

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The East Coast Grand Kanyaw

The recent discussions about kanyaw in Bibaknets (an Igorot e-group mailing list moderated by Harry. Basingat) have come up with a general description of kanyaw. It is a feast or gathering where there must be, at least, these three components: (1) a generous supply of food that must include pinikpikan (a one-of-a- kind chicken menu that only Igorots can prepare genuinely), (2) a free flow of “spirits”, preferably tapey (rice wine), and (3) Igorot dancing to the music of gongs. All this to last for at least a day. To Bibakneters then, kanyaw is a feast, lasting for at least a day, where plenty of food and drinks is served, with dancing to the music of gongs.

Our anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Dr. Patricia Afable, responding to a question on kanyaw, wrote an article in the December 1998 issue of the Igorot Quarterly (IQ), which reads in part:

“A Brief Linguistic And Historical Note About “Kanyaw

“It is not possible to ascertain how “kanyaw” came to have the general meaning of ‘feast’ but here I would like to venture a few guesses.

The meaning of kanyaw and related words as found in dictionaries and other accounts of northern Philippine languages and cultures tell us something about the history of the term’s usage and also its relationships to other words and cultural features of northern cultures. The 1790 Carro dictionary of Iloko, translated in 1956 by Morice Vanderbergh has: kaniaw. “A general name for heathen practices.” The 1997 Iloko dictionries by Lakonsay and by Gelade both have: kaniaw: “A general name for tribal feasts among mountain peoples.”

In nineteenth century Spanish accounts of communities among the Abra and the Chico headwaters (in the Lepanto-Mankayan-Suyoc area, known then as the District of Lepanto), the term “canao” appeared frequently, to refer to the feasts of the people there (see Perez 1902). Thus in addition to being an Ilokano word, “kanyaw” was part of northern Luzon Spanish vocabulary in the last century. Then as the American government became established throughout northern Luzon early in this century, it became part of northern Philippine English as well.

So, here it is: kanyaw, a term of Ilokano origin, is a feast among the mountain people of northern Luzon. Whatever its origin, as with many English words originating from Latin or Greek, kanyaw has become a convenient term to describe extended modern Igorot feasts. To Igorot ritual purists, however, kanyaw is a foreign word and not genuinely Igorot. These purists would rather use local terms, such as pesshitt in Benguet or Uy-yauy in Ifugao, a prestige feast that may last for days The Aplais use the term begnas, a feast with a specific religious or agricultural significance. But these local ritual terms do not capture the full essence of kanyaw, as practiced in modern times, with added features, such as the modern sports of golf, modern dancing, as the cha cha, line dancing, and macarena, and camping and parlor games, choreographed cultural presentations, non-denominational Christian service, etc.

[The Igorot Quarterly, however, suggests that we settle for a common spelling of the word to: kanyaw, as it is more phonetically Pilipino or Igorot, as compared to other spellings as “caniao”, “caniaw”, “canao”, etc.].

Kanyaw has followed Igorot immigrants to overseas or to places in the Philippines outside their mountain home. Each group in a particular region would try to outdo the other, at least in verbal description of the term. Hence, a Kanyaw, to a Grand Kanyaw, to the Mother of All Kanyaws. There is the Cordillera Grand Kanyaw in Baguio held at Burhnam Park that began sometime in 1995; there is the Bibak Northern California Grand Kanyaw started by Donald Buangan in the ‘90s and held in Five Star Hotels; there is the Bibak of British Columbia Grand Kanyaw also held in five star hotels. And if there is a “Mother of All Kanyaws” among Igorots overseas, it must the East Coast Grand Kanyaw, an annual two-three day celebration at the Cheatham Annex, a U.S. Military camping, picnic, and sports park in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The East Coast Grand Kanyaw

The East Coast Grand Kanyaw is an outdoor festival that has attracted guests from all over the world, Started simply as a family outing by three or four families in 1989, at the invitation of the Edwin Abeya family, it developed to what is now “the mother of all kanyaws,” combining camping, eating, sports, Igorot cultural presentations, dancing to the sound of the gongs, ecumenical service, pinikpikan, a moderate flow of “spirits”, etc - all in the spirit of fellowship and re-union. In recalling the beginnings of the Eastcoast Grand Kanyaw, Jasmine Abeya writes in the September 1999 issue of the Igorot Quarterly:

“The True Legend of the Grand Kanyaw”

I really have no idea how it all began. Legend says that an Igorot by the name of Bakay-an held a grand kanyaw in order to receive much needed rain from the Thunder god. However, anyone who has visited the East Coast during the summer knows that even a cool rain will not help the sweltering humidity. Therefore, if the need for rain wasn’t why it was started, then I’m not sure why it was. The only thing that I'm certain of is that when I was nine years old, it was just a picnic. My family and I had only been in the East Coast for a couple of years, and we still believed that the three families we had befriended were the only Igorots (and perhaps Filipinos) in the Washington D.C. area. So my father gave a call to our friends, and we all camped out near the crab-filled shores of Solomon Island, Maryland. For the 4th of July (1989), I believe it was. The uncles drank beer and sang songs while my ‘cousins’ and I forcefully pushed each other off swings with hands made sticky by watermelon. So passed ten more summers, and yet, here I find myself still stuck with an armload of pictures, not yet in the albums in which they were meant to be kept.

Within those ten summers, the family picnic evolved into a Bibak affair, participated in by the Bibak organizations in East Coast (hence the name, Bibak East Coast Grand Kanyaw). Bibaks East Coast includes Bibak Northeast (New York and adjacent states), Bimak DC (Maryland and D.C. , Baguio Fil-Am of Virginia, and Bibak Southeast (Georgia & surrounding states). Attendance at the latest ECGK was estimated at 600 people from the USA, Canada, Europe, and the Philippines.


Note: This article was printed in the (IGO) Igorot Global Organization magazine, “The Igorot Quarterly,” Vol. X, Number 3, July - September 2011. Since there is no byline, the author that was placed is “The Igorot Quarterly.”   Reliable sources from the IGO say that the article could have been written by the late Rex Botengan, founder of the IGO. Igorot Cordillera BIMAAK Europe (ICBE) would like to thank the IGO---through its current president, Mia Antero Apolinar-Abeya---for granting permission to post the article in the ICBE website. (Y. Belen,25July2014)

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