Stories about our Igorot Culture
3rd Igorot Cordillera BIMAAK Europe (ICBE) Consultation
5-8 May 2005
by Alfredo P. Labfayong
When we talk about Igorot identity and culture, we also have to consider the time. My point is that: what I am going to share in this article concerning the Igorot culture might not be the same practiced by the Igorots of today. It has made variations by the passing of time, which is also normally happening to many other cultures, but the main core of respect and reverence to ancestors and to those who had just passed is still there.
The Igorot culture that I like to share is about our practices and beliefs during the "time of Death".
Death is part of the cycle of life. Igorots practice this part of life cycle with a great meaning and importance. Before the advent of Christianity in the Igorotlandia, the Igorots or the people of the Cordilleran region in the Philippines were animist or pagans. Our reverence or the importance of giving honor to our ancestors is a part of our daily activities. We consider our ancestors still to be with us, only that they exist in another world or dimension. Whenever we have some special feasts (e.g., occasions during death, wedding, family gathering, etc.), when we undertake something special (like going somewhere to look for a job or during thanksgiving), we perform some special offer. We call this "Menpalti/ Menkanyaw", an act of butchering and offering animals. During these times we call them in our prayers to join us in spirit. We do this also to ask for help and/or ask for guidance, etc. The prayers are usually performed by an elderly person of the town (called "pangamaen" for a man and "Panginaen" for a woman; however an elderly man has preference to be "the prayer renderer" when we have the choice).
By the way and to reiterate, our practices of revering are not a form of IDOLATRY. We believe in life after death. We believe, that our ancestors are just in another world, but still among us... in the form of spirits.
SOME PRACTICES REGARDING REVERENCE TO OUR ANCESTORS AS I HAVE HAD EXPERIENCED
I'm a mixture of a Bontoc and a Kankanaey Igorot of Bauko and also with some Chinese descent. Regardless of my bloodline I like to speak about the practices of Bauko Igorots.
Until now, the practices surrounding death: like our practices during wakes, our way of offering animals, food and wine still is a living example of our tradition. In order for us to have peace in mind and not to be concerned about any bad omens, we perform the rituals, the way it had been performed and advised by the elders. As much as possible the place of the burial and the wakes are done in our home of origin and we do also the wakings in our private homes and not in a mortuary. The wakes take a minimum of three days/night. Some take longer, depending on the time until all close relatives finally have had gathered. During this time of diaspora, where many of us live and work abroad or away from home, the wakes can take longer. This is to allow time for the most awaited relative to arrive.
WHAT ARE THESE RITUALS AND TRADITIONS?
First of all the tradition of wakes and the importance of the whole family to be gathered again. Among us Igorots, the event of death is a very special occasion which is of value and has to be observed. As much as possible even now in the times of diaspora, all the close relatives have to be gathered and are expected to be around when someone in the family had died. Children, siblings, spouses and parents should not be missing in the list of important relatives to be present on times when someone died.
The animal offerings. There are animals to be offered/butchered as there are tremendous numbers of people expected to be around during the time of vigil and wake. Not only the direct relatives and friends, almost the whole community is welcomed to join the bereaved family during their process of working out their last respect to the dead. People come for the wake and also for the burial and they have to be hosted and be fed as well. This explains, why we butcher numerous animals.
Not only the animal offering, the numbers and the variety of pigs or chicken have to be proper. Especially on the day of the burial. A set in minimum of three pigs has to be butchered. The pigs should be of the native variety or at least dark hair.
I was 14 years of age when my father died in an accident in the Lepanto mines where he had worked. It was clear enough, that my father’s burial place will be in Bauko, because it is our hometown and the place where our small house was built.
The body of my father was laid in the mortuary of the said mining company, in order for his former colleagues and town mates living in Lepanto to have the chance to show their last respect to a brother or comrade, who just had passed away. After two nights of vigil we finally transferred the body to Bauko where we continued waking and vigil for another three days and nights. During those times most of our relatives from the surrounding barrios and also the relatives of my father from Bontoc were present. They were there giving eulogies, comforting us or just relating some simple stories, singing the "Bayyao" or also praying the Christian prayer.
During vigil or in times of death, we were much aware that the spirits of our ancestors are among us. So whenever we talked, we also addressed sometimes our prayers or messages to the unknown.
During this time, I saw many pigs that were butchered. It is very important that, when a pig is butchered, the town’s Elder is summoned to do the prayers and to inspect or read the symbol of the gall bladder and the liver. We call this ritual "IPEDISAN". For us Igorots, the symbol can be interpreted on the positioning of the gall bladder ("pedis") between the liver. A nice and full protruding gall bladder between the liver is a good omen. While the opposite signs or a bad omen is "a gall bladder, that is almost empty and hardly be seen between the liver". When the sign is of bad omen, the Elder advises you to butcher another male animal, what can be a pig or just a rooster. The significance of a male pig or a rooster is that "a male animal brings the bad omen away". This ritual is called "SUMANG" while a female animal is a keeper – just like, a hen when her chicks are in danger, she quickly gathers them under her protection. A sow or a hen is the animals to be butchered when there are signs of good omen, because we want to keep the good things.