Indigeneity, Diaspora, and the Violent Business of Atavism

Adrian De Leon, The University of Southern California

The Anti-Chico Dam Heroes Monument in Kalinga, depicting the portraits of Macli-ing Dulag, Lumbaya Gayudan, and Pedro Dungoc. Against local opposition, the monument was dismantled in 2021, and the Philippine government has been renewing efforts to build a dam. Source: Rappler, 2017.

The condition of diaspora brings about a longing in the wake of a loss, a displacement—a deracination. Atavism, as a journey of self-discovery, of an exile’s rightful return to their roots, revolves around the romantic reconnection to a native identity untouched by modernity. In diasporic communities from the Philippines, atavism takes place through a search for a pre-colonial authenticity, to which indigeneity offers a promise.

Today, both “at home” and abroad, the reconnection to a Philippine indigeneity has become a business. According to anthropologist Oona Paredes, indigeneity in the Philippines is used to signify ethnic minorities regarded as culturally and racially distinct from the mainstream native population, allocated upon Indigenous people who are treated as expendable by the state and capital. Framed as a protectorate and a social problem of the Philippine government, indigeneity is an interface through which policies that preserve “tradition” and “authenticity” are negotiated by Indigenous people themselves, within myriad tourist and other cultural economies to make a living and enact political participation.1

In North America, an entire industry of (non-Indigenous) Filipino entrepreneurs caters to a migrant appetite for Indigenous products. From Igorot clothing to traditional tattooing, and to the rise of babaylan (shamans) and cultural experts in the diaspora, indigeneity is an interface through which Filipino migrants assert their claims to self-discovery. While these practices are strategies for community survival and belonging, indigeneity also serves as a natural resource for the (re)fashioning of diasporic and national identity—in other words, it is an extractive relationship between non-Indigenous Filipinos and Indigenous people in the archipelago known as the Philippines.

Between native peoples in diaspora (though not necessarily Indigenous) and the myriad nation-states (often settler states) they call “home,” how can indigeneity be figured? For non-Indigenous Filipinos in the diaspora, what does a relationship with one’s nativeness and the archipelago’s indigeneities look like beyond commodification? Finally, what does a relationship between diaspora and “home country” look like beyond and against the nation-state, or, in other words, what is a life-affirming relationship for Indigenous people across the Pacific and around the world?

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While indigeneity has been called by myriad names in the history of the archipelagic nation now known as the Philippines, it was not until the 1990s that the government adopted a formal definition of the Indigenous Peoples of the islands. The passage of Republic Act No. 8371, called the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997, shifted groups formerly known as National Minorities into protected status as Indigenous Peoples. According to Paredes, even prior to 1997, indigeneity in the Philippines had been a nebulous demarcation applied to those considered “ethnic minorities” within the (post)colonial state, particularly to those whose relationship with state violence and the encroachment of capitalism depended upon the preservation of a priori claims to a genealogical relationship with land and place.2 Why, then, was a distinction for indigeneity considered necessary, if all Filipinos “native” to the archipelago can nominally claim this kind of genealogical relationship?

We might trace this distinction from the myriad histories of the archipelago’s native populations, colonial statecraft, and (racio-)religious orders. Lowlands or historically “Christianized” (and Muslim) Filipinos are not considered Indigenous, although Christianized natives were dispossessed from their lands and subsistence economies by the Spanish Catholic state. A predominantly lowlands surplus labor force was amassed and mobilized into tobacco plantations and other dominant agriculture industries in the 19th century Philippines. During American rule (1898-1941), Christianized natives, from Ilokano, Tagalog, and Bisaya regions, also received incentives to work on Luzon plantations and on homesteads in Mindanao.3 Thus, lowlands natives became settlers for the expansion of the Philippine colonial nation-state.

In 1901, the colonial government created the Department of the Interior to establish structures of power and counterinsurgency as the Philippine-American War continued across the archipelago. Under the Department was the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes, establishing regions such as the Mountain Province as exceptional spaces to be governed under direct military and police rule. American soldiers joined the Philippine Constabulary (a continuation of Spanish-era police forces, in which lowlands Christianized natives enlisted) to expand statecraft into the Cordilleras of Northern Luzon. In addition to becoming settlers, Christianized lowlands natives also became instrumental to a penal regime that sought to subjugate non-Christianized Indigenous people.

While the 1997 passage of the Indigenous People’s Rights Act was celebrated as a step towards Indigenous-government relations, in practice it introduced a convoluted bureaucratic mechanism through which Indigenous peoples must navigate in order to assert their claims to traditional ancestral lands. This new structure of participatory governance shifted Indigenous-government relations not towards a politics of decolonization, but towards one of recognition. As Glen Sean Coulthard argues, the politics of recognition does not usher in peaceful coexistence, but rather “reproduce[s] the very configurations of colonialist, racist, patriarchal state power that Indigenous peoples’ demands for recognition have historically sought to transcend.”4

In the legal and economic history of the Philippines, there is a clear demarcation, then, through which peoples are recognized as Indigenous. According to this logic, Indigenous people are protectorates of the state, rather than sovereign nations in their own right. The recognition they are afforded under the aegis of Philippine statehood is one that conserves the power of the Philippine state, as the arbiter of “protection” and recognition over indigeneity. Under this protected status, within the bureaucracy of the Philippine state, Indigenous people are coerced into performing a romanticized “authenticity” in order to enact political participation, replicating their subjugation into a racial and cultural other within the archipelago. In this sense, Indigenous leadership in the Philippines is caught in a bind: in order to advocate for their nations’ rights to ancestral lands and political-economic life, they must inhabit the very performances that historically subjugated them in the first place.

In my forthcoming book, Bundok: A Hinterland History of Filipino America, (University of North Carolina Press), I present a blueprint of a history of indigeneity and race in the Philippines, not only along the lines of the law, but along the logic of the plantation. I follow the bifurcated transformation of lowlands and highlands peoples in Northern Luzon into the racialized images of the peasant and the savage, and their contemporary iterations as native and Indigenous, respectively. The concomitant dispossessions of lowlands and highlands peoples—as exploitable labor and as expendable life, respectively—not only reduces them to racialized subjects, but also figures them as labor and cultural commodities.

The extraction of Indigenous cultural resources was also a technology of American colonial rule. For example, the zoologist Dean Conant Worcester, a notorious member of the Philippine Commission, voraciously photographed Igorot men, women, and children, and sold their images to magazines and natural history institutions in the United States. Across the Pacific, Igorot (Northern Luzon) workers performed on World’s Fairs, where former U.S. soldiers-cum-troupe managers made them sell cultural products and eat dogs for an American middle-class audience. Such images were used to advance an image of a “savage” Philippines, in need of the colonial tutelage of the United States empire.

Today, these images and practices constitute the nexus of indigeneity through which Indigenous peoples carve out subsistence under capitalism. Philippine anthropologists Analyn Salvador-Amores and Oona Paredes elucidate how Indigenous cultural practices, from tattooing to fabrics and performance, have become somewhat viable industries for Indigenous practitioners. 5 For example, the famed Kalinga mambabatok (tattoo artist) Whang Od receives customers among Filipino and non-Filipino tourists, who seek her out for her craft. In her own words, opening the tattooing practice to non-Kalinga foreigners was necessary for the economic survival of her family and community. For foreigners, her tattoos are a novelty, or—for diasporic non-Indigenous Filipinos—a pilgrimage to reconnect with their pre-colonial past. Diasporic entrepreneurs also pander to their desires in this economy of longing. While there are many viable businesses that connect Indigenous artisans to consumers, in recent years, such entrepreneurs have been revealed either to be selling pieces that were not actually produced by Indigenous people at all, or are themselves pretending to be Indigenous in an attempt to assert the authority to sell products.

That Philippine cultures are considered to be up for grabs for diasporic self-forging indicates something insidious about the Philippines itself in the diasporic imagination. The Philippines, as an imagined community and origin point, is the homeland. An early and significant iteration of a diasporic homeland was the patria (fatherland) of the ilustrados (mestizo elites who studied in Europe), the most famous of whom is the writer and national martyr, José Rizal. However, the contemporary diasporic (particularly North American) form of the imagined homeland starkly differs from the revolutionary patria advanced by Rizal and other bourgeois revolutionaries who paved the way for the Philippine (post)colonial state.

During the American colonial period, a homeland imaginary emerged out of colonial population management. In They Were All Filipinos: The Violent Making of a Diasporic Nation (under contract with the University of Washington Press), I am elaborating on the diasporic nationalisms that emerged under American colonial rule, and how non-elite and non-metropolitan Filipinos imagined themselves as citizens of a nation yet-to-come. During the 1930s, in response to a white nativist demand for Filipino repatriation from the United States, an influential group of ethnic leaders in California proposed that they cooperate with Philippine officials to send the least desirable of them—vagrant and unemployed migrant workers—to help the Philippine state expand into Mindanao. In this way, diasporic Filipinos imagined their homeland through the lens of settler state expansion and through active participation in the dispossession of Indigenous people to forge the imagined nation to which they laid claim.

By contrast to both the Rizal and the 1930s versions, the contemporary form of a homeland imagination was manufactured during the regime of Ferdinand Marcos as a tourist imaginary for balikbayans: overseas Filipinos who have settled abroad, and who are often from professional and middle-class backgrounds. Literary scholar Josen Masangkay Diaz shows how the balikbayan figure emerged at the nexus of Ferdinand Marcos’s neoliberal authoritarianism and the post-1965 legacies of the Hart-Celler Act in U.S. immigration that opened the doors to larger numbers of migrants. Effectively, Marcos harnessed the diasporic longing of post-1965 Filipino Americans for their homeland into a veritable tourist economy that produced a new configuration of the homeland itself through its very marketability. In 1973, under a campaign called Operation Homecoming, Marcos called this program, and overseas Filipinos who benefited from it, balikbayan: literally, “return migrants to the (Philippine) homeland.”6

In the 1970s and 1980s, as balikbayans toured the Cordilleras to reconnect with a precolonial past, Butbut Kalinga people fought for their lives against Marcos’s proposed Chico River Dam Project. As tourists enjoyed the wares of Baguio performances and Manila kitsch, Marcos ordered the assassination of activist Macli-ing Dulag. Into the 1990s and the 21st century, as Filipino college groups continue to perform Indigenous dances, and as diasporic entrepreneurs refashion (and decontextualize) Igorot weaving into streetwear, the people of Abra fight against Canadian mining imperialism, and the Lumad of Mindanao struggle against the encroachment of plantations that produce many of the ethnic foodstuffs that Filipino Americans enjoy. Thus, in fetishizing the “precolonial,” diasporic atavism relegates Indigenous culture to the realm of anachronism, a floating atemporal signifier beholden to the market of migrant longing packaged in a commodity form.

As a mode of extracting Indigenous cultural resources, diasporic atavism positions indigeneity within the same logics of the imperialisms that these “reconnections” seek to escape. When understood as an extractive claim to the pre-colonial cultures of the imagined homeland, diasporic atavism is nothing short of a consumerist and temporal form of settler colonialism, enacted by non-Indigenous Filipino settlers—historically in the Philippines as settler nationalist subjects, and within the neoliberal multiculturalisms of the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and other white settler states. Historian Maile Arvin defines settler colonialism as a logic not just of elimination (as the now-classic definition by Patrick Wolfe states), but rather, as a logic of dispossession and violent settler possession. And the very thing up for possession is the Philippines itself, its sovereign Indigenous nations reduced to signifiers in the service of an authentic Filipino subject.

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What is to be done? The relationship between non-Indigenous native (and diasporic) Filipinos and Indigenous people cannot be sutured, let alone set along a path towards repair, so long as the nation-state and its differentiated forms of population management mediate this relationship. As the mediating logic between diasporic Filipinos and Indigenous people, as well as both groups’ claims to ancestral land and decolonial life, the nation-state usurps the possible solidarities in the relationship to propagate the occupation of capitalism and colonial power across the archipelago.

Indigenous anarchy, which begins with an ethic and politics of decolonization, offers a framework for such a repair. In his investigation into the failures of settler “reconciliation,” political scientist Jeff Corntassel turns away from the state’s brokerage of repair and relation, and towards an Indigenous resurgence that “remember[s] and reimagin[es] life beyond the state based on honoring relational responsibilities.”7 Likewise, the anthropologist J. Kēhaulani Kauanui argues that this repair must refuse the temporality of the settler state, against the supposed precoloniality of Indigenous people, and taking Indigenous resurgence as the framework for establishing life-giving futures beyond empire.8

As authoritarianism grips the archipelago’s political landscape, and as capitalism lays waste to the islands’ abundance, diasporic and non-Indigenous relationships with the place now known as the Philippines must anchor themselves within an Indigenous anarchism, one that, in the words of Butbut Kalinga activist Macli-ing Dulag, rejects the

arrogance to say that you own the land when you are owned by it. How can you own that which outlives you?

  1. Oona Paredes, “Preserving ‘tradition’: The business of indigeneity in the modern Philippine context,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 50.1 (2019).
  2. Paredes (2019).
  3. Oliver Charbonneau, “‘A New West in Mindanao’: Settler Fantasies on the U.S. Imperial Fringe,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 18 (2019), 304-343.
  4. Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 3.
  5. Analyn Salvador-Amores, “Re-examining Igorot representation: issues of commodification and cultural appropriation,” South East Asia Research 28.4 (2020), 380-396; Paredes (2019).
  6. Josen Masangkay Diaz, “Balikbayan Configurations and a U.S.-Philippine Politics of Modernization,” Journal of Asian American Studies 21.1 (2018), 1-29.
  7. Jeff Corntassel, “Life Beyond the State: Regenerating Indigenous International Relations and Everyday Challenges to Settler Colonialism,” Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies 2021.1 (2021): 75.
  8. J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, “The Politics of Indigeneity, Anarchist Praxis, and Decolonization,” Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies 2021.1 (2021), 9-42.