FIRST PERSON: In Honor of Datu Makapukaw, Bukidnon’s “Bantay hu Buntod, hu Batasan daw hu Banuwa” (guardian of the forests, Talaandig culture and society)

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By Mary Ann Manahan

GHENT, Belgium ( November 2023) “Ang Kalambuan maisip nga tawhanon nga pag-uswag.  Ang kalambuan alang sa tribu mao ang padayun pagtuman sa balaod sa kinaiyahan (law of nature).  Ang pag-uswag ngadtu sa pagkamahadlokon sa Labaw Makagagahom.  Mao kini ang gikahiusahan sa katigulangan ug mga tumanod”. (Development is human progress, a Western term. But the tribe's 'development' has to do with implementing our own culture (and good values). It is progress for the Supreme Being. It is about an agreement with the elders and the spirits.)

That was emphatically mentioned by Datu Makapukaw during our last conversation on February 17, 2023 in Brgy. Songco, Lantapan. We were talking about the foreign concept of ‘development’ and how the Talaandig’s vision of a ‘good life’ had to do with what he calls as “total harmonization between humans, Nature, and spirits”. He was referring to the spirits, the kadiwatahan that inhabit their sacred mountain, Mt. Kitanglad.

Little did I know that it would be my last conversation with Datu Makapukaw. On November 11, he passed away due to lung failure. Datu Makapukaw, which translates to the one who awakens conscience and imparts wisdom, was one of the well-beloved and well-known datus in Bukidnon. As the eldest son of the late Datu Kinulintang Saway and Bae Pilar Linsahay, Datu Makapukaw Adolino Saway, was born inside the forest of Maagnaw in 1949. His birth is as enchanted as the messages and stories he often share in various gatherings.

From our last kwentuhan, he told me the origins of Mt. Kitanglad, that before there used to be abundant tanglad or lemongrass that grew in the mountains. That Mt. Kitanglad is sacred because it does not only encompass their yutang kabilin (ancestral domains), but equally important, it is the home of various diwatas, the mountains’ guardian spirits. His narrative around the sacredness of the mountain is deeply connected to his understanding of self-determination of the Talaandig tribe and how they derive their identity, knowledge, and practices to the lands and forests. Sacredness is about achieving balance and embodied relations with the forests and the more-than-human.

Datu Makapukaw also often spoke about the centrality of Kilalaha ha Batasan (mutual recognition), of following the cultural protocols or batasan of their indigenous community, and doing actions that will not anger the spirits and plunder the mountains. His life’s work revolved around advocating for indigenous peoples’ knowledge, culture and belief system— how intimately woven and central these are in the protection of Mt. Kitanglad. He was a local historian who can give a full lecture on the history of the Spanish colonization and forced slavery of the indigenous peoples. For someone who never graduated from high school, Datu Makapukaw’s knowledge about his people’s history stemmed from decades of self-study, community dialogues, intense debates and collective reflection.   

This is, perhaps, why I saw him as a man of navigation. He navigated the halls of power, critically engaging with the state, while asserting their right to self-determination. In his many roles, as a former barangay captain, elected president of the municipal association of barangay councils, and hereditary chieftain of his tribe, Datu Makapukaw’s leadership was about fostering dialogue, harmony, and finding common grounds. Such navigation entailed building horizontal alliance, linking multiple datus from different indigenous communities as in the case of the Mt. Kitanglad Council of Elders, a grassroots collegial body of different datus and baes advocating for indigenous cultural conservation and forest protection.

Datu Makapukaw’s critical engagement and collaboration with state institutions bring with it a set of contradictions that one has to grapple with: his aspiration to make the government understand the life and culture of indigenous peoples, especially their role in forest protection and biodiversity conservation meant that they had to accept and support the protected area management program of the government, for fear that they may lose their rights and connections to the Kitanglad mountain ranges: “Ang maong bukid sa nahimo na nga usa ka national park, nagkaproblima ug nabalaka kami na basin mawad-an na kami og katungod niini.  Lakip na unya mawala ang among kaalam, patakaran sa kultura, pagtulun-an, ug tinu-ohan.

(When the mountain has become a national park, at the beginning we worried that we will lose our rights there. We will lose our wisdom, the rules, beliefs that we follow, practice and teach.)

When I met Datu Makapukaw two years ago at the 59th Protected Area Management Board-Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park en banc meeting, he took a stance that indigenous peoples must be at the front and center of the protected area governance. That accepting the idea of a national park should not exclude and displace indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands. Co-existence, is perhaps, Datu Makapukaw’s subtler message.

I have only known him for a short period of time, but I knew that in his passing, Bukidnon’s indigenous communities lost a great man.

As a cultural expert and wisdom keeper, I will fondly remember Datu Makapukaw’s wit, humor and never-ending stories and love for his tribe. Perhaps, one can never measure the full extent, depth and vitality of one’s legacy and footprints on this earth. After all, death for the Talaandig is not the end. The departed joins their ancestors in the spiritual world, in their sacred forests, praying for, guiding, and watching the people and the world they left behind.

Datu Makapukaw’s hope for his tribe still reverberates in my head: “Ang amo lang sa tribu- nga makabaton sa kinabuhing’dayun.  Ang among kaliwat nga mokayab sa langit nga buhi, dili mo-agi sa kamatayon. (My aspiration for the tribe— eternal life. The descendants of the tribe [have access] to a heaven full of life.)

Padayon, Datu! Your memory and legacy will live on.

The author is a Filipina feminist, activist, researcher, and teacher. She is currently connected with the Ghent University’s Department of Conflict and Development Studies in Belgium.

FIRST PERSON is a sub-section of BUKIDNON VIEWS, the opinion section of the BukidnonNews.Net website dedicated to select statements, speeches, tributes, comments and other views on public matters. If you want to contribute to FIRST PERSON, email your piece, contact details and bio profile to  (BukidnonNews.Net)

IN PHOTO: Datu Makapukaw speaks during an undated meeting. Courtesy of Mary Ann Manahan

The author with Datu Makapukaw in Songco, Lantapan, Bukidnon. Courtesy of Mary Ann Manahan

The author with Datu Makapukaw in Songco, Lantapan, Bukidnon. Courtesy of Mary Ann Manahan

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