The Aeta of Bataan
By Preciosa Caronongan (Edited by Glenn Plastina)
The Aeta (or Ayta) are mountain people with dark skin, kinky hair, snub nose, black eyes, and with small body-frame. They usually stand from 1.35-1.5 meters tall in height. They used to occupy the outlying areas near the coastline and riverbeds, but were forced to go to the mountains with the coming of non-native settlers. The Aetas are found scattered in some parts of the Philippine islands. In 1988, they were numbered around 83,234 (CCPEPA 1994:22).
The Aeta people are most numerous in Luzon, particularly in the Zambales mountain range stretching from Bataan, Zambales, Pampanga, Tarlac and southwestern Pangasinan. They are also found in the provinces of Isabela, Cagayan, Quezon, Camarines, Albay, Sorsogon and Palawan. Some settled in the Visayas, particularly in Panay island. Negros island was named after the numerous Aeta inhabiting the area in the remote past. At present, a scant Aeta population is confined to the extreme northern and southern portions of the island. There are also Aeta in Surigao and Agusan provinces in Mindanao.
The Aeta communities belong to the Negrito ethnic group (Shimizu 1989:6). They are known in different names in various places. In Bataan, for example, they are referred to as "kulot" or curly-haired. In turn, the Aeta natives refer to the lowlanders as "unat," (meaning straight-haired people) or Tagalog. Aetas are divided into 25 ethnolinguistic groups.
There are small Aeta settlements in almost all of the municipalities of Bataan: Dinalupihan, Hermosa, Orani, Samal, Abucay, Balanga, Orion, Limay, Mariveles, Bagac and Morong. They have their own dialect, but they communicate to the lowlanders and outsiders in Tagalog vernacular. More than 40 Aeta families belonging to the Magbikin tribe are gradually vanishing because of social integration and urban modernity. It used to be a taboo for them to marry a non-tribal member, but this tradition was broken in 1977 when a daughter of an old chieftain married a lowlander. This event set the trend for mixed-marriages (Macatuno 2003).
Religious Beliefs and Practices. The Aeta tribes believe in a supreme being who rule over lesser spirits or deities. They worship Apo Namalyari, whom they regard as the creator, believed to inhabit the mountain top of Pinatubo in Zambales (Delica, "Preserving the Mountains"). There is no specific mention of other gods of the Aeta, but one source mentions that the four manifestations of the "great creator" who rules the world, Tigbalog, is the source of life and action; Lueve takes care of production and growth of goods; Amas moves people to pity, love, unity, and peace of heart; while Binangewan is responsible for change, sickness, and death. These spirits inhabit the balete tree (Wee 1994:29).
The Aetas are also animists, believing in environmental spirits - anito, the good, and kamana, the bad spirits. They believe that there are spirits that live in the environment such as in the sky, river, sea, mountain and others.
The Aetas believe that evil spirits are the usual cause of illness as punishment for wrongdoing. The more serious disease are believed to be coming from the supreme anito (spirit), while lesser ones from the lesser anitos. Bad spirits like laman nin lota (spirit of the earth), are believed to possess or enter the human body and cause sickness. The Aeta of Morong still practice a ritual called kagon, a spirit healing performed with dance, song and guitar music to exorcise the dimonyo from the sick person. Wearing a necklace of stringed pieces composed of sticks are believed to ward off such bad spirits.
The anituan, among the Pinatubo Aeta in Zambales, is a séance in which a manganito or a medium cures an illness by communicating with the spirit causing it. The ritual establishes close communication between the mortal and the supernatural world, so that misunderstandings between mortals and spirits may be resolved (Wee 1994:29). The first stage of the manganito séance is to find out what caused the sickness. The second stage is to eliminate the cause from the sick person.
Influence of the Lowland Culture. Shimuzu noted that in the culture of the Aeta, they are allowed to return to other ways of living than the present one. They may have adapted the sedentary way of life, yet they still continue to roam the forests in search of food, especially in times of scarcity. They may have been introduced to lowland viands, but they still relish the old favorites, like camote and other root crops which they gather from the forest.
The traditional forms of healing, use of native costumes, and other indigenous beliefs have been greatly affected by the intrusion of modern medicine, popular culture, and institutional religions. Common among all Aetas in the village, both young and old, is their unshakeable faith in God. They explain occurrences in life and death, sadness and joy, pain and relief, and wealth and poverty to the “will of God” (“kaloob ng Dios”, “tadhana ng Maykapal”). At the same time, old beliefs persist, such as taboos on calling one’s in-law’s name, farting in public, not offending the spirits that dwell in nature, to name only a few (The Park, The Community and The Aetas: A Situationer). For example, the oldest man in the Canawan village of Morong, Mang Aquino Malunik, who is estimated to be about ninety years old, but appeared thirty years younger, was asked what he wanted to eat. He replied, "Kung ano man ang ipagkaloob ng Diyos" ("Whatever God provides.") The response shows adaptation of the lowland religion, particularly the name of Biblical God (Santos, et al: The Philippines:The Aetas Canawan During Wet and Dry Seasons.)
Comparison with the Christian God and Spirituality. Apo Namalyari is the Aeta's god of creation, their counterpart of our God who created the world and all that is in it including man himself. However, they believe that their creator god can only take care of trees that are useful to the Aeta, making their creator god limited in power according to our standard. This was made evident when, during President Marcos' time, then First Lady Imelda had a project which enjoined the Aeta to plant ipil-ipil trees. When the Aeta realized that the trees were useless because they do not bear edible fruits for man nor for birds, they decided to burn the trees down and plant bananas instead. At another instance when DENR undertook reforestation by planting gmelina, ipil-ipil, and auricoliformis, though the community elders prohibited the cutting of these trees, the younger generation believe that Apo Namalyari could not possibly care for the trees that have come from the lowlands.
When Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1990 devastating the forest, the Aeta performed a ritual called talbeng to appease Apo Namalyari, asking him to halt the eruption and bring back the forest to them (Capuno 1996:147). Christians do not perform rituals to make right with God. Instead, we repent for our wrongdoings, ask for forgiveness and obey Him. Besides, our God is not appeased by rituals. We are restored into fellowship with God by the sincerity of our hearts in seeking his forgiveness.
The animist background of the Aeta also attributed a supernatural identity and powers to Mt. Pinatubo itself. Shimizu relates an incident when he and Pan Bangay hiked close to Mt. Pinatubo; that place suddenly darkened under a thick blanket of fog and it started to rain heavily. Pan Bangay was frightened because it was unusual to have such occurrence in the midst of the dry season. He took a straw from Shimizu's buri hat and burned it shouting to Apo Pinatubo as the smoke rose:
Pakida-ep mo Apo Pinatubo, agmo kay kik oranan
Apo Pinatubo, kapapa-ingalo ya kik nabaha
ang! (Grandfather Pinatubo, please smell the
smoke. Don't expose us to the rain, have pity
for we will get wet!)
Pan Bangay later insisted that the rain stopped and the weather cleared because of his offering and prayer (Shimizu 1989:50).
Christians pray to God and not to the creation. We do not believe that mountains and rivers and the environment have spirits. There seems to be some similarity between this and Christian's belief of territorial spirits. However, we do not pray to the territorial spirits, but rebuke them in the name of Jesus.
The Aeta of Limay, Bataan whom I was able to interview, are already third generation settlers. They have adopted the lowland culture and have even embraced the Catholic religion. They refer to Diyos (God) as the All-Knowing and Merciful. They acknowledge the sovereignty of God and that it is He who provides for what we need. They are able to say "kaloob ng Diyos" (will of God), and "ano man ang ipagkaloob ng Diyos" (whatever God provides). They attend Mass in the Catholic chapel built in their community. They participate in fiesta celebrations including "karakol" or street-dancing. Through their interaction with the lowlanders, they have better knowledge of sickness and cure, although for some sickness, which the doctor seem not able to cure, they still consult the manganito to do the healing ritual. Even most of their names no longer bear a trace of their origin being an Aeta. Names of Aeta whom I was able to talk to are Rosita Cruz, Marisa Salonga, Ephra Salonga, Mary Angel dela Rosa. Their manner of dressing have followed that of the lowlanders, mostly because of the regular relief distribution to them. Rosita Cruz, one of three women whom I was able to talk with, even had a rosary around her neck; she believes it would give her protection (as some nominal Catholics also believe).
The Aeta of Bataan who used to roam through the mountains are gradually finding themselves in settlements beside the mountains. The government has been reaching out to them, assigning them into settlement areas, providing schools and health centers near their communities. Community development is towards the mountains so we see lowlanders slowly making their residences up the mountain. There is an increasing blending of the kulot (Aeta) and with the unat (lowlanders). There may come a time when there will no longer be a distinct, pure Aeta, but "descendants" of Aeta.
With the Aeta's willingness to adopt the lowland culture, and with their adoption of the Catholic religion, there will come a time when there will also be a vibrant Christian church in their midst, in their community. In fact Limay Baptist Church has been reaching out to them through teaching children right in their own village. It will take the next generations to grasp the concept of the Christian faith as these generations will be more exposed to the world outside the Aeta culture.