Why the Indigenous Peoples of Mindanao Are Invoking the Spirits for Protection Against COVID-19

The keepers of the mountains and forests are asking the spirits to protect the country.
IMAGE Courtesy of Easter Canoy

While many rely on science to understand catastrophes such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the indigenous peoples of Mindanao (IP) look to the wisdom of ancient traditions to make sense of things around them. 

“Disasters happened because human beings violated the law of nature,” says Easter Canoy, executive director of the Kitanglad Integrated NGOs, about how IPs understand the world crisis. According to Canoy, the IPs believe that the pandemic stems from man’s abuses on nature and his failure to care for land and water, plants and animals.

“They also failed to maintain a good relationship with nature spirit guides, which are equally tasked by Magbabaya (the Creator) to take care of all creations,” she says. “Humans, nature spirits, and the rest of creation are bound to live in harmony and respect.” In short, the IPs see the sacred balance in disarray and are seeking to remedy it. 

To restore harmony, they employ rituals, which, says Canoy, have been “part of their living traditions, cultural norms, and ways of life as taught by their parents, grandparents, elders, and ancestors... since time immemorial.”

Photo by Courtesy of Easter Canoy.

When they cut a tree to build a house or clear a piece of land for farming, they perform a ritual to the spirits to ask for permission. “Should you ever benefit or profit from natural resource use, you are also bound to do a thanksgiving and prosperity ritual,” she adds. For disasters like COVID-19, there are rites to seek mercy or “make a positive resolution,” too.

The Ritual That Asks for Protection from the Creator

In March, the IPs performed several rituals to seek the protection of the spirits or ask forgiveness from them. 

According to Mindanao News, the Panagpeng ritual, which “invokes protection against deadly diseases,” was conducted on sacred grounds in Cagayan de Oro City last March 22.

Photo by Courtesy of Easter Canoy.

“Through this ritual our baylans and elders ask Magbabaya, through the guardians of the four corners of the world, to stop the spread of this deadly disease, COVID-19,” said Datu Masikal Jude C. Jabiniar, the indigenous peoples representative in the Cugman Barangay Council and the buntola sayuda or liaison officer of his tribe, to the paper.

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One interesting thing to note in the report: When the blood of a chicken splattered on a white cloth, the form of a woman seemed to appear. The datu explained how the baylans interpreted the image as possibly the first victim of the virus. 

The Rite That Seeks Mercy from the Water Spirit

Two other rituals, conducted beside the Kalawaig River in Malaybalay City, also sought the help of the spirits, according to Mindanao News.

The rites were led by Datu Makapukaw, the overall chieftain of the Talaandig Tribe of Songco, Lantapan, and Bukidnon, and Bae Inatlawan, the overall chieftain of the Bukidnon-Daraghuyan Tribe of Dalwangan, Malaybalay City, on March 18. 

Photo by Courtesy of Easter Canoy.

Photo by Courtesy of Easter Canoy.

The Panalawahig Ritual sought forgiveness from Bulalakaw for making the waters unclean and also asked the guardian water spirit to “wash away impurities like the virus.” The Pamugsa Ritual, on the other hand, was done to protect all life forms, particularly those in mountains and forests. 

Canoy, who works closely with the indigenous groups and is among the few who have been allowed to witness the rites up close, further clarifies that the rituals were supported by the provincial government and were done with social distancing in mind, with only a handful of people present at these two rites.

The Indigenous Peoples and COVID-19

In Bukidnon Province, there are seven official IP tribes—Bukidnon, Talaandig, Higaonon, Manobo, Matigsalug, Tigwahanon, and Umayamnom. Based on a 2015 census, Canoy estimates, of the 1.4 million people in the province, more than 500,000 are indigenous peoples. Of these, she is not certain if those who have been infected with COVID-19 belong to the IP community. “But around Kitanglad-Kalatungan community-partners, so far, there are none,” she says.

Photo by Courtesy of Easter Canoy.

When asked if IPs receive medical support from the government in this time of crisis, Canoy reports they only have PhilHealth coverage, which may not be enough. The executive director shares, in particular, the troubles of Datu Makapukaw, who is often in the hospital and finds himself in need of assistance from the local government to settle his bills.

Canoy finds the situation ironic, especially since Makapukaw and Inatlawan are the heads of the Council of Elders of the Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park. They are the primary guards against destructive activities, illegal entry, bio-piracy, wildlife trading, and yet these protectors of the forests and mountains do not have the means to foot their medical bills.

What will happen when the pandemic reaches the community?

For now, Datu Makapukaw and the rest of the indigenous peoples of Northern Mindanao can rely on gods and spirits to keep safe, not just their communities in Bukidnon, but also the entire country. And only time will tell if their ancient rituals will be enough to ward off the pandemic enveloping the world. 

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Clifford Olanday
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