Southern Philippines: Mindanao, Palawan, Sulu

by Zonia Elvas Velasco
(copyright 1997, all rights reserved)

The Philippines’ southern islands of Mindanao, Palawan and Sulu have withstood western colonial attacks the most and therefore have retained the culture that was prevalent before the Spanish (1521-1898) and Americans (1898-1946) arrived in the country. Although waves of Arab missionary work which started in the late 12th to 13th centuries also left the influences of Islam, the culture of this area is still quite distinct, and regarded as older and “purer”, compared to the “hispanized” areas of northern and middle Philippines.

It may also be interesting to note that visits or migrations to these areas from Indonesia, which was heavily Indic at that time, are seen in dance steps which have filtered into some of the Mindanao dances. There are Mindanao dance steps which bear strong similarity to classic Indian dance. For example, there is one dance gesture of putting on the tikka (the red dot on the center of Indian women’s forehead). Here, the dancer puts the middle finger of one hand over the forehead while the other arm is held outstretched, thumb and third fingers held together.

Mindanao is the land of the Sultans. Indeed, the royal class of Sultans and Princesses is not myth nor legend. In fact up to the late 50’s, the Dutch occupying Borneo paid lease for the land to Princess Tarhata of the Sultanate of Sulu. She owned this land until a United Nations referendum granted Borneo/Sabah its rights to become what it is today.

When America came to the Philippines, and moved down south to gain control over its boundaries, these Sultanates withstood their onslaught the longest. They also fought the hardest, earning for them great respect from their opponents. The battle of Bud Bagsak, come down history as the most valiant battle ever fought in the Mindanao against America.

In the guise of civilizing these areas during the American regime, and the centralization of Philippine government, these Sultanates faded one by one. But the stories and legends continue, linking the lands of Sulu, Mindanao, Celebes and Borneo together.

This area is as culturally diverse as other areas of the Philippines. Looking at the map, the eastern side of Mindanao (i.e. Davao) hold more affinity with Celebes (Sulawesi), and the western side (i.e. Lanao, Sulu) to Borneo. Exception is the Yakan tribe of Basilan (Zamboanga), who trace their ancestry to Polynesian islanders.

As one can see, there are endless stories coming from this land….. and those are that which we seek to unfold.*****

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