Sunday, August 14, 2011

Decolonization and Indigenization as a Path to the Sacred: Reflections

August 5-7, Sonoma State University
Center for Babaylan Studies

How do I re-tell the stories of this weekend? The words have been elusive. They sit on the tip of my tongue, they tug on my sleeve. Pssst, you must say something, the little voice says. Our photos (scroll to the bottom of Events page; there are 3 albums to enjoy) hint at the stories that want to be told. Here I am struggling to render a narrative of our time together at this retreat/symposium.

Day 1: Decolonization: The Power of Naming our Grief
We began this day with ritual honoring our ancestors. Virgil and Lane asked permission from the ancestral spirits to hold our gathering; we invoked their blessings and guidance with offering of anglem, rice, saluyot, betel nut,  and egg. Afterwards each one of us brought our two objects to the altar -- one signifying our connection to our ancestors and another signifying our power object. We brought photos of our grandparents and loved ones, rocks, crystals, and other objects that meant something special to each one of us. A bulol watched over the our objects and flowers decked the altar. The sun shining through the window cast a glow of peace and the palpable spirits of ancestors who were present with us.

We joined our small groups for the first round of talking circles in the morning. BA HA LA NA - the groups shared the same set of questions about our individual process of decolonization: what does it mean to you? when did you first become aware of the need to decolonize? what feelings surfaced through the process? In the afternoon, our small groups talked about the shadow of history: what are the narratives that have shaped us as historical subjects? how did these narratives affect indigenous peoples? how did it affect our homeland? our communities? our families?

Later in the afternoon all the groups came together to bring back their reflections to the big group. The power of naming our grief is palpable. It feels heavy and uncomfortable. This baggage needs to be unloaded. Forgiven. Let go. We had to honor this grief that is now communally shared and acknowledged. For a while it sat on the pit of our stomachs and filled us with sorrow. Tears welled up in our eyes. We held each other in silence. As we closed this day, I passed around sachets of lavender harvested from my garden -- the sweet earth comforting us, reminding us of the good work we did for the day.

In the evening we had Dreamtime session. In this circle of light, we shared dreams about our ancestors, the lessons from those dreams, the guidance from those dreams. It felt good to hear one another. Laughter has returned. There was lightness of being all around. We were fireflies in the dark night, each one with a burning flame.

Day 2: The Wisdom of our Ancestors
The Chairman of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts in the Philippines, Professor Felipe de Leon, Jr., was our key resource person this weekend. On this second morning, after a past-faced lecture on Filipino indigenous values, indigenous arts, indigenous languages, we felt full and deeply contented. This is how beautiful we are! We are Kapwa! Ka-Sinag! We are the rays of the sun, each drawing from the Core, each interconnected with one another. Prof. de Leon said that his lectures that morning were the content of a semester long class at UP -- how lucky can we get? We enjoyed his humor and his levity. But most of all, he enlarged our knowledge container of our unique cultural assets.

In the afternoon, we continued with workshops. I had told Prof. de Leon that the reason I included a workshop on indigenous rhythms and music is to awaken the fragments of memories in our cultural DNA. Surely, I told him, we can dance again and remember that the connections our ancestors had to music and rhythm also connected them to the Land which sustains them. Titania assembled her kulintangs and agungs, and we cajoled Lizae into a malong dance and we prevailed on Roque to do a warrior healing dance, the sagayan. Prof. de Leon taught us how to tap into our indigenous rhythms (ack! it's not that easy!) with our bamboo instruments from the Cordilleras. We learned to sing a version of Salidummay and a Manobo chant to the rice spirit (Ay Iding!)

Professor de Leon also expressed appreciation for the retreat's theme especially our session on Naming our Grief. At one point he said that this work should be done in the Philippines as well or at least it could be more embedded in our cultural and educational institutions.

In the evening, we played Tao, Bagyo, Bangko - similar to musical chairs. Our bodies needed to move and play; we needed to shriek, shout, laugh, run! It was refreshing! And we broke out into our small groups again with the intention of integrating our reflections from Day 1 and 2 and coming up with a five minute creative expression presentation. What a treat to see each group's talent shine and meld together to choreograph a dance, to interpret a story through movement and sounds. A bridge. A boat rowing on Pasig inspired by the Mutya of the river carrying our gifts to our communities. The breath of life animating our spirit.

Day 3: Our Kapwa, Our Service
When our grief is healed;  when we have emptied ourselves of colonial projections; when we internalize the Beauty of our indigenous cultures and the world view that sustains it -- we are ready to serve our Kapwa. On this day, Perla opened the morning with her spirit-filled prayer that touched our deepest selves. And as she walked us through the many forms of her service to her Kapwa via her artistic contributions: glass fusion art, mandala, the babaylan archetypes - we felt that this body of work is the result of decades of reflection about our Loob and Kapwa.

Our Kapwa panel - Lane, Venus, Mila, Virgil -- also talked about their service. Lane has studied Filipino tattoes and their spiritual symbolism and we are the beneficiaries of the wealth of stories that he shares with us through his book and public talks. Venus chose to talk about her healing journeys -- with her father back to the homeland, a trip to Spain that broke her heart open to forgive the colonizer, and how forgiveness rounds out the circle of Kapwa for her. Mila talked about her work with across generations, of how elders can teach the youth and when given the right context for decolonization, such mutual encounters are deeply transformative. Virgil talked about his healing practice and the growing visibility of this work, via his book, Way of the Ancient Healer, in our communities and beyond. Letty, as facilitator, contributed to the panel by talking about her engagement with non-Filipino communities like the Institute of Matriarchal Studies where she was able to present on the Babaylan.

In the afternoon, we created our community mandala on the sprawling grounds of the university. We retrieved our power objects from the ancestral altar and placed them on the center of the mandala. Lane also placed the bamboo (we have now come to call them bamboo oracles) pendants he hand-carved and burnt on the center. We presented Prof. de Leon with  his own Babaylan mandala poster, and a special bamboo pendant. He cried. And there were more tears as Lane presented each participant with his or her special pendant's symbol and story. We felt that we each received a gift that was only meant for us. Amazing!

And then it was time to say goodbye...

Some of us in the core group went to the ocean the next day to offer the atang/altar offerings to the ocean at Salmon Creek. In the main meeting room, we also had a secondary altar where participants were able to write down their petitions and place them inside a beautiful box; we brought these petitions to the ocean as well. We dug a hole and made a makeshift Sinag altar and burnt the papers, letting the prayers be carried by the wind.
If you have read this far, thank you! Now you know why our faces in our photos are glowing.

Decolonization and Indigenization as a Path to the Sacred.

Yes, it is.


  1. Thank you, Leny. As always, your gift with words painted a clear picture of the weekend on my heart.
    -- Carolina

  2. Thank you for this chronicle of events that we have partaken last last weekend that will probably last a long, long time or until Kapwa 2012 in Baguio, Philippines, where the mother land calls like echoes of a conch shell wailing

  3. Thank you, Tess. I was going to include your story about the vision quest but I decided it'll be better if you told it:-)))

  4. Amazing, Leny. Maganda. Salamat Po.... <3 Athena

  5. This is a nice breakdown of what took place, not only for those who attended, but also for those who missed out on a wonderful and powerful weekend!

  6. Thank you Auntie for these words. And for following your calling.

  7. I'm sorry to have missed it--it sounds beautiful and healing! Thanks for the holy work you do, Sis!