While expats may realise that the Philippines is spread across lots of islands, they may not appreciate that around 12% of the population consists of indigenous peoples. There are estimated to be between 14 and 17 million indigenous residents, mainly spread over the northern Luzon region as well as in Mindaneo.There are around 100 highland tribal groups with a variety of ethnic origins, though they tend not to interact with the local population, and there are lots of tribes who live in lowland areas.
Many of these tribes display impressive artistic skills and create carvings of wooden figures as well as weaving, basket making and pottery.
In the North of the Philippines are various Igorot tribes; these include the Kalinga, Bontoc, Ibaloi, Isneg, Ifugao, Kankana-ey and Tinguian peoples.
In Mindano there are the Bukidnon, while in Luzon there are indigenous Kalinga, Isnags, Gaddangs, and Ilongots, while in the southern Philippines there are the Mangyan in Mindoro, the Lumad and the Manobo.
Guide to the indigenous peoples of the Philippines
It would be a very long article indeed if each of these tribes were described in detail but we will focus on a few of the most unusual – and friendliest – that are worth seeking out.
First of these are the Sama-Bajau who enjoy living an unusual seaborne lifestyle on their much-loved small wooden sailing vessels which they call perahu. It’s this lifestyle which also gives rise to the their better known names of ‘sea gypsies’ or ‘sea nomads’.
This lifestyle has led to their distinctive features and colourful traditional fashions – they are different from other indigenous tribes, with dark brown skin and bronze coloured hair.
However, growing numbers are moving away from living on boats and are instead choosing to live in Sama-style piling houses that are built in coastal shallows; these are people who are often referred to as Sama Bihing which is literally ‘shoreline Sama’. The houses are built close together and are linked with planks that form bridges.
There are around 470,000 of them living on the islands of the beautiful Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines with another 175,000 living in Indonesia. Indeed, the development of their trade in sea cucumber or trepang has seen the Sama-Bajau peoples head to more modern developments as their population spread out.
There are also 436,000 sea gypsies living in Sabah in Malaysia who have a strong traditional horse culture and they are renowned for their equestrian skills, with some on the Philippines’ West Coast also displaying great horsemanship.
Expats hoping to meet sea gypsies should appreciate that while they are known as Sama-Bajau there are various groups within this term who use the name of their tribes instead. Sometimes they describe themselves by the place they live in or their place of the origin.
This means there are some Sama-Bajau who will describe themselves as being Sama Mandilaut, or Ocean Sama, or Sama Dilut or Sea Sama. Sea gypsies in Malaysia may identify themselves as being Baja Laut.
In addition to living on their boats, sea gypsies have a strong seafaring tradition and have lived for generations with subsistence fishing and trading and they are proud to see themselves as being non-aggressive.
Generally, the house boats they live in are large enough to accommodate a family of usually five or six people and when travelling the house boats – which sometimes consist of two dug-out canoes tied together with a house placed on top – will form a flotilla consisting of the immediate relatives and they then cooperate for fishing expeditions and trading missions.
It’s usual for these people to sail no more than 25 miles from their traditional ‘home’ mooring, though there are very large gatherings of the clans several times a year to celebrate festivals, weddings and other ceremonies.
In addition to being excellent fishers, the Sama-Bajau are also very good at free diving and can spend long periods under water – they can spend around five hours every day submerged. The Sama-Bajau get by through trading pearls and oyster shells as well as dried fish. The women wear a traditional sun protection of burak, which is a powder made from rice, spices and water weeds.
As mentioned previously, it does seem strange that a tribe of people that is renowned for living on boats and having excellent fishing skills are also expert equestrians, particularly for those who are settled on the West Coast and in Malaysia – indeed, they are unusual in Malaysia because horse riding has never really been a widespread activity.
Expats who want to meet these expert equestrians will need to know that the horsemen wear a traditional costume that is a long sleeved black or white shirt that features gold buttons on its front and lots of silver floral designs decorating it. They also wear black or white trousers with gold lace trimmings.
The riders carry a riding crop or spear and perhaps a dagger, a keris. However, the horses are also impressive, with colourful outfits that feature brass bells.
Speaking of colourful, the Sama-Bajau’s traditional outfits are also eye-catching, particularly for their children – who usually learn to swim before they can walk.
These sea nomads have a proud history that can be traced back more than 1,000 years and they were first recorded by explorers from Europe in 1521 who noted they made their dwellings on the boats and choose not to live on solid ground.
The fishing and roaming grounds for the Sama-Bajau extend beyond the borders of the Philippines and reach up to Indonesia as well as Malaysia and they have even travelled as far as Timor, though in modern times the traditional fishing grounds are restricted, particularly those in Australian waters.
The sea nomads live in humble circumstances but are a hospitable and cheerful people who are friendly to foreigners.
Expats who may want to learn the language of the Sama-Bajau will need to appreciate that the indigenous people speak ten languages – and many can converse in several versions.
As with language, the people also follow several forms of religion depending on where they are located, varying from Sunni Islam to ancestor worship. There is a small number of Protestants and Catholics within the groups too.
Expats who are keen to meet the sea gypsies could head to Wakatobi, which is a complex of three islands off the Sulawesi coast.
For adventurous expats looking to meet other indigenous peoples in the Philippines, they could head to the mountains of Luzon where the Igorot people live and get to enjoy the spectacular rice terrace farming they are famed for.
Within these group is the Bontoc tribe, who have managed to retain their traditional culture despite contact with other groups; they live on the banks of the Chico River where they farm.
The Bontoc wear a distinctive body tattoo, with the men having their chests and arms tattooed, though traditionally only the head-takers of what used to be a headhunting tribe had their chests tattooed. Expats may be lucky enough to enjoy a rhythmic dance to celebrate a good hunt, which is still practised today.
For expats who live in the southern Philippines then there are indigenous people called Lumad, though this is a fairly recent name for a group of 15 tribes that came together to form a coalition with the aim of achieving self-determination.
Also in Luzon are the Kalinga, where the tribes live in the landlocked mountain range with lots of tropical rainforest. While Kalinga is the major language there are many sub-tribes with their own language which sometimes causes friction between them.
The Kalinga are also extensive rice farmers and have built lots of rice terraces along the rivers, though the indigenous peoples are also renowned for being skilled craftspeople and producing excellent examples of pottery, metalwork, baskets and cloth.
However, expats can also visit the oldest indigenous tribe called the Batak in Palawan; they are reputed to have lived in the region for more than 50,000 years but they aren’t easy to reach.
It means crossing to the island and then making a slow journey through rivers and jungles to find a tribe that still lives with strong traditions. They are thought to have been the first humans that managed to cross the land bridge that existed to the Archipelago from mainland Asia.
However, there are just a few hundred of the Batak left as they are facing several threats to their future. Not many tourists or expats make the journey to the tribe’s main village, but there are also many other major ethnic tribes in the Palawan region.
As can be expected, some tribes are more welcoming than others and some are easier to find and more accommodating than others – it is possible to undertake an organised tour to find a tribe that doesn’t incur much travelling.
This may mean heading to the mountains of Luzon to meet with the Aeta indigenous people, for instance, who are thought to be among the original inhabitants of the Philippines. Expats who make the trip will find that the tribes have been resistant to change and their lifestyle remains as it has done for several generations.
However, like many other indigenous peoples of the Philippines, the Aeta are becoming more nomadic as they seek to preserve their way of life in the face of modern day encroachments, particularly from logging companies on their traditional lands on the slopes of Mount Pinatubo.
Nearby are the Negrito peoples who are also considered to be one of the oldest inhabitants of the islands and they live in the mountain area of Negros. Like the Aeta, the Negrito are also resistant to outside influences to maintain their way of life.
There are many areas in the Philippines where indigenous people are living on special reservations and visitors can go and visit them within their natural surroundings and visit museums dedicated to the history of these tribes. They are all worth seeking out.
There are also a growing number of travel companies offering tourists and expats special tours to these areas to meet indigenous peoples in various parts of the Philippines; many will deliver an authentic experience and a chance to enjoy their heritage and architecture.
However, the areas where the indigenous peoples of the Philippines live tend to be rich in mineral resources and the untapped reserves have been estimated to be worth more than US$1 trillion.
The government has passed laws to encourage foreign investment in the country’s mining industry which has encroached on ancestral lands, with forests being destroyed in the process.
Indeed, expats who live in Manila will be aware that there have been protests about the treatment of indigenous peoples and demands for greater legal protection from the government.
There’s a lot to recommend expats venturing to the highlands to seek out the tribes and also to meet with the sea gypsies or nomads, since modern life is having an effect on their way of life which is now under threat, so we may soon lose this vibrant nomadic lifestyle as the Sama-Bajau decide that their future is on the shoreline and not out at sea.