Indigenousness in the Philippine highlands: Colonial construct or the real deal?

Katja Kvaale anthropologist (mag.scient.), Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen.

A little over a year ago, on September 13, 2007, the United Nations’ General Assembly finally passed the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples after having debated the wording of the declaration in the minutest of details for more than two decades of drafting. Tellingly, the only votes against the final adoption were four settler states where descendants of European immigrants constitute the majority: USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Thus, most nation-states seem to agree that special collective rights to ancestral lands and self-determination as distinct peoples vis-à-vis a non-indigenous mainstream population is the best solution for the protection of the indigenous minorities within such (often relatively new) nation-states. In fact, this declaration reveals the paradoxical self-contradiction inscribed into the coexistence of UN bodies that are in principle incompatible. Here, regarded as political principles, the pragmatic indigenous rights politics and affirmative action-type rights collide with the very Enlightenment ideals of individual trans-cultural rights upon which the United Nations is founded: While the Enlightenment principles are praised in principle, they have to yield in practice in order to circumvent the countless atrocities committed against indigenous minorities in the name of ‘the common good’.

The fundamental Enlightenment principles of notoriously trans-cultural individual freedom and equality, then, are dispensed from for the correction of historical/colonial wrongs and in order to comply with one of the main goals of the United Nations from the beginning of its existence in 1948, namely a proper decolonization of all people on Earth (at the time, not least in Asia, many nation-states were about to experience independence or had just gained it; e.g. the Philippines in 1946). However, the future status of special collective rights – after the (albeit still hypothetical) correction of colonial wrongs has been obtained – is somewhat blurred. This is the inherent problem in all affirmative action politics: The strategic essentialism applied temporarily for the alleviation of historical wrongdoings is at the risk of being cemented in the process and turn into ‘real essence’, i.e. ontologically intransgressable ‘units’ of peoplehood/ethnicity, gender, religiousness etc. This worry on the level of principles is weighed against the fact that pragmatically, by the adoption of the declaration on September 13, 2007, indigenous peoples worldwide now have a legal and political tool at their disposal that can be used against the often severe oppression and discrimination that they experience within their own nation-states; an oppression that includes top-down expropriation of ancestral homelands due to large-scale mining, logging or damming, extrajudicial arrests and killings, and continuous harsh discrimination on the basis of linguistic, religious and cultural differences.

Anthropologists, too, are divided into the principally worried scholars and the pragmatically oriented advocates so to speak. Furthermore, the question of how to actually define ethnic minorities gets anthropology on the sore point. The irony of the matter is that the growth of the empirical phenomenon of indigenous peoples is inversely proportional to anthropologists’ attempts to conceptualize it. This has several reasons. First of all, the ethnic minorities seem to define and represent themselves within the conceptualizations of old school anthropology, leaning heavily on the essentialistic and unit-like qualities of the classic culture concept. Meanwhile, postmodernism has swept through the academic halls of anthropology, and small scale communities are now conceptualized as ever-changing and continuous responses to globality and as consisting of flexible and entrepreneurial individuals constantly networking beyond the ancestral village.

Obviously, this leaves little room for the quest of understanding indigenous culture, traditionalism, ethnicity and collective compliance with ancestral ways, as put forward by ethnic minorities at the UN. Indeed, in a highly debated article entitled The Return of the Native (2003), British anthropologist Adam Kuper argues that “discredited old arguments may lurk behind new words. “Culture” has become a new euphemism for “race”. He warns against the undisguised essentialism inherent in the ‘indigenous cause’ and calls the defense of it “anachronistic anthropology”. As expected, many critics respond to Kuper’s principal worry on the level of pragmatism by largely legitimizing the use of essence-like culture concepts as long as it is done by socially and politically marginalized ethnic minorities who are fighting for justice and final decolonization. They are, the argument goes, merely complying with the colonial conceptualization and language still prevalent in the legal logic of the UN (i.e. ‘culture’, ‘tradition’ vs. ‘modernity’ etc.) for the benefit of de-colonization.

Thus, the crucial question of just how to conceptualize a community characterized by a certain degree of traditionality amid a wholly (post)modern world is left unanswered. In my opinion, this constitutes a huge challenge to anthropology. Social reductionism and notions of individual entreprenureship and strategic ‘inventions of tradition’ (Hobsbawm and Rangers 1983) – that have been all the rage since the postmodern turn – do not do the trick. We need a subtle conceptualization based on sensitive fieldwork that can embrace the manifold contradictions of local-global and traditional-modern and result in entirely new anthropology: How do people themselves grapple with these (conceptual) contradictions in their lives far from the UN? Are they really contradictions? How are they brought to terms within each – pardon the word – indigenous matrix across the globe? Are there any structural similarities if we compare? In short, what can be said in a systematic way about the subtle reality underlying the political concept of indigenousness?

Admittedly, this is not easy anthropology; not least in Asia. In most cases in the Western hemisphere, including the Americas, Arctic and the Pacific, the indigenous versus non-indigenous distinction is fairly transparent, since the present day population often see themselves as descending either from the people – some would call them colonizers – who came sailing from over seas, i.e. from Europe in the 16th century and onwards, or from the original population who already occupied these shores at the time of European arrival. Indeed, the very notion of indigenous peoples in the political sense developed amongst colonized minorities in the abovementioned parts of the world. In most of Africa and Asia, the question of indigenousness is slightly more complicated. Here, the postcolonial governmental power is often on the hands of a mainstream population that does not (mainly) descend from Europeans; they are simply the largest ethnic group or the ethnic group chosen as the political elite by the colonial government prior to independence. Today, most Asian post-independence governments are facing a population that is highly diverse both ethnically, linguistically, culturally and religiously. In other words, the distinction in these nation-states between indigenous versus non-indigenous is not a matter of colonial versus original population but rather a matter of whose ethnicity is least compatible with –  and therefore suffers most from – state governance.

This is the case with the Igorots of Mountain Province, The Philippines, among whom I conducted field work in 2000-01 and 2002. I shall, as a round up of the above discussion, give a
sketchy impression of how the Igorots can be seen as an indigenous people of the Philippines and how the challenge to conceptualize the contradictions of their ‘(post)modern traditionality’ can be met.

First of all, the Igorots are among the topmost skilled and efficient indigenous representatives at the UN indigenous fora; more often than not their great charm, intelligence and ‘no nonsense’-attitude has benefitted the UN negotiations in dire situations. This political elite are (often partially migrated) children of the first generation of highly educated Igorots, who in fact often turned their back on the pagan and less educated part of the village. Other Igorot migrants work overseas, as do many millions of Filipinos, to earn cash money before they (in the case of Igorots mostly) return. In contrast, the descendants of the abovementioned pagan villagers constitute today the ritual and cultural Igorot expertise and thus the cultural reservoir of Igorothood, that is much sought after by homesick migrants and slightly deculturalized ‘professional’ Igorots. Here, I have identified the social basis of a unique exchange of mutually complementary competences, in unison constituting Igorot society: ‘professionalism’ and cash money, provided by the migrants, is exchanged for ‘cultural authenticity’ and ritual legitimization of village belonging, provided by the stayees. In this manner the Igorots themselves are embrazing – empirically, as it were, in their every day social interactions – the contradiction between the local and the global.

Furthermore, I found that via their extensive mock-headhunting rituals the village Igorots ‘import’ and incorporate the blessings of foreign modernity – be it cash, materials or ‘professionalism’ of any kind – and legitimize it within their own cultural matrix as being truly Igorot. American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1999) has coined this process the indigenization of modernity. Among the Igorots, this is done through an ongoing ritual settlement with the headhunting spirits – i.e. the spirits of ancestors decapitated by neighbouring tribes – who just like migrants and professionals are living among strangers outside the village and therefore constitute the spiritual equivalent of ‘agents of the foreign’. The Igorots consider it very important to adjust and legitimize changes with this generalized and abstract class of ancestors. Simultaneously, through the various death rituals addressing the recently dead ‘plain ancestors’, an intensive negotiation is going on to modernize the tradition and cut back on the time and money spent on rituals and ancestral attention in order to comply with ‘modern’ ambitions. This is done continuously through trail and error via ancestral sanctions. Thus, the gradual balancing and compatibility of tradition versus modernity and of local versus global – which, conceptually speaking, is the paradox or contradiction that anthropology has difficulty to grapple with – is socially achieved by the Igorots on an everyday basis and culturally legitimized, sealed and sanctioned via the rituals.

Let me end by a paradox rooted in the still prevalent theories of constructivism and invention of ‘the original’ and ‘the traditional’. The first anthropologists in the Gran Cordillera Mountains (comprising Mountain Province) in the early 20th century launched a ‘wave migration’-theory in order to explain the ‘ethnic differences’ between highland peoples, such as the Igorots, and the lowlanders surrounding them. All Filipinos that are not of Negrito origin – whose descendants today are commonly known as Aeta – are Malay-type peoples that migrated to the archipelago prior to Spanish conquest but much later than the Aeta. According to the wave migration-theory, the Igorots were descendants of one of the earliest waves of Malay immigration – presumably cultivating their peculiarities in the isolated hinterlands ever since – whereas the rather more ‘civilized’ and certainly more governable lowlanders were of newer Malay stock. This theory was completely dismissed in the early 1960s. Instead – under the skilled influence of USA-born Cordillera historian William Henry Scott, who had spent months studying the colonial documents of Archivo de Indias in Seville, Spain – Igorot ethnicity and minority identity vis-à-vis mainstream lowlanders was explained as a result of a specific minority reaction to the Conquistadores. In short, Igorots descend from that portion of the coastal Western Luzon population (by the South China Sea) that could not and would not put up with the harsh oppression and cruel governance of the Conquistadores. Instead, they fled up into the rugged wilderness of the Gran Cordillera and founded their villages there. In fact, the Igorot Genesis, which is a story of highly active, consciously selective and immensely brave migration from the horrors of the lowlands to the uncertainties of the mountains, is told and retold time and again in the myths and ritual wording at all occasions in the village; it is no secret that the Igorots did not ‘emerge’ from the canyons near which they live. Indeed, categorically, as a mountain people, the Igorots seem to be a product of colonization; not of ‘authentic origin’. With his usual sense of full-fledged paradoxes, W.H. Scott – polemically defending the Igorots’ additional status as real Filipinos that had recently been questioned at the time of writing – explained it as a:

[ ] colonial process which had steadily divided the Filipino people into two categories – the submissive and the unsubmissive, the faithful and the faithless, the good and the bad [ ] By the end of the Spanish regime, this divergence had created a real Filipino majority for the first time in history – those Filipinos who had the same king – the Spanish King. And those who did not were just cultural minorities. Thus by the magic of colonial alchemy, those who changed most became today’s Filipinos while those who changed least were actually denied this designation by a former president of the state university. In this way a cultural minority was created where none had existed (Scott 1982:40-41).

The obvious conclusion is: The Philippines – and not ‘the Igorots’ – is the actual colonial construct! In other words, the Igorots remained closer to the original lifeways on the islands than their lowland cousins – i.e. they remained indigenous in the innocent meaning of the term. Thereby, vis-à-vis the majority of the inhabitants who gave up the lifeways of their ancestors, a colonial ‘ethnic’ classification occurred that much later would be used as the argumentative foundation of the Igorot claim of indigenousness in the political sense of the term – and of the rights connected to this status.

Obviously, this is right up the alley of (de)constructionists and followers of the Invention-school: How can the Igorots conceive of and represent themselves as ‘indigenous’ when their existence as a group does not precede Spanish conquest? How can they do it without applying the colonial lingo in the process and thereby disqualify themselves qua polluted with Western categories and categorical inventions of themselves ‘as seen from the outside’? In short, how can they claim authentic peoplehood when ‘Igorotness’ is a colonial product, construct and invention?

Well, the Igorots themselves see no problem in this; they are immensely proud of their history of consciously selective and active ethnicity-later-to-known-as-indigenousness. Nor do I – either professionally, an anthropologist working in the Cordillera, or from gut-feeling – have the slightest doubt that the Igorots exist regardless of all theoretical qualms. In my opinion, (de)constructivism and the Invention-school have not done this field of enquiry any favour; and by this I mean any favour academically (notwithstanding the obvious political disfavours). Simply applying tedious conce
pts of invention and construction on such complex empirical settings of ethnic identity – thereby satisfying oneself academically by announcing lack of authenticity in the field – is nothing short of academic sloppyness failing to grasp and analyze the real deal. Regretfully, however, (de)constructivism and the Invention-school, that had its heyday in the mid 1980s, can now celebrate its Silver Jubilee as the still prevalent theory in this field despite its analytical bluntness. In fact, we can now speak of an academic Tradition of Invention steadily broadcasting the Invention of Tradition-approach and it is high time to move on! Much sharper and empirically sensitive tools that can actually face, grasp and analytically embrace this immensely complex but equally challenging phenomenon are much in demand.

References mentioned above:

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. UN Document A/61/L.67.

Hobsbawm, Eric and Rangers, Terence: The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Kuper, Adam: The Return of the Native. Current Anthropology, Vol. 44, #3, June 2003.

Sahlins, Marshall: What is Anthropological Enlightenment? Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century. Annual Review of Anthropology, 1999.

Scott, William Henry: The Creation of a Cultural Minority [org. written in 1976]. In: Scott, W.H.: Cracks in the Parchment Curtain and other Essays in Philippine History. New Day Publishers, 1982.

Protecting the rural poor against economic consequences of major illness: a challenge for Asian transitional economies. Notes fr

Kristina Jönsson,Ph.D, Researcher,Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University, SwedenDespite substantial economic development and successful poverty reduction in many low- and middle-income countries in Asia, the urban-rural gap continues to widen. Many poor and near poor are becoming increasingly vulnerable to unexpected expenses, not the least illness. Illness has become an important cause of household impoverishment in countries such as China, Cambodia and Lao PDR, largely because of low levels of government health-care funding and the rising cost of medical care. However, the governments in all three countries have announced major initiative to address this problem: China in line with a “harmonious society” and Cambodia and Laos in line with poverty reduction strategies and the fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals.

From 4 to 10 October 2008 I participated in the annual meeting of the research consortium POVILL (poverty & illness)[1] in Vientiane, Lao PDR. The purpose of POVILL is to assist the initiatives by the three governments and to and assess their performance by in-depth studies in Cambodia, Laos and two provinces in Central China. The first five days were devoted to sharing preliminary research findings among the project researchers, while the two last days were committed to a conferences open to policymakers, donor representatives, NGOs, media and other stakeholders. The discussions were intense and many lessons were shared. It was concluded that while many of the problems in three countries are similar, there are also substantial differences that must be taken into account when designing social protection programmes for the poor.

In conjunction with the conference the first larger output of the project was launched, namely the book Health and Social Protection of the Poor: Experiences from Cambodia, China and Lao PDR (can be downloaded at The book addresses the challenge of applying social protection concepts to health, and explores the challenge of managing pro-poor health system development in transitional economies. The authors are scholars and policy actors from Asia, Europe and Australia from disciplines as diverse as public health, health system research, public administration, economics, political science, sociology and anthropology.

When we were not busy with meetings, we could enjoy the festivities of the up-coming boat festival Bun Nam. The event marks the end of the Buddhist rains retreat, and during the festival boat races are held on the Mekong river with teams not only from Lao PDR but also from the neighbouring countries. Although I missed the actual boat races, I could benefit from all the food stalls, temporary discos, carnival games (notably throwing darts at balloons), and beer gardens. Staying at the Lane Xang Hotel next to the Mekong River I did not even need to leave the hotel but could enjoy the festivities form my balcony. This was a very different city from the normally very quiet Vientiane I have come to know over the years.

[1]  POVILL is a four year European funded international partnership of ten organisations in six countries set up to contribute to international knowledge about how to help households to cope with major illness, and to contribute to efforts to reduce severe poverty due to illness and improve access to health services (see

Open Access by Anja Møller Rasmussen, NIAS Library

A very brief introduction to Open Access:


Open Access literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. What makes it possible is the internet and the consent of the author or copyright-holder.


Open Access is entirely compatible with peer review, and all the major OA initiatives for scientific and scholarly literature insist on its importance. Just as authors of journal articles donate their labor, so do most journal editors and referees participating in peer review.


Open Access literature is not free to produce, even if it is less expensive to produce than conventionally published literature. The question is not whether scholarly literature can be made costless, but whether there are better ways to pay the bills than by charging readers and creating access barriers. Business models for paying the bills depend on how OA is delivered.


There are two primary vehicles for delivering Open Access to research: Open Access journals and Open Access archives and repositories.



Open Access to Nordic Asia Research


I believe that the interest of the Asian Studies in general and the Nordic Asian research community in particular will be best served by the adoption of Open Access principles for scientific and research literature.


Publishing is changing, and the Nordic Asian research community needs to respond to the new trends in the publishing industry. Over the last decade the rapid growth of communication technology and e-publishing has led to resources being increasingly available on the Internet as well as in traditional print form.


Open Access – making research knowledge freely available under license, usually via the Internet – presents opportunities for the use and dissemination of development research for those with least access at present. It also poses risks including possible increased costs for the author, a decline in perceived quality control and potential damage to the sustainability of “traditional” research publishing. However, the potential of Open Access has encouraged funders, authors, publishers and librarians to examine new approaches. While areas of dispute still exist, it seems there is willingness among all the stakeholders to explore the advantages, and discuss tackling the disadvantages, of Open Access in a spirit of collaboration.


The dissemination of scientific knowledge requires unrestricted access to research literature and scientific results that is freely available at the point of use. This open-access has been discussed for many years and various declarations (Budapest 2002, Bethesda 2003, Berlin 2003, EADI 2008) signed by hundreds of Nordic organizations have all recommended free access to scientific literature through self-archiving, creation of new open-access journals and the conversion of subscription journals into open-access peer-reviewed publications. An important ingredient for high quality scientific publishing is the peer-reviewing process which is fully compatible with open-access.


I strongly encourage the usage of electronic publishing methods for Nordic Asian Studies publications and support the principle of Open Access Publishing, which includes granting free access of our publications to all. Furthermore, I encourage all collaboration members to publish in easily accessible journals, following the Open Access Paradigm.



In 2007 NIAS LINC received a grant from Nordbib which has enabled us to develop a Open Access project.


The project’s original aim was to develop a joint approach to Open Access and research communication within the Nordic Asian Studies community. Furthermore we also wanted to illustrate how an Open Access model can be used as a mean of solving the problems information dissemination and exchange of research outputs throughout the Nordic Asian Study environment by building a common platform for harvesting and presentation of research outcome.


The basic idea was to offer an integrated set of services to support Open Access publication and research communication and dissemination within the Nordic Asia Research Community. Key concepts were open access to research outputs, common access to databases and electronic journals and scientific collaboration among Nordic researchers and students.


The goal is two fold:


  1. To initiate discussions and actions that will lead to a joint NNC approach to Open Access thereby creating an Open Access Model for Nordic Asian Studies.
  2. Creation of a knowledge sharing and networking platform for easy publishing and access to information including fee-based and Asian language sources.


At the beginning of the project we sat up a row of visible outcome of which:


Visibility of Nordic Asia research and scientific information through Nordic and European Asian related portals and communication services is the far most important


Others include:

  • Wanting to create a Focal point for the Asian Study community by proving access and insight to both existing and emerging social networking tools.
  • Facilitate Open-Access publishing by pushing information onto public portals and other dissemination services.
  • Bridge building between existing communication and publishing platforms.
  • Direct access to electronic information and tools such as dynamic reference and citation linking.
  • Enable source-wide search, sharing and collaboration through social networking features.
  • Facilitate use of common exchange standards for better system interoperability.
  • Marketing possibilities for NNC member institutions through the open portal AsiaPortal and the free electronic newsletter “NIAS Asia Insights”
  • Unified searching across multiple systems and different formats of material, e.g. bibliographic records, full text, e-journals, and news together with internet links and multimedia objects.
  • Further develop Knowledge Organizing Systems (controlled thesaurus in Asian Studies).



As we see it Open Access has started to prove its positive influence on research impact. Indeed, free electronic availability of scientific articles seems to determine higher citation and usage rates.

But despite debates and recommendations from Research Councils and Rectors, researchers seem to dwell upon the well established practice adhering to Open Access on a principle basis but many still harbour doubts.


Through the first phase we have identified issues and problems that we find important to address further in order to fulfil the goal and aim of the original project. 


A small study undertaken as part of the project has revealed that Nordic Asia scholars would opt for Open Access publication either in journals or archives provided that their established habits were not undermined. This implies that Open Access journals need to get a high impact factor value if they are to be chosen as the place to publish research results. Other factors such as the instant access to information allowed by Open Access publishing models and the speed with which results can be made public are also of great importance for researchers. 


The study further revealed that self-archiving in Open Access repositories is consider
ed a duty and that researchers fear that their research disappears in the huge amount of research from much bigger communities. Nordic Asian Scholars are a small community often only a few researchers and students placed as a very little group in a much bigger community and this fact influences to a great extent the researchers wish to present their research in a, for the end user, understandably context as the instead of in cross disciplinary institutional repository. Visibility and impact are huge drives for Open Access publishing.


Rapid dissemination but also validation and peer-review are also of great important. Although much criticized, peer-review and impact factor are the mostly used methods to certify quality research and is widely used by institutions to allocate internal funds and grants, this policy influences especially the small disciplines who needs a strong visibility and peer-reviewed publications in order to secure enough funding.


The project has shown that the concept of Open Access might seem simple but it is complicated to put into practice. It has become very clear that the Nordic Asia Studies community has its own habits and expectations in publishing practice and that the Open Access initiative has to be harmonized with the existing experiences of the community.


The findings can be summarized as following:


  • The Amount of research stored in institutional repositories is still small.
  • It is necessary to define self-archiving and responsibility for indexing, metadata, and uploading of material.
  • Funding of the repositories is an issue and needs to be discussed.
  • There must be good incentives to publish via Open Access: visibility, academic credits, good workflows and instructions, easily accessible systems and a good knowledge of where your work is visible and in which context.
  • Financial issues and economic sustainability is important; the upcoming of viable and sustainable financing models contribute to a positive attitude and a better understanding of the concept of Open Access.
  • Quality control must be implemented to avoid double registration while systems must allow controlled harvesting for use at portals or in bibliographies.
  • Copyright issues are left to the institutions, but legal aspects affecting the “linking in context” (especially concerning the rights of the author, the university/institute, and the publisher) have to be clarified.
  • Protocols for interoperability need to be adopted by all institutions.
  • An issue is the right to parallel publishing, right to re-use PDFs, and linking to original article if possible.
  • A test-bed is needed for digitalization methods and tools.
  • Long-term preservation is another issue. Most repositories are not fully functioning archives so it needs be considered how best to preserve and archive electronic material in these circumstances.
  • Institutes need to set internal (possibly mandatory) policies to make research papers and data of their own research staff freely (gratis) accessible.


Based on the considerable and important experiences obtained through the project; especially concerning researcher attitude towards self archiving and fear of drowning in the numerous institutional Open Access repositories that have been created during the last year, we have decided not to create a new subject repository or  “Bibliography of Nordic Asian Studies” instead we will give Nordic researchers a possibility to publish or rather re-publish their work in a well known electronic context using the and thereby creating the much wanted visibility to both fellow researchers and other end users. The material will be harvested from institutional and national repositories and archives. However, self publishing will be supported through electronic publication tools in Barha, peer-review by a panel of colleagues and visibility via


The platform Barha has been be created as an extension to NNC’s open AsiaPortal and is build on existing social networking and authentication web tools (WAYF). The system will be able to handle Asian languages.  Barha provides an interactive forum for NNC members with valid authentication to network with NIAS / NNC subject matter experts, employees, partners and students as well as share and gather networking best practices.


This set of services will be developed as a case and model to be used by other small subject disciplines. We are convinced that the responses and attitudes we have received through our study are similar and reflect problems and attitudes in other small disciplines.