When the sun sets in Malaybalay, Bukidnon, a beautiful and sacred practice and craft is done inside the homes of Tagoloanen families.

It involves sodsod, which is a type of grass that is typically the length of a human arm. Each grass is harvested, dried under the sun, dyed, and flattened before being used in the nightly Tagoloanen ritual.

The process of weaving “ikam”. Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

With bare hands, the women of the household passionately crisscross the threads until a pattern is created. This is how the Tagoloanen women weave the ikam, or banig, which means sleeping mat. They usually do this in the evening when it’s cooler because sodsod grass tends to turn brittle in warmer conditions. That’s why these craftswomen work sometimes through the night and until dawn.

Weaving is one of the most important roles a woman does in the tribe apart from being a homemaker.

Bloodlines and livelihood

Beyond the primary use of the banig, it is also considered as an art form and a source of livelihood for many indigenous people. In Tagoloanen culture, this also represents identity and values.

The Tagoloanen Women Weavers Association (TWWA), a group established to uplift and safeguard this tradition, currently has around 80 members. This number grows to a hundred or more when school enrollment comes around and homemakers would need more money.

Wilma Contero, one of the tribe elders. Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

One of these women is tribe elder Wilma Contero. Now in her late 50s, she has become one of the respected manglalala or weavers in Bukidnon. While she was unable to finish her studies, she has been practicing the craft since she was 8 or 9 years old.

Contero learned the art of weaving from her mother and grandmother. Her family currently lives in Sitio Lamana, Barangay Kibalabag, Malaybalay while weaver-relatives are just a few barangays away.

According to Lorielinda Bella Rago, one of the founders and organizers of TWWA, the skill of weaving runs in the blood with weavers all being related to each other.

“Isang kaanak silang weavers. So ’yung kanilang kapatid, sister-in-law, mga anak, apo, ’yun.” (They’re all weavers in their clan. So, their sisters, sisters-in-law, daughters, and granddaughters are weavers.) Rago, who is also called Amihan, says. “Isa silang tribe mula sa isang clan. Ganyan.” (This one tribe came from one clan. Like that.)

Descended from one

When they were able to organize the TWWA, Rago says, they were then able to trace everyone’s bloodlines. “Kahit nasa ibang barangay na, nakapag-asawa doon. Galing pala sila dito sa headwater of Tagoloan river, ’yung mga kanununo-nuoan nila,” (Even though some of them migrated to the other barangay and wed, they all came here from the headwater of Tagoloan river, their ancestors,) she shares. “Na-trace na connected sila sa isa’t isa, ilang generations.” (We traced that they’re all connected to each other, several generations.)

This tracks with the Tagoloanen belief that these women artists all trace their skill and gift to the same source. They are all daughters, they say, of the First Weaver.

“Paniniwala na ’yong kanununo-nuoan, sila ang bine-bless ng talagang maging head ng pag-we-weave,” (It is believed that their ancestors blessed the head weaver,) Rago explains, adding that if you’re within the bloodline, you’ll pick up the craft and learn the patterns quicker than outsiders. “’Yung hindi talaga, halimbawa, hindi lumad or whatever, hirap talaga matuto.” (If you’re not a lumad or whatever, you’ll find it difficult to learn the craft.)

Rago also shares that before these women become weavers, they go through a ritual called Paulin where they ask permission from spirits.

The mountain ranges in Bukidnon. Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

“Dahil para manghingi ng guidance from spirits, from Magbabaya, kasi hindi madali maging weaver. Kailangan mayroon kang persistence, stable mentality, kasi ’pag wala ka noon, mabubuang ka,” Rago explains. (This is to ask for guidance from spirits, from Magbabaya, because it’s not easy to become a weaver. You need to have persistence, stable mentality, because if you don’t you’ll go crazy.)

A weaver must also be creative and imaginative, adds Rago, as their craft is unlike any other.

“Hindi siya katulad ng iba na isinusuksok ’yung design. Hindi kasama ’yung pattern sa pag-weave. Kailangan talaga medyo mabilis ’yung isip mo mag-imagine,” (It’s unlike the other ways of weaving where they just insert the design. The pattern is not yet included in weaving. You really need to imagine and use your mind quickly,) she says. “’Yung design ini-imagine nila, ’yung iba pa nga, dine-dream.” (They imagine the designs and others even dream about it.)

A dream, she says, is the highest inspiration as it is their belief that when the design comes from that, it was given by the spirits.

Contero does basic designs and patterns which are inspired by nature like the trees, the sun, and the moon. On the other hand, there are complicated designs that only the master weavers can create, and one of which, Rago explains, is the Binaksan.

“’Yong pattern or design niya, inspired sa skin ng snake. ’Yon ang tinatawag na healing mat. Kasi ’di ba ’yong symbol ng snake ay mula pa sa great grandfathers,” (Its pattern and design is inspired by the skin of the snake. That’s what we call the healing mat. This is because the symbol of the snake originated from the great grandfathers,) Rago says. “Mas mahal ’yon. Intricate, mahirap gawin.” (That is more expensive. It’s intricate and hard to create.)

Adapting to challenges

When the travel restrictions began and other quarantine guidelines were implemented because of the pandemic, this weaving tradition was also affected.

“Simula last year, lalo na noong nagka-lockdown talaga, ECQ, GCQ, walang makakababa na weavers. Andoon lang sila,” (Since last year, especially when the lockdown was implemented like the ECQ and the GCQ, the weavers living in the mountains are unable to descend,) Rago says. “Kami naman dito sa marketing side, hindi kami makapagbenta.” (We, on the marketing side, couldn’t sell anything.)

While they had to close down their showroom then, eventually they were able to migrate online.

“Ang ginawa sa mga weavers, hindi sila makapag-deliver kasi takot nga, bawal rin basta lumabas. Pero paonti-onti kung mayroon silang nagagawa, kasi doon naman sa bundok, pwede naman makagala gala doon,” (The weavers couldn’t deliver their products because going outside was prohibited. In the mountains, however, they continued working because they could roam around,) Rago says.

A Tagoloanen weaver. Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

Others continued to plant and harvest sodsod, which was then passed on to the weavers. “Noong nagstart na May, so onti-onti, kinukuha ko rin yung mga ginawa nila. Nakapagstart na kami ng benta ont-onti nakabangon,” (In May [of 2020], they were able to make a few products and I collected those. We were able to start selling again and we recovered slowly,) she says, adding they were able to reopen their showroom.

It also helped that, before the pandemic, their craft was featured in numerous exhibits and formal trainings. This gave them a boost as the connections they made and the network they built then helped and pushed their pieces out to the public again.

When there were no training sessions held by sponsors for more women to learn weaving in the past few months, TWWA continuously pushed them to upskill and practice the craft at home. “Required rin namin sa mga nanay na ma-pass on sa younger generation ’yung aming weaving skills,” (We required the mothers to pass their weaving skills to the younger generation,) Rago says. “Meron rin hindi formal training doon sa bahay nila, tuloy-tuloy ang pagturo.” (There are non-formal trainings at their homes. They are teaching continuously.)

Moving forward together

Rago says that weavers like Contero are the stars here.

The Tagoloanen Women Weavers Association.

“Siyempre importante sila dahil sila talaga ‘yung bida. Dahil pinopromote namin ‘yung weaving traditions na nawawala. Vanishing siya. Sila ‘yung keeper ng weaving. Sila ‘yung keeper ng knowledge ng tribe,” (Of course, they are important because they are the stars. We promote the weaving traditions that are slowly forgotten. It’s vanishing. The weavers are the keepers of the weaving tradition. They are the keeper of the tribe’s knowledge,) she says. “’Yung ginagawa nila ay isang heritage na dapat nating ipagmamalaki dahil hindi lang ‘yan basta. Kayamanan na rin ‘yan ng isang tribe. Kumbaga, pamanang-lahi na sila lang nakakaalam.” (What they are doing is a heritage that we should be proud of. They are also treasures of the tribe. In other words, it’s a legacy that only the weavers know.)

For women like Rago and Contero, each banig sold means another happy and full Tagoloanen family. It means warm meals at home, more lumad kids going to school, and most importantly, a thriving tradition. Truly, when cultural heritage is strengthened, it creates income through tourism and helps the local community grow.

The marvelous mountain ranges in Bukidnon. Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

Along with the hope of more patrons and supporters, Rago desires for a higher regard for culture, as this is an integral part of the tourism growth. “Hindi lang sa tribo. Igagalang na hindi basta-basta [ang weaving]. Dapat ‘yung pagrespeto sa mga lumad, bigyang pansin. Maging malusog lagi at may hanapbuhay lagi. Katulad ng mga lumad, ‘yung indigenous people makasabay sa pag-angat,” ((Not just for the tribe. We hope that they respect weaving. The respect for the lumad should be recognized. We also hope that we are all healthy and there are always jobs for everyone. Like the lumad, (we wish that) all indigenous people can cope and succeed together,) she says. “Lahat umangat, kasabay po natin umangat.” (Everyone should progress together.)

With the Department of Tourism as their anchor, their story continues to be told to the succeeding generations and the tribe’s treasures such as their art of weaving lives and will always be cherished.