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The Philippines’ seven thousand one hundred seven islands are home to more than five hundred Indigenous People communities. Indigenous Peoples in the world remain one of the poorest, most excluded and disadvantaged sectors of society. They continuously face different issues including discrimination, poverty and human rights abuse.
In response to these challenges, the Philippine government has passed the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997, which affirms Indigenous Peoples’ rights to ancestral domains, self-governance and empowerment, social justice and human rights, and rights to cultural identity. Ten years later, in 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which provides a framework for the survival, dignity, well-being and rights of the world’s Indigenous Peoples, and strengthens their rights to identity, education, health, employment and language, amongst others. More recently, the United Nations adopted Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, which also include the rights and well-being of Indigenous Peoples.
Although legislations and frameworks are in place, issues on the rights of the Indigenous Peoples are yet to be resolved, including their right for inclusion. To explore these issues, I contacted two members of Cartwheel Foundation Inc. (CFI), a leading non-governmental organization working with Indigenous Peoples communities in the Philippines. In this interview, they share their knowledge and perceptions on the current situation of Indigenous Peoples communities as well as their ideas and experience on inclusion in the context of education. Rainey S. Dolatre, is a former volunteer who worked with the indigenous Tagbanua Community of Culion, Palawan. She is now working as the resource development officer of CFI. Bricks Sabella Sintaon is a member of the Talaandig tribe-one of the eight tribes in Bukidnon. He is now working as the education coordinator of CFI.
Rainey and Bricks, thank you for accepting the invitation to share your knowledge and experience with us.
Bricks: You’re very much welcome. I am glad to share my own experiences and knowledge.
Rainey: I am thankful that there is an opportunity to further Cartwheel’s advocacy.
What are the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples’ communities in the Philippines?
Bricks: When I was a child in our community, being an indigenous person was not an issue. We were only interacting within our own community. It is only when I started college and went out of our community that I became aware of the difference. Organizations and individuals who also worked with us raised our awareness of the different issues; although some were “insensitive” in their approach and made us feel bad and that we “needed” all these other things because we didn’t have them, instead of recognizing what we do have.
Personally, I also experienced discrimination when I entered into the system of mainstream education. We were called “ipis” (cockroaches) by other students. I also felt judged because of my unfamiliarity with technology, modes of transportation, etc. I felt that they talked to me in a different tone. In our community, we also experienced being taken advantage of, especially in politics. Indigenous Peoples’ members who were not literate were used for cheating in elections. Health access is also an issue.
Rainey: Issues related to ancestral domains remain to be one of the biggest challenges. These are often interconnected to other issues like mining, displacement and political conflict which affect them negatively. Threats to their land, for example, affects their food security. Political conflicts threaten their communities’ safety because insurgent or military groups often camp near their areas of residence. Sometimes, the natural abundance of their ancestral domains also make them prone to being taken advantage of, or worse, displaced entirely. In addition, access to basic services such as health care and education is a prevailing issue.
What are the prevailing perceptions of Indigenous Peoples’ communities towards education? What are the educational challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples?
Bricks: In our community, education is given importance. There is already an awareness of the bigger picture of society and that education can help us towards progress and work towards continued community growth. There is a view that education is a tool to transfer Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and to gain basic skills such as basic calculations and literacy skills. Education is also a tool to be more empowered with their rights such as voting and to claim their ancestral land.
Until now, physical access remains an issue because of the geographical location of most Indigenous Peoples’ communities. However, appropriateness of education to cater to Indigenous learners remains an issue as well as implementation.
Rainey: I think that most Indigenous Peoples’ communities have a high regard for education. There is a common desire for them to participate actively in community life outside their own. They also see that education can provide them with more access to different opportunities. I think that these are the prevailing perceptions now, partly because of the work of the government and NGOs in raising their awareness about the value of education. I think that they have also developed this view through the experiences of other Indigenous Peoples members who have received quality education.
Other factors may also be barriers to Indigenous learners’ access to education. One of these is related to their livelihood. There are instances wherein education takes a backseat because work is a priority. However, we see that gender perceptions also influence education. Such that, despite having the ability to take leader roles, some women with whom I have had the experience of working seem to be holding back. Other cultural practices related to their mobility and health also affect their education. For example, Indigenous Peoples who are mobile may face difficulties in schooling schedules. Food stability also influences their education.
Could you describe your own experience being an Indigenous learner both in community based and integrated setting?
Bricks: When I was studying within our own community and our teachers were outsiders, our Indigenous identity was not taken up in depth. I learned about other Indigenous Peoples’ communities in our textbooks but was not aware we were also one. Education was Western-based. I also attended a sectarian secondary school and learned about Christianity and participated in community events where our cultural arts were showcased.
In Pamulaan Center for Indigenous Peoples Education, a center within the University of Southeastern Philippines that caters to Indigenous learners, I faced the challenge of being away from my family. However, I also had the opportunity to be with other Indigenous students. I learned to be self-reliant and appreciated the uniqueness of my own tribe. Through different activities such as cultural exchange, we were able to have more unity. Being able to interact with professors and other students became an eye-opener. I realized that this interaction and exchange became a tool to transfer and share knowledge, to bring awareness to Indigenous Peoples, and to celebrate the uniqueness of our heritage. Personally, being in an inclusive setup strengthened my voice and identity as an Indigenous Person. I am proud of belonging to my tribe.
One of the principles followed by Cartwheel is to involve/consult Indigenous Peoples’ communities when creating educational programs for them. Why is this important? Based on your experience how important is it for them to receive culturally appropriate education?
Rainey: I think that education is essentially theirs. Our goal in CFI is for Indigenous Peoples’ communities to be self-reliant. We trust that they know what is best for them, and our purpose is to facilitate these things and not direct or impose our beliefs on them. Consulting with the community ensures the relevance and appropriateness of the program to them. Collaboration is key to its success. Knowledge sharing and compromise is essential as well. It also builds respect and confidence. It is important because at the end of the day, it should be about them. Providing culturally appropriate programs also builds Indigenous Peoples’ identity. They realize that what they already know is useful and they take pride in their own culture and knowledge.
Bricks: Involving communities is important because it is a way to show respect and honor to Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and culture. It helps in the implementation of development programs as everybody is committed. Involving them in developing their own educational program builds on their pride as Indigenous Peoples and deepens their appreciation for their own knowledge and culture. It is a chance to voice out what they want and to empower them as a community. It increases understanding and makes sure that it is relevant to them.
How do you think we can achieve balance between strengthening Indigenous learners’ identity and achieving belongingness in a wider community?
Bricks: It is important that Indigenous learners should be first exposed to the cultural traditions of the community where they belong, wherein their being grounded will be part of the formation of their identity.
It is ideal for their curriculum to be integrated with both Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices (IKSP) and mainstream perspective promoting holistic growth and development of the learner. It is in this way that they become aware of both perspectives as a key to achieving balance in knowing their own community and others as well.
Being in an inclusive setting helped me understand that there is always a mutual sharing of knowledge. As an individual, it helped me reflect on myself and strengthened who I am. I was proud of myself and my tribe, and continue to be so. I was able to appreciate my uniqueness.
UNESCO describes inclusion with regards to addressing the needs of all learners including marginalized and vulnerable groups. Therefore, Indigenous learners should be included in talks of inclusive education. However, inclusive education is usually perceived as “mainstream” education. At the same time, Indigenous Peoples’ communities have a fundamental right to establish their own educational system. What is your opinion with regards to this matter? What do you think inclusion means for Indigenous learners?
Bricks: Inclusion for Indigenous learners is about community togetherness, equal opportunities and having in-depth awareness of their identity. As was mentioned earlier, it is ideal that they first be taught within their own communities, in the effort to deepen appreciation for their own unique culture and traditions as Indigenous Peoples. Only after they may be integrated into mainstream schools. This way, they see their own uniqueness, accept their differences, and are more prepared to take in new perspectives that will eventually strengthen their own identity as part of a larger indigenous cultural community. This may hopefully contribute to the realization of their need to work for their peoples’ continued development – moving forward in ways that are determined by themselves as well.
Rainey: Firstly, I do not agree that inclusive education has to be mainstream education. However, I have seen that integrating culturally-appropriate education in mainstream schools is possible. For example, in Mindoro, public schools integrate the Mangyan alphabet and poetry in their curriculum. I think that one of the first steps is to recognize and celebrate the difference in the classroom. Acknowledging Indigenous Peoples’ identity and background is a must. I think that to be able to integrate and at the same time celebrate their Indigenous identity there needs to be a balance. One example is what is done at the Pamulaan Center for Indigenous Peoples Education. Here, Indigenous learners join other university students in some classes but they also have other classes developed specifically with Indigenous Peoples’ unique realities in mind. I think this shows that you can nurture both aspects. Inclusion means being able to actively participate in community life, to feel engaged without having barriers.
How do you think Indigenous Peoples’ communities, NGOs and government can collaborate to achieve inclusive education for Indigenous learners?
Bricks: Dialogue is important because it is a platform for them to develop their own curriculum. There should be emphasis on approaches on how to tap Indigenous leaders in the community. Indigenous Peoples should be taking the lead because they know their community members best. Yes, developing a culturally relevant curriculum is so important that is why community leaders who are bearers of knowledge must be involved in this process.
Rainey: We also need a more systematic way of identifying Indigenous learners in the Philippines. Mapping out who is where, how many there are. Collaboration is also very important: public-private partnerships, openness to ideas and mutual knowledge-sharing between stakeholders. It is important to respect and acknowledge what the other brings to the table. Humility in accepting that one cannot overcome this challenge alone is also essential. It is a complex issue and it requires a holistic solution.
Despite the existence of national legislation, such as the IPRA, and international frameworks, such as the UNDRIP and Agenda 2030, Indigenous Peoples’ communities in the Philippines are still facing challenging issues especially in relation to accessing culturally relevant quality education. Furthermore, the pursuit of inclusion must address the wide and diverse needs of Indigenous Peoples’ communities. However, it is to be realized that inclusion may seem to be different for Indigenous learners as compared to other sectors such as persons with disabilities. It appears that for inclusion to work, Indigenous learners must first have a strong sense of identity to be able to include themselves in society. Society, in turn, must also be ready to accept the uniqueness of Indigenous learners. Ultimately, the involvement of Indigenous Peoples’ communities in the decision making processes is crucial if inclusion is to benefit them at all.
[Cover photo © ILO in Asia and the Pacific]
Lynette Torres has a Bachelor’s degree in elementary school education and has spent the last 5 years teaching in an inclusive school in the Philippines. She has served as an officer of the University of the Philippines Special Education Council. Currently, Lynette is pursuing her Masters degree in Special and Inclusive Education under the Erasmus Mundus Program. Lynette is interested in policies, models and innovations in SIE in the hope of adapting it for the Filipino learners.