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A History of the Bagobo People of Mindanao in the Philippines

Online materials on Bagobo’s history have been generally scant, sketchy and far from being updated. However, the Bagobo people’s (also known as: Guianga, Guanga, Gulanga, Obo, Tigdapaya, Eto) presence in local communities including those found in a major metropolitan city like Davao in southern Philippines has always been acknowledged solidly. The late anthropologist Fay Cooper Cole narrates in his book “The Wild Tribes of Davao District, Mindanao” that the Bagobo people, like most ethnic groups anywhere in the world, have been influenced by practices on intermarriage, forms of slavery, trade routes pursued, plus pillage and plunder among members of the clan-based groups who live easily within the peripherals, and the safe and far distances of these populated communities. A number of Bagobo communities are migratory depending on their mode of agriculture and have been observed to prefer to live close to the mountains, and the outlying high elevation areas. A number of their communities have settled and subsequently intermarried with others based along the coast of Davao Gulf. All are known to have considered Mt. Apo (the Philippines’ highest mountain, actually a dormant volcano) to be sacred, and as a representative aspect of their total spiritual make-up and psyche.

Interestingly, the Bagobo people and the Muslims (who were largely known as traders, and who earlier resided mostly along coastal areas) remained and kept friendly and trade relations up until the Spaniards came. Bagobo leaders were induced by Spaniards in their efforts to push back Muslim influences in that part of Mindanao. According to Cole’s book, the Bagobo leaders were given a highly prized Chinese plate with blue fish picture on it every time they show evidence of having killed a “Moro” (a highly derisive term used to describe the Muslims then, who were enemies of the colonizing Spaniards). When the Americans came at the early part of 20th century, they observed the brisk trade of these mementos of plates, signifying how the Bagobo leaders have considered them as “prized trophies.”  

Bagobo rulers, as late as the last few years of Spanish occupation in the Philippines, can narrate through traditional tales (as recorded by the Jesuit P. Juan Doyle) their genealogy as far as ten generations back earlier (though we leave it up to readers to ascertain which is myth from tale, and tale from downright fabrication). Recorded history indicates the ruler’s name of “Salingolop,” a powerful looking leader whose height was believed to be as tall as that of a lauan (a Philippine mahogany tree, of the dipterocarp family), with 3 sons (Bato, Sipongos, Calisquisan), and a daughter named Panugutan. The Spaniards having heard about this giant of leader went to Mindanao, setting out to capture Salingolop. They didn’t find him at first (as he was out hunting at the other side of the mountain range), and took as hostage Panugutan. Salingolop, upon coming back, went out to face and fight the Spaniards by himself. Though he fought bravely, he was in the end killed, decapitated, and chopped into parts, and Panugutan was brought to Manila by the Spaniards. She married a Spaniard with whom she had 2 children who eventually went back to the land of the Bagobo people who considered them as their own.

Salingolop’s leadership continued with his son Bato, who then was followed successively by leaders (usually called “datu” – typically warriors themselves, or as the Bagobo term describes: “lagaimóda” or “matanem” ) named as Boas, Basian, Lumbay, Banga, Maliadi, and Taopan. By this last named leader, the Bagobo have become a united and powerful people in Davao, the center of which was identified somewhere in present day Sibulan. Taopan was succeeded by Pangilan, who himself succeeded as another great leader. However, Pangilan’s son, Manib, didn’t prove as great as his father. Troubles arose among districts, and even open warfare took place. It was during this period when Tongkaling came into a leadership position, that was also the time when the Americans came.

The Americans took quick recognition of the local political dynamics; they even went out of their way to study more closely the various tribes they found in the Philippines during their time (from which most of the material here were derived). Within intervening periods during the American occupation, the Bagobo people became acquainted with the Japanese who then were also building their businesses in Davao. A number of intermarriages took place between the Bagobo people and the Japanese. There was even a little Tokyo in Davao city itself by the time World War II took place.

A representative lot of the Bagobo people became part of the ethnographic exhibit showing at least 1,100 ethnic-looking people from many tribes in the Philippines. They were shown before curious crowds during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair in Missouri. Unfortunately, the lasting image showed that of a “savage” people that needed the civilizing help from the US who were then in the midst of occupying the Philippines (that started in 1898).

The Bagobo people were likewise studied extensively by representatives of the Jesuits. Their language was codified in a dictionary by the Jesuit Mateo Gisbert’s “Diccionario Bagobo-Espanol” (published in 1892). This is an indication of how extensive the presence and influence of this ethnic group during that time in that part of Mindanao, such that they would evidently catch the time and attention of the Jesuit evangelizers to come up with a dictionary. Likewise, this showed how slow the rate of occupation was for the Spaniards to continue and complete their colonizing pursuits in the Philippines that they started in 1565 (such that by 1892, the revolutionaries mostly based in the north had become more emboldened again to gain independence from Spain that eventually happened in 1898).

Other sources show that the Bagobo people may have descended from those settlers during the Sri Vijayan and Majapahit empires from India, and centered somewhere in Indonesia from circa 900 CE (common era). As such, the Hindu-religious and cultural influences of this period in history could be seen in many areas. Certain terms in the Bagobo language sound and mean practically similar to particular Indian words. Also, the Bagobo people’s remarkably well-crafted attires worn nowadays during festivities (especially during the annual Kadayawan Festival in Davao city where viewers may have a peek of what’s considered the traditional dances of ethnic groups including the Bagobo) bring into mind designs that may fit in well in the context of certain Indian traditional arts and crafts. As such, they’re known to have the best intricately woven clothing materials that highlight beautiful and rich earth tones.

Immediately after World War II, huge land tracts belonging to their ancestral domain were unfortunately confiscated by legal fiat in favor of the government. The US Congress by then had passed the Enemy Property Act that allowed the United States Air Force in the Far East (USAFFE) to take over lands owned by the enemy (then, the Japanese). They included portions belonging to the Bagobo people’s ancestral domain. To no avail, even with efforts to reach out for influence from the national government, the take over process proceeded. This has subsequently contributed gravely to displacement of several communities of Bagobo people.

They continue to attract evangelizers even to these days. The Bagobo people have been known to be animists, such that researchers and other culture enthusiasts get fascinated by their indigenous religious belief system that may have not been influenced much by outside forces (an observation that’s not true with the rest of the Philippines that’s mostly populated nowadays by believers in other religions including Christianity, as well as Islam). If probably accounted strictly by ethnicity, around 83,000 may count today as Bagobo people, whose lives have continued to evidently assimilate present day influences.