What I Discovered About the Culture of the B’laan Tribe

Indigenous or local knowledge refers to a complete body of knowledge, know-how and practices maintained and developed by indigenous peoples. Handed over orally, from generation to generation, it provides the basis for local-level decision-making on fundamental aspects of day to-day life.

Few years ago, I had the opportunity together with Dr. Pamela del Rosario Castrillo of the Ateneo de Davao University to work with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples and the B’laan tribe in Lamlifew, Malunggon Saranggani Province, and Pula Bato in Tampakan, South Cotabato in documenting their local knowledge for the younger generation to learn from.

Arts and Crafts


Weaving is a B’laan art that has been documented by experts, such as Marian Pastor-Roces (1991) in her landmark book, Sinaunang Habi, where she investigates indigenous and Islamized fabrics from Mindanao to Luzon. Reyes (1992) also looks at B’laan clothing, both woven and embroidered. She focuses on the images of man and crocodile.

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In 1998, Hamilton published From A Rainbow’s Varied Hue: Textiles of the Southern Philippines with essays on Mindanao’s weaving communities, including Bagobo, B’laan, Maranao, Maguindanao, among others. The essay on Bagobo and B’laan textiles by Cherubim Quizon (1998) emphasizes the shared origins of the Bagobos and the B’laans, which account for similarities in Bagobo and B’laan cloths and what is known as costume.

The weaving technology of the B’laans and the Bagobos is similar—the backstrap loom or what Quizon (1998, 109) refers to as the body tension loom. She lists the parts of the B’laan loom in a table that also names the parts of the Bagobo, other tribes’ loom (1998, 109). Art historian Norma A. Respicio (2015; Journey of a thousand shuttles) says that this portable loom is the most popular loom among Mindanao weavers.

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But woven cloth is not only used as the base of clothing, it is also used as a “means of denoting space.” Rather than being used as a blanket, such a textile would be hung up during rituals and curing séances to call to the spirits.


Beadwork among the B’laans involve mother-of-pearl discs (takmun). Shell discs were the most popular means of ornamenting abaca and cotton garments of the animist peoples of Mindanao. Other favorites were appliqué, coins, beads, bells, tufts of horsehair, and sweet-smelling herbs.

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In older examples, many of these materials come together in a single garment to produce a rich palette of colors and textures.

Beadworkers in Lamlifew say that the triangular motifs are symbolic of mountains, of Mt. Matutum in particular, which is regarded as a sacred mountain. Not only albong takmun / takmum (woman’s blouse) but also sawal (man’s trousers) were ornamented with mother-of-pearl shell discs (takmun or takmum).

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Although we saw two samples of albong takmun the ground of which was dark blue oxford cloth with a red piping, the oft-used beads on blouses of the same cloth are white plastic beads. The plastic beads are procured from General Santos City while the mother-of-pearl discs are supplied from Cebu. Also used as beads (and as components of earring-necklace combos) are tiny seeds.

Although kamagi (gold necklace) oft-mentioned as part of bride wealth, not a glimpse of it was caught in both research areas. Lamlifew’s gentlewoman Herminia Lacna mentioned that her kamagi (gold necklaces) are in a safety deposit box in LandBank. There was a time only people with royal blood could wear the traditional apparel, but now, there are no prohibitions nor restrictions on wearing or purchasing B’laan traditional apparel.

Music and Dance

In the Lamlifew Village Museum, artifacts represented include spears, anklets, albong takmun, as well as photos of weavers. A notched log leaning diagonally serves as the stairs leading up to a room on the second floor.

Musical instruments are extensively used in B’laan rituals and dances. The instruments run the full range of idiophones (percussions), bamboo tubes with strings, wooden lutes, flutes and reeds. The odol precussion is a wooden sonorant plan made from molave. It produces drumlike rythms when it is used to accompany the dance which is part of the odol performance.

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Several stringed instruments are also played. B’laan cultural master Herminia Lacna donned her albong, malong, and bead jewelry and sang to the accompaniment of a two-stringed lute (faglong). She sang in the Weaving Center as well as in the gumne sabak. She said she learned to play the faglong by watching her father play the instrument. She uses an inch-long bamboo cutting as a pick. It is tied with thread looped around her index finger.

She composes songs on the fly. The subjects of her compositions include: the plight of orphans who beg for food and are given just rice and bones (without meat) and a woman who entreats her lover to return to her because she misses him. Another song reveals a wish to be like a handsome man whose bearing is regal. One is about a young girl whose fair beauty prompts a young man to confess that he wants her to be his bride. A faster number describes dance steps: lakang ka-upat, hunong sa usa (take four steps and then stop). Dances have close-to-the-ground steps, consisting of shuffling and going around in circles.

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Five types of dances were demonstrated: (1) Aral Kafi (Bird Dance); (2) Alwek Mahin (Waves); (3) Fafye Bawe (Applying Makeup; Glamorizing); (4) Almala Nga(Pacifying a Baby); and (5) Samdi-Ot (Undulating Hips).

Songs rendered were short with simple subjects. The B’laan young girls sang four songs taught to them by Helen L. Lombos who herself learned at the feet of the cultural master Herminia Lacna.

Song 1—“Fais” (or Kris)—is about a woman who is vacillating. She is deciding whether or not to say Yes to an ardent suitor. The suitor travels the wide seas to procure a sword, which he presents to the lady love, to prove his good intentions.

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Song 2—“Ew Ew Lamlifew” (Magandang Lamlifew) is about pride of place. Lamlifew, which is home, is described as being a beautiful place where trees (kayo) stand and fufow (wild yam) thrive. From Lamlifew, Makew the mountain is visible.

Song 3—“Don Don Man Nga Yoy” (Child Beggar) is about poverty. A homeless child named Don Don begged for food and has food thrown at him.

Song 4 is about planting rice. It sets the rhythm for planting rice—men dig a hole with a stick and women put in the rice stalk. It mentions coming across a snake along the way.

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The B’laans currently live in three disparate areas: South Cotabato, Sarangani Province, and Davao del Sur, according to Quizon (1998, 103) who cites Arcenas (1993: 4). Brief profiles of the B’laans exist in Peralta (2000), Tiu in Castrillo (2006), Respicio (2014), Tiu (2005), and Reyes (1992). While Respicio (2014, 115-116) and Reyes (1992, 104-154) provide information on the B’laan geographical territory (Respicio adds Sultan Kudarat and Balut Island off Sarangani Bay as homes of the B’laans), they focus more on the weaving and embroidery prowess of B’laan women.

Tiu (2005: 55) quotes Jesuit Father Mateo Gisbert SJ who called the the B’laans “the most industrious among the mountain tribes. Another Jesuit, Fr. Pablo Pastells SJ observed that the B’laans “showed love for work and were very hospitable.” They were “very intelligent” and “kindly” (Tiu, 2005:55).

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In our research team’s work with the B’laans, we found this to be still true. After the presentation of the project in aid of the formal community acceptance where more men were present, we had more interactions with women, who graciously allowed us to document their indigenous knowledge systems and practices. They allowed us into their own spaces and spoke candidly and confidently about their own lifeways.

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Radzini Oledan is a freelance writer enthralled with life and by the snippet of stories in the everyday