Monday, June 23, 2008

Dagmay: People's History

It is tough to reconstruct history from symbols and tougher to base facts from abstract meanings. History should not only focus itself in scavenging and underlining texts and written accounts but also analyzing non-textual cultural artifacts. There are people in the Philippines who have no system of writing but their uses of symbols and meanings are very advanced and functional. Even before the Spanish arrived, the lumads (natives) of Mindanao already had a system of meanings, an array of symbols, and an idea about semiotics.

This dagmay, a piece of woven abaca fiber, for instance, would look nothing but a square of fiber to untrained eyes or to those who have no knowledge about Mandaya culture. The truth is that it is a copy or record of a chanted poetry called dawot about a warrior and his shield and the spirit of the turtle that guides him. It is also a how-to manual for combat and warfare-- "a shield protects the man, and leave the rest to the spirit." Turtle symbolizes protection. Crocodile is also used to mean enemy or bad spirit. Triangular designs stand for weapons-- such as sugob (spear) pana (bow and arrow), sumpitan (blowgun), and sundang (sword).

Filipino philosophy is a knowledge not based on texts or written discourses. It is the reason why some people deny its existence. Some think that analyzing symbols is overdoing and understanding meanings, overextending. I, too, thought the same way when I heard a foremost structuralist and semiologist in my university explaining Filipino personality using a clay jar. I thought a highly-respected anthropologist like him should not engage in interpreting metaphors. When I visited different lumad communities, I realized that my professor was indeed right-- although Filipino philosophy is not in the book, it exists in the people's consciousness.

When I am talking about Filipino triangles being images of force, you cannot find any written materials about them but you will see them in the material culture of the Philippines that includes architecture, weaponry, arts, and other tangible and visible objects. It is my hope that my work will turn those symbols hiding meanings into readable texts so people coming from different backgrounds and perspectives will not dismiss Philippine culture, which is rich of symbols and abundant of meanings, as a heritage without philosophy and concepts about ideas, ideologies, and lines of thoughts.

The history of the Filipino People did not start when the Spanish came. They named us "Filipino," but the essence of being one was already there centuries before the early Europeans even knew the existence of the "uncivilized" people they called Indios. We cannot truly understand the people's history of the Philippines if we do not use the same mode of communication and understand the traditional way of recording employed by those natives who have no writing system but a highly developed system of conveying thoughts through symbols and meanings.

If you ask me, to gauge a society's civilization, the way people use and develop graphics and images should also be considered. We see that in the hieroglyphics of Egypt, in the precolombian graphic writing in Mesoamerica, and in the emoticons and avatars of the internet era.