For our fourth segment of On the Record, our Managing Editor, Kathy Hofilena, talks about Indigenous knowledge and their relationship to the environment. She also invites us to reflect on Indigenous Rights based on her experience in the Philippines, as well as considering the danger of appropriation and exploiting local knowledge.
Q. Can you describe what is happening in this picture?
A. 2 years ago, a couple of friends and I were invited to visit one of the indigenous communities in the north of the Phillippines, in Buscalan. At that time, batok- a traditional tattooing technique- was becoming popular, so tourism to the region was increasing as a result. In this picture, you can see me getting a traditional Kalinga tattoo by Apo Whang-Od. She is the last mambabatok; the last traditional tattoo artist.
Q. Why did you choose this picture?
A. I chose this photo because thinking about Indigenous rights brings me back to that experience, to that tattoo. When I was there I also struggled with a lot of issues when it comes to Indigenous rights. Because I was acquiring something from their traditions, was I commodifying indigenous knowledge? Or was I helping them empower themselves by encouraging cultural economy? I was lucky enough to get a chance to talk to the elders and other community members, and they were actually very welcoming to tourists. They saw the influx of tourists as something that would benefit their community, as it would increase their income. In that way, they could become more independent and develop themselves in the way that they really wanted to. It definitely eased some of my concerns, but not all of them.
Q. What issues were you still concerned about?
A. Commodification, mostly. The tattoos were traditionally for headhunters, as a sign of bravery. For women, it was used as a sign of beauty. Some people, therefore, believe that these tattoos should only be had by headhunters and the elders, but others believe that it is something that should be shared with the wider community. This technique is something that they want to spread, and make known. It is important to note that this opinion was not imposed, but rather the community came up with this decision by themselves.
Q. What tattoo did you end up getting?
A. I got the traditional symbol for the scorpion, which represents strength and protection. A lot of their symbols derive from nature, like insects, eagles, centipedes, mountains… This relates to how, traditionally, their sense of spirituality and identity was drawn from nature. This is something that I really identify with and that I admire about them. It was actually when I was in this community that I truly witnessed how there are different kinds of ‘development’. Before that, I would only think of development as high-rise buildings and better public infrastructure. But indigenous people have their own self-determination and their own ideas of development, and it is only by respecting their ideas that you can have diversity in thinking about development instead of being stuck in one mind frame; that was what truly inspired me to pursue a career in international development
If you would be interested in participating on our next On the Record segment, please do not hesitate to contact our Content Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org