The ‘Indigenous’ in the Cordillera Studies Center of UP Baguio

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Note: This is an abridged version of a paper read during the International Seminar Workshop on Indigenous Studies held on 26-28 June 2013 in  Mandaluyong City, Metro Manila.

rovillos_csc_editedThe formation of the Cordillera Studies Center was made official by the 928th meeting of the UP Board of Regents on June 26, 1980. It was to be the research arm of the Development Studies Program (DSP) of the then Social Science Department (SSD) of UP College Baguio. The other arm of the DSP was the M.A. in Social and Development Studies (MA SDS) program, which exists to this day. The Center’s first ten-year report (1980-1990) recounts: “The premises which underlie the establishment of CSC arose from discussions on the concept of development, on the empirical conditions which obtain (sic) in the Cordillera communities and on the vision of social science practice as relevant to the process of social science transformation” (Mendoza and Ladia 1991, 4). It continues:

In keeping with the UPCB plan for development, and in consonance with the obvious needs of cultural communities in this area, the CSC was to be established for data banking, and academic exchange between social scientists and development partners. The Cordillera Studies Center would develop communication, research and extension work with cultural communities in Regions I and II. (Underscoring ours).

Note here the reference to “obvious needs of cultural communities in this [Cordillera] area” and the focus on social science and development at the Center’s core. The CSC was to be a center where information about the region will be collected, curated and kept for development partners.

UP Baguio became a constituent university of the UP System in 2002.  The Center was transformed into the University’s research arm, expanding into the humanities and the natural sciences. The introduction to its first ten-year report (1980 to 1990) recounts that it is “an interdisciplinary research institution which focuses on development issues in the uplands. The Cordillera Region’s locus of operation is composed of the provinces of Abra, Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga-Apayao, Mountain Province and the chartered city of Baguio.”

The Center prioritizes research in the following programs: Biodiversity and Resource Management, Sustainability Science, Governance and Public Policy, Local Languages and Literatures, Material Culture and Climate Change. It also houses the Knowledge and Training Resource Center on Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction and Management, seed-funded by the United Nations World Food Program (UN-WFP).

Typologies of categories used

As of  last count, the Center had released 112 publications, which include working papers, issue papers, monographs, conference proceedings, research reports and issues of the UPB refereed journal, The Cordillera Review.

This includes all texts  listed in the Center’s publication database from 1983 to 2010. Of these, 30 were working papers, five were issue papers (usually with three to four articles in each), four were issues of The Cordillera Review, six were conference proceedings (some of which had several papers which were relevant to this study), and 52 were research reports.

Cordillera Studies Center Publications

Cordillera Studies Center Publications

After intensive readings of the texts, these were categorized according to the “subjects” of the studies. These categories are illustrated in Figure 1 along with the percentage for each.

In addition, some texts used more than one categorization for their subject.

We now turn to a discourse analysis of the key concepts or categories that were commonly used by UP Baguio scholars on Cordillera Studies, limiting our discussion to the following four categories: ethnic groups/ethno-linguistic groups; lowland-upland, migrant-non-migrant, dichotomies; Cordillera/Igorot and Indigenous Peoples.

Ethnic Groups

A good number of the literature surveyed in this study used “ethnic groups” or “ethno-linguistic groups” to refer to the “researched.” Anthropologists and sociologists define ethnic groups as:

A segment of a larger society whose members are thought of, by themselves or others, to have a common origin and to share important segments of a common culture and who, in addition, participate in shared activities in which the common origin and culture are significant ingredients (Yinger, 1994, 3 as cited in Eller, 1999, 13. Underscoring ours).

The categories of ethnicity, ethnic groups or ethno-linguistic groups appear to be neutral or objective signifiers, as they presuppose that there are ethnic groups, as long as the common elements mentioned above are present.  Hence, there are ethnic groups in the Cordillera, inasmuch as there are ethnic groups in other regions and provinces in the Philippines. A Kankanaey or Ibaloy is juxtaposed on the same discursive plain as the Tagalog, Ilocano or Bisaya. There is no a priori assumption of unequal power relations among these groups.

Lowlanders versus highlanders

Language is a central concern in discourse. It is the structure through which the creation of meaning is possible. It is interesting how, in the course of reading CSC texts, binary oppositions (highland vs. lowland, local vs. national, traditional beliefs vs. Christian beliefs, etc.) were continually used to describe and identify the subject.  This is suggestive of the structuralist view of language and culture as postulated by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. That is, meaning is formed through the differences between polar opposites; one cannot be defined without the other. In this type of meaning-making, indigeneity gains traction only when put in the light of mainstream Filipino society.

Aside from defining the region through its difference from the national government, other binary oppositions that emerged were that of the minority versus the majority, highland versus lowland, ethno linguistic groups versus Hispanized groups, outsiders versus insiders and rural landscapes versus urban landscapes.

It would be  simple if these oppositions, and their resulting meanings, were fixed as soon as they existed. However, as Jacques Derrida has found, “language is inherently unreliable” and that meaning is forever deferred (Bertens 2008, 97). Aside from a tendency to be overly simplistic, there remains a power relation in how popularly accepted these meanings are. For instance, value judgments exist between differences such as preferences for the national and modern instead of the local and traditional. From the Cordillera Studies Center’s mere existence, there is a conscious effort to redirect attention towards one part of the binary that has been expelled to the margins. However, the extent to which this will be effective may as well come to how much of it is useful to the communities it wishes to represent.

Dr. Raymundo Rovillos speaks during the International Seminar Workshop on Indigenous Studies. Beside him are Dr. Prospero De Vera of the UP NCPAG and Teb Tebba Foundation Executive Director Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.

Dr. Raymundo Rovillos speaks during the International Seminar Workshop on Indigenous Studies. Beside him are Dr. Prospero De Vera of the UP NCPAG and Teb Tebba Foundation Executive Director Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.

Cordillerans and Igorots

Not surprisingly, “Cordillera” and “Igorot” have been frequently used as signifiers for the human groups in this geographic area.  We can sense a clear conceptual, even ideological, distinction between the two, even though their usage has had, in our view, the same discursive impacts both on the intellectual as well as practical realms.

“Cordillera” refers to the geographic region that has been represented in the literature as mountainous, rich in natural resources, a host to many national developmental projects such as mining, hydro-power, logging, etc.  However, its peoples and communities have been at the margins of national development.  Its people, the “Cordillerans,” are composed of at least eight (8) major ethno-linguistic groups as well as migrants from other places/regions.

The term “Cordillerans” appears to be a more politically benign and seemingly neutral category as compared to the term “Igorot.”  The latter is represented as the collective identity of the various ethnic groups in the Cordillera region.  What distinguishes Igorot from the term Cordillera is its discursive shift of the axis of identify—from mere geographic/territorial and to interplay of historical, cultural and political considerations.

Although the term itself is much contested and quite tenuous, Igorot simultaneously connotes difference or “otherness, resistance, self-determination, etc.

Indigenous Peoples

The term “indigenous peoples” began to be cited in the literature on Cordillera Studies during the late 1990s until the turn of the new millennium (2000-present).  It was also during this time when the term gained currency among advocates and activists for indigenous peoples’ rights.  In 1997,  the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) was enacted.  These developments (in the social movements and the state legislative and executive branches) may have influenced  University-based intellectuals and researcher-scholars as well. Indeed, much of the published works by CSC during this period (mid 1990s to present) are replete with references to indigenous peoples.

When one speaks of “Indigenous Studies,” one assumes the historicity (i.e., given and contextualized) and positionality (alterity) of the field of study.  This is very much akin to the difference between Feminist Studies versus Gender Studies.  Like feminist studies, indigenous studies (versus ethnicity studies) have a clear bias towards the marginalized.

They also have a teleological purpose, which is to place the discourse of indigenous peoples, from the periphery to the center of academic life. Indigenous Studies avoids being reified only as an academic project. Rather, it forges alliances with the broader indigenous movements outside of the academe.

Having defined Indigenous Studies, can we therefore say that the works by UPB faculty under the Cordillera Studies Center may be classified as “Indigenous Studies”? We argue that this is not necessarily the case.  It would seem like the term Indigenous Peoples were used by the faculty-scholars because it had become the institutional label/definition, by virtue of a republic act and other related national legal instruments.  Moreover, the researches conducted under the CSC focused on issues such as natural resource management, ancestral domain and self-determination (autonomy). The focus was NOT indigenous peoples per se, although the CSC studies dwelt on the substantive elements of indigenous peoples’ (ancestral domain, self-determination, time immemorial possession of land and resources, etc).  Given this track, it is very possible to create an indigenous studies program under the auspices of the Cordillera Studies Center.

To conclude, it appears that, regardless of social categories used, scholars on Cordillera Studies assume that there is/are a (n) object/s or subject/s) worthy of inquiry. The persisting epistemic rupture suggests that history has not ended.
Dr. Raymundo Rovillos is the chancellor of the University of the Philippines Baguio and is a professor of history. Paula Pamintuan-Riva is a university researcher at the Cordillera Studies Center. Email the authors at [email protected]

Bertens, J.W. (2001). Literary theory: The basics. London: Routledge.
Eller, J.D. (1999). From culture to ethnicity to conflict. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Mendoza, L.C. & Ladia, M.A.J. (1991). The Cordillera Studies Center (CSC) from June 1980 to December 1990: A ten-year report. Baguio City: Cordillera Studies Center, University of the Philippines Baguio.