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by: Arlene Sapanza

The Isneg, also Isnag or Apayao, live at the northwesterly end of northern Luzon, in the upper half of the Cordillera province known as Kailnga-Apayao.  The term "Isneg" derives from a combination of "is" meaning "recede" and "uneg" meaning "interior". Thus, it means "people who have gone into the interior". In the Spanish missionary accounts, they were referred to as "los Apayaos" or "los Mandayas." The first was an allusion to to the river whose banks and nearby rugged terrain were inhabited by the people.  The second was a reference to an Isneg word meaning "upstream". The term "Apayao" has been used interchangeably with "Isneg," after the name of the geographical territory  which these people have inhabited for ages.  This is inaccurate, however, because the subprovince of Apayao is not exclusively peopled by the Isneg.  There have been a large influx of Ilocano over the years.  From Cagayan, the Itawes have entered and occupied the eastern regions. The Aeta inhabit the northern and northeastern parts of the province. And then there are the Kalinga, the other major group in the province.

The Isneg have always built their settlements on the steep cliffs and small hills that lie along the large rivers of the province. This whole territory used to be two subprovinces,  Kalinga and Apayao, when the whole of the Cordillera region was still a single political subdivision.  The Kalinga group occupies the southern half of the consolidated province. With the capitol located at Tabuk, Kalinga, much of the economuc and political activity in the province has been concentrated in this southern half.  To the northwest of the province occupying mostly parts of the mountainous eastern border of Ilocos Norte, live in the Yapayao.  Sharing the same territory with the Isneg are the Aggay, about whom little has been written.

In 1988 the Isneg were estimated to number around 45,000. Municipalities occupied by the Isneg include Pudtol, Kabugao, Kalanasan and Conner. Two major river systems, the Abulog and the Apayao, run through Isneg country, which until recent times has been described as a region of "dark tropical forests," and endowed with other natural resources.  In one early account, the Isneg were described as of slender and graceful stature, with manners that were kindly, hospitable, and generous, possessed with the spirit of self-reliance and courage, and clearly artistic in their temperament.

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The name ascribed to the Isneg seems to reflect their probable history.  Their ancestors could have come from distant lands, disembarking along the northern Luzon coast hundreds of years ago.  They could have reached the lush rainforest interior as later groups pushed them further back into the hinterland during the later part of prehistory.  The Isneg's ancestors are believed to have been the proto-Austronesians who came from South China thousands of years ago.  Later, they came into contact with the Chinese traders plying the seas south of the Asian mainland.  From the Chinese they bought porcelain pieces and glass beads which now form part of the Isneg's priceless heirlooms.
The Isneg have been known to be a headhunting society since recorded history. The colonial regime of the Spaniards sought to curb  this practice and to fully Christianize the mountain people. The Spaniards were able to put up three missions in 1610, but these were abandoned in 1760.

A Christian mission was established in Capinatan in 1619.  In 1631 Fr. Geronimo de Zamora resumed mission work among the Isneg upstream (among the Mandaya) and rebuilt the Capitanan church the following year. A short-lived uprising arose in 1939; the Commander of the capitanan-Totol garrison abused an Isneg woman for which he and his soldiers were massacred.  Juan Manzano (Magsanop), an Isneg, partly led the Ilocos revolt of 1660-61.  The campaign to eradicate Christianity began wuth the murder of the missionary friars in Bacarra and Pata. The rebels drank wine out of the skullcap of Fr. Jose Arias of Bacarra in an old ritual. Then they destroyed Christian religious objects, and Manzano ordered a return to the native religion.  The more faithful Isneg converts aided the local authorities in suppressing the rebellion. Manzano and his coleaders were executed, their heads severed and displayed.  In 1662 the Augustinians reached the Isneg up the Bulu River from Bagni, and freed them from taxes as a reward for their non-participation in the Manzano rebellion.

Fr. Pedro Jimenez erected two stone churches in Pudtol and Capitanan, Apayao prior to his Cagayan Valley assignment in 1677. He returned to Apayao in 1685 to reestablish peace pacts between feuding villages, namely, the Mandaya and the Christian converts in the colonized towns. Peace had been broken by Darisan, an Isneg from Kabugao, who killed a Spaniard and a Filipino in the guard post of the Capitanan garrison in Pudtol. Jimenez successfully restored the Capitanan-Totol mission. In 1688 the Archdiocese of the Manila formally recognized his church in Nagsimbanan, Kabugao.

Gov. Gen. Valeriano Weyler exercised no real power in the two military camps he set up in Apayao and Cabagboan.  The failure of the Spanish military occpation in Apayao could be attributed to several incidents of treachery. In 1888 Lt. Medina's expedition to the Kabugao area was welcomed by a feast given by Onsi, the local chief, which ended with the brutal killing of 17 unarmed Isneg including the host.  The Isneg reportedly retaliated by killing a party of Ilocano traders.  This could also be related to the Isneg attack on Dingras and Santa Maria, Ilocos Norte in the same year.  Three years later Fr. Julian Malumbres was sent to Apayao to resurrect the abandoned mission.  Before this, the Apayao's commandant, Capt. Enrique Julio, captured several prominent Isneg by inviting them to a feast in Guinobatan, Pamplona.  One was killed, several wounded, and the rest imprisoned.  Fr. Malumbres failed to reconcile with the Isneg who were misinformed that he had been a traitor.  His two servants were killed, and Malumbres never returned to Apayao.  The Isneg defeated the Spaniards in a decisive battle in 1985.(Scott 1975)
During the American regime, Blas Villamor was appointed commander of a Philippine Constabulary post at Tawit, and was charged with the responsibility of curbing the headhunting activities of the Isneg.

In 1908 Apayao was made a subprovince of the newly created Mountain Province, covering what is now the Cordillera region.  The Isneg practice of headhunting came to an end in 1913, when the Constabulary subdued them in the Battle of Waga. From the period of the American occupation to the present time, the Isneg and their ancestral domain have remained largely isolated from and insulated against "modernizing" influences, with mixed results.

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Religious Beliefs

The spiritual world of the Isneg is populated by more than 300 anito (spirits) who assume various forms. There are actually no gods or hierarchical deities in the otherworld of the Isneg, only good or bad spirits.

The chief spirits are: Anlabban, who looks after the general welfare of the people and is recognized as the special protector of hunters; Bago, the spirit of the forest; and Sirinan' the river spirit. They may take the form of human beings, former mortals who mix with the living, reside in bathing places, and so on. They may be animals, with the features of a carabao, for example, and live in a cave under the water. They may be giants who live somewhere in the vicinity of Abbil. They may be spirits guarding the foot and canter of the ladder going up to the skyworld, seeing to it that mortals do not ascend this ladder. Most of these spirits, however, are the souls of mortals and exhibiting human traits when living as mortals. Some spirits can bring hardship onto the life of the Isneg. One such spirit is Landusan, who is held responsible for some cases of extreme poverty.  Those believed to be suffering from the machinations of this spirit are said to be malandusan (impoverished).  But the Isneg are not entirely helpless against these scheming spirits.  Then can arm themselves with a potent amulet bequeathed to mortals by the benevolent spirits.  This amulet is a small herb called tagarut, which grows in the forest but is hard to find.

At harvest time, a wide assortment of male and female spirits attend to the activities of the Isneg, performing either good or bad works which affect the lives of people.  There are spirits who come to help the reapers in gathering the harvest.  They are known as Abad, Aglalannawan, Anat, Binusilan, Dawiliyan, Dekat, Dumingiw, Imbanon, Gimbanona, Ginalinan, Sibo, and a group of sky dwellers collectively known as the Ilanit.  On the other hand, there are spirits who prefer to cause harm rather than help with the harvest.  These are Alupundan, who causes the reapers' toes to get sore all over and swell;  Arurin, who sees to it that the harvest is bad, if the Isneg farmers fail to give this female deity her share;  Dagdagamiyan, a female spirit who causes sickness in children for playing in places where the harvest is being done;  Darupaypay, who devours the palay stored in the hut before it is transferred to the granary;  Ginuudan, who come to measure the containers of palay, and causes it to dwindle;  Sildado (from soldado or soldier), who resembles a horse, and kills children who play noisily outside the house; and Inargay, who kills people during harvest time.  When inapugan, a ritual plant is offered to Inargay, the following prayer is recited by the Isneg farmer:  "Iapugko iyaw inargay ta dinaami patpatay" (I offer this betel to you, Inargay, so that you may not kill us)  (Vanoverbergh 1941:337-339).

Between the living Isneg and this pantheon of spirits, the function of the shaman as intermediary becomes indispensable.  The Isneg shaman is almost always a woman.  She has to undergo a long training from early childhood.  she intervenes for the recovery of afflicted persons, performing suitable rites and appealing to particular spirits.  She also performs seances or propitiatory ritual, so often necessary to gain the favor or sympathy of these spirits.   Her functions differ from that of the medicine man in other ethnic cultures, who uses parts of plants and trees in preparing a remedy for a sick person.  The daughter of a priestess may become a dororakit, one who performs the role of a shaman and magician, and who is entrusted with the making of amulets which ward off evil spells.
Many rituals are connected with the agricultural cycle:  the daily life on the swidden, which includes clearing, planting, and harvesting.  Nature provides sings and portents that signal the start of specific activities.  There are rituals related to life in the swidden, to rice, and to the community as a whole.

Three signs indicate that clearing work on the swidden can begin - the red bakakaw herb comes out, the tablan (coral tree) is in bloom, and the leaves of the basinalan tree fall to the ground.  This is around February to March.  Then, the lumba tree begins to bear fruit, and it is a sign that the dry days have begun, time for burning the swidden.  A good harvest is portended by the rising  of a little whirlwind from the burned field.  This, it is said, is the spirit Alipugpug.  This wind fans the fire that moves across the burning field which never goes out of control. "because swidden culture has its own ecological wisdom."  Before burning, the Isneg clear the swidden very carefully, taking care not to harm certain plants, such as the amital vine, which must not be uprooted, the lapatulag tree which protects against rats, or the lubo herb which must not be killed, a lest a death befall the offender's family.  The clearing burned, a few seeds of are cast into the wind, and a prayer is offered to the spirits.  The farmer and his family gather charred woods which has not been completely burned.  This will be used for fuel, to be used during the harvest.  Three days before rice is planted, the agpaabay ceremony is observed.  A man and a woman scatter rice grains across the field to warn rats not to eat them.  The woman returns in the afternoon to make an offering to the spirits of the field.  She bores a hole into the ground and drops a few seeds into it.  Then she covers the hole with taxalitaw vine leaves and the sapitan herb.  This is to ensure that the crops will be healthy.  For the whole night and all throughout the next day, she cannot hand out anything to anyone, and no one is allowed to enter her house.  On the third day, other women take up the chore of planting.  They carry dibble sticks with which they bore holes in the ground.  Coconut shells full of seed are tied to their waists.  It is taboo for children to make noises, because they would likely disturb the spirits: the paxananay, who watches over the planting, and the bibiritan which kills people when roused to anger.  In September, the rice is ready for harvesting.  It is then cooked with the fire of the stored charred wood from the burned clearing:  thus, the cooking of the rice completes the ritual cycle of the swidden (Casal 1986:35-39).

There are several rituals performed in connection with the harvest of rice.  These usually begin with the killing of a pig as an object of sacrifice, accompanied by communications with the spirits, performed in the form of prayers by the dorarakit or the shaman maganito.  Rice pudding is offered to Pilay, the spirit of the rice, who resides on the paga, a shelf above the Isneg hearth.  This is the pisi, the ritual offering of food to the spirits.  The old woman who performs this utters the following prayer:  "Ne uwamo ilay ta ubatbattugammo ya an-ana-a, umaammo ka mabtugda peyan" (Here, this is yours, Pilay, so that you feed my children fully, and make sure that they are always satisfied)  (Vanoverbergh 1941:340).

Another ritual is performed right in the fields where the harvest is going on.  The amulets inapugan, takkag (a kind of fern), and herbs are tied to a stalk of palay, which later will be place in the granary before the other palay.  Again, these are reserved for Pilay.  In case a new granary is built, and the contents of the old granary transferred, the spirit's special share is also transferred to the new place.  It is never consumed.  An illness in the family during the time of harvest occasions a ritual called the pupug.  The shaman catches a chicken and kills it inside the house of the affected family.  The usual prayers to the guardian spirits of the fields are recited, after which the household members partake of the meat of  the sacrificial animal.

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Visual Arts and Crafts

Unlike other groups, the Isneg have no traditional or indigenous knowledge of cloth weaving or pottery making.  Instead, they have procured articles of clothing, pots, and other materials from the lowland Ilocano traders, in exchange for their honey, beeswax, rope, baskets, and mats (Wilson 1967:10).

Nevertheless, Isneg women have been know to favor colorful garments as their traditional costume.  These consists of both small and large aken,  a wrap-around piece of cloth.  The small version is for everyday use, while the large one is for ceremonial occasions.  They also wear the badio, a short-waisted, long-sleeved blouse which is either plain or heavily embroidered;  a square head scarf; and sometimes a piece of cloth around 2 m. long, worn around the waist and which serves as a carrier for small articles.  The usual colors for these articles of clothing are blue and its various shades often with narrow stripes in red and white.

Menfolk, on the other hand, have a traditional dress of dark-colored (often plain blue) G-string called abag.  On special occasions, this is adorned with an iput, a lavishly colored tail attached to the back end, which generally consist of a thick tuft of long fringes.  They wear an upper garment called bado, which has long sleeves and reaches down to the waist.  The colors are usually grayish blue, although sometimes the Isneg also wear them in red and dark blue, occasionally black or purple.  Isneg men also sport the sipatal, a breast-piece indicating one's social status (Reynolds and Grant 1973:98-99; Vanoverbergh 1929:225).

The only decorative art that the Isneg have developed from earliest times is tattooing.  There are names for the various types of tattoos.  There are tattoos for men and tattoos for women.  Isneg males tattoo their forearms down to the wrist and the middle part of the back of their hands.  This basic type is called hisi, generally black in color, and of no particular design.  The andori is the more ornate type, which appears on one or both arms, on the inside.  It begins from the wrist and runs all the way to the biceps and the shoulders.  The design is composed of mainly wedges, diamonds, and angular lines.  The andori used to symbolize the status of an Isneg male who had killed any number of enemies.  The more he killed, the longer the andori on his arms.  This type is largely gone now, having been associated with the practice of headhunting.  Another type is the babalakay (spider), which is tattooed in front of one or both of a man's thighs.  This is either a cross-shaped figure with twig-like extensions at thends, or several lines radiating from a small imaginary circle, suggesting an arachnid but also rather sunlike in appearance.  The women decorate themselves with one of three types of tattooing.  One is the andori, which the Isneg woman is allowed to have on her arms if her father has killed any number of enemies in battle.  She may have the balalakat tattooo on her throat and on either or both of her thighs, sometimes also on her forearm.  Or it may be the tutungrat, a series of broken lines at the back of her hands, sometimes accompanied by some dots or short, parallel straight lines tattooed at the back of her fingers (Vanoverbergh 1929:232).

While the Isneg do not produce much basketry, they fashion some articles of useful application, such as spearheads, tattooing instruments, axes (aliwa for the men and iko fir the women), and protective rain gear.  Of the last item, there are two kinds.  One is the killohong, a round hat made from palm leaves, strips of rattan, or bamboo, or sometimes carved out of a dried gourd, with a head-fitting structure attached inside.  Another is the ananga, a kind of raincoat made of palm leaves.  This gear has a woven base which closes in around the neck, while the tops of the leaves extend all around the body like an open fan, leaving only the front of the body partially exposed to the rain.

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Literary Arts

Isneg oral tradition is rich with folk riddles.  Many of these are structurally simple but elegant:  two lines with a few syllables and rimes at the end, presenting an enigma that must be guessed.  Like most folk riddles, those of the Isneg encompass practically every aspect of human experience:  men, women, children, the human body, ailments and defects, actions, food and drink, dress and ornament, buildings and structures, furniture and implements, animals, plants, the natural environment, and natural phenomena.

Here are some examples of the riming riddles (Vanoverbergh 1976:37):

Apel Iggat
Awan na di mamilgat.

The thigh of Iggat,
where all scrape at.  (Honey)

Bulinawan ka Gannad
Lipuliput amlad.

Black stone at Gannad,
surrounded by little fishes.  (Mortar)

The rest of Vanoverbergh's collection of Isneg and Kankanay riddles gives only the English translations and explanations of the answers to riddles included under each of the general categories mentioned above.  The following are examples:  (1) "They are many following one another, and each one carries a nest."  The answer is Aeta.  The Aeta of the Apayao region, who inhabit the deep forest interior, go in single file when they travel and have woolly, kinky hair, that appear like "nests" on their heads;  (2) "Someone is weeding all the time without any reason."  The answer is a person rowing a boat, suggested by the motion of his hands as he/she propels himself/herself on the water;  (3) "One singit post for the whole town."  The answer is mayor.   The singit is a short post, one of several, holding up the floor of the house;  (4) "A basket full of pipes, one smells bad."  The answer too, is mayor.  As Vanoverbergh put it:  "The basket is the town full of people.  The mayor smells bad, because the Isneg are not fond of the authorities established by the government.  Clearly, a case of folk speech influenced by political acculturation;  (5) "It dances on the floor and has no sound, it dances on the rock and resounds."  The answer is a blacksmith's hammer;  (6) "A very large bunga tree with only two branches."  The answer is carabao, which has two horns;  (7) "Half a bamboo, it can be seen from afar."  The answer is rainbow;  (8) "A small rooster going to America and coming back the same day."  The answer is telephone or airplane;  and (9) "We cannot say it except at the time of  harvest."  The answer is riddle (Vanoverbergh 1976:40-155; 1953:67, 64, 54).
The Isneg have stories and fables, some of them humorous, which explain events and phenomena, relationships between people and their surroundings, or which are simply meant to be humorous and entertaining.

There is a story about why birds steal people's grains.  It is said that long, long ago, a man had no grains and he went hungry.  Birds came and offered to give him seeds of rice and corn from a certain rock in a faraway place.  The man was supposed to plant these, then share the harvest with the birds.  He agreed, whereupon the birds fetched the seeds.  The man planted the seeds, but reneged on his promise to share the harvest.  Since that perfidy, ricebirds have been attacking the rice plant and crows have been damaging the corn, as a punishment for the man who broke his promise.

Another tale is set in the proverbial "time of plenty" and relates why rice grains became so small people had to work hard to harvest them.  it is said that once upon a time, food was plentiful.  Also, people were kind, gentle, and not given to war.  Then, rice grains were so big that one was enough to feed a person.  Rice grew abundantly everywhere, and didn't have to be sown in the ground.   It appeared and rolled around in innumerable quantity.  A woman and her daughter began worrying.  People had built their granaries small, and there were not enough to contain the never-ending rice.  So the two began building a bigger granary.  While doing so, rice grains kept rolling in.  The woman got mad, and she struck one of them.  "Why do you come when you're not wanted?  Can't you wait till the new granary is ready?"  The grain shattered into a thousand tiny pieces.  "All right," the pieces said,  "we'll never come again.  We'll stay on stalks until you want us."  (Folk Architecture 1989:42-43).

The Isneg explain the origin of things and natural phenomena in their stories.  Two of these phenomena are the sal-it (lightning) and addug (thunder).  One tale recounts that once upon a time there was a man who held the world in his hands.  Once in a while, he would roll a cigar, then strike together his flint and steel, or iron and stone to produce a spark for his cigar.  This spark is the bright, zigzagging streak of fire seen in the sky.  When this fire alights on the people, it eats their brains, and when it alights on trees, it eats the weevils.  Now the thunder, it is said, is the water that roars in the sky.  it is actually found in the lowest part of the sky, among those huge knobbed stones known as clouds.  When it rains, the water in the sky increases, and the big stones begin to roll.  And that is the loud noise we hear (Eugenio 1989:29).

The story of the judge and the fly, which sounds like a variation on a familiar theme, is a good example of Isneg humor.  The story narrates that once there was a man who had a cow.  One evening, he untied the cow and brought her to graze on the kappay grass.  The place was far from his house.  Early the next morning, he went to see his cow, only to find her dead.  On closer look, he saw a dead and squashed fly on the body of his cow.  He reported the matter to the judge who ruled that henceforth flies could be killed anytime, anywhere.  One day, the man went for a walk, passing by the house of the judge, who happened to be sitting on a bench in front of his house.  On the forehead of the judge was a fly.  He was mad at the sight of that fly, because it reminded him of his dead cow.  Whereupon he looked around for a piece of kindling wood, and finding one, jumped in front of the judge and clubbed the fly.  The fly died but the judge's head was severely injured.  An investigation was made but because the judge had said no person could be imprisoned if he/she killed a fly, the man was not imprisoned  (Vanoverbergh 1955).

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Performing Arts

Some Isneg possess skills in traditional oral arts, such as the magpayaw (shouters), the singers of the oggayam, and the debaters who joust with anenas (oral poetry).  There are others held in esteem as musicians, such as those who display prowess in playing the difficult gorabil, a bamboo violin (Reynolds and Grant 1973:75).
Music plays an important part in social intercourse.  Once a young man has decided on who he is going to court, he starts wooing with his baling (nose flute) or his orbao (jew's harp).  Or he might sing to her a dissodi (courting song).  On solemn occasions such as burial, feasting precedes the actual rites.  The food  is provided by the dead person's relatives.  During this feast, gongs are beaten, and the community participates in dancing and the drinking of basi.

There are two general types of dance among the Isneg, the taduk and the talip.  In both dances, the girls and the boys have specific roles to play.  Generally, only unmarried girls take part in dancing.  Usually, the same three or four girls take turns, repeatedly.  On the other hand, most of the boys and men, married as well as unmarried, are expected to join the circle.  Those who display skill, especially in the fast-beat talip, win the applause of the crowd (Reynolds and Grant 1973:73).

There are other specialized dances for festive occasions.  Balengete is a festival dance which starts with a brave warrior shouting and performing movements that dramatize his successful headhunting foray.  The villagers follow him and join in the feasting as the warrior dances with the "head" of his enemy.

There are many variations of the courtship dance.  In one version, a ceremonial blanket is flapped by the female like the wings of a bird in flight.  The man's movements, on the other hand, resemble those of a fighting cock springing into the air.  Another courtship dance, the pingpingaw (swallow), imitates the movements of this swift bird, again with the use of colorful blankets.

Turayan (flying bird) is a dance similar to the Bontoc version of the same name.  In this, three dancers, two women and a man, imitate the movements of the turayan as it flies, glides, and swoops.  The dancers move about with their arms outstretched, simulating birds in flight.   (E. Maranan, with notes from E. A. Manuel)

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