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by: Paco Velayo

    History has better words to speak for Misamis Occidental. Its principal city was
originally populated by the Subanon, a cultural group that once roamed the seas in great number, the province was an easy prey to the marauding sea pirates of Lanao whose habit was to stage lightning forays along the coastal areas in search of slaves. As the Subanon retreated deeper and deeper into the interior, the coastal areas became home to inhabitants from Bukidnon who were steadily followed by settlers from nearby Cebu and Bohol.     The name Subanon, "which is derived from the word suba, "river," means a river people.

   All of the Subanon are farmers who practice "slash and burn" agriculture. This is a type of farming in which a section of forest is cut down, the debris is burned, and various crops are planted on the clearing. Every year a new field is cleared. After one or two years of use, the field must lie fallow for up to 15 years. The Subanon also raise various types of livestock, including pigs, chickens, cattle, and water buffaloes. 

    But the most common method of farming is in "swidden" fields. (These are temporary gardening plots produced by cutting back and burning off the existing vegetation.) The plots usually lie adjacent to their homes. The farmers also depend heavily on irrigated rice terraces which are located on the mountain slopes. 

    Rice is by far the most important crop, although various other grains are raised. If 
there is any extra rice, it is sold at a lowland market for cash, which is needed to 
purchase clothing, utensils, and tools. 

    Subanon houses usually have some distance between them. Their homes are typically rectangular, raised on stilts, and have thatched roofs. They are generally situated on hillsides or ridges that overlook the family fields. Every three or four years the Subanon move to a new location to clear more forest for fields. 

    Unlike most of the world's peoples, the Subanon have virtually no division of labor 
based on sex. Men and women work in the fields together, and men cook and care for the children when necessary. They have little social stratification. Everyone is on an equal level in Subanon society because everyone has the same occupation and has almost the same economic level and lifestyle.

    The Subanon permit polygamy (multiple wives), but nearly all marriages involve only one man and one woman.  Families usually arrange marriages, and the groom's family is expected to pay a bride price. Occasionally, the groom will work for the bride's family for a few years rather than paying a full bride price. 

    The study of the riverine people of Mindanao Island known as Subanon (var., 
Suba'anun, Subanen) has been insufficiently conducted except for some accounts: 
Emerson B. Christie (The Study of the Subano in Lower Half of Zamboanga) is one such chronicle who wrote a full length account of the Subanon. But his thesis primarily deals with but an aspect of social practices that is peculiar to a partisan group. 

    With the coming to Mindanao of the Spaniards in the 16th century, the Subanon were pushed farther in to the forests to join their fellowmen who had already settled in it. The Spanish occupation of several places along the coast of Mindanao Island, made the Subanon feel safe in their forest sanctuaries. The Christianized Filipinos who reached Mindanao during the Spanish period and permanently resettled near Spanish garrisons, made it difficult for them to return to the shore. Besides the Spaniards and the Filipinos, the constant attacks by the raiders from Cotabato and Sulu on Christian settlements and Spanish garrisons, added greatly to their fear forcing them to the interior. 

    The few shoreline settlements of the Subanon were also subjected to attacks by the Moro raiders. One example is the shoreline settlement of Lobongan that is now known as Katipunan in Zamboanga del Norte. It was attacked by Datu Bantilan of Sulu and totally depopulated it of Subanon inhabitants.   The Subanon have not been confined to both sides of the Zamboanga Peninsula.

    There was an exodus to western Mindanao so that many of them occupied the islands nearby and farther east. Some went as far as Cotabato where they also reached southern Lanao. Others in the north reached Bukidnon and later on went as far as Surigao. 

    When the survivors of Magellan debacle led by Sebastian del Cano and Antonio 
Pigafetta fled, they reached Zamboanga. Pigafetta mentioned in his report that they 
bought 17 kilos of cinnamon in Cawit, a district of the present city of Zamboanga and 
Subanin, which could have been a place where the Subanon established a community. Subanin has not been identified as to its exact location.

    The early Spaniards occupied the present city of Iligan in Lanao del Norte. It was 
attacked by the Subanon. The leader of the Spanish troops fled to the Visayas to gather another army and returned to Mindanao. Instead of going back to Iligan, he constructed a stone fort in Ozamis City that is still existing to this day. 

    Ozamis is located at the mouth of Panguil Bay. The Spanish soldiers guarding it, 
divided the Subanon. Many of them were confined to the mountains of Misamis and 
Zamboanga peninsula. Those remaining in Lanao del Norte fled to the east in Misamis Oriental and Bukidnon. Years later, some of them went to Surigao. 

    Those who stayed joined Sharif lawi, who came from Tagolaon in Misamis Oriental. 

    They established the kingdom of Baloi. But Alawi decided to invade the communities surrounding Lake Lanao. Their arrival caused war with the lake people that lasted for several years. Those lake communities were called Onayan, Masiu and Bayabao. After they got accepted, they became the fourth community of Lanao del Norte.

    In Lanao, the Subanon introduced some of their cultures such as the marigay (maliga), a small hut decorated with several gifts and stylized by the Maranao natives as a part of the dowry paraded around. Another legacy of the Subanon is the sari manok that is common even today in Zamboanga del Sur. It is actually the head of a chicken on a stick place on the veranda of the maligay. It is made as the symbolic bird of the Maranao. 

    Those who reached Cotabato also spread out to Davao. Some of the words in the 
language of the Maguindanao are Subanon. Some of the Subanon customs are also 
practiced in Cotabato among the Maguindanao. 

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Religious Beliefs

    In sharp contrast to the surrounding peoples who have adopted Christianity or Islam, the Subanon cling to their ancient polytheistic religion. They believe that man shares the universe with a variety of gods, spirits, demons, and ghosts. These supernatural forces are said to have the ability to harm humans. However, humans supposedly have the power to harm them as well. At various times of the year, the Subanon give offerings of rice, meat, and wine to the gods and ancestral spirits. Witch doctors, or shamans, play a large role in Subanon religion. The people depend on the shamans to hear and understand the wishes of the gods and ancestral spirits. 

Performing Arts

    The dances and rituals now found among Filipinos in the hinterlands suggest that 
indigenous drama had begun to evolve from attempts to control the environment. 

    Pangalitawo (pahng-AH-lee-TAH-woh) Tis is a courtship dance, which typically performed during harvest time and other social gatherings. The female holds shredded banana leaves in each hand, while the male wields a kalasay, a type of shield. 
    Soten (SOH-tehn) This all-male dance dramatizes the strength and stoic character of the Subanon male. Holding a shield in his left hand and shaking dried palm leaves in his right, the Subanon male calls the attention of the diwatas, or dieties, in a manner of supplication with the sound of the leaves, the most beautiful sound to their gods' ears. The men's dance is accompanied by gongs and drums and by the women who play in syncopation on blue and white Ming dynasty bowls, exhibiting the Subanon's trade relationship with China and the rest of Southeast Asia. 
    Dumadel (dooh-mah-DEHL)  A festival dance performed by the Subanons with palaspas (fronds of the buri plant) to celebrate a good harvest. 

         Riddles and proverbs are the simplest forms of oral literature.  In them, we get a sampling of the primordial indigenous poem, at the heart of which was the talinghaga (analogue, metaphor, or figure) 

        1. Sintulun ni Apu' bila 
            mtongow mu mondoka dun. 

            Sinturon ni Apu 
            walang pwedeng humiram. 

        2. Mokugulang pongnapnap, 
            gombata' pogingkud. 

            Gumagapang ang matanda 
            Nakaupo ang bata. 

        3. Migludoy si Molumbu' 
            ilan ni Molanggas. 
            Dinag si Molumbio'. 

             Nagbuno sina Taba at Payat, 
             Si Taba ang natalo. 
             (Kumot at taong natutulog) 

        4. Mogulang poglunip
            poktua' da ok pusod non. 

            Pag sumisid si Tanda, 
            Nakalitaw ang pusod. 
            (Kawil sa pangingisda)

     As in other oral cultures, prose narratives in prehistoric Philippines consisted largely of origin myths, hero tales, fables, and legends.  Their function in the community was to explain natural phenomena, past events, and contemporary beliefs in order to make the environment less fearsome by making it more comprehensible and, in more instances, to make idle hours less tedious by filling them with humor and fantasy. 
    Example: "A Story of The Orphan Girl" 
    Epics revolve around supernatural events or heroic deeds and they embody or validate the beliefs and customs and ideals of a community. These are sung or chanted to the accompaniment of indigenous musical instruments and dancing performed during harvests, weddings or funerals by chanters. The chanters who were taught by their ancestors are considered "treasures" and/or repositories of wisdom in their communities. 
    Example: "Guman" 

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Joshua Project 2000 URL: 
Philippine Ethnic Groups URL: 
Noel's Pilipino Folkdance Glossary URL: 
The Riverine People of Mindanao by Ruelo Baya URL:

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