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By: Gwendalene Ting

"Yakan" refers to the majority Muslim group in Basilan, an island just south of Zamboanga province in Mindanao.  The Spaniards called them Sameacas and considered them aloof and sometimes hostile hill people (Wulff 1978:149; Haylaya 1980:13).
Basilan Island measures 1339 sqkm, the largest in the archipelago.  Located at the northern end of the Sulu archipelago, it is bounded in the north by Zamboanga City; in the south by the Sulu archipelago, with Jolo as the major island; in the east by Mindanao; and in the west by the Sulu Sea and Sabah (North Borneo).  Basilan enjoys good weather since it is located below the typhoon belt.  Abundant rainfall throughout the year keeps the soil wet and fertile (Sherfan 1976:3; Jundam 1983:3).
The island has a mountainous terrain once covered with thick forests.  There are three main waterfalls, which provide waterpower: Kumalarang Falls, Busay Falls, and Bulingan Waterfalls.  However, this small island has not been spared the ravages of environmental abuse.  Basilan at present suffers from water shortage because of unabated illegal logging, which according to statistics destroys Basilan's forest reserves at the rate of 2,000 ha annually.  Forest denudation has reduced by over half the water overflow from its watersheds, caused heavy siltation, and dried up the two main rivers, Busay and Aguada.
Basilan is inhabited by five ethnic groups, which were headed by the Yakan, who number around 196,000 (NCCP-PACT 1988).  The other ethnic groups in order of population size are the Chavacano, Samal, Tausug, Badjao, and Visayan (Jundam 1983:7).
The Yakan have Malay features.  They are small of frame, with brown skin, slanting eyes and black hair - characteristics similar to the Dyak of North Borneo, leading to speculation that they originated from this race.
They speak a language known as Bahasa Yakan, which is a variation of the Samal Sinama or Siama and the Tausug languages (Jundam 1983: 7-8).  It is written in the Malayan Arabic script, with adaptations to sounds not present in Arabic (Sherfan 1976).


Historians have scant knowledge of the pre-Spanish history of the Yakan simply because they have little contact with other ethnic groups.  Basilan's nearness to Borneo led to the theory that the Yakan originated from the Dyak, but it is safe to say that Basilan's history is related to that of the Sulu archipelago.  The sultanate of Sulu became a center of power in the 1700s, ruled over the island of Basilan nominally, and had little influence over the Yakan who lived in the interior (Sherfan 1976:11; Haylaya 1980:43).
Islam is said to have started in the Philippines in 1380 but some scholars believe that Islam spread in some areas of the archipelago during the early 1200s.  Then and now, the inhabitants of the Sulu archipelago have been described as Muslims who have retained much of their pre-Islamic beliefs.  Such folk-Islamic culture resulted from the fact that Islamic conversions were mostly undertaken not by full-time religious teachers but by Arab Muslim traders who traversed the Malacca-Borneo-Sulu-Luzon-Taiwan route (Sherfan 1976: 12-13).
By the early 1700s, the Sultan of Sulu had defeated the Sultan of Maguindanao, signaling the rise of the Sulu sultanate in southern Philippines, with Jolo as the seat of power.  The Yakan paid a yearly tribute to the Sultan.
The Spaniards made several attempts to control Jolo, but failed.  However, Catholic missionaries were able to penetrate Basilan.  By 1654 there were about 1,000 Christian families living in the island.
By the 1840s, colonial interests other than Spanish focused over western Mindanao, particularly the territories under the Sulu sultanate.  The British, French, Germans, and Americans all became interested in these rich islands.  In reaction, the Spanish government in 1842 established Fort Isabela in the northwest coast of Basilan.  The area then grew into a Christian settlement which also became a trade and commercial center.
Despite such progress in Basilan, the Yakan remained in the interior, hostile to lowlanders.  But in the year 1842, a fugitive from Cavite named Pedro Cuevas escaped to Basilan where he fought and killed a Yakan chieftain named Datu Kalun (also spelled Kalung and Kalum).  Cuevas then adopted the name of Datu Kalun (Haylaya 1980:43).  The Yakan accepted Cuevas as their leader because he embraced the Yakan religion and way of life, married one of their women, and instituted meaningful sociopolitical changes in their lives.  Datu Kalun consolidated the Yakan, led battles against the invading rulers from Jolo, and rid Basilan of pirates and marauders.
In 1844, the French government tried to occupy Basilan, intent on establishing a network of naval stations to protect French trade.  The inhabitants of Basilan fought against the French for a year, resulting in a French withdrawal, as formalized in a proclamation dated 5 August 1845.  During the same year, a US survey mission studied the potentials of the Sulu archipelago, but American intervention did not start until 1899.
In 1895, the Sultan of Sulu sent his bravest general, Datu Julkanayin, to regain control over Basilan, only to be defeated by Datu Kalun's forces.  The ensuing peace encouraged more Christians to settle in Basilan.  Thus, the Spaniards now considered Cuevas/Datu Kalun an ally and pardoned him for his earlier offense.
By this time, the Katipunan (revolutionary organization) had been gaining momentum in Luzon.  In Mindanao, Muslim resistance contributed greatly to the weakening of Spanish colonizers.  Moreover, the Spanish campaigns against the "Moros" - the derogatory term used by the colonialists against the Muslim Filipinos - caused heavy casualties and depleted Spanish resources by millions of pesos.  One example is the Muslim attack on the Spanish garrison in Jolo, which dealt a heavy blow on the Spanish forces in Mindanao in 1897.  The military attack is considered an important anti-colonial revolutionary effort, although the Muslims themselves did not join the Katipunan (Haylaya 1980).
While Zamboanga and Sulu were the centers of Spanish-Muslim hostilities, Basilan inhabitants, especially the Yakan, remained fairly unaffected by the social upheavals.  Still, the Yakan were among those natives called Moros by the Spaniards (Jundam 1983:8-9).
The arrival of the Americans in 1899 changed the situation in Mindanao.  The American strategy of integration was more acceptable to the Muslims than the Spanish strategy of conversion.  The new colonizers were received openly by the Muslim elite.  On 19 May 1899, American troops took over the Spanish garrison in Zamboanga, one of the last strongholds of the Filipino revolutionaries in Mindanao.  By December 1899, the Americans led by Col. James S. Petit occupied the Spanish naval base of Isabela de Basilan.  In Basilan, an old and sickly Datu Kalun (Pedro Cuevas) supported the new colonizers.
The Philippine-American War was raging in Luzon.  So as not to spread out their forces, the Americans employed the classic divide-and-rule tactic.  Maj. Gen. E.S. Otis, commander-in-chief of the US Forces, sent Gen. John C. Bates to negotiate with the Sultan of Sulu.  Known as the Bates treaty, the agreement provided for the exercise of American authority over the Sulu archipelago in exchange for the recognition of Muslim culture and religion.
The peace created by the Bates Treaty did not last.  This became evident when the Muslims repudiated the Moro province, a politico-military government in Mindanao lasting from 1903 to 1914.  It is important to note that barely two months before the creation of the Moro province, the American colonial government declared and classified an unoccupied Muslim and tribal ancestral lands as public lands.  Immediately after the declaration, American investments entered Mindanao.  Mass migration of Christians was encouraged, displacing mass Muslims and tribal Filipinos from their ancestral lands (Rodil 1985:4).
The growing Moro resistance was manifested in the form of military attacks against American troops and outposts.  There were bitter Muslim revolts and uprisings during the succeeding years:  the Panglima Hassan uprising led by Datu Laksamana Usap of Sulu in 1905; and the battle of Bud Dajo from 1906 to 1909.
Datu Kalun died in Basilan on 16 July 1904 at the age of 58, soon after his first contract with the Americans.  His nephew Gabino Pamaran became his successor and adopted the name Datu Mursalun.  Mursalun, also pro-American, founded the town of Lamitan which became an American model of civil government and development.  Mursalun worked for the material progress of Basilan, and sought ways to fight banditry and piracy in the area.  During this time, a famous pirate named Jikiri was attacking the rich Muslim, Chinese, and American traders.  He was as much a threat to American rule as the Muslim "insurgents".  Although the Yakan were not involved in the growing ties of Jikiri, who was eventually slain by the Americans on 2 July 1909 (Haylaya 1980).
There was a resurgence of Moro resistance when Gen. John J. Pershing assumed governorship of the Moro province in 1909.  He ordered the complete disarmament of the Muslims through a system of cash incentives, but most refused to sell their weapons.  Many Muslims, in fact, decided to resume the fight against the Americans, who were then backed up by Muslim members of the Philippine Scouts (precursor of the Philippine Constabulary).  Fierce battles at Bud Dajo and Bud Bagsak in Jolo ensued, forcing the Americans and local counterinsurgency forces to employ the most brutal military tactics against the Muslims.  A majority of the victims were women and children, for which Pershing received severe criticism. 
Alongside military suppression came a policy of education.  Public schools were built but Muslim enrollment was way below Christian school attendance.  Muslims considered education a threat to their culture and religion.
To ensure Muslim participation in government affairs, the Americans soon adopted a Policy of Attraction for western Mindanao.  Moreover, the Philippine Constabulary (PC) replaced the United States Army units pursuant to colonial efforts to reduce American presence.  The replacement of American troops, mostly by Christians under the PC, increased the hostility between Muslims and Christians.
In the political sphere, the management of Muslim affairs through the organization of the Department of Mindanao and Sulu in 1914 was unsuccessful, as leadership in the department fell in the hands of Christians.  Thus, the Muslim leaders were historically opposed to the idea of independence, which meant the incorporation of Muslim areas into a political system dominated by Christians.  Their fears were not base-less.  As demonstrated by the Commonwealth government, Pres. Quezon and other Christian political leaders failed to incorporate the development of Mindanao and Sulu into the national development plan.
The outbreak of WWII disrupted Commonwealth operations.  Christians and Muslim officers and men of the military district in Mindanao and Sulu shifted to guerilla activities against the Japanese.  A civil government called Free Sulu Government administered was activities in the locality.  The Japanese Occupation forces established a government in Basilan to govern both Zamboanga and Basilan.  The Japanese Occupation of Basilan was rather uneventful; it barely disturbed Yakan society, except in terms of Japanese demand for food for their military machinery.  In fact, Datu Mursalun and his family watched, without much interest, the American bombings of the Spanish fort and naval hospital in Isabela which signaled the retaking of Basilan by the American troops in 1945.
During the next two decades, Muslim and Christian relations deteriorated and culminated into a civil war in 1970 with the formal organization of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), with the Bangsa Moro Army (BMA) as its military arm.  The MNLF would separate the Bangsa Moro homeland of Mindanao, Sulu, Basilan, and Palawan from the rest of the Philippines (Rodil 1985:5).
Fighting between the government and the MNLF-BMA escalated during the declaration of Martial Law in 1972.  By 1974 MNLF strength rose to some 30,000 armed combatants.  It gained political control over significant areas of western Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago including Basilan.  The MNLF gained international Muslim support through the Islamic conference which facilitated negotiations between the Marcos government and the MNLF in 1976.  In December 1976, the Tripoli Agreement was signed, providing for the granting of local autonomy for 13 Muslim-populated provinces; however, it was never fully implemented by the Marcos government.  Differences within the Moro camp regarding the Tripoli Agreement split the MNLF into three factions (Noble 1987:194).

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"Folk Islam" - a combination of Islamic principles and traditional beliefs  --  best describes the Yakan belief system.  The belief in saytan, the various spirits in heaven and in the natural environment, indicates the lingering influence of pre-Islamic religious beliefs.  Yakan pre-Islamic practices are also combined with Islamic rituals, for example, in the planting rituals, death rituals, spirit worship, and ancestral offerings.  As Muslims,  the Yakan believe in the five pillars of Islam: the sahada, which says that there is no other God but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet; the salat or prayer; puasse or fasting during the month of Ramadan; pitla or charity to the poor; zacat or tithes to Muslim religious leaders; and the maghadji or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
For the Muslim Yakan, the world is divided into two: Dar-ul-Islam, the abode of Islam, and Dar-ul-Harb, the abode of the unbelievers.  Jihad is the holy war waged by Muslims to protect Dar-ul-Islam from foreign invasion and against those who seek to harm their religion, people, and properties.  Magsabil  (jurementado in Spanish) is a small-scale jihad aimed at protecting personal property and family.  The magsabil kills anybody who comes his way, exposing himself to death by reprisal.  The belief is that whoever kills more during the magsabil will have more servants in heaven.  But unless the act is justifiable and the person is a firm believer of Islam, the magsabil will not go to heaven.  Every believer has a strong faith in Allah, in his Messenger, and angels, and in the judgement day and destiny (Jundam 1983:5, 38, 40; Sherfan 1976:118-125).
Heaven for the Yakan is a place where the soul can find happiness, joy, and peace.  Heaven has eight classes and the eight is God's dimension, which cannot be reached unless one works hard for it on earth (Sherfan 1976).
When one dies, the soul goes to ahirat (judgement place) where it awaits the verdict - to go to heaven or to hell (Sherfan 1976:142).  Good deeds on earth will be rewarded on judgement day.  Every sin done on earth has its own corresponding place in narka or hell.  This is where adulterers, murderers, and prostitutes go, unless they are saved by belief in the Quran and in Muhammad.  Even religious leaders are not exempt from punishment in hell if they have sinned on earth (Jundam 1983:41).
The Quran is the divine revelation of Allah addressed to all people regardless of belief or race.  Islamic doctrines are learned through the madrasa schools or merely by listening to the khutba or sermon during Friday prayer.  Male believers are required to attend Friday prayers while women may not be as religious in their attendance.  Women who attend the prayers are separated from the males and, except for their faces, are fully covered.  Only a few Yakan, however, observe the five-times-a-day daily prayer.

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The Yakan have designs or motifs used repeatedly in all their visual arts and crafts.  The pussuk labbung is a sawtooth design used for cloth baskets and the native sword called kris.  The bunga sama, used for table runners, monuments for the dead and on trunks, is a symmetrical design made of rectangular-shaped figures.  The kabban buddi is a set of triangles, squares, and other geometric shapes used for cushions, pillows, casings, mats, and hats.  The baggang kettan combines incised triangles and rectangles, and is used to decorate the kris.   The ukil lagbas consists of a combination of various lines - wavy, crossed-wavy, and straight - used on shirts, windows of houses, and boats (Sherfan 1976:210-211).
Weapons such as knives and swords are part of the Yakan's visual arts.  The punnyal is a small knife, which can be hidden within one's clothing.  The barong is carried with pride since it is a symbol of strength and is also acceptable as bride wealth.  The taming is the traditional shield used along with two types of spears, the budjak and the sankil, now used only in war dances.  The bangkung is another type of bolo seldom used nowadays.  The pira is a traditional weapon used by little boys when going on a long journey.  The barong and the kris, although popular, are less valuable or admired among the Yakan  (Sherfan 1976:156-160).
Yakan visual arts includes Yakan kitchen utensils and household implements.  Metal ware includes the talam, a beautifully decorated bronze tray, and the sanduk or ladle used for special occasions.  Yakan basketry is both colorful and functional.  The tutop is a food cover made of bamboo leaves.  The peliyuk is a clay jar with cover used for cooking.  The baling is a decorative clay jar treasured as heirloom.  The kombo is a lidded container for rice storage.  A lakal is a bamboo frame used to hold the cooking gadget when placed on the ground.  The tempipih is a big basket carried on the back.  A conical basket called the saan is used as a liquid strainer.
Baskets are also used to measure and weigh.  The gantang is bigger than the government ganta.  The batil measures nine gantang.  The laga is 10 gantang.  The ilug is 30 gantang.  The lukung is equivalent to 100 gantang.  An example of Yakan pottery is the poga, a covered clay jar used as water container (Sherfan 1976:201-204).
Yakan women are excellent weavers, and are famous for their beautifully woven traditional costumes of cotton and pineapple cloth.  The basic garment for men and women consists of a tight-fitting upper garment with tight-fitting trousers called sawal.  The shirt is open in front from lapel down to the waist, using up to 40 sequined or golden buttons.  To close the shirt, a long string is crisscrossed from one button to the other so that when tightly drawn, the shirt closes from top to bottom.  Usually the shirt remains open since the string is often lost.  Over the shirt, male and female wear a tight-fitting jacket, which is exquisitely embroidered in the front and back, with cuffs decorated with multicolored sequins.
The difference in male and female apparel lies in accessories.  Men wear a hand woven pis (head cloth) and a 15m-long kandit (belt or sash) made of red cloth called gilim.  The pis serves as "protection" from spears and knives during combat, and may be fastened around the trousers.  The women wear a short skirt over the trousers, around which a rectangular, hand woven cloth is tied.  This cloth is the most expensive part of their costume because it is woven in a tedious manner.  Men and women wear the saruk, the Yakan hat worn to make one look more attractive and elegant.  Some wear the hat over the turban and use it as a purse for betel nuts, tobacco, and money.  Yakan warriors wear a bullet proof shirt prepared by hadjis and imams who write Arabic script all-over the shirt (Sherfan 1976:160, 205-207).
Ornaments such as necklaces may be worn as charms.  A crocodile tooth polished with a hole at the base is believed to bring good luck when worn as a necklace.  The Yakan also wear amulets against bullets.  These contain unreadable symbols, are wrapped in black cloth, sewn in triangular form, and tied around the neck.  Belts made of snake bones are strung together to protect them against bodily pain.  One charm that protects them from sicknesses due to evil spirits is the manik tegiyas - a necklace or bracelet made of the fruits of a flower beaded together.  The manik sembulan is made of a bamboo stem cut into short pieces, strung together either as a necklace or bracelet, and serving as added protection against sickness inflicted by evil spirits.  To gain more strength against evil spirits, men and women wear the anting-anting.  This consists of a string with a piece of cloth containing beads as pendant (Sherfan 1976:143-147).
The Yakan also wear functional gadgets.  The pegupaan is a bamboo container for all the paraphernalia for chewing betel nut.  The lutuan, a small bronze box with engravings carried at the waist, has a similar function (Sherfan 1976:203).
A unique form of visual arts is the facial make-up done on brides and grooms.  After creating a foundation of white powder, the make-up artists proceed to paint dots and lines in various patterns on the faces, creating the effect of formal and elaborate masks which match the ornate costumes of the celebrants. 

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The Yakan have a rich musical tradition, which may be broadly divided into instrumental and vocal.  Yakan musical instruments are made of bamboo, wood, and metal.  Their musical instruments also demonstrate the influence of the traditional cycle of rice production in their lives.  Several instruments are used in each stage of rice production.  The daluppak is a digging stick with a bamboo clapper.  The kopak-kopak is a bamboo clapper on a stick.  The kulintangan (kwintangan) kayu is percussion instrument consisting of wooden beams laid after the planting season, to enhance plant growth.  The wooden tuntungan is a percussion plank with jar resonators, also played during the harvest season for thanksgiving. 
The gabbang is a bamboo split into five, and arranged like a xylophone.  Small children near the fields played it in order to guard the crops against prying animals.  The kwintangan batakan is an earlier form of gabbang which has six, seven, or nine bamboo pieces.  The suling is a bamboo mouth flute used by the men in courting women.  Another bamboo instrument used by the men in expressing love or admiration is the kulaing.  The kulintangan or kwintangan consists of several bronze gongs arranged according to size, and used during celebrations such as weddings and graduations.  Any individual played it in the home and after work, for self-expression and relaxation.  The agong is a percussion instrument used to announce marriage or for tolling the dead.  The jabujabu (djabu-djabu) is a type of drum that summons the people to prayer (Nicolas 1977: 100-108; Sherfan 1976:195-199).
There are three main types of Yakan vocal music: the lugu and other melodies used in reading the Quran and other religious books; the kalangan or songs which maybe further reclassified into Jamiluddin and Lunsey; and the katakata, nahana, yaya, lembukayu, and sa-il, among others.  The kalangan, jamiluddin, katakata, nahana, and yaya are sung solo, while the lunsey, sa-il, meglubulebu seputangen, and lembukayu involves singers from two groups singing solo as they answer each other. 
The kalangan, jamiluddin, lunsey, and lembukayu are courting songs.  The katakata, jamiluddin, and nahana may also narrate the history of the Yakan people.  The katakata is a long traditional song narrating the lives, loves, and historical backgrounds of people who lived during early times.  The Yakan believed that such stories originated from people who lived in another world.  The katakata is sung only at night, at a big gathering with food served by the host or hostess.  The singing, in episodes, may last for several nights.  The singer lies on a mat, the back supported by several pillows.  The audience, either sit or lie around the singer.  The jamiluddin relates love stories.  At present, it is also sung when families discuss marriage engagements.  Both the katakata and jamiluddin are sung by wise men and women of the tribe.
The sa-il and lunsey are sung during a wedding ceremony, with messages revolving around good advice regarding married life.  Another type of sa-il is sung during the magtammat or Quranic graduation. 
During social gatherings, the maglebu-lebu seputangan is sung, by a group of men answering a group of women.  Each group has a soloist who sings the kalangan, expressed in metaphors. 
The yaya is a lullaby.  The magsambag is a method of studying the Quran in which a mulid or student follows the Quranic singing of the teacher.  The student and teacher are not allowed to sing together. 
Then there are the songs, which the Yakan sing during daily activities.  In keeping watch over rice fields, they sing some forms of the jamiluddin and kalangan.  While resting at home, they also leisurely sing the katakata, jamiluddin, and nahana.  Children at play imitate the adults in singing the kalangan, jamiluddin, lembukayu, and lugu (Nicolas 1977:97-100).
One popular Yakan dance adopted from the Tausogs pangalay is called mangalay.  The dance is accompanied by the kunlintangan kayu and played by three people.  In the Yakan "bumblebee" mimetic dance usually performed by a male dancer, a searcher successfully finds honey with the aid of a torch.  He overeats, and the result is a stomachache (Orosa-Goquingco 1980:175).  Another example of a mimetic dance is the tahing baila, which imitates the movement of a fish (Tiongson 1991:236).  At weddings, the tumahik or war dance is to be performed by the groom as well as male relatives of both the groom and the bride.  Dressed in Yakan finery, the dancer uses a spear and a shield to fight an imaginary enemy to the music of the kulintangan. - R. Matilac

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