i dream of being possible

Filipin@s, batok, and appropriation of Indigenous traditions

I can’t remember if it is was pinoy-culture or thisisnotpinoy that I started this discussion with (and they asked me to submit), for now I’m posting this here and I’ll be happy to submit if I can find out where the right place is for it.

So. To situate myself for this discussion, I’m a mestisa Tagalog. This means that I not only come from the dominant ethnicity (in terms of location/power but not numeracy) but that I’m also the type of light skin pinay that overall our culture nowadays finds so desirable (because of colonialism).

I, like many other Pin@ys both in the Philippines and in the diaspora, have a great deal of love and pride in my culture. I’m also at a place where I want to see more decolonization and more reclaiming of ourselves beyond what we were taught by the spanish and americans. I want to have a culture where I am not considered more desirable and simply better than an Aeta person, because of my closer proximity to whiteness.

As part of this, I, like many other Pin@ys, have become interested in traditional Filipin@ tattoos. Indeed, I’m currently in the process of having a tattoo designed by a Pinay artist.

Except that there are several different layers that need to be unpacked here. Most well known and popular at this point is the Kalinga or Butbut tattooing traditions (especially if we are talking about Apo Whang-ud and her legacy for safeguarding and carrying this tradition to present times). Overall, the Philippines islands and its many ethnicities has a very very very long history of tattooing and several tattooing traditions. Unfortunately, not all of the traditions have been well documented or lucky enough to have an elder like Apo Whang-ud keeping the tradition alive.

And this matters.

Because what does it mean for a Tagalog like me to get a Butbut style tattoo in the diaspora? How much right to I have to act as if Butbut traditions and practises are something I’m entitled to? [1. And, no, I’m not talking about going to see Apo Whang-ud and getting a tattoo from her. This is also her business. So, yes, she also tattoos white people and outsiders. But part of the question is: how different is it for me to get a Butbut tattoo from a white person doing the same? Neither of us are Butbut. Because we are talking about ethics and appropriation]

Indigeniety is a sort of a strange concept when it comes to a place like the Philippines because Tagalogs are indigenous. And the lack of capitalization is intentional with that statement. Tagalogs are indigenous but we aren’t Indigenous. It would be absurd to construct an Indigenous identity as a person belonging to the second largest ethnic group and who’s lands exist at the former seat of colonial power and the current capital/central power. This distinction matters because, while we cannot say that my appropriation of Butbut traditions is of the same kind were I to don a headdress, but we also cannot say that it isn’t appropriation.

One of the lies that white people have taught is that “Filipin@s” exist. Or that the ‘Philippines’ is a real place with one coherent ethnic and regional identity. But this isn’t true. Not at all. Or rather, it is part of a larger truth. We are Filipin@s and the Philippines does exist (and it is something, like other parts of the colonial legacy that must be reconciled). But inasmuch as I’m Pinay, I am also Tagalog. These things are both true.

And it must be a part of our steps towards decolonization to realize that, yes, we now have a shared history and culture, but in celebrating and recognizing this we also cannot and should not seek to erase the rich diversity and different ethnicities within our culture. Given in to this homogonizing urge would only serve to complete the colonial project started by the spanish.

This also means that we must be ever so very careful when it comes to how we engage things like the ‘Filipin@’ tattoo tradition. We cannot simply take something that belongs to one group and call it common property. Because often, in many ways, I can see many of the same problems inherent with appropriating other, non-Pin@y Indigenous traditions: where we insist that those traditions remain frozen in time, where we begin to romanticize ‘primitave’ ‘native’ culture, where we stop seeing and recognizing the living, breathing human beings currently living within that culture.

We must and owe ourselves and our Indigenous people, our serious thought and consideration. In our paths to decolonize, reclaim, and celebrate our cultures we must ensure that this path is not walked on the backs of our Indigenous peoples. True decolonization cannot happen otherwise.