Back from the Crocodile’s Belly: Philippine Babaylan Studies and the Struggle for Indigenous Memory

lilyS. Lily Mendoza is a native of San Fernando, Pampanga in Central Luzon, Philippines. Lily is especially known in the Philippines and beyond for her pathbreaking work on indigenization and indigenous studies. She is a scholar and associate professor of Culture and Communication at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

RD: What is the crocodile’s belly? Where does the title come from?

LM: I don’t know if I should even dare tell you what our original title was. But it was Towards a Postcolonial Indigeneity: Babaylanism as Critical Pedagogy for Diasporic Struggles (laughter).

I can’t recall now how our present fabulous title came about exactly, but I remember Leny, my hubby Jim, and I sitting at the back porch of Leny’s house on a balmy July afternoon in the summer of 2013, surrounded by the noisy clacking of Cal’s (Leny’s hubby) multicultural chickens and his lush garden, cracking our heads—the three of us—for an alternative title, when suddenly, it was as if the Buwaya God, the Crocodile God, spoke with no uncertainty, Back from the Crocodile’s Belly, and the rest of the title—just like that—popped out like bright rays of sunlight popping out of the horizon at daybreak as Grandfather Sun makes his way out of the egg of night.

I was told later on that when Leny announced the new book title to the Center for Babaylan Studies cohort at their pre-conference retreat, it was met with a resounding “Yes!” We knew then that we had listened well and that the Holies were more than pleased with our offering.

RD: Why crocodile’s belly?

LM:The book is dedicated to the memory of the Babaylan (indigenous healers) women and men who were fed to crocodiles during the Spanish colonial times. This is what we wrote in our book Introduction:

A story is told that when the Spaniards (who colonized the Philippine islands beginning in the 16th century) began to understand the power and potency of the [indigenous healers in the islands, the babaylan], they so feared the latter’s spiritual prowess that they not only killed many of them but in some instances, fed them to crocodiles to ensure their total annihilation. While appearing in the archive primarily in connection with the 1663 babaylan uprising in Tapar, Iloilo, (where the corpses of babaylan charismatic rebel leader Tapar and his followers, along with the group’s blessed holy mother, Maria Santisima, were impaled on bamboo stakes and deliberately placed on the mouth of river Laglag to be eaten by crocodiles) the story captures a broad truth: colonial violence did consume indigenous culture [as] the 2001 account of religious historian Carolyn Brewer details the systematic demonization of babaylans and their ostracism and social “dismemberment” as brujas or witches).

In the book, we take the crocodile (buwaya in Tagalog) as having dual signification: on the one hand, its figuration in Philippine popular discourse as a devouring and insatiable beast (and even now used in editorial cartoons and protest rallies to symbolize the obscene greed and rapaciousness of those in power) and, on the other hand, our reference to it in this book as in fact the Crocodile God—fit to receive and be given offerings.

In a sense the representation of the Buwaya as both a devouring Power and a life-giving resurrection womb is very much akin to the figure of Mama Drago, resonant in Scythian myths, as well as Celtic, and other ancient Indo-European cultures, as being in fact a figure of the Earth Mother, the source of all life, ungrudgingly supplying her children with nourishment and abundance provided she is fed in turn by her children’s offerings of human ingenuity with grief, and remembrance. But the same nurturing mother becomes a hungry devouring beast when denied her due (as we witness today in the denying of her waters in drought, or in the similar withdrawing of fertility from her soils, or her thundering response to human expansionist folly in the catastrophic floodings, tornados, and forest fires that increasingly have become the norm across the globe).

Similarly, ancestors too become hungry ghosts when not fed offerings of grief, beauty, eloquence and loving remembrance. For, as writer Martin Prechtel notes, unlike our more distant and intact forebears “our [more recent] ancestors weren’t necessarily very smart. In many cases, they are the ones who left us this mess. Some of them were great, but others had huge prejudices” whose devastating effects we struggle with today (in Jensen, Truths among Us: Conversations on Building a New Culture, p. 242). Thus belatedly we need to feed them with our offerings of grief and remembrance, lest they remain hungry ghosts, unable to take their rightful place as ancestors, causing us to live out their prejudices in our lifetime, and creating cultures ridden with depression, violence, and despair.

So in this book, we endeavor to take up this sacred work, as it were, of singing and story-ing the fragments of indigenous memory back into remembrance and wholeness, coaxing the scaly god-serpent of the waters to give back the pieces he has swallowed in exchange for our offerings of grief, beauty, and eloquence.

RD: What would a community look like that reads Crocodile’s Belly and seeks to live it out? 

LM: There is today tremendous hunger among our people (Filipinos both at home and abroad) for a kind of spiritual grounding in these turbulent and uncertain times that goes beyond mere assertion of marginalized identity. Over the years, we’ve become all too aware of the spiritual bankruptcy of political struggles (e.g., nationalism, ethnic recognition, etc.) that, in the end, are merely about jockeying for an equal share of the pie of privilege. The turn to our indigenous heritage is no mere romance of an idealized vision of the simple, uncorrupted native. But one of the tenets of the book is that it’s not enough to see and grieve what is wrong in the world; we need also to fall in love. We cannot simply exit one social formation (i.e. colonization) without undergoing initiation into another world. For us Filipinos (as is the case for many other decolonizing peoples around the globe), this alternative world is the world of our indigenous ancestors—those who knew how to live on the land without destroying it, who regarded all of life as sacred, and who understood that their very own health and well-being depended on the health and well-being of all of creation. This is not a world that is passing away. It is one that is actively being rendered extinct by our modern supremacist, totalitarian, and exploitative culture, now in its manic phase of scouring the planet for the last remaining resources it can find to power its consumption-driven world. Many of those last remaining resources happen to be under the feet of indigenous peoples around the globe.

My very own healing from colonial subjection came through my first-time encounter with the beauty and vibrancy of our indigenous peoples’ artistic creations in a class in the humanities while I was a graduate student at the University of the Philippines (I talk about it in detail in my essay in the volume, “B(e)aring the Babylon: Body Memory, Colonial Wounding, and Return to Indigenous Wildness”). Much maligned in the literature as “primitive” and “uncivilized,” our tribal peoples, numbering anywhere from 14-17 million and belonging to more than a hundred ethnolinguistic communities, have had much of their culture and spirituality demonized and disparaged not only by the Spanish and American Christian proselytizers, but also by well-meaning Western-influenced Filipino educators and scholars committed to the civilizational project. Part of the work in this book, then, is to help our communities reconnect with our abjected ancestry—to re-read, as it were, against the grain, the insults, denigrations, and patronizing accounts of our indigenous peoples’ histories and tell their stories anew. Is there romance involved? Sure, if by that, we mean looking at their world with the eyes of love. But haven’t we all, for far too long, been engaged in a pathological romance with civilization to the point of believing it’s worth the genocidal sacrifice of all beings and of the earth itself? And when you love, it makes you want to do everything you can to protect that which you love from harm or destruction.

Many of us who are involved in this work understand that there is a war going on against those who dare witness to a different way of being human in the world—those who, against all odds, refuse adamantly to bow the knee to the corporate Baal of our time. A war against those who refuse baptism to supremacist religions that claim to be “the only way to God” or those who would rather die than sell their history-drenched ancestral lands to the highest bidder. Or, simply, those who refuse to give up who they are, who stubbornly insist on being themselves despite all attempts to co-opt them into civilization, industry, and impersonal governments. But besides bearing witness to the integrity of their different way of being (or whatever remnant of it can still be glimpsed inside the debris of missionizing and civilizing efforts of outsiders), to our deep grief there seems to be little else we can do. Oftentimes, though, they tell us that it is enough that we see them for who they are. That is a huge thing, they say, for even their children now, once sent to modern schools, no longer want to have anything to do with the old ways.

There’s a lot, however, that we can do to educate our kind (modern urbanized Filipinos) about how the lives we live in the metropole are not innocent of the blood and torment suffered by our indigenous brothers and sisters. To the extent that we continue to live energy-hungry lives that require endless supplies of minerals, fossil fuels, forests, lands, and other resources on which our automated culture relies, we participate in their continuing dispossession and ultimate annihilation. Our relationship with them is not abstract; it is concrete and material. Our hope is that through our work in this and other publications we can assist in helping our people understand these very real interconnections between our world and those of our indigenous peoples.

RD: What has this book meant for your own work and what’s next in your own work?

LM: There’s something new that I’ve noticed since going down this path of reconnecting with my ancestors. One is my being drawn more and more to story as a mode of engaging with knowledge and with the world. When I was in grad school, one of my dissertation committee members told me that he suspected there was another voice hiding inside of me underneath the ruthless discursive one that I tended to use so much—a voice that was more personal, creative, and artistic (which he gleaned from our more informal email exchanges). He was right. It was a voice I had relished in high school, but had given up when faced with western grad school demands for high theory exposition. But no longer. I am committed to honoring what was already present within me. And it’s been very freeing. I realize my story-telling voice references a more indigenous, embodied way of being that is altering how I write and teach.

Just yesterday, for instance, in my multicultural communication class, we did a “family artifact” activity where students were asked to bring an object that is a part of their ancestral history and talk about its significance as a placeholder of memory. We draped a center table with a beautiful tapestry and arranged the chairs in a circle around it. A Muslim student brought a beautiful prayer rug, another brought a treasured radio from his great grandfather that he said has seen a lot of history (from the Korean War, through the Cuban missile crisis, to the war in Vietnam, etc). Another brought a statuette of Mary holding a baby Jesus passed down to her by her grandmother that she remembered playing with as a child and evoking memories she had forgotten. Without even trying on my part, the activity became sacred ceremony. As they listened to each other tell the stories of their artifacts, there was amazement at the diversity and richness of their backgrounds and experiences. Earlier on they had largely identified only as individuals (unless they happened to be students of color). But over time the story-telling emphasis has begun to work its magic on them and create community. I now use an indigenous framework in all my classes, bringing in knowledges, perspectives, and modes of engagement largely excluded or devalued by mainstream ways of doing education (thanks for Jurgen Kremer, R. Jackson-Paton & Leny Strobel for the inspiration!).

As part of my journey to indigenous self-reclamation, I continue to understand the ways my habits of thinking and being in the world have been shaped and colonized by civilizational logic. Hence, the deep critique of the logic of civilization and what it means for a struggling nation like the Philippines continues to exercise me, as I know it will, most likely, for the rest of my life.

RD: In the introduction, Albert Alejo talks about the apologies that must be made as a Christian aware of the conflict between institutional religion and babaylan spirituality. For Christians reading this book, what does it mean for us in terms of the struggle for decolonization and re-indigenization?

For me, the challenge of decolonization and re-indigenization demands a giving up of all forms of supremacy, including that of Christian supremacy—the claim to having the one right formula, the ultimate trump card, the final word. I know of many Christians who struggle with the notion that the Christian story is only one story among many. But I am all too familiar with the damaging effects of the more typical insistence that the Christian story is the only true one—no matter the attempts to wrap it in benevolent and compassionate missionary work. Can Christians engage with others on equal ground without pulling out the trump card in the end? Can they give up the trump card altogether?

I once had opportunity to share with a group of seminary students here in the U.S. my testimony as a born-again evangelical Christian whose world had been turned upside down by my encounter with the indigenous. Sadly, during the Q & A that followed, all that the audience seemed to be interested in was whether I was still a Christian. Nothing else seemed to matter. I shudder to think that had been my stance, too, when listening to others before my own cultural awakening.

This book, then, is an invitation to listen deeply and hear, not only out of our default certainties but with genuine curiosity and openness to difference.

4 thoughts on “Back from the Crocodile’s Belly: Philippine Babaylan Studies and the Struggle for Indigenous Memory

  1. Pingback: Lamuwan Kata: Experiencing Loob at CfBS Conference | eternal sunshine of the spotless mind

  2. Pingback: Unmothered & In Halves: From The Center of Babaylan Studies Conference | Radical Discipleship

  3. Pingback: Giving Up The Trump Card | Radical Discipleship

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