The Event That Changed a Tribe’s Identity
Imagine a lush, green field flanked by mountains in the distance and peppered with fresh lakes. Trees and various crops grow abundant in the rich earth and everywhere you look are sprouts and growth of vegetation.
Up until the year 1991, this is what the areas around Mount Pinatubo looked like. Its eruption is the second-largest volcanic eruption of the century and the biggest eruption to affect a densely populated region. Also, this event severely affected one of the indigenous tribes in the Philippines — the Aetas.
Slashing their population, wiping out their crops, and causing a significant shift in their people’s culture, the aftermath of Mount Pinatubo’s eruption was the dawn of a new era for these mountain-dwelling tribes.
The Tribe At The Top of Mountains
The Aeta (pronounced “eye-ta”) are indigenous people who live in isolated and mountainous parts of Luzon, Philippines. The distinguishing physical attributes of the Aeta include dark brown skin, a short stature, a small frame, and curly afro-like hair. They are also thought to be among the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines.
The Aetas were called negritos by the Spaniards during their colonization era in the Philippines. Due to the Aetas’ nomadic lifestyle up in mountainous areas, the Spaniards found it challenging to introduce Catholicism to their people. The Aeta were also resistant to change which made it difficult for the Spanish to colonize their tribe. Because of this, the Aeta were able to preserve their cultural beliefs and traditions until today.
Aetas are hunter-gatherers and they are among the most skilled peoples when it comes to survival in the wilderness. The Aetas typically use spears and the bow and arrow to hunt down their prey. They’re also able to use plants as herbal medicine and forge tools made from sticks and stones.
The Identity and Culture of the Aeta
A catalyst for a New Culture
One of the pivotal moments of the Aeta is the catastrophic eruption of Mount Pinatubo. This was the catalyst event for the Aeta to migrate to more lowland areas, adopt the culture of the lowland dwellers, and leave behind their mountainous lands.
The eruption caused significant changes and introduced new cultures in the lives of the Aeta. They changed the way they dressed, the way they prepared food, and even the way they spoke.
The Aeta have very simple traditional clothing. Young women wear wrap-around skirts and the men are clad in loincloths. Elder women wear a barkcloth strip which is wrapped between the legs and attached to a string around the waist.
Houses of Leaves and Stones
Aeta tribes live isolated and scattered in different mountainous parts of the country. They built temporary homes and shelters made of wooden staffs, covered with banana palm leaves.
Modernization has now reached the Aetas as they’ve established villages and settlements in areas of cleared mountains. These modern Aetas are no longer nomads who live from place to place with temporary houses. Now they reside in houses built from cogon grass and bamboo.
Some regions in Luzon where the Aetas live in are Zambales, Angeles, Olongapo, Pamapanga, Tarlac, Nueva Ecija, Panay, and Bataan.
Religion and Beliefs
The Aeta are believed to be monotheistic, where they believe in a supreme being or deity who rules over lesser spirits. The Aetas also practice animism and believe in environmental spirits. This religious belief respects the good and evil spirits which inhabit the environment.
In the 1960s, there was a shift in the Aetas’ religious practices. The missionaries of the New Tribes Mission, an Evangelical Protestant group, reached out to the Aetas and provided them with education and pastoral training. As a result, a large percentage of the Aetas in Pampanga and Zambales have been converted as Evangelicals.
Threats to the Tribe and Opportunities to Help
Over the years, the majority of the Aeta population managed to preserve their cultural practices and traditions. Sadly, the Aeta also fall prey to challenges such as marginalization, displacement, and poverty.
Other threats to the Aetas are deforestation, illegal logging, and slash-and-burn farming. Aetas rely on farming for their livelihood and food sources. All these threats strip them of the resources they need to make a living, leaving them vulnerable and systematically poorer.
To procure food, medicine, and other materials that can only be bought in the city center, Aetas will need to trek for hours through hot, sandy fields on foot. To get to school, children in the Aeta villages will also have to trek for 2 hours.
The Philippines has implemented government mandates such as the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997. However, this legislation is still not enough to protect them and help them cope with problems like livelihood support and access to employment.
Opportunities to help the Aetas with economic pressures include skills training in their communities. Also, setting up education programs for children in the Aeta villages will help them get schooling without having them go through exhausting treks.
Projects to help them gain more access to medical care, education, and employment opportunities are some of their biggest needs. Watch the short film we made about the Aeta Tribe.