Eclipse highlights fading Philippine tribal culture. NATIVE DRUMS COAX BACK THE SUN

Mid-morning last Friday, the heavens turned dark for three minutes in the southern Philippines. The celestial event - a total eclipse of the sun - was perceived as a scientific rarity by tourists, researchers, and President Corazon Aquino.

``Wow, freak out,'' exclaimed Mrs. Aquino, gazing at the moon's black disk, which was rimmed faintly from behind by the sun's corona in the darkness.

But the shadow cast on the earth was anything but scientific to the T'boli people, an isolated tribe of about 70,000 along whose ancestral lands the path of the eclipse fell.

To the T'boli, the ``darkness-during-the-day'' is the stuff of myth - of ancient epics, rhythmic music, and subtle dance. And of their worst fears.

Told by outsiders of the coming event, they stored extra food and water. During the eclipse, they hid babies indoors, locked up chickens, and struck brass gongs. People feared most that snakes might enter their bamboo huts.

All through the night before the eclipse, an elderly storyteller, Siboy Jenana, sang parts of a long and sacred T'boli epic about mythical hero, Todbulol, as many listened with tearful eyes.

Mr. Siboy told in a commanding voice how Todbulol prevented his sister from using an eclipse to destroy the earth after she saw the people living in misery.

``The eclipse is a test by the creator,'' Siboy said after the event, ``to show us that all this land, everything we see here, is not ours. This belongs to him,'' Siboy added. ``If he wants to turn everything upside down, we'll leave it to him.''

Another legend, says Manudal Maguwan, a T'boli shaman, says an eclipse occurs when a serpent swallows the sun. It ends, however, if the people play musical instruments to attract a monkey, who kills the serpent and releases the sun from its belly. That drama was acted out by the T'bolis just after the March 18 eclipse.

While such T'boli legends are being kept alive today, they are also being overshadowed by creeping Westernization: modern music, radio, and television. These have been introduced by the larger nontribal population of lowland Filipinos who have migrated into T'boli lands on the big southern island of Mindanao.

This trend, certain as the moon blotting out the sun, could signal twilight for T'boli culture.

``We believe our myths, but we have gone to school and learned modern science,'' says Peter Carado, a T'boli educator who has elected to work with his own people, designing curricula that includes tribal culture. ``We learned that the moon blocks the sun. But the old people still do not know this. We are in a transition period.''

The T'bolis, known for their distinctive abaca, or hemp, weaving and the heavy brass ``girdles'' laden with bells that the women wear, are one of 20 or so tribal groups in the Philippines.

Spread over about 40 square miles, the T'boli share forests with a more famous but smaller tribal people, the Tasaday, first made known to the outside world in the early 1970s as a ``primitive'' band of simple cave-dwelling food-gatherers.

The Philippines' tribal people live mainly in mountains little influenced by early Spanish colonizers. Today, they make up about 8 percent of the country's population. The T'bolis are perhaps one of the main tribal groups with its culture still largely intact.

This is due largely to the work of the Santa Cruz Mission, which has sought to preserve and perpetuate T'boli values and traditions, while teaching subjects and skills that enable them to succeed in modern society.

The Roman Catholic-run mission, for instance, encourages T'bolis to retain their myths, asserting that Christianity itself has its roots in the Old Testament beliefs of tribal people.

``Is it just the moon blocking the sun?'' asks Sean McDonagh, an Irish anthropologist and mission priest.

``Or do T'boli myths provide an understanding of how to live on the earth that has been lost by alienating, analytical Western science?''

``One of the things we absolutely need is other ways of being human that don't destroy the earth. And tribal people offer ways where people can live lightly on this earth - in energy, food, and transport,'' Fr. McDonagh says.

T'boli beliefs are ``pretty accurate,'' he says, because they respect the limits of the earth and result in technology and agriculture that preserve the delicate ecology of the area. Of Western science, he asks, what's the use of knowing an eclipse is caused by the moon if the same science destroys the natural world?

``Tribal societies have an enormous amount to say to the national identity of Filipinos and to the whole world community,'' McDonagh says. But, they either are denigrated and dismissed as primitive or regarded as ``noble savages,'' a view that fails to consider realities.

As Western culture spreads and homogenizes humanity, McDonagh says it is essential to preserve the diversity the tribes offer.

``Tribal culture in the Philippines will not exist in 30 years, and we are all going to be the poorer,'' he says.

Though tribal culture represents the pre-Spanish heritage of almost all Filipinos, four centuries of Spanish and American colonization and post-colonial alienation have led to a rootless culture, he says. Lowland Filipinos have lost tribal myths which provided a model for human living. The only appealing myth for many Filipinos, he says, is escape to California.

``The survival, or the redemption, of the larger group of Filipinos comes from the people who are despised, the people on the periphery. I feel if the lowland Filipinos really engage the tribal folks, it would be a great salvation for them. They could find real roots here,'' he says.

Until now, the government and most private institutions have not tried to understand or be enriched by the tribals, McDonagh contends.

President Aquino was originally scheduled to visit the T'bolis the day of the eclipse. The trip was canceled due to reports of communist rebels in the area. She stayed in General Santos City, about 50 miles south of the T'boli community.

Had she visited, she would have seen hundreds of T'Boli dancing and playing flutes, bamboo zithers, jew's-harps, brass gongs, and drums. It was their way of making the sun come back.

To the amazement of modern science, it worked.

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