Mindanao’s Tagakaulo people struggle to preserve way of life

Rommel Rebollido

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Mindanao’s Tagakaulo people struggle to preserve way of life

ETHNIC BATTLE. A Tagakaulo father acts as referee to his sons while they practice Two men engage in Sbuno, a Tagakaulo sport similar to wrestling, in Malungon, Sarangani province.

Rommel Rebollido/Rappler

'Modern culture can wipe out the Tagakaulo people if we simply leave things to fate,' says indigenous peoples' heritage conservation advocate Renny Boy Takyawan

SARANGANI, Philippines – Edmundo Cejar, a retired corporate executive who turned to farming, was astonished when he witnessed a Tagakaulo woman calmly brush off a venomous snake attack on his family’s farm in Sitio Rancho, Malungon town in Sarangani province.

The woman, in her 30s and the wife of a farmhand, was tidying up their surroundings when she accidentally stepped on a snake, which then bit her leg.

“It was a cobra, its neck spread as it struck,” recalled Cejar whose family moved to Rancho years ago after he retired as a senior executive with a Netherlands-based multinational company.

Despite Cejar’s concern and attempts to take her to a hospital, the woman refused. Instead, she calmly walked to nearby bushes, gathered some leaves, and returned home to tend to her wound in their hut.

The following morning, Cejar said he was surprised to see the woman resuming her chores in the yard as if nothing had happened. 

“She looked as if no snake had bitten her. I was simply dumbfounded,” he said.

According to a Sitio Rancho leader, Sonny Vallente, venomous snakes like the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), known locally as banakon, are aplenty in the town.

While there are no recorded fatalities from snake bites in the town, Vallente said there was a time when the local government offered a reward to anyone who could bring a cobra, dead or alive, to the mayor’s office.

Vanishing practices

Upon hearing about the snake bite incident, Renny Boy Takyawan, a Tagakaulo himself, appeared unperturbed. Among the Tagakaulo people, he explained, families rely on plants and herbs to cure ailments, including animal and snake bites.

“It is part of our customary healing practices passed down to us by our ancestors. There’s no need to rush to a hospital. It may even take time and delay treatment,” Takyawan, a Tagakaulo heritage conservation advocate, told Rappler on April 5.

However, Takyawan quickly pointed out that such traditional healing remedies are among many practices and ways of life of the Tagakaulo that are being threatened.

“Even our dialect has already been influenced by the more dominant Cebuano and Ilonggo dialects,” he pointed out.

Takyawan said they have been making efforts to preserve their customary practices, such as their unique food preparations using indigenous ingredients, as well as how to source and store these ingredients, which are significant aspects of the Tagakaulo’s distinctive way of life.

“Modern culture can wipe out the Tagakaulo people if we simply leave things to fate,” lamented Takyawan as he recounted the numerous challenges indigenous peoples face, not only in their village in Lower Mainit in this town but also elsewhere.


The Tagakaulo people are indigenous to Mindanao, primarily inhabiting the hinterlands of Malungon town in this province and along its borders with Davao del Sur and Davao Occidental provinces.

“Tagakaulo,” which translates to “people at the headwater,” generally refers to animists, although some have converted to Islam and Christianity.

According to Takyawan, like other ethnic groups, the accommodating nature of the Tagakaulos makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Their considerate demeanor often leads many Tagakaulo families to be exploited, resulting in the loss of their farms and precious heirlooms to tricksters, leaving them impoverished.

Empowering Tagakaulos

Takyawan said many Tagakaulos have even abandoned customary practices simply to avoid embarrassment.

According to the Tagakaulo heritage conservation advocate, many youth, who are tasked with preserving traditions, often opt to explore life in urban areas, enticed by the allure of technology and modernity.

Sadly, he said, many of them leave their homes to experience city life, but end up being exploited.


To tackle this, Takyawan and a group launched a project called Kaalaman ay Susi sa Mayaman at Buhay ng Katutubong Komunidad (Kasambok) to empower the Tagakaulo communities. The word kasambok itself means unity in Tagakaulo.

Although the project has yielded encouraging results, it faces new challenges with each iteration, he observed, noting that skeptics are always present.

“We are supposed to be done empowering the youth. Now, we are teaching farmers that farming is not merely planting but a business as well,” Takyawan quipped.

Since its inception, Kasambok has primarily concentrated on women’s education, equipping farmers with business acumen, empowering youth to become exceptional leaders, and fostering discussions on traditional practices and cultural preservation.

Kasambok has been receiving support from Tuklas Katutubo, a volunteer organization of indigenous peoples (IP) professionals, community leaders, and advocates working for the protection and promotion of IP rights and welfare.

Jason Sibug, founder of Tuklas Katutubo and an Ubo Manobo from Kidapawan City, said they have supported the Kasambuk project, citing the discrimination and lack of recognition commonly experienced by ethnic groups, which, he said, must be addressed.

Tuklas Katutubo has been collaborating with indigenous peoples groups nationwide.

Through Kasambok and Tuklas Katutubo, Takyawan said the Tagakaulo youth can develop and utilize their potential to become “not just mere individuals, but leaders with robust leadership skills capable of safeguarding and preserving our cultural heritage.”

He said young Tagakaulos must first recognize their vital role as youth with a profound understanding of their roots and ethnicity to grasp their crucial role in preserving the Tagakaulo’s traditional way of life, customs, and values.

Basically, the youth must learn to appreciate Tagakaulo history – learn about Tagakaulo heroes, royalty, and their familial ties, Takyawan said.

Tagakaulo way

Takyawan also emphasized the importance of developing strong Tagakaulo leaders from among the youth to guide their communities in adapting to modernity and the influences of other cultures.

“We need our voices to be heard, but every time we express our concerns, we face misunderstanding and discrimination,” he said, pointing out that their actions are not driven by any political agenda.

The leadership model to which Tagakaulo youth are exposed is rooted in the Tagakaulo way of governance, distinct from the typical political leadership many are accustomed to.

Becoming a Tagakaulo leader isn’t determined by a simple majority vote, but by a consensus of 90% to 100% among the community, Takyawan explained.

Given the current circumstances, Takyawan said the Tagakaulo people are left with no choice but to exert more effort to ensure their voices are heard and their way of life is understood. –

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