The Indigenous People Of Palawan: Tagbanua Masikampo

The anointing and "lambay" of Masikampo Ruben C. Joya

The island of Palawan stands famous for its scenic and serene beaches. International magazines and travel websites consistently ranked Palawan as one of the best in the world. Aside from the natural features of the landscape, the island of Palawan is also known for its people. There is a rich demographic diversity in the island owing to the multiple ethnic tribes calling Palawan their home. The Tagbanua tribe is one of the oldest indigenous tribes thriving in the archipelago. It exists with rich and elaborate culture and traditions which is being practiced especially by tribal members in the Central coast of Palawan. At the helm of the Tagbanua society is the Masikampo (Masicampo). Considered as the highest political leader of the cultural communities of Palawan, the Masikampo works to preserve the cultural integrity and secure the well-being of the province's indigenous people. According to history, the Masikampo originated from the Sultanate of Brunei of North Borneo. As distinguished from the Sultanate of Sulu, the Masikampo is considered as a title higher than the Datu but lower than a Sultan. Based on Tagbanua customary laws and practices, the following are the requisites for one to become a qualified heir to the position of Masicampo:

1. One must have a Bloodline of a Masicampo known as Osol;
2. He must be knowledgeable of the customary laws of the Tagbanuas known as Adat;
3. He must be knowledgeable of the history of the Masicampo known as Tuturan;
4. He must be trained and have shown interest in jural procedures known as Surugiden;
5. He must possess the skill and capacity to lead his people or at least acquainted in public administration;
6. He must have integrity, able to command respect and be considerably wealthy;
 7. On the aspect of our ritual practices, before a Masicampo can assume the position, he must undergo the ritual called “lambay” and recite the sacred oath. Only through this ritual that the blessings of Maguindusa can be given. It is also necessary that a male manlalambay or priest must officiate the ritual.

The Tagbanua Matriarchs

The towns of Aborlan and Inagawan are tied to the Joya Family. History has shown how the Masikampo lineage flourished even as the society changed through years of colonization. The Kursud family descendants sustained the Tagbanua heritage amidst the grueling challenges posed by modernization and conflicts of interest within the family. In celebration of International Women's Day, we honor the matriarchs of the Tagbanua and Pala'wan tribes. Pictured above is the late Rafaela "Apo Pila"Kursud Joya and her daughter Quintera "Apo Kimko" Joya. Apo Pila was of mixed Pala'wan and Tagbanua heritage. Her father was the respected Masikampo Kursud who married a Pala'wan princess from the influential Impot family of Malatgao. Rafaela Kursud was a beloved person in Aborlan and donated a parcel of her land to a church at that time. Although not as famous as her mother, Quintera "Apo Kimko" Joya paved a way for the education of the Tagbanua through her marriage with John H. Finnigan, an American educator who held the high post at the agricultural school in Aborlan now known as the Western Philippines University (WPU). Some of the Palanca family in Aborlan and Puerto Princesa were direct descendants of the Joya-Finnigan union. We celebrate these two women and their contribution to Tagbanua culture and heritage.


The Joya family stands as one of the surviving noble lines of the Tagbanua as direct descendants of the Masikampo lineage. Members of the family remain in Aborlan connected with the indigenous peoples of Southern Palawan. The late Ignacio "Ampun" Joya was the first born of Rafaela "Apo Pila" Cursod and Bantol Joya. He had a younger sister Quintera "Kimko" Joya who was married to the renowned Thomasite teacher John H. Finnigan. Aside from being the leader of the tribes, Ampun Joya was a teacher, a rancher and served as the town Mayor of Aborlan. He married Carmen Cojamco, a mixed Cuyuno-Tagbanwa, from Inagawan. They had 12 children and numerous grandchildren. The family lived in a place called "Kalampisaw"- a hilly area by the center of the town. Masikampo Ampun Joya donated lands to build the old municipal building and the Aborlan Catholic Church.


The Tagbanua Nobles: Masikampu Ignacio Joya

Masikampu Ignacio Joya (the 14th Masikampu) who was considered as the environmental protector of the ancient lands and sacred sites of Palawan, had the title MASIKAMPU or the Master of the Camp (Antropologist Harold Olofson); the Tagbanuas, however, quoted it for “Mas it Ampu” or higher than Lords (Ancient Syllabaries). This indicates why the Masikampu seats as the highest titular head of the earliest form of government known in the province. All affairs, even those of the past, present and future manifestations of the culture of Palawan must be with the consent and authority of the Masikampu

 Ampun, who was the eldest grandson of Kursud, was treated by his grandfather as his own son. He was   also trained to become a Masikampu as he did with his sons. Since Ampun did not have a real father, Kursud has become his paternal figure as he also lives with him. Relatively, Ampun, was only younger by one year than Emilio, the youngest son of Kursud with his first wife Diked. Knowledge about customary laws and with the shared intimacy between Ampun and Kursud, Ampun was the most intensively trained among eligible successors in the bloodline of Kursud. 
Fox described Ampun Huya as a very prominent and intelligent Tagbanuwa. For a person who has served as Masikampu for 27 long years, no one ever contested his authority. It was also stated that, past mayors, such as Ampun, have been Tagbanuwa. Generally speaking, the Tagbanuwa have been and are well represented in the municipal government. Even before his assumption as Masikampu, Ampun was already well versed of the customs and traditions of the Tagbanuwa. He even defended Santus during the council (pp 72). He also traveled widely throughout the domain of the cultural minorities as he functioned as the appeals judge during councils and was called by Maradia Arngao as eligible member of the council of elders.


The Tagbanua Masikampo: A Noble Lineage

        From the phrase ‘mas et ampu” or “higher than lords” this title is not based upon Spanish term “Maestro de campo” which Dr. Fox states that its origin may at least be one hundred fifty years or older.  The term “mas” means “greater” and “ampu” means “lord” with “ampuan” meaning “Lord” or “Maguindusa”, the Supreme God of the Tagbanuas. This rank is considered as higher than the Datu but lesser than the Sultan. By virtue of the authority of the Masicampo and based on intergenerational knowledge passed to the present successor, the term “Maestro de Campo” is hereby corrected in accordance with the right of cultural integrity.
     The Masicampo is a vassal from the Sultan of Burnay (Brunei) who first established the civil hierarchy long before the colonization of Spain in the Philippines. It was a legend that the Masicampo is the son of the Sultan of Brunei by reason of the legend of Inagawan, the seat of the Masicampo of Palawan.


The Tagbanua Marriage

Intermarriage between Tagbanua, Pala'wan and southern Palawan tribes is not  an uncommon practice. There usually is a council held to agree on terms of marriage between families including variation in the dowry or "bandi".

The process of Surugiden (Tagbanua)/Betiara (Pela’wan) has been settled since time immemorial. It is a process for conflict resolution, marriage solemnization and for penalizing transgressors for the violation of customary laws (Fox). IP Marriages are strictly solemnized in accordance with customary laws thru the process of Surugiden/Betiara (Testimony of Pangiran Kaibiño Nangkud)


The Masikampo: Tagbanua Supreme Leader

A précis
The State recognizes the inherent right of the ICCs/IPs to self-governance and self-determination and respects the integrity of their values, practices and institutions. Consequently, the State shall guarantee the right of ICCs/IPs to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. The ICCs/IPs shall have the right to use their own commonly accepted justice systems, conflict resolution institutions, peace building mechanisms and other customary laws and practices within their respective communities and as may be compatible with the national legal system and with internationally recognized human right. Section 13 and 15 of RA No. 8371.
The term “cultural minorities” had been applied to the predominantly non-Christian groups of varying degrees of cultural development who form eight percent of the present population of the Philippines. There are only two original settlers in Palawan, those belonging to the groups of Batak and Tagbanua (Map of the Cultural Communities of the Philippines).This reveals that the earliest cultural community that pre- existed even the Spanish colonization is the Tagbanua.
Tagbanua society is characterized by tremendous elaboration of custom law which affects much necessary formalism and mechanisms of social control. The political and juridical powers of the hereditary leaders, which form a hierarchy headed by the Masikampu, extend through the Tagbanua world.  Tagbanua society is stratified on the basis of “high bloods” that are the hereditary leaders, the “ginuu” and their relatives, as well as most of the “babalyans” or mediums and their kin. The remaining persons form a class of “low blood”. In the past, there was also a small class of servile debtors, the “uripun”, who had a slave- like status. The hereditary leaders often assume responsibilities normally associated elsewhere in the Philippines, such as “marriage counseling”. In legal conflict, the “high bloods” enjoy a marked advantage over the “low bloods” for the latter do not have any kinsmen, as hereditary leaders, to whom they can turn for legal aid. (Fox, Tagbanua Religion and Society/National Museum)

Masikampu Ignacio Joya (the 14th Masikampu) who was considered as the environmental protector of the ancient lands and sacred sites of Palawan, had the title MASIKAMPU or the Master of the Camp (Antropologist Harold Olofson); the Tagbanuas, however, quoted it for “Mas it Ampu” or higher than Lords (Ancient Syllabaries). This indicates why the Masikampu seats as the highest titular head of the earliest form of government known in the province. All affairs, even those of the past, present and future manifestations of the culture of Palawan must be with the consent and authority of the Masikampu.
 Somewhere in 1840’s a great battle was fought between Masikampu Bulunan and Datu Harun Narazzid (Robert Fox, based on the recollection of Masikampu Clemente Bulunan); Masikampu Bulunan was considered as the Masikampu who hates the idea of slavery; Tagbanuas are free people but the customary laws are extremely rigid. Tagbanuas are fierce warriors; the Masikampu even sent reinforcements to fight the battle of Taytay against the tyranny of the Spaniards (Tuturan).
The 18th Masikampu continuously acts as the protector of the adat (customary laws). He is the 18th reincarnation of the ancient spirit bound to protect the people of the land, thus, conceived the term “Tagbanua” or the “owners of the land”. The 14th Masikampu Ignacio Joya was a collaborator to the modern day environmental anthropology in cognizance with the ancient beliefs that people’s spirits are deeply interwoven with love of nature. The 3rd Masikampu Kinuyu was even dubbed as a demi-god (Folk History) while Masikampu Limas was told to be a son of a Surutan of Bur’nay (History of Inagawan) and Masikampu Patula was considered as the last monarch of Palawan when he was baptized as Don Manuel Patula by Ezekiel Moreno.
The ancient people also believe in the concept of an afterlife (the story behind the Manunggul Jar). The Masikampu never dies, the term “nanalikod” when a Masikampu passed connotes more of the term “physical retirement” because the ancient spirit never experiences “death”. Thus, it is a simple fact that every Masikampu is a vessel of ancient history of Palawan (Tuturan). Palawan has been the domain of the Masikampu since time immemorial. If culture is a soul to a nation then it can be said that the Masicampo is the ancient spirit of the province of Palawan.
Additionally, Indigenous leadership emerges from the dynamics of customary law and practices. Indigenous leaders evolve from a lifestyle of conscious assertion and practice of traditional values and beliefs as seen, among others, by the following attributes:
a)    Demonstrates sustained wisdom and integrity in the administration of justice and pronouncement of judgments and decisions based on truth and the maintenance of peace;
b)    Model head of the family, as a provider and protector of family and community values such as cooperation, sharing and caring;
c)     Contributes and makes decisions aimed at protecting the ancestral domain, community peace, truth, IKSPs and sustaining harmonious relationships with neighboring tribes;
d)    Recognized authority on customary laws and practices, conflict resolution mechanism, peace building processes, spiritual, rituals and ceremonials; and
e)    Personal Integrity and honesty. Section 3 Rule IV IRR RA No. 8371.

The 18th Masikampu can fluently speak Tagbanua, Pela’wan, Ke’ney and Cuyonon dialect as a duty. He was selected not only on the basis of his bloodline but because of his profound knowledge of the customary laws and the unwritten history of the ICCs/IPs of the province. The 14th Masikampu Ignacio Joya was described by Dr. Robert Fox as an intelligent and prominent Tagbanua. Most of the Masikampu were political leaders in Palawan. Wealth, intellect and breeding are traits being considered in the selection. The bloodline of the Masikampu is not the sole basis in the selection process. With the longest ever recorded history and ancestry, the authority of Masikampu Joya is highly incontestable (National Museum on Succession of Inagawan Masikampu).
The Masikampu has existed for over three hundred years already (National Museum). The highest jural and political office among the Tagbanua is the Masikampu. Regardless of the Spanish origin of this term and the fact that the Spaniards had no intense contacts with the Tagbanuas until about 1872, the folk history of the Tagbanua indicates that the function of this office are at least one hundred and fifty years old and probably older. (Dr. Robert B. Fox).
The title Masikampu is given to the appeals judge (Anthropologist Olofson) meaning that the highest tribunal is headed by the Masikampu himself who decides cases with finality by means of surugiden/betiara. The process of Surugiden (Tagbanua)/Betiara (Pela’wan) has been settled since time immemorial. It is a process for conflict resolution, marriage solemnization and for penalizing transgressors for the violation of customary laws (Fox). IP Marriages are strictly solemnized in accordance with customary laws thru the process of Surugiden/Betiara (Testimony of Pangiran Kaibiño Nangkud)
Marriages among muslims or members of the ethnic cultural communities may be performed validly without the necessity of marriage license, provided they are solemnized in accordance with their customs, rites or practices. (Article 33 of E.O. No. 209) Customs and Practices refer to norms of conduct and patterns of relationship or usages of a community over time accepted and recognized as binding on all members. Section 1 (i) IRR RA No. 8371
With the continuation for almost ten years of incumbency of Masikampu Ruben C. Joya Sr., more or less thousand marriages were solemnized, this means surugiden/betiara were held more or less a thousand times with each celebration having recognized by the government through the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). Precisely, if IP Marriages were solemnized in accordance with the customary laws thru the process of surugiden and betiara, then this practice has already attained permanent recognition by the government. The function of the PSA is only ministerial with the matter of registration (PSA Letter). The integrity of the surugiden/betiara cannot be attacked except thru judicial process. The registration of every marriage is itself a confirmation that the customary process of surugiden/betiara is valid. Hence, the authority of the 18th Masikampu Ruben C. Joya Sr. to conduct any surugiden/betiara is already beyond contestation.
The State shall recognize and promote the rights of ICCs/IPs within the framework of national unity and development. Section 2 (a) RA No. 8371.Customary laws and practices shall prevail upon mainstream mechanisms in the manner of selecting the mandatory representatives to the local legislative councils of the ICCs/ IPs. Moreover, customary laws and practices shall be used primarily to resolve disputes in the selection process.Section 4(a) NCIP Memorandum Circular No. 001 Series of 2009.
It is a clear fact that the NCIP is devoid of any authority to pass upon the validity and regularity of the surugiden/betiara sans any specific provision granting the same or to enjoin or otherwise interfere with this proceeding. This ancient practice was not even proscribed by any law rather it was encouraged to be exercised as a substantial right under the right of self-governance and empowerment (Section 4 Rule IV IRR RA 8371). Neither was there any existing conflict since the 18th Masikampu was duly authorized to solemnize marriages in accordance with the customary laws (Authority to solemnize 2008-2019 upon endorsement of NCIP) and further, considering that marriage is an inviolable social institution, it would be absurd to deny recognition of a removal of an IPMR candidate when based to that same customary practice. In comparison, unlike marriages, public office is neither a property nor contract, but a mere privilege (Nachura Political Law). Any candidate for IPMR may be removed by reason of his membership in the tribe when done thru a surugiden/betiara.
The surugiden/ betiara is a probe designed to eliminate any illegal appointment to the position of IPMR and to ensure the primacy of customary laws under RA No. 8371. The decision of the Bagerar as headed by the Masikampu concerns personal membership to the tribe, which, as a token for such affiliation, that he should abide with their customary laws (NCIP Memorandum No. 414). The public character of an IPMR depends on the will of the traditional leaders who may, at any justifiable cause, deny him of such right. Hence, an official may be removed in his public capacity as IPMR or in his private status as an individual member of his tribe. It can surely be observed that customary laws are more rigid than national election laws.
The ICCs/IPs have the right to use their traditional justice systems, conflict resolution institutions or peace building processes which are oriented to settlements, reconciliation and healing, and as may be compatible with national laws and accepted human rights, in all conflict situations between and among IP individual s and between and among other ICCs/IP communities. (Section 4 Rule IV IRR RA No. 8371)
Finally, under the doctrine of independence, ICCs/IPs have the right to practice and revitalize their own cultural traditions and customs. (Section 32 of RA No. 8371). Hence, the removal of an IPMR candidate is merely ministerial upon issuance of a final judgment by the Masikampu. Our customary laws are surely not mere illusory legal ornamentations to be trifled with; RA No. 8371 has specifically adopted our justice system as a guarantee for the perpetuation of culture and preservation of our cultural heritage in our province (Primacy of customary laws). The burden of preserving the genuine culture of Palawan has not been the sole obligation of the Masikampu, the destiny of ICCs/IPs and their identity is always intertwined with inter-generational responsibility that each person should accord proper respect to our customary laws as our ancestor did during their time.

18th Masicampo of Palawan