Book Review: Wisdom from the rainforest: A spiritual journey of an Anthropologist”

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A REVIEW OF THE BOOK “WISDOM FROM THE RAINFOREST: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF AN ANTHROPOLOGIST” BY STUART SCHLEGEL QUEZON CITY: ATENEO DE MANILA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1999, pp. 269.

This is a story of a young American anthropologist who spent two years of his life living with members of an indigenous Filipino tribe in the rainforests of Southwestern Mindanao, a part of the Philippine archipelago. There, in the company of the Tedurays, Dr. Stuart Schlegel witnessed how an animist tribe struggled to preserve their centuries old universal beliefs against strong foreign influences which threaten their communalistic life forever. What began as a dissertation study, became intensely personal for Schlegel as he immerse himself deeper into the Teduray’s philosophical worldview and years later, learn that the entire tribe was nearly wiped out.

In 1960, Schlegel became involved with the Tedurays as a young Episcopalian missionary. While working as a missionary, Schlegel realized that he was not engaging community members, the way an American, Captain Edwards, did several years back. He felt early on that he was contributing towards the slow conversion of the Tedurays to another belief system, a reality recognized and was actively resisted by the tribe.

Unlike other indigenous tribes, the Tedurays are not isolationists. Whoever loses his way and ends up in a Tenduray community gets the warmest care. They only became wary of foreigners when, during the pre-Spanish colonial times, Arab missionaries brought Islam in the Cotabato basin area. Islam caused the split of the Teduray nation, with those who embraced Islam chose to live with Maguindanao-ans.

Trade grew between the Tedurays and the Maguindanaoans. Some Tedurays embraced the feudal lifestyle and became farmers and land tenants. Others resisted and lived as traditional Tedurays, practiced the customs handed down to them for centuries. This group went further deeper into the lush rainforests of the Cotabato cordillera.

Schlegel arrived at the time when the Tedurays face their greatest and serious challenge—the arrival of landsteaders from Luzon and the Visayas. This was not the first time the Tedurays encountered a challenge. During the Spanish and American colonization, the Tedurays faced the true prospect of extinction, as foreign norms, cultural and concepts of civil rights clashed with the animist and communal beliefs of the tribe. Many foreigners tried to decipher the Teduray way of life, especially their language. The lack of a writing system complicated the attempt at transliteration. The Teduray’s resilience impressed Schlegel. Schlegel thought he can very well serve the peoples of Teduray as an anthropologist instead of a pastor.

Schlegel was fascinated at how the Tedurays view their reality, a reality threatened by the arrival of strong foreign cultural norms. While Schlegel seemed interested in the Teduray’s legal system or how they resolve disputes, it is obvious that Schlegel’s true intention is to map out or create an ethnography of the tribe. Together with his young family, Schlegel decided to return to America and pursue a doctorate in Anthropology. A few years later, he meticulously planned his comeback in Mindanao to complete his dissertation.

As an anthropologist, Schlegel knows that it is just a matter of time before the Teduray culture become extinct and eventually become part of a bigger, and wider ethnolinguistic group. Tedurays who lived in the low lands as peasants have embraced the cultural norms associated with farming life. As farmers and land tenants, these Tedurays already wear non-traditional tribal clothes unlike those in the Figel community.

Schlegel learned early on how strong the Teduray’s links with their land or where they are located. The fact is, Teduray life, beliefs and language are all tied with the land. Dinglasan (2015: 14-15) says Tedurays identify themselves with the land which they derive their subsistence.

Landsteaders from the Visayas and Luzon brought with them not just their distinct dialects but their customs and ways of life. Language is a determinant of identity, social and even economic status. As various other dialects mix with the indigenous ones, this do havoc not just on indigenous belief systems but the way communities treat each other. Poor Teduray families who continue to speak the language feel discriminated against by other Tagalog and Visayan dialect speakers who are richer, and more economically sited than the Tedurays. The Tedurays were not just fighting for their lands—they are fighting for the very survival of their way of life.

This explains why Schlegel wrote how difficult it is to map the Tedurays because their language was a unique variant of the Austronesian language pool. For two years, Schlegel admitted that despite decoding thousands of Teduray words and terms, he just merely scratched the surface.
Schlegel tiredless wrote his ethnography, observed the Tedurays and never did he try to change them. Tedurays, Schlegel observed, possesses a strong sense of affinity with the environment. They consider the rainforest as a sacred place because it is where they get their subsistence (Schlegel 2002:31).

Tedurays also have no concept of private ownership. The forests, the rivers, streams and the mountains are communally owned—and the Tedurays are just caretakers. Stewardship of natural resources is a sacred duty because it assures the survival of the tribe—a far more important thing than individual survival.

Possession is temporal. The lack of a concept of ownership does not mean lack of responsibility. It just mean that the Tedurays never competed for resources. There is no use of politics, of hierarchy or dominant social status. No leaders—only “specialists” relied upon by the community due to their skills and specializations (Schlegel, 2002:176).

Specialists are respected because of their contribution to the society. There is a conscious agreement of following norms of conduct which essentially celebrate individuality, family and unity towards the achievement of community welfare. A shaman is important because he heals people’s ills. An old man is important due to his legal experience especially in conflict resolution. The ability of finding a “middle way, “ a win-win” solution demonstrates expertise in avoiding tribesmen having “bad bladders.”

Schlegel seemed too starry eyed during his sessions with the tribe that he sometimes admitted having romanticized some of his observations. He grapples with this with such enormous difficulty that as what Veech of the Washington Post observed that Schlegel did not really narrate with his readers the “whole thing” which she describes as “unfortunate.” In the book, Schlegel admits this by saying:

“ the difference between my reality and the Figel Teduray reality was perfectly reflected in my original inability to converse with Teduray in the language.. and in the process of leaving their language, I began to learn the nature of their reality.”

For Schlegel, Teduray represented to him an ideal society, where everyone subsumes their individuality for the sake of the community. Cooperation, Schlegel learned, is part of the attainment of a “good life” for the Tedurays and “highly valued.”

He does note that, like other human communities, the Tedurays are not living in a “seamless society.” Schlegel noted contradictions in the Teduray concept of gender equality. Tedurays allow their young children to marry for as long as they understand what they are doing and for as long as the customs are followed. Homosexuality is something also accepted, according to Schlegel since what Tedurays consider as a human’s worth is his role in the society. When one acts out as a woman, he is readily accepted as such—no questions asked.

Schlegel took note of is about sexual matters—how the Tedurays consider marriage as something anchored on the collective attainment of peace. Schlegel says Tedurays resolve broken marriages by allowing elopement and repose their trust on the legal system to resolve post-breakup issues. Being an Episcopalian priest, Schlegel seemed unable to accept polygamy in tribes.

The idealized society which Schlegel saw as an anthropologist grew within him that led him to question his own society or “take” of reality. The challenges which he encountered forced him to reflect on his spiritual life. The more he tries to apply the Teduray life with his own, the more he grapples with the reality that what he wrote in that ethnography is not just about humans living in their environment, but a spiritual journey, a journey which, to a Westerner, seemed “too good to be true”, but for Schlegel, very real and valuable.

References:

Dinglasan, Anna Kristina M (2015). Minorities within a minority:Teduray-Lambangian women and the quest for peace in Mindanao, Philippines. Hague, Netherlands: International Institute for Social Studies.

Schlegel, Stuart (1999,2004). Wisdom from a Rainforest: The Spiritual Journey of an Anthropologist. QC: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Khatib, Mohammad. Mutual Relations of Identity and Foreign Language Learning: An Overview of Linguistic and Socio Linguistic Approaches to Identity (2011). Theory and Practice in Language Studies (1) 12: 1701.

Veech,Jennifer. Book Review. The Washington Post. See link at : https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/entertainment/books/1999/04/04/on-the-path-of-ancient-truths/6021586d-36f9-469c-907d53bc84c90cb4/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7047d85d002c

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