The Mansaka Tribe of Compostela Valley

Philippines Culture
by Jacob Maentz Mar 2, 2017

*All photos by the author

Last year I spent a week getting to know and learn more about the Mansaka people who live in and around Compostela Valley in the region of Mindanao in the Philippines. The Mansaka are just one of a number of indigenous groups living in Compostela Valley and Davao del Norte, but they are the most numerous in the area.

I had the privilege of spending time with a number of Mansaka families, witnessing life as it is today, both in their more traditional rural communities and in the modern city of Tagum.

I learned about their many traditions, beliefs and the changes that are happening within the tribe today, but more importantly, I witnessed an incredible sense of pride, even among the younger generations, and I learned what it meant for them to be called Mansaka.

Considered one of the eighteen indigenous ethnolinguistic Lumad groups in Mindanao, the native Mansaka have continued their way of life during the hundreds of years of migrations and inter-marriages of the Malays, Indonesians and the Chinese.

Although the Mansaka people evolved over time, they were never heavily influenced by the Spanish during their colonization. However, when the Americans arrived many Mansaka were encouraged to work in coastal plantations and adapt to the Christian religion and lifestyle.

Today, although many Mansaka are Christians, they also still embrace many of the traditions and beliefs passed down to them over time.

Considered the birthplace of the Mansaka people, Mainit hot spring (pictured above) is where the first Mansaka man was from. His name was Inangsabong. Inangsabong had seven wives who eventually settled in different areas of Compostela Valley creating the different Mansaka settlements still present today. Inangsabong’s grave and final resting place is said to be at the top of this hot spring.

There are a number of visual differences in the attire worn by the different generations of Mansaka. In general, Mansaka fashion tends to use a lot of lines with shapes such as diamonds and squares versus the use of circles. When looking at old photos of Mansaka women you will notice that most had very prominent bangs showing, and this can also be seen in the photo above of the older Mansaka woman. Their bangs are part of their fashion which again use the straight line theme.

Large earplugs, or ’barikog’, in their earlobes, shell and wood bracelets, and circular silver breastplates, or ’paratina’, are also common elements of Mansaka dress which are becoming harder and harder to find.

The headdress that Bia Sheena Onlos, a young Mansaka leader from Tagum City, is wearing above is a common piece being adapted by the younger generation. Likewise, the panahiyan is the eloquent stitching on the shoulders and is an important part of Mansaka dress. You can clearly see the reddish panahiyan in Sheena’s dress above.

Here a Mansaka man takes an early morning bath by the river. Many Mansaka still live in rural places like this, however, more and more are migrating to the city as they become better educated and more opportunities become available. The term Mansaka derives from ‘man’ meaning ‘first’ and ‘saka’ meaning ‘to ascend,’ and therefore means the first people to ascend the mountains or go upstream.

Before traveling to Compostela Valley I had the impression that the area was mostly flat and surrounded by mountains like a typical valley. I didn’t realize that the area is actually a very large province with numerous rivers, mountains and settlements. The dense tropical forest fills with clouds after an afternoon rainstorm.

Below you see Bia Carmen Onlos Dansigan, a Mansaka Baylan (priest and leader) wearing her traditional dress. A Baylan serves his or her people as a priest and as a healer. They are called by the spirits to the ministry of healing and have a special relationship with the supreme being, the Magbabaya (God). They perform the different tribal rituals and can sense when bad things might happen.

There are only a handful of older Baylans left in Mansaka culture and even fewer remaining that have a close relationship with the spirit of Magbabaya.

Traditionally, Baylans prefers to live in isolation closer to the forest where they can commune with nature and the spirits. Many of the remaining Baylans now live closer to the city and don’t retain that close spiritual relationship. Bia Dansigan is very active and lives in the mountains where she constantly communicates with the spirit of Magbabaya, which is also referred to as Diwata.

The betel nut, seen held in the hands below, is the seed of the fruit from the areca palm and is communally used by different indigenous groups throughout the Philippines and tropical Asia. Mansaka are also fond of chewing tobacco and it is often loosely held on the outside of the lips.

You will also notice the shell and wooden bracelets and the circle silver breastplate (paratina) that were once used by many of the Mansaka women. The material for the wood and shell bracelets were traditionally traded for because they could not be found in the valley.

Today, much of Mansaka life revolves around gold mining as it does for most people living in this area. The valley itself is rich in copper and gold ore and mining has proliferated since the 1970s.

For centuries the Mansaka farmed their land and grew subsistence crops in patches of shifting agriculture throughout the valley. They grew corn, camotes, vegetables, fruits, upland rice and even some cash crops such as coffee and abaca. Although this type of subsistence farming is still present in the region, a number of factors forced many Mansaka to find alternative forms of income. One of these factors during the 1960s and 1970s was the increased number of upland settlers, due to new logging access roads and large mining companies hiring Visayan migrants.

The consistent increase of human settlement further up the mountains led to less land and degraded agricultural and soil resources for the Mansaka.

Likewise, security tensions over land with armed groups such as the NPA (New People’s Army) led many Mansaka to look for alternative sources of income. Gold panning started in the rivers which eventually led to more sophisticated means of mining as knowledge increased and larger corporations arrived.

A Mansaka man collects stones on the river edge which will be processed with the hopes of extracting a small amount of gold. The Philippines is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, which contains much of the world’s copper and gold resources. Compostela Valley province is often dubbed the ‘golden valley’ or the ‘gold mining capital of the Philippines’.

On the right, you see a young man collecting soil and rocks inside a family owned gold mining tunnel. Aside from mining companies which employ thousands of local workers, small-scale gold mining has emerged as an increasingly important livelihood for people throughout Compostela Valley, including the Manasaka and other indigenous groups.

Within two minutes of photographing on the road in front of the mine (I was able to get about four frames off) security rushed out to stop us.

Apex Mining, on paper, is the third largest gold mining company in the country and employs hundreds of Mansaka from surrounding barangays. They told us we needed to obtain permission from them to photograph there and demanded to see my camera to delete any photos I had already taken. Fortunately, I didn’t give them my camera but agreed to leave, was polite and did not make a scene.

Apparently, in April of this year their facility was attacked by the NPA (New People’s Army) who burned equipment and, although unreported by the company, some of their security guards were killed. I can understand why they were a little on edge.

The head of security kept telling me it was private property, although I knew full well it is Mansaka ancestral domain only being leased by the company. When my guide told them he was from the tribe, security became very polite with us, however we decided not to push the issue of shooting more even though we probably could have.

The local river water has been this color (and considered biologically dead) since the time Apex mine came into the area in the 1970s. I was told that before people used to take baths and catch fish in the river. However, many of the tributaries leading into this river still provide a clean water source, including the Mainit hot spring.

Apex Mining is located on Mansaka ancestral land, requiring the company to give one percent of their earnings to the tribe, in addition to paying for surface rights.

Apex Mining have fallen well behind on their payments to the tribe and currently owe the Mansaka upwards of 68 million pesos.

Above two Mansaka men are hauling sacks of earth from a family owned underground mine. According to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, small-scale production such as this brought in roughly 34.1 billion pesos to the Philippine economy in 2011, compared to 88 billion pesos for large-scale gold mining.

Today, many Mansaka are part of family-run operations where all generations work together to manually process gold, using mercury and various other chemicals such as borax.

This type of manual processing only yields about 30 percent of the gold that is present in the rock. Compared to the more sophisticated operations like Apex mine where retention is almost 100 percent.

However, this type of work can produce enough family income to elevate their economic status, providing educational opportunities to their children and grandchildren that were not available two generations ago. My guide and his siblings were able to study in Tagum City because of the money provided from this operation.

Below you see gold in its final form after being processed in a small-scale mining operation. This is roughly one gram of gold taken from a single sack of rock. It’s worth about 1300 pesos ($30) when sold locally.

During my visit I stayed for a few days in the town of Mainit, which is where the Mainit hot spring is located, and is considered the birthplace of the Mansaka People.

In 2012, Mainit was declared as uninhabitable after it was hit by Typhoon Pablo (Bopha). Because the area is prone to landslides, and with a number of deadly landslides happening during the typhoon, the Philippine government decided to close all public schools and barangay halls in the area.

In 2008, the neighbouring towns of Masara and Mainit were recommended to be abandoned and the government also declared them uninhabitable after twin landslides claimed the lives of twenty people.

Many of the current landslides occurring are due to the widespread deforestation that happened by large logging companies starting in the 1960s. Despite this, the Mansaka people who call this home do not want to leave their land and continue living in the area. The land itself is declared and certified ancestral domain for the Mansaka.

Above you see the sun coming up over the town of Mainit in Compostela Valley. Although this area is now prone to landslides it remains an important area for the Mansaka people. Unfortunately, a decade ago, Mainit was also the primary dumping ground for poisonous cyanide waste from the Apex Mining.

Here a woman and her child sit outside a classroom at the public elementary school in Mainit, Compostela Valley. The school has been closed since Typhoon Pablo (Bopha) hit in 2012, but is still being used to house families. Typhoon Pablo was the strongest tropical cyclone to ever hit Mindanao, making landfall as a Category 5 super typhoon.

The storm caused widespread destruction in Compostela Valley, leaving thousands homeless and causing more than 600 fatalities.

On the right, you see Mansaka children in the town of Mainit waiting for free school transport, provided by Apex Mining, to bring them down the mountain to the nearest public school. The Mainit public elementary school was closed in 2012 after Typhoon Pablo and will not reopen as the area was declared uninhabitable by the government.

In other parts of Compostela valley, getting to school requires crossing rivers like the one pictured below.

Life in rural Compostela valley is much like that of other places throughout the country. There is a strong connection to the land as it provides food and livelihoods for most people. Although, there does seem to be a little more disposable income because of the jobs provided by gold mining. When compared to other indigenous groups I have visited throughout the Philippines, the Mansaka do not seem to be as dependent on their shifting crops as some other groups still are.

It’s also a bit unique in that so many rural families have regular employment that occupies most of their time. Even in these more rural locations the Manaska are highly organized, with a strong leadership structure and written customary laws that should be followed.

Above Bia Dansigan watches over her grandchild while her father is out working at Apex Mining. Like many Filipino families, raising children seems to be more of an extended family-based or communal effort.

Early Mansaka houses were built on treetops or in bamboo groves as a precautionary measure against surprise attacks and raids. Today, the most common Mansaka dwelling is a one-room house based on what I was told is a Christian design.

Above Mansaka boys are taking an afternoon bath in the Mainit Hot Spring. Many local Mansaka will come here to bath either early morning or late afternoon after work.

One of the Mansaka’s traditional methods of cooking is called ‘liorot’. Meat and root crops are placed together with simple herbs (lemon grass, salt, pepper, ginger) inside a hollow bamboo tube and cooked over a fire.

This is the first time I have tasted or seen this method of cooking although it is also common among some other indigenous groups here in the Philippines. For example, the Aeta around Pampanga are known for this style of cooking as well. There is a bit of preparation involved to cook this way, which is likely one of the reasons why now it is mostly only done for special occasions or when families have visitors.

Above Datu Dansigan is collecting bamboo in the mountains which will be used for liorot cooking. Traditionally, this type of work would have only been done by the women of the family. Women were responsible for all of the house chores, cooking and farming while the men protected the land. Today, roles have started to change even in more rural communities.

Bia Dansigan (together with her grandson) preparing camotes (sweet potatoes) and gabi (yam) which will be placed inside the bamboo pole and cooked over a fire. Today this traditional method of cooking is usually only used for special occasions or when there are visitors. The root crops were harvested earlier in the day from the mountains and the chicken was killed immediately before being used. I was lucky enough to have this unique meal cooked twice for me during my one week stay.

After the bamboo is filled with different meats, herbs and root crops it is placed over an open fire where it cooks, creating an inclosed oven type of heat inside the bamboo. The result is a delicious meal with simple yet unforgettable flavors.

The Mansaka have a wealth of different songs, riddles, stories, poems and other narratives that are shared and told at different times. The Balyan is often the one who recites these, narrating the tribes different customs and traditions. That evening Bia Dansigan even sang a song about my visit there and told me I was now part of Mansaka history. I’m still waiting to get the song translated to see exactly what was said about me!

The Mansaka also possess a wide array of musical instruments, giving life to their songs and dances. Above you see Datu Aguido Sucmaan holding his kudlog (two-stringed guitar) in his home off of the national highway leading into Tagum City.

Like Bia Carmen Onlos Dansigan, Datu Sucnaan is one of the last few Balyans or priests of the Mansaka Tribe, a vanguard of the Mansaka culture and tradition. His family were one of the original settlers of Brgy, Pandapan, in Tagum City. He recounted to us how the national highway was built and the history of where the city got its name.

Datu Sucmaan is also a skilled dancer, though in his late eighties he recounted how he and his wife Bia Maura danced at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and even for the former First Lady Imelda Marcos during one of her birthday celebrations. His wife Bia Maura passed away three years ago and Datu Sucnaan is now left to continue teaching younger Mansaka kids about the art and meaning of their traditional dance. Before we left, he showed us their picture as a young couple. He told us, “It’s very hard to continue going on when you’ve been married for 54 years, it’s so lonely.”

Mansaka children growing up in more urban environments certainly face different challenges than those their parents or grandparents faced.

From my short visit with the Mansaka I felt encouraged that many initiatives are taking place to help safeguard traditions and their peoples history. There is even an indigenous peoples university in Davao City where indigenous youth can study and receive practical education that is relevant to them. There is a small museum for the Mansaka being made in Tagum and there is an annual festival (Kaimonan Festival) every October to celebrate the different tribal songs, dances, and music.

Sheena Onlos, the young Mansaka leader whose portrait I shared near the beginning of this story, shops with her two sisters for clothes in the market area of Tagum City. Sheena told me that she will often wear her traditional Mansaka dress around the city and doesn’t feel any kind of discrimination. Likewise, at the city hall you will see a number of men and women dressed in traditional clothing, especially those who are working in the office of Sheena’s father, Datu Onlos, the indigenous peoples representative for Tagum City.

Sheena’s father, Datu Onlos, attending a weekly city council meeting in Tagum City. Datu Onlos is the indigenous peoples representative for Tagum City allowing him to make decisions that will help protect local indigenous peoples rights and welfare.

The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997, allows mandatory indigenous representation in all policy-making bodies and in local legislative councils. There are also indigenous peoples representatives installed at the barangay level throughout Tagum.

Happy times with Datu Onlos and his family, telling stories in his home one evening while his family was hosting me in Compostela Valley. It should also be noted that this was the evening of his 30th wedding anniversary, yet he still took time to show me around, share stories of his people and cook some delicious liorot.


This story is part of the Katutubong Filipino Project, an initiative I founded along with my wife Nahoma, to bring about awareness of the Philippine archipelago’s indigenous peoples by visually documenting their slowly disappearing and changing cultural heritages.

This article originally appeared on Maptia and is republished here with permission.

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