Crash Course: Filipinx Indigenous Groups

August 9 is UN International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, an annual event that aims to promote and protect the rights of the world's indigenous peoples. As part of celebrating this day, here is a crash course on four of the Philippines' indigenous groups: the Aeta, Badjao, Igorot, and Lumad.


The Aeta are an indigenous group who reside in the northern mountainous regions of Luzon. They are Australo-Melanesians who have dark skin, curly to kinky hair, small frame, small nose, and dark brown eyes. Considered the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines, the Aeta preceded the Austronesians (originating from Taiwan or South China) who migrated to the country around 1,500 BC. The Aeta traveled to the Philippines about 30,000 years ago, using land bridges that connected Luzon to the Asian mainland.

Being skilled hunters and gatherers, the Aeta people are primarily nomadic. They used their skills in jungle survival and built temporary houses using sticks and banana leaves. They make their own tools and weapons. For medicine, they used different plants and herbs to cure illnesses and injuries.

The Aeta people are also skilled in weaving and plating. They create colorful traditional clothing (wrap skirts for women and loin cloths for men) and adorn their bodies with handmade ornaments and accessories. They also like music; in fact, they make their own instruments that they use to create rhythmic beats while other members of the tribe dance.

During the Spanish occupation, the Aeta managed to preserve their culture due to their location. The Spaniards had a hard time crossing mountains to force Christianity and colonialism to this indigenous group. Therefore, they were also able to preserve their belief system. The Aeta prayed to one Supreme God, although they also believe that good and bad spirits exist in nature.

For thousands of years, the Aeta are nomads who kept moving to new places that have abundant natural resources. However, they have also formed settlements in Bataan, Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, Tarlac, and Zambales. For thousands of years, they lived near Mount Pinatubo, an active volcano in Central Luzon, which erupted in 1991, forcing these tribes to resettle in more urban areas.

Today, the Aeta live in poor communities with limited resources. They have been victims of displacement and marginalization. Although they are the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines, they have been forced out of their ancestral lands by mining corporations and illegal loggers.


The Badjao are the largest group of indigenous sea farers in Southeast Asia. Historically, they lived in small houseboats called vintas and traveled where the winds took them. Anthropologists believe that they have been living in the Philippines since 500 AD. But, for about two hundred years, they have formed land settlements in the southernmost coastal regions of the Philippines. You can find their houses on stilts above water in Basilan, Sulu, Tawi Tawi, and Zamboanga del Sur.

Being skilled fisherfolk, the Badjao have been using sustainable fishing methods for more than a thousand years. They caught fish for food and also for trading. They exchanged fish for root crops and fruits whenever they came to shore. They also docked on land to fix their houseboats and to replenish their supplies.

The Badjao managed to preserve their culture and traditions during the Spanish era because they were living off the coast of Mindanao in their houseboats. And besides, Mindanao is an island that was primarily untouched by the colonizers. Even to this day, majority of Mindanao's population are Muslims.

The Badjao worshipped Omboh Dilaut, the God of the Sea, and offered sacrifices for safety and prosperity. But they prayed to their ancestors as well. They believed that the spirits of their deceased loved ones are still part of their families, so they would bring food and other offerings to their graves whenever they visited. Spirituality is a common belief among the Badjao. In fact, they would call mediums or spirit healers to cure illnesses and diseases. They would also send a "spirit boat" out to the sea every time they had an abundant catch. However, a lot of Badjao today have converted to Islam.

The Badjao are one of the most misunderstood ethnic groups in the Philippines. Most believe that they are dangerous and aggressive, but they are actually a friendly and peaceful people. This misconception lead to the marginalization of this indigenous group. As more and more of them started settling on land, they continued to face ostracism and displacement, especially with the ongoing military conflicts in the Mindanao region. They live in poor communities. Some of them are even forced to travel to Luzon and Visayas to find food, work, and more opportunities.


Igorots, which in Tagalog translates to “mountain people”, are a Filipino ethnic group based in the mountains of Northern Luzon. Living closely with nature’s gifts, they highly value the preservation of environment and believe that godly spirits inhabit trees and mountains. In the era of Spanish colonization, the Igorots resisted and stayed loyal to their anitos instead of embracing Christianity.

Contrary to what most of our local history books say, Igorots are not all dark-skinned and kinky-haired like Aetas. Their clothing can be described as tones of red and black weaved bahags (for men) and tapis (for women). Feathers are also a staple in the Igorots’ colorful headpiece. In the older days, though, women go topless and their nudity was considered pure and innocent. Bongol or beads in women’s clothing indicated their status. Richer and nobler Igorot women usually wear heavier and layered bongols.

Igorots face discrimination on a daily basis even up to thus day. In April 2017, a Filipino netizen posted evidence of a bus driver refusing to let an Igorot man inside. The same netizen bravely approached the Igorot man to ask how he felt and accompanied him until another bus allowed him to board. The Facebook post went viral after which the LTFRB took only 3 days to confront the bus company. But this does not stop their activist hearts from speaking up. When recently elected Senator Imee Marcos told the press that the Igorots would join her in a ritual dance to bless her designated office, the Progressive Igorot for Social Action released a statement in condemnation of Imee's request, "We will not dance for you, because a dance for a Marcos is a dance for shame." These IPs recognize that the Marcos clan stole billions from the country and continue to revel in stolen money up to now. Also, ex-President Marcos was responsible for allowing the construction of Chico Dam which displaced a lot of indigenous communities.


Lumads, as a collective, reside in various remote locations in Mindanao while continuously protecting and cultivating their ancestral lands. The word “Lumad” came from a Cebuano term which means indigenous. Its 15 tribes united in 1986 to agree upon a common name distinct from the Moros during the rule of the Marcos Martial Law. Said tribes under the Lumad community include Atta, Bagobo, Banwaon, B’laan, Bukidnon, Dibabawon, Higaonon, Mamanwa, Manguwangan, Manobo, Mansaka, Subanen, Tagakaolo, Tasaday, Tboli, Teduray, and Ubo.

Colorful beadwork is central in the Lumad clothing, decorations, and ornaments. Men and women enjoy beading as a pasttime and a source of income. It also serves a symbol of solidarity especially in times of paramilitary attacks. Time and again, the Lumads experience territorial threats from military and mining operations.

In 2015, three Lumad leaders were slain and gave rise to international awareness of what these IPs face on the daily. Their tribal leaders and activists continue to push for “peace sanctuaries” which have been neglected since these zones are suspected as hideouts for armed groups. Since the Lumads have no access to government support in terms of education, among other services, they set up their own schools aided by volunteer groups. Unverified reports of Lumads teaching "left-leaning" ideologies led to the government ordering 55 Lumad schools in the Davao region to be closed. If we’re already pulling our hairs out in the midst of drug war victims, what more hardships the Lumads face for being displaced in their own land and then being painted as terrorists for defending their rights?

The IPs lead different ways of life, in touch with nature and rich with tradition and culture. Being away from civilization, all they have left are their ancestral lands and their distinct lives within their tribes. Even with the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (1997), government support for health care, food, and education usually don't reach the IPs, especially those living in the remote locations. On the contrary, IPs have been actively discriminated against by several administrations. Our IPs need support and special protection so they may be able to preserve centuries of inherited experiences. You may visit the following links to know more about and lend a hand to our Filipino indigenous groups.

Tuklas Katutubo (National Organization of Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines)

77 Gold St. Filinvest 2 Batasan Hills Quezon City

International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs

International Alert

Project Katutubong Pilipino


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