Emerging Opportunities for Engaging Indigenous Communities (2014)

Pedro Walpole, SJ

Indigenous youth hold the future for many upland communities.

The Jesuit way of engaging indigenous communities is to encounter people in their dignity, with respect and appreciation for what God created with them. It is about working with people as partners and seeking greater justice and equity in society. Engaging with Indigenous Peoples means taking the time to listen and learn from them, to follow and not to lead, and to share in their dream for their land, their children, and their culture.

The education program in Bendum, Malaybalay, Bukidnon and the overall engagement with the Pulangiyen people follows this way of working with others. The community expressed a desire for a school and welcomed the opportunity to work with an organization that could help them with their efforts. An initial literacy program developed into a full-fledged elementary curriculum that educates Pulangiyen children within the context of their culture and prepares them for life in their gaup, the domain in which they live.

In a further development, the education of the youth, as distinct from the education of children, is now a priority through a two-month program that teaches technical skills while strengthening cultural identity and developing leadership capacity. The youth holds the hope for the future of indigenous communities, and so accompanying them as they negotiate the trials of young adulthood and keeping them engaged and equipped with life skills are critical responses to their needs.

Youth education in Upper Pulangi

Youth education in Upper Pulangi

The government’s K to 12 curriculum requires the addition of two more years in high school, called Senior High School. This opened up an opportunity to further develop an education program for the youth of Upper Pulangi, an area surrounding the upper waters of the Pulangi River that is home to many indigenous villages. The initial eight-week youth program is now being developed into a Senior High School curriculum that will combine academic and technical training with formation towards cultural leadership and care of the environment.

The possibility of organizing college-level online classes is also explored with Jesuit Commons, an international network of Jesuit educators from all over the world. Jesuit Commons partners with Jesuit Refugee Services to offer online classes in refugee camps in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, through a project called Higher Education at the Margins. This is a great idea that can be adapted in an upland community like Bendum. The approach allows for community-based classes geared towards community learning and an online diploma program for those who wish to pursue college studies.

The education programs in Bendum are increasingly opening up to serve the needs of Upper Pulangi and other indigenous communities who have limited access to education. The elementary school is organizing classes in three more villages outside of Bendum. The youth program welcomes students from all over Upper Pulangi and holds exchange visits with youth from other indigenous communities in Mindanao. The assisting organization and the people of Bendum are sharing their learnings and experiences with the government and civil society organizations working in education in other indigenous communities.

Pedro Walpole, SJ and Father Provincial Tony Moreno, SJ looking at a Mindanao map showing ecology and indigenous cultures and education

Pedro Walpole, SJ and Father Provincial Tony Moreno, SJ looking at a Mindanao map showing ecology and indigenous cultures and education

Outside of Bendum, a myriad of religious congregations and civil society organizations are running education programs in indigenous communities all over Mindanao. Most of these are basic literacy programs, while some are fully-developed elementary and high school programs with varying levels of cultural integration in their curriculum. Some are formal schools independently managed or attached to a larger institution, while most are non-formal initiatives in areas not reached by government service. Many are sustained by project funding and would benefit from stronger government support.

Two years ago, the Department of Education created a policy framework for indigenous education and established a new office to support this framework. There is recognition that the present education system can be more responsive to the realities of Indigenous Peoples and more cognizant of the wealth of diversity that is part of the Philippine landscape.

Community: Dante in the forest

A Pulangiyen in the forest

The story of the Indigenous Peoples of Mindanao is a story of cultures, languages, and resources. They can now be found mainly in the uplands, marshlands, and islands of Mindanao, where they care for considerable natural resources, including water and forests. They face pressures from the economy and corporate interests in their land, and struggle with food security, livelihood, and the survival of their cultures and languages. Over the last few decades, there is a growing willingness to engage with greater society and work with government and others for the recognition of their rights.

To engage with Indigenous Peoples means to share in their struggles and in their hopes, and to accompany them in the journey to seek greater social equity and a sustainable future for their land, culture, and children.

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