The Butbut Tribe of Buscalan, Kalinga
It is certainly unimaginable how an ordinary single old lady caught the attention of the world into her unknown village tucked in the heavens of the Cordillera Region in the Philippines. She is neither a prophet nor a faith healer. She is Whang-od, the last keeper of the Kalinga traditional tattoo.
After a long seclusion in the mountains of Kalinga, the Butbut tribe has finally opened the guarded trails to their homeland to persevering and worthy visitors. But this doesn’t come easy. It requires long hours of travel, great amount of physical strength and determination to continue the journey. Buscalan is a small barangay in the Municipality of Tinglayan, inhabited by about 200 households. They primarily thrive on rice agriculture and recently on tourism by providing guide services, translations and home accommodations.
Whang-od is 95 years old and she is the potent force in drawing in lowlanders and international tourists into Buscalan. The current influx of visitors in this small village is driven by the race against time and opportunity to personally meet and get inked by a legend before she transcends into the other world. Whang-od is acclaimed as the last mambabatok or traditional tattoo artist who uses the backhand tap technique unique to the Kalingas. Interestingly, Whang-od bleeds the skin by tapping a sharp lemon thorn and permanently inking it with soot collected from a burned pinewood.
Little is known about the Kalingas because they had very little interactions with the lowlanders. Information about them is solely relied on textbooks and documentaries done by anthropologists. The Kalingas are known headhunters and these are tattooed on their warriors’ bodies as a coat of arms. They were never under any foreign rule and during World War II they fought with hatchets and spears against the Japanese. The practice of headhunting has long been dead since the 1960s.
Buscalan is beautiful. Grass and local blooms fill its meadows overlooking the expansive panorama of a pristine terraced hinterland. Waterfalls punctuate the mountains but Tumaniw is the most accessible to tourists. The hiking trails in Buscalan are certainly fantastic but do not do this without a guide as there are wild animals around.
The Kalingas have very sharp facial contours and sun-basked skin. Their bodies are well toned from going up and down the mountain with baskets of rice or vegetable on their backs. They have a significant population of elderly especially within the last quarter stretch, which speaks of the kind of lifestyle they have lived all these years.
The new generation of Butbut is gentle, respectful and very warm to tourists. Many of them go to school but only very few make it to college. High school students hike about 2 to 3 mountains away everyday of their lives to attend classes. A single-building elementary school is within the sitio where Whang-od lives. The children of Buscalan engage tourists in cheerful chats and they are very inquisitive about city life.
A day in a life of a Butbut is simple. They wake up early to tend to their swine, cattle and farm. They plant rice on terraces carved on the mountain. Arabica coffee is also grown in the area and sold to visitors as a souvenir. Their favorite pastime activities are chatting under the stilted houses and entertaining tourists with the tongali (noseflute) and guitar over cups of fresh Kalinga coffee.
The Butbuts live on huts stilted from the ground. It is traditionally made of hardwood and grass roof. Today, some houses are built with contemporary building materials but still maintaining its unique spatial arrangements. Their homes are scaled in square partitioned into sleeping and dining area in one and a small space as kitchen.
Animism was once a time-honored practice among the Butbuts. They believed that spirits live on trees, stones and animals. Magical powers from natural elements were believed to cure, protect, guide or promote fertility. All of these are told in the tattoos on their skins. Christianity may have been evangelized in the highlands, but these folk beliefs are still silently honored alongside the modern-day religious practices.
The realities of modern times such as the necessities of education and jobs, assimilation to mainstream lowland societies, the disappearance of true hand combat warriors and the changing concepts of beauty impact the tradition of acquiring their customary tribal tattoos. This reality is threatening the batek tradition and is feared to end in the hands of its last master artist, Apo Whang-od.
Buscalan has become in the recent years a destination for tattoo enthusiasts, hikers, mountaineers, artists and curious travelers. Documentations have increased driven by more media coverage and studies of contemporary scholars. But the community needs help and this is where responsible, sustainable and purposive tourism comes in. We can all make a difference by giving back to the community that opened its once silent and elusive village to us city dwellers. Stewardship is everyone’s concern and must be held with action.