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Honoring Our Culture and Our Habitat

Vangie with Christmas cards

The Subanen Craft Project

By Evanglelyn Gawason

My name is Evangelyn Gawason. My friends call me Vangie. I'm a Subanen. The Subanens are an indigenous people whose ancestral homeland covers most of the mountainous Zamboanga Peninsula in the Philippines. For the past six years I have been involved in a livelihood project called Subanen Crafts.

Vangie with a preschool teacher making a book
Vangie with a preschool teacher making a book

Columban Father Vincent Busch started our craft project in 2001 with the help of the Columban Sisters who have been working with the Subanen people since 1984.

Making hand-crafted items is part of the Subanen culture. Using rattan from the forest we weave mats, baskets, storage containers, and other household items. Over the centuries we have also developed a deep spiritual bond with our habitat which we celebrate in rituals and in dance.

Through the Subanen Craft Project I have learned to use our traditional hand-crafting skills to create beautiful works of art that also celebrate our bond with the natural world. For over fifteen years our crafts project has provided dignified livelihoods for 76 full-time and part-time crafters. I want to share how this project and other Columban ministries have helped my family, my people, and our habitat.

Being the oldest in our family, I try to help my younger brothers and sisters. My brother Roniel and my sisters Lalay and Jen had to board in the distant town of Midsalip to go to high school. I am thankful that I am able to use my earnings as a crafter to pay for their living expenses and for their school supplies and project fees.

Sr. Kathleen, preschool teachers and children at the preschool
Sr. Kathleen, preschool teachers and children at the preschool

A basic education is becoming essential for Subanens as more and more land-hungry settlers and resource-seeking industries occupy our ancestral land. Many illiterate Subanens have been fooled into signing or endorsing official documents that authorize outsiders to take possession of our land and its resources.

Unfortunately going to school is difficult for Subanens. Government schools are free, but our families still find it difficult to pay for uniforms, project fees, and school supplies. Our little ones often have to trudge long distances over rough terrain to distant schools where their teachers sometimes arrive late or do not show up at all. They struggle to understand teachers who do not speak our tribal language and who do not understand our customs. Our children begin to feel that our language and culture are not important, and they become ashamed. Many stop going to school entirely.

The Columban Sisters recognized the need to help our little ones overcome their shame and started a pre-school program with Subanenspeaking teachers. Over the years the Sisters and the staff of their Subanen Ministry have built nine preschools with an enrollment of more than two hundred children. These preschools are happy places for our little ones. Their teachers listen with wonder and appreciation when the children tell stories about snakes that fly, about eagles that eat monkeys, about the shy tarsiers that appear only at night, and about the wild pigs that try to eat our crops. Their teachers show gratitude for the sheltering mountains, the forested hills, and the cool streams of our ancestral habitat. They understand how rituals of thanksgiving to God are part of Subanen life. They encourage learning through play, song, dance, and drama. They affirm our culture, honor our traditions, and respect our spirituality.

Vangie holding an earth bead
Vangie holding an earth bead

The preschool teachers and the Subanen crafters have often worked together to make educational materials for the children. Using stories and examples familiar to the children, we crafted books that introduced the children to numbers, letters, colors, shapes, and opposites. To go with these hand-crafted books we also made coloring books that make learning fun. With these learning materials our little ones gradually became familiar with the world of reading, writing, counting, and art. With the help of their Subanen teachers, they gradually became accustomed to the new words and languages that they will need to know when they enter the government schools. When they finish preschool, they bring with them the confidence and the strength to enter the mainstream school system.

Our hand-crafted books use stories and images that are familiar to us. So too do our Christmas cards. Our card designs show Mary and Joseph working together to make their stable a more livable place for each other and for Jesus. Mary and Joseph are like us. Subanen families work hard to make our homes more livable. For example, I was able to pay for the construction of a new kitchen area for our home. Two years ago Fr. Busch had his photo taken in our outdoor kitchen area. Recently, he was photographed again in that same cooking area, but now it is enclosed within our home. One of our cards shows Joseph cooking for Mary. My family can now cook meals for each other in our new indoor kitchen.

Having an enclosed kitchen area is a welcome improvement for our home but having food to cook is a necessity. Each year many Subanen families go hungry because they have exhausted their stored grain and root crops. This lean time of the year is called the "hunger season," and it lasts for months. During these months many Subanens develop intestinal illnesses that sometimes require hospital care. Some Subanen families have had to sell their land and farm animals to pay for their medical expenses. With my steady income, I can buy rice for my family during the hunger season so we have been able to eat and to keep our land and animals.

As a part of Subanen Crafts I have been able to help my family and help our preschools educate our little ones. My craft work also helps me share our culture and celebrate our deep bond with God's creation. Recently, I designed an adjustable bracelet containing beads that represent the Earth and the other planets. When I look at the tiny blue Earth bead I think of the Earth as the sacred home of my family and of all people.

Evangelyn Gawason is a Subanen crafter living in the Philippines.