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Am I a Native?

On Sunday, the 9th of August, was the International Day of the Indigenous Peoples. It has been declared by the United Nations to celebrate an awareness of indigenous communities. That sentence does not define the indigene. It is tautological – a reasoning that goes in circle. The definition makes use of the same word that is aching to be defined.

How do we identity then the indigenous communities? Am I not part of any of the indigenous communities?

Who is then the Indigene?

One way of defining is by example. Let us look at photos of the human species that are members of the Indigenous communities. In our country, the simplistic images are those from the north, the Cordillera, and those from the South, the Mindanao area. In the middle, straddling the mountains of the Sierra Madre, including the hills and dales in between, are the Negritoes or Atis or Aetas or Agtas. Those of us from the lowland tend to call them “our brother, Agtas” when we feel like it, when we are speechifying, or when we are writing and we are at a loss for a better word to use for them. Drunk or sober, many of those who call the Negritoes as brothers and sisters are either hypocrites or liars. Drunk or sober, we make fun of them. We feel superior over them simply because they are smaller in stature and darker.

In this land of glutathione, the skin color is the basis for calling others native.

These rich, lovely, white-skinned women are not bright enough to use the word, indigene. But if they read this article, then they can expand their vocabulary and thus call those who look different as their brother or sister Indigene. There is sophistication in that nomenclature. Indigene is close to Aubergine. The lowly eggplant is not lowly anymore but elevated to the level of haute couture. What is haute is always nice.

By example, we can look at how the designers appropriate the dresses of the Manobo or T’boli. We can also refer to the colors of the textiles of the Northern cultural communities. It appears then that anybody who dresses up differently – much differently – from us is an indigene. We assume those dresses as having been there always, couched in that great lie of being there since time immemorial.

There are, however, the realities. In a UN document titled “Covid-19 and Indigenous people’s resilience,” there is a statement about the indigenous communities not about who they are but what they face: ‘Indigenous communities already face a host of challenges, and the unfortunate present reality is that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are worsening and these challenges further.”

The document continues: “Indigenous communities already experience poor access to healthcare, significantly higher rates of diseases, lack of access to essential services, sanitation, and other key preventive measures, such as clean water, soap, disinfectant, etc. Likewise, most nearby local nearby facilities are often under-equipped and under-staffed.”

By that definition, indigenous communities cannot be far from where I live. The informal settlers are like those mentioned, and they are a street away from my home.

Are these informal settlers indigenous communities?

The indigene and the disenfranchised may not be one and the same but they share the same material conditions.

The availability of clean water for drinking and for bathing, the steady supply of soap, even the varied disinfectant in my home – from the gate to the living room then to the kitchen – are elements that disqualify me from categorized as marginalized.

I am a native but I went to school, speaks good English that clings to a memory of an accent. I studied in a Jesuit school, which further separated me from the realities of my small city. My education thrives on the nostalgia of a learning system that was strict and rigidly male-ordained and patriarchal.

Going further, in grade school, we prayed to the Holy Spirit, which was then called Holy Ghost, and lived through years when speaking in “vernacular,” a reference to our own language, was punished. We read about Apples and Pilgrims, snow-covered yard and Washington. We mangled grammar but who cared: we spoke English in that campus that was privileged in being connected – mortar and stone – to the old Cathedral. When the old bells, they were ringing for our salvation because we understood it more than those who studied in “public schools.”

And so, I cannot be native. I can celebrate the “native” in others but I cannot claim the label.

I cannot be native because I belong to a history that is forever linked to conquest and colonization. I celebrate Magellan and wonder why some states in the U.S. have removed Columbus Day and, in its place, either memorialize the Native Americans or declare it to the Day of the Indigenous Peoples.

There is 0ne more thing: natives do not own this country. I am part of those who own this country – with access to education and health, to privilege and power.

I am not poor. I am not a Native. I am not an Indigene.

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