Honoring Our Culture and Our Habitat
By Evangelyn Gawason
Subanen Crafts. 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 Subanen Christmas cards
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. Over 15 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, Zamboanga del Sur, 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.
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.
But 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. To address this need the Sisters started a pre-school program with Subanen-speaking teachers. Over the years the Sisters and the staff of their Subanen Ministry have built nine pre-schools with an enrollment of more than two hundred. These pre-schools 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.
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.
Fr Vincent Busch in outside kitchen; in enclosed kitchen
St Joseph cooking for Mary Christmas card
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. Because I have a 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 pre-schools 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.