A culturally rich community with a unique writing system is one of Bohol’s pride. This cultural group goes by the name Eskaya. The Eskaya are said to be the oldest settlers and one of the most mysterious tribes in the Philippines (History Asia, 2016). They are an indigenous group whose communities are living in the adjacent barangays of Biabas of the municipality of Guindulman; barangay Taytay of the municipality of Duero and barangay Cantaub of the municipality of Sierra Bullones, all of which are hinterlands of Bohol’s southeast interior.
Jes B. Tirol (1993), a columnist of The Bohol Chronicle who studied the group, pointed out that the Eskaya tribe is not a primitive one like the Aeta or Badjao, but rather a highly developed tribe similar to the Biblical twelve tribes of Israel, which is practically the role model of the Eskaya. Unlike any tribe, this community has their own Ineskaya language. Their elders speak mostly Ineskaya despite being fluent in Visayan-Cebuano meanwhile the youth of the community are struggling to impose their own script. Consul (2014) added that the present-day Eskayas appear no strikingly different from the people of the neighboring communities except perhaps that they have an aura of harmony and unity. The context here presents one’s forward conception of what a typical tribe would look like, as it is defended by Tirol that they, in fact, don’t look like Aetas or Badjaos. Therefore, how we impart meaning to the simple word tribe is an example of linguistic anthropology.
Not much can be said about this tribe with certainty, as there are many versions of their history and not much of it published, although these are passed down generation after generation. Oral traditions supposed these indigenous people stemmed from a heroic ancestor by the name of Pinay, whom they believe as the first inmunsiktur or ineskaya for ‘Pope’ in the Philippines, in the 600 CE (Kelly, 2014). Their higher being named as Sunu, or ineskaya for ‘Holy Child’ allegedly instructed Pinay to create the Ineskaya language and to base its form on a human body. Kelly (2014) added that Pinay recorded his language and script on wooden tablets which he hid in a cave for posterity. These tablets were retrieved by the rebel Mariano ‘Anoy’ Datahan in the 20th century. He then imparted the language and script to his followers settled in Biabas, Guindulman. In the different functions of art, it can be asserted that, in this context, its task is to deliver history, as it provided valuable information about the people of the tribe, as well as the function of art in spiritual connectivity linking to the events that happened involving the community
Oral accounts hold that the Eskayas believe that people originated from a butterfly called Pinya Paypay Pling. This butterfly interacted with a lion and lioness who gave birth to a monkey, which proceeded to mate with another and gave birth to the first humans. There are no published articles that could further explain this belief, although, be that as it may, it is perpetuated in the tribe’s educational chart in their schools (Gibson, 2012). The communal setting of the tribe reflects the mode of reception of its members. While someone outside of this setting, upon attaining knowledge of this oral tradition, might render this absurd, the members of the Eskaya tribe, however, to this day, believe and perpetuate the idea and wholly accept it.
The community comprises of a set of council leaders headed by the chieftain for their own community and a separate set of officers for the barangay government. The Eskayas do not have a system for electing leaders and wait for a member to rise and take on the role, given that they were given a mandate by their higher being. They call this recurring messiah “Ay Sono.” (Tirol, 1998) Edward Burnett Taylor pointed out that the differences between human societies could be identified by their differences in customs, morals, or beliefs. This is exactly the case here, since one is not accustomed to their system, the same as how the tribe isn’t accustomed to another’s way of election. What I find as unfair and nonsensical in their election system would mean something entirely crucial and meaningful to the tribe.
Under the leadership of Mariano Datahan, it was in Biabas of Guindulman that he started crusading for the revolutionary church Iglesia Filipina Independiente and established many parishes throughout the region (Kelly, 2012). His followers converted to the Philippine Independent Church where they worship the supreme being “Suno”. They attend weekly masses headed by a bishop whose appellations are “biki” and “beriki”. As commonly practiced in the Philippine context, these spiritual leaders perform rituals for ailments, good harvests, blessings, weddings, and the likes.
The Eskayas also portray art as a social practice, as Tirol (1993) pointed out that during weddings, the parents of the bride offer a comb and a glass of water to which it is dipped and ran through both the couple’s mane. It is their belief that this practice will ensure a calm matrimony. This exercise was first done by the tribe and later on adapted by neighboring Boholanos. It is an example of art as a social practice as they performed what they believe in daily life as part of their culture.
Another custom is that an Eskaya must go through a process of ritual before constructing a home. The spiritual leader “biki” asks the permission of spirits to consent the site for assembly, of which in case it is not permitted, then the Eskaya shifts to another location and undergo the process until the entities warrant. It is safe to say that this is also practiced by many other Filipinos, such as myself, although with some specifications. Despite coming from another community, with a different background from theirs, it is highly possible that one community have this shared meaning with another community at varying degrees, which as defined by Lassiter (2014) is presented as culture as a shared and negotiated meaning. This can be seen in the common practice of these rituals among Filipinos, regardless if they are from the tribe or not. It is also important to take note of this art as it functions with spirituality, how it is performed to link and communicate with the entities of the spiritual world to strike a deal, to ask for courtesy or whichever purpose it may serve. It is known.
The Eskayas’ diligent character is notable in how their modest houses are in spick and span state and how their efforts expended in planting is proportional to their bountiful harvest of vegetables, rice and fruit. (Abregana, 1984)
Abregana (1984) also noted that the traditional dress of the earlier generations of Eskaya was, for women, a white long-sleeved blouse, a colored skirt and a white headscarf. They kept their hair long, according to custom, and were described as having ‘white complexion with good and round-shaped face’. Men wore a tirnu (‘suit’) comprised of a long-sleeved shirt, long pants and a hat. With the fast-paced world catching up to the hinterlands of these settlements, it is inevitable that these garbs are infrequently donned, especially among the teenager members of the group. In fact, the traditional attire is dressed on occasions such as weddings, burials, mass or when visitors come to see the tribe.
As with any community, music and dance play an important role, but in the earlier times of this tribe, dance was actually prohibited. However, over the course of years, the women came to perform the Senariston dance on Sunday fiestas. There are no available resources online nor does the reseacher have the means to collect data physically to expound how the Senariston is executed. The closest to retrieving information about this dance is an existing video up on Youtube where elderly women dressed in traditional costumes are dancing to a tune accompanied by a saxophone. Assuming that the video was taken by a visitor, with a tourist’s point of view, one can say that the dance is upbeat and the movements were seemingly comprised of shuffling and bouncing around. A familiar dance, however, the researcher couldn’t distinguish which and what traditional Philippine dance it bears a semblance of.
A documentary by Christina Juan Martinez (1995) mentioned that Ineskaya language looks and sounds like no other Philippine dialect. Furthermore, Kelly (2012) stated that there are no other writing systems known all around the Philippines that use parts of a human body, as bases of their script, except the Eskaya writing system. The tribe believes that Pinay was divinely instructed to create a language with the human anatomy as referent, which was then retransmitted by Mariano ‘Anoy’ Datahan to his constituents. The Eskayan script has both alphabetic and syllabic components. According to Kelly (2016), the Eskaya members conventionally describe their writing system as being divided into an Abidiha (‘Alphabet’) of 46 letters and a Simplit (‘Syllabary’) of approximately 1000 letters.
Eskaya chieftain, Hilario Gigimbao, stated that “gikan ang pinulungang Eskaya sa ‘pormos minimi’ nga nangahulugan nga gikan sa lawas sa tao”. The Eskaya script is derived from “pormos minimi” or in vernacular, from the body of a man. (Tirol, 1993)
Furthermore, Inocian et al., (2016), stated in their study Demystifying the Magic of Eskaya Writing System in Duero, Bohol, Philippines, that some of the symbols might be dance movements, manifested in the elaborateness of hand movements in a casual human interaction.
Inocian et al., (2016), explained that the figure ‘A’ as taught by Datahan is executed where the arm extends from the shoulder to the wrist. They added that in the Eskayan script, it represents the love of mankind on the beauty of a good body. This signifies a man whose standing proud baring his arms to show how strong he can be. Their letter ‘U’ is executed by forming a fist with the right hand, that in Eskayan script represents man’s firm decision making skills when time requires them and also signify aggression. The authors of the study provided more examples, that which announces the Eskayas are rich in meaning-making. This development of anthropomorphization intensifies and embodies the impact of a letter and the overall language. Lassiter (2014) noted that language not only pertains to spoken words but also utilize variety of symbols, sounds, gestures and body language. A letter was just a letter until they established a referent and put up a meaning and signifier behind it.
Despite the loose practice of the Ineskaya among the later generations of Eskaya tribe members, it can be argued that the dictionaries, songs and literary works are evident efforts of the group to perpetuate the language that they exclusively speak. Kelly (2006) disclosed that their language is used to a limited extent for prayer and singing in church, and for secular songs that are direct translations of patriotic Visayan anthems, along with oral histories on important occasions such as the arrival of a special guest, the celebration of a fiesta or a significant anniversary, a respected elder may make a short speech in Eskayan. It can be said that these various forms have been passed down and practiced for several generations, which is defined by Lassiter (2014) as enculturation, referring to passing of cultural knowledge to children. This also serves as a function of art, which in this case is art as history. One can pass on important information about their historical context about their community in a given time through these different kinds of art forms.
It is said that the Eskaya tribe at Biabas, Guindulman was “discovered” in the early 1980’s when government agricultural advisers visited the rumored site to check up on them and to introduce the Green Revolution policies, as well. There they heard the unusual language of the group which amused them. Their amusement can be taken for art as experience. Art is not just the process of making it or when a tribe member speaks their language, but it also pertains to the involvement of the spectator, who reacted with an emotion when the art reached his ears. Art must evoke an emotion. That then is establishing art as experience.
Tirol (1993) added that the community grew more attention when Policarpio featured them in the 1991 issue of Mabuhay (Philippine Airline’s in-flight magazine) despite local historians and researchers have written extensively about them.
Francisco “Bobby” Mañosa, an architect of the famous Eskaya Beach Resort and Spa (not in any way affiliated with the tribe) designed the luxurious establishment with the Ineskaya writings that fronted the main gate, along with the styles of their villas that utilized indigenous materials for finishing like bamboo, cogon, and wood is emphasized. (The Philippine Star, 2015) This touches our lesson with the functions of art, specifically, art as aesthetics. The architect saw it befits the brand to incorporate touches of Eskaya into the adornment and style of the resort, rightfully so since it was named after the tribe. It is a functional art for its visual appeal and the aesthetic pleasure it gives to the spectators.
Today, the Eskaya tribe is open for visitations. The local government of Taytay and Biabas organize tours for interested tourists who wish to meet the group. Tourists are countered the breathtaking scenery. They are offered basic Ineskaya lessons by the elders, narrated tribe stories, and they have the opportunity to visit the only strawberry garden in Bohol, grown by their own members of the community. The tribe members also perform for their guests in dance, songs, and poems. They also put up a mini tourist shop in the site, where different souvenirs are sold such as keychains embossed and shirts printed with the Ineskaya script.
Strauss and Quinn (1997) suggest that cultures are not bounded and separable. This means that the culture within the Eskaya community is likely to be shared to everyone other than themselves, especially now that the local government unit integrated a program among the Eskayas that hold Ineskaya basic and brief lessons taught by elders to tourists. Now that these tourists visited the tribe, they had the glimpse of their culture and attained knowledge about their way of life, knowingly becoming an active spectator of their culture.
The small-scale commercialization of the Ineskaya language, implemented in the commodities like keychain and shirts, reflects a slight lost in its exclusive appeal and present its leanings toward opening up and the market approach. The local government involves itself by conducting and organizing these tours, to share their culture or to have some other underlying scheme, either which will definitely affect the group and its society.
The inevitable modernization and the advent of technology in this day and age will slowly creep up the remote region of the settlements, as it has already begun among the youth of the community. Their inactive practice of the script and rituals will soon enough chip away the very foundations of their community, unless they act upon it. The efforts in preserving their society as documented and printed on paper and orally disseminated to their constituents are not enough lest the Eskaya people themselves truly and whole heartedly set on perpetuating their culture. In doing so, the fervent spirit of the Eskayans and Ineskaya live on.