Textiles and Identity
How the Ga’dang people’s heritage outlives the pandemic
Given the threat of cultural homogenization, times have challenged the indigenous people to look for ways of preserving the rich cultural heritage embedded in their designs. But with the advent of social media and fleeting trends, how does culture and tradition stay relevant and survive the ever-changing currents of art and fashion?
Quarantined, we talked to Margarita "Marge" Balansi, a native of Paracelis, Mt. Province, on how the Ga'dang weaving of the Cordilleras found its way to the world and how it withstands the all-consuming COVID-19 pandemic.
The Paracelis Ga’dang
The Paracelis Ga’dang are among the most isolated peoples of the Cordilleras, in contrast with the better-known Gaddang community in Nueva Vizcaya and Isabela. Both, however, share a common identity—their colorful and intricate weaving which is one of the most complex among the indigenous peoples in North Luzon.
“Ga'dang and Gaddang came from the same roots… [However], the Gaddangs became Christianized during the Spanish period while the Ga'dang did not leave the mountains where [the Spaniards] cannot penetrate and thus, they remained in their old traditions,” Marge explains.
Like other IP communities in the Cordilleras, the Ga’dangs are composed of different tribes, mostly evident in the differences in their words and accents. The term Ga'dang means "higher ground," Marge says, which some may find ironic for the better-known Gaddangs who settled near the great Magat River in Bayombong and Solano, Nueva Vizcaya.
The traditional Ga’dang weaving
The Ga'dangs are one of the tribes with the most colorful weaving in the Cordillera region. In fact, history books point out that the “‘discovery’ of the visually arresting Ga’dang costume has resulted in an extremely rapid movement of these materials through collector circuits.”
“Basically, there are four to five colors of threads used in Ga'dang weaving. These are white, yellow, indigo/black, and red which is the most dominant color of the four,” Marge describes. “Per history, only these four colors were available to the community as dyes during the old days. They get these from tree barks and wild vines.”
The materials are basically threads and beads aside from the ornaments being attached to the attires and accessories. These go through the process of warping, weaving, sewing, embroidery, beadwork, and attaching accessories and other ornaments. On the most special Ga’dang garments are beads which are varicolored, minute, and made of glass.
While originally, threads were sourced from raw materials personally made by the Ga’dang in a very tedious process that takes weeks, Marge says that they now switched to using cotton and polyester threads which they can buy from the market.
Ga'dang weaving is the identity of the Ga'dang people.
A complete male ensemble consists of the Ga’dang tapit, a cape-like garment; barangal, a red headkerchief with profuse beadwork at the corners; the beaded kuton, an upper garment; abag, loincloth; a long pouch, called sayay, “locked” by brass rings; and a small basketry hat, so’lung.
A female ensemble, on the other hand, means wearing the Ga’dang aken, a wrap-around skirt, held in place by a bakwat, sash; a barawasi, long-sleeved blouse; the beaded headdress called singat; the beaded forehead piece, attifulan; the buraway earrings similar to those worn by Kalinga women; a laggud, comb, on her hair; and a two-strand bead bracelet called ginalmaddan. The female may also bring with her a small bag called tufut, formerly for males where they put betel nut.
Designs and patterns also vary. Marge explains, “The lallad, which consists of straight lines, is the simplest form of weaving. Then there’s the inammata, an eye-like pattern, the ilintuwan and the annalifambang which refer to butterflies, among others.”
Marge’s journey as a weaver began in 2009 at a training on weaving at the National Center for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) funded School of Living Tradition. It was her sister who invited her to the event.
“Since then, my heart was always longing to look back on my roots, maybe because of my interest in history as well,” she says.
In July 2010, she went abroad to work but her passion to promote and safeguard the tribe's identity “haunted” her.
“The Ga'dang ethnolinguistic group has a lot to offer. I started searching the Internet about [the] Ga'dang [tribe] but I barely saw any information about it. That's when I started telling the world about my tribe's rich cultures and traditions through social media platforms,” Marge explains.
In 2012, when her contract abroad ended, she decided to come back to her community to continue learning and asking the elders about the Ga’dang history.
“I joined a lot of events related to culture and the arts. Because of my passion and volunteer work, I gained so much knowledge and I owe this to my community and to all the people who became a big part of my journey,” she says.
Marge’s efforts were not for naught. She was eventually recognized as one of the Gawad Gabay Awardee by the NCCA, an award given to all cultural workers, because of her contributions in safeguarding and promoting the Ga'dang culture and traditions.
The Ga’dang and its art in the middle of the pandemic
The effects of the coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) does not discriminate. Not even the isolated Ga’dang community in Paracelis was spared. Like any other Filipino, the Ga’dangs of Paracelis could not easily go to other places because of travel restrictions.
But like their heritage, the Ga’dangs slowly coped with the new normal as the days of lockdowns and quarantines passed.
“The community has always been resilient even though this COVID [pandemic] caused a lot of troubles. Life here is still normal. People still do farming, weaving and other related works. We slowly coped with these trying times as days went by,” she tells.
As a person who loves adventures and travels, however, Marge had a hard time during the pandemic.
“I'm a person who is always on the go and loves adventure because it's my way of de-stressing. It's very frustrating being isolated. It really affected me because I cannot travel easily to the city to ship the orders of my clients,” she shares.
The hard days, however, did not deter Marge’s artistic spirit. Aside from being occupied by the “plantita/tito” hype, she found a way to not only help the frontliners but also promote the art of Ga’dang weaving.
“My friend and I thought of a way to help our frontliners. During the height of the outbreak, we made and donated woven facemasks to our frontliners,” she says.
The facemasks feature different traditional weaving designs, the most common of which, Marge says, is the lallad.
When news reached the public, however, insistent demands for the Ga’dang motif facemask to be sold made Marge and the Ga’dang community even busier. She and her team of kids, mothers, and even senior citizens, made hundreds of facemasks which they now sell not only in Paracelis but also to customers from other provinces and cities, and even from abroad.
“Due to insistent public demand, we also [sold the masks] within the community, until some friends and other people outside my hometown were really interested to buy,” she says.
Price for the surgical-type facemask ranges from P100 to P150 while a rider mask costs P120-P200, depending on the beads and intricacy of the embroidery.
Once, there were only four colors in the Ga’dang people’s weaving. But four was enough to reach this age. And not even the extraordinary event of a COVID-19 pandemic could dampen the Ga’dang weaving. It has, instead, made its colors bright for more and more people to see (and even wear loud and proud!)
“These days, there are already a lot of weavers from other communities and tribes being inspired by our designs and patterns, that's why they are also producing it. Plus, the weaving industry is booming because a lot of people are already patronizing it,” Marge happily shares. Aside from this, however, she and other Ga’dang weavers have also been teaching interested younger generations of the craft.
The Ga’dang people have come a long way. It has even gone on to museums abroad. But the Ga’dangs offer more than their colorful fabrics.
“I hope that people will be more informed and educated about the historical background of the Ga'dang weaving. Not only that people are attracted to use our traditional attires but also, may they know its cultural value and roots as well,” Marge hopes. “By promoting our weaving correctly, it's already a way of preserving it. So, I won't stop promoting it in and outside social media.”
The Paracelis Ga’dang may be isolated, but there is no way their bright, beautiful colors would remain hidden.
Photo courtesy of Margarita Balansi
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Kasiyanna is an anthology that honors the traditional, rich cultures of indigenous people and sheds light on the collective issues within their communities amidst the pandemic. There might not be a silver lining to the crisis yet, but this issue hopefully allows deeper dialogue and engenders a stronger call to action.