Sukimat: A Critical Introduction






Aurelio Solver Agcaoili

University of Hawai’i




Search for Contexts


This volume of the Nakem Conference proceedings, originally presented during the 2007 and 2008 conferences of Nakem Conferences Philippines and Nakem Conference International held respectively at the Mariano Marcos State University and at St. Mary’s University, gathers the representative knowledge and information we want exchanged and diffused in the name of the people of Amianan.


In 2006, the Ilokano Language and Philippine Drama and Film Program started the first-ever Nakem Conference to celebrate the centennial of the coming of the first 15 Ilokanos to Hawai’i to work in the sugarcane and pineapple plantations, the twin industries that soon provided economic infrastructure to this United States territory which was its new territory at that time. In a poetic rendition of that coming (“Ti Maika-75 nga Aniversario/The 75th Anniversary”), the award-winning Ilokano writer Mario Albalos, talked of the 15 Ilokanos as “shadows” to render into a metaphorical language the kind of experience these Ilokanos had to go through even as they presented themselves to the plantation bosses, barefoot and all, including their cowering soul (Agcaoili 2009). The Albalos poem, written to commemorate the 75th year of the coming of the Ilokano workers, was soon to be followed by a poem by Melchor Agag Jr. twenty-five years after, in 2006, to commemorate the centenary of their sacrifice and their wandering into an unfamiliar and strange terrain in order to sow the seed for the migration of many Ilokanos—and thus, Filipinos—to Hawai’i. Historically, two of the ethnolinguistic groups came to Hawai’i to help spur the territory’s plantation economy, the Ilokanos in 1906 and the Visayans in 1909.  The two groups have since been joined by other ethnolinguistic groups, but with the Ilokanos still presently representing the majority at between 85-90 percent of the Philippine population.


The spirit of the centennial could have been lost as a legacy of the sacrifice of the Ilokanos were it not for the efforts of many individuals and organizations to insist that there is a need to also represent this centennial of a hundred-years of sacred sacrifice as something that began with the coming of the 15 Ilokanos. This was the broad context of the 2006 Nakem Conference. It was also the first time that the Ilokano Language and Philippine Drama and Film Program, now renamed Ilokano Language and Literature Program, gathered cultural workers, researchers, educators, policy makers, writers, teachers, and advocates of Ilokano language and literature in an academic conference that zeroed in on issues concerning the Ilokanos, and by extension, about the people of the Amianan.  When the Nakem Conferences International was organized in December of 2006, we broadened the perspective of the advocacy we are fighting for to include the whole of the issues concerning the geographic, cultural, aesthetic, political, historical, and linguistic matrix of the Ilokano people to evolve a broader term we now call as Amianan, and the broad inquiry issuing from it, Amianan Studies. This is in recognition of the fact that Ilokano Studies cannot be extricated from the broader discursive frame of Amianan Studies.  


The 2006 Nakem Conference and after


             Let it be on record that the 2006 Nakem Conference, its conceptualization and execution, was the result of the concerted effort of the instructional faculty of the UH Ilokano and Philippine Drama and Film Program; Prof. Prescilla Espiritu, then coordinator of that program at the start of the conceptualization and planning; the UH Leeward Philippine Studies Program through its instructional faculty, Dr. Raymund Liongson; and myself. At that time, I was based in Los Angeles as an educator and editor-in-chief of a Filipino-American newspaper, The Weekly Inquirer. Espiritu and I burned the wires and, apart from her invitation for me to give a series of lectures—which I did in early 2006—to commemorate the centennial of the coming of the Ilokanos (UH Manoa, UH Hilo, and the Philippine Consulate General), and a side lecture at the UH Leeward Community College, she asked me to put together the concept, the name, and the strategic plan to execute the conference; I was to take charge as well of preparing the proposals for grants that we were to submit to various grant-giving offices within the University of Hawai’i. By August 2006, I had the good fortune of replacing Espiritu as coordinator of the renamed Ilokano Language and Literature Program. By this time, the 2006 Nakem Conference planning was in its full swing, with Espiritu serving as chair of the steering committee, with Dr. Liongson (UH Leeward) and I assisting her. The steering committee designated me conference director, a duty that gave me access to so many scholars, cultural workers, organizations, and education leaders. This rare access I would use to solicit the help of others in the hosting of the succeeding conferences. I immediately went on to work and coordinated the nitty-gritty of the conference. In the meantime, Liongson took the initiative of putting together a cyberspace presence for the 1st Nakem Conference, even offering to host that website through his own website. 


             In late 2006, an administrator’s conference between the University of Hawai’i and the Mariano Marcos State University was held at UH Manoa; in this conference, the possible areas of cooperation and exchange between UH and MMSU was identified, with Ilokano Studies as one strong area the two universities could share. By then, I have come to know Dr. Alegria Tan Visaya, Secretary of the Board of Regents of MMSU and professor of the university, and Dr. Miriam Pascua, the University President. At a certain point, I asked the two university officials to host the 2nd Nakem Conference; they promptly accepted the challenge and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. Let history be told that the openness of MMSU to host an otherwise pilot movement to raise consciousness on Ilokanoness and being a people of the Amianan paved the way for the acceptance and growth of Nakem Conferences in the Philippines, an intellectual movement with a social commitment.





2007 and 2008 Nakem Conferences: MMSU and SMU


             With MMSU, through Visaya and Pascua, getting involved with the issues of Nakem Conferences, Nakem thus took on a life of its own in the Philippines. It is largely through the efforts of these two people that the first seed of Nakem Conferences outside the United States was to take root. Other people would come in to help, including the first Board of Directors of Nakem Conferences Philippines, the organization that would soon take up the cudgels of advancing the cause of the people of Amianan. We are not going to enumerate them here, as this is not meant to be a history of Nakem Conferences but to invite the reader of this volume to see the context why we have to keep on sustaining this struggle for and in the name of the people of Amianan. Dr. Nancy GB. Balantac, then Vice President for Academic Affairs of MMSU, deserve our gratitude for mobilizing the resources of her office to help Visaya in putting together the 2007 Nakem Conference, the first-ever conference that was held outside the United States. It is at this conference that we learned to come to grips with organization work, with the putting up, at last, of the Nakem Conference Philippines. 


             In June 2007, Dr. Ellen Toquero of Isabela State University invited me to grace their international conference, also concerning linguistic rights and cultural democracy. Dr. Romeo Quilang, President of ISU, made it sure that his university was to be in the forefront of all these initiatives in the interest of cultural pluralism and linguistic rights, one of the crucial community engagement concerns of his university. It was during this gathering that I had the good fortune of meeting the Rev. Fr. Manuel Valencia, President of St. Mary’s University; Dr. Bonifacio Ramos brought Fr. Valencia to the conference at ISU, and there, the seed of the 3rd Nakem International Conference was born.


             These two conferences held in the Philippines and hosted by these two universities located in two different regions where Ilokano is either a native language or a lingua franca but where there exist, at least forty other languages, provide the backdrop of how Amianan knowledge is being produced using a critical perspective, and with the lens of cultural pluralism and diversity as its overarching framework. Of a key concern for this production of knowledge is the critique to the inutile bilingual education policy of the country that has entitled and privileged only two languages in the Philippines, English and Tagalog, with Tagalog being passed off as the basis for Filipino, the mandated language. It is in the interest of diversity and education to democracy that we issue out here this critique that this continuing disrespect of the educational system and the institutions and organizations attached to it for the lingua francas and mother languages has given rise to a rampant cultural denigration in the Philippines. This disrespect is also a violation of the fundamental rights of people to their languages and cultures. In a multicultural nation like the Philippines, this violation is not only a violation of human rights but is also illegitimate and illegal.


The Advocacies of Nakem Conferences


             Nakem Conferences, whether in the United States or in the Philippines, is conscious of an ethical as well as a critical obligation to assure all the people of the Amianan to not only make their languages survive, but thrive, and thrive forever. This two-pronged obligation is not easy to do. The road to cultural democracy and linguistic justice—in a country that is so used to internal colonization and cultural tyranny—is paved with sharp thorns and rough stones, and one of the first enemies in the call for change could be the cultural workers themselves. Many of these, for instance, are teachers who mean so well but are distracted by their false knowledge of the fundamental principles in education, more so in education to democracy and justice. We have been hoodwinked for so long by the executors of pedagogical policies that lead to a cultural homogenization of all people of the Philippines, a homogenization that is built upon a monolithic view of culture and language, a view that reinforces the false idea that other Philippine languages and cultures are not necessary in the building up of a nation built upon cultural pluralism and diversity.


             It is still a long way from seeing the coming of a nation like this one that we actively imagine we are going to have, a nation that celebrates all of its languages, all of its cultures, and a nation that can serve as a model for the world in celebrating diversity and cultural pluralism. Nakem Conferences started as an idea of surfacing knowledge and information on the Ilokanos, in the Ilocos, in the homeland, and in the diaspora.


             But Nakem Conferences also realizes that the body of knowledge on the Ilocos and the Ilokanos cannot be extricable from its immediate context, the Amianan, and thus, for Ilokano Studies to be a body of knowledge oriented towards freedom and democracy, it must include as well the rest of the languages and cultures of this part of the Philippines as its most immediate geographic and area consideration, without, of course, losing sight of the broader perspective of looking at Philippine issues in the Philippines and elsewhere (cf. Azurin 1993).  But even as we make Ilokano Studies more expansive in scope, even as we give this body of knowledge back to the people of Amianan and recognize that its roots and reason and resonance are from the Amianan, we must also recognize that Amianan is a concept that is not only physical, material, and geographic but also psychological. Thus when we say that Amianan is also a psychological space, we are acknowledging here the difficult fact that the Ilokano and Amianan people have gone away from their physical surroundings and ventured into the unfamiliar spaces and geographies outside their otherwise familiar places. Hence the need for Ilokano Studies to evolve into a broader body of knowledge we now call Amianan Studies. 


             In the accounting of this new form of knowledge—new in the sense of its being an epistemological initiative and innovation aimed to resist the onslaught of a form of Philippine Studies that entitles and privileges the knowledge produced and reproduced by and in the center of power and profit and political authority—we need to hold on to the virtues of pluralism and to the productive power of cultural democracy in order to critique the cultural and linguistic hegemony of that center.


Sukimat, Mennamenna, Sursuro—Research, Reflection, Knowledge


             Twelve essays have been selected to represent the kind of knowledge and information awaiting exchange and diffusion through this volume. The essays, true to the spirit of the two conferences held in the Philippines, follow a variety that range from language issues to cultural criticism including the tragic consequences of diaspora. There are also studies on multicultural education, on education with the first language and lingua franca, and on the multicultural experiences of the people of the Amianan.


             The work of Anabelle C. Felipe and Natividad E. Lorenzo (“Overseas Ilokanos’ Houses: My, What a Beautiful Home! But Where is the Owner?”), for instance, suggests to us the social implications—even the tacit social drama involved—in the Ilokano experience of the diaspora, with trophy houses to justify the Ilokano’s absence from his place, and with his trophy house to stand for him, erect, even phallic in some sort of way because of its dominance in the rustic landscape of farms and villages, a physical edifice that can perhaps initially withstand the ravages of time, but will, in turn succumb to forgetting and decay once the owner no longer has the energy nor the drive to keep on with the token ritual of claiming and re-claiming his house for a trophy. This almost meditative approach to empirical and cultural research represents the kind of research direction that we strive for in the evolving of Ilokano and Amianan Knowledge. This approach endeavors to be critical and creative even as it searches for, and makes use of, the appropriate tools in doing a sukimat, the ‘searching again’; in doing the mennamenna, the needed self-reflection; and in the drawing up of the sursuro, the lesson and knowledge to be learned.   


             We know that the Ilokano people, perhaps motivated by both the allure of adventure and the idea that given the right mix of good luck and industry they can transform their life better in another place, left, and continues to leave, the Ilocos, many of them for good, but many of them keeping on returning as well, as if in a perpetual pilgrimage to their birth land. It is here that the concept of  “soul-land” comes into the picture, with the references to the need to go back to their place of birth, to the land of the afterbirth (the placenta, literal, and psychical).  In that search for a chance at a better life, of course, is the belief of the  “kadagaan”—that suitability of place for the newcomer. The declaration that the place as perpetually present in the psychic spaces of the mind is nowhere stated more clearly than in the family account by Annabelle Marcelo (“Annak ken Apo ti Batac: The Odyssey of a California Ilokano Family”) of a people from Batac moving into many places in the United States but always remembering the “ili”—the topos, the place, the town, the nation—where they come from. 


             In two of the essays here, we see the fruitful encounter between cultures even as the Ilokanos go their way of moving into other strange and unfamiliar grounds, and peacefully coexisting, even intermarrying, with the members of the host communities, thus giving rise to a kind of a new culture from that mingling of the Ilokano and the host culture. The host culture, of course, is that place and condition where the Ilokano goes into in his search for something better, something grander and “greener” (with a reference to a pasture land) than what the Ilocos can offer him (Antonio I. Tamayao, “Ilokano Culture in an Ibanag and Itawes Landscape: A Bourdieunian Analysis”).


             In another essay, we see a historical exposition of the role of the Ilokanos in the political life of the host culture (Stanley F. Anongos, “Conduit of Igorot Pacification: The Ilokano Migrants in Colonial Administration in Bontoc, Mountain Province”) and the role played by the Ilokanos in the eventual Ilokanization of Bontoc and its environs. This Anongos study is an informed template for the study of the out-migration patterns of Ilokanos to the Cordilleras and to the Cagayan Valley areas. In the area of education, particularly that which concerns Mother Language Education, the work of Eric Joyce DC Grande (“The Mother Tongue Proficiency of the Yogad Constituents of Ugad High School [SY 2006-2007] In Echague, Isabela”) proves that two indigenous cultures can come into a fecund encounter with each other.


             The use of the lingua franca, mother language, native language, or first language as the first medium through which the educatee ought to have a firm sense of the world, is here again proven by Gloria D. Baguingan in her research on the native language or lingua franca as a bridge to learn other life skills, competencies, and languages (“Silencing Indigenous Language Damage Divergent Thinking and Colorful Diversity”). Her essay was first published, with an Ilokano translation by Aurelio S. Agcaoili, in Nakem: Essays on Amianan Knowledge (Agcaoili 2008).


             Even as the Ilokano goes into another place, he brings with him his own culture, language, and tradition, including his healing rituals, which rituals share a commonality with other healing traditions in the Cordilleras and in the Cagayan Valley. This is seen in the paper of Ramos on the “suring” (“Suring: A Folk Healing Ritual Among the I-Vintar Ilokanos in Nueva Viscaya”). The essay by Ernesto C. Toquero and Elena S. Toquero (“The Yogad and Gaddang Rituals of Isabela: Meaning and Significance”) reveals a complex world lived in by the Yogad, one of the more than forty ethnolinguistic groups of the Amianan. In many of the aspects of their rituals are the similarities and convergences with those of the Ilokano rituals in the lowlands.


             The account on Ilokano indigenous last names by Alegria Tan Visaya (“Indigenous Ilokano Anthroponym”), an attempt at a productive unraveling of the context of indigeneity in the critical production of Ilokano and Amianan knowledge by a return to the stories of family names, corrects the impression that the Claveria decree of name-changing was one wrought in stone. It is not. These last names tell us that even in the act of  “self-naming,” we can see traces of the potential for—and the actuality of— resistance, rebellion, and revolution if only to impress upon the future generations that not everyone was kowtowing to the rapacious and abusive colonizer, and cowering in fear of the eternal damnation of his concept of Hell, a form of a psychological blackmail he used against the natives for more than three hundred years.  


             The reclaiming of the indigenous as it encounters with the present is what grounds an ethical knowledge imbued with social responsibility and a sense of justice and fairness because it serves the ends of liberatory knowledge. This is suggested in the Elizabeth A. Calinawagan discourse (“Ti/Ni Ilokano ken Ti Pakbet”) on the “pakbet”, a vegetable dish the Ilokano is known for, but which dish is a metaphor for what the Ilokanos are as a people, a nation, a community. This leads us to the challenge of reclaiming one self, as seen in the Monica Supnet Macansantos’ personal testimony (“Crossing Geographic Boundaries: Transporting the Ilokano Homeland”) on what does it entail to lose one’s heritage because of the circumstances of one’s birth and growth. In her study of the material culture of  “burnay” production (“Panagburnay: Imaging the Ilokano-Filipino in a Philippine Ceramic Tradition”) including the political economy involved in it, Mary Jane Rodriguez-Tatel leads us to archival data that are not commonly known; these data make us realize of the wealth of historical connection between the burnay producers and other places, economies, and even countries and cultures, such as Japan. If we were to look for inspiration for cross-cultural relationship between the Philippines and South Asia, perhaps the burnay culture can give us a clue on how to proceed with our research for this kind of knowledge.   


             By no means are these works fully representative of what the Nakem Conference as a movement to draw up Amianan Knowledge is only all about. For the two conferences where the editors had culled the essays for this anthology, we have a pool of more than a hundred essays, all of them deserving to be published in a book form.


             But we are mindful of many limitations, including the oft-repeated scarcity of resources that is our lot in the Ilocos, and in the Philippines for that matter, what with skewed governmental priorities.  This is the lot as well of the exoticized, marginalized, and peripheralized cultures of the Philippines and human studies in general. We are resisting these, of course. We are rejecting this rendering of Amianan Knowledge, as in the other forms of knowledge on the Philippines, into something exotic, into an exhibit of the rare, the marginal, the peripheral. With the limited resources Nakem Conferences has, we can only include twelve of the essays from a large pool. In the coming years, we will continue to regularly publish the other conference papers in the interest of making them more available in printed form.  


             The selection of the twelve essays is a collective decision of the board of editors. The final responsibility, thus, rests with us.  




Agcaoili, Aurelio Solver. 2009. Kallautang—Poetics of Diversity, Displacement, and

             Diaspora: Ilokanos in the Americas Writing. Honolulu: TMI Global Press.


Agcaoili, Aurelio Solver (ed, trans, with critical intro by). 2008. Nakem: Essays on

Amianan Knowledge. Honolulu: ILLP. 


Azurin, Arnold Molina. 1993. Reinventing the Filipino Sense of Being and Becoming:

            Critical Analyses on the Orthodox Views in Anthropology, History, Folklore

            and Letters. Diliman, Quezon City: CSSP Publications and the University of

            the Philippines Press. 


Brian Barker said...

I believe in the need to protect endangered languages.

Although there are at least 7,000 languages throughout the World, an increasing number are endangered through the linguistic imperialism of both Mandarin Chinese and English.

Interestingly the following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2008.

The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September. or

ariel said...

Dear Brian,
You are right. And this right of peoples to their languages must never be denied of them. In the Philippines, this has always been our lot: the entitlement of Tagalog (aka P/Filipino) and English.
We deprive people of their languages, we deprive them of their truths, their sense of self, their way in the world: their word.