Indigenous health knowledge transmission

By Penelope A. Domogo, MD

“ This advocacy for indigenous lifestyle, which is a healthy lifestyle, is not easy because it goes against the mainstream. That’s why I had to tell you my story. Reclaiming our indigenous knowledge and traditions is not easy because, for so long, it has been labeled as
unscientific.”

(I shared this during the Panel on Indigenous Knowledge Transmission through Multimedia on August 29, 2019 as part of TAWID- Indigenous Knowledge Learning Festival held at UP Baguio.)
Thank you to the organizers of this Indigenous Knowledge Festival for inviting me- Chancellor Raymundo Rovillos of UP Baguio, Jacqueline Carino of the Philippine Task Force for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights and Maria Elena Regpala of the Partners for Indigenous Knowledge Philippines.
Let me first tell you about my journey. I am 100% Igorot of the Kankanaey tribe of Besao in Mountain Province. My childhood years were spent in Besao till Grade 7, then it was Manila for high school, Baguio City for college then Manila again for medical school. After graduation from medical school, I went back to Mountain Province to work as a rural doctor till I retired this year – that’s almost 38 years in Bontoc.
So like almost all of you, I have been educated in the ways of the West. We are conditioned to believe that West is best, so even our young people mimic Filipino TV personalities who speak with a twang and the first language that we teach our babies is English. And here I am speaking in English. We were and are conditioned to believe that we, indigenous peoples, are backward, ignorant, superstitious, dirty- that has been driven deep in our collective and individual psyche. Even at present, there are young Igorots who are ashamed to announce that they are Igorot. For me, it was later in my journey that even though I would proudly wear my tapis and say I am proud to be an Igorot, I still felt pala that cultural shaming deep in me.
As a young idealistic doctor, trained in the ways of western medicine and convinced to serve the people, I chose to work in the rural health unit of Besao then Bontoc, believing I had the answers to the health problems of the community. Together with the rest of the RHU staff, we trekked to the barrios (wala pang masyadong kalsada at sasakyan noong 1980s) carrying western medicines, educating people on the biomedical and germ theory of disease so to prevent disease they have to construct toilets, pen their pigs, wash their hands, boil their water, and submit for immunizations. And come for prenatal check ups. And eat eggs and meat daily, drink milk everyday and put margarine in baby’s food. I shudder now at the thought.
The biomedical theory of disease is the prevailing paradigm of modern health care. It views the body as separate compartments and separate from the mind and spirit. This view has created specialists – neurologists for the brain, cardiologists for the heart, pulmonologists for the lungs, psychiatrists for the mind, priests and pastors for the spirit, etc. So if you have a multi-organ illness, you’ll have 5 doctors attending to you. Wow, that’s a lot of attention… and a lot of money. This also views nutrition as apart from health but really, nutrition is a vital part of health.
So since I started work, we were doing all the things that imperial Manila told us to do. All policies and programs emanated from the Central Office of the Department of Health in Manila. And we swallowed them- hook, line and sinker. Culture-sensitivity was unheard of then. In fact, when people got sick, we blamed them for having “negative attitude” and “poor health-seeking behaviour” and we blamed cultural and religious beliefs. And we felt we were doing very well!
Despite all our efforts, however, I soon realized that our health statistics were getting worse. But we were too preoccupied with what Manila was telling us to do. We didn’t ask why more diseases were coming in. I was there when typhoid fever and dengue fever first struck Bontoc in the 1980s and we had epidemics. We were too busy to reflect why more people were having hypertension, diabetes and cancer, rayuma. In my first year of work in Bontoc RHU in 1981, there was only one person with diabetes. When I left in 2003 to transfer to the Provincial Health Office (PHO), I couldn’t count them. It was so frustrating and rendered my work meaningless. That led me to transfer to the PHO so I could focus more on promoting health and preventing disease.
In the RHU, we focused our efforts on how to get more people to avail of our services as ordered by Manila. Di ba dapat we empower people so they could take care of themselves that they don’t need professional help? What have indigenous peoples have been doing before western medicine invaded our shores? We must have been doing well because we were not decimated but this reflection came much later in my journey.
Then I myself got sick and western medicine could not help me. But God is good. In 2000, He sent to Mountain Province a Tagalog doctor who practices natural healing and taught me and my staff to discover and reclaim our indigenous knowledge, values and practices for healing. We did a series of focus group discussions and discovered an awesome body of knowledge from the community people, most of which I would write about later in my columns. It was a whole new exciting paradigm and I was humbled- I discovered how ignorant I was about indigenous identity and our rich indigenous heritage. In this journey, I also realized deeply that God truly loves us and provides for our needs, including our food, and he created us to be healthy and happy. I realized that He loves the Igorot as well as the American. We, Igorots, are not backward, unscientific, superstitious, dirty, after all! I am a Christian and I go to mass regularly, I am a priest’s wife and with this discovery of the richness of my indigenous heritage, my faith deepened. When I say “Praise the Lord for he is good!”, I don’t just say it with my lips but I say it with all my being. It was an amazing faith journey.
What happened to me was like I found a treasure. I was so excited! I reclaimed our indigenous diet -which is simple and organic, no artificial chemicals, no sugar and no milk, no chemicalized eggs or meat or fish- and journeyed on to healing without western medicines. Praise the Lord! I acquired a deeper appreciation and understanding of indigenous health. I fully understood the concept of holistic health and healing which indigenous health is all about. There’s no indigenous term for “health” because in indigenous life, health means life. It includes the way we produce our food, it includes our diet, the way we treat others and the environment and the unseen. Health is a given- meaning we are born healthy and we assume that we will stay healthy until we leave the earth. There were no lingering illnesses- in the past, people just faded away. This was because life, then, was in full harmony with nature as God designed it to be. Indigenous health, thus, means living in harmony with nature.
Living in harmony with nature means total dependence on the land, forests, rivers, seas, all of nature. Thus indigenous peoples made sure these will continue to sustain them. They recognized unseen powers. Illness is attributed to changes in weather, unseen spirits, bad energies. A lot of prayers integrated in rituals have been developed by our ancestors and these are all meant for the welfare of the living, the dead and environment. Thus there are rituals to welcome the newborn baby and pray for him/her to be strong and sturdy, rituals to bless a marriage, to send off the dead, to give thanks for a bountiful harvest, to bring rain, to cure the sick, etc. We, Igorots, are actually very prayerful and spiritual. Our rites are just in different forms from the western Christian liturgy.
When the Americans successfully colonized us, they ignored and degraded our indigenous identity and lifeways and institutions, and replaced it with a western lifestyle. In present society that has movies and TV and internet, this western lifestyle, especially Hollywood lifestyle, includes an unhealthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, alcohol-drinking, illegal drugs, violence and casual sex – all the ingredients for disease and disorder in society. The disintegration of our indigenous institutions like the family, the dap-ay, the ili, has rendered us vulnerable to the onslaught of modern maladies, including chronic degerative diseases.
When you see so much pain and suffering and you know that these are unnecessary because they are preventable, then you can’t help but tell people about it. This wonderful journey of faith and healing fired up my passion to write and talk about discovering and claiming our indigenous heritage for health, wellness and healing. This indigenous paradigm empowers people to take charge of their health – it is the real “health in the hands of the people,” not in the hands of your doctor, or the DOH. It all made sense and it was so right! It is good news! It took me almost 20 years in Bontoc to open my eyes to this and I was so eager to share this to others so they won’t have to undergo my experience.
I grabbed whatever medium was there to communicate the good news – community classes, local publications, then I decided to go regional so I have been writing the column “Health as Choice” in Zigzag Weekly since 2009. Radyo Sagada invited us in 2012 for a weekly Health Hour and we immediately said “yes”. I had to hone my Ilokano for this. I publish some notes on facebook. I talk with people on the street, in the jeep, in the bus, in church and school, with the police, employees. We had contests on indigenous recipes. We had searches for healthiest barangay and school with indigenous practices as one criteria. During parties, my children would give me that look for me to refrain from giving a lecture on healthy diet at the dinner table. But I would say that modelling is my best campaign strategy. People who know me and see me will think “”organic”, “indigenous”. That’s why perhaps I am here.
But so what if I do all these things? Do people listen and read? Is the knowledge transmitted to its target? I have been in this advocacy trail for nearly 20 years now. I haven’t done formal research but I am happy to share that there are people who listen and read and apply what they learned and got healed or their family member got well or stayed well. Like me, many took years to journey- until they got sick. Then they would say, “tet-ewa pet nan kankanan Dr. Domogo.” But its not me, I am just an instrument of the Supreme Being. With our collective advocacy, we have at the Bontoc market boiled camote and an organic market during Mondays. One teacher, bless her, used my column “Health as Choice” for discussion in her classes.
This advocacy for indigenous lifestyle, which is a healthy lifestyle, is not easy because it goes against the mainstream. That’s why I had to tell you my story. Reclaiming our indigenous knowledge and traditions is not easy because, for so long, it has been labeled as unscientific. Which is not true! What do you think of the intergenerational experiments that our people have been doing? We just didn’t write them down. But, no matter, we need to transmit these wonderful heritage- kawaka naman ang future generations if we don’t. We are really concerned about our young people and our young adults. We see high school students who are obese, hypertensive, diabetic, pimples and acne breaking out from their faces – what is being taught to them about healthy lifestyle? Does IPED include lifestyle- diet, physical activity, zero waste, environmental stewardship, respect of elders, cooperation? Thank God we have an indigenous cultural heritage as a counterculture to the dominant modern culture of today that is driven by materialism, individualism and commercialism. For our sake and that of future generations, we need to exert massive efforts collectively on discovering and reclaiming our indigenous spirit and rich indigenous heritage. So again, thank you to the organizers of this educational event. May we have more of this more often and in more places- indigenous peoples have so rich a heritage to celebrate and share to the world. We need to repeat and repeat the message for it to sink. For us, indigenous peoples, let us assert, not only our right to our ancestral domains but also our right to be healthy by nurturing, practicing and promoting our indigenous lifestyle. We have the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act and the Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act for our legal back-up. For our partners, please help us push government to recognize and support our right to our indigenous health practices and systems. May we all be well and happy!***

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