Contemporary Filipino Basketry Helps Subsistence Farmers Survive

Tingkeps  marketed by Custom Made Crafts. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

Tingkeps marketed by Custom Made Crafts. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

For many years, I’ve seen incredible baskets from the Philippines — mostly at Cost Plus stores, yard sales, or at Goodwill. As a California basket weaver steeped in native American basket traditions, I wondered about the Filipino communities that produce these baskets and what role the baskets play in their economies and cultures today.

Last year, through a series of fortunate coincidences, I was put in contact with the Philippine Non-Timber Forest Project (NTFP) group based in Quezon City.  I was thrilled to learn that it was promoting basketry in a number of indigenous communities it served, where this art has always been an essential element of traditional lifestyles.  

NTFP organizers seek to economically assist these largely subsistence communities through encouraging and promoting livelihoods that sustain the forest areas where indigenous peoples still live. By focusing on the sustainable harvesting of non-timber plants -- bamboo, rattan, palms, nito vine, and a number of useful grasses -- while advocating for the ancestral land rights of local communities and providing national and international markets for traditionally produced products, NTFP aids in their survival.

Still used rattan storage baskets in Ifugao village. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

Still used rattan storage baskets in Ifugao village. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

Through the NTFP I was able to make the connections for journeys to basketry communities in the Luzon Cordillera and Northern Luzon, and the island of Pala’wan.

Wages in the Philippines are low.  The government minimum wage is approximately $10 daily in urban areas and only $5 in the countryside.  But in the most isolated rural areas—primarily upland indigenous communities—the minimum wage is meaningless; in these subsistence economies, virtually the only employment is on the family farm.

With NTFP connections early this year, I visited four indigenous communities on two islands: the Pala’wan on the island by the same name, and the Ibaloi, Tingguan, and Ifugao of the Luzon Cordillera (Mountains). Three of the four villages were only accessible by hiking.  Kamantian, the Pala’wan village, required a four-hour steep mountain trek from the nearest dirt road.

Ifugao basketry village outside of Banaue. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

Ifugao basketry village outside of Banaue. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

These ethnic groups are culturally distinct but share the experience of having been largely unaffected by four centuries of Spanish colonialism, and only marginally affected by the five decades of U.S. colonialism which followed.  However, in the past century, indigenous communities have struggled to secure ancestral land rights and access to the very natural resources that have made their continued existence possible.

Bontoc backpacks on dancers in Mountain Province  Lang-Ay  festival. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

Bontoc backpacks on dancers in Mountain Province Lang-Ay festival. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

In these agricultural communities, rice and root crops are raised with swidden (slash and burn) methods, and homes are built and furnished primarily with bamboo. Basketry and the weaving of textiles often provide the only cash income for necessities like cooking oil, soap, and school clothes.  A beautifully crafted traditional basket of finely spliced and plaited bamboo may earn the weaver only $3.00, but this is essential income.

The most striking basketry art in the villages I visited was in Pala’wan.  Using bamboo, nito vine, and a softwood called enapung, the weavers create tourist trade miniature baskets with exquisite designs.  These covered baskets, called tingkeps, were historically used for rice storage, as a hunter’s burden basket, and as spirit houses during animist rituals.  Now intricately plaited with black and natural color bamboo, and lashed with the threads of the nito vine, they come in symbolically significant and varied patterns.  All the raw materials are found no more than a five-minute walk from the center of the village.

Pala'wan storage baskets. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

Pala'wan storage baskets. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

Pala'wan weavers studying basketry book. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

Pala'wan weavers studying basketry book. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

Kamantian villager with her bamboo trays. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

Kamantian villager with her bamboo trays. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

Not surprisingly, it takes far more time to harvest and prepare the materials, than it does to weave the basket.  Using only knives to split the 3” diameter bamboo stalks into dozens of 1/16”- size and finely smoothened strips requires enormous skill.

Basketry plays such a large role in the economy of the Ibaloi village of Banayakeo, that the local government and an NGO recently constructed a two-room concrete block building as a meeting place for the Banayakeo Basket Weavers Association. Here a “training on Banayakeo traditional bamboo crafting” was recently held to introduce a new generation of weavers to this important source of income, complete with awarded certificates and a speech by the provincial governor. The weavers here have taken their traditional bamboo burden basket and modified the size and shape to create twined and plaited plant holders for market sales, as well as plaited baskets and helmet shaped sun hats.

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Tingguan basket and hat with Japanese wheel weave (rinko) technique. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

Tingguan basket and hat with Japanese wheel weave (rinko) technique. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

As with the Pala’wan weavers I worked with in Kamantian, the Ibaloi Banayakeo weavers were eager to see and learn new styles of basketry, and they asked me detailed questions about my materials and techniques. They pored over the photos in the book I had brought, Basketry of the Luzon Cordillera, and asked that I teach them the technique I had used to make my coiled earrings.

Ibaloi basketry tools. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

Ibaloi basketry tools. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

In her minutes, the association secretary particularly noted the materials I used— embroidery thread and paper rush— which, being store-bought goods, were not familiarly used basket materials. When I suggested they could attach beads to their coiled basketry, one weaver ran out and came back shortly with local bead-able seeds so that I could demonstrate. Like any group of U.S. basket makers, the Banayakeo weavers were looking for further artistic inspiration for their work.

In a typical instance where a traditional art form was transformed through cross-cultural exchanges, the basket weavers in villages outside Bangued City in Abra province on Luzon were weaving plates and hats of finely cut bamboo with complicated and visually striking plaiting techniques used in Japanese basketry. With a bit of research, I learned that Japanese volunteers had come to the region over a 15-year period beginning in the 1970’s and shared their weaving techniques!

While the continuing geographical isolation of indigenous basket and textile weavers secures a ready supply of raw materials (which often must be prepared within a week of harvesting), it also means these communities lack access to markets and must depend on intermediaries—tribal chiefs, mayors, or less altruistic business agents, to sell their goods.

This is one of the ways that non-governmental organizations like Non-Timber Forest Products really make a difference. With their goal of empowering indigenous communities to be stewards of the forest with continued access to raw materials, their community organizing can take many forms. For instance, in high elevation forests of Pala’wan, the almaciga tree produces a resin used in smoking and blackening bamboo for basketry. But the resin is also widely used in lacquer, plastics, and paints, and can be profitably harvested like maple syrup, on a sustainable basis, and exported to Europe and the U.S.  Thus, Pala’wanese NTFP community organizers are assisting resin harvesters to regain control of their lands, and to procure the necessary government license for harvesting and sale.

Through the encouragement of the NTFP’s designing and marketing subsidiary, Custom Made Crafts, basketry and textile products which incorporate traditionally used forest materials, techniques, and patterns are promoted.

Pala'wan  tingkep  baskets & mindoro Island baskets in Custom Made Crafts display. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

Pala'wan tingkep baskets & mindoro Island baskets in Custom Made Crafts display. (Photo by Jill Stanton)

The creativity of the weavers is stimulated by bringing artists and instructors to remote villages, or providing opportunities for village weavers to attend city trade fairs.  And in weaving communities where basketry material has become scarce due to deforestation and climate change (e.g. rattan), villagers are provided with the resources and technical assistance to re-introduce and cultivate them.

I was privileged to have made this Philippine journey and profoundly impressed by the dedication of NTFP’s community organizers. My goal now is to assist in finding U.S. markets for the basketry that is essential for the continuing survival of these indigenous communities. If any readers can suggest market outlets, I would love to hear from you!

And, although basketry has been my focus here, textile arts--including the traditional weaving of pineapple (piña), banana and Manila hemp (abaca), and cotton fibers using ikat, tapestry, or shuttled techniques, and natural dyes--remain essential to the subsistence economies of many other indigenous Philippine communities and are also supported by the NTFP.  

In September 2018, there is a wonderful opportunity to see not only Luzon Cordillera basketry, but also regional traditional textiles.  An exhibit, The Hinabi Project, will be opening at the Mills Building, 220 Montgomery Street, in San Francisco. There will also be “trunk shows” by representatives of NTFP, public cultural performances, and a reprise of the 2017 Hinabi Project exhibit, which focused on Mindanao textiles, at the Asian Cultural Center in Oakland.   Links to current information about these shows, the NTFP and its products, and background information about the Hinabi Project exhibits are below:

www.thehinabiproject.org provides information on two upcoming exhibits —-“Mountain Spirits: Ceremonial Textiles and Folk Art of Cordilleras and Northern Luzon,” and “Weaving Peace and Dreams: Textile Arts of Mindanao.”

www.ntfp.org explains the programs of Non-Timber Forest Projects, and www.cmcrafts.org provides a catalog of textiles and baskets for sale.

Basketry of the Luzon Cordillera, Philippines, UCLA Fowler, & Florina H. Capistrano-Baker (1998).

Sinaunang Habi: Philippine Ancestral Weave, Marian Pastor- Roces (1991). (Beautiful photos and explanations of Mindanao textiles and fashions)

If in Manila, be sure to visit the National Museum of the Filipino People which has full floors of basketry and textiles exhibits, excellent explanations of the processing of natural materials and dyes, and a “Living Tradition” hall featuring the work and life stories of contemporary textile and basketry artisans.


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Formerly an immigration defense attorney, Jill Stanton now travels around the world, volunteers, & makes baskets.