Treacherous Riptides, Discordant Seas: Sama Dilaut children in diaspora navigating ethnoreligious and cultural identities with Lumah Ma Dilaut

Treacherous Riptides, Discordant Seas: Sama Dilaut children in diaspora navigating ethnoreligious and cultural identities with Lumah Ma Dilaut[1]


By Mucha-Shim Quiling Arquiza[i]



There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224


Treacherous tides

In broaching up the subject of changing or re-constructing identities, I think it appropriate to start with the metaphor of death and dying, for in the following stories that I am about to share, physical death or perishing of lives has not only been a periodic phenomena, but is a mass experience, where death is no longer something personal and individual, but is a collective experience. Among indigenous societies such as the sea-borne Sama Dilaut, experiencing the process of dying as a community has been both physical and metaphysical. It is a painful witnessing of torches of lives snuffed-out as the old and elderly, dying one after another, perish and carry with them the community’s material culture, the pride of identity, and their precious wisdom to their graves. Today, before our very eyes, we may be witnessing the Sama Dilaut’s journey as a mournful passing away of tradition.

The Sama Dilaut considers the subject a taboo and seldom speaks about death or of life in the hereafter. If they did, it is always shrouded in hushed mystery and only on solemn occasions. Always cautious never to offend both living and dead, ‘death’ and ‘life-after-death’ are regarded with both dread and awe. In one such traditions they speak of a metaphysical abode where spirits dwell after they pass-on from this worldly existence.

Like most Islamically influenced communities, the Sama Dilaut worldview speaks of the inseparable and inter-penetrable a’lam (cosmos and existence) as both of physical and spiritual domains, and in most of their beliefs, affinity and identification to the sea are hallmarks and among their most profound experiences.

The ethereal world is described to lie at the biring-biring langit, in the ‘edge of horizon’. There, a mist or invisible veil separates the living world from the spirit world that if one journeys far enough to reach the edge and wanders about listlessly one might be drifted and carried away by treacherous riptides or strong current to this other world and would be met by the spirits of dead kins and loved ones who have ‘gone on the trip’ who shall lure or inabiyug  the living to join their world or otherwise the vagabond traveler would be misled and deluded by the shaytan (i.e. underworld entities) and would go aliyaw  or banished.

Every day, in yet another context, another seam is broken and trespassed. For those who have remained traditional, venturing out into un-trodden paths like wandering away into foreign lands or getting attracted by alien culture, too, is alluded to a risky voyage to the biring biring langit, except that this alluring journey is often willingly and excitedly pursued by the young and adventurous, often unaccompanied by their elders, they brave it out, fueled only by their dreams of an affluent and comfortable life out there waiting.

Indeed, it should not be difficult to understand why adaptation to new lifestyle is metaphorically framed as a journey to that unknown edge of the universe. To the Sama Dilaut, the process of modernity is a crossing-over of boundaries, a trade-off from the familiar to the alien. And that sacred gate, its thin veil long secured and guarded by tradition and taboos, has been mercilessly ripped away by the recent phenomenon of globalization and rapid modernity, the fused horizons having now rendered the worlds seamless and mutually permeable.

In the given context and situation of changes that the Sama Dilaut have been risking, adopting to modern life has indeed been a plunge to one’s death and, for few lucky ones, sometimes a painful re-birth to completely new and alien identity.


The Sama Dilaut


The Sama Dilaut, known generically in Southeast Asia as Bajau or Bajo, have been traditionally plying the Sulu-Sulawesi-Bornean waters. Where the Orang Bajo of Sulawesi and Borneo are noted to have been fully integrated into Islamic communities and, mostly having managed to move upstairs socially, now lead affluent lives, meanwhile, those in the Philippine seas remain to be the most marginalized and the least profited from agricultural and industrial economy because of their wide dispersal and nomadic existence. By their traditional dwelling in Sulu seas, the Sama Dilaut have been ethnographically classified as belonging to the thirteen [13] mostly Islamized ethnolinguistic groupings collectively referred to as the Bangsamoro people. The Bangsamoro people used to enjoy a lucrative and world-competitive maritime economy and an advanced form of governmentality under the two grand empires of the sultanate of Sulu and sultanate of Raja Buayan-Maguindanao from the 11th century. The Jolo and Buansa (Maimbung) ports of Sulu were global trading rendezvous, while the various provinces and principalities in mainland Mindanao were united into one kingdom that until the American colonial government turned over to Filipino hands in 1947 was called a unified Moroland or Moro Province (a province or principality with reference to the colonial administration of United States of America). Moroland enjoyed a sophisticated centralized form of governance under Sultan Dipatuan Kudarat, in Mindanao, and a succession of Suluan sultans in the island provinces of the South. This was the setup, until the triumph of American colonialism in the early 20th century, hence, the present struggle for national identity to reclaim the right to Bangsamoro self-governance from the mainstream Philippine national body-politik remains to be the crucible in the present forty-year old conflict in southern Philippines.



The Sama Dilaut’s variant of Islam may be tentatively described as syncretic, often considered by prejudiced members among mainstream Muslims today as ‘pagan’ and ‘unislamic’ owing to a highly hybridized admixture of indigenous monistic and pantheistic belief and ritual systems and extant forms of Indo-Malayu mysticism. A less passionate viewer, however, would probably be more appreciative of the Sama Dilaut as an epitome of multi-religious followership, albeit in a more ‘pristine’ sense, as they practice a curious type of ‘multiple religions’ for the same pragmatic reason as other religious minorities elsewhere in Southeast Asia have re-coursed to as exigent form of cultural adaptation for economic and social survival in order to negotiate modernity and to accommodate the challenges of an expanding seamless society. For instance, the kejawen and abangan in Indonesia or other groups in Southeast Asia while being devout Muslims, at the same instance still hold on to agama suku (indigenous faiths). Theyare noted to have blended indigenous traditions into harmonious syncretic practices with mainstream religions of Islam, Catholicism or Protestant Christianity, where they have officially affiliated as a matter of government regulations (i.e. panca sila).


Sama Dilaut diaspora

trade, war, and god

Subgroups of Sama Dilaut orient themselves according to a specific sea-centered locus, although not so much diversified in ethnic and material culture, their geographic specificity render some variations to their cultural and religious practices. In recent times of conflict, an increasing number of Sama Dilaut have been forced to abandon their traditional lifestyle to adventure into dry land where, living in lahat hangkut (i.e. resettlement or hamlet villages) they are converted to the mag-sandes (i.e. ‘Sundays’) who are protestant evangelical sects of either the Baptist, Alliance church or born-again Christians such as the JIL (Jesus is Lord) as these Christian denominations have been actively proselytizing among Mindanao-Sulu indigenous populations and offer handsome incentives such as free housing, cash capital to start-up a livelihood, schooling for the children or sometimes even a motorized boat (bangka maka malkina) – an ultimate dream for a Sama Dilaut – to allow him/her to pursue the old trade of fishing, or in these times where marine resources have become scarce and maritime trade is risky, at least, to engage in anuhun or diving for ‘rejects’ or scavenging for garbage refused and dumped to the murky waters by commercial mariners and coastal residents; or the boats can also be useful in their forages into the generous pockets and purses of benevolent passers-by and ships’ passengers on a begging venture called angedjo i.e. an infinitive verb corrupted from the term ‘hey, joe!’ indicating that the trade’s clients used to be exclusively foreigners, specifically, American GIs, the Thomasites and Peace Corp that were aplenty during pis-taym (peace-time) starting around the turn of 20th century.


In contemporary situation, the intermittent and protracted war escalating to violent conflicts have been resulting to mass dispersal, turning into a highly insecure and mobile populations the conflict-prone Muslim Mindanao region whose villages, islands and cities are constantly militarized and, as matter of government’s counter-insurgency policy, periodically hamletted into lahat hangkut (i.e. forcibly evacuated or relocated en-masse) causing massive displacements and severe disintegration of many ethnically-formed kampongs (traditional villages and clan-based communities). Conflict situations push socially fragile and dispersed nomadic societies like ethnic communities further into the fringes and, for many, force them to move into newish villages where they are not only dismembered from familiar kin-groups but are also forced into sharing fences with traditionally feuding clans or ‘tribal enemies’ and dreaded ethnic groupings like the more dominant Tausug (i.e. a non-Sinama speaking ethnic grouping probably originating from Bornean peninsula that social-anthropologists consider a migrant to Sulu waters during the expansion and dispersion of the Malay sultanate in the 15th century).


The ritual of death is almost perennial, uniformly and repeatedly observed phenomena in many traditional Sama Dilaut mooring villages today from the north of Basilan to the peninsula of Zamboanga down south to the islands of Sulu are waves of migrations from conflict-affected areas surging; and then the population of warring ethnic groupings, who are often of a more dominant and aggressive strain than the indigenous communities grow exponentially; and where once there were makeshift resettlement, more permanent structures are being built, forcibly demolishing the old. When this happens, a new way of life takes shape and new culture rules as standard, usually in the form of mainstreaming of purist Muslim practices as the norms of ‘moral’ and ‘civilized’ lifestyle. It also becomes the signature for the ‘modern’ and ‘elite’ who have the opportunities to attend school, go on pilgrimage to Arabia or to engage in leisurely tourism. Since religion and sociopolitical affinity become major bases for communal cohesiveness, consequently, religious intolerance and socio-cultural chauvinism arise, resulting to more and more Sama Dilaut choosing to leave their flotilla-houses and fleeing to lahat bisaya (i.e. Christian land) and there get converted to other faiths.


Childhoods, ethnic identities and socio-religious consciousness


In migrant communities, the ‘new life’, ironically, does not necessarily translate to a happy change and the comfortable life falsely premised in being ‘modern‘ remain a dream. In time, the much-anticipated affluent lifestyle reveals its true nature as in fact a mere mirage in the desert, nightmarish to many, as more often than not, new life is merely experienced as radical shift from traditional sea-based self subsistent existence into a harsher life of urban poverty saddled in a sad state of multiple-marginalization in their becoming not only socio-economically poor but socio-politically disempowered and ethno-religiously discriminated lot.


Of the few lucky ones who might survive the cultural-plunge-to-death and are easily adaptable to the changes are children and youth who could have been those perfectly described in Harry Arlo Nimmo’s epilogue in his recent book about the Sama Dilaut  (2001:233)[2], when he wrote his eerie predictions that:


the search for [Sama Dilaut]sustenance has taken them to new currents

very different from their past. These currents are without boats

and are flowing toward an uncertain future that will test the

survival skills they learned…


As the younger generation of Sama Dilaut, children and youth no longer possess the keenness and depth of memories of the past, perplexing and mystifying as they may be to be culturally-binding and sacrosanct, as adults and traditional elders believed, these youth and children might not be expected to hold the same devotion to tradition as elders and adults once did, which, fancy and romantic as they may seem to the cynics, could have been the only safeguard to the integrity and worthiness of their existence and being. Childhood memories of the good old times of a free-spirited sea-faring life may occasionally bring back romantic and nostalgic moments, this is perhaps the best it could go, as far as myths and tales told by the old ones could impact on the present lives of young ones. Beyond that, ethnic pride, familial piety, religious and spiritual devotion and other traditional social glues and markers of identity then might not be valued in the same way that the tradition-bound adults considered dear and vital to existence. [And as I will seek to elaborate later, in the same manner, new emerging markers of identity such as nationalism and political ideologies may not be held worthy of their emulation either if these, too, are not consistent with and satisfying the imagined better life or complementing the younglings’ sense of ideal self-hood].


Just like any other youth and children, Sama Dilaut children now define their selfhood on the basis of their daily enterprise with life. Identities are constantly negotiated and contested each time they encounter raw situations and respond to it. Constantly bombarded by contending images of globalized selfhoods, the children’s sense of identities and imagined self is fluid and ever-changing that perhaps the only truth that remains relatively constant is the persistent experiences of marginalization, exclusion, poverty and their vulnerability as part of the reality of their youthfulness or childhood.


Yet even the notion of childhood is a contested concept. What it is to be a child? Or to be more precise, to be a Sama Dilaut child? The legal framework defining childhood is provided in the UNICEF declaration where [c]hildhood is said to be “the time for children to be in school and at play, to grow strong and confident with the love and encouragement of their family and an extended community of caring adults. It is a precious time in which children should live free from fear, safe from violence and protected from abuse and exploitation”.  As the same source contends, such childhood “means much more than just the space between birth and the attainment of adulthood. It refers to the state and condition of a child’s life, to the quality of those years[3].


As legal construct, childhood is as much cultural and social, and it seems more likely that what the Sama Dilaut child experiences in her social reality and as formed and defined early in life by her cultural matrix negates and clashes with what the legal and institutional construction of childhood is. If the realities and conditions of childhood among indigenous Sama Dilaut children are to be the gauge to go by, they destroy the above UNICEF definition not only as abstract and frivolous, but also, absurd!


Discordant seas of contentious identities


In the din of political debates and contestations of different voices among the Bangsamoro, the stubborn obsession and shortsightedness over the struggle for nationhood and homogenizing claims for one-Bangsa identity appear to have successfully obscured and conveniently silenced everything else except the exclusivistic politics of belligerency spelled as the quest for sovereign rights and power-hold of the politically dominant and economically elite ethnic groupings. This has  unwittingly trivialized what could be more urgent and crucial issues facing both minoritized and mainstreamed Bangsamoro ethnic communities, namely, the challenges or threats of socio-political homogenization and economic liberalization as the new world  order propelled by proponents of free-trade and open market. To indigenous communities, this infinite fluidity and total seamlessness brought about by globalization could be the dreadful precarious tide, gargantuan in scale and magnitude ever imaginable, and ever to be navigable by relying only on pristine values of tradition or on cultural instinct alone.


Meanwhile, we are all embroiled in the vicious politics of containment and resistance that have destined us all in a perennial state of conflict and war that many of us are willingly deluding ourselves into believing that all that matters is independence and statehood, even refusing to tackle the Bangsamoro’s national debacle to its cancerous link into bigger global geo-politics and its metastasized sociopolitical mutations hosted by neoliberalism. In this politics of convenience, minorities and marginal people, like the indigenous youth and children are left with very little choices and have only the diminishing spaces to mould their selfhood. War deprived us not only of the physical abode to anchor on and for our tribes and their progeny to branch out and root in, but also denied us the social-psychological sense of permanence, consistency and continuity, or a sense of completeness to be provided only by undisrupted social history of at least a full generation. Having no permanent roots now to anchor and without a consistent bed to propagate, the indigenous children’s sense of self and notion of identity, at worst, is that of a devastated and frustrated self wallowing in the immediate experiences of poverty and dislocation, or, at its best, a deluded image of globalized ideal constructed by media and modern cultural agents modeled as icons and idols of commercial materialistic and neo-liberal values that are completely detached from their realities, let alone, from tradition. The only reality they know of is the very situation they are born to and grow up with, that is, a state of insecurity in the debilitating experiences of lost of integrity of intimate human and ecological families, their severance from the primordial ties, separation from nuclear groups and peer, and the dismemberment from the kampong or kawman (clan-communities). Constant sights of destruction of familiar spaces and eco-scapes of  immediate neighborhood bomb-blasted into smithereens; and ecological environment carelessly abandoned and left to corporate and foreign entities to exploit, appropriate and deplete; all these delete and sink into oblivion all the symbols and meanings they hold. These are always violent and traumatic processes to be witnessed by a child.


Periodic and prolonged war does not only physically destroy but de-sensitizes and dehumanizes. In all, its long-term impact is ultimately to obliterate the community’s limpah tangan, or life-marks and imprints where history, mythology, cosmology, genealogy, the shared communal memory, and practically the entire documentary evidence of life itself that were written there by generations over generations of Sama Dilaut that might have to be foregone with forever.


Economically marginalized and socio-culturally minoritized, the Sama Dilaut, children’s identity and selfhood are constantly reconstructed and redefined by their life in enforced-migration, diaspora and evacuation. Formed and nurtured in beggar communities, for instance, children grow-up and become conscious of the burdens of adult-and-parent responsibilities. In being major income-earners they ensure not only the daily family upkeep but also secure the safety of the elderly and de-capacitated in the demise of responsible adults who have been forced to abandon their duties due to migration, plight from unpaid debts or unjustly incarcerated for alleged criminal offenses, or by their untimely deaths. The number of children-headed households is a major feature of urban squatter communities where children have curbed out a career out of child-labor, child-prostitution and as street-urchins.


Needless to overstate, indigenous children’s vulnerabilities are multiplied a number of folds over than ordinary children in both urban and rural communities, yet, despite this, indigenous people, least of all, children, remain invisible in policy formulation and decision-making, be it within the formal structures of institutional and legal government, or of traditional social structures or even within purported alternative structures and systems contesting status quo or touted as models of reformed structures of re-engineered social politics


Perpetual deferment of self-determination for ‘minorities’?


Much as nationalists and liberationist today contend that the Bangsamoro people must identify to a common and homogenous national identity and devote all efforts for the recognition and realization of rights-claims of this nation, the reality among Moro children and youth, especially, among indigenous, minority religious and marginal groups should be a wake-up call as they sometimes negate such imperatives. Without having to belabor the issue, we must recognize and admit collective culpability to the many opportunities for peace that have gone wasted and learn from the failures of, how, for every instance of failed peace, our inability [failure] to secure justice, uphold the rule of law and sustain development, lives and future of children are being put in the line. In the haste to conquer power and to turn the table against alleged oppressors and colonizers, growing political extremisms and cultural and religious intolerance among mainstream and purist Muslims are ugly fall-outs of an armed resistance that have abandoned principle and reason. This must not be allowed to prosper.


At this point, I must admit to not having the guts and courage and lacking the wisdom to further this issue anymore. Suffice it to note that the perennial wait and deferment of important questions especially those pertinent to indigenous and religious minority peoples of Mindanao and Sulu have been painful and debilitating struggle. For many activists like me, self-censorship and self-imposed gag order is tantamount to self-amputation, a nipping off of the buds of victory before they ever become flowers and bear fruits. To condone by being silent, and to co-opt by pretending to be deaf and blind, is   to subvert the very same right that we purport to fight for – to freely self-determine and define our destiny. Even in most animated discussions among civil society groups, raising up this issue or any other outside of what is in the current agenda of ‘official’ peace-talks brings much discomfort as it is sensitive. Pushing it any further is considered impolite and, by the same token, may even be taken as an affront to the ‘elders and leaders’ and might endanger one to be politically-ostracized or worst be declared an infidel and traitor to the cause. Lumad and Moro activists working among marginal and minority groups, bursting in their frustration, relieve themselves by sometimes jokingly hitting at the subject[4].


Patronizing development projects


Meanwhile, government development planners are spawning yet another construct of selfhoods and identities for the indigenous and minorities. Development projects with patronizing intentions such as ‘ahon bajau’ (to fish-out the bajau) and ‘lifting indigenous people from indignity’ (LIPI, ironically its literal meaning means ‘race’, perhaps a Freudian slip for its racist intent, one could wonder) are not only reinforcing the denigrated images of indigenous and traditional communities but also constructing new self-images tailored to fit a globally-acceptable commercialized values of modern and good life. Images of a liberal individual is an “accomplished and self-made” social entrepreneur who is freed from the immobilizing roots of culture and tradition, endowed with a completely secularized conscience  cleared of social accountabilities and immune from retributive justice of fate and devoid of faith in the sacred and the divine. The millennium individual  is a “universal soldier” unencumbered by any contract of communal loyalty.


Ironically, as Sather (in Bottignolo 1995: vi-vii) rightly pointed out ages ago, religion has always appeared to be important and powerful element in the construction of a new image, as he observed: “part of their [Sama Dilaut] denigration has traditionally been framed in religious terms. Hence, neighboring groups have typically viewed them as a people ‘without religion’(halam ugama)”. [5]



15 September 2010/06 Shawwal 1431

Daira Sambuwangan


[1] Prepared for the International Conference on Islam, Childhoods and Building Culture of Peace in Southeast Asia, September 29-30, 2010, Balay Kalinaw, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City, Philippines.

[2] Nimmo,  H. Arlo.  Magosaha: An Ethnography of the Tawi-tawi Sama  Dilaut, Quezon City:  Ateneo de Manila University Press, Inc. 2001


[3] This UNICEF declaration was cited by Imam that was quoted in L. Mcnee, .The languages of Childhood and colonial policy in French West Africa., African studies quarterly: the online Journal of African studies, 7, 4, 2004

[4] There is an anecdote about the ongoing political processes for the negotiation of indigenous peoples’ self-determination between belligerent groups and the national government as like partaking of a chicken dish, where, according to the principal negotiators who happen to claim to be the ‘vanguards’,  or of ‘having been there first’, or of having ‘led in the struggle for the longest’, minorities and marginal interest groups must keep silent by the sideline and leave it to them to catch and harness the fowl, do the necessary ceremonies, dress and cook the chicken while marginal minorities just patiently wait and be assured that before long everyone will be served. It came to pass that so many cooked chicken plates have been passed around, but only a few choice company partook of the feast, while indigenous people are still waiting by the sidelines eager to find out how fine they taste.


[5] Bottignolo, Bruno. Celebrations  With  the Sun:  An  Overview  of Religious Phenomena Among the Badjaos. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Univesity Press, 1995. 


[i] Mucha-Shim Q. Arquiza is founding directress of Lumah Ma Dilaut Center for Living Traditions, a nongovernment not-for-profit peoples’ organization committed to protect and promote indigenous knowledge systems. Together with Lumah Ma Dilaut, Mucha has been doing community participatory action researches in Sama Dilaut villages in the homeseas as well as migrant and diaspora communities aimed at not only documenting vanishing traditions and traditional wisdom but invigorating indigenous structures and systems for such living traditions to continue.

About Mucha Q. Arquiza
Supports the preservation and promotion of indigenous knowledge systems

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