The Magahat Story

"Magahat? Yes, Magahat? What is it? Is it something to be afraid of? To the Bayawanon this is not a strange name or a new vocabulary. Many had heard of this word from their great grandparents or the early "pangayaw" from the Island of Panay who were the pioneers of Bayawan then a melting pot of southern Negros. Many have also heard of its popular meaning and use as a derogatory address to an enemy as a magahat, one with a reproachable behavior. The word has come to be associated with treachery, deceit and killing. Magahat is popularly used, too to mean bogeyman to frighten children who sneak out from the house only to be found amid the talahib and cogon or among banana plants and bushes in the fields hunting for bird's nests. Kids who go to nearby creeks setting up or checking the traps for a good catch of bird or fish, or climbing guava, lomboy or inyam trees as their favorite past time, are always admonished by their folks, "Watch out for the Magahat lurking behind you. They will surely get you!"

The origin of Bayawan's name is directly traced to a group supposedly Magahat headed by a certain Cateras who, in the early times, tragically killed the Spanish missionary as he was elevating the Sacred Host during the holy mass (pagbayaw sang Ostiya). The Cateras party speared him from behind during the mass and he succumbed to untimely death. According to historical account, the incident happened in 1865 at a small inland settlement of nucleated Christian migrants known as Omod today, about 11 kilometers from the present Bayawan Poblacion. From this incident came the town name Bayawan from a Visayan-Cebuano dialect "gibayawan" meaning in English "was elevated." For the sake of euphony it became Bayawan.

Because of the untimely and horrible death of Padre Mariano, the Christian settlers of Omod were panic-stricken. Afraid that the same thing might happen to them, they fled and settled along the coast which is present-day Bayawan Poblacion established in 1872. Big trees were cut and thickets were cleared for settlement and the settlers banding together for protection against the marauding tribe, the “hostile” Bukidnon. Meanwhile, in the north of Guba River, now Sicopong River, the Spaniards also settled in increasing numbers and established another settlement.

Not along after, the municipal government was established in this place. It was known later as Tolong and brought under its jurisdiction the whole of the southern part of Negros. There were two pueblos (towns) created out of Tolong: Old Tolong (to the Spaniards known as Tolong Viejo while to the natives popularly known as Da-an Lungsod “old town”, subsequently Santa Catalina) and Sicopong. As time went on, the plain areas around the present site of Bayawan proper, then a part of Sicopong farther south, developed and prospered rapidly as migrants from Panay, Negros Occidental, and nearby towns came one after the other. The set of government was transferred to this site and the town was known as Tolong Nuevo (New Tolong). Tolong Viejo then became a barrio of Bayawan. At that time the whole of Tolong was administered by a political government based in New Tolong (that is, Bayawan) until World War II. Finally Old Tolong was separated. In 1947, Old Tolong became Santa Catalina municipality, and New Tolong became known thereafter as Bayawan. In the year 1952 by virtue of R.A. 694 approved by the Third Congress of the Philippines the name of New Tolong was changed to Bayawan.

There are conflicting claims as to the existence of Magahat as an indigenous group in southern Negros (at that time Tolong) and these have continued to becloud the issue up to the present. That the indigenous group in the mountain areas of southern Negros are Magahat has to some extent become controversial and debatable. Suffice to say, there is need of an update of existing anthropological data to resolve this so-called Magahat or Bukidnon controversy. The late Dr. Timotea S. Oracion, an anthropologist of Silliman University, conducted a field research in August 1949 to December 1951 on a group of people locally called as Magahat. His findings revealed that they practiced Sweden agriculture, hunted wild game, and collected edible forest products to supplement the harvest from their hillside farms. Living along the upper Tayabanan River valley in the interior mountains of Basay, a former barrio of Bayawan, this particular indigenous group was described by Dr. Oracion as a separate, distinct group with established social boundaries different from its neighbors, the Bukidnon. Aside from the tumandok (“original inhabitants/people”) or Bukidnon (“native of the mountains”) in Southern Negros, there are others of their own kind, although dwindling in number, that live today in Cabatuanan, Basay and in Tayawan, Bayawan and its neighboring interior barrios.They are Bukidnon, not Magahat.

The Cabatuanan and Tayawan Bukidnon are related in some ways, historically and genetically. They are the present generations of Bukidnon, the descendants of the original inhabitants. Christians and lowlanders popularly call them Buki (mountain people) and their dialect is called binuki.

Magahat is not a group distinct from the Bukidnon contrary to Dr. Oracion’s claims. Magahat refers to the practice of killing. When a Bukidnon kills another due to the death of any family member, he is called Magahat. It was the performance of this act that made one a Magahat, a word ostensibly derived from the Visayan-Cebuano term that means “to kill”. The act called mag-ahat refers to the killing of an innocent person while the perpetrator is known as Magahat. This practice no longer exists because of the group’s frequent association with neighbors practicing the Christian faith. The so-called Magahat did not refer to an ethnic group that existed independently of the Bukidnon. The Bukidnon in Basay and Bayawan themselves when interviewed by the Silliman University-DENR Task Force on Ancestral Domain research team (which I chaired during its research conducted in 1995 and 1996) denied having ever heard or known of the existence of the Magahat as a group of people. They claimed that the Magahat were the same people as the Bukidnon but the word itself did not refer to an ethnic designation but to a ritual practice involving the act of killing. Data gathered from the group’s report on the indigenous communities of Negros Oriental show that when a Magahat killed a Christian lowlander (dumagat or banwahanon), he extracted a tooth from his sacrificial victim and placed it inside his bamboo betel-chew container (malam-an). This malam-an was then placed in a belt pouch that he tied around his waist with a piece of stripped rattan and carried wherever he went. If he had another occasion to kill a dumagat or banwahanon because of another death in the family, the tooth previously extracted was thrown away and replaced with a new one he had just extracted. The tooth inside his malam-an believed to be an amulet that could protect the carrier from unfriendly spirits such as his previous victim. Cutting the hands and feet of the sacrificial victims is also magahat practice. It is an act symbolic of the belief that the victims not only accompanied the spirit of the dead Bukidnon but also worked as his slaves (represented by the severed hands) and docile attendants (represented by the cut feet) in the afterworld. If the departed member of the Bukidnon was a child, only the hands of the victims were cut; for an adult, both the hands and feet. Worth noting is that an individual rarely went out and killed alone but was often accompanied by a few male relatives to form a raiding party. Each was armed with a lance (bangkaw), bolo (pinuti), and long knives (talibong). A kind of binding agreement existed between the members of the raiding party which obligated each one to help each other in case an untoward incident happened along the way. As practiced in the past, any Bukidnon raiding party also included one person who did not actively take part in the raid but is charged with taking care of the food provision of the raiding group. His other task was to serve as a lookout for the group and to bring the news of the raid, successful or not, to the Bukidnon community. Information further revealed that it was usually the wife of the Bukidnon who challenged her husband (laki) “to kill” upon the death of a member of the family or nearest relatives. It was believed that to perform the killing act would put the soul of the departed in peace. Otherwise, it would continue to molest them. If the husband hesitated, the wife usually taunted him by calling him a coward (dugo-dugo si laki).

She and her children would then lose respect for him. The husband, forced to take up the challenge of his wife, would then round up volunteers, mostly male relatives. However, it is difficult to ascertain whether it was Bukidnon culture or his sense of shame (ulaw ni laki) or male pride that eventually dictated the husband’s acceptance of this wife’s challenge. Successful or not, the party returned home after three days of prowling. In case of an unsuccessful raid, the group would kill the first animal they meet on the way to appease the soul of the dead person. Still, a human sacrificial victim was preferred for its presumed significant function to the dead in the afterlife.

The life of the Bukidnon is a continuous struggle and survival. They have been marginalized and displaced from their ancestral lands that at one time they regarded as their own world in the distant past, perhaps hundreds of years. In earlier times their displacement was largely due to the presence of a plywood factory (Marli Plywood & Veneer Corporation) which produced lumber and wood by products for export in the 1950s and the Ang Tay Sawmill Company in the 1960s.Both exploited and devastated Bayawan’s rich tropical forest and lush vegetation that once cloaked its valleys and rolling hills and mountains thus destroying as well the ecological niche and the resource base of the Bukidnon.

To maintain good relations of the “hostile” Bukidnon, the management of the logging concessions had to give them cigarettes, food, money, intoxicating drinks, cheap households items, clothing, allow them to ride free on logging trucks which thrilled them most and later became their regular past time. These temporary help and conveniences were welcomed by the Bukidnon although these did not really help much in alleviating their poverty. Not surprisingly, the Bukidnon, out of gratitude, considered the logging management and concessionaires as their benefactors rather than as threats to their survival and culture that gave them the Buki identity.

The influx of Visayan-Cebuano migrants to the area, lured by bright economic prospects to own land further displaced the Bukidnon. Through the years more and more migrants have come to invade the areas traditionally belonging to them. The logged-over areas left by the lumber companies have been converted to homesteads and farmlands by migrant lowlanders and then to sugarcane haciendas during the establishment in 1969 of the Tolong Sugar Milling Company (TSMC) in Sta. Catalina. The operation of the former Construction Development Corporation of the Philippines (CDCP) mining in the mountains of Basay in 1977 exacerbated the problems of the powerless Bukidnon.

These activities pushed the Bukidnon farther up the hinterlands, destroyed their physical environment, and polluted their water and air. It is sad to note that because of these deplorable conditions not many of the Bukidnons are left today. Soon they may follow the fate of their extinct cultural groups. Their communities, if one closely observes, manifest marked forms of poverty and vulnerability, malnutrition, ill health, extremely low levels of education, and inadequate shelter. There is little hope for them in the future. They are a disappearing tribe today. They may be slowly disappearing, biologically and culturally, as acculturation, integration; interethnic marriages, cultural borrowing, and modernization are slowly taking place in their Buki traditional culture. Can we just simply sit back and unconcernedly watch a group that is inextricably part of our cultural past dies out? A group with which the word Bayawan is inextricably historically linked?

Bayawan - from the cebuano word “Ibayaw or Bayaw”. The tragic tale of a priest killed by a native while elevating the Holy Host during the Act of Consecration.

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