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The Diverse Culture of Mindanao

The large island of Mindanao and all the smaller islands and islets to the south, including the Sulu archipelago, are home to a diverse culture that cannot be adequately named.  For convenience, the terms "the Philippine South" and "Southern Philippines" are sometimes resorted to.

The cultural diversity of the region is the result of a large influx of migrants from the north over a long period of the region's history. Found here are three main cultural groups: the early Filipinos who belong to various indigenous tribes living in the highlands and remote areas of Mindanao, the Muslim Filipinos who were early converts to Islam and who regard the region as their traditional homeland, and the Christian Filipinos who founded settlements and communities in the course of their migrations from other parts of the country.

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tadyaw_excom78.jpg (11919 bytes) The indigenous inhabitants generally shy away from the centers of population and find refuge in the quiet foothills of coastal and interior mountains.  They are known today as "the cultural communities."

Most of the indigenous groups in Mindanao speak a language belonging to one family--the Manobo language family.  In many areas the dialects are mutually understandable, although in a few others only the formal structures are similar. The Manobo language family, moreover, is structurally related to the central and northern Philippine languages.  This similarity links the Mindanao groups to the larger national population.


Islam was introduced in Sulu in the fourteenth century.  It subsequently spread throughout the Sulu archipelago and
spilled over to Mindanao, where the major tribal groups embraced the faith.  There are seven Islam groups in Southern Philippines.  Three of these are on the island of Mindanao: the Maranao around Lake Lanao, the Maguindanao of Cotabato, and the Sanggil of the region further south of Cotabato.  
Four groups are in the Sulu archipelago: the Yakan of Basilan Island, the Taosug in Jolo, the Samal in Tawi-Tawi and adjacent islands, and the Jama Mapun of Cagayan de Sulu. Today, the Muslim Filipinos in Mindanao and Sulu constitute about 17% of the total Southern Philippine population.

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Philippine Airlines, 1989


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Fookien Times Philippines
Yearbook, 1998

The Christian Filipinos make up the great majority (over 70%) of the Southern Philippine population.  They are relative newcomers to the area; the first wave of Christian migrants came in the seventeenth century when the Spaniards sought to populate Zamboanga, Jolo, Dapitan and other areas by encouraging people from Luzon and the Visayas to settle there.  In the nineteenth century Spanish policy found considerable success in encouraging migrations to Iligan and Cotabato.  The Americans continued this pattern during their colonial administration.  In 1913 the American colonial government provided resources for the establishment of agricultural colonies in Mindanao.  By the time the Philippine Commonwealth was established, Mindanao had become a veritable frontier.  Wave upon wave of migrants poured into the region, chief among them the Cebuanos, Hiligaynons, Ilokanos, Tagalogs, Warays (Leyte-Samar), Pampangos, Aklanons, and Bicolanos.  These people did much to clear the virgin areas of Mindanao and open them to extensive agriculture and industry.  In time, the economy of the region began to produce part of its promised boon.


The confluence of cultures inevitably sowed tension and conflict.  The differences were
real, and they were not to be conciliated
without much effort.  But despite these differences, there has always been a
commonality among the inhabitants,
whatever their origin, that in time allowed
them to identify their interests with those
of the nation.  This kindred feeling, this commonality of interests, served to pull
together the indigenous, the Islamized,
and the Christianized traditions into a
single Southern Philippine culture that transcends the momentary conflicts.

Source: Pobre, C.P., et al, 1978. Tuladan, The Philippine South.  Metro Manila, Philippines: The Executive Committee; 160pp.

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Apa Productions (HK) Ltd., 1980

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