Cañao: Our Sacred Cultural Practice as Indigenous Peoples of the Northern Philippines

Cañao: Our Sacred Cultural Practice as Indigenous Peoples of the Northern Philippines

Blogpost by Donna Ravn Bulay Jessen

In the zigzag road towards the mountainous region of the Northern Philippines, resides the tribe of the Igorots. We are the only group or tribe in the Philippines that was spared during the Spanish conquest who desired for our gold and wanted to convert us to Christianity, but failed. Our Igorot warrior-head-hunting ancestors fought vigorously to protect our beloved region. After successfully defeating the Spanish conquerors, a ceremonial ‘cañao’ was demonstrated by the elders as a thanksgiving to the god of the Igorots, ‘Adi Kaila’, the god which we cannot see, and to ‘Kabunyan’, his son, for watching over our Igorot warriors and protecting our beloved land.

A ‘cañao’ is believed to be a pagan religious feast and service during which the natives butcher pigs, chickens, and even carabaos as forms of thanksgiving, offering, and for other relevant purposes. It is also a rite or ritual and offerings rendered to the ‘Anitos’, the ancestral spirits of our beloved departed. This religious service or liturgy which is also a sacred ritual is headed by the native priests, or the anointed.

A ceremonial ‘cañao’ speech or chant is given while the actual act of butchering a pig
(Photo by blogger, 2014)

Seemingly, ‘Adi Kaila’, the god of the Igorots, ‘Kabunyan’, his son, and the ‘Anitos’ or the ancestral spirits resemble the Holy Trinity of The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. However, even before becoming Christians, we have addressed our god(s) as such but perhaps with distinctions. The ‘anitos’ for instance, may be different from the ‘Holy Spirit.’

There are several types of ‘cañao’ depending on the purpose of execution. Before 1900, ‘cañao’ is divided into three purposes. According to the different authors of ‘Tanggawan,’ an Igorot Studies Center Publication Series, ‘cañao’ is performed for a bountiful harvest, for economic progress, and for healing. Moreover, in relating the purpose of ‘cañao’ to our ancestors’ head-hunting activities, it is performed as a ritual before and after a headhunting or a war will take place for it to be a success. To better understand our ancestors headhunting activities is to relate it to a quotation from the book of Exodus (Exodus 21:23-27) ‘’an eye for an eye’’ as a just punishment that is accepted and well-respected back in the days. In performing a ‘cañao’, the native priest leading the ritual will look at the ‘apdo’ or the bile sac of the butchered animal which is the crux of the ceremony. I remember the elders saying that if the ‘apdo’ is blemish-free, it means good luck. If the bile sac indicates otherwise, it is vital to be cautious which at times, another ritual may be needed.

An elderly performing a ritual dance, Benguet, Philippines (2014).

Our headhunting ‘cañao’ traditions along with our drums, and ‘gangsas’ has long been practiced. In the early 1900s, American missionaries came with a seemingly friendlier approach during which in that period, we have slowly opened our doors to our neighbours from the lowland. Come the 1970s, our ‘cañao’ ceremonies intended for headhunting has slowly faded in accordance to the laws of the land.

A memorable experience of ‘cañao’ that I participated several times in the 90s was a ritual intended for a good harvest. We call this ritual ‘Begnas.’ It is a whole week of offerings by butchering pigs and chickens, along with playing of gongs, dancing, and chanting to call for sufficient rain to water the crops and pray to ‘Kabunyan’ for an abundant harvest. Another experience of ceremonial ‘cañao’ I have been at is at weddings. For instance, at was my sister’s wedding, pigs and native chickens were butchered the night before their actual wedding took place. The butchering of pigs continued for the whole week after the wedding day as part of the ‘cañao’ ritual which the elders believe to be an essential foundation of a strong marriage.

Nowadays, ‘cañao’ remains actively practiced not only in the Cordilleran region but also in several countries where Igorots have migrated. An international organization called BIMAAK or BIBAK which stands for the six provinces of the Cordillera namely Benguet, Ifugao, Mountain Province (or Bontoc), Apayao, Abra, and Kalinga is intended for us Igorots so we can gather for celebration or help each other in hard times, and bring to life the feeling and sense of home.

Photos of ‘Cañao’, during which a pig is butchered. Benguet, Philippines (2014).

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