In modern times, traditional textiles have found their way in the spotlight, at best, in exhibits or come Heritage Month and Buwan ng Wika. More recently though, these fabrics have found new life, stitched into today's fashion, and away from the glass frames in museums. But at the peak of its revival, the debates on cultural appropriation have sprung and alarmed different sectors of society. Thus, as urbanites, we struggle, as the line between appreciating our heritage and misappropriating centuries-old cultures can be a fine stroke we don't even notice.
IMAGE Steph Sison
While there is nothing wrong in being proud of our country's rich culture, danger and disrespect lie in mistranslation. This results in cultural appropriation, which Marlon Martin, chief of Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement and founder of Ifugao Heritage School, summarizes into three simple definitions: (1) When you claim a culture to be yours when it isn't; (2) When you have no knowledge of the context of that cultural property, and; (3) When there is an act of disrespect.
Cultural appropriation is not a new topic. In fact, various brands and celebrities have been accused of this in the global perspective. Do you remember when Chanel sold a $1500 boomerang? The boomerang belongs to the poorest demographics in Australia, the Aborigines. By emblazoning its brand's logo on it and turning it into a status symbol, the fashion house was accused of creating a mockery of the culture. Likewise, the Kardashians have received a lot of flak for sporting cornrows, wearing a niqab, and native American headdresses—fragments of certain cultures that the girls have worn as styling tools without giving credence to the value of those garments in their respective cultures.
With the big fuss that people are throwing over these incidents, we now ask: What's the deal? Why is no one getting punished over this? It's simply because cultural appropriation is not a crime. But should it be? Culture is fluid, always shifting, and is meant to be shared but when borrowing one's culture or using them as inspiration becomes exploitative—meaning you take credit and make more profit than the owners—you can be guilty of cultural looting.
Marlon reiterates they're "not asking for individual recognition, [but mere attribution to the group of people] who owns the patterns." Without credit, such prints would be recognized and referred to as this certain brand's work. But that's just the tip of the issue. In a society where money is one of its primary pillars, local weavers receive the least financial income. Their products made laboriously with love, are bought at cheap, bargained price and resold with a steeper and heftier price tag.
The government has yet to explore interventions that can protect these traditions and cultural symbols. Cultural appropriation does not simply devalue certain aspects of our and others' heritage or make you seem ignorant. Cultural appropriation on the commercial level can siphon the profits of struggling indigenous communities that could have benefited from this to revive and sustain their own culture—or for some, to simply survive.
IMAGE Steph Sison
On the other hand, Marlon proposes an easier albeit a very old solution: ethics. It all boils down to one's sound judgment—both on the end of the buyer and the seller. Marlon divulges the sad truth for Ifugao weavers, "Most of our weavers weave so they can have something to eat for the week." With this predicament, one cannot blame them for selling even what is sacred to them for basic survival. "[The death blanket for example.] 'Yung magbebenta, di ka sasagutin na 'di pwede gamitin yan.' They need to sell. Kung minsan, tawag ng pangangailangan. (The sellers won't say you can't use a certain fabric. They need to sell. Sometimes, out of their basic needs.)"
Learning this heartbreaking situation, we now ask: How can we help them make a living, promote a piece of Filipino culture, and appease our personal interests without disrespecting anyone? Is there still a rightful place for traditional textiles in a highly westernized society such as ours?
IMAGE Steph Sison
Marlon breaks down the solutions to this into five concrete ways:
1. Educate yourself.
Read books, do your research before buying anything. "We have Facebook in Ifugao. You can ask us." Know what certains colors, symbols or actions mean for the locals. More than this, understand your boundaries when it comes to what you can use commercially and what should be left alone with the people who own the said cultural symbol.
2. Do not buy purely for aesthetic purposes.
Marlon warns, "Textiles have always been objects of commerce. We've been selling death blankets kasi may mga weavers talaga na specialty nila is making death blankets and they sell it to people who need it, to people who are going to use it as death blankets. So common 'yung bentahan na 'yan. Here comes somebody from outside who buys the death blanket and then ginawang gown or ginawang bed cover. So doon maalarma 'yung may-ari ng culture."
Ga'mong or blankets for the dead are used to be lain over the deceased. The patterns on such are woven with specific patterns so the ancestors can easily locate the lost soul and reunite him with members of his family already in the after-life. Marlon shares that when his grandmother, who is also weaver, passes on, she will have over 40 ga'mongs lain over her body as she is connected to most families in Kiangan, Ifugao. That said, using death blankets in contemporary fashion—even its most common design iterations—is a complete mockery and disrespect not only for the living who are mourning, but also for those who have passed seeking direction.
This can be avoided by simply asking the weavers to modify the designs for you. Marlon clears that the indigenous people do not own the weaves or textiles per se; what makes a certain fabric sacred or their own, though, is how they arrange the said patterns and its colors.
3. Do not haggle.
And then sell their fabrics for an exorbitant amount of profit. Remember that what you are purchasing is a piece of traditional art translated into wearable textile. They took days, if not weeks to weave. More importantly, it's a piece of our culture and our history.
4. Give credit where it is due.
Bontoc weaves are different from the Ifugao's despite both coming from the northern provinces. Do not simply label them as "ethnic prints." Their art is their way of preserving their history as part of the people who own the said culture. Let future people be able to trace back to them what is rightfully theirs.
5. Collaborate with the locals.
They know best about their culture. Immerse yourself with the locals, hire them as your supplier or find local organizations like Habi: Philippine Textile Council, to bridge you to them. There are groups who have dedicated themselves in reinvigorating and ethically reviving the use of Philippine indigenous textiles in modern fashion.
Disclaimer: The crop top in the cover image for this article is from Herman and Co., a heritage brand that is mindful of the use of indigenous textiles. In the photo, the local label credits the patterns to the Ifugaos while the Batik textile is from Sulu.