In Langscape Magazine Articles

In an Indigenous University: Journey of a Pamusepian

August 22, 2019

Story by Sean Anthony Dagondon Rusiana (Bagobo-Tagabawa, Philippines), age 20

Formal education and a degree is something that we Indigenous peoples in the Philippines value as a tool for self-realization and development. For many Indigenous peoples, education is a way out of the multiple impacts of poverty that have hounded Indigenous peoples throughout history. Access to education, however, is a challenge. Luckily, I got a scholarship at the University of Southeastern Philippines-Pamulaan Center for Indigenous Peoples Education (USEP-Pamulaan). I never thought I would survive 4 years of college in a structured, semi-isolated, and cellphone-less institution — but I did.

I never thought I would survive 4 years of college in a structured, semi-isolated, and cellphone-less institution—but I did. 

Indigenous people

Entrance at Pamulaan Center for Indigenous Peoples Education. Photo: Photographer Unknown, 2018

My start as a Pamusepian (the name for USEP-Pamulaan students) was not that easy. I had to adjust to a new environment and people from different Indigenous communities while trying to be independent from my parents. Curfew and no cellphones were things I was able to deal with, but the most challenging was complying with all the formational activities that USEP-Pamulaan was conducting.

Every morning, we woke up early for our morning worship, after which we cleaned our assigned area and did some gardening. After that, we ate breakfast together and prepared ourselves for our class. After our whole-day class, we went back to our formation house, then back to our gardening.

The USEP-Pamulaan program uses an Indigenous-responsive curriculum. I believe having two gardening sessions daily not only emulates the daily life in our home communities but also serves as a way for the institute to engrain in us the meaning of a global Indigenous value and perspective that “land is life.”

Having two gardening sessions serves as a way for the institute to ingrain in us the meaning of a global Indigenous value and perspective that ‘land is life.’ 

Every meal time, all of us gathered in the dining hall to eat together. Dinner time included announcements about our school requirements, meetings, and upcoming activities in the center, or we discussed our personal concerns or did short culture-based activities, such as translating words into different languages and sharing trivia and facts about our respective tribes. Friday dinners were usually followed by recreational activities revolving around faith, our cultures, or something educational. Aside from the regular morning chores, Saturday meant the weekly thematic sessions. In these sessions, we discussed different attitudes necessary to becoming good leaders in our communities, such as simplicity, humility, faith, passion for service, and many more. In the evening, we conducted worship where we praised God together and shared experiences and challenges about our faith in God. Sundays were days for ourselves but we were encouraged to go to church. Yes! We really had a lot of activities and everyone had their own schedule. At first, I felt like a robot trying to keep up. As I developed self-discipline through time, however, I realized I was having fun.

Indigenous peoples

A presentation during a cultural exchange with visitors. Photo: Dale Perez, 2019

Moreover, inside the center, we were also divided into different committees. I was a member of four committees: the Program, Training, Maintenance, and Tour committees. Of all committee tasks I was assigned, the one that I really liked was tour-guiding inside The Living Heritage Center of Philippine Indigenous Peoples. This is an enclosed big room inside the center where everyone can see the living traditions of the Indigenous peoples in the Philippines, and it is considered as the heart of the center. When we had visitors, we toured them inside and showed them the different cultures that we have and all the current realities and challenges that we are facing. The best part of this task was seeing people being amazed at our heritage center, which reminded me of how this place sparked my interest in discovering more things about my own tribe the very first time I saw it. Sharing with others our living traditions as Indigenous peoples makes me proud of who I am and inspires me to embrace and discover more about the culture that we have. I was once assigned to the Cordillera Corner, which focuses on the Indigenous peoples of the mountains of Luzon — and which definitely does not include my real tribe, the Bagobo-Tagabawa. It was challenging to share things about other tribes because I was afraid of misrepresenting or creating misconceptions. To resolve this, I asked my co-Pamusepians coming from the Cordillera to validate the things I said, including the correct pronunciation and the meaning of the artifacts that are displayed in that part of the heritage center. With that, I learned things not just from my own tribe but also from others, which helped me widen my horizons and develop respect for cultural diversity.

Sharing with others our living traditions as Indigenous peoples makes me proud of who I am and inspires me to embrace and discover more about the culture that we have. 

Community Immersion

Part of the USEP–Pamulaan curriculum for my course, which is the Bachelor of Elementary Education degree, is community immersion. This was two months of teaching Matigsalug children in Sitio Contract, Datu Salumay, Marilog, Davao City. Seeing the interest of these children to go to school amidst their poverty has been very inspiring, especially for an education student like me. Living with the community for two months also gave me an opportunity to experience the Matigsalug culture and lifeways, which are relatively traditional.

Indigenous peoples

Practice teaching in Dumingag, Zamboanga del Sur. Photo: Sean Anthony D. Rusiana, 2019

Indigenous peoples

Reading tutorial during immersion at Contract, Marilog, Davao City. Photo: Johncel Clamaña, 2018

Knowing something secondhand as opposed to direct encounters is definitely a different level of learning. I had heard a lot about the traditional practice of having multiple wives among some Indigenous peoples, but I did not expect to encounter a living case during my immersion. That’s what happened, though: We met a community leader who had two wives. Personally, I am against this traditional practice. I felt sad for the two wives.

Going from a relatively traditional community, I had my teaching practicum in a Subanén community that is mainstreamed in Dumingag, Zamboanga Del Sur. For a non-Subanén to teach the Subanéns their own language and culture was a big challenge! We started with the Subanén dictionary and encouraged daily use of words/terms. We did our best to learn more about Subanén culture to be able to integrate this into our teaching. At the end of three months, we were so touched to hear students using basic Subanén, including daily greetings like good morning/afternoon, thank you, and so on. While we were sad to leave the community, a feeling of satisfaction that we were able to teach them something prevailed.

Looking back, I can see myself in the Subanén students trying to learn a new or different culture. What made it easier for me is the sum of the experiences I have had as a Pamusepian. I have learned to actualize respect, thereby becoming more accepting and open to learning other cultures.

All these experiences have inspired me, a city kid, to go back to my roots and discover more about my own culture. I have developed several articles and research papers discussing different aspects of Bagobo-Tagabawa culture, and I am planning to write more. I am learning my own dialect and am honing my skill at traditional dancing, thanks to my Bagobo-Tagabawa classmates.

All these experiences have inspired me, a city kid, to go back to my roots and discover more about my own culture. 

I graduated with a degree on Bachelor of Elementary Education (BEED) on June 11, 2019.

I look forward to being able to live out the valuable lessons I learned as a Pamusepian, which aim for transformational leadership with a passion for serving others.

The author and his family on graduation day (L to R): Diosdado Rusiana Jr. (author’s father), Elenita Rusiana (mother), Sean Anthony Dagondon Rusiana (author), Martina Rusiana (my grandmother), and Janeth Rusiana (my father’s sister). Photo: Photographer Unknown, 2019


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Sean Anthony D. Rusiana is Bagobo-Tagabawa from Silca, Crossing Bayabas, Toril, Davao City. He was one of the leading youth in Tebtebba’s “Respecting Diversity, Promoting Equity: Mainstreaming the Rights of Indigenous Children in the Indigenous Peoples’ Agenda and National Indigenous Peoples’ Situationer” — a partnership project with the UNICEF and OHCHR in 2016. Sean is currently reviewing for the Licensure Examination for Teachers.

The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle: Share Your Story with the World!

An Invitation to Young Indigenous People

The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is a year-long project (2019) linked to Terralingua’s flagship publication, Langscape Magazine. We aim to collect and publish personal stories from young Indigenous people who are involved with one or more of the following four Focus Areas:

    • reaffirming cultural identity;
    • breathing new life into their ancestral languages;
    • reconnecting with traditional knowledge and practices, values, and ways of life; and
    • reclaiming ancestral links with the land.

The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is recognized as an official project of the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, so your story has the potential to reach a global audience. Read more stories from Indigenous Youth.

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If you are a young Indigenous person who would like to tell about your experiences connecting to your ancestral languages, cultures, and lands, we want to hear from you!

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