A few months ago, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte broke off from his scripted speech at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to launch into what many called a tirade about atrocities committed by the U.S. military in the aftermath of the Philippine-American War. President Duterte reminded delegates of how the ethnic peoples of Mindanao, the southern island group of the Philippines, had been massacred by American troops during the war.
It’s easy to view the move as out of touch with reality, seeing as how the Philippine-American War ended over a century ago. Most of us reading this may dismiss the event as a stray sentence or two in a history textbook, irrelevant to how we live our daily lives. What does it matter if 600 Moro people were killed in 1906 by American soldiers during the Battle of Bud Dajo? This is an attitude I found among my own friends from the Philippines, too, who dismissed the president’s remarks by saying, “It’s 2016. We should move on.”
But should we?
Colonialism and its effects may be an abstraction to most of us, but to ethnic groups and indigenous peoples all over the world, it’s impossible to relegate its scars to history. Colonialism dictates where they live, how they work, and the very structure of their lives. Consider the Blaan people, an indigenous group in Mindanao who primarily subsist on agriculture. Centuries ago, they farmed on wide grasslands and open plains, until colonizers bought off their land, handing them deeds which they deemed useless. Today, many of the Blaan must live off farming in the mountains, where labor is harder and where roads to markets are scarce, if they exist at all. To the Blaan, colonialism is not a sentence in a history textbook; it is an underlying structure of their lives. And it speaks to both the resilience and the tragedy of their history that, when one of the Blaan chieftains told me his story, he mentioned the plight of their farmers as a joke a father would tell his son:
“Father, why did we move to the mountains, when below us there is so much open land?”
“Because your ancestors got tired of bending down to plant, so they moved to the mountains, where they could farm standing up.”
Across an ocean, the scars of colonialism continue to pervade the lives of members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who now have to deal with the possibility of a massive oil pipeline running dangerously close to their ancestral lands. Though the Blaan and the Native Americans of Standing Rock may live worlds apart, they share a strikingly similar struggle. Theirs is a fight for land, a fight for life, and a fight not to be erased from history.
I say all this because the first step to solidarity with those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States and those protesting the killings of indigenous peoples in the Philippines is a basic empathy — an understanding of our privilege, an acknowledgment that though the daily routines of our lives may not be shaped by the forces of imperialism and colonialism, there are still others whose lives are. And I say all this to implore us to stop seeing the struggles of native peoples as a barrier to economic or social progress.
Let me conclude with a brief anecdote. While on a scavenger hunt in San Francisco a few weeks ago, my group stopped in the middle of the city to watch a military procession, complete with trumpets, fanfare, and airplanes flying overhead. I watched as soldiers gathered around the Dewey monument in Union Square, which reads, “Erected by the citizens of San Francisco to commemorate the victory of the American Navy under Commodore George Dewey at Manila Bay on May 1, 1898.” And, while spectators around me cheered for the march, I grew angry at what the monument did not say. The same Commodore George Dewey whose name is written in stone on some San Francisco plinth would be central to the war effort that robbed my home of its independence, that led to the deaths of thousands of Filipinos, that led to a struggle mostly left out of textbooks — a war so cruel that an American congressman declared in a speech that “The good Lord in heaven only knows the number of Filipinos that were put under ground. Our soldiers took no prisoners, they kept no records; they simply swept the country, and wherever or whenever they could get hold of a Filipino they killed him.”
There are monuments still that would have us pretend the baser parts of ourselves do not exist. These monuments have many names — the Dewey monument in Union Square, the Dakota Access Pipeline, the old churches in Mindanao where the Spanish converted natives. But these are not our monuments. Instead of brushing aside history, it is on us to acknowledge the ugliness and hatred that human beings have been capable of throughout time, the ugliness that we are still capable of now. And it is on us, now more than ever, to work against that ugliness.
Contact Ethan Chua at [email protected].