Batak people (Philippines)

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Not to be confused with Batak of Indonesia.

The Batak are one of about 70 indigenous peoples of the Philippines. They are located in the northeastern portions of Palawan, a relatively large island in the southwest of the archipelago. There are only about 500 Batak remaining. Also called Tinitianes, the Batak are considered by anthropologists to be closely related to the Ayta of Central Luzon, another Negrito tribe. They tend to be small in stature, with dark skin and short curly or "kinky" hair, traits which originally garnered the "Negrito" groups their name. Still, there is some debate as to whether the Batak are related to the other Negrito groups of the Philippines or actually to other, physically similar groups in Indonesia or as far away as the Andaman islands.

Batak have for centuries combined a hunting-gathering lifestyle with seeding of useful food plants, kaingin, a slash and burn farming method, and trading. It is believed that they may have had trading relations with Chinese merchants as early as 500 AD.

During the mid to late-20th century the Batak were easily pushed out of their preferred gathering grounds by the sea into the mountains by emigrant farmers, mostly from Luzon. Living in less fertile areas, they have attempted to supplement their income by harvesting and selling various nontimber forest products, such as rattan, tree resins, and honey. This has been met with resistance by the government and commercial collectors, who assert that the Batak have no legal right to these resources. Conservationists, however, have taken an interest in the Batak's collection methods, which are much more sustainable than the techniques used by commercial concessionaires.

The Batak were once a nomadic people, but have since, at the behest of the government, settled in small villages. Still, they often go on gathering trips into the forest for a few days at a time, an activity which has both economic and spiritual value for them. Their belief system is that of animism, which is belief in spirits that reside in nature. Some, called "Panyeon", are generally suspicious of humans but are tolerant of them, as long as people don't abuse or waste the resources of the forest. Other spirits, called "Diwata" are generally benevolent. All are capricious. Batak make regular offerings to these spirits, and Shamans undergo spiritual possession in order to communicate with the spirits and heal the sick.

Rapid depopulation, restricted forest access, sedentary living, and incursion by immigrants has devastated the group culturally. Today, very few Batak marry other Batak but tend to marry from other neighboring groups. The pattern has been than the children of these marriages tend to not follow Batak cultural ways, and today "pure" Batak are rare. As a result Batak are being absorbed into a more diffuse group of upland indigenous peoples who are slowing losing their tribal identities, and with it their unique spirituality and culture; there is even some debate as to whether or not they still exist as a distinct ethnic entity.

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