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Capturing Indigenous Culture with Sandie Oreta Gillis

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Writer Sandie Gillis respectfully paints a picture of life in Lake Sebu, from half a world away.

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When Sandie Oreta Gillis first started writing Weaving Our Dreams: The T’boli People of the Philippines, it was supposed to be a brochure for her friend Francis Herradura’s art exhibit about Lake Sebu’s indigenous T’boli community. Five years later, that brochure has expanded into a 77-page book that features an impressive record of stories from the ethnic group’s artists about their sacred traditions.

The book is so meticulously detailed that it comes as a shock that she’s never been in the same room as the indigenous women whose stories she is telling—from the details of Maria “Oyog” Todi’s family home to Barbara Ofong’s weaving work, Sandie has helped paint a picture of life in Lake Sebu from her home in Canada, relying on the dreamweavers’ words and translations from their relatives through Zoom calls.

After five years of research and a deep involvement with the communities around Lake Sebu, Sandie’s team realized that the beauty of the T’boli community’s culture couldn’t fully be captured in such a short piece. And so Weaving Our Dreams: The T’boli People of the Philippines came to be.

While Sandie’s name is on the cover, she insists on turning the spotlight away from her to give way for the T’boli people and their art to shine. Ahead of the book’s official launch, she walks us through her process—from the initial visions of a small booklet to the plans she is now overseeing to continue supporting the T’boli community.

Maria Todi, known as Oyog, runs Lake Sebu's School of Living Traditions. Photography by Fransisco Guerrero.


GRID: Weaving Our Dreams was initially planned as a brochure about T'boli weavers. What made you decide to expand this project into a full book?

SANDIE ORETA GILLIS: I felt that a brochure was not enough; I wanted to tell the world about this group of people and their artistry. [I’m not sure] what the turning point was for me, but I do know that I dedicated it to the T’boli youth. I hope the book will make them proud of their roots. On a broader scale, I also hope that the younger generation born outside the Philippines who have Filipino heritage (like my nieces who live here in Canada)… I want them to be proud of where they came from.

GRID: Why do you think learning about our cultural traditions is important? And what made you think that writing this book was worthwhile?

SANDIE: I think it’s really important to share knowledge about different cultures. We're a very diverse culture, especially in the Philippines with different islands. Just how many languages do we have, diba? As we learn about the diverse cultures—in my case, the T’boli people and their ways—it helps us better understand who they are and appreciate their art. Their artistry, their craftsmanship, and their tradition. The T’nalak (their handwoven cloth), it’s very sacred to them. 

I think the more you learn about a certain culture, a certain way of life, you learn to appreciate how people are different, and how we are similar [in spite of the differences]. I think it’s good to raise that awareness in people.

My hope is that the youth feel a sense of pride in their culture; a sense of pride of who we are.

GRID: In a way, raising awareness about their traditions is one of the only ways we can help keep it alive.

SANDIE: Exactly. Yung traditions nila are handed down by their ancestors from way back. They hold these traditions very dearly in their hearts; you can feel it when you talk to them. It’s like if they don’t have it, their culture is lost to them. So talagang mission nila [is to maintain and practice their culture]. At parang [ang pagtulong sa kanila] na rin siguro ang mission ko.

In a way, working with the T’boli is our first project. It’s just the beginning, and we [hope to work with] so many more.

GRID: Pieces of our culture may be destroyed or forgotten in time because of different reasons. How does this generation of T’boli try to preserve their culture? 

SANDIE: ‘Yung mga T'boli before, walang written text; it was all passed down orally. Wala silang books to substantiate [their history]—maybe just books from outside. So I told Maria [“Oyog” Todi] na sana magsulat sila about their history. Sila mismo, diba? 

Maria is currently working on their Tudbulul epic; it’s an eight-episode epic about a mythical hero. They're trying to study this chant from way, way back. Maria recorded an elder who knew about the epic, and she's trying to finish transcribing the tapes. Syempre busy rin siya—she has four kids, and she’s  active in the community. This is one of the things that we at the Narragila Culture and Arts Foundation want to help them with.

Barbara Ofong and Tey Bong Salamat. Watercolor illustrations by Francis Herradura.

GRID: Are there other ways you’re keeping involved with the community after your work on the book? 

SANDIE: I created a foundation with Francis [Herradura] last year; we created a non-profit because as we were working on the project, I realized that a way I’ve been trying to help or promote Filipino culture is to promote Filipino-Canadian artists. Parang that's my way of giving back.

Pero gusto din namin tulungan sina Barbara Ofong. She is a dreamweaver, and we want to help her sustain the weaving center that she has. So we are trying to find ways to make hand weaving sustainable in the T’boli community and maybe connect the weaving center with some business contacts in the Philippines and abroad. [We want] to help support the livelihood in these smaller communities.

We (at Narragila) are also helping Maria’s School of Living Traditions (SLT) with start up kits for extracurricular activities, mga after school projects. It helps students with personal development, social skills… It fosters a sense of belonging in the community. Malay mo, may hidden talents din diyan sa students. We want to support them; help each other. 

I don’t want [this book] to be about me; sa totoo lang, I just want to be in the background.

GRID: Still, the issue of writing about a culture that isn't directly ours can be tricky to navigate; as observers, we don't want to misrepresent them. How did you find that balance?

SANDIE: It’s true, [this part of the work] is very hard sometimes. But with each person I interviewed—sina Maria, Barbara, and Dolores [Agor]—I ask permission on what I can and cannot say. Yung ibang sinabi sa akin were quite personal, to be honest with you, pero hindi ko na sinama sa book. I really wanted to make sure that I'm not overstepping my welcome. I want them to be happy with [how I’m representing] their community in my writing. I asked for their permission if it’s okay that I say this or that; with how things are spelled or worded. 

GRID: You use the phrase "not overstepping your welcome," is that how you see your role as an author? That you form a trusting relationship with the people you write about; you’re not just an observer.

SANDIE: Absolutely. And I want the trust to be both ways; I trust them and they trust me. I was just talking to Oyog the other day. [Our relationship is] continuous, forever na yan. 

GRID: So, how does someone become a responsible observer and recorder of culture? How do you do work like this responsibly?

SANDIE: The first thing is that you really have to be interested in what you're writing about, whether it’s a certain culture or a certain community. You have to ask yourself if you're prepared to really immerse yourself in their culture. I think that's one of the pre-requisites: Just to have that certain interest.

I think you should also [be prepared to] learn about their culture; about their do’s and don’ts, what's taboo, and be respectful of their ways. You have to develop that trust between the community and yourself.

I think the more you learn about a certain culture... you learn to appreciate how people are different, and how we are similar [in spite of the differences].

GRID: What would you want fellow Filipinos to take away from reading this book? 

SANDIE: I don’t want [this book] to be about me; sa totoo lang, I just want to be in the background. It’s all about the T’boli: who they are and how they honor their traditions. 

[Through the book,] I want Filipino children in the Philippines and abroad not to forget their heritage and culture. I want them to be proud. That's part of my goal, to raise awareness and highlight the beauty of the Philippines through the arts. I want to show the beauty in arts, and not just the visual kind: painting, installations, music, dances, songs, chants, literature, poetry, writing, fashion, cinema.

By creating this understanding and appreciation, my hope is that the youth feel a sense of pride in their culture; a sense of pride of who we are. Though I've been living here for almost 40 years… there's always that connection [to the Philippines]. Hindi mawawala iyon.

--

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Weaving Our Dreams: The T'boli People of the Philippines will be available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the Friesenpress Bookstore, and more retailers this July 2022.

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