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July 03, 2008



Put simply, a tribe is a corporate descent group below the state in integration. Its first idea is the manner by which people explain their social and political organization where leadership is neither formalized nor permanent. It changes with history and political context. However, it is based on a concept of political identity through patrilineal descent. It is then associated with unilineal descent systems, usually patriarchal. Membership in a tribe is, therefore, well defined due to unilineal kinship. In the Philippines, technically, there are no tribes since the kinship system among Philippine groups is bilateral, although at times there is a matriarchal bias especially with reference to post-marital residences. This is the reason there are also no ancestors in the Philippine system since it is ego focused and not ancestor focused as in unilineal systems. It is for the same reason that terms clans or moieties cannot be used to describe Philippine societies since these refer to unilineal kinship forms.

Originally, it is the third part of the Roman people. Generally it is a collection of people descending from one ancestor (e.g. the 12 tribes of Israel were the 12 collections of families that descended from the sons of Jacob). Generally, these are groups with linguistic and cultural resemblances. Etymology – up until the 18th-19 century, it was used to denote the original European societies in general, but mostly the first Roman settlements. The first use to denote non-western people was in the 18th -19th century when the established Western view was of the superiority of the Western peoples and societies over the rest of the world.

Tribe is an organizational concept between the band and the state. Contemporary tribes did not originate from pre-state tribes, rather in pre-state bands. This came about as a modern practice of state expansion. Such pre-state bands comprise small, mobile, fluid social formations with weak leadership. These developed when states set them up as a means to extend administrative and economic influence in the hinterlands, where direct political control would cost too much. Thus their boundaries became clearer with a more centralized authority that would be more responsive to the state.

In the United States the word was applied to the indigenous peoples because the Americans of European descent could not accept the indigenous peoples as nations. The word was also universally applied to all the peoples of Africa for the same reason. The view persists even today. The reason is that the term is used in Western languages which were taught to locals peoples by Western teachers with their Western viewpoints.

Why is it then so misunderstood and commonly misused even by Philippine officialdom?
The practice has created confusion especially with reference to ethnic identity and definition. The notion is based on its use as an administrative devise in various concepts prior to, during and colonial rule. To some degree, this concerns maintained conceptions modified for political purposes. The administrative concepts of “tribe” take on a corporate identity with fixed territorial boundaries that many “tribes” do not possess, and give privileges and authority to” tribal” leaders that are dependent on the state organization, and not derived from leadership as understood by the people themselves – for instance the organization of “tribal councils” where previously there were only councils of elders; or the concept of “ancestral domain”, where no ascendant ancestor can be identified in the Philippines for any ethnic group.

The problem with the word tribe is that it is not general enough in application since its meaning is not precise except in the fact that it always implies primitiveness. The term “ethnic group” is generally sufficient in comprehension to accommodate the meaning of groups of people or societies that are pre-state or sub-national – which is closer to the nature of groups of people in the Philippines. Anthropologists in the Philippines prefer the use of the term, “ethno-linguistic group”, because the implication of language includes specific culture.

About the Author:
Jesus T. Peralta is a Bachelor of Philosophy graduate from the University of Sto. Tomas, with a Master of Arts in Anthropology from the University of the Philippines, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology from the University of California. He was Director III of the National Museum until he retired in 1997. Most interestingly, he is also a ten-time winner in the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards in Literature in the field of playwriting. He has more than 120 scientific papers and publications on anthropology, archaeology, and general culture to his name. He is the author of The Tinge of Red, Glimpses: Peoples of the Philippines and Insights into Philippine Culture: Festschrift in Honor of William Henry Scott. He now works as a Consultant for the Management Information Systems Office of The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).