Back to Article List


       According to the writing of John Garvan in his memoir in the New York Academy of Sciences, the Mandaya is “probably the greatest and best tribe (*Editor’s Note: the correct term should be “ethnic” or “indigenous” or “ethnolinguistic group,” as technically, the Philippines does not have “tribes’) in Eastern Mindanao”. Miguel Sadera-Maso writes that the Mandaya “are considered by the non-Christians as the oldest and most illustrious of the peoples.” Indeed, Mandaya culture continues to amaze and interest many people as it becomes enduring and persevering generation after generation. Mandaya means “inhabitants of the uplands”. Quite interestingly, areas occupied by the Mandaya in the Pacific rim are characterized by rugged topography with few plains along the coastal areas.

The ethnographic map of the Spanish colonizers shows Mandaya existence in the present provinces of Davao Oriental, Davao del Norte and Compostella Valley, and from Tago town of Surigao del Sur and Southern part of Agusan del Sur. This colorful ethnic group since then have underwent many influences from neo-political and economic systems. Other sub-groups emerge with names taken from their locational self-ascriptions. Among these are the Mansaka, Dibabaon, Pagsaupan, Mangguangan, Maragusan, and Dibabaon (Cole, 1913); and the Kalagan Kamayo. William A. Savage-Landor includes the Tagacaolo as a branch of the Mandaya. Presently, the concentration of the Mandaya is in Davao Oriental that lies along the Pacific Ocean. Cole (1913) avers that Mandaya is the largest tribal unit in southeastern Mindanao.

During the Spanish time, the Davaweno group emerged. These are the Mandaya converts into Christianity baptized during the 1870’s at the height of Spanish colonization of the Philippines. The creation of Provincia de Caraga long before the Davao province during the colonial period provides the historical and chronological evidence that Davaweños are Mandaya descendants.

Sons of the Mandaya became political leaders as governors and congressmen during the Spanish colonization. They are Governors Sobrecarey and Generoso and Congressman Teodoro Palma Gil, who was a classmate of Jose Rizal. The dominance of Mandaya offsprings in political, social and economic fields was traced as one great influence in their ethnocentrism.


Agriculture is the main source of living. Rice, tubers, and other cultigens are cultivated in pawa (swidden) farming) along with bananas, vegetables and root crops. Hunting for wild pig, deer, chicken, monkeys, lizards, birds and other animals complement farming.

At an early age, children are taught how to hunt using spears and traps. The Mandaya are freshwater fishing experts. Individual, family and cooperative fishing are done using several methods like traps, stun rods, draining, spearing and also bare hands. Environmental destruction and degradation together with rapid urbanization have drastically reduced hunting and fishing.

Trading has tremendously increased and agricultural plantations as Western ownership and economic system dominated Philippine scene. The development of abaca industry during the American time paved the way to cash economy. After the World War II, coconut industry made a breakthrough and is sustained until now. Barter system, however, is still exercised among the Mandaya in the hinterlands.

By practice, farming is very much influenced by deep religiosity. Rites and rituals and other belief practices with lavish offerings are observed before, during and after farming. Au-yon (cooperative farming) is a common practice. Post-harvest pasawit (sharing) is valued to get more blessings the next planting season.

The intimate belief of the Mandaya created a unique blend of nature, spirits and man.

Culture and Arts

Undoubtedly, the Mandaya have one of the richest cultural heritage among ethnic groups. They are very close to their families. Christianized Mandaya still retain some of the past beliefs creating a syncretic form of religion.

Dagmay, an abaca handwoven cloth with intricate designs revolving around man and crocodile, is one of the most popular material culture. Its mud-dyeing technique is believed to be the only one existing in the Philippines. Interestingly, dagmay weaving has also become a pasttime of women as they cooperate in tie-designing while making pleasantries. Bayok, a highly tonal art of delivering messages in the form of figurative speeches, passages, and even euphemism usually done in pairs and in continuous answering pattern. Like a debate, each of the bayok artist stands on opposite sides. Bayok chanting is indispensable in important celebration and events like proposal for marriage. settlement of conflicts, welcoming of visitors and also in common merrymaking. Any topic like funny personal traits, food, offering of drinks and many more could be derived for a bayok.

Mandaya also has an array of musical rendition. Instruments like kudlong, a two-stringed zither with only one string with frets, deliver music with historical, eventful, and important meanings. Kudlong is played before hunting, staging the deadly pangayao (vendetta killing) or farming. It could also be for simply entertainment. One popular instrument also is the gimball or gimbao, a large drum made using deer hide from a doe on one side and from a stag on the other side to produce different tone and pitch. The drum is played to accompany the Balyan in her performance in summoning the spirits. During celebrations, gimbao is indispensable in dances and any celebration, ritual and assembly. It is played by one of two players. The Mandaya also plays a meter-long flute called bonabon made of a slender bamboo. Its music ranges from sentimental to jolly ones with deep emotional expression. The suding, jew’s harp made of bamboo, add more range to the music of the Mandaya.

Traditional governance

The traditional governance of the Mandaya displays a strong leadership. Customary laws are observed and stiff penalties are imposed. Acceptance and respect by the community makes a tribal governance work. In some areas, the elders and leaders approve holding of pangayao to exact justice and revenge.

In the hinterlands, the government imposed systems in the lowlands has little effect on their practice of customary laws, however, Mandaya’s have to compete with migrants from Luzon and Visayas who were brought by Americans and later, by government programs. Slowly, the ethnic people are being left behind.


The beadcraft technique of the Mandaya is something to marvel at. For beads, aborigines had long used teeth coming from crocodiles, wild cats and other wild animals, tusk of boar, bones, seeds, shells, stones, wood, even skulls of small animals.

After grouping the strands into the desired number, usually in two’s or three’s, the artist rubs the fibers end with bees wax. Basically, the Mandaya uses the color red, black, white, and yellow. In some instances, but very rarely, greens and blues are added to it.

About the Author:
Manuel B. Ompang belongs to the Mandaya tribe and is the Regional Director-Designate for NCIP Region XI, Davao City. He is also a member of the NCCA Committee on Southern Cultural Communities.