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       The study of the riverine people of Mindanao Island known as Subanon (var., Suba’anun, Subanen) has been insufficiently conducted except for some accounts: Emerson B. Christie (The Study of the Subano in Lower Half of Zamboanga) is one such chronicle who wrote a full length account of the Subanon. But his thesis primarily deals with but an aspect of social practices that is peculiar to a partisan group.

With the coming to Mindanao of the Spaniards in the 16th century, the Subanon were pushed farther in to the forests to join their fellowmen who had already settled in it. The Spanish occupation of several places along the coast of Mindanao Island, made the Subanon feel safe in their forest sanctuaries. The Christianized Filipinos who reached Mindanao during the Spanish period and permanently resettled near Spanish garrisons, made it difficult for them to return to the shore. Besides the Spaniards and the Filipinos, the constant attacks by the raiders from Cotabato and Sulu on Christian settlements and Spanish garrisons, added greatly to their fear forcing them to the interior.

The few shoreline settlements of the Subanon were also subjected to attacks by the Moro raiders. One example is the shoreline settlement of Lobongan that is now known as Katipunan in Zamboanga del Norte. It was attacked by Datu Bantilan of Sulu and totally depopulated it of Subanon inhabitants.

The Subanon have not been confined to both sides of the Zamboanga Peninsula.

There was an exodus to western Mindanao so that many of them occupied the islands nearby and farther east. Some went as far as Cotabato where they also reached southern Lanao. Others in the north reached Bukidnon and later on went as far as Surigao.

When the survivors of Magellan debacle led by Sebastian del Cano and Antonio Pigafetta fled, they reached Zamboanga. Pigafetta mentioned in his report that they bought 17 kilos of cinnamon in Cawit, a district of the present city of Zamboanga and Subanin, which could have been a place where the Subanon established a community. Subanin has not been identified as to its exact location.

The early Spaniards occupied the present city of Iligan in Lanao del Norte. It was attacked by the Subanon. The leader of the Spanish troops fled to the Visayas to gather another army and returned to Mindanao. Instead of going back to Iligan, he constructed a stone fort in Ozamis City that is still existing to this day.

Ozamis is located at the mouth of Panguil Bay. The Spanish soldiers guarding it, divided the Subanon. Many of them were confined to the mountains of Misamis and Zamboanga peninsula. Those remaining in Lanao del Norte fled to the east in Misamis Oriental and Bukidnon. Years later, some of them went to Surigao.

Those who stayed joined Sharif Alawi, who came from Tagolaon in Misamis Oriental. They established the kingdom of Baloi. But Alawi decided to invade the communities surrounding Lake Lanao. Their arrival caused war with the lake people that lasted for several years. Those lake communities were called Onayan, Masiu and Bayabao. After they got accepted, they became the fourth community of Lanao del Norte.

In Lanao, the Subanon introduced some of their cultures such as the marigay (maliga), a small hut decorated with several gifts and stylized by the Maranao natives as a part of the dowry paraded around. Another legacy of the Subanon is the sari manok that is common even today in Zamboanga del Sur. It is actually the head of a chicken on a stick place on the veranda of the maligay. It is made as the symbolic bird of the Maranao.

Those who reached Cotabato also spread out to Davao. Some of the words in the language of the Maguindanao are Subanon. Some of the Subanon customs are also practiced in Cotabato among the Maguindanao.


In Zamboanga City, the Subanons are still found in the deep forests. They occupied once the present downtown. But after the Spaniards came, they moved to safer places like the forest areas. Many of their present descendants are still living within the city limits like Limpapa in the northwest, upper Culianan, Espasto, Upper Curuan and Upper Vitali, all within the city limits. They also preserved a beautiful valley often called by writers as the Shangri-la of Zamboanga City.

In Zamboanga del Sur, they are found in Lake Wood, the western section, Titay, Siay, Kumalarang, Buug, Molave, Salug and other interior places. They also occupied shoreline areas like Margosatubig, Dinas, Dimataling and Dumalinao. In Misamis, they are found in Tangub, interior Oroquieta City, Katipunan, the top and the foothills of Mt. Malindang. In Zamboanga del Norte, they are found in Sibuko, Labason, Piacan, Upper Sindagan, Salug and Lower Dipolog and interior Dapitan.

The Christian immigrants contributed much to make them live in the forests. In the days past, they settled in Limpapa (Zamboanga City). Lobongan (Katipunan Municipality of Zamboanga del Norte) and the entire shoreline of Misamis Occidental. Lobongan was raided by Datu Bantilan of Sulu and completely depopulated it in 1775. Limpapa was discovered to have a cave where some inscription on the walls are still present. In the mountain sierras of the entire length of Zamboanga peninsula, foot trails carved out by the ancient Subanon became very useful to the guerrillas of the war.

One of the most unique Subanon Community is found in Lapuyan (Zamboanga del Sur) where everyone speaks English. Thus, it is inevitable to run into a naked boy in its forests and hear him speak perfect English. The protestant Christian Alliance came to teach religion which the Americans started. The succeeding mission although taken over by Filipinos also used English in propagating the religion.

With the passage of time, some modern and Filipinos ideas have been introduced to Lapuyan. Today, although English is still the language of the inhabitants, the young generation has been influenced by Cebu-Visayan and, lately, by Tagalog.

The Educated One

There is now an exodus of the Subanon youths to schools in the belief that after graduation, they can enter government and other white collared positions. Very few, if any, has returned to teach the folks at home in modern agriculture, land use and generally, their welfare.

On the contrary, they look down upon their own folks for adhering to the old ways. Conversely, their own folks look at them as both a welcome sight with same measure of contempt. Among the earliest to attain good education during the early American period who became magistrates, high officials in education and other government positions, nostalgia is very evident as they aged.

They now realize that despite their exalted positions, their Christian neigbors in town wher they were forced to live, still regard them with some degree of social discrimination for being Subanon; they are not totally part of the mainstream although outwardly attending to their duties, social functions and other gatherings and even in some instances, honored as guest speakers or awarded for some kind of services.

In their attitude towards their own folks in the rural and forested areas, their visits are very short. While their families are proud of them, the community as a whole regard them as some kind of strangers because of the manner they dress, speak and behave.

For their part, they strongly believe that their own folks should go to school and be awakened to the reality of the time but cautioned them no to forgo their traditions and social institutions in order to preserve their identity and culture. Some of them who have retired from government service continue to live in towns while a few has made Manila a permanent home.

A second generation politician of Cebu origin became the congressional representative of a district in Zamboanga del Sur largely inhabited by Subanon. The Visayan have dominated the politics of the province and no one among the Subanon. The national government forged a constitution in 1986 giving the Minority groups including the Subanon “sectoral representatives” at the lower House of Philippine Congress. Yet, it cannot be said that a Subanon has been appointed as member of Congress.

The Subanons are probably one of the few social groups in the country that have preserved the traditon and culture of the early Filipinos.

About the Author:
Ruelo Baya holds the rank Timuay Mangura in the Subanen community. He chaired the organizing committee of the First Subanen Tribal Leaders Summit in 1995. He is the president of the Professional Indigenous Cultural Communities Empowerment Reform Movement (PICCERM).