Visayas and the Ati: A Modern People

December 1, 2009

The Ati are the main ethnic group that people the central island group of the Philippines know as Visayas. Portions of them migrated to the islands between 6,000 to 30,000 years ago, thus the Ati were the first to claim this land. It is said that they came from the Borneo region via an isthmus that used to connect the Philippine islands and the Malay land. About 5,000 years ago this land bridge got covered by sea water. There are other traditional stories telling of Malay Bisayans later sailing over on boats, known as balangay, and landing near the Suaragan River. The Bisayans traded for the land with an Ati headman and his son for a necklance and one golden salakot. At this point, the Ati were to inhabit the hills while the Malays were to live in the plains and rivers. Even though some historians still doubt the validity of the tale, the story is now celebrated along with the Ati-atihan festival.  

The Ati interacted and traded with the other tribes around them. Initially, they practiced animism but some converted to Islam and Chrisitanity as different traders and colonists moved to the area. Animism involved good and bad nature spirits who would guard the mountains, sky, rivers, and seas.  Nevertheless, as contact with outsiders increased, the animism traditions began to die out. The Ati were taken over by the Spanish conquistadors and were Legazpi’s pawns in his colonization of Panay. As time passed, the Ati were threatened by people’s greed for their land and are still plagued with discrimination to this day.

Originally, the main language of the Ati was a Visayan dialect named Inati. However, the number of individuals that know Inati decreases as time passes. More and more Visaya and Kinary-a have become the common language of the Ati people. Traditionally, the women wore wraparound skirts made of bark cloth and the men wore loincloths. Jewelry took it back to the roots as they used narutre to decorate their bodies- most often using flowers and animal bones and teeth. Today, the Ati wear the more modern t-shirt and pants for everyday ware. The Ati practice herbal medicine and are sought out for the removal of leeches in the current society. The Ati were first hunters and gatherers but now they tend to join sacadas workers for the harvesting season of sugar in the areas of Negros and Batangas or work as forest guides. They have relations with their neighboring non-Negritos to trade forest products for cash or starches. Other than discrimination in the area, the Ati also must suffer from the side effects of deforestation, depletion of their traditional resources, poverty, and disease.

As mentioned about, they Ati are most well known for their Ati-athian festival. Some say that the festival is a celebration of the Roman Catholic Church while others believe it commemorates the arrival of the Bisayan.

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