North & South Ubian: An Unsolved Mystery

A Question about South Ubian that Site Visitors Often Ask

I have relatives (pamikitan) with their roots originating from South Ubian, an island and also one of the municipalities of Tawi-Tawi. Many of the Sama Ubian with roots from this island have become quite successful, especially in Sabah. I assume that the links and traffic between South Ubian and Sabah of these families predates the independence of Malaysia in 1957 by hundreds of years. As government monitoring of traffic between Sulu & Sabah has increased since the foundation of Malaysia, many of the Sama Ubian in Semporna, Lahad Datu, Sandakan, & Tawau rarely get to travel to their homeland. For their children and now even grandchildren, some have never stepped foot in Sulu or Tawi-Tawi. This is one of maybe many reasons that there is a high amount of curiosity concerning the name South Ubian. If there is a South Ubian, then does that mean there is also a North Ubian? This is a question I have been asked several times.

North Ubian Exists!

According to a GMA News Online article from 2008 about Sama ancestors and the jinns, there is no North or Central Ubian. Those more familiar with Sulu may immediately object that the GMA news article is wrong. Indeed there is a North Ubian. It is less commonly known, but out to the west of Jolo island and almost a direct shot west from Tiyanggi (Jolo City) lies North Ubian, just south of the island of Pangutaran.

Past Linguistic & Anthropological Research

North and South UbianThis isn’t a question that has escaped the notice of the linguistic and anthropological workers who have done research in the region. The names North & South Ubian seem to imply that there must be a connection between these two places. So is there?

My personal communication with those who lived and worked in these areas even 50 years ago revealed that it was a question being asked even at that time. The term North Ubian was not used in Siasi or Jolo or Pangutaran for that matter. Even the residents of North Ubian themselves did not immediately recognize the name of their island as North Ubian when asked about it. To them it was called either Sowang Buna’ (part of the island with a larger settlement) or Halo Buna’ (the opposite side of the island). You can imagine that the name for the island probably originates from its shape resembling that of a batfish (called buna’ in Sinama) and that is my best guess unless someone can verify that this island has a particularly high population of batfish.

The point is that even until now no genealogical or linguistic connection has been made between the two islands. The language of the Sama of North Ubian is considered a dialect of Sinama Pangutaran. The language of those from the island of South Ubian is considered a dialect of Southern Sinama while those from Tabawan, another island in the municipality are considered Central Sinama.

The South & North Place of the Ubi Yam?

As of now my best guess is that maybe there is an economic reason. Of course the name Ubian is related to the word ubi, that purple yam that we are all aware of which makes a good match for halo-halo. Adding the -an suffix then makes it the place of the ubi yam. If it could be established that both places farmed and sold this root crop, maybe to the Sultan of Sulu or maybe to the nomadic Sama who traveled in both directions, then maybe that would be a possibility for why these two islands originally were given their names.

Undoubtedly You Know More than Me

Thus I leave this issue to be resolved by the Kauman Sama Online. Those of you from Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, & Malaysia who care about your culture and occasionally stumble across our website. Maybe you have a contribution to make to the search for the connection between these two islands. I use English because it makes this information most widely available to those who might search for answers, sogo’ bang kam bilahi manjari to’ongan kam Magsinama, Magtagalog, atawa Magmelayu maitu.

Right now the best connection that I can find between the two locations is my wife’s mbo’ (grandfather). His family was from South Ubian and it is traced through him that they are told they are related with Datu’ Hadji Saribu of Semporna. He married a lady from Sowang Buna’. He failed to tell me before he passed away if there was anything more that connected his family and his wife’s (I don’t know why I failed to ask).

I hope I’ve peaked your interest. Thanks for reading here at the Kauman Sama Online.

Ai tabissalanu? Feel free to comment.

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