Initial Reflections on the 1st International Conference on the Sama Dilaut

The participants of the 1st International Conference on the Sama Dilaut
The participants of the 1st International Conference on the Sama Dilaut

I was privileged to be in attendance at the 1st International Conference on the Sama Dilaut hosted by Mindanao State University Tawi-Tawi. My three days in Tawi-Tawi (December 1-3) were spent surrounded by scholars, political leaders and activists, teachers, school administrators, NGOs, artists, Sama from various linguistic sub-groups including the Sama Dilaut, and a wide variety of scrumptious Tausug and Sama food.   There is a magical lure to Tawi-Tawi that draws visitors from afar.  Its location at the farthest southern extremity of Philippines geography along with its unique foods, wildlife and culture make it a desirable flight or ferry ride for many a wanderer of these Philippine islands.  It has for a long time been on my ToDo list, especially since it has the highest per capita Sama population in the entire Philippines.
MSU Tawi-Tawi in itself is a worthwhile destination for those interested in learning about the culture of the Sama.  They have set up a Sama studies program. Undergraduates, often Sama themselves are encouraged to contribute to the study of the prevalent culture of the region. The school also has a Marine Science Museum with interesting marine artifacts from the region.  Knowledge of marine life must not be separated from knowledge of Sama culture since the two are integrated.  I like how Dr. Erika Shagatay stated this in her presentation.  Dr. Shagatay noted that much study has been done on the Sama Dilaut above the water but much of their life revolves around what happens below it.

Getting to Tawi-Tawi, the Security Considerations

Unfortunately peace and order in the region forces security to be part of the conversation about traveling to Tawi-Tawi.  Opinions on the security of Tawi-Tawi span a wide range of thought.  Anywhere from “Safe naman ang Tawi-Tawi” as my journalist friend put it to the comments of another researcher friend of mine, “I can be a better advocate for the Sama Dilaut from a place of safety rather than [as] a hostage…”  I am proud to report that MSU Tawi-Tawi deserves full recognition for how they did their best to address the security concerns of participants.  We were well guarded by members of the PNP and Philippines Military.  A successful 3 day international conference is good for the image of Tawi-Tawi.  We hope that this trend continues.

Why Are You Here?

This question was repeatedly asked by the Sama Dilaut at the conference.  One Sama Dilaut man asked this question both publicly and in private conversation throughout the 3 day span of the conference.  I tried to answer his question the best I could, but I imagine that my answers were not adequate enough.  Thus the question kept being asked.  There was no one unified reason for why attendees came to the conference.  The best I can do is state what I hoped to accomplish by attending:
I have studied both linguistics and the Central Sinama language.  I have committed myself to providing tools towards helping Sama learn in their own language and assisting those who are facilitating that education.  Education is the foremost method for empowerment of the Sama people as a whole.  Access to quality and appropriate education is therefore important when considering the situation of the Sama Dilaut.
At the workshop I had hoped to present on the Central Sinama writing system.  I was prepared to speak on the topic, but was unfortunately dropped from the speaking schedule and only served as a discussant.  I also came with over 15 different titles from our Big Book series and 2 educational posters.  I would like to create a demand for educational materials in the Sinama language in hopes that the supply would also increase.  In this area my trip to Tawi-Tawi was a success.  Our books sold out to both practitioners of literacy programs and to Sama readers.  I will write soon about my observations from the seminar concerning this Big Book program.

Highlights from the Conference

The Food

A table of various Sama delicacies.
A table of various Sama delicacies.

It was my colleague’s first and my second time to get to eat oko’-oko’ (sea urchin recipe) and kamun (sea mantis).  We were treated with kihampaw (species of ray).  We had a keyot/pama’ (lobster) that was as big as my arm along with all other types of kagang/kagong (crabs).  We also were served several types of shell meat such as sikad-sikad/dollen.  Cassava based staples of the Sama were readily available such as sinanglag (roasted cassava recipe) and pinutu (steamed cassava recipe).  Also present were a wide variety of bāng-bāng (cookie or cracker like treats) such as: panyām, baulu, jā’, daral, and kukus.  Though possibly not relevant to the purpose of the conference itself, one cannot help but comment on the food.  After eating from the bounty of Tawi-Tawi’s ocean, it is easier to understand why Sama do not readily adapt their diet to the menu of other Filipino groups on mainland Mindanao.

The Boats

Picture of a boggo' and a biral.
Two uncommon Sama Boats, the boggoꞌ/biggung and the biral.

We saw in Tawi-Tawi several boats that we have only thus far heard of in conversation or seen in the Sinama dictionary.  We saw a boggo’/biggung (a dugout canoe from a large tree trunk with no outriggers).  We also saw a biral (another type of dugout canoe with no outriggers).  Other boats observed were the tempel, buti, pambot, and papet.  The plaque of appreciation given to speakers was a model of the lepa houseboat.  These boat sightings are a testimony to the continued strength of Sama culture in Tawi-Tawi.  In Tawi-Tawi they have a certain seemingly higher amount of freedom to practice their culture in similar ways to how it has been practiced for decades and even centuries.

Highlights of Speakers and Topics

Film Interview of Harry Himmo

Headlining the list of speakers was famed anthropologist Harry Nimmo.  Though not present at the conference he spoke to us through the camera lense of Alice Dugan and Marlena Skrobe.  Several of the Sama Dilaut attendees were small children in Sitangkai during the time of his fieldwork.  He was still loved and appreciated just as much by the Sama Dilaut themselves as he was by the academic community.  His topic was a quick overview of what he has written volumes on.  He touched on the topic of cultural loss in his talk, a theme interwoven into many of the presentations.  Currently Nimmo is working on a book elaborating on some of the earliest representations of the Sama Dilaut as found in historic literature.


It was a pleasure to meet Ms. Ligaya Amilbangsa, renowned artist, author, and researcher.  She spoke on the Sama dance, the pangigal or igal dance and also demonstrated the dance herself.  A highlight from her speech was her observed connection of pangalay (the Tausug rendering of the dance) to a Sanskrit temple dance.  There are certainly cultural artifacts from the cultures of that area of the world which have left their mark on the Sama culture such as the Sama concept of the biradali or celestial maiden.
Ms. Amilbangsa is also concerned with culture loss among the Sama.  At first I was taken a back that she would claim this concerning the pangigal when you consider how prolific the dance is.  When defending her position she commented on how in her study decades ago of the dance there was more complexity involved, complexity that has seemingly been forgotten in many of the settings where it is now danced.  Currently Ms. Amilbangsa is working on a instruction manual for dancing the pangalay which will hopefully be available in English, Tausug, and Sinama.

What do you hope to become?

Japanese researcher, Jun Nagamatsu shared about his 2 week research project he did decades ago among the Sama of Sitangkai.  His simple research method of interviewing the children on what they wanted to become when they were older was intriguing to me.  The majority wanted to be teachers, followed by soldiers and police.  A few wanted to be engineers or store keepers and only one child wanted to be a fisherman.  Did these children obtain those goals or could his chart be turned upside down to represent the outcomes of these children 18 years beyond the time of his original survey.

Marine Protected Areas

One point of controversy that arose multiple times while at the conference was concerning marine protected areas.  One side of the controversy proposes that since the Philippines has more marine protected areas than any other country in the world, this is negatively impacting the Sama livelihood.  The other side of the controversy pointing out that these marine protected areas are a bank for the Sama, ensuring that they will have livelihood even into the future.

Indigenous Learning about Science

Filemon Romero presented on his attempts to incorporate the indigenous learning system of the Sama Dilaut into a science curriculum.  This sort of curriculum development is quite hard to implement at the grass roots level.  The Sama already learn a lot of observational marine biology through their various fishing methods and livelihood.  It seems to me that in trying to incorporate the Sama Dilaut into the Philippine Educational system, it is important that this transmission of scientific knowledge also be incorporated into the classroom.  Otherwise we could unwittingly lose the already existing indigenous knowledge of the marine life in our ocean.

The Science Behind Sama Diving

I already mentioned the presentation of Dr. Erika Shagatay.  Along with Erik Abrahamsson she has been studying the science behind Sama Dilaut diving methods.  She described the Sama method of diving as observed in their research as the most efficient method of livelihood based diving of any group recorded thus far.  It is even more efficient than scuba diving. Sama divers spend more time under the water than above.  They are spending more time underwater than any other group.  They can spend as much as 5 hours underwater in one day.  Another measurement they took was the approximate amount of produce in kilograms being brought up by three common Sama methods of fishing.  For more information regarding their work consider checking out Erik’s blog.

IDP, Refugee, Stateless?

Several lawyers presented during the conference.  The legal definitions of refugee, internally displaced persons, and statelessness and how fitting they were for the Sama Dilaut were discussed.  This was a profitable conversation.  The Sama are one of the 5 groups in the Philippines that are at risk of statelessness.  This most often happens from being born in either Malaysia or the Philippines to parents who have an unclear citizenship.  The problem can date back for generations, even before the legal boundaries were drawn.  The distinction between IDP and refugee answers the question of who is responsible.  A group ceases to be an IDP when there is a durable solution in place for their assistant and protection needs linked to their displacement.  From the discussion it appears that rarely is refugee the appropriate legal term to apply to the Sama.  It could possibly be applied in reference to Philippine Sama who have fled to Sabah.  Due to war and violence in their homelands, Sama Dilaut could potentially be labeled as IDPs in multiple of their current locations throughout the Philippines.  Since they have fled to these regions without having a real choice in the matter.  The bottom line of all these discussions reinforced to me the importance of programs that help Sama obtain their birth certificates and participate in government programs designed to help them.

Ancestral Domain

One topic of great interest to the Sama is that ancestral domain has in the past been applied not only to land areas but to ocean areas.  There is a case study for this that came out of Palawan.  This is of great significance to the Sama since often claims are made that ancestral domain does not apply to their group since Philippine law claims the Philippine government as the rightful owner of both ocean and shoreline.

Next Time

I also met a geneticist named Jae who is currently working on studying the DNA of the Sama Dilaut and various other related groups.  This research is of great interest concerning current theories of the origin of the Sama.  I wait in anticipation to hear from him at a future conference.

Action Points from a Language and Culture Specialist’s Point of View

Most of my time at the conference was spent in the audience.  I observed that among the Sama speakers there was quite a bit of frustration expressed for mistakes or misunderstandings that occurred because of the Sama language.  Spelling “sowang” as “sawang” by one presenter seemed to be an unforgivable error.  Calling the family by the term “magdanakan” instead of “magtai’anak” and other similar negotiable translations also invoked lots of discussion.  The bottom line for me is that the Sama view their language as very important to them.  Hopefully in the future tools such as the online dictionaries for Central & Southern Sinama can be put to use in order to improve ongoing research.

How do you want to be called?

Confusion still exists on what to call the group referred to as Badjao, Sama Dilaut, or Pala’u (Sama Pala’u).  The conference started with the term Sama Dilaut being championed, only to be reversed like the flick of a switch in favor of the outsider preferred term, Badjao.  Several Sama Sibutu’ lamented that the term Pala’u has fallen out of popularity.  In discussion, non-Sama Dilaut Sama discussed with them the possibility of returning to that term only to be met by silence or walking away by the Sama Dilaut.  The question was never asked openly to the Sama Dilaut in the conference.  I had hoped to, but discussion had already veered off in another direction.  Expect a post soon concerning my recent findings on this important discussion.

I’ve never met a Southern, Central, or Northern Sama

Often the line between the different linguistic groups and also between the Sama Dilaut and the Sama Deya (for lack of a better term) may have been blurred or misunderstood.  Terms such as Southern Sinama are interpreted to mean that all Sama speakers in Tawi-Tawi would fall into this category whereas in reality because of linguistic features the Sama Dilaut, Sama Tabawan, and Sama Bannaran actually fit into the Central Sinama category.  This sometimes resulted in needless discussions, for instance the discussion about labuh meaning to fall and having nothing to do with anchorage.  In Southern Sinama labuh does mean to fall.  In Central Sinama labu does mean anchor.

There are at Least Two Types of Sama Dilaut

Regarding the differences among the Sama Dilaut I had an interesting discussion with a Sama Dilaut man about how different the Sama Dilaut of Siasi and Zamboanga are from the Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi.  His experience seemed to be mainly with Sama Deya groups from Siasi and he certainly knew that the Sama Dilaut of Siasi were not his relatives.  However when we discussed language features it was clear to me and became clearer to him at least that the speech of the two groups remains the same dialect of Central Sinama.
The distinction between the Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi and of Siasi and Zamboanga was only mentioned once in the video of anthropologist Harry Nimmo.  Nowhere else in the entire conference was it referenced.  I think this may have been one reason that the situation of the Sama Dilaut in Zamboanga seemed completely foreign to one of the discussants.  He felt like the speaker was discussing a different Sama group than the Sama Dilaut.  Yes they are different.  Different in family ties and they have some cultural differences as well, but both groups fall under the category of Sama Dilaut.  This is important because most of the Sama Dilaut found throughout Mindanao, Visayas, and Luzon are from the Siasi and Zamboanga groups.  The Tawi-Tawi Sama Dilaut travel towards Sabah instead.  Thus the two groups have two very different experiences.

Dilaut or Dilawt and Why?

For the first time I was made aware of an orthography issue that some have with our current representation of glides in the Central Sinama language.  Even within the word Sama Dilaut, many of those educated in the Filipino language would interpret it to be pronounced [dilaʔut].  They would advocate to spell the word with a semi-vowel (dilawt). My linguist colleague was quite aware of the issue and how it ties into the penultimate stress that exists in Sinama.  I have invited him to write on the issue here in the near future.

Different Orthographies

The orthography for Central Sinama and Southern Sinama are different.  Much of our work on the Central Sinama orthography has been done through past consultation with speakers from Sulu and Zamboanga.  The Central Sinama speakers of Tawi-Tawi were most likely not present for those consultations.  I was pleased that Southern Sama were well aware of their language orthography and content with it.  Look forward to future posts concerning the Central Sinama orthography and why language specific features factor into the Central Sinama writing system.

Future Posts

As I stated, my ToDo list for has expanded since my trip to Tawi-Tawi.  Expect several posts in the future, some in Sinama and some in English.  Magsukul that you have read this far.  Hopefully you will interact with what you have read.  As always we are looking for others who would like to write in Sinama or write about the Sinama.  If you are a Sama who loves your language or if you are a researcher or a worker for an NGO, or maybe you are one of the presenters I would love to have you write a guest post here.

The 2nd International Conference on the Sama Dilaut

Thus far there is no schedule to do this again, though I believe the intention is there.  The 159 participants of this last conference far surpassed the target of 100.  I personally learned many things and there were also many things left unsaid.  Thank you MSU Tawi-Tawi for the successful conference and may it happen again soon.

3 thoughts on “Initial Reflections on the 1st International Conference on the Sama Dilaut

  1. I wonder if Ruth’s family name was originally derived from that type of Sama canoe? I would like to see how the tempel, buti, pambot, and papet look like( I wish you can also provide some actual photos from Tawi-Tawi of these boats). Does each type was designed with a specific purpose in mind? What usually kind of tree they were carved out of? Anyway, excellent article. Glad you had the wonderful opportunity to visit that southernmost part of the island.

  2. Hi Luke! Thanks for this nice article and for your appreciation of our university and province. Just want to share about our private conversation with 3 sama dilawt participants while the discussion on what should we call them was going on.. According to them, “Pala’u” refers to the nomadic sama dilaut who are living on “lepa”. Apparently, those sama dilauts that i talked with have already abandoned the nomadic life. They said that they (their parents/grandparents) built their first houses (on stilts) in Sibutu after the 2nd world war and haven’t left the place since. The three were all born in Sibutu. One of them is a barangay kagawad (councilor)! Anyway, I asked about what do they want themselves called. They said they prefer “sama dilawt” or just “sama”. It’s also ok for them to be called “Pala’u” if the intention is only to identify them from other tribes, but often times, they said, people (other tribes) call them “Pala’u” to belittle them.
    All the best,

    1. Thanks Richard for the feedback. I had come to conclusions on this years ago, but then recently due to an interview I held with various Sama leaders in Davao, I had to look at my findings again. I will write a post on it soon. My findings are similar to what you have stated here. Pala’u means to live on a boat. It isn’t in itself bad, but the way that it is used by others to belittle is why most Sama Dilaut are opposed to it. The lesson I learned is that it is important to ask and I think asking the Sama Dilaut themselves is more valid that choosing what we want them to be called.

Ai tapah'llingbi pasal itu?