Letting go of the word Badjao

We want them to be called Badjao, others want Pala’u, what about Sama Dilaut?

Sama Dilaut
The topic of this post was resolved for me way back in 2010 when I started learning the Sinama language.  I learned Sinama from Sama Siasi.  Mainly Sama Musu’ and Sama Silompak.  However I frequented the communities of Sama Dilaut as well.  Non-Muslim Filipino tribes call the Sama Dilaut, the Badjao.  Muslim Filipinos at least from Sulu and Zamboanga call them Pala’u.  A few minutes of discussion with a few Sama Dilaut and I found out that they just call themselves Sama.  From then on, they were Sama to me.  After all they share the same language even if it is a different dialect.  If I needed to differentiate between them and other Sama groups, my Sama Dilaut friends told me that they are the Sama Dilaut meaning Sama of the sea and the other Sama are the Sama Deya meaning the Sama of the land.  This was funny to me, because the Sama Dilaut teaching me this had stilt homes over the land and my Sama Deya friends had stilt homes over the ocean.  Ok.  At least it is a classification system that works.

Some don’t want to recognize any term aside from Badjao

Well sort of.  In Mindanao, go to a public school and talk to the teacher with Sama Dilaut students in her class.  All she knows is that she has Badjao students.  Go to the public hospital and their social welfare program is ready to help the Badjao, but has no recognition of the Sama tribe or of any of the Sama groups.  Recently my work with the Department of Education and with the National Council on Indigenous People made it clear to me that many of the stakeholders are nowhere near ready to let go of the term Badjao.  It seems to be dear to their hearts.

Others can’t let go of the term Pala’u

Recently at the 1st International Conference on the Sama Dilaut in Tawi-Tawi, I witnessed a similar reality.  While the Filipinos from other regions aren’t ready to give up the term Badjao, several of the Sama participants of the conference (but not Sama Dilaut) were not ready to give up the term Pala’u.  One lady from Sibutu’ asked, “When did we stop calling this group Pala’u?”  In another conversation a school principal from a different Sama sub-group was stating very adamantly and trying to convince his Sama Dilaut companion that it is ok for this ocean-based group of Sama to be called Pala’u.  Even to the point where said he was willing to be called Pala’u himself.
So the issue is not resolved.

Opening up the Discussion Again

In many ways the burden of proof is on those that are proposing that Sama Dilaut is the best term for this sub-group of Sama.  If a strong case isn’t made, Badjao or Pala’u will be the terms that remain in the literature, on the news, and the household terms used in non-Sama Dilaut populations of the Philippines.
I was asked to help with the collection of the Indigenous Learning System of the Badjao.  The spelling of Badjao was becoming a problem.  It had been changed to Bajao.  Others spell it Bajau.  Others Bajaw.  I have come to terms that Badjao must be listed somewhere on the document so that the group will be recognized immediately.  Sama Dilaut should also be there.  Now it is a question of which term should be highlighted, bigger, underlined, or used most frequently throughout the document.  I was surprised that the guest I had with me, a Bisayan who speaks Sinama Dilaut dialect fluently proposed the term Sama Pala’u.  Ok.  What is the best way to solve this?  Let’s ask as many of the known leaders in the area as possible on what their preference is.  The Sama Dilaut are the largest stakeholder in this sort of project right?

Results from the first night of survey

So that is what we did.  The night after that meeting and into the next morning, with the help of my Bisayan friend, we visited all known Sama Dilaut leaders in the area.  3 large communities, one of which is subdivided into three different areas.  I told them about the document we were working on and about how we were trying to decide which term should take precedence.  The results did surprise me.
I had thought that the choice was between Badjao and Sama Dilaut.  However, on the first night 3 out of 4 leaders interviewed told me that Sama Pala’u was their preferred term.  The 4th leader preferred to be called Badjao.   All 4 stated that the personal term that they use among themselves is Sama.  The 4th leader’s point was that since we are recognized by others as Badjao, especially by the local government and in Indonesia and Malaysia as Badjao, this is the term that should be adopted.  He liked the international significance of the term.  I do believe it is important to note that this 4th leader is half Sama Dilaut and half Sama Deya.  He speaks like a Sama Deya, but is a Sama Dilaut by means of his father’s genealogy.
I was not surprised that my friend wanted to be called Badjao.  We have had this conversation before.  I was surprised that 3 leaders had chose Sama Pala’u over Sama Dilaut.  One leader reasoned like this, “If a person calls us just by the word Pala’u, it is almost always said with disrespect or disdain towards us.  If a person calls us Sama and adds Pala’u to the word, they are respecting us as one of them.  We are also Sama.  At the same time Pala’u is what we are.  Our heritage is living on boats.”

The problem with Pala’u

I must make clear here that the reason Pala’u is falling out of use has to do with the attitudes of the people who use the term Pala’u.  Several ethnographies have repeated the false claim that the term Pala’u means godforsaken.  It does not.  Those that told the researcher this believe that the Sama Dilaut are godforsaken but the term itself means boat-dwelling.  Therefore if you turn the root into a verb and say, “Magpala’u na sigām.”  It means that they are living on their boats while fishing at the same time.  Unfortunately the term Pala’u is used in a derogatory manner by other Sama or Tausug towards this group.  If the treatment of the Sama Dilaut by these other groups were to miraculously improve all of a sudden, maybe they would be more open to the name.

The 2nd day survey results

The next day went as I had originally expected. 2 men voted in favor of Sama Dilaut.  1 man voted in favor of Badjao.  When asked to choose between Pala’u and Dilaut he preferred Sama Dilaut as well.  The 3 men all stated that Pala’u is used with disrespect towards them.  The man who chose Badjao said that this is what the Mayor of their city knows, so let’s just go along with it.  At the same time he said that Dilaut is preferred over Pala’u because the term is being adopted in Zamboanga.  I actually interviewed 4 men that day.  The final leader said that he is ok with whatever the other leaders prefer.

My Conclusion

In summary, 5 of the leaders interviewed prefer to be called Sama over Badjao.  2 prefer Badjao.
3 leaders had a preference for Sama Pala’u and 3 leaders expressed their preference was Sama Dilaut.
I am personally hesitant to adopt the term Sama Pala’u unless more feedback were to be gathered from the Sama being called by this term.  One reason I have heard why the term should be dropped is that most of the Sama Dilaut are no longer living on boats.  This means that the term Pala’u no longer applies.
My conclusion is that the question should be asked more frequently.  The Sama Dilaut have a right to be called by the term that they find most fitting for their group.  I had hoped to ask the question of the Sama Dilaut participants at the 1st International Conference on the Sama Dilaut in Tawi-Tawi during my time as a discussant, but the topic had already gone off in a different direction.

Weighing in on the topic one last time

The question is not knew.  For the interested researcher concerning the appropriate term for this Sama sub-group I would point you towards two important scholarly sources.  The first published in 1985, Culture Contact and Language Convergence by Kemp Pallesen.  Pallesen did survey work of all known Sama languages and groups.  In his book he includes the names the group calls themselves and the names that outsiders call them.  This is what he reports for the Sama Dilaut (Pallesen pg 280).  First of all he labels them in his book as Sama Dilaut.  The names used by Sama Dilaut to refer to themselves are Sama to’ongan (genuine Sama), Sama pagung (floating Sama), Sama pala’u (boat-dwelling Sama).  The names given to the Sama Dilaut by outsiders are: Bajaw, Luwa’an, Pala’u, and Sea Gypsies.
The second source is a quote by Harry Nimmo in his ethnography of the Sama Dilaut, Magosaha, published in 2001.  It can be found on pages 1 to 2.

From the time the Sama Dilaut first appeared in the literature, confusion has reigned regarding their name.  Their autonym is “Sama” and if they need to distinguish themselves from the shore-dwelling Sama people, they call themselves “Sama Dilaut” (Sama of the Seas)…In the Sulu Archipelago, “Bajau” is commonly used by outsiders for the Sama Dilaut, but not for other Sama people.  The earliest visitors to Sulu referred to the Sama Dilaut as “Bajau” and that name became established in the ethnographic literature for the full-time and part-time boat-dwelling Sama of Sulu.  I followed that tradition and referred to the Sama Dilaut as “Bajau” in previous publications.  I was always uncomfortable about doing so and in recent years have become increasingly so…It is time for “Sama Dilaut” to become established in the ethnographic literature as the name for the sea-dwelling Sama people of the Sulu archipelago and eastern Borneo.

A third and fourth source concerning that appropriate term to call the Sama Dilaut are the online dictionaries for Sama Sibutu’ and Central Sinama electronically published by SIL Philippines.  The Sama Sibutu’ entry for Badjaw is thus:

‘Sinama’ a person of the Sinama people; a sea-oriented people who live mainly on boats; seagypsies.
Note: Some people say that the Sinama people dislike this term, and find it insulting.
Interestingly enough in the Central Sinama dictionary, the language of the Sama Dilaut themselves and the longest running Sinama language project of SIL, a dictionary with over 10,000 entries, the term Badjao is not listed as a Sinama word.

What do you think we should call the former boat-dwellers of the Sulu Archipelago?

3 thoughts on “Letting go of the word Badjao

  1. At one point in time the word “badjau” was used and perhaps with a connotation that invokes derogatory remarks about these people, their ways of living being the subject. A contemptuous term similar to the word “nigger”, badjau nowadays is the term preferred by the people not giving a shit if this spineless minority deems it offensive, which in my honest opinion, is politically incorrect.

  2. I have some comments on the terms used by the writer, or some other writers/historians, such as “pala’u”, “Sama Deya”, or on the different forms of “Badjao, etc. I am very interested to discuss all about these because I have historical bases, oral traditions, and neutral arguments concerning all these. However, I can’t give you my time because I am very busy for four years. Anyway, I will explain to you those when I will be free. Magsukur.

  3. Hunit pinahati bang aye poon/tagna bissalah, yangay niya “Sama Dilaut, Sama Daleyah, Palau.
    2 Tahun bai balabai mitu ma Divisoria magbak kami maka “Sama Dilaut” ngamu sin. liik ku ma iya nsah/halam sin ku, nuye iya nambung.. Nne.. SAMA.

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