The Bajau, the Badjao, the Samals, and the Sama People

The Sama people can be quite hard to classify.  Due to the nomadic nature of the Sama they can be found in several countries (especially the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia).  In Malaysia they are called Bajau by the Malaysians.  In the Philippines, other Filipinos call them Badjaos or Samals, depending on which subgroup of the Sama they belong to. 
To complicate things further Sinama/Sama is the name for at least four language groups of the Philippines which are then subdivided into numerous dialects depending on what island a person is from.  Speakers of Northern Sinama, Central Sinama, and Southern Sama are unaware of these language names given them by the linguists, because they identify themselves by island and region instead of closeness in language. (For a better understanding of the Sinama languages and dialects please refer to an academic paper presented at the 2018 ICONBajau Conference under the title: Language Features and Simple Methods to Help the Non-Linguist Navigate the Sinama Languages and Dialects.)  The Sama Dilaut have a tendency to answer questions about their identity based on what they believe the asker will respond most positively to.  Sama Deya on the other hand will sometimes classify the Sama Dilaut as being completely different from themselves.
With all this in mind, it has been quite confusing for outsiders to understand the Sama and to find reliable information about them.  As far as we can tell, this article will be the most reliable information that you can find on the Sama, the Samals, the Bajau, and the Badjao.  It is an important starting point for any research you might undertake on the Sama or their subgroups.  It will only feed your curiosity about this fantastic people group from Southeast Asia.

Who are the Bangsa Sama?

Sama is the all encompassing term for this people group.  This includes the tribes the Filipinos call Samals and the Badjao.  This includes the seafaring Bajau of Sabah, who are only known to Malaysians as Bajau.  According to the Ethnologue there are 84,000 Northern Sama (sse), 90,000 Central Sama (sml), 34,000 Sama Pangutaran (slm), 319,000 Southern Sama (ssb), and 42,470 Sama Mapun (sjm).  That totals 569,470 Sama people.  We suspect that this number to be more realistically over 1,000,000 but politics as well as the difficulty of obtaining reliable data make the Sama people impossible to count.

The Sama are native to the Sulu archipelago, including Tawi-Tawi and the coastlines of Sabah, Malaysia

Who are the Bajau?

It is important to remember that political boundaries in Southeast Asia are no more than a century old.  Malaysia formed in 1963.  The first Philippine Republic formed in 1899.  Before that the Sulu Sultanate claimed sovereignty over Sulu and Sabah Malaysia.  The Sama have existed in their current territories since before the formation of the Sulu Sultanate.  They are related linguistically to the West Coast Bajau of Malaysia and have become known in modern day Malaysia as Bajaus as well. Even the West Coast Bajau among themselves use the term Sama to describe their people. 2nd and 3rd generation Sama living in Malaysia may very well be more familiar with the term Bajau then they are with Sama.  They still identify themselves with their home island (Bajau Ubian, Bajau Simunul, Bajau Tabawan), though some have little understanding about their homelands located in the Philippines.  The Sama Ubian especially have been in Sabah since before Malaysia became a nation.  Those Sama that have been living in Malaysia for many years as lawful citizens are called Bajau Penduduk which in Bahasa Melayu means they are citizens or lawful residents of Malaysia.  The Sama right to residence in Malaysia must be upheld as there is written accounts of their presence there since at least 1770 (Thomas Forrest)
There has been a high migration of Sama from Sulu towards Sabah over the last 50 years.  Most of the migrants are joining family ties that already exist over the national borders.  They are more aware of their identity as Sama but readily adopt the term Bajau because of the political benefits that it provides them.
An important distinction to understand is that the Bajau with a sea based culture are indeed Sama and are different from the Bajau with a horse culture, the West Coast Bajau.

Who are the Badjao?

One of these distinctions that is often confused is the distinction between the Sama Dilaut (Badjao) and other Sama of the Sulu seas.  The term “dilaut” refers to the ocean.  They are the ocean going Sama.  The Sama Dilaut are traditionally sea gypsies and houseboat dwellers.  Recently they have been semi-nomadic, often living out at sea for days, weeks or months, but gradually adopting the lifestyle of their Sama brothers and building their homes on the coastlines of the Philippines and Malaysia.

The term Badjao has become the famous term for the Sama Dilaut in the Philippines.  Badjao are often depicted as beggars.  They are described by the government as depressed, deprived, and underdeveloped.
Among themselves the Badjao primarily identify themselves as Sama and this should be the term used to identify them.  This has been our personal experience as well as the conclusion that Harry Arlo Nimo makes in his book, Magosaha: An Ethnography of the Tawi-Tawi Sama Dilaut, after decades of researching the “Badjao.”
When asked about their identity a Badjao might readily describe himself as Badjao.  For indeed this is what is better known.  Some Sama might embrace this description desiring to be viewed as worthy of pity.  It offers him a higher chance of receiving the welfare of the person he is approaching.  This is true in both begging on the street as well as in regards to government programs.
Sama Dilaut identify all other Sama groups as Sama Deya.  “Deya” is the Sama term for “inland”.  In modern times this name can be somewhat laughable as it is not uncommon to find the Sama Deya building homes out on stilts over the ocean while many Sama Dilaut have built homes on the land right next to the ocean.
The other Sama refer to the Sama Dilaut as either Sama Dilaut or Sama Palaˈu, meaning the Sama that live on boats (see myth on meaning of Pala’u).
Sama Dilaut tend to identify themselves more with traditional belief and the religion of offering to their ancestors (Mag’mbo’) over Islam.  You can find Muslim, Animist, and Christian Sama Dilaut.
Linguistically all Sama Dilaut that we have met, whether in Luzon, Mindanao, Sulu, or the Malaysian Sama Dilaut who trace their roots back to Tawi-Tawi are part of the Central Sinama language.  Badjao may refer to the Central Sinama language (sml) as speaking “Bajau”.

Who are the Samals?

Neighboring tribes and conquering world powers have historically identified the Sama as Samals or Siyamals.  The Maguindanaon account as recorded by Najeeb Saleeby mentions the Samals as the boat people who brought Sharif Kabungswan to Cotabato.  The term Samal Dilaut can be found in various writings, but it is most common for the Sama Dilaut to be called Badjao and the other Sama, the more land based Sama to be called Samals.  One of the distinctions is that “Samals” are considered more Islamicized than the “Badjao”.  Also their culture discourages begging out of shame.
Recently the term Samals has caused quite a bit of confusion in terms of identifying the Sama people due to the fame of the Island Garden of Samal.  It is very possible that this island was named after the Sama people who have visited Davao for centuries, however currently there are only small populations of Sama (Samals) existing on the island.  The name for this island may be over 400 years old as Pigafetta makes mention of passing an island that natives identified as Zamal.  The Najeeb Saleeby account mentions the Samals that took Sharif Kabungswan continuing on to Davao.

What is the appropriate term to call the Sama?

The term Siyamal is taken by many Sama as an offensive term, only used by the Tausug to degrade them.  The term Samal is also only used by outsiders.  If you call a Sama Deya, Badjao in the Philippines you may very likely offend them in this distinction.  If they migrate to Malaysia they may very likely adopt the term Bajau for themselves.  Still, the most respectful and accurate term that can be used is Sama.  For the Badjao, Sama Dilaut.  For other Sama: Sama Siasi, Sama Banguingi, Sama Tawi-Tawi, Sama Pangutaran, Sama Sambuwangan etc.

What type of Sama are included in the Kauman Sama Online?

At we believe that all classifications of Sama  including the Badjao/Bajau deserve to be respected and deserve to be represented by as speakers of the Sinama language.  We are building this community for all Sama people and hope that Sama, Bajau, and Badjao would feel free to join the community here at
This article is a work in progress.  We really value the input of Sinama speakers, what is your input about the classification of Sama and Bajau?  Do you classify yourself as Sama or Bajau or both?  Do you feel we have misrepresented either the Bajau or the Sama?  Let us know by commenting.  You can also discuss this in our site forums: Ai pagbida’an duwa kabtangan itu: Sama maka Bajau?
Want to Learn more?  Check out our bibliography of useful reading material by Sama writers and by writers about the Sama.

27 thoughts on “The Bajau, the Badjao, the Samals, and the Sama People

  1. I am from the City of Mabalacat in Pampanga and learning to speak the Sinama Language to aid in our development project for a community of Sama DiLaut presently harbored along the historic Parua River.This article gave me invaluable insights and together with my gratitude I am expressing my sincere desire to follow its progression.

    1. I am pleased that you are spending time to learn Sinama. It will indeed be helpful to your development project. My experience with Sama Dilaut in Davao is that they tend to identify themselves with whatever term they think the listener wants to hear. Indeed, when asking for aid from the public hospital, Social Service workers don't even recognize the term Sama but the "Badjao" are readily brought into their aid program. I would be interested in what your Sama friends prefer to be called Sama or Bajau.

      1. My Sama friends prefer to be called Sama as in Sama DiLaut. I sometimes refer to them as Sama Di Parua in reference to their community presently harbored by the shores of the historic Parua River in Mabalacat Pampanga.
        Sigfried T. Ranada
        A.K.A. ysagani ybarra

  2. It is important to note during the battle of Balangingi island the spanish adddress them as Sama Balangingi not as Badjao, so anthropologically the Spanish conquestadores has a diffrerent understanding with the British colonialism, because the british colonilaist did not categorized separately the horse culture of Sama Kuta Bullud Kuta Marudu of Kota Kina Balu, from the sama dilaut of sama Sapurna Sabah, until the malay took over the integration of Sabah into malay federation in 1963 the malay follow the same policy of their predecessesors [ the British colonialist]..

    1. Iam a Sama Bangingi of Taluksangay, Zamboanga City, the first mosque and the first Islamic Center of Zamboanga Peninsula stand in this barangay, it was founded in the year 1885.

  3. Researcher should know that Bajau is a subgroup of Sama speaking language. A Bajau could be classified as Sama in term of spoken language, the Sinama. But Sama could never be a Bajau because of some distinct differences in culture, beliefs and tradition, to include the Bajau original habitat liing in a"lepa" (houseboat). I am very happy that you have organized a forum to discuss on this matter. The term Bajau nowadays seems to misleading researchers from reality. I am a Sama, but not a Bajau.

    1. Magsukul for your reply. I think it is really important to hear the voice of Sama people on this issue, both Sama Dilaut and Sama Deya (a Sama Dilaut term for Sama that aren't Sama Dilaut). Just a note on the term Badjao and Bajau, Badjao seems to be the term used in the Philippines that refers to Sama Dilaut, but the term Bajau as used in Malaysia seems to refer to all Sama groups. Sather does a good job of discussing the topic in his book about the Sama in Bangao-Bangao Semporna. Historically, the Sama do not use the term Badjao or Bajau to refer to themselves. A land based Sama from the Philippines would indeed find this offensive. I wonder though if in Malaysia, Sama people are starting to accept the term Bajau as an autonymn (term for oneself). When I was briefly in Semporna and Sandakan I would talk to people about Sama and Sinama and they would always respond replacing the term with Bajau and speaking Bajau.
      My wife, like you, is Sama but not Badjao. Hearing her interpretations of the terms has done a lot to shape my concepts of the various terms. From a research perspective the terms make research very confusing.

    2. The term Bajau makes research very confusing. But if we know our point of reference, there is no confusion on the use of this term, Bajau (Sama Dilawt). In Sabah the term Bajau is used to name all Bajau speaking people.In Tawi-Tawi we don't say "Bajau" speaking people, but we say Sama speaking people.because the language used by the Bajau (Sama Dilawt) is Sinama. The Generic term is Sama not Bajau. You try to call a Sama from Simunul, Tawi-Tawi, as Bajau. In few seconds a response of unpleasant words will be thrown to you left and right. A Sama would not accept the term to be called Bajau. Because they know that the Bajau (Sama Dilawt) are boat dweller. theBajau (Sama Dilawt) are very happy to be addressed as Sama.
      In sabah,the Sama are happy to be called Bajau because of the benefits offered to them. But when they return to Tawi-Tawi surely, they will not accept the term to be addressed as Bajau.It is a shameful term to them. Try this in Tawi-Tawi.

  4. Researcher should know that Bajau is a subgroup of Sama speaking language. A Bajau could be classified as Sama in term of spoken language, the Sinama. But Sama could never be a Bajau because of some distinct differences in culture, beliefs and tradition, to include the Bajau original habitat liing in a"lepa" (houseboat). I am very happy that you have organized a forum to discuss on this matter. The term Bajau nowadays seems to misleading researchers from reality. I am a Sama, but not a Bajau.

  5. I am A Sama from Tawi-Tawi. It seems to me people are not fully aware as to the terms Sama, or Samal, Bajau or sama Dil;awt (Sama Diaut). Sama are whop speak the Sinama language. Samal is a Tausug term used by the Tausug to refer to the Sama Sama Dilawt. Bajau is not a native term of the Sama. It is used by the Bristish Administrator in registering the live birth of the Sama and Sama Dil;awt living in Sabah. So the Sama are classified as Bajau in Malaysia. and they alsoaccepted this termas Bajau although they are not Bajau, becasue of the benefit given to the Bajau. Do you think the Sama in Tawi-Tawi would like to be called Bajau in tawi-Tawi? I don't think so. The Sama called the Bajau as Palau. The Tausug called the Bajau as Luwaan. To erase name calling that degrade personality, researchers are now using the term Sama Dilawt (Sama Dilaut) instead bajau. Sama Dilaut means Sama of the sea. The Bajau are called by other researchers as Sea Nomads, Sea Gypsies, Sea farers because they are Samaof the sea. The Sama are land based or live on strand.

  6. In conducting research we should know our point of reference to avoid misconception of term used. From :Talib L. Sangogot of Tawi-Tawi

  7. salammualaiku makahemon aku min tapayan tana. aku butitu mah kuwala lumpur binoa ku I ama ku lapastu niambanan ku ena maytu insaniak pas.

  8. i want to know more of sama banguingui… its history… culture.. their role on islamic monarchy… as my father was telling me that our tribe was sama banguingui… sinama
    but i was born roman catholic… due to intermarriage of my islamic grand father to catholic grand mother…

  9. Hi. I’m currently studying about the tribe Sama-Badjao. Can you help me find a full text of some of their myth, legent, stories, fables and the likes for my studies? It would be a great help. Thanks.

  10. is there any form of written literature from this tribe? like short stories, legends, myths? etc.??

Ai tapah'llingbi pasal itu?