Oral history has it that the T’bolis are one of the original settlers of southern and central Mindanao. But new settlements and developments in their former domains dispersed them to the hinterlands of South Cotabato.
Like the other lumad groups in Mindanao, the T’bolis possess skills that made them adaptable to their new domain. One of those skills is brass casting. Although the Maguindanao, Maranao, Sama-Badjao, and Tausug people groups are more closely related with the kulintang, the T’bolis however are also known makers and performers of these brass percussion instruments.
The T’bolis have other indigenous and ingenuous musical instruments. Hegelung is a long, slender, and spindle-shaped two-string guitar. One of the strings is for the melody while the other, called the drone, has a monotonous, trance-inducing sound. Strummed with a small, sharpened bamboo sliver, the hegelung’s strings are made of abaca. The frets of the hegelung consist of small pieces of bamboo held upright with beeswax, and thus can be adjusted at will. Through the hegelung, the T’boli convey ideas, emotions, and feelings.
The T’boli women are very artistic and excellent weavers. Because abaca is a very abundant raw material in Lake Sebu, its hemp are woven in a process called T’nalak. The process observes 23 steps: Melek kedungon (selection of abaca), Kemalud (stripping), Hemolos Kedungon (air dry the abaca fiber), Kemuseng (stripping and spreading the fiber), Senwat (comb the fiber to remove the broken ones), Tembong (connect each fiber), M’logo (make the fiber into balls), Mebed (tie around the fiber reserved for white and red design when dyed), Semunsu (open the fiber between the ties, in preparation of dyeing), Temugo kenalum (dye the fiber with black using kenelum leaves), Hemto (remove the tired for the red dye), Temena (wash the dyed fiber with lime to soften and allow the red dye to stick easily), Temugo loko (cook for red dye using loko roots), Hemto (bukay) (remove the tie for white design), Mekal (spread the fiber in preparation for weaving), Seme-el (assigning the fiber for weaving), Demsu (give offering to have smooth weaving to avoid breaking of fiber), Mewel (weaving), Hemto/lemfos (cutting the fiber after completion of weaving), Mefok/Byo-u (wash it wil oil of hut, byo-u, to soften the fiber), Lemubag (pounding and ironing the cloth), Lemubag (pound to flatten the t’nalak fabric), Semaki (iron the cloth with shell).
Traditional T’nalak designs are Doun Basag, Buling Longit, Bed Buyus, Mebaga K’lagan, Lemfayon, Banggala, Gemewet, Bed Du-un, Gondong Helos, Hento Ogow, Henteg Hafak, Tofi genunsi, Tobi dulung owong, Gemayaw logi, Gemayaw libon. The T’bolis are also excellent loom weavers.
According to the T’boli Museum, T’boli artifacts (weaving, betel nut boxes, anklets, bracelets, belt buckles, sword, and knife hilts) traditionally have their entire surfaces covered with any number of multiple combinations of isosceles triangles, arranged individually, linearly (zigzag), or back to back (rhombuses) with combinations of spirals, double spirals (S-shaped) and cord or plaited bands as central or bordering motifs. Although geometric, the T’bolis have managed to incorporate highly stylized and intricate patterns into their weaving to indicate crabs, birds, python skin, frogs, shields and men in the security of his house (with women outside waiting in). Along with the design of the gongs found in the region, these elements have been linked most closely with the Dong Son designs of the 3rd and 4th Century BC originating in Vietnam and spreading through out China and Indonesia.
A traditional T’boli house is built on stilts and is composed of Lowo (body of the house; central space where all activities take place), Blaba (raised afus area for weaving, sitting and conversing), Desyung (area of honor), Dëfël (behind and on both sides, sleeping area, usually separated by sawali wall from Blaba), Bakdöl (entrance, traditionally with bamboo ladder), Laan Gunu (underside of the house reserved for the horse).
The T’bolis are resourceful farmers but during the olden times they practiced kaingin (slash and burn) to create farm lands with rice is a staple product though other crops are grown as well. The T’bolis are great game hunters but they also harvest the bounty of the forests. Because of their present settlement has been blessed with three lakes (Lake Sebu, Lake Seloton, and Lake Tahit), the T’bolis are skillful fishermen and boatmen.
In the Municipality of Lake Sebu, there is a school that for the past 12 years has steadfastly incorporating in its curriculum T’boli culture and tradition. Although largely underfunded, the T’boli School of Indigenous Knowledge and Tradition (SIKAT) continues to operate so that their culture and tradition are ensured to be passed on to the next generation. Since its inception, SIKAT has been reliant to the support of the community and its outside benefactors.
According to Ethnologue.com of SIL International, the T’boli as a people is classified under the Austronesian > Malayo-Polynesian > Philippine > Bilic branch of the languages of the world with Central T’boli, Southern T’boli, and Western T’boli as dialects. As a language, the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS) by SIL International ranks the T’boli language at Level 4: Educational, “being transmitted and standardization promoted through a system of institutionally supported education.”
Hello. Kemǒem sedu.
Good morning. Heyu Hlafus.
Good afternoon. Heyu kimel.
Good evening. Heyu kiful.
God bless you. D’wata mentey kom.
Thank you. Bong s’lamat.
Welcome. Henodo me yu.
How much? Hilu?
Can I buy? Hebeli-o kum?
Let’s eat. Meken te.
Let’s pray. Meni tekuy bè D’wata.
What’s your name? Bon boloyen?
Daughter. Ngà libun.
Son. Ngà logi.
Monday. Senta Akad.
Wednesday. Gonon sool fedeyan.
Friday. Suluk fedeyan.
Sad. La lingas.
There may be several issues that confront the T’bolis, such as health care, sustainable livelihood, education, ancestral domains, IP rights, among others, but at least their culture and tradition are ensured that it will not be regarded as a thing of the past. Those issues however also haunt other people groups all over the Philippines and the rest of the world. But as we come into the knowledge and understanding of their rich heritage, culture and tradition, we then begin to appreciate them as part of our national identity embodied in a tapestry of multi-cultural, multi-lingual society.