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Tiruray Ethnobotany

of Ethnobotany
Hill People of
A mini ethnobiography of the Tiruray ethnic group in Mindanao.
Compiled by: Cielo Mae Marquez, Nicole Garcia and Karissa Razon Southwestern

1 Marquez, Garcia, Razon – Natsci 8 – Ethnobotany – Tiruray of Mindanao

The Tiruray, or ‘Teduray’ in their own language, is a cultural minority residing in the southern part of the
Philippines on the large island of Mindanao. They live in a relative but decreasing isolation from the
more urban setting of present day Cotabato as their political center called Nuro is some 40km south of
said city. Their number is estimated to be about 25,000 with most of them being acculturated with town
life and living in sedentary farms in the lowlands. However, there are some groups of Tirurais who still
live in the mountains with the old ways that we can call the ‘traditional Tiruray’ as opposed to the more
modern groups referred to by anthropologists as ‘peasant Tiruray’.

The Tiruray are hill people living in the southern part of the province of Maguindanao where
a range of mountains known as Cotabato Cordillera curves along the south-western coast
facing the Celebes Sea. They share common boundaries with the Maguindanaoans in the
north and east while the territory of a group of Manobos locks them in with the Tran Grande
River in the south. The mountains and valleys found among this part of Mindanao are
neither especially rugged nor high and are covered in dense tropical evergreen forest.
Natives’ locations of important mountains in their myths are not plotted in maps as even
locals cannot pinpoint the exact location of these places.

2 Marquez, Garcia, Razon – Natsci 8 – Ethnobotany – Tiruray of Mindanao

The Tiruray were believed to be a quiet homogenous tribe. They are Malay in appearance
and speak a Malayo-Polyneasian derived language that until recently have not been put in
writing. From this, we can say that the Tiruray are linguistically and racially related to other
Indigenous People in the Philippines as well as to some in the general Southeast Asia. There
have been some similarities found with their ethnic neighbors to the north and east and
even further down south with the T’boli. They are viewed by many historians as surviving
tribes representative of old Philippine culture before the arrival of the Spaniards and Islam.

In the beginning, the Tiruray may have been nomadic, surviving with hunting, fishing and
gathering. This is proved by what they call themselves, Teduray, which is derived from the
word ‘demurai’ meaning ‘fishing with hook and line’. From the start, there have been three
distinct groups within the tribe called Etue Dogot (people of the coast), Tirurai Kedataran
(peopleof the plain) and Menilage/Dulangan (people of the slope/nomadic). It was believed
that the Tiruray were first found in the coast but as time went on, scattered farther into the
mountain and became hill people.

The Tiruray’s traditional clothes

were originally made from tree
barks. However, they needed more
comfortable clothes but as the
Tiruray do not weave, they obtained
cloth from Maguindanaon by
trading some of their harvests. Since
then, their clothes have been cut
from cloths. The traditional clothing
is very distinctive and colorful. It is
very different from other hill people
in other areas in the country were their natives wear little clothes to cover their private
parts. The Tiruray clothes are very conservative. Men wear a long-sleeved tunic and a fitted
pair of pants while women wear a fitted blouse buttoned at the front paired with a sarong
skirt. For jewelries, the Tiruray people adorn themselves with brass necklaces, earrings and
anklets. For special occasions, they add necklaces with beads of gold and glass. Men are also
seen carrying a wavy-bladed kris in formal occasions. Women also wear a type of make-up
for special occasions. They apply white face powder and stain their lips red. They also
practice artificial tattooing by making many small blood-blisters in a pattern on the forehead.
There is no known significance in this practice other than for aesthetic value. This practice is
also one of the only two body mutilation present in the Tiruray culture. The other one is the
filling and blackening of their teeth upon puberty. Men and women alike wear their hair

3 Marquez, Garcia, Razon – Natsci 8 – Ethnobotany – Tiruray of Mindanao

uncut. The women tie it in a bun at the back while the men wind it around their heads and
secure it under a bandana. The acculturated Tiruray on the other hand, dress in Western
style clothing and wears their hair in Western hairstyles. Some also wear the safay, a conical
had made of buri as a protection from the sun.

The Tiruray society’s center is the nuclear family. As it is, the traditional Tiruray house is
roughly only 3x5 meters, clearly intended for a single nuclear family. The houses, built up on
posts that are about 2 meters off the ground, are made of bamboo and wood with roofs of
grass and a ladder that is pulled in from the inside for security during the night. There is only
a single latched door and no windows with vines or rattan used to hold the whole house
together. The middle post holding the house up is decorated with various ornaments to
ward of evil spirits. There are no walls, only vine hangings of rattan. This is used as a defense
so people can attack from the inside the enemy when they raided using a bow and arrow.

In the earlier period, the Tiruray seem to live in one big house or “setifon” which is a term
that is presently used to describe those living in the same neighborhood. A single
neighborhood can have up to 30 families in total and as little as 6 families depending on
their needs of helping each other in their subsistence activities. These settlements are
named after prominent geographical features of the place they are living in and areby no
means permanent. The most important thing in these arrangements are, it seems, the
household. The household consists of a single nuclear family or “kureng”.

The family is composed of the father and mother and their children. Every extended family
has his own family and is therefore expected to have their own house and keep their own
unit secure separately from their kin. Polygamy is accepted but is scarcely practiced. Most
Tiruray families choose to be monogamous. This is because one can only practice polygamy
if the man is able to support the families he is intending to keep. Also, the first wife must
approve of the marriage first, as well as approve the succeeding wives. The other wives are
then secondary to the original wife and are at her service. Prostitution and adultery is not
accepted and is gravely punished when practiced.

Their kinship system is bilateral, thus recognizing both sides from the mother and father.
This includes the two pair of grandparents and the uncles and aunts as well as the cousins
up until the second degree. Marrying inside your own kin is considered incest or “sumbang”
and is deeply frowned at in Tiruray society. Sharing of responsibility is expected in one’s kin.
When one is in debt, his whole family is in debt together with him and if he is celebrated, his
whole kin basks in the same glory as him.

4 Marquez, Garcia, Razon – Natsci 8 – Ethnobotany – Tiruray of Mindanao

Tiruray people have grouped their food into four categories. The first group is the starch
staples composed of rice, corn, yam and taro among others. The second group is of their
viands or side dishes which include meat, fish and a variety of vegetables. The third group is
of their spices such as salt, onion and garlic. The fourth group is their snacks where coffee,
fruits and rice cakes fall under. Rice is the most important part of the Tiruray diet and is
considered a culturally valued part of every meal. Tiruray people enjoy drinking coffee and
tea though the tea is obtained in the market through trade and presently, in the capitalist
society of the lowlands, in exchange of money. Many Tiruray also drink tuba and a small
portion drinks hard liquor. Past puberty, most Tiruray make a habit of chewing betel quid, a
mild stimulant, as their only form of intoxicating intake.

Traditional Tiruray rely heavily on trade to obtain essential materials for their daily life. Iron
tools are one important part of their subsistence in swidden farming as the bolos and knives
they use are all acquired through trade or purchase from the lowland market. As the Tiruray
do not weave, they also get cloth through trading. Salt, an important part of their diet, is
another material to which they do business with the Maguindanaoans. Items also used as
brideprice and legal settlements such as krises, necklaces, brass boxes for bêtel quid
ingredients, gongs, spears and the like are obtained through trade. Likewise, goods from the
mountains also flowed down to the Maguindanaoans. Important items of note are rattan,
tobacco and beeswax which the Maguindanaoans in turn trade with the Chinese.

Trade is not a simple matter for both parties, however. As the Muslims have conquered the
Maguindanaons and have had their chief converted to Islam, the rest of the lowland people

5 Marquez, Garcia, Razon – Natsci 8 – Ethnobotany – Tiruray of Mindanao

under him also converted themselves. However, the Tiruray, like most isolated tribal groups,
are wary and suspicious of people trying to convert them into anything and whose culture is
different from them. The Tiruray has then made the foot of mountains that are entry points
to their communities gateways that others cannot pass through, primarily the
Maguindanaoans. There are, ofcourse, exemptions to this rule and these are the traders and

Ritualistic pacts are made between certain Tiruray neighborhoods and Maguindanaoan
datus for trade to happen between the communities. It is not an agreement of two ethnic
tribes but rather are agreements between groups of differing culture. The trade pacts are
done to symbolize, for the purpose of trade, the two contracting individuals as brothers,
temporarily abandoning their chronic hostility towards each other. It is called the “seketas
teel” or “cutting rattan together”. The two leaders of each community, the Maguindanaoan
datu and the Tiruray “kedafawan”, each hold an end of a rattan, set it upon a log, and cut it
into two using a kris. They swear that they will act “as brothers of one father and one
mother” and if one is to betray their special relationship, “may his life be cut off as this piece
of rattan is being cut.” This then gives the Maguindanaoan trader access to the mountain of
that particular Tiruray community. However, he is only limited to do trade to that one
community as other Tiruray groups also have pacts of their own with other Maguindanaoan

The Maguindanaons also acted as middlemen for further trade of many items of Tiruray
origin. The three most sough after items in the 19th century are mother-of-pearl, gutta
percha and almaciga. The last two are forest products from the Mindanao highlands. Gutta
percha is the sap of the tree which the Tiruray call “tefedus” (Palaquium ahernanum Merr).
There was a high demand for gutta percha in 1860s and 1870s as that was when the
transatlantic cable was being built. Gutta percha was used as an insulation for the cable.
Tiruray and other mountain tribes collected the sap and traded it with the Maguindanaoans
for cloth, salt and iron tools. From there the sap is traded in Sulu, then to Sandakan or
Lubuan, then to Singapore where it is known as “North Borneo gutta percha”. The other,

6 Marquez, Garcia, Razon – Natsci 8 – Ethnobotany – Tiruray of Mindanao

almaciga, is also a sap from another tree known to the Tiruray as the “lunay solo” (Agathis
philippinensis Warb). It is used in making copal varnish. The Spaniards highly values it for
they use the sap for shipbuilding and thus travels through many market chanels to reach

As with most horticultural societies, ownership of land is not a strict manner of value, it is,
rather, dependent on the right of use. The land surrounding a particular community is
considered a commodity. It is up to a family to decide how big a plot of land he is planning
to farm and boundaries are mutually decided. As long as no other family is currently using a
piece of land, it is, by Tiruray law, acceptable to mark it as one’s own for that season.

As we have discussed in the previous section, Tiruray do not do blacksmith work so the
sharp part of the tools they use for farming are all acquired through trade. The wooden
handles are made by the locals themselves, as needed. The tools are fairly simple: a slashing
bolo (fais), a shorter all-purpose bolo (badung), an ax for cutting large trees (fatuk), a
weeding knife (susud), and a small harvesting blade (langgaman). Some also use the
traditional sharpened poles; a long narrow one for making holes in the soil to plant (ohok)
and a shorter one for digging (tudok, kedor).

The swidden activities, that is the ycle of slash-and-burn, is timed with reference to Tiruray
constellations. The men ritually mark their swidden sites for the coming year during
December to January. This is also when they begin the taxing task of clearing the heavy and
dense forest undergrowth and cutting the bigger trees. As this is a tedious job for each
family to perform in their own land, all the men in the community help each family in their
own land until all the lands are ready. By March or April, the swidden sites are ready to be
burned. Every men and women then help each household on their field in turn. First, corn is
planted, then several varieties of rice and the extra plots in and out of the proper fields are
planted with various other crops, such as tubers, vegetables, fruit, spices and non-edibles
such as cotton, at various times and are likewise harvested as they mature in their own
times. By May or June, the first crop of corn is harvested by the women of the community.

7 Marquez, Garcia, Razon – Natsci 8 – Ethnobotany – Tiruray of Mindanao

The crops are stored in drying racks. By August or September, it is the rice that are ready for
harvest. After the rice stalks are cleared away, a second crop of rice is planted on the field,
not to waste any valuable time for the fallowed land. The particular plot of land will then be
left for many years to come to allow its fallowing period so as to restore the balance in
nature by naturally letting it grow back it’s vegetation and replenish its minerals. Each
household then chooses a different plot of land the next year.

While corn and rice are being grown, the women are tasked with weeding their own
household’s plots while the men are free to engage in other forms of subsistence such as
hunting, fishing, and gathering of wild foods from the forest. Many people are curious as to
why most horticultural societies such as the Tiruray advanced to swidden farming if at the
time that they let their crops grow, they still result to the traditional hunting and gathering.
The answer is because while hunting and gathering was, in the past, sufficient to fulfill a
small band of kinsfolk, it is not enough to feed a whole community as well as sustain the
increasing need to market their products so as to obtain essential modernizing materials for
their every day needs.

The Tirurays have a number of traps that they use in hunting including spring snares (kotor,
ambirut), spears (feliyad), spiked pits (kanseb), log falls (diran) coupled with wild plants and
animal foods to lure their preys. They are also expert with the use of the bow (bohor) and
arrow (banting), the hunting spear (sebat), and blowgun (lefuk). Homemade shotguns
(faletik) have now become recently popular. Tiruray also trained dogs to help in cornering
game during hunting.

8 Marquez, Garcia, Razon – Natsci 8 – Ethnobotany – Tiruray of Mindanao

The Tiruray also use their rich surroundings for medicinal purposes as with most ethnic
tribes. Tilala (Cordyline fructicosa) as known to the Tiruray is used for (1) hemoptysis due to
pulmonary tubercolosis, (2) threatened abortion, (3) excessive menstrual discharge, (4)
hematuria, (5) bleeding piles, (6) enteritis and bacillary dysentery. Another, barantiya
(Jatropha curcas) is used as a cure to pruritus, eczema, rheumatism, arthritis and traumatic

Tiruray traditional art is composed of music and basket weaving.

Basket weaving is done to produce various forms of containers, fish traps and winnowing
baskets that are essential to Tiruray every day life. The weaving is done in numerous artistic
pattern. This form of art has been in decline over the years as more Tiruray are becoming
acculturated and have started purchasing factory manufactured containers which are easier
to obtain and are cheaper than spending hours and days weaving a full basket made out of
rattan and other indigenous materials. However, in recent years, a demand for Tiruray
baskets have been increasing from tourists visiting from Manila as well as for export to
other countries. This increase in demand and attention on their art form has inspired more
Tiruray to again practice basket weaving.

The second and more expressive form of the two Tiruray art – music, consists of
instrumental, vocal and dance forms. Tiruray musical instruments are named as such: tuned
percussion beams (kagul), reed lip flute (falendag), smaller ring flute (suling), bamboo jaw
harp (kubing), several types of bamboo zithers (togo belotokan), a drum (togo tefuken) and
a set of five small tuned gongs with shallow boss (agung). These instruments are essential
for rituals in the every day Tiruray life, especially the gong, though of course, they are
played frequently for the purpose of entertainment.

9 Marquez, Garcia, Razon – Natsci 8 – Ethnobotany – Tiruray of Mindanao

The Tiruray are also fond of vocal music like most other tribal groups. They have one long
epic chant called the Berinarew describing the adventures of an ancient culture hero named
Lagey Lingkuwos who is believed by the Tiruray to have been a powerful human being able
to ascend to heaven because of mystic powers he has been given by their god. The epic
chant requires 12 nights to be sung in full. There are also other types of vocal music such as
the impromptu singing discourse which are either in monologue or dialogue, love songs and
riddles. As the Tiruray are illiterate and have no written language, they pass these traditions
orally through generations. It is not until recently that anthropologists have taken an effort
to translating these epic and other songs and publishing them to preserve their legacy.

Like basket weaving, Tiruray music might be rapidly disappearing. This is in part due to many
acculturated Tiruray living in the lowlands not practicing their traditional music and dances
thus missing the chance to teach it to their children. The knowledge of this one part of their
future will then be unknown to the next generation and probably to the coming generations
as well.

Tiruray people probably understand human nature more than most other ethnic groups in
the Philippines, and possibly the world. Tiruray believes in the vulnerability of humans and
their capacity to make mistakes. This is why it is a golden rule in their society to never anger
or abuse a person as it is very likely that he will exact revenge and start a feud between
kinsfolk. Adat or their behavioral customs is simply put – to treat others with respect. It is
expected that everybody will always consider the feeling of others around him. If one fails to
do so, he is burdened with the responsibility (sala) for the consequences. The one wronged
then has a justifiable reason to retaliate (benal). If one has a benal on a fellow Tiruray, he is
to plead his case to the legal authority or the kedafawan who will then try to make peace
between both parties involved. If it is successful, the offending party will need to offer a gift
of settlement. If not, the issue will most likely end in bono, an organized killing party set to
eliminate kindred of each side.

10 Marquez, Garcia, Razon – Natsci 8 – Ethnobotany – Tiruray of Mindanao

There is no centralized form of government among the Tiruray. Each community has its own
kedafawan who settles various cases in a formal discussion called the tiyawan. They are
egalitarian and the kedafawan are neither political chiefs nor headman in anyway. They are
merely there as moderators and negotiators between parties with issues.

The role of the kedafawan is open to anyone who is learned and wise, one who is able to
speak in the metaphoric sentences required of the tiyawans and most of all, one who is
accepted by his or her fellow Tiruray in the community as able and deserving of trust. It is
achievable and is a nonprofessional specialization. Ultimate justice is sought in the tiyawan
and the kedafawan cannot pick a side. There is no ‘winner’ in a tiyawan. The sole purpose of
the discussion is to settle any issues and restore good feelings on both sides by equating the
stacks on each court.

When not involved in a tiyawan, the kedafawan is a normal member of the community who
must also work his or her swidden.

There are two types of tiyawan: hot tiyawan where a dispute is involved and a good tiyawan
where the issue does not include hurt feelings.

The second major leader of a Tiruray community is its beliyan or shaman.

Tiruray people believe that the universe is inhabited by a vast number and kinds of people
(etew). There are the humans, us, and the spirits (meginalew). The spirits are said to be
exactly like us humans. They have their own societies and tribes. There are those who are
naturally evil like the busaw, a tribe of creatures living in caves, then there are those who

11 Marquez, Garcia, Razon – Natsci 8 – Ethnobotany – Tiruray of Mindanao

are kind to humans like the Tulus, creator of the universe and the greatest authority over all
spirits. The Tulus messengers called telaki are very much like angels in the Christian faith,
who are here to protect the humans from evil spirits. But mostly, the spirits who are
cohabiting with us are friendly and harmless. They go about doing their own business unless
angered which is when they inflict harm.

Like most other ethnic groups, illnesses are believed to be caused by angering a spirit. For
this, the shaman is called. The shaman may be either a man or a woman. Here, tiyawan is
again performed as the shaman is regarded as a legal authority as well, only, between
humans and spirits and not humans with fellow humans. The shaman, with the ability and
power of seeing spirits seek out to find the offended spirit and discuss with it the proper
way to settle the matter. As Tiruray people believe that the spirit world also have different
tribes and governing laws, this is all handled by the shaman who is knowledgeable and
capable of negotiating with the supernatural.

The shaman also plays an important role in the Tiruray swidden rites. Four times a year,
marking off important points in the swidden cycle, the Tiruray community performs a series
of communal sacred meals called the kanduli and is headed by the shaman. The first Kanduli
ritual is called the (1) Maras or the “marking festival” which is held on the night of the last
full moon before the marking of the swidden sites, (2) Retus Kama or the “festival of the
first fruits of the corn” which is held on the following night of the first harvest of the
neighborhood corn, (3) Retus farey or the “festival of the first fruits of the rice” which is held
on the night following the day of the harvest of rice and the (4) Matun tunda or the “harvest
festival” which is held on the night of the first full moon when the rice harvest from all of
the settlement’s swiddens have been collected.

The shaman stores the ritual rice in a small house called the Tenines. The ritual involves the
passing back and forth between families in the community of rice grown from a special
ritualistic inside each families own swidden such that, after the ritual, every family has eaten
some rice from every body else’s plot. The spirits are also part of this ritual wherein they are
offered part of the communal rice as well. This act is very important as it shows and
strengthens the ties between the community as well as those between the humans and the

12 Marquez, Garcia, Razon – Natsci 8 – Ethnobotany – Tiruray of Mindanao

spirits. This greatly coincides with their golden rule of respecting everybody and considering
each other’s feelings in every endeavor.

The Tiruray men also have talisman made from mystical powerful leaves and grasses
wrapped in cloth and bound with vine lashing. This talisman is called the ungit. It is handed
down from father to son every generation. The specific plants used to make the charms are
strictly kept secret as disclosing it to anybody will make the talisman lose its potency. The
hunter always carries it around his body and rubs it on his dog and horse for safety.

It is not a hidden knowledge that every ethnic tribe in the Philippines is fast becoming
immersed and acculturated with the modern way of life. The Tiruray is no exception to this.

Like many, the Tiruray individual is left with little choice but to embrace the changes
happening outside of their mountains. Even though they are not a capitalist society, they
still are at the mercy of the larger capitalist market that they acquire their goods from.
Development and progress are driving them from their lands even with IPRA and various
attempts of trying to appease the Indigenous People. They are fast losing their culture and
identities as Tiruray as more and more of them are living in cities and become the new
generation of professionals. As generations come, little and little of what is previously
known is being lost. This is why anthropologists are trying their hardest to write written
accounts of the traditional Tiruray life in an attempt to preserve its cultural heritage.

As many Tirurays are fast coming to the folds of becoming a Filipino and less a Tiruray, it is
still, no doubt an essential part of them. They are still proud to have come from such a
unique ethnic group even if the new blood of Tiruray are not at all that familiar with their
legacy as what their grandparents are.

13 Marquez, Garcia, Razon – Natsci 8 – Ethnobotany – Tiruray of Mindanao

Schlegel, Stuart. “Children of Tulus : essays on the Tiruray people”. Quezon City : Giraffe
Books, 1994.

Wein, Clement. “Berinareu : the religious epic of the Tirurais”. Manila : Divine Word, 1989.

Schlegel, Stuart. “Wisdom from a rainforest : the spiritual journey of an anthropologist”.

Quezon City : Ateneo de Manila University Press, c1999.

Schlegel, Stuart. “Tiruray justice : traditional Tiruray law and morality”. Berkeley : Institute
of Philippine Culture, Ateneo de Manila , c1970.

Johnson, Allen. “Horticulturalists: Economic behavior in tribes”. In Economic Anthropology,

Stuart Plattner (ed.) California: Stanford University Press, 1989.

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