Skip to body

Museum of Culture and Environment

College of the Sciences
Give to COTS

Follow Us

 flickr icon instagram icon

Creating a Puzzle Room at the Museum

Puzzle Room Video

To Bind Together

"To Bind Together"

Section Two of "Binding Culture: Living Landscapes and Material Life in Northern Luzon, Philippines"

To Bring Together: Sub-sections:

Section Overview: "To Bind Together"

In the indigenous societies of the Cordillera practices of binding take many forms. Irrigation and agriculture depend on binding together horizontal fields and vertical walls to create life-giving hillside terraces. Natural plant fibers gathered in the forests are twined and plaited together to create distinctively functional and beautiful baskets. Cotton and other fibers are spun to create thread for weaving textiles. Traditional dwellings, in turn, utilize all these binding skills to create thatched roofs, woven mats, and insulating wall coverings.

The arts of binding are essential to hunting and gathering, gardening and fishing, trade and worship. Exchanging baskets and textiles builds extended ties of obligation and reciprocity. Thus, households are bound together into communities and communities are bound across mountainous divides. In ceremonial contexts, these woven objects may even bind the living to the honored dead, and mortals to the invisible powers of the universe. As these beautiful elements are revalued in monetary and market terms, they help, in turn, to bind once-isolated regions into the national and global economes.


Ulbung (rice storage basket), Ifugao. MCE #2012.01.43 

This distinctive jar-shaped basket used for storing hulled rice mimics the shape of ceramic Chinese jars used to store rice beer. Obtained in trade, these jars were highly prized in Ifugao households, inspiring a genre of rice storage baskets. Such baskets held an equally valuable substance—hulled rice—a diet staple, and the the raw ingredient for rice beer. Note the expert mend towards the top of the basket—indicating that the basket was thought worth the time and effort to fix. 

Chinese Ceramic Rice Wine Jar. MCE# 03-069b

Such jars were cherished trade items in the Cordillera Central.  Used for storing fermented “rice beer” (bayah) these jars are brought out at the conclusion of ritual events, especially during the mandated “day of rest” (tungo or tungul) following a successful rice harvest.  The shared consumption of bayah binds the community together in celebration, as people consume the rewards of their shared labors in the rice terraces.


Binding Power: Weapons

In the indigenous communities of the Cordillera, traditional weapons were both functional and beautiful. The shield’s design evokes the power and grace of the human figure;  the object was perhaps conceived as a symbolic extension of the warrior who bore it. Shields were designed for use in warfare, hunting, and ceremonial dances—and at times were beaten percussively with sticks to express the collective power of a group of men. Shields thus helped to bind together a community, especially in the face of enemies.

Shields were used both to deflect blows and to strike in attack. The plaited rattan helps to bind the shield together when subjected to blows.  Similarly, rattan serves to bind the spear’s shaft to its metal harpoon head.

Shield (MCE #03-242)
Spear (MCE #03-


LEFT WINDOW:  Balance and Binding: Circulations

Social connections on the Cordillera are forged through gift-giving and exchange, ranging from the exchange of women in marriage to, in the past, the exchange of violence in head-hunting raids.

The container on the right was used for serving and presenting meat, at times in ceremonial settings. The rattan superstructure reinforces the coconut shell and provides a stable base

Axes such as this one may have been used in head-hunting. Paradoxically, elders explain that in the past the purpose of taking heads was to restore social balance between communities.  Once a “debt of life” had been paid, in principle, long-term feuds might be resolved and peace maintained.

Balbelasan (northern-style battle-ax). MCE# 05-05

Such axes were carried by men in warfare and raiding parties in Cordillera Central.  Note the densely woven rattan binding that holds the blade to the handle.

Labba (vegetable storage basket) Tinguian. MCE #2012.01.48

Women often carry these lightweight labba baskets on their heads as they travel from vegetable gardens and gathering areas back home.  Plaited from thin strips of bamboo in complex mata or “eye” designs, these patterns echo textile designs of the area. Labba baskets also have a rattan base, so they can safely be set down without spilling the contents.

Lóden (gourd container) Bontoc. MCE# 2012.01.62 

This coconut shell container, used to store and serve meat, is bound by rattan strips, adding strength to the shell as well as providing a convenient hand-hold.

CENTER WINDOW:   “Mystery Object?”

This stone figurine, whose head is covered in a woven rattan hood, is a puzzle. It may depict a Jizō [地蔵] figurine (a benevolent Buddhist Bodhisattva popular in Japan, who is an incarnation of the Buddha who helps humans achieve enlightenment, and alleviate suffering), carved by a Japanese soldier during WWII. Later, a local basket maker may have constructed a woven rattan “hood” to protect it from the elements.

Or, maybe the original Japanese carver made the woven rattan “hood” for this stone figurine could be “dressed” like other Jizō Bodhisattva in Japan that are often adorned with hats and bibs made by people seeking their protection.

RIGHT WINDOW:  “Fitting Just Right”

An expert basket lid is a thing of beauty.  To keep tobacco, rice and personal effects safe and dry, the basket maker must braid complex joins to reinforce the  sharp angles of the lid.  In some cases, two women will collaboratively weave overlapping strands to create a tight-fitting cover.  In all three baskets, the support base frame is carefully designed to catch the lid when it is slid over the basket; protruding loops allow for carrying straps.

Kupit (carrying basket) Bontoc. (Personal Collection)

Designed for carrying tobacco and personal items, this intricately woven basket is a prized possession, and fits neatly under the arm. Note the contrast between the relatively coarse bottom section and the finely woven lid.

Tópil (lunch box), Bontoc. (Personal Collection)

Used to carry food to the rice fields, this closely woven basket retains heat and protects contents from pests. Small loops provide a way to securely bind the lid to the base.

Tópil (cooked rice storage), Bontoc.  (Personal Collection)

Often used to carry larger quantities of cooked rice and meat to ritual celebrations, this finely woven basket helps give material form to intangible social connections and obligations among groups.



Tubers, particularly sweet potatoes, make up a significant part of the diet in the Cordillera.  Baskets like an awit (basket #3) would be stacked high with tubers and balanced on the head when transporting them home from the fields.

1.  Tayaan (storage basket), Bontoc. MCE#2012.01.34

A multi-purpose storage basket, this finely woven bamboo and rattan basket can be used to store food and rice, clothing, or household items.  This finely woven example would have been a treasured possession.

2.  Talluku (storage basket), Ifugao. MCE #2012.01.32

An open-work rattan basket this design provides generous air circulation to prevent spoilage.

3.  Awit (vegetable storage), Kalinga. MCE#2012.01.31

These large sturdy baskets are used for transporting and storing vegetables. Carried on the head, women bring home a range of vegetables, including tubers, as well as sheaves of newly cut rice, ready to be threshed, pounded and winnowed.  Note the twisted rattan ring that adds strength and stability to the basket.

4.  Balyag (carrying basket for sweet potatoes), Ifugao. MCE#2012.01.52

Women carry these baskets back from the potato fields filled to the brim, balanced on their backs and secured with a strap that runs across their foreheads to the base of the basket. Note the sturdy bamboo feet, enabling the basket to stand in the fields for harvesting.


Previous section: Overview of Exhibition

Exhibition Sections

    To Bind Together
    Rice and Culture
    Small Prey, Big Baskets
    Arts of the Skin: Tattooing
    The Social Skin: Weaving


Take the Next Step to Becoming a Wildcat.