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Binding Culture Overview

Binding Culture: Living Landscapes and Material Life in Northern Luzon, Philippines

April 9th - June 13th, 2015 at the Museum of Culture and Environment

Guest Curator:  Dr. Ellen Schattschneider (Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University)
Co-Curator and Exhibit Design:  Lynn Bethke

Digital curator: Barbara Hammersberg '15

Exhibition Sections

Section 1 (Overview) Sub-Sections:


Across millennia, indigenous societies of the mountainous Cordillera Central in the northern Philippines have developed, protected, and nurtured living cultural landscapes. These complex ecosystems range from high mountain forests to 2,000 year old rice terraces. The intricate landscapes have long been held as sacred by local communities, binding mortals, ancestors, and all living things in webs of mutual support and interdependence.

The works of material culture on display in this exhibition are created by indigenous women and men deeply engaged with these living cultural landscapes. Textiles and baskets, woven of natural fibers, emphasize balance, harmony, and the creative exchange between visible and invisible realms. In the household, these works remind the user of the material and spiritual blessing of the natural world. In the wider world, these objects sustain lifeways in careful balance with a delicate ecosystem.

Binding Culture celebrates the artistic brilliance and technological creativity of the peoples of the Philippines’ Cordillera. At a time that biodiversity and indigenous agro-ecological systems are under serious threat these works inspire all who seek pathways of balance and integrity in a rapidly changing world.


Iwus (locust storage basket), Bontoc.  MCE # 2012.01.42

Locusts, anyone? In indigenous communities on the Cordillera Central, locusts are considered nutritious delicacies. In the past, locust hunting expeditions would sometimes last for many days, as great locust swarms migrated across the landscape. Openings between the bamboo slats provide air to keep the insects alive as they are transported during the hunts; thus, the locusts are fresh when women boil, dry, and roast them at home. Attached shoulder straps would allow women to carry the baskets as backpacks. Note the geometric and lizard-like forms etched into the bamboo by knife.  

Liga-u  (square winnowing tray), Ifugao.  MCE # 2012.01.80

Preparing rice for cooking takes a lot of work! First, a woman pounds the rice for “hulling,” removing or loosening the outer husks. She then tosses the rice in the air many times, catching the grains in a winnowing basket tray, until the chaff is blown away by the wind, leaving only clean rice grains, ready to cook. A skilled woman keeps her eye on the far edge of the tray as she flips it up and down. She catches the heavier rice grains as they fall into the stronger part of the tray, held closer to her body. Note how the color of the weave has changed from repeated impacts. 

Such trays are also used for serving food and in ceremonies. Rice is a high prestige food on the Cordillera Central and the growing and processing of rice has deep aesthetic and spiritual significance. By and large, Bontoc winnowing trays are circular; Ifugao trays are square. Throughout the Cordillera, basket-makers create winnowing trays that are strong, easy to handle, and pleasing to the eye.

A Brief History of the Philippines

The Republic of the Philippines is a diverse and complicated country. More than 7,000 islands make up this nation in the western Pacific Ocean. The Philippines is divided into three island groups: Mindanao in the south, Visayas, and Luzon in the north. These groups are further broken down into 17 regions, 81 provinces, 144 cities, 1,491 municipalities, and 42,028 barangays or villages. Although Filipino (Tagalog) and English are the official languages, people across the nation speak more than 170 different tongues .

It’s not surprising that a country whose earliest inhabitants date to 67,000 years ago should be so diverse.  Some societies on the islands remained isolated, while others developed substantial trade with much of Asia, including China, India, Japan, and Brunei. Islam came to the islands in the 1300s and became the major religion until the 1500s. In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan arrived and claimed the islands for Spain, establishing Spanish rule; eventually, many Filipinos converted to Christianity.  However, Spanish influence in the Cordillera Central was extremely limited.

In 1898, the First Philippine Republic declared independence from Spain. That same year, the end Spanish-American War led to the Philippines being ceded by Spain to the United States. The Philippine-American War lasted until 1902, when the independence movement was suppressed. In 1935, the Philippines was granted a Commonwealth status and a pathway to independence was established. The United States recognized the Philippines as independent on July 4, 1946.

The Cordillera Central of Northern Luzon

Most of the objects in this exhibit come from peoples who live in the massive mountain range, known as the Cordillera Central, on the island of Luzon. Although there are many tribal groups and many languages spoken in the mountains, all are linked by a deep connection to the land and a common history of repelling invaders.

The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, were built into the mountainsides over 2,000 years ago and have been in use ever since. These complex structures are the center of life for the peoples of the mountains. Many of the baskets you see are used to collect, process, and store the rice, and other crops and small prey, grown or collected on the ancient terraces.

Cultural Groups of the Cordillera Central

There are many distinct cultures in the Cordillera Central, each with a rich history and traditions. Some of these groups include Ifugao, Kalinga, Bontoc, Tinguian, Ibaloi, Kankanay, Isneg, Gaddang, and Illongot.

Most objects in this exhibit are from three of these groups:


The Ifugao inhabit the southern part of the Cordillera Central in Ifugao Province.The Ifugao are considered among oldest residents of the Cordillera, associated with the Indonesian migrations, dating back to  800-500 BC. They built the magnificent Banaue Rice Terraces, a remarkable feat of engineering and agro-ecology. They resisted Spanish colonialism and retained a high degree of cultural autonomy into the modern era.   Ifugao textiles are celebrated for their vivid color and intricate designs. Expert carvers, and basket makers, the Ifugao preserve a rich traditional ritual heritage.


Many different ethnolinguistic  groups come under the “Kalinga” umbrella within Kalinga province. Some primarily cultivate root crops, others rely on wet rice culture, and still others pursue dry rice cultivation. Like the Ifugao, the Kalinga have a long and proud history of building complex rice terraces. They long resisted Spanish colonial control and maintained significant cultural independence. Kalinga are recognized for their skills in pottery, basketry, weaving, and metallurgy.


The Bontoc live on the banks of the upper Chico River in the Central Mountain Province. They formerly practiced head-hunting and had distinctive body tattoos. Present-day Bontoc are a peaceful agricultural people who have, by choice, retained many aspects of traditional culture despite frequent contacts with other groups.



Basket Materials

While there are may diverse vines and plant materials available to local basket makers, the majority of baskets featured in this exhibition are made from a combination of bamboo and rattan.

Rattan:  Unlike bamboo, rattan vines are continuously solid, with only minimal joints along their length, producing a strong, pliable material for basket making. The vines attach themselves to trees, growing upwards towards the light in tropical forests, often nearly smothering the host plant. Vines are soaked, then peeled away from the core in preparation for plaiting. The more solid, pithy core can be used in furniture making.

Bamboo:  Thinner than rattan, bamboo stalks are hollow and regularly jointed. Bamboo is stripped and plaited into baskets; made into staves for more solid basket designs; and fashioned into supporting frames at the foot and edges of baskets.

Basket Techniques

Plaiting:  Weaving two elements over and under each other at a right angle.

Twining:  Two or more flexible weaving elements ("weavers") cross each other as they weave encircle stiffer radial spokes (at the start of a basket structure).

Coiling:  Using grasses or rushes, the weaver coils and then binds a single core strand in a spiral, moving upwards and outwards, being careful to secure the strands.

Who Makes Baskets?

Both Ifugao men and women make baskets; while among the Kalinga, men are the principal basket-makers.


Binding Culture: Living Landscapes and Material Life in Northern Luzon, Philippines

Curator:  Dr. Ellen Schattschneider (Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University) 
Co-Curator and Exhibit Design:  Lynn Bethke
Curatorial Consultant:  Roy Hamilton (Fowler Museum at UCLA)
Exhibit Installation:  Barbara Hammersburg (’15), Sarah Bair (’16), Nicolas Crosby, and Lynn Bethke
Museum Director:  Dr. Mark Auslander

Special thanks to Lars Krutak, the Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), CWU Disability Services and CWU CentralAccess.

Next Section: To Bind Together

Exhibition Sections

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






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