Human Journey

The Vanishing Vakul, and the Changing Indigenous Ivatan Culture

National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee Hannah Reyes is studying and documenting the transitions to modernity of indigenous culture in Northern Philippines, which is home to a large number of indigenous groups. Improving access to roads, mainstream education, and media is changing their culture as the younger generations assimilate into modern culture. Reyes is creating a visual narrative of this transition, with focus on the old traditions that are surviving, what remains under broader social pressure, and the new forms emerging through the fusion of cultures.


I’m in the northernmost island of the Philippine archipelago after crossing the choppy seas separating the islands in a rough wooden cargo boat carrying vomiting women and passengers fiercely praying, a cow as my seatmate. Magencia is leading me from her stone house to the fields where she will harvest sweet potatoes, yams, and corn for our dinner. She’s singing songs in a language I can’t identify as Filipino. She walks slowly wearing her vakul, the headwear designed to protect Ivatans from the rain and the cold. The Ivatans live on the islands of Batanes. Time moves slow here, and in every home there are dreams of Manila. Batanes is an isolated province in the Philippines, and one of the most sparsely populated. It looks nothing like the rest of the archipelago, with its grass-covered rolling hills and stone houses in place of coconut trees and nipa huts. Today they are developing roads, getting access to cable television, and their idyllic stone homes are being replaced with tin. But the Ivatan culture still surfaces, with fishery schools requiring students to create dances about their fishing heritage, and vakuls hanging on posts for tourists to buy.

Magencia, or Nana Maggi, as we fondly call her, hangs her vakul on a tree. “The new generations don’t use vakuls anymore. They don’t want to. she tells us. “Because how are they going to use it in the office?” She chuckles. Later on I would find myself in a pageant in a university on Batanes’ mainland, and watch Ivatan students perform in rented dresses and heels to Ylvis’ “What Does the Fox Say.”

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Photo by Hannah Reyes

The woman with a purple hat tells me about her children in Kuwait, Korea and London. They’ve built her a newer and better house—a very pink one, adorned with stuffed animals from her son in Korea, and complete with a flat screen TV. She doesn’t need to use a vakul anymore. She used to wear one when she worked in the fields. She gazes off in the distance and tells me, “I miss my house of stone and straw. That was my home. I miss it.”

She lives in the same place. She misses home.

You can also follow our photo expedition on Instagram and on Facebook 

Hannah is a 23 year-old documentary and travel photographer who grew up in the Philippines. She is a National Geographic Young Explorer. Through photography she has found herself in the unlikeliest of places--following a sex worker in Manila, photographing children of the Cambodian circus, caught in the crossfire of shanty demolitions, and exploring the indigenous tattoo culture of Mindanao. She hopes to tell stories that are hopeful and thought provoking. You may visit her portfolio at
  • Byron Peralta

    I am from the Islands and have been advocating cultural resource management but I think it is a loosing battle. Am about to throw up the towel. I’ve realized the only constant in this world is change. Sad.

  • raf

    Ahhh thats my mom…thanks for sharing it luv u nanay.

  • Sydni

    Man. That is sad. Just sad. Just a weird culture

  • Sydni

    Why would someone do that???????

  • Jon

    Gorgeous shots! The man with the hat smoking a cigar, the children diving into the watering hole are really nice, and the end of the story is so touching. Even more so with her son seeing this and commenting.

  • makoy

    i went here to appreciate ivatan culture only to read “in every home there are dreams of Manila”.. seriously? i understand the message it is trying to impart — “She lives in the same place. She misses home.” — home was a thing of the past.. i’d rather see this article end with a cultural warrior proactively saving batanes from the lure of neoliberalism.. i’m sure there are people like that in batanes.. did the grantee care to stretch a leg to meet them? sad news indeed..

  • Hannah


    Yes, our guide actually went back to Batanes after having lived in Manila and he was the one who told us about how they are encouraged in school to aspire to go to Manila. We spoke with anthropologists, conservationists and people who knew more than we did about Batanes to help us contextualise.

    We met this talented Ivatan artist from Itbayat who put this in perspective. He was being asked to take away the modern things from his paintings of Batanes life, such as the mickey mouse logo from an Ivatan child he painted, or the electricity outlets in homes. And he said no. The truth is their culture is modernizing and it is modernizing quickly. We are telling the story along with him.

    This project is not about the ‘cultural warrior proactively saving batanes from the lure of neoliberalism.’ It’s about the Ivatans.


  • Jaime Balanay

    I am from the Island of Batanes, i recently noticed the changes.. if you will go into the depths of Batanes you will see the unseen, houses now built in modern structures…which saddened my return…the feeling of’s old magic…i just missed it…that’s the price of modernization – but there’s always a way to keep and restore things – via education – impart to the Ivatan people / future generation the importance of – Heritage. Can we be modern yet keeping our indigenous tradition?

  • Lorena

    Raf this maybe too late for you. To other Ivatans who left Batanes for better life, please do not let your siblings tear down the old traditional house you use to live in, let us work together find ways to ask the government to give us a place where we can built our new houses.

  • Misalina Carmelita Elesterio Caballero Cervillon

    Ohhh thanks…Magencia is my mom. But am sad she is not in the picture

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