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.

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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 

Human Journey

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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 www.hannah.ph.