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The Kankana-ey People of the Cordilleras

Uncover the vibrant culture, enduring traditions, and profound heritage of the Kankana-ey people of the Cordilleras.

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Uncover the vibrant culture, enduring traditions, and profound heritage of the Kankana-ey people of the Cordilleras. Dive deep into their rich legacy and connection to the land.

The Kankana-ey people, residing in the highlands of the Cordilleras in the Northern Philippines, are a testament to a community rich in ancient traditions, cultural heritage, and a profound connection to their land. Known for their resilience, agricultural prowess, and intricate weaving, they continue to uphold their distinctive way of life amidst the rapid changes of the modern world. Often, the Kankana-ey are mistakenly referred to as "The Igorot," a term that actually encompasses various indigenous groups in the region, including the Kankana-ey themselves. The names "Kankanay" or "Kankanaey" are also used, reflecting the diverse dialects and subgroups within this ethnolinguistic community.

This article sets out to explore the Kankana-ey culture in depth, touching upon their language, traditional beliefs, environmental stewardship, and their impact on contemporary society. Through this exploration, we aim to illuminate the importance of preserving Kankana-ey traditions and the invaluable lessons they offer in sustainability, community resilience, and cultural diversity. Join us as we delve into the history, culture, and spirit of the Kankana-ey people of the Cordilleras, a group whose legacy continues to significantly enrich the Philippine cultural landscape.

Introduction to the Kankana-ey People

The Kankana-ey people, also known as Kankanay, Kankanai, or Kankana-i, form a vibrant cultural community primarily residing in Benguet and Mountain Province within the Cordillera Administrative Region of the Northern Philippines. The term "Kankanaey" has no definite etymological derivation but is widely recognized as representing their culture and identity.

As of 2002, the Kankanaey population totaled 321,329, with concentrations in Benguet and Mountain Province. In Benguet, they comprise approximately 43% of the province's total population, while in Mountain Province, they represent around 52%. Additionally, smaller Kankanaey communities are dispersed throughout the Philippine archipelago, with notable populations in other regions such as the Cordillera, Ilocos, Central Luzon, Bicol, Visayas, and Mindanao.

The Kankanaey are divided into two main groups: the northern Kankanaey and the southern Kankanaey. The northern group predominantly resides in the southwestern part of Mountain Province, encompassing municipalities like Besao, Sagada, Tadian, Bauko, and Sabangan. Meanwhile, the southern Kankanaey are primarily found in municipalities such as Mankayan, Bakun, Kibungan, Buguias, and the upper half of Kapangan in Benguet. To distinguish them from other indigenous groups in Benguet, such as the Benguet Ibaloy, they may also be referred to as Benguet Kankanaey or "i-Benget."

Young Kankana-ey dancer finds joy in the gangsa's beat.

The Kankana-ey people are part of the larger Igorot collective, which comprises several indigenous ethnic groups in the Cordillera region of the Northern Philippines. The Igorot share common cultural traits, such as living in mountainous areas, practicing terrace farming, and having similar social structures and spiritual beliefs.

This rich tapestry of Kankana-ey culture encompasses a deep reverence for ancestral lands, a commitment to community well-being, and a legacy of oral literature, music, and dance. Through their enduring traditions and practices, the Kankana-ey people continue to contribute to the diverse cultural landscape of the Philippines.

Majestic Sagada enveloped in dawn's first light, from Marlboro Hills Uploader: Daryl Pangod


The Kankana-ey community, with its rich history and vibrant culture, occupies a significant portion of the Cordilleras. They predominantly reside in the mountainous areas of Northern Luzon, especially in the provinces of Benguet, Mountain Province, and parts of Ifugao, Abra, and Northern Nueva Vizcaya. The population distribution between the Northern and Southern Kankana-ey varies, with distinct linguistic, cultural, and social practices distinguishing the two groups.

Sagada, Mountain Province

Estimates of the Kankana-ey population vary due to the challenges of accurately counting individuals in remote and rugged terrains. However, they are recognized as one of the larger indigenous groups within the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR). The Kankana-ey, along with other Igorot communities, play a crucial role in the cultural and social landscape of the region, contributing to its diversity and richness.

In recent years, there has been a noticeable migration pattern, with some Kankana-ey moving to urban centers within the Philippines and abroad, seeking education and employment opportunities. Despite this, many Kankana-ey remain closely tied to their ancestral lands, maintaining their traditional practices and way of life. This demographic shift poses both challenges and opportunities for the Kankana-ey people, as they navigate the balance between preserving their cultural identity and adapting to modern influences.

The Kankana-ey's strong sense of community and their traditional knowledge, especially in agriculture and environmental stewardship, continue to be vital not only for their survival but also for the sustainability of the region. As stewards of the Cordilleras, their practices and beliefs play a critical role in the conservation of the region's biodiversity and natural resources.

Buli-e, showcased at the 1904 Saint Louis Fair, working on his pipe Credit: Jessie Tarbox Beals.

History of the Kankana-ey People

Origins and Settlements

The Kankana-ey people, indigenous to the Northern Luzon region of the Philippines, particularly Benguet, Mountain Province, and parts of Ilocos Sur, possess a rich history deeply intertwined with their mountainous surroundings. They are believed to be descendants of the original inhabitants of the Philippines who settled in the Cordillera region thousands of years ago. Isolated by rugged terrain from lowland communities, they developed a unique way of life, specializing in high-altitude agriculture. Their mastery of terracing vast mountainsides for rice and vegetable cultivation demonstrates advanced understanding of sustainable farming and environmental management.

Resistance and Adaptation

Throughout history, the Kankana-ey, akin to other Igorot tribes, demonstrated remarkable resilience against external colonization attempts. Their mountainous terrain served as a natural fortress during the Spanish colonial era, safeguarding their autonomy. Despite this isolation, they engaged in trade with lowlanders, displaying adaptability. American colonization introduced formal education and Christianity, which influenced Kankana-ey society and culture. Despite changes, they preserved a strong sense of identity and retained many traditional customs and beliefs.

Division and Migration

Over time, the Kankana-ey community divided into northern and southern branches, each with its own unique identity and territory. The migration of ancestors to the Cordillera highlands was driven by various factors, including territorial disputes and environmental preferences. The allure of the salubrious climate and abundant natural resources of the highlands provided a welcoming environment for settlement.

Spanish Exploration and Influence

In the late 16th century, Spanish explorers ventured into the Cordilleras in search of gold, bringing European influence to the region. Expeditions led by prominent commanders yielded significant amounts of gold, sparking subsequent incursions into Kankana-ey territory. While direct Spanish control was limited, formal governance was established in the 19th century through the establishment of military districts like the comandancia de Lepanto.

Integration and Transformation

The influx of Spanish settlers and Filipino lowlanders into Kankana-ey territories facilitated cultural exchange and integration into the colonial economy. Spanish authorities exploited natural resources such as copper mines in Mankayan, compelling locals to engage in cash crop cultivation. Infrastructure development, including the construction of access roads from the Ilocos region, facilitated greater interaction between the highlands and lowlands, ushering in an era of Christianization and economic modernization.

American Occupation and Post-War Reconstruction

The American occupation of the Philippines in the early 20th century brought further changes to Kankana-ey society. American prospectors, drawn by rumors of gold in the Cordilleras, established mining operations that transformed the local economy. Post-war reconstruction efforts witnessed the emergence of new political alliances, including the formation of the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) in 1987, aimed at achieving regional autonomy for indigenous peoples.

Contemporary Challenges and Resilience

In modern times, the Kankana-ey face challenges related to modernization, environmental degradation, and cultural assimilation. Land rights, the impact of mining and deforestation, and cultural preservation are pressing concerns. Efforts to safeguard Kankana-ey culture include documenting and teaching their language, traditions, and practices. Cultural festivals, indigenous knowledge education, and sustainable tourism promotion aim to celebrate and transmit Kankana-ey heritage to future generations.

The history of the Kankana-ey people is a testament to their resilience, ingenuity, and profound connection to their land and culture. As they confront 21st-century challenges, their enduring spirit and collective commitment to heritage preservation continue to inspire.

Northern Kankana-ey: Tradition and Community

The Northern Kankana-ey, also simply known as Kankana-ey, inhabit the serene highlands of Sagada and Besao in the Mountain Province, extending their cultural presence into municipalities such as Tadian, Bauko, Sabangan, and parts of Ilocos Sur. They represent a vibrant linguistic and cultural group deeply connected to their ancestral lands, where rituals and practices passed down through generations serve as a testament to their rich heritage and spiritual beliefs.

Northern Kankana-ey Igorot of Applai Tribe, Besao in traditional attire Photo: Clinton Aniversario

Social Structure and Kinship

Central to the Northern Kankana-ey community is the sinba-ey, a basic family unit, which collectively forms the dap-ay/ebgan, serving both as a communal living space and the cornerstone of their societal organization. Their society is distinctly divided into two classes: the kadangyan, or the affluent, who often inherit their status through lineage or strategic marriage, and the kado, those with fewer resources. This class division underscores the importance of kinship and social hierarchy within their culture.

Spiritual Beliefs and Rituals

The Northern Kankana-ey's world is imbued with a rich tapestry of supernatural beliefs, where nature spirits (anito) and ancestral souls play a pivotal role in daily life. Their spiritual practice includes a series of intricate rituals that mark life's significant milestones - from courtship and marriage to death and burial. These rituals not only reinforce community bonds but also maintain the harmony between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Material Culture and Economy

Their material culture is diverse and distinctive, evident in their architectural designs and traditional attire. The Northern Kankana-ey dwellings include four main types of houses: the two-story innagamang, binang-iyan, tinokbob, and the elevated tinabla. Additionally, structures such as granaries (agamang), male clubhouses (dap-ay or abong), and female dormitories (ebgan) serve essential functions within their community.

In terms of clothing, men wear rectangular woven cloths wrapped around their waist (wanes), while women don native woven skirts (pingay or tapis) secured by thick belts (bagket). Their households are furnished with basic items like bangkito/tokdowan, po-ok (small storage box), clay pots, and sokong (carved bowl). Baskets woven from rattan, bamboo, or anes are utilized for various purposes, showcasing their craftsmanship.

Weaponry and tools hold practical significance in their livelihood. The Northern Kankana-ey traditionally wielded weapons like the bolo (gamig), axe (wasay), and spear (balbeg), repurposed for utilitarian tasks. Tools such as the sagad (harrow), alado (plow dragged by carabao), sinowan, sanggap, and kagitgit facilitate efficient agricultural practices. Additionally, prized possessions include Chinese jars (gosi) and copper gongs (gangsa).

Governance and Community Life

Economically, the Northern Kankana-ey engage in barter, agriculture (particularly on terraces), camote/sweet potato farming, swidden farming, hunting, fishing, and handicrafts. Their political structure revolves around the dap-ay/abong, serving as the focal point for political, religious, and social activities. Led by the council of elders, known as the Amam-a, these seasoned individuals play a pivotal role in decision-making and governance, guided by their expertise in customary law and a deep reverence for ancestral and nature spirits.

The Southern Kankana-ey (i-Benget)

Southern Kankana-ey: Deep-Rooted Traditions and Modernity

The Southern Kankana-ey, also known as "i-Benget," primarily inhabit Benguet, specifically in the municipalities of Bakun, Kibungan, Mankayan, and Buguias. Their society, organized around nuclear families, showcases a clear division based on land ownership, distinguishing the landowning baknang from the land-serving abiteg.

Social Structure and Kinship

They are predominantly a nuclear family type (sinbe-ey, buma-ey, or sinpangabong), which are either patri-local or matri-local due to their bilateral kinship, composed of the husband, wife, and their children. The kinship group of the Southern Kankana-eys consists of his descent group and, once he is married, his affinal kinsmen. Their society is divided into two social classes based primarily on the ownership of land: The rich (baknang) and the poor (abiteg or kodo). The baknang are the primary landowners to whom the abiteg render their services to. The Mankayan Kankana-eys, however, have no clear distinction between the baknang and the abiteg and all have equal access to resources such as the copper and gold mines.

Spiritual Beliefs and Practices

Contrary to common assumptions, Southern Kankana-ey spirituality doesn't involve idolatry. Instead, it's centered around a hierarchy of deities, with a significant emphasis on ancestral and nature spirits, guiding their rituals and daily lives. They believe in the existence of deities, the highest among which is Kabunian of the Skyworld whom they believe created all things. They also believe in the spirits of ancestors (ap-apo or kakkading), and the earth spirits they call anito. They are very superstitious and believe that performing rituals and ceremonies help deter misfortunes and calamities. Some of these rituals are pedit (to bring good luck to newlyweds), pasang (cure sterility and sleeping sickness, particularly drowsiness), and pakde (cleanse the community from death-causing evil spirits).

Marriage Customs

The Southern Kankana-ey have a long process for courtship and marriage which starts when the man makes his intentions of marrying the woman known to her. Next is the sabangan, when the couple makes their wish to marry known to their family. The man offers firewood to the father of the woman, while the woman offers firewood to the man's father. The parents then talk about the terms of the marriage, including the bride price to be paid by the man's family. On the day of the marriage, the relatives of both parties offer gifts to the couple, and a pig is butchered to have its bile inspected for omens which would show if they should go on with the wedding. The wedding day for the Southern Kankana-eys is an occasion for merrymaking and usually lasts until the next day. Though married, the bride and groom are not allowed to consummate their marriage and must remain separated until such a time that they move to their own separate home.

Architectural Styles and Economic Activities

Their architecture varies from practical living spaces to ceremonial sites, reflecting a balance between tradition and environmental adaptation. Men traditionally wear a loincloth (wanes) around the waist and between the legs which is tightened at the back. Both ends hang loose at the front and back to provide additional cover. Men also wear a woven blanket for an upper garment and sometimes a headband, usually colored red like the wanes. The women, on the other hand, wear a tapis, a skirt wrapped around to cover from the waist to the knees held together by a belt (bagket) or tucked in the upper edges usually color white with occasional dark blue color. As adornments, both men and women wear bead leglets, copper or shell earrings, and beads of copper coin. They also sport tattoos which serve as body ornaments and "garments".

Southern Kankana-eys are economically involved in hunting and foraging (their chief livelihood), wet rice and swidden farming, fishing, animal domestication, trade, mining, weaving, and pottery in their day-to-day activities to meet their needs. Gold and copper mining are abundant in Mankayan. Ore veins are excavated, then crushed using a large flat stone (gai-dan). The gold is separated using a water trough (sabak and dayasan), then melted into gold cakes.

Sophia, a charming Igorota, elegantly clad in Guinzadan Weaving Terno Dress and Blazer Photo: Allen Dulawan

Governance and Community Life

The leadership structure is largely based on land ownership, thus the more well-off control the community's resources. The village elders (lallakay/dakay or amam-a) who act as arbiters and jurors have the duty to settlements between conflicting members of the community, facilitate discussion among the villagers concerning the welfare of the community, and lead in the observance of rituals. They also practice trial by ordeal. Native priests (mansip-ok, manbunong, and mankotom) supervise rituals, read omens, heal the sick, and remember genealogies.

Musical instruments include the tubular drum (solibao), brass or copper gongs (gangsa), Jew's harp (piwpiw), nose flute (kalaleng), and a bamboo-wood guitar (agaldang).

Despite socio-cultural changes due to a combination of factors such as changes in the local government system during the Spanish era, the introduction of Christianity, the education system, and encounters with different ways of life through trade and commerce, efforts are made to preserve their unique traditions amidst globalization and external influences, highlighting their resilience and adaptability.

Cultural Foundations: Language and Identity

The diversity within the Kankana-ey language extends beyond mere vocabulary; it encompasses variations in intonation and pronunciation that reflect regional distinctions and cultural nuances. Within the Kankana-ey community, there are distinctions between hard-speaking and soft-speaking dialects, each with its own unique characteristics and origins.

In intonation, the hard-speaking Kankanaeys or the Northern Kankana-eys, primarily from locales like Sagada and Besao and surrounding areas, employ a pronounced intonation in their speech, setting them apart from their soft-speaking counterparts found in other regions. These differences manifest in various words and expressions, with subtle variations in pronunciation and usage.

For instance, a hard-speaking Kankanaey may refer to a pig as "otik" or "beteg," while a soft-speaking Kankanaey, or the Southern Kankana-ey, may use "busaang" or "beteg." Similarly, variations exist in common terms such as "egay" or "aga," "maid" or "maga," reflecting the linguistic diversity within the Kankana-ey community.

It is also important to note that within each municipality or tribe, there can be diverse dialects. For example, the Applai tribe of Sagada and Besao may share the same dialect but have different styles of speaking, influenced by local customs, traditions, and historical factors.

Despite these regional and local variations, the underlying essence of the Kankana-ey language remains a unifying force, bridging communities and preserving cultural heritage. Efforts to preserve and revitalize the Kankana-ey language encompass not only standardization but also acknowledgment of regional dialects and linguistic diversity. In celebrating these linguistic variations, the Kankana-ey people reaffirm their cultural identity and resilience in the face of modern challenges.

Kankana-ey Culture: Traditional Practices and Spiritual Beliefs

Rituals and Ceremonies

The Kankana-ey have a rich tapestry of rituals and ceremonies integral to their cultural identity. These traditions are not only a window into their spiritual world but also serve as a cornerstone for community bonding and ancestral reverence.

Central to the Kankana-ey calendar are various rituals that mark significant life events and seasons. Among these, the 'Peshit' or 'Begnas' stands out, a complex ritual conducted to ensure a bountiful harvest. This ceremony involves a series of offerings and sacrifices to appease the ancestral spirits and deities believed to preside over agricultural prosperity. The 'Kanyaw' or 'Canao', on the other hand, is a grand feast celebrating milestones like successful headhunts in the past, victories in battles, peace pacts, and bountiful harvests. These gatherings are characterized by the communal sharing of meat, typically from pigs or carabaos sacrificed during the event, symbolizing prosperity and unity among community members.

The significance of these rituals extends beyond mere tradition; they are vital in reinforcing community bonds and honoring ancestors. Through these ceremonies, the Kankana-ey transmit essential cultural values and historical narratives from one generation to the next, ensuring the continuity of their rich heritage. Moreover, these gatherings serve as a platform for social interaction, conflict resolution, and reinforcing family ties, thus playing a crucial role in maintaining the social fabric of the society.

Marriage and Kinship

Marriage among the Kankana-ey is not merely a union between two individuals but a complex process involving intricate customs and the merging of extensive kinship networks. One of the hallmark traditions is the prolonged engagement period that allows both families to strengthen bonds, exchange goods, and negotiate dowries. This period also involves the performance of various rites to seek the blessings of the ancestors and ensure the couple's prosperous future.

Kinship networks in Kankana-ey society are of paramount importance. They extend beyond blood relations to include spiritual kinship, often established through shared rituals and mutual obligations. These networks provide a support system that permeates all aspects of life, including social welfare, conflict resolution, and collective labor. The intricate web of kinship ties strengthens community cohesion, ensuring mutual support and cooperation among members.

Photo: Clinton Aniversario

Agricultural Practices

Agriculture is the lifeblood of the Kankana-ey community, with traditional farming techniques and rituals deeply embedded in their way of life. Practices such as 'uma' (swidden farming) and 'payew' (rice terraces farming) are not only sustainable farming methods but also a testament to their deep connection with the land. These practices are complemented by a series of agricultural rituals aimed at ensuring the fertility of the soil and protection of the crops from pests and natural calamities.

The 'Begnas' festival is a prominent example, conducted at key agricultural milestones such as planting and harvesting. It reflects the community's recognition of the spiritual dimensions of agriculture, where the land, crops, and the environment are considered sacred. Through these rituals, the Kankana-ey express gratitude to the deities and ancestral spirits for their blessings, reinforcing their respect and stewardship for the land.

The Kankana-ey's agricultural practices are a living example of how traditional knowledge and rituals can contribute to sustainable and harmonious living with nature. Their deep-rooted connection to the land goes beyond mere cultivation; it is an embodiment of their cultural identity and spirituality.

Ancestor Worship and Nature Spirits

The Kankana-ey deeply intertwine their spiritual beliefs and practices with daily life, emphasizing a profound connection to their ancestors and the natural world. Central to their spirituality is the veneration of ancestral spirits, called "anito", and nature deities, which govern various aspects of life and the environment. These beliefs underscore the community's rituals, guiding their interactions with both the living and the non-living.

Ancestral worship among the Kankana-ey involves various rituals and offerings to honor deceased relatives, believed to provide guidance and protection to their living descendants. Homes often contain altars or dedicated spaces where offerings of food, drink, and betel nut are regularly made. These practices not only connect the community with their forebears but also serve as a reminder of their lineage and the values passed down through generations.

Various ritual specialists, known as "men-sip-ok", "men-agas", "men-tala", "men-sapo", etc., play a crucial role in mediating between the physical and spiritual worlds, conducting ceremonies to invoke blessings, heal the sick, and guide the community through crises.

Festivals and Religious Observances

Festivals and religious observances hold a central place in Kankana-ey culture, marking the passage of seasons, celebrating bountiful harvests, and honoring spiritual beings. One of the most significant festivals is the "begnas", an agricultural festival that marks key farming activities, from planting to harvest. Rooted in their deep connection to the land, the begnas involves rituals to appease the spirits, ensuring a successful crop. Religious observances often coincide with these festivals, incorporating Christian elements with indigenous practices, reflecting the syncretism prevalent in many Kankana-ey communities.

The iconic Hanging Coffins of Sagada, suspended in time Photo: Janry Atienza

Funerary Practices

Funerary practices among the Kankana-ey are deeply symbolic, reflecting beliefs in the afterlife and the importance of sending off the deceased with honor and respect. These practices involve elaborate rituals that may span several days, including chanting, offerings, and feasting, aimed at ensuring the soul's safe passage to the ancestral realm. Through these rites, the Kankana-ey express their worldview, where life and death are part of a cyclical process, and the ancestors continue to play an active role in the lives of the living.

Among the notable funerary practices of the Kankana-ey people of Sagada, Mountain Province, are the hanging coffins. These coffins, believed to be centuries old though exact dates remain uncertain due to a lack of archaeological study, are placed beneath natural overhangs, either on rock shelves or projecting beams slotted into cliff-side holes. The coffins, crafted in a small size to accommodate the deceased in a fetal position, adhere to the belief that departing souls should leave the world as they entered it.

Hanging coffins are not a widespread practice among the Kankana-ey; they are reserved for esteemed community leaders who have demonstrated exceptional merit, wisdom, and leadership through their actions and traditional rituals. The elevation of the coffins reflects the social status of the deceased, with most interred individuals being distinguished members of the amam-a, the council of male elders in the traditional dap-ay (the communal men's dormitory and civic center of the village). While hanging coffins garner attention, the more common burial custom of the Kankana-ey involves placing coffins in limestone caves, their location similarly reflecting the status of the deceased and the cause of death.

All of these burial customs are accompanied by specific pre-interment rituals known as the sangadil. The Kankana-ey believe that interring the dead in caves or cliffs allows their spirits (anito) to roam and continue protecting the living.

The Northern Kankana-ey honor their departed by observing vigil and performing rituals such as sangbo (offering of 2 pigs and 3 chickens), baya-o (singing of a dirge by three men), menbaya-o (elegy), and sedey (offering of a pig). The funeral ritual culminates with dedeg (song of the dead), followed by the sons and grandsons carrying the body to its final resting place.

In contrast, the funeral ritual of the Southern Kankana-ey lasts up to ten days, during which the family chants dirges, holds vigils, and sacrifices a pig daily. Five days after the burial, participants bathe in a river together, butcher a chicken, and offer prayers for the soul of the departed.

Religious Beliefs of the Kankanaey People

The religious beliefs of the Kankana-ey people, indigenous to the northern regions of the Philippines, are deeply rooted in animism and ancestral worship. This complex belief system reflects their profound connection to the natural world, the spiritual realm, and their ancestors. It is characterized by a rich tapestry of deities, spirits, and rituals that govern their daily lives, agricultural practices, and community interactions.

Animism and the Spiritual World

At the core of Kankana-ey spirituality is animism, the belief that non-human entities, including animals, plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena, possess a spiritual essence. The Kankana-ey world is inhabited by a multitude of spirits known as "anito," which can influence health, success, and fortune. These spirits are believed to reside in various elements of nature, such as rivers, mountains, trees, and rocks, making the natural landscape a sacred space imbued with spiritual significance.

Deities and Ancestral Spirits

The Kankana-ey pantheon includes a hierarchy of deities who preside over aspects of nature and human endeavors. Among these is Kabunian, a supreme deity often associated with the sky and creator of all things. Alongside these deities are other immortals such as:

  • Lumawig: The supreme deity, creator of the universe, and preserver of life.
  • Bugan: Married to Lumawig.
  • Bangan: The goddess of romance; a daughter of Bugan and Lumawig.
  • Obban: The goddess of reproduction; a daughter of Bugan and Lumawig.
  • Kabigat: One of the deities who contact mankind through spirits called anito and their ancestral spirits.
  • Balitok: One of the deities who contact mankind through spirits called anito and their ancestral spirits.
  • Wigan: One of the deities who contact mankind through spirits called anito and their ancestral spirits.
  • Timugan: Two brothers who took their sankah (handspades) and kayabang (baskets) and dug a hole into the lower world, Aduongan; interrupted by the deity Masaken; one of the two agreed to marry one of Masaken's daughters, but they both went back to earth when they found that the people of Aduongan were cannibals.
  • Masaken: Ruler of the underworld who interrupted the Timugan brothers.

These deities, along with ancestral spirits, play a crucial role in the daily life of the Kankana-ey. Ancestral spirits, or "ap-apo," are revered and consulted for guidance, protection, and blessings. They are believed to mediate between the living and the divine, ensuring the community's welfare and prosperity.

Rituals and Offerings

Rituals are an integral aspect of Kankana-ey religious practice, serving as a means of communication with the spiritual realm. These rituals involve various offerings, prayers, and sacrifices to appease, honor, or seek favor from the spirits and deities. One of the most significant rituals is the "cañao," a communal feast that involves animal sacrifice, traditional music and dance, and the sharing of food and drink. The cañao is performed for various purposes, including healing, celebration of bountiful harvests, and marking important life events.

The Role of Mambunong

The "mambunong" or "mambunung," a traditional priest or shaman, plays a pivotal role in Kankana-ey spirituality. The mambunong possesses extensive knowledge of rituals, oral traditions, and the spiritual world, acting as a mediator between the community and the supernatural. They are responsible for conducting rituals, divining the will of the spirits, and ensuring that proper customs are followed to maintain harmony between the spiritual and earthly realms.

Adaptation and Syncretism

While traditional beliefs remain strong, the Kankana-ey's religious landscape has also been influenced by external factors, including Christianity brought by Spanish colonizers and later missionaries. This has led to a degree of syncretism, where Christian practices and beliefs are integrated with indigenous spirituality. Despite these influences, the Kankana-ey continue to maintain a distinct spiritual identity, adapting their ancestral practices to contemporary contexts while preserving the essence of their belief system.

The religious beliefs of the Kankana-ey people offer a window into their worldview, highlighting the interconnectedness of community, nature, and the spiritual realm. These beliefs not only guide their daily lives but also embody their rich cultural heritage and resilience in preserving their identity amidst changing times.

Culinary Traditions: Food and Social Gatherings

Traditional Dishes and Ingredients

Kankana-ey cuisine reflects the region's cultural heritage, blending indigenous flavors with influences from neighboring communities. Staple dishes are simple yet hearty, providing sustenance in the rugged terrain of the Cordillera mountains.

Pinikpikan with etag: A unique taste of Igorot culinary tradition Photo: Crizaldy P. Pascua

Kankana-ey cuisine features iconic dishes like pinikpikan, a chicken dish prepared by beating the bird with a stick before cooking, resulting in tender meat with a distinct flavor. Other staples include etag (smoked pork) and pinuneg (blood sausage). These dishes are often enjoyed with rice, the foundation of every meal.

Food preparation and consumption hold deep cultural significance, with cooking considered a communal activity. Families gather to prepare meals using traditional methods passed down through generations. Ingredients are locally sourced, emphasizing freshness and seasonality. Shared meals foster kinship and camaraderie.

Etag, the enduring smoked meat of Igorot culture.

Social Significance of Food

Food plays a central role in forging social bonds within the Kankana-ey community. Shared meals bring families together, providing opportunities to exchange stories and strengthen familial ties. Community celebrations feature feasts with traditional dishes served to honor guests.

In traditional ceremonies and gatherings, food holds symbolic importance. Weddings, births, and funerals are marked by elaborate feasts, with special dishes symbolizing blessings and prosperity. Ingredients like rice and meat convey wishes for abundance and good fortune.

Kankana-ey cuisine preserves cultural heritage and fosters social cohesion. Through traditional dishes and communal gatherings, the Kankana-ey celebrate culinary traditions, passing down recipes and techniques to future generations.

The culinary tradition also includes "watwat," a communal meal enjoyed not only by the Kankana-ey but also by the Igorot community in general. This shared dining experience strengthens bonds within the community, emphasizing the importance of unity and cooperation in daily life.

Wet rice agriculture is the main economic activity of the Northern Kankanaey, with fields cultivated either once or twice a year depending on water availability. Varieties like topeng and ginolot are planted and harvested at different times, ensuring a steady food supply. Alongside rice, camote farming provides additional sustenance, with various delicacies like makimpit and boko adding diversity to the diet. Squash, cucumber, and other crops complement the agricultural landscape.

In contrast, the Southern Kankana-ey rely heavily on hunting and foraging, supplementing their diet with wild animal meat, roots, honey, and fruits. While they also engage in wet rice agriculture, varieties like kintoman and saranay contribute to their culinary traditions. Additionally, domesticated animals like pigs, chickens, and dogs serve as sources of food, with dishes like pinuneg showcasing their culinary creativity.

The culinary practices of the Kankana-ey, whether in the north or south, reflect a deep connection to the land and a commitment to preserving cultural heritage through food.

Photo: Clinton Aniversario

Architecture and Housing

Traditional Houses and Construction

The architecture of the Kankana-ey people is a testament to their ingenuity and adaptability, designed to thrive in the rugged terrain of the Cordillera mountains. Crafted from locally sourced materials, these traditional dwellings serve as both shelter and cultural symbols for the community.

Among the Northern Kankana-eys, a variety of house types can be found, including the innagamang (two-story house), binang-iyan (box-like compartment on four posts), tinokbob (elevated house), and tinabla (another type of elevated house). Each structure is meticulously constructed to withstand the challenges of the environment, with features like elevated floors and flexible walls made from bamboo or rattan. These houses are complemented by essential buildings such as granaries (agamang), male clubhouses (dap-ay or abong), and female dormitories (ebgan), each serving a vital function within the community.

In the Southern Kankana-eys' communities, different architectural styles prevail, such as the binang-iyan (box-like compartment on four posts), apa (temporary shelter), inalpa (temporary shelter), inalteb (house with gabled roof and shorter eaves), and allao (temporary shelter). These houses are adapted to the landscape, offering protection from the elements while reflecting the cultural identity of the inhabitants.

Tadian unites to refurbish cogon roof on Igorot binangi, preserving heritage Photo: LGU Tadian

Additionally, a notable architectural feature among the Igorots of the Western part of Mountain Province, including the Kankana-ey people, is the binangi or cogon house. This traditional A-type house, recorded during the Spanish Colonial Period, exemplifies meticulous engineering and craftsmanship. Constructed with a well-engineered three-story design, the binangi features a frame made of lumber and "runo" or tiger grass sticks, while its roof is thatched with cogon grass. Notably, the joints of this house are simply tied with "waka" or vine, with fittings bolted using wooden dowels or bamboo pegs, eschewing the use of nails and metal bolts.

A standard binangi typically stands about 20 feet tall, with a base measuring from 9x9 to 12x12 feet. The first storey serves as a space for women to weave cloth while children play nearby. The second storey functions as the living room and kitchen, while the third serves as a storage room for rice and legumes. This architectural marvel showcases the Kankana-ey people's mastery of traditional building techniques and their harmonious integration with the natural environment.

Building techniques are tailored to suit the mountainous terrain, with foundations deeply rooted in the earth and structures designed to withstand seismic activity. Inside, simple yet functional interiors feature basic furnishings like storage boxes (po-ok), clay pots, and woven baskets, showcasing the community's resourcefulness and craftsmanship.

Techniques in Building Houses Suited to Mountainous Terrain

Constructing homes in mountainous regions requires specialized techniques to overcome the challenges posed by steep slopes and inclement weather. Kankana-ey builders utilize stone foundations and interlocking wooden beams to ensure stability and resilience against earthquakes and typhoons. Additionally, the spatial layout of the houses is optimized for efficiency, with compact living spaces centered around communal fireplaces.

Modern Adaptations and Influences

While traditional building methods remain prevalent, modern influences have begun to shape Kankana-ey architecture in recent years. Improved access to building materials has led to the adoption of more durable and weather-resistant alternatives, such as metal roofing and concrete foundations.

Despite these changes, efforts to preserve traditional architectural elements remain strong within the community. Collaborative initiatives between cultural preservation organizations and local artisans seek to revive traditional building techniques and promote the use of indigenous materials. By blending traditional aesthetics with modern amenities, architects strive to create homes that honor the heritage of the Kankana-ey while meeting contemporary needs.

Community-led projects focused on documenting and cataloging traditional house designs play a vital role in preserving cultural identity and heritage. Through these efforts, the Kankana-ey people ensure that their architectural legacy endures, serving as a testament to their resilience and reverence for their land.

The Kankana-ey Textiles

The Kankana-ey people are custodians of a rich textile tradition that stands as a vibrant testament to their cultural heritage. Their textiles, known for their durability, intricate designs, and symbolic depth, are not just articles of clothing but are woven narratives of their history, beliefs, and identity.

Cultural tapestry: Traditional Guinzadan loom weaving in action Photo: Guinzadan Weaving

Weaving Techniques

The process of creating Kankana-ey textiles is a meticulous art that has been passed down through generations. Traditional weaving, known as impaot, impagod, or pinnagod, meaning "strapped," is typically undertaken by women after the farming season. Each end of the threads is tied to a tree or a house post, while the other end is tied to a wood bar strapped around the waist of the weaver. In this way, the weaver becomes part of the loom, constantly applying tension to the threads by pulling them back and forth with her waist. This technique allows for precise control over the weaving process.

The backstrap loom, a simple yet versatile apparatus, is the primary tool used in Kankana-ey weaving. This loom is notable for its portability and the direct control it affords the weaver over the tension of the weave, enabling the creation of complex patterns and textures. Weaving is a time-consuming process, with a single piece taking weeks or even months to complete, depending on the complexity of the design.

Symbols and Meanings in Textiles

Kankana-ey textiles are rich in motifs that carry deep symbolic meanings, reflecting the weavers' connection to their environment, spiritual beliefs, and community values. Common fabric designs among the northern Kankanaey include the tiktiko, matmata, sopo, kulibangbang, lineyeg, and pinagpagan.

  • Tiktiko: These are either zigzag patterns representing mountains and forests or crisscross patterns depicting rice mortars, symbolizing the Kankana-ey's connection to the natural landscape and agricultural practices.

  • Matmata: Diamond shapes within larger diamond shapes resembling either rice grains or eyes, signifying abundance, fertility, and protection.

  • Sopo: Representations of flora, resembling flowers, symbolizing growth, renewal, and the beauty of nature.

  • Kulibangbang: Depictions of fauna, resembling butterflies, representing transformation, freedom, and the ephemeral nature of life.


  • Lineyeg: Characterized by black and white lanes with interchanging middle designs, the Lineyeg motif symbolizes unity and interconnectedness within the community. The alternating black and white lanes may represent the cyclical nature of life, embodying concepts such as balance, harmony, and the continuous flow of time. The interchanging middle designs add complexity and depth to the motif, perhaps signifying the diversity and richness of experiences within the community.


  • Pinagpagan: This design typically consists of a central white-black motif flanked by black-red patterns on the left and right sides, symbolizing balance, harmony, and unity within the Kankana-ey community. The white-black motif often represents the duality of life, embodying concepts such as day and night, good and evil, or life and death. Meanwhile, the black-red patterns may symbolize vitality, energy, and the cyclical nature of existence. Together, these elements convey the interconnectedness of all things and the perpetual balance maintained within the natural and spiritual realms.

Threads of different colors are woven into the base threads to add patterns and other colors, creating a vibrant tapestry of meaning and symbolism. Through their textiles, the Kankana-ey weave a tapestry of their collective identity, encapsulating their interactions with the environment, their spiritual beliefs, and their social structures. Each piece is a tangible expression of their heritage, carrying with it the stories, skills, and spirit of the Kankana-ey people.

Arts, Music and Dance of the Kankana-ey

The Kankana-ey people cherish music and dance as essential facets of their cultural tapestry, intertwining storytelling, spiritual reverence, and communal bonding. These artistic expressions are deeply embedded in their traditions, reflecting their history, beliefs, and social cohesion.

Young Northern Kankana-ey Igorot with solibao drum, Besao tradition Photo: Clinton Aniversario

Instruments and Performances

Traditional Kankana-ey music features a diverse array of instruments, often crafted from materials found in their natural environment:

  • Gongs (Gangsa): Central to Kankana-ey music, gangsa are flat gongs played with mallets. Varying in size, they produce distinct tones, harmonizing to create intricate rhythms. Gangsa ensembles feature prominently in community festivities and ceremonies.

  • Bamboo Instruments: Paldong flutes, tongali nose flutes, and bamboo zithers like patangguk contribute to the melodic tapestry of Kankana-ey music. Each instrument carries its unique timbre and plays a specific role in serenades, narratives, and accompanying dances.

  • Drums (Solibao): Crafted from hollowed-out logs and animal skins, solibao drums provide rhythmic accompaniment during dances and serve as signals for communal gatherings.

These instruments accompany various occasions, from agricultural rites invoking fruitful harvests to life cycle events like weddings and funerals. Music and dance rituals connect the community with ancestral spirits, seeking guidance and blessings for harmonious coexistence with the cosmos.

Traditional Music

Kankana-ey music is characterized by its use of a variety of indigenous instruments, each contributing to the unique soundscapes that define their musical heritage. Central to their ensemble are the gongs (gangsa) and the drum (solibao), which provide the rhythmic and melodic foundation for many of their pieces. These instruments are often played during community celebrations, rituals, and dances, creating a communal experience that reinforces social bonds and cultural identity.

Bamboo instruments also play a significant role in Kankana-ey music. These include the paldong (flute), tongali (nose flute), patangguk (bamboo zither), and balingbing (bamboo buzzers), which produce a wide range of sounds from melodic tunes to rhythmic patterns. These instruments are used in various contexts, from solo performances that serenade or tell stories to ensemble pieces that accompany dances or ceremonial events.

Traditional Dances

Dance is another crucial aspect of Kankana-ey culture, intertwined with their music to tell stories, celebrate community life, and perform rituals. Kankana-ey dances often mimic the movements of animals, the rhythms of nature, and the activities of daily life, such as planting and harvesting. These dances are not only performed for entertainment but also serve as a medium for passing down stories, traditions, and values from one generation to the next.

The Kankana-ey people have several major dances that are integral to their cultural celebrations and social gatherings. Among these dances are the tayaw, pattong, and balangbang.

The tayaw is a community dance often performed at weddings, symbolizing unity and joyous celebration. While it is also danced by the Ibaloi people, the Kankana-ey's rendition carries its own distinct style and significance.

Pattong is another community dance originating from Mountain Province, with each municipality having its unique style. In modern times, balangbang has become synonymous with the term pattong, reflecting the evolution of this traditional dance form.

In addition to these major dances, the Kankana-ey people also perform other cultural dances, such as sakkuting, pinanyuan (wedding dance), and bogi-bogi (courtship dance). Each dance carries its own symbolism and cultural significance, serving as expressions of identity, tradition, and social cohesion within the community.

Photo: Genevieve Balance-Kupang

Weaving and Handicrafts

The Kankana-ey are also renowned for their exquisite weaving and handicrafts, which are not only practical items for daily use but also important cultural symbols. Traditional Kankana-ey textiles are known for their intricate patterns and vibrant colors, woven using techniques passed down through generations. These textiles often feature motifs that represent the natural environment, community life, and ancestral spirits, serving as a woven record of the Kankana-ey's cultural legacy.

In addition to textiles, Kankana-ey artisans create a variety of handicrafts, including baskets, wood carvings, and beadwork, each reflecting the artistic skills and aesthetic sensibilities of the maker. These items are often used in daily life, as well as in rituals and ceremonies, embodying the Kankana-ey's deep connection to their traditions and the natural world.

The Role of Music and Dance in Their Culture

Music and dance form integral components of Kankana-ey culture, fulfilling diverse functions beyond mere entertainment:

  • Storytelling and Oral Tradition: Through lyrical narratives and expressive movements, Kankana-ey music and dance transmit ancestral wisdom, recounting tales of heroes, legends, and historical epochs. They encapsulate the community's ethos and worldview, fostering intergenerational knowledge transfer.

  • Cultural Preservation: By upholding traditional musical forms and choreography, the Kankana-ey safeguard their heritage, fostering a sense of continuity and identity across generations. These art forms serve as repositories of cultural memory, reinforcing pride in ancestral roots.

  • Communal Unity and Social Cohesion: Participatory music and dance foster solidarity among community members, requiring cooperation and coordination in preparation and performance. They serve as platforms for social interaction, fostering camaraderie and reinforcing shared values.

  • Spiritual and Ritual Significance: Many dances and musical compositions hold sacred significance, invoking divine blessings, ancestral spirits, and cosmic forces. They accompany rites of passage, seasonal transitions, and communal celebrations, bridging the mundane and spiritual realms.

The music and dance of the Kankana-ey epitomize their rich cultural legacy, embodying reverence for tradition, communal solidarity, and spiritual interconnectedness. Beyond entertainment, these art forms serve as conduits for education, cohesion, and spiritual communion, ensuring the preservation and perpetuation of Kankana-ey heritage for posterity.

Kankana-ey People in Contemporary Society

The Kankana-ey continue to play a vital role in contemporary society, contributing significantly to environmental conservation, cultural heritage preservation, and the broader socio-economic landscape. Their deep-rooted traditions, sustainable living practices, and rich cultural heritage offer invaluable insights and models for resilience, community solidarity, and environmental stewardship in the modern world.

Environmental Conservation

One of the most significant contributions of the Kankana-ey people to contemporary society is their traditional knowledge and practices in environmental conservation. Rooted in their animistic beliefs and deep respect for nature, the Kankana-ey have long practiced sustainable agriculture, forest management, and land stewardship. Their system of rice terraces, an iconic landscape feature, is not only a marvel of ancient engineering but also a testament to their sustainable farming practices that have preserved the mountain ecosystem for centuries. These practices are increasingly recognized as crucial in the fight against environmental degradation and climate change, offering lessons in balancing human needs with ecological preservation.

Cultural Heritage Preservation

The Kankana-ey have been at the forefront of efforts to preserve and promote indigenous culture in the Philippines. Through the maintenance of their traditional practices, languages, and arts, including weaving, music, and dance, they contribute to the rich tapestry of Philippine cultural heritage. The Kankana-ey's efforts in documenting and teaching their traditional knowledge and skills are vital in keeping their culture vibrant and relevant. Cultural festivals, such as the Panagbenga Festival in Baguio City, showcase Kankana-ey traditions to a wider audience, promoting cultural understanding and appreciation.

Education and Advocacy

Kankana-ey leaders and community members are increasingly involved in advocacy and educational initiatives aimed at protecting indigenous rights, promoting social justice, and ensuring community welfare. They are active in local and national discussions on land rights, environmental protection, and indigenous peoples' rights, advocating for policies and practices that support sustainable development and respect for indigenous cultures. Educational programs, both formal and informal, that incorporate Kankana-ey knowledge and perspectives, contribute to a more inclusive and culturally sensitive educational system in the Philippines.

Economic Contributions

While maintaining their traditional livelihoods, many Kankana-ey people have also engaged in various economic activities that contribute to the local and national economy. The cultivation of high-value crops, participation in ecotourism, and the sale of handicrafts are among the ways the Kankana-ey have adapted to the modern economy. Their entrepreneurial spirit, combined with a commitment to sustainable practices, serves as a model for community-based development that can generate income while preserving cultural identity and environmental integrity.

Contemporary Society Conclusion

In contemporary society, the Kankana-ey people embody the resilience and adaptability of indigenous cultures facing the challenges of modernization. Their contributions to environmental conservation, cultural heritage preservation, education, and the economy highlight the continuing relevance of their traditions and knowledge. As custodians of a rich cultural heritage and advocates for sustainable living, the Kankana-ey offer valuable perspectives and practices for addressing some of today's most pressing issues, from climate change to cultural diversity and inclusion. Celebrating and supporting the Kankana-ey's achievements and ongoing efforts is essential for building a more sustainable, equitable, and culturally rich world.

Bridging Past and Future: The Legacy of the Kankana-ey

As we journey through the rich tapestry of the Kankana-ey people's life in the Cordilleras, it becomes evident that their story is not just a relic of the past but a living, breathing continuum. The Kankana-ey, with their profound connection to the land, their intricate cultural practices, and their enduring spirit, stand as custodians of a heritage that offers invaluable lessons for the modern world.

Their deep-rooted traditions, environmental stewardship, and community-oriented way of life exemplify sustainable living practices that are increasingly relevant in today's global discourse on conservation and cultural diversity. The Kankana-ey's commitment to preserving their language, arts, and rituals amidst the challenges of modernization serves as a beacon for cultural preservationists worldwide.

In a world where the future often seems disconnected from the past, the Kankana-ey people remind us of the importance of maintaining our cultural identities while adapting to change. Their legacy is a testament to the resilience of indigenous cultures and their crucial role in shaping a sustainable, inclusive, and culturally rich future. As we look ahead, let the story of the Kankana-ey inspire us to embrace our heritage with pride and to forge ahead with the wisdom of our ancestors guiding our path.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Who Are the Kankana-ey and Where Do They Reside?

The Kankana-ey are an indigenous group living in the Cordilleras, particularly in the provinces of Benguet and Mountain Province, Northern Philippines. They are known for their rich cultural heritage, ancient traditions, and profound connection to their land.

2. What Distinguishes the Northern and Southern Kankana-ey Groups?

The Northern Kankana-ey, primarily found in areas like Sagada and Besao, and the Southern Kankana-ey, located in places such as Mankayan and Buguias, are distinguished by their geographical locations, dialects, and some cultural practices. Despite these differences, both groups share significant cultural similarities, including their social structure, spiritual beliefs, and agricultural practices.

3. How Do the Kankana-ey People Practice Environmental Stewardship?

The Kankana-ey demonstrate environmental stewardship through sustainable agricultural methods like terraced farming, forest conservation, and the traditional knowledge system that guides their interaction with the natural environment. These practices ensure the preservation of their land for future generations while maintaining the biodiversity of the Cordillera region.

4. Can You Explain the Significance of Weaving in Kankana-ey Culture?

Weaving is a significant cultural practice among the Kankana-ey, serving as a medium to express their identity, history, and spiritual beliefs. Through intricate designs and patterns, weavers narrate stories and convey messages, making each piece a reflection of the community's heritage and the weaver's skill.

5. What Are the Core Beliefs and Practices of Kankana-ey Spirituality?

Kankana-ey spirituality is deeply rooted in animism, with a strong belief in the presence of spirits in nature and the importance of ancestral spirits. Their spiritual practices include rituals and ceremonies to honor these spirits, ensure community well-being, and maintain harmony with the natural world.

6. How Is the Kankana-ey Culinary Tradition a Reflection of Their Culture?

The Kankana-ey culinary tradition reflects their culture through the use of local ingredients, traditional cooking methods, and communal eating practices. Dishes like pinikpikan and etag are not only staples of their diet but also carry cultural significance, embodying the community's relationship with the land and their ancestral heritage.

7. What Role Does Music and Dance Play in Kankana-ey Society?

Music and dance play a central role in Kankana-ey society, serving as important expressions of their cultural identity, spiritual beliefs, and social cohesion. These art forms are integral to celebrations, rituals, and community gatherings, facilitating the transmission of traditions and strengthening communal bonds.

8. How Have the Kankana-ey Adapted to Modern Influences?

The Kankana-ey have adapted to modern influences by integrating new technologies and practices that align with their values while continuing to preserve their traditional culture. This includes participating in the global economy, engaging in educational and advocacy efforts, and utilizing modern platforms to share and promote their cultural heritage.

9. What Challenges Do the Kankana-ey Face in Preserving Their Culture?

The Kankana-ey face challenges in preserving their culture due to modernization, environmental degradation, and the pressures of assimilation. Efforts to safeguard their land, language, and traditions are crucial in maintaining their cultural identity amidst these challenges.

10. How Do the Kankana-ey Celebrate Their Cultural Festivals?

The Kankana-ey celebrate their cultural festivals with elaborate rituals, traditional music and dance, and communal feasts. These festivals, such as the Begnas and Canao, are significant for their spiritual, social, and agricultural implications, marking important seasonal transitions, life events, and community milestones.


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