Monday, May 9, 2011


WHEN IN PAMPANGA, DO AS AETAS DO. Aetas at Stotsenburg show how to cook horse meat before an observant American soldier. The hardy natives were looked at by Americans as masters of jungle survival and in the 60s, many were employed to mentor the U.S. military on jungle survival technqiues. Ca. 1915.

To Spanish colonizers, the hardy Aetas (or Negritos) were objects of disdain for their stubborn resistance to the new religion. For their refusal to be Christianized, they were branded as “uncivilized savages”, without use or purpose, and no attempt was made to protect the tribes who were among the first to inhabit the Islands. Hence, the Aetas were pushed back to the wilds, living by hunting and foraging, never to be integrated with Christian lowlanders.

The coming of the Americans, somehow, changed that perception. After all, when the first contingent of U.S. military arrived in Pampanga to found Camp Stotsenburg, the semi-nomadic Aetas quickly made their presence felt in the area and were determined to make the visitors’ stay comfortable—while making a few quick bucks. While Americans went about their daily grind, these Aetas would quietly make the rounds of the houses, peddling exotic air plants (orchids), root crops, animals and souvenir native weapons to their families.

Many Americans, however, found the Aetas a fascinating people, equipped with unique skills and capable of embracing change. In the first ever census conducted in the Philippines in 1903, 35 Negritos living in Pampanga and Tarlac were described as ‘civilized’, from a total of 6,000 ‘wild’ ones. Then, at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, two Negritos, Basilio and Sayas, astounded a mixed international and American crowd by finishing 1-2 in the Pole Climbing competition during the “Anthropological Days Contest”—part of the Olympic Games of 1904.

Americans in Stotsenburg shared this positive interest for these generally good-natured tribes. At least one commanding general, Gen. Johnson Hagood, who served the camp in 1922, showed real concern for the Aetas’s welfare, for he was of the belief that the local Filipino government had nothing for them to uplift their lives. As such, all throughout the 1920s, the U.S. government granted them reservations where they could go about their lives peacefully, protected from abuses. (In the 1970s however, during the term of Col. William Truesdell, Aetas were threatening to overrun Clark Field, with their on-base ‘Negrito village’ and makeshift tiangge-style stalls. Macapagal and Marcos Village, two barangays of Mabalacat, started as ‘Negrito villages’ ).

Such good relationship fostered many benefits for both sides. Negritos found gainful employment, and later, were given access to food and free medical services. On the other hand, Americans hired the ever-willing Negritos as hunting assistants, errand and cargo boys and even posers for souvenir photographs. Early on, the Negritos’ mastery of the jungle was acknowledged by the Americans, and their skills for jungle survival were soon harnessed by the U. S. military, most specially during the Vietnam War.

It took the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), to tap the abilities of the Aetas in leading the secret training of military soldiers. In the early 1960s, as communist military strength grew in Vietnam, the PACAF began to beef up its forces not only with better munitions but also training and readiness. Hence, the PACAF Jungle School, under Maj. Ewing, was set up at Clark Air Base to prepare air crew members for their Vietnam assignment and to help banish the fear of jungle. This program would help save the lives of many American pilots shot down in the hinterlands of Southeast Asia.

Before their ‘students’, Aetas demonstrated such a wide variety of lessons as loading and shooting a primitive crossbow. They also showed the military how to identify species of poisonous snakes and crocodiles, often letting them pet slithering snakes like pythons to overcome their fear. They also gave instructions on how to make traps and tent-style animal snares.

For the Aetas, the bamboo can be a critical tool for survival. A piece of bamboo can help one start a fire and cook a decent meal. It also has a thousand and one uses—as a utensil, a carry-all, a rice cooker. This cooking technique, called “binulu” (from ‘bulu’, a bamboo specie), entails stuffing uncooked rice (abias) and adding a cup of water into a ‘bulu’. For the rice to cook, the bulu is placed over a bamboo-created fire. If desired, tomatoes, kamias, onions, garlic, fish or meat could be added to make for a more filling meal.

To build a fire, one needs a bamboo piece split in the middle. A small hole is cut on one side where a rounded stick can be driven. Friction is created by rubbing the stick between palms while blowing on it gently, until wood shavings or dry bamboo leaves spread around it, catches fire.

Drinking water can be collected using funnel-shaped leaves and certain stalks of plants, when cut, can yield potable drinking water. All these valuable jungle survival lessons—and more—were learned in the PACAF school, thanks largely to the Aetas who ably mentored the military from the 1960s through the 80s.

Today, the program has been adapted for contemporary use—mainly, to entertain adventure-loving and nature-tripping tourists and mountaineers. In Subic, the Ocean Adventure offer such a show, where native Aetas continue to demonstrate the aforementioned jungle-survival techniques. There are mountain treks, through forests and canyons, guided by Aetas who are always quick to point out the name of an insect, a tree, a forgotten trail, along the way. The Aetas may have learned to survive in the wilds, but in the face of modernity and relentless change, he still struggles to find his identity and his rightful place in Philippine society, that has for centuries, continue to neglect his race.

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