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Neo-Tribal Necklace

Subanen (read as Subanon) people are native to the Zamboanga Peninsula, Misamis Oriental and Misamis Occidental in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Subanon are the biggest group of Lumad or non-Muslim indigenous cultural community on the island of Mindanao. The word is derived from the word soba or suba, a word common in Sulu, Visayas, and Mindanao, which means “river,” and the suffix “-nun” or -non” which indicates a locality or place of origin.

Thus “Subanon” means “a person or people of the river”; more specifically, “from up the river,” since they are usually differentiated from the coastal and plains inhabitants of Zamboanga peninsula. Blumentritt mentioned the “Subanos” in his accounts, referring to them as “a heathen people of Malay extraction who occupy the entire peninsula of Sibuguey (west Mindanao) with the exception of a single strip on the south coast” (Finley 1913:2). Finley, recording his impressions of the Subanon at the beginning of American occupation of southern Philippines in the 1900s, cited published records of early Spanish chroniclers, notably the writings of Father Francisco Combes in 1667, to argue that the Subanon were the aborigines of western Mindanao.

They were originally found along the river banks or "suba" but now reside primarily in the mountains because of continuous invasions of Muslim groups, as well as migrations of Cebuano speakers in the coastal areas of the Zamboanga Peninsula.

The groups that traditionally remained animist call themselves "Subanen", or "Subanon" in the area closer to Zamboanga City. Other groups who are linguistically members of the Subanen language subgroup but adopted Islam call themselves "Kolibugan" in western areas and Kalibugan in the central area. Although claims are often made that the Kolibugan/Kalibugan are ethnically mixed with Sama, Badjaw, Tausug, or Maguindanaon, there is no evidence supporting those claims, and linguistically, the languages of the Islamic members of the Subanen subgroup are virtually identical with the language of the neighboring non-Islamic group, except that the Islamic groups have a larger amount of Arabic vocabulary that refers to aspects of life that deal with religious concepts.

Outsiders often call the Subanen "Subano", which is apparently a Spanish version of the native name. Likewise, many outsiders call all of the Muslim groups "Kalibugan".

The name Subanen/Subanon means "river people", which is derived from the word "suba" or river.

The Subanen regularly move from one location to another to clear more forest for fields. They cultivate crops, with rice as the most important crop, but they are also known to raise livestock including pigs, chickens, cattle, and water buffaloes. Subanen houses are built along hillsides and ridges overlooking family fields. The homes are usually rectangular and raised on stilts with thatched roofs.

Geographic Location

Subanon territories includes the entire Zamboanga Peninsula which is divided now into different provinces; the Zamboanga City as the autonomous city in the peninsula, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, and Zamboanga Sibugay. Basilan is also part of the Subanon territories which mostly occupied by the kalibugan group or Subanon who embraced Islam Religion. Subanon also found as the aborigine or lumad in the northern provinces of Misamis Occidental and Misamis Oriental with a vibrant culture and usually visited by tourists performing their traditional dances to welcome the visitors. Their center of culture could be found in Malasag Eco Park in Cagayan de Oro City.

The Zamboanga Peninsula is a piece of land almost detached from mainland Mindanao like a tail of an unknown headless animal heading for the Pacific. The isthmus between Panguil Bay that separates Lanao del Norte from Misamis Occidental and Illana Bay that separates Lanao del Sur from Zamboanga del Sur is what connects the Zamboanga Peninsula to the rest of Mindanao Island.

Subanen Culture

Traditionally, the education among Subanon people was limited to instruction by the Thimuay head to a future husband and wife regarding love, respect and treatment of each other, parents, and in-laws. As the modernization already invaded the heart of the tribe's territories, many of them were already highly educated. Some of them got their bachelors, masters and doctoral in the high standard universities both local and abroad. Some of them are already working in the government as chief of some institutions.

The Subanen do not practice division of labor based on sex. Men and women work in the fields together, and men can cook and care for the children when necessary. They have little social stratification. Everyone is equal in the Subanen community because everyone has the same family for several years if he cannot afford to pay the shamaya. It is considered a blessing to have more daughters than sons because the father will be able to recover the dowry he paid for his wife. There is a general belief that all human beings should marry.

The tribe has no religion although it is believed that they had a holy book at one time. In marriage, the parents of the man look for a woman he will marry and both sets of parents set the wedding date. Polygamy and polyandry are practiced but separation is not allowed nor is marrying nearest relatives. When a couple wants to have only 1 or 2 children the wife, after giving birth, eats an herb called benayan. For birth spacing she eats 2 herbs, and if no more children are desired she eats more. Another type of birth control is practiced by the midwife who "manipulates" the woman after delivery. Various methods are practiced to predetermine a child's sex. Pregnant women must abide by many regulations including placing a piece of wood across her path before going in a doorway. It is considered a blessing to have more daughters than sons because the father will be able to recover the dowry he paid for his wife. There is a general belief that all human beings should marry


The tribe believes in a supreme being they call "Diwata Migbebaya". Education among these people was limited to instruction by the Timuay or the tribal head. The tribe has no religion although it is believed that they had a holy book at one time. Today the Subanen people have adopted either Christianity or the Muslim faith. Those Subanen who adopted Islam are known as the Kolibugan or Kalibugan, and many Subanen who were traditionally animist have since adopted Christianity.