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ETHNONYMS: Subanen (Eastern Subanun), Subano (early Spanish documents), Subanon (Western Subanun)


Identification. The Subanun are pagan shifting cultivators of rice who inhabit the mountainous, forested interior of the Zamboanga Peninsula, a southwestern extension of the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. Subanun groups share a similar culture that sets them off from Christian and Muslim lowlanders. This article refers specifically to the Eastern Subanun living in the north-central part of the peninsula.

Location. The Zamboanga Peninsula extends a length of some 300 kilometers from 6°53 to 8°38 N and from 121°54 to 123°53 E. Were the peninsula a separate island, it would be, with an area of 17,673 square kilometers, the third-largest island in the Philippines, after Luzon and Mindanao. It is divided into four political units, from northeast to southwest: Misamis Occidental, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, and Zamboanga City.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Subanun language is comprised of a set of closely related dialects, divided into two groups, Eastern and Western Subanun. The language belongs to the huge, Pacific-wide Austronesian Language Family. Among Austronesian languages it is affiliated most closely with the Central Group of Philippine languages.

Demography. The Subanun probably number about 75,000. Population density is highly variable by region and distance from the coast. A careful census has never been conducted. During the 1970s and 1980s many Subanun groups have suffered depopulation from devastating raids by warring Christian and Muslim bands.

History and Cultural Relations

The Subanun first enter recorded history in the accounts of seventeenth-century Spanish Jesuits, who described them as living in scattered settlements with "scant social life." Jesuit attempts to bring the Subanun together into nucleated villages were unsuccessful. Until the time of the American conquest and occupation of the southern Philippines in the years prior to World War I, the major outside relations of the Subanun were with Muslim traders and raiders who came both overland from the east and by sea along the coasts. Muslims settled along the coasts and set up trading centers to collect Subanun forest and agricultural products, as well as slaves, in exchange for Chinese porcelains, gongs, beads, and iron. This trade was highly exploitative and it set the pattern for outsider relations to this day. The Subanun never developed any effective political organization to counter outside exploitation, nor have they attempted to resist it militarily. During the American period, warfare and raiding in the southern Philippines was fairly well suppressed, but since World War II, and especially during the Marcos regime, Christian-Muslim hostilities became increasingly violent. In several areas of the Zamboanga Peninsula, the Subanun have been caught in the cross fire and have been victimized by the marauding bands that flourish under such conditions.


The Subanun live in dispersed settlements of single-family households. The focus of nucleation is the cluster of agricultural fields cut and burned each year in the forest. Houses, which are rectangular, raised on piles, and thatch-roofed, are relocated and rebuilt every three or four years. They are typically perched on ridges and hillsides overlooking the family's fields. In grassland areas of dry-field plow agriculture, settlements tend to be more nucleated.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Subanun practice swidden agriculture. Rice is the major crop but they grow a large variety of other grain, root, and tree crops for food, materials, and medicines. Each family cuts and burns a new rice swidden annually. No plow or hoe is used. The crop is harvested and processed by hand. The swiddens of previous years are given over to secondary crops and then, as these are harvested, to secondary growth fallow. After a period of up to fifteen years, when a good mature secondary forest has reestablished itself, the area can be recut. A group of kin and neighbors generally tries to cluster its swiddens each year to share some of the labor of watching and tending fields. This ideal cycle assumes relatively abundant forested land. In recent decades increasing pressure on the forest from commercial lumbering, cattle raising, lowlanders' encroachments, and population growth has led to shortening of the cycle or its abandonment altogether for dry-field plow agriculture in grassland. The Subanun raise pigs, chickens, and sometimes cattle or water buffalo. They hunt wild pigs and deer and fish mountain streams for small fish and crustaceans. They also gather a variety of forest products. They largely depend on their own agriculture, hunting, and gathering for subsistence and for technological materials. They also sell rice and forest products, especially rattan, in lowland markets. Cash is needed for purchasing market goods, especially clothing, utensils, and tools, and for a variety of internal transactions.

Industrial Arts. The Subanun practice weaving on backstrap looms, basketry, forging of iron knives and axes, and house and granary construction. The extent to which they engage in these crafts varies greatly from place to place and is decreasing everywhere. One very important Subanun product is rice wine, fermented in treasured old Chinese jars and brought out for any interfamily social occasion.

Trade. The Subanun have long been dependent on external markets for many of their tools, utensils, musical instruments, and precious objects. These markets are controlled entirely by outsiders: Christian lowlanders, Muslim traders, and Chinese merchants. In former times, when Muslims controlled external trade, access to trade goods was typically channeled through titled Subanun leaders, subordinates to Muslim authorities. Internally among the Subanun there is informal trade of agricultural produce, heirloom objects, and labor, transactions motivated by the perpetual need for cash to purchase goods, pay fines, provision rituals, and finance weddings.

Division of Labor. The formal division of labor by any criterion, even sex, is quite minimal for a human society. Men and women participate in agricultural and domestic activities. Men fell trees, burn swiddens, and dibble planting holes for grain. Women plant grain seed. Otherwise each does any chore: slashing undergrowth, weeding, and harvesting. Women are usually responsible for cooking and child care, but men freely take over when needed. Men, women, and children share in the daily task of pounding rice or grinding maize. Men tend to assume roles of legal and religious leadership, but both sexes participate fully in ritual and ceremonial life. There is little significant specialization by occupation or stratification by wealth and power. Everyone is a farmer. Everyone is poor and everyone is powerless.

Land Tenure. Traditionally land per se has been a free good. Crops are individually owned by the person who planted them and this right gives the planter (or in the case of tree crops, his or her descendants) control over the land on which the crop is growing. New swidden land is allocated among neighbors each year by negotiation and ritual divination. Claims of previous use are relevant to these negotiations but not as claims to "ownership" of the land per se. The traditional system of land allocation has, of course, no legal status in Philippine law. Subanun land frequently has been appropriated by outsiders with better access to the legal system. Some Subanun have succeeded in officially declaring a plot of land, but cultivating a single plot requires changing the method of agriculture and, thereby, one's way of life.


Kin Groups and Descent. Beyond the nuclear family there are no discrete, bounded, or corporate kin groups. Each family is embedded in a network of its members' cognatic and affinal kin. This network, combined with propinquity and shared history, provides the basis for the formation of settlement groups that jointly cultivate adjacent swiddens, for the staffing of ritual and ceremonial occasions, and for support in life-crisis situations. There are no unilineal descent groups of any kind; descent is bilateral or cognatic.

Kinship Terminology. The basic distinctions in kinship terminology are those of generation, consanguinity, and collaterality. Parents are distinguished from their siblings. There is a cover term for all siblings and cousins, as in the Hawaiian system, but there are also separate cousin terms. The gender of relatives is distinguished only in the parental generation. In affinal terminology, there are terms used exclusively between males. Relative age in one's own generation can be distinguished in address terminology. Kinship terms and special relational nicknames are widely used to classify, name, and address a wide circle of associates regardless of actual genealogical connection.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although polygyny, including sororal polygyny, sometimes occurs, the overwhelming majority of marriages are monogamous. Marriages are generally arranged by families among neighbors and kin. Cousins may marry but are expected to pay a ritual fine that increases with the degree of closeness. A bride-price is paid by the groom's kin, to be distributed among the bride's kin. A period of bride-service in lieu of full bride-price is common. Because of bride-service obligations, a new couple generally lives near the bride's parents. Independent residence in one's own household is the goal of all nuclear families. Informal separation and formally negotiated divorce are common. Bride-price and bride-service obligations, as well as fines for misconduct, can make divorce negotiations difficult, especially between the recently married. Remarriage of the divorced and widowed is the norm. Once married, it is difficult to rejoin one's natal family unit as a dependent member.

Inheritance. Property is divided equally among surviving children. The most valuable property consists of heirlooms in the form of Chinese jars and brass gongs.

Socialization. Child care is relaxed and nonpunitive. It can, however, be a burden on young couples because of the relative isolation of homesteads and the need for both spouses to participate in agricultural work. The biggest problem in child rearing is not discipline but disease.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Subanun are subjects of the Philippine Republic. They occupy a marginal, almost outcast position in the national society and economy. Their contacts with the arms and agencies of the national government have rarely been happy ones. They have no formal political organization at all. Apart from local appointees of outside powers, either the national government or Muslim traders, leadership among the Subanun is self-achieved by participation in the social arenas that require skills of decision making and persuasion. These are largely contexts of legal debate about local infractions, sexual offenses, and marital and property disputes. The use of formal titles to name leadership positions is common among the Western Subanun and was probably more often the practice everywhere in the Muslim-influenced past.

Social Control. Legal authorities are those with the social influence and persuasive power to impose fines. Force or violence is never used or threatened in local litigation. In the background, however, there is always the fear of a case coming to the attention of government authorities. Although verbal dispute is common enough, physical violence is extremely rare. Even though they are quite dispersed and lack anything in the way of formal political organization, the Subanun greatly enjoy social gatherings. Their legal cases, rituals, and feasts are marked by rice wine drinking, dancing, singing, gong playing, storytelling, joking, and lively conversation by both sexes and all ages.


Religious Beliefs. At the core of a culture that enables the Subanun to maintain a meaningful identity distinct from both Catholic Filipino lowlanders and coastal Muslims is a shared system of belief and ritual that is uniquely Subanun. (A number of Subanun speakers have become Catholics and have merged into the lowland population. Others in the Western Subanun area have become Muslim and thereby have been given a new identity by outsiders as "Kalibugan" or "half-breed." American Protestant missionaries have been active in some areas. Their converts have yet another identity.) Sharing the Subanun universe with human mortals are named gods, spirits, demons, and ghosts. These supernatural beings can all help or harm humansjust as humans can, through agricultural activities, for example, cause the beings damage. The agricultural cycle is punctuated with requisite offerings to the supernaturals. Speaking through mediums during séance rituals, the gods and ancestors may demand offerings for the cure of illness. Human enemies can be attacked by luring their mortal souls to a nocturnal offering and then ambushing them at the doorway. This type of indirect assault on the invisible spirit of a distant antagonist is one kind of violence the Subanun do practice. The constituents of offerings vary with the demands of particular supernaturals, but they always include rice, meat, wine, and a betel chewthe essential ingredients of a festive meal. Unlike the agricultural cycle, the stages of the human life cycle, other than birth and death, are not strongly demarcated by rituals. There is no social observance of puberty for either sex.

Religious Practitioners. Ritual specialists and mediums learn their craft either through apprenticeship or directly through divine revelation. Their status is one of the few specifically named and relatively clearly defined nonrelational social positions in Subanun society. Most specialists are older men, but women are not excluded from the role.

Medicine. The Subanun distinguish religious practice centered on offerings from the use of substances and spells for the treatment and prevention of disease and other misfortune. Hundreds of wild and cultivated medicinal plants are distinguished and routinely used. Medicinal treatment of this type is generally tried before one resorts to the more expensive route of religious offerings.

Death and Afterlife. The dead are buried, but grave sites are not conspicuously nor permanently marked. A death initiates a major ceremonial occasion, during which there are rituals, exhortations, and offerings to ensure that the ghost of the diseased departs this world of mortals and demons, journeying to the other world to become a spirit among the gods. Ancestral spirits play an important role in séances by acting as intermediaries between the supernaturals and their mortal descendants. There is, however, no attempt to remember long lines of ancestors from the distant past.

See also Kalibugan


Christie, E. B. (1909). The Subanuns of Sindangan Bay. Division of Ethnology Publications, no. 6. Manila: Bureau of Science.

Combés, Francisco (1667). Historia del las Islas de Mindanao, Iolo, y sus Adyacentes. Madrid. Reprint. 1897. Madrid: W. E. Retana.

Frake, Charles O. (1980). Language and Cultural Description. Edited by Anwar S. Dil. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Hall, William C. (1987). Aspects of Western Subanon Formal Speech. Dallas, Tex.: Summer Institute of Linguistics.