The Samals of Davao Gulf

If we take a hard look at the administrative territories of Davao region, two of the places are named after indigenous tribes, namely Talaingod, a town north of Davao City, and Samal, an island-city. Both are part of the province of Davao del Norte.

The islanders of Samal (also known as Sama), unlike the other Islamized tribe with the same name that inhabits some parts of the Sulu archipelago, caught the attention of early foreign visitors who were captivated by their features.

Arnold Henry Savage Landor (1865-1924), an English anthropologist who visited Davao in the early part of the 20th century, had exciting comments about the tribe. In his book, The Gems of the East Sixteen Thousand Miles of Research Travel Among Wild and Tame Tribes of Enchanting Islands (1904), they reminded him of the foreigners he met in his southeast Asian travels.

Landor described the Samals as “very handsome people, of Indonesian origin—not of Malay extraction like the other Samals; and their features are so regular that they might be taken for Spaniards or southern Italians.”

This concurs with the observations of French anthropologist and naturalist Joseph Montano who suggested the Samals, along with the Bagobos, Giangas, Atis, Tagakaolos, Manobos, and Mandayas “are pure Indonesians whose origin cannot be explained otherwise than by supposing them to be the indigenes of all the islands included under the term Indonesia.”

Dr. Montano, who did scientific survey in Davao region, explained that the Samals are a mix of Polynesian, Malay-Bisaya, and Negrito strain and trace their Bisaya element to “the increase of transverse diameter of the cranium” and the Negrito element to “the waviness of the hair, the height and prominence of the forehead, and the darker color of the skin,” adding their anatomical features have something to do with their bigger stature, muscular physiognomy, and distinctive occipital lobe that is dissimilar to that of the Malays.

On his visit to the island, Landor observed up close the physiognomic features of the Samals, describing them as having curly hair, with fair-sized moustache, very large eyes, long eyelashes, and drooping eyelids at the outer bends which he compared to Caucasians. He wrote:
“Their lips are thin and firm, and their ears have detached lobes quite unlike most other tribes I had examined. The forehead was wide, but the back portion of the cranium lacked width. The skull was also abnormally flattened above. The cheekbones were very high, and the lower jawbone much enlarged but tapering into a small chin. The nose was well formed, the nostrils only slightly expanded, and the bridge of the nose quite raised. The upper lip projected over the lower.

“The skin of the Samals is of a darkish brown color. They file their teeth horizontally, leaving a concave outward surface, and they blacken them.

These people seem to have an extraordinary development of chest-some men having breasts almost like women-arms, and legs. Their feet were coarse, with high instep and abnormally developed toes, and their hands suggested a brutal nature, the square topped fingers stumpy, with heavy knuckles and short, pointed thumbs, making their hands, indeed, most repulsive to look at. But the wrists and ankles were comparatively small and well formed. Their pulse-beat was extraordinarily feeble and slow.”

In his notes, Landor also described the Samals as builders of good boats made of nipa leaves, bamboo strips, and sturdy hulls, complete with outriggers, square sail, and split-bamboo deck that serves as cooking platform.
As a separate tribe, the Sama (or Samals) were animists who believed in anito (spirits), balyan (tribal priest), and panawatawag (prayers). They also believed in bird sounds, the import of tides in relation to planting crops, and other traditions with similarities in other indigenous peoples.

Music is an important facet of Sama culture. They have songs of thanksgiving, the estiharo, and the pangayo, performed when the man askes for the hand of a woman in wedding. For narratives and sagas rendered in songs, they have the tuganuwan. Their musical arsenal includes instruments such as the agong and gumba for dancing; and koglong, kubing, patawali and kulintang for special occasions.

Samal dances are also allied with sounds. When the tribal priest dances, his accessories include kongkong, a small gong on the belt; kuyab, a hand fan; lampayon, a red kerchief; pawtina, a breast plate; and balyog, a necklace made of tiny seeds. He hops the sagumbata (dance of happiness), tagonggo (accompanied by a set of agong and a gimba), and lindog sayawan (warding off bad spirits). When doing the pagbana ritual outside the house, he uses the bagaybay, a chicken with black or white feathers, and other added features strictly not aboriginal in character.