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An Open Letter

Dear Leny Mendoza Strobel:

Thank you! Thank You! Thank You!

I just read with total rapture your potent and Spirit-filled poem & essay on "rethinking our American tutelage."

The pristine island—turquoise waters

I LOVE both what you wrote and where you're coming from. You are coming from a de-contaminated (de-colonized) soul. Your essay is so moving. My friend Virgil Apostol, a Filipino American healer living in San Diego, sent me the essay. Virgil, who worked for Dr. Deepak Chopra for years, is immersed in the traditional healing arts of those enchanting islands that are still the primordial home of The Anitos.

Those resource-rich islands were re-named "The Philippines" to honour the King of Spain. But originally—prior to 1521—weren't those lush islands of many tribes called Maharlika?

I am a Canadian artist photographer and author married to Violeta Bagaoisan, who is from a pristine but little-known island on the northern tip of the Philippines. The island is called Fuga (from fugante, Latin for 'escape'). My point is: Today I'm alive and I feel gifted and honoured to work with the 2,000 oppressed Ilokanos on Fuga, only because, 23 years ago, a debilitating heart disorder triggered a near-death experience that sent me on a quest for healing and meaning.

Lush island of many tribes

As a dying young man, my prolonged search for a cure using Western medicines was a failure. For three long years the disease took its toll. After multiple tests, my doctor finally announced that my heart wouldn't last. I was 32 and I was dying. I was emaciated. My hair was falling out. I lacked the energy to walk. I was going unconscious and could barely form words. There was no hope.

At this point, the lowest in my crisis, I had a weird dream: "Above me, I watched a great eagle fly away, furiously dodging the bullets of some madman who was trying to shoot it out of the sky. In mid air, the eagle transformed into a pair of galloping horses. The horses charged down from the heavens, thundered across the face of the earth, and disappeared into a glowing horizon." A string of coincidences then led me to the great Cherokee healer, Rolling Thunder. The venerable medicine man lived in the Nevada dessert. My transformative healing, thanks to Rolling Thunder Who channels The Anitos, totally changed my life.

Leny, your essay is amazing because it explains what happened to me during those critical years (1979-82). Looking back, I know that my heart disease, which brought me to death's door, was a long, deep and powerful purging of what was unnatural. Throughout my long illness, I repeatedly asked God in total earnest, "Take me to the bottom of who or what I am. Let me know what is real!"

LENY, I LOVE WHAT YOU SAY HERE: "If decolonization has taught us anything, it's this: part of our own healing is to no longer be the willing receptacle of these projections from the colonizer."

I totally agree. Or as a pure soul once voiced: "To be in this world, But not of it."

Spanish Church, Vigan

About the ubiquitous quest to find our own voice: In my mind the key question is: How on this colonized earth does one de-colonize? And, what does de-colonizing mean? Is it simply throwing off the colonial values and multi-layered trappings of the Americans and the Spanish?

Does de-colonizing (or de-contaminating) require a complete purging? Cleansing down to our natural core? Must we cleanse our psyches of all man-made influences? And is that even possible?

During my painful descent towards death I kept asking: "How can I un-learn what I've already learned? How can I un-digest what I digested 20 and 30 years ago? Is there a reliable technique?"

During my healing with Rolling Thunder, I learned the answer and it is yes. A loud and resounding YES! As if knowing the questions in my mind, the indigenous Elder talked about the power of the Vision Quest, or Vision Fast as it is also called. According to Rolling Thunder, each of us is born with a purpose to fulfil on this Earth, and for those who are ready, the ancient rite of passage will show the way.

Rolling Thunder's name means Speak The Truth and when he spoke, he spoke from the heart of Creation. His uncanny abilities to diagnose and cure illnesses equalled those of the late Edgar Cayce. Rolling Thunder used over a thousand different herbs. He made powerful medicine and he not only cured my heart disease, he taught me how to 'think with my heart'. In a voice that crackled with energy, he said to me privately: "We should think with our hearts, the way the old time Indians still do." ... "You have good guides. But you must prepare and protect yourself before doing anything." He ended his hour-long discourse with "Meta Tantay" which means Walk In Beauty.

After my healing I was FILLED with a vital energy. I was light on my feet and I walked without making a sound. I felt completely renewed and deeply connected to all the living things around me. The only description for this ecstatic feeling were the two words: Eternally Grateful.

My commitment to 'pay forward' the healing set me on a quest that took me around the world. To find inner clarity, under the auspices of my new friends, a council of Kwakiutl, Okanangan and other Elders, I endured a series of four Vision Fasts alone in the British Columbia mountains. Repeatedly, the Vision Fasts called me to the palm-treed islands of the South Seas. My now-healthy heart was aching for an unknown place in the tropics. I was puzzled. I did not know the name of the country, only that it was 'somewhere South of China' (the phrase came to me like a mantra). I described my peculiar longing to Rolling Thunder: "From the bottom of my soul, I want to cross the Pacific Ocean to China, and travel southward down the coast into South East Asia. I want to look into those islands and find the oldest culture. And when I find that culture—God willing—I will marry into that culture and merge with the people and become one with the people."

That is the essence of the longing that seeped into me during the four purifications. The longing grew until it was almost unbearable. I was ready to embark on a new journey, a journey to find the origins, or perhaps 'the heart' of indigenous life in South East Asia. I seemed to have no choice and I definitely had no map. I only had intuition, a deep feeling of well-being, and the impetus to follow my heart.

Some were fleeing. Some I met. One I married.

Dominican ruins at Naguilian on Fuga

After my third fast in 1988, I came down off the mountain and saw a poster announcing the Vancouver premiere of a new documentary film: "A Rustling of Leaves - Inside the Philippine Revolution". I decided to take it in. At the screening I met the distinguished opening speaker, professor Zenaida Uy, a Filipina anthropologist and sociologist from the University of San Carlos in Cebu. Professor Uy was crossing North America on an international speaking tour. She was an eloquent speaker and she was blowing the whistle on the human rights atrocities that were unfolding in the Philippines.

At that time Zenaida Uy was the Secretary-General of BAYAN, the largest coalition of grass roots organizations in the Philippines. The professor commented on 'a primary energy' or spiritual energy that she felt around me. I too felt the energy, but I thought it was coming from her and I told her so. Donning her anthropological hat, she said: "You walk unlike anyone I have ever met. When you walk, you glide like an animal, you glide like a mountain lion." I suggested, "You are perceiving the energy from the mountain."

When I got to know "Zeny", she divulged that she and her husband were on the hit list in the Philippines, but they had to return because their visas were expiring. (I convinced Zeny to take asylum in Canada.) She explained that in 1986 she was water-cannoned in the streets of Manila and arrested for leading protests that toppled President Marcos. Zeny's jovial husband Luciano Uy, or 'Boy', was less fortunate. On two separate occasions he was shot at point blank range. But he survived the attacks. I saw the proof of those attempts on his life when we emerged from an Okanagan Sweat Lodge. I had invited Zeny and Boy into a Purification Ceremony on the Penticton Indian Reserve here in the BC mountains. At the end of the ceremony, we crawled on our hands and knees out of that dark, humid healing Lodge into the sunlight. When we rose to our feet, I saw clouds of steam rising from Boy's tanned body. Then I noticed the scars.

Boy pointed to the entry holes on his abdomen and the exit holes on his back and he said to me chuckling: "That's where they shot me. That's where the bullets went through me. And when they did, it felt like I was on fire!"


Lola Pulon—trapped in time

During Professor Uy's Vancouver speech, she talked about the peopling of the archipelago. Eight years later (1996) after I found the burial jars on Fuga, I phoned Zenaida at her new home in Toronto and she confirmed that yes, during her Vancouver speech she stated (verbatim): "The Philippines was originally peopled by early tribes from Siberia and China who migrated down over a land bridge that once connected China and Taiwan with the Philippines. And when they made their long journey south, they brought their dead ancestors with them in big clay jars. Jars covered with dragons."

I had heard of a land bridge that came from the west through the Palawan islands. But Professor Uy's land bridge came down from the north. And thanks to her vivid description, I could "see" those early people trekking down into the Philippines with their ancestor jars balanced on their heads.


December 12, 1990 is a doubly special day because: 1) It was the day my first book, Our Elders Speak—A Tribute To Native Elders was released; and 2) It was the day that I met the beautiful Violeta Bagaoisan at a friend's Christmas party in Vancouver. When Violeta and I were introduced, I loved the sound of her last name and found myself whispering, "Baga-wee-san, Baga-wee-san". During the next few months, we kept bumping into each other. We soon fell in love, got married, and built a life together.

Violeta—great smile

Within two years, we had two beautiful children, Asia Rita and Cody. Asia Rita was born the night I finished my North American book-speaking tour. Now it was January. The snow was falling in White Rock, our home in the Vancouver suburbs, so Violeta and I and tiny "Asia" settled in for the winter. Happy to be home after a hectic year, I turned my focus to my precious wife and baby girl. I felt totally blessed and was curious about Violeta's origins. I had never been to South East Asia and wasn't sure where the Philippines was, so we pulled out a big map. Bingo! Violeta pointed to a dot south of Taiwan and said: "That's Fuga! That's where my family comes from. And 99 percent of my relatives still live there."

When I zeroed in on Fuga's northern location and its proximity to China, I flashed on Professor Uy's land bridge and the trek of those jars. I asked Violeta if she had heard of the land bridge and burial jars. She almost flipped. "Burial jars?" she said. "Yes, we have burial jars on Fuga. Before my father died he told me there were many burial jars hidden on Fuga."

I begged Violeta to tell me more. "My relatives, a clan of 2000 Ilokanos, live in nipa huts and bamboo shacks in six villages scattered across the island." She continued: "Pooga, as my people call it, is 10,000 hectares, it is a paradise with endless white sand beaches, turquoise waters and lots of lobsters and pineapples."

When she said, "On Fuga there are no cars, no industry, no phones and no pollution", I wanted to pack the kids and our luggage and head to the airport. I could hardly wait to meet my extended family and search for those mysterious jars.

A clan of 2,000 between huts

In 1996 our trip came together. We left Asia and Cody with my family in Vancouver and set off for Fuga. It was Violeta's first trip back to her ancestral island in 17 years, and my very first trip to Asia. For Violeta, it would be a huge family reunion. For me, it would be an adventure and the fulfilment of a dream.

It was love at first sight. Jumping off the outrigger and into the purity of surf and sand gave me goose bumps. I fell in love with the serene island and its ruggedly handsome people. Fuga was indeed a tropical paradise. My heart recognized the call of the numinous island and I wanted to stay forever. My first thought was: "We will go and get Asia and Cody and raise them here so they can grow up learning their Ilokano culture."

But this paradise proved to be a hell. I soon learned that Violeta's timid relatives had been brutally oppressed. Private guards, employed on the island for generations, had beaten the natives into submission. Fifty of them had been murdered with impunity. Many were sick and desperate for medical help. They kept saying: "We have no rights." Meanwhile, a $50 billion development was taking over the island. This was no fantasy island.

Overwhelmed by the oppression, I knew we had to get off the island. But I promised my beloved relatives (my marriage speech): "I want you to know that from Fuga—all the way across the Pacific Ocean to Canada—we are one big, BIG family! I love everyone of you. I am your friend for life and I will return with help."

My journey brought me back to Canada as a wiser man who was less than fulfilled, but fully resolved that I would return to Fuga with enough international aid to fulfil my heart's promise before it's too late. I made hundreds of enquiries by phone, fax, E-mail and in person. I asked relief agencies, charitable organizations and networks in Canada, the USA, Europe, and Britain if they could lend a hand on Fuga. It was unbelievable. For one bureaucratic reason or another, none of them could do anything.

Cowed and timid Elders (Vi's aunt and uncle)

Instead of giving up, over the years, Violeta and I made multiple trips to Fuga. We hauled clothing, nutritional supplies and medicines from Canada and at the same time, I documented the horrific conditions imposed on the islanders. They suffered from a perpetual health crisis. Half of the children had acute lung infections. Many were bloated with parasites. They had never seen a doctor. Women were dying when they were six and seven months pregnant. Malnutrition was the norm. There were no fish left due to the last 40 years of dynamite fishing by outsiders. Unemployment was 99 per cent. Infant mortality was and still is a staggering 50 per cent!!! Children we met one year were dead the next. My dream was turning into a nightmare.

FEUDAL RULES—The Crossroad of 16th and 21st Century

The 400 poverty stricken families were not allowed to extend their tiny farms. Neither were they allowed to build huts (as many as 16 lived in one hut). They were not allowed to marry outsiders and live together on Fuga. And they were not allowed to eat the owner's cows. If they broke the rules, the guards beat them and forced them off the island. The atmosphere on Fuga resembled a prison camp.

In my effort to find humanitarian support, I created the Fuga Island web site (http://www.sfu.ca/fuga) sponsored by Simon Fraser University (SFU). The Fuga Site won two awards and all kinds of accolades. But it didn't bring the world to Fuga. I decided to up the ante and make a documentary film. I soon learned that with zero filmmaking experience, I was unable to procure a production grant. However, I was able to glean advice and encouragement from The National Film Board of Canada.


Drunken guards firing M16

Due to all the restrictions: difficulty getting onto Fuga (we needed permits from the developers); high seas in the Babuyan Channel; humidity that rendered our equipment useless; gin-guzzling guards firing their M-16s into the air; and other complications, The Silent Natives of Fuga was damn difficult to make. It took me six years to complete the underground film.

Knowing we'd never get a film crew onto the heavily-secured island, on our "annual family visits", I shot all the stories discreetly with my trusty 35mm Canon stills camera (I shot thousands of photographs while Violeta taped the audio with a small analogue video camera).

Back at the film board in Vancouver, I created The Silent Natives of Fuga using an Apple G-4 computer. It took months to digitize all the audio and stills and apply motion graphics (zooms, pans and tilts) to the stills. I transformed 675 photographs into a seamless motion picture that runs exactly 46 minutes.

To finance the production and pay off all the travel bills, Violeta and I repeatedly maxed out our credit cards and mortgaged our home. After all the difficulties, I found myself apologizing for my humble film.

The surprise! Critics deemed The Silent Natives of Fuga "Intensely personal! ... Beautifully shot! ... Uniquely evocative!" Kudos from UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara and other venues included: "Fabulous photography! ... Powerful and Amazing! ... A deeply moving glimpse into the lives of the people of Fuga!" When UCSD Sociologist Deborah Lou introduced the documentary she said, "This is a film that raises more questions than it answers. It's a great educational tool!"


Deeply moved by the Fuga film but afraid of the armed guards, two charities stepped forward and made me an offer. They said: "If you can secure the blessings of the Philippine President and guarantee our safety on Fuga, then come back and see us."

Old ceremonial jar

Twenty years after that first Vision Fast, 13 years after meeting Violeta, and with multiple trips to Fuga behind us, and many more ahead, we are now building benevolent bridges to Fuga. And we're inviting others to join us. Many times we've delivered medicines and nutritional supplies to Fuga, Only to learn that a year later nothing has changed for the Fuga people. They are still clinging to existence and they are still treated as squatters on the land they've inhabited since time immemorial. If hand-outs are not the answer, then what is?

Education, healing, de-colonization and empowerment hold the long-term solutions for the stricken Fugans. To that end, Violeta and I have formed a non-profit educational organization—Friends Of Fuga. Our goal is to establish internet communications with Fuga and a student exchange program (more on this below).

Eight years ago, when I first told Professor Uy that I had been to Fuga and that I had found ancient burial jars and an early Chinese ceremonial jar hidden on the island, she was elated. "Wow. You have discovered a world treasure." She said: "My God! You may have found the missing link in the land bridge!"

Child's grave, with red flowers

However, the renowned anthropologist did not believe there was an island called Fuga. She had never heard of it. So I explained that for generations Fuga was private property and off limits to the world. Truth is, very few Filipinos had heard of Fuga until it surfaced in February 1996 as Asiaweek's cover story entitled: "A $50 Billion Fantasy".


The pall of secrecy hanging over Fuga dates back generations. The Islanders have not shed the legacy they inherited from Ferdinand Marcos. During the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the infamous president used the remote island as his secret hideaway. Violeta's sister, Emilia, remembers serving lunch to Marcos on Fuga in the 80s when she worked for the owner of Fuga at the time.

THE FENG SHUI OF FUGA—The Fate of Fuga's Owners

Burial Jar, dragon detail

Having studied Fuga for 11 years, I hereby avow that, from one end of the island to the other, Fuga is loaded with ancient burials. I also discovered that over the past 100 years, all of Fuga's owners and stakeholders suffered catastrophic losses and deaths. So far, nobody has been able to develop the numinous island. Is it a mere coincidence? Not according to the Chinese Feng Shui master Florio Yuen. When I met with Mr. Yuen in 1997 and spread out my maps and photos of all the burial jar sites, he urged me: "You must warn Mr. Tan Yu about all the cemeteries. It is very bad Feng Shui. Anyone who tries to build on or near ancient burials will have bad luck." Unfortunately, I was unable to reach Mr. Tan Yu. Subsequently, his US$14 Billion empire crashed and last year he suffered a fatal heart attack (unaware that he had purchased an ancient cemetery). Curiously, the only ones who are still around are the natives who continue to care for the island and each other (these and other findings will be released in my next book).


Before Friends Of Fuga intervened, it was a bad idea to go near the island. Outriggers that passed by were shot at. I was startled by the frightening bursts of those M-16s. Only the Fuga natives are allowed on Fuga Island. And that is if—and only if—they obey the owner's rules (my film documents the horrific conditions imposed on the dis-enfranchised natives).

I love your question: "What then becomes of us when we are emptied of colonial projections?"

That is a soul-penetrating question. I think the answer is: We can guide and empower others to make the journey from being colonized, sick and seemingly broken people, to become whole humans again with our healthy, whole-hearted indigenous souls fully reclaimed.


Cutest girl, (is she still alive?)

As founders of Friends Of Fuga, Violeta and I invite all compassionate Filipino American professors and students, and pro-active schools and colleges to help us build an internet bridge to Fuga (a challenge as there is no electricity on Fuga). Our immediate goal is to establish interactive communications with the youths on the island. We'd love to see academicians do their masteral or doctoral dissertations on Fuga. If this outreach initiative intrigues you or your school, please contact Violeta and me immediately at: karie@sfu.ca

In closing please let me add: On behalf of the Fuga people, on April 6, 2002, Violeta and I walked into Malacanang Palace for a historic appointment with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. During our face-to-face meeting, we requested and fully received the president's blessings for our humanitarian project. GMA assigned three of her staff to work with us; we screened The Silent Natives of Fuga four times in Manila and personally met over 100 officials (they were stunned by the film). We then conducted the first-ever medical mission to Fuga and treated hundreds of sick people. Friends Of Fuga now has free access to Fuga.

Violeta says: "We blew the lid off the island!"

Rolling Thunder was right: "The Spiritual overrides the economic and the political."

Leny, thanks again for your awesome insights and for cheering the Indigenous Soul in all of us.

With warmest regards and prayers,

I am yours sincerely,
Karie Garnier

"Sometimes truth takes you on obscure and untrodden paths, and it's the artist's duty to follow." - Jean Gier


Visit the Award Winning Fuga Island Web Site: http://www.sfu.ca/fuga, Winner of The Orchid Award (USA) and The Golden Cowrie Award (Manila).


© Karie Garnier

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