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Tera Maxwell’s Reflections on the CFBS Retreat | Center for Babaylan Studies
Moon smiling down on us at at the lake on last night of retreat.
(Photo by Karen Pennrich)

On the last evening of the Babaylan Retreat 2011, we gathered at nearby Lake Ralphine in Santa Rosa, California to make an offering to our ancestors. The twilight sun softly dipped below the trees to the west. A swollen moon awaited evening in the east. This land held the painful memories of my adolescence, but sharp regret troubled me no more. Balikbayan describes diasporic Filipinos who return to the homeland. It literally means returning to settlement. Balik means return; bayan means settlement. (Vicente Rafael p206). It is a feeling of coming home. Yet here, in Sonoma County, California, I experienced balikbayan at this working retreat for the Center for Babaylan Studies (CFBS). 

The intention of the retreat was to brainstorm upcoming plans for the Center for Babaylan Studes, whose main purpose is to educate about indigenous knowledges and practices. Before the closing ritual of the weekend, we sat on a sharp outcropping of rocks above the lake and recalled our experiences at the retreat. I expressed gratitude for each participant for the gift of acceptance. As a second-generation mestiza Filipino American, it was the first time I felt I belonged as a Filipina. Among the group were Filipino artists, writers, musicians, academics, and healers. Virgil Apostol taught us about Ablon, the Filipino art of healing. Lily Mendoza lectured on the indigenization movement in the Philippines.  Perla Daly presented on the babaylan’s many symbols. Lane Wilcken talked about the Filipino art of tattooing as a committment to one’s ancestral family. Leny Strobel discussed the Center’s purpose and welcomed us into her home. Titania Bucholdt shared her bamboo percussive instruments, and we danced in a tribal circle. We nourished our bodies with good food. We laughed. We played. 
The first night we feasted together. Mila Anguluan Coger led the opening ritual. The first ritual was called “The Gathering.” Frances stood with a bag of scarves tied to her hip. She called to the first person in the circle “Intan, Tera” meaning “Come here from wherever you are. Put your feet on the earth.” Each person tied her scarf to the last person on the scarf chain, like a winding snake of scarves and bodies. After every person in the group was welcomed into the chain, the ritual shifted. An outer circle and inner circle formed. Every individual in the inner circle spoke to each member of the outer circle: “I honor you” and shared something unique about that person. Everyone took turns. 
Mila invited us to play through ritual. Her activities would be presented to Filipino American college students to help them get in touch with their indigenous roots. We were asked to draw a power symbol and an indigenous symbol. My power symbol is the waterfall, shifting and moving continuously, a fitting metaphor for my energy, and my life, married to a corporate gypsy. But intuitively, I was given my ancestral symbol–a large, smooth stone. The stone is solid and unchanging. It represents the islands of my ancestors. It symbolizes the source of my strength.
Atang in Ilokono is a ritual offering to one’s ancestors. It is showing respect for our ancestors on the other side of the veil. It is acknowledging their presence and assistance in our mortal affairs. This honor of ancestors is important in Filipino indigenous traditions. We were invited to make an offering to our ancestors. I wrote a note expressing my gratitude to my ancestors for their help in writing my dissertation among other things. Because of my own religious biases, I came to the ritual expecting simply a beautiful ceremony, but not necessarily a spiritual act.

I was wrong.
As Lane Wilcken placed the offering of food and letters on taltalabong, a spiritual raft, and uttered a chant of respect to the ancestors. The taltalabong drifted out on the lake. Seven geese circled overhead twice from left to right, a Filipino omen that the ancestors were pleased with our offering. To my surprise, I felt my heart surge with joy. I felt the joyful embrace of my ancestors; a strong presence of many surrounded me. This sacred experience was more profound than words can convey, but I knew that this indigenous ritual was important, as I honored my indigenous ancestors in a ritual they recognized. I received the impression: “We are always with you.”