Visiting the Ancient Burial Grounds in Sta Cruz Island, Zamboanga City
After enjoying the cerulean skies, the pink sands, and the translucent blue tides of the Great Santa Cruz Island beach, our tour guide led us to a less lively place in the island… to the burial grounds of Santa Cruz Island. We treaded to the eastern part of the Great Santa Cruz Island, said goodbye to the lively waves, and said hello to the island’s historical past.
Before the 1970s, before tourists frolicked in the pink sands and sunny skies of the Great Santa Cruz Island, the local folks used some parts of the island as a burial ground. The burial grounds were used by the local tribes, the Badjao and the Sama Bangingi. Since the burial grounds were quite interesting, we visited them one at a time. We first went to the burial grounds of the Badjao’s.
The Badjao tribe are traditionally from the Sulu group of Islands in the Philippine archipelago, some coastal areas in Mindanao, and even in Northern Borneo. The Badjao have lived by the sea as a traditional lifestyle, and have a very interesting culture. One aspect of the Badjao’s seaborne culture I particularly like is the tribe’s use of small wooden sailing vessels, which include the vinta, like the colorful boats we saw just a while back in the livelier part of the Great Santa Cruz Island. It’s amazing how culture is transmitted from one place to another.
The Badjao’s seaborne culture is also portrayed in the burial grounds. Unlike the graves in Roman Catholic cemeteries, the Badjao’s graves in the burial site are smaller, and are simply decorated with wooden boats, ancient-looking carved sundok (gravestones), and grave plots. The boats signify the tribe’s respect for the ocean, where they live. The Badjao also believe that there is life after death; the wooden boats given as tribute to their dead are also given to them, therefore, so that the dearly departed Badjao could carry on living in the afterlife by the sea.
Aside from the vinta, I also noticed that the family of the departed used to give the dead’s favorite possession. One grave I saw had cigarettes, clothes, and a complete set of betel nut chew accessories—which includes lime, palm nut (areca), buyo, and cola leaves. These were all so old and worn out by the sun, but I felt the warmth of the tributes nonetheless.
Other gravestones in the burial ground had several graves with different other gifts as well. We were told that the family of the dead visited the burial grounds regularly to give the dead more gifts.
After offering the dearly departed Badjao our own prayers, we headed next to the Sama Bangingi burial ground, which was just a few meters away.
The Sama Bangingi, like the Badjao, are also traditionally from the Sulu group of islands, and some parts of the southern and western coastal regions of the Zamboanga Peninsula. The Sama Bangingi also live by the sea. Aside from wooden boats like the vinta, the Sama Bangingi also builded forts known locally as kuta. Historically speaking, the Sama Bangingi had been active during the Spanish Colonization era. It is believed that the Sama Bangingi helped hold off the Spaniards, who were promoting Christianity, among others.
Now, with the war far over, the Sama Bangingi burial ground is now quiet and peaceful, almost as if frozen in time. The gravestones are weathered and worn out by the sun and by the tides, but the burial ground continues to show the history and culture of the Sama Bangigi and the Badjao tribes.
Today, the part of the island is no longer an active burial ground. An ordinance issued by Zamboanga City’s local government forbids adding more grave to the grounds, In fact the last buried member of the Badjao tribe found in the area was in 1974.
While we were in the burial ground, our tour guide showed us a tayumtayum, a flower of a shrub that looks similar to sea urchins. In fact, we were told that the flower looked like a running sea urchin when one drops it in the sea during the windy season.
We left the burial grounds not long after. Seeing the ancient burial grounds will all the sand, gravestones, and sunlight-worn tributes was very haunting, but it was a very interesting trip indeed. Seeing how such a long-left burial site contained the culture of the tribes that used to use the area simply amazes me up until this day. The Great Santa Cruz Island is really just more than a beautiful pink sand beach, it’s also a gold mine for history and culture.
There’s so much to explore here, and the Great Santa Cruz Island deserves a second (or maybe a third) visit!