Ifugao Settlements of Disputes: A Rule of Culture

Justice delayed. Justice denied. – A long-lived feature that slowly discolored our once vivid society for centuries under an alien rule of law. But, as far as history could resoundingly bring into light the reality about our Ifugao ancestors, did you know that despite the absence of aristocratic or monarchial authority to generally supervise their community, their ways of life were actually exemplified with a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, and peace? And for simpler yet colorful and eloquent words to paint, harmony filled everybody’s atmosphere.

Conflicts and disputes of self-interest may challenge their linkage to one another; still, harmonious relationships served all the hospitable Ifugao people to live in oneness and peace. Social standings may be acknowledged during the olden times; however, everybody still submits to the community’s council no matter what his standing is.

Nevertheless, the bottom line is, whatever is a treat to the society’s relationships is easily yet justifiably settled once and for all without parties opposing through its customary societal laws which govern and settle conflicts and disputes between members of the community.

“a practical way of threshing out disputes which does not require much time and does not exact of the litigants a single cent for ‘attorney’s fees’ or ‘costs of litigation’. It banishes scandalous wrangling, the verdict is never challenged and the case is closed.”

Esteemed Ifugao writer, Juan B. Dait Jr. described it as “a practical way of threshing out disputes which does not require much time and does not exact of the litigants a single cent for ‘attorney’s fees’ or ‘costs of litigation’. It banishes scandalous wrangling, the verdict is never challenged and the case is closed.”

To maintain fairness, the society’s customary laws are exercised by the community’s council which is primarily composed of trusted mediators called “Monkalun.” The group is generally comprised of elders who come from any class. However, usually, members of the group come from the kadangyan class because of their indisputable reputation and respect from the people.

Be amazed of these methods as you scan the details of some of the social practices of the ancient Ifugaos when settling conflicts and disagreements of interests.

Uggub: The ‘Shooting’

Literally, uggub means runo or talahib shoot where the contestants use the talahib shoot to determine the winner of the case. This is resorted in theft cases when the suspect pledges innocence, and if the complainant and the suspect agree to use this method, they automatically abide to whatever is the outcome- if the defendant loses, he returns the stolen thing, or, pays it back; if he wins, he can claim from his accuser some sort of indemnity for false accusation.

On the agreed day, the two parties with their supporters meet in a place where many people could witness the event. The parties initiate a ceremony where one side invokes the gods to guide the arrow of its champion while the other group implores the gods to prove the innocence of the accused.

After the invocation, the two prepare for the marksmanship contest. They remove their upper garments and march to their respective positions, about 20 meters apart. Each holds carefully selected uggub.

One of them executes an about face and exposes his bare back – the target – in full view of his opponent. The other one aims and hurls his uggub at the target. The other takes his turn and throws his dart at his adversary’s back. He who hits his opponent’s back squarely is adjudged the winner. If the dart merely grazes its mark, the hit is considered a miss.

If ever, do both men hit their targets – the ritual is repeated, until one wins.

A-agba: The ‘Balancing’

In this method, the victim of a theft or burglary rounds up all the suspects and leads them to his house while he invites a native priest to act as judge. The things necessary in the a-agba divination ritual are either a pair of eggs, or a bolo and an egg.

The eggs are simply placed on a table or on the floor while the priest chants his prayers to the gods before performing the a-agba ritual on all the suspects.

In the two-egg method, the priest attempts to balance one egg atop the other egg and while doing so, he mentions aloud the name of one of the suspects, asking the gods whether the suspect is the guilty party. If the egg stands balanced no matter how much tapping is done on the table, the suspect is pointed to as the culprit.

If the eggs do not balance, the man is cleared and the ritual is performed on the remaining suspects until the guilty party is found.

What’s great about this method is that the eggs are known never to balance twice during the proceedings unless one of them is charged as the accomplice.

If the priest fails to balance the eggs after all of the suspects have undergone the ritual, he concludes that not one of the suspects is guilty. The suspects are then released, and the prosecutor goes again looking for some other suspects.

The proceedings followed in the bolo-and-egg method are the same as that in the two-egg method. The only difference is that the egg is made to balance on the cutting edge of the bolo instead of another egg. The bolo is usually sharpened to razor-sharpness so as to dispel all possible notions of foul play.

Bultong: The ‘Wrestling’

img_3272The bultong is a unique kind of wrestling among the Ifugaos and which is also used in settling disputes pertaining to land rights. In this, the protagonists or their representatives hold firmly to each other’s body and at a given signal, try to pin down their opponent to the ground.

When two Ifugaos dispute a parcel of land or disagree of certain rice field boundaries, they may agree to settle their dispute though bultung.

There are two types of bultung decisions – the first decides the location of the boundary line where it gives the winner the right to draw the line, and the second involves an agreement whereby the exact point where the winner pins down his opponent will be the new location of the boundary line. The second type is more interesting of the two as each of the litigants tries his best to push or carry his opponent as far as possible to his opponent’s side in order to gain more land.

When the difference in build and strength is great between the disputing persons, the contestants are allowed to find someone else as a representative. Ordinarily, if the difference is not so big, the smaller one does not ask for a representative because he believes that the gods would side with him and give him strength to beat his opponent.

Choosing representatives, however, is not an easy task as all prospective candidates are screened thoroughly by performing a ritual before one of them is finally chosen. During the ritual, the native priest invokes the gods to guide them in the choice of the right representative. One of the candidates is called to the house, and in his presence while the prayers are intensified, a chicken is killed and cut open by the priest to determine the representative which is indicated in the chicken’s bile.

A dull and black bile indicates that the right man has been found. It is the Ifugao’s belief that a chicken’s bile – roundly fully and black – is veritable sign that the gods approve of the candidate. If the bile proves to be lean and pale in color, the prospect is eliminated because the “gods frown on him.”

Trial-by-ordeal: The ‘Boiling’

Back during the olden times, the ordeal method was a common process of litigation among ethnic groups in the country, and among the ancient Ifugaos, this was also practiced. The disputing parties or their representatives or a suspect who wishes to clear his name made to undergo an ordeal such as dipping the hands into a pot of boiling water.

The protagonists or their representatives dip their hands in a pot of boiling water at the same time. The first one to remove his hand from the cauldron is the loser. If both of them take off their hands at exactly the same time, their hands are scrutinized for possible burns. The one found to have suffered more is adjudged the loser. Today, this practice has been abandoned.

Haliw: The ‘Payment’

According to Ifugao Law, the aggrieved part – the one falsely accused or proven “innocent” after the trial – can claim reasonable indemnity from his accusers. This indemnity is called the haliw.

The accuser is morally obliged to indemnify the defendant, that is, if the defendant claims it; however, if not, the accuser is not bound to give him anything. The indemnity may be in the form of chickens, pigs, valuables or money depending on the extent of the moral damage. In the case of the rich man versus the poor man, the latter may claim the haliw.

And though these may seem impractical in the modern era, the Ifugaos do yet believe in the intervention of their gods and spirits who look into the process to ensure that justice is served.

Such is a beautiful justice influenced by no external forces, but by the will of traditions and practices shaped through beliefs of people on the powers and supremacy of the heaven.


  • Dait Jr., Juan B. “The Big Ifugao Feast.” The Manila Times Daily Magazine. April 11, 1959


(This article was published in the Culture & History Page of the June-November 2014 Issue of the Upland Farm, the official student publication of Ifugao State University, Lamut, Ifugao.)

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