The Manobo are probably the most numerous of the ethnic groups of the Philippines in terms of the relationships and names of the various groups that belong to this family of languages. Mention has been made of the numerous subgroups that comprise the Manobo group. The total national population including the subgroups is 749,042 (NM 1994); occupying core areas from Sarangani island into the Mindanao mainland in the provinces of Agusan del Sur, Davao provinces, Bukidnon, and North and South Cotabato. The groups occupy such a wide area of distribution that localized groups have assumed the character of distinctiveness as a separate ethnic grouping such as the Bagobo or the Higaonon, and the Atta. Depending on specific linguistic points of view, the membership of a dialect with a supergroup shifts. Manobo simply means “people” or “person”; alternate names include Manuvu and Minuvu. The term may have originated from “Mansuba,” a combination of man (people) and suba (river).
The Manobo usually build their villages near small bodies of water or forest clearings, although they also opt for hillsides, rivers, valleys, and plateaus. The communities are small, consisting of only 4-12 houses. They practice slash-and-burn agriculture.
The Ubo are a Manobo sub-tribe who inhabit the more isolated mountains of Southwest Cotabato in the area known as Datal Tabayong, as well as, more southerly Davao del Sur. As of last count, they numbered close to 17,000 (OSCC, 1987); a follow up on their numbers in subsequent years has proved difficult.
The Manobo cluster includes eight groups: the Cotabato Manobo, Agusan Manobo, Dibabawon Manobo, Matig Salug Manobo, Sarangani Manobo, Manobo of Western Bukidnon, Obo Manobo, and Tagabawa Manobo. The groups are often connected by name with either political divisions or landforms. The Bukidnons, for example, are located in a province of the same name. The Agusans, who live near the Agusan River Valley, are named according to their location.
The eight Manobo groups are all very similar, differing only in dialect and in some aspects of culture. The distinctions have resulted from their geographical separation.
A tentative but more specific classification that needs attention divides the Manobo into a number of major groups, some of which are: (1) Ata subgroup: Dugbatang, Talaingod, and Tagauanum; (2) Bagobo subgroup: Attaw (Jangan, Klata, Obo, Giangan, Guiangan), Eto (Ata), Kailawan (Kaylawan), Langilan, Manuvu/Obo, Matigsalug, (Matigsaug, Matig Salug), Tagaluro, and Tigdapaya; (3) Higaonon subgroup: Agusan, Lanao, and Misamis; (4) North Cotabato: Ilianen, Livunganen, and Pulenyan; (5) South Cotabato: Cotabato (with subgroup Tasaday and Blit), Sarangani, Tagabawa; (6) Western Bukidnon: Kiriyeteka, Ilentungen, and Pulangiyen; (7) Agusan del Sur; (8) Banwaon; (9) Bukidnon; and others. The various subgroupings are not sufficiently defined at present.
The Manobo occupy and have adapted to various ecological niches ranging from the coastal to the rugged mountain highlands of the interiors of Mindanao. The different subgoups are highly dispersed transecting the entire island of Mindanao, there adapting to various environmental niches to develop self-contained variations of a generalized culture. The orientation of all the subgroups, however, is upland. Commonly, cultivation is multicropped and intercropped, including rice, corn, legume, yams, and sweet potato. Agriculture production is supplemented by hunting and food gathering.
Settlements are generally kin-oriented nuclear groups near the swidden fields located on the ridges. The communities are widely dispersed and placed on high ridges above mountain drainage systems. In some areas, there are long houses that accommodate a number of families, usually of an extended kind. Leadership is placed on a highly skilled and socially powerful individual who builds up his following through various modes of alliances including marriage. In a grouping, usually of kindred traditional community, they would recognize one datu as head. A number of datus would be united under a more sovereign datu, up through a political pyramid with a sultan and a rajah muda holding sway in a larger territory. Although the kin relationship is bilateral, there is a bias toward the male in terms of decision-making and leadership. The woman holds a subordinated position in the society.
Nowadays, the structure of leadership is gradually changing with an overlay of the contemporary civil structures radiating from the governor of the province down to the level of the sitio councilman often assumed by the better educated younger generation of the community. The groups are largely Christianized and there are survivors of some belief systems. The national education system has also largely penetrated the more nucleated areas and minimally the more inaccessible rural areas. The distinctive character of ethnic dress has mostly given way to commercial clothing, with ethnic materials finding their way to the Antique trade.
Known for their intricate casting, the Ubo fashion fine weaponry and jewelry that they believe possess souls, making it harder for the maker to part with them. Agriculturally, they practice swidden, a slash-and-burn farming, oft planting and harvesting rice, root crops, and vegetables for consumption. Like the Bagobo, the Ubo believe in multiple deities headed by a central figure, Diwata (God); they’re animist, they also believe in ancestral spirits and unseen beings inhabiting the animate and inanimate objects found throughout their environment. In civic matters, the political leader and Datu (Filipino chieftain) of the village attains his position by virtue of wealth; speaking ability and knowledge of customary law, known as fendan. The primary obligation consists of settling disputes among members of a family, neighbors, and the community. When a fine is set and/or imposed by the Datu, the accused has to pay it to the aggrieved party; if he’s unable to, then he will become servant to the one who pays for him, otherwise known as dok.