Saturday, December 08, 2012

Lance and Laura Ostman

In the last days of instant karma, if we can just continue asking the right questions, with Google as a graceful guide, we may be able to steer our craft to respite in safe harbor.

Not to puff myself up unduly, but I sure was spot on when in a previous blog on the New Tribes Mission's Christian-church "planting" efforts amongst the Higaunon tribal people in the Philippines. Apparently New Tribes was one of the first outside NGO's to reach far inside the mountainous interior "hinterlands" of northern Mindanao Island when they inserted themselves in 1981. Not feeling personally all warm and fuzzy at the thought, I asked:
What was the criteria in 1981 for the selection of the Higaunon tribal people by the New Tribes Missionaries?
The top Google returns for "Higaunon Tribe" link to a praise-worthy web site wearing a logo of the Utrecht Faculty of Education, called simple "The Philippines." It has two pages of content on the Higaunon provided by a Ms. Cecilia Valmores, who was, and may still be, in charge of the Research Desk of the Indigenous Peoples Apostolate (IPA) of the Cagayan de Oro City diocese, content which refines the question, if not answer it entirely. A Ms. Valmores wouldn't be a religious herself, but her work under the aegis of the church does honor to it, as well as to her subjects, while being a balm of rationality in what otherwise looks and feels like an apocalyptic insanity at the heart of a New Tribes' missionary method.

Valmores has no obvious bone to pick with the evangelicals however; included with her editorial content are photographs credited to a certain "L. Ostman," who is either the Lance or the Laura half of a married American missionary couple who have been with the Higaunon on Mindanao since shortly after New Tribe's insertion in 1981.

On Valmores' first page are two links, both now dead, but still available at One links to her 4,700-word fuller treatment on the ethno-linguistic, spiritual and political world of the Higaunon natives. Titled "Lantad-Balatukan Federation of Tribal Council: Ancestral Domain Claim," it is dated internally as late November 1997, and it's found reposted at the web site of "Kalinaw Mindanaw," which is a native interfaith non-profit working toward peace and justice on the sorely troubled island of Mindanao.

The other link goes to a former website of Lance and Laura Ostman, who were the lead figures online explaining New Tribe's work of converting the Higaunon to Christianity. Two other couples are identified as also on the ground in the work---Bill and Carol Hart, who are Canadians who came to Mindanao in August 1988, and Ron and Michele Jennings, originally from London, who were the first to arrive in the Philippines, in July, 1981, where Ron is credited with doing the actual Bible translation work, and given the hierarchies of Romans 13, this would give him presumptive authority to bear the Biblical rod of chastisement.

I would have preferred to tell the Higaunon's story using words of native Higaunon activists themselves. There are presently several native NGO's with good politics and a web presence, although they all seem to be of more recent incorporation compared to the well-funded New Tribes' nearly 20-year head start among the tribe. The conversion business appears to be no different than any other community-building or poverty-reduction effort, where pressing material issues need to be addressed first before you can tackle the belief structures.

But in reading the Valmores' and Ostman documents together in tandem I felt a definite divine synchronicity present. Maybe the Utrecht Faculty knew what potential revelations stemmed from this simple web pairing, but short of a comparitive study, the evidence of two wildly divergent ideological approaches, both professing, ultimately, to be working toward the people's good, and the betterment of the tribe, just lay there fallow.

It's standard for the pairs of New Tribes missionaries to have their own page at the main organization's web site, which often don't have much beyond a 7KB family image to be effective, for in a real analysis, in addition to the "prayer requests," function as one of the "seven different ways to give online," little PayPal-like buttons asking for direct access to a giver's bank account so as to avoid the 2.2-percent credit-card processing fees. That's really tight.

But records an earlier incarnation of Lance and Laura Osman's web pages, which seem designed to fulfill a deeper informational purpose. That web presence was online from May, 2002 until September 2005, according to the last page capture. At the heart of the effort was a 13-segment narrative comprised of the translated words of Higaunon converts themselves, or so we're told. But this brief three-and-a-half year outreach calls into question the sincerity of the Ostman's explanatory introduction:
This document was written in order to fulfill a request by the Higaunon church that their testimony be shared with their English speaking brethren in Christ. Their desire is that God would raise up those who will not only rejoice with them about their new life in Christ, but also stand with them in prayer as they endeavor to live for Him in the 21st Century.
The Gospel has broken Satan's direct stronghold on these primitive mountain dwellers of Mindanao, but, centuries of Satanic rule has left behind cultural systems and ways that resist every attempt that the Higaunon church makes to obey the claims of Christ on their lives. This is their story, compiled from direct observation, involvement in the actual situations, testimonies and discussions with them in their native tongue about the subject matter of this document.
This story begins prior to the missionaries' arrival in 1981 and continues up to this present day.
If it were indeed the desire of tribal converts to share their stories with English-speaking evangelical Christians, whose prayer and "rejoicing" would support and sustain them, why then was the document taken down in 2005? Had they had enough? Moreover, in an article in Religion Today from December 2000, Tribe Rises "From Fear to Faith", we see all the same stories, quotations, and anecdotes as assembled in this body of "research", yet the article predated the web appearance (which coincidentally bore the same name: From Fear to Faith,) by a year and a half. Why a delay if outreach was the original intent?

The Higaunon had no control over how the English-speaking world would view them, as they relied on New Tribe's missionaries to honestly express their conversion experience, first in the religious press, then to a wider web audience. Naturally, this includes a fair appraisal of their former beliefs and world view to serve as contrast to the benefits the "good news" of Christianity had brought them. But instead of the glories manifesting in their new life, English speakers are treated to stories that demonize and libel the Higaunon's former selves, with one particular anecdote so grotesque and repellent readers must have overlooked its obvious illogical foundation.

That story in the Religion Today article indicated the Higaunon practiced child sacrifice to appease the savage spirits ruling their lives. However the example cited in the article more accurately could be described as a still-birth, with a baby born at home with its umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. This "evil omen" required midwifes to immediately bury the fetus in the ground, where all could hear the baby's cries emitting from its grave "for a long time" afterward.

Lest there be any doubt as to the meaning or interpretation of this event, another story also makes reference to child sacrifice, with the Higaunon deemed as willing to even sacrifice their "seven-year-olds" as being a current practice. That story is No. 1, told in the present tense: ". In many ways, we fear the tee-noo-mah-nun because of what the spirits tell us we have to do, like having to sacrifice our seven year old children "

An article posted to the New Tribe's web site in 2004, written by a public relations firm which replaced the news items written by the missionaries themselves, was about the semi-permanent leave-taking of Bill and Carol Hart, along with their family from Mindanao. It finesses the issue of currency, but leaves no ambivalence as to the nature of the practice being unrelated to issues of child mortality, nor as to a cause-and-effect relationship with the coming of Christianity:
When NTM missionaries first lived in the village, a witchdoctor was still offering a child sacrifice on the holy mountain for the people's sins.
Had the Gospel not been presented clearly, some of those young people might have been that sacrifice.
Readers of these stories would have to question the "clarity" in which the Gospels were being translated into native dialects if the results were anything like this single example of reverse transliteration. A core task the New Tribe missionaries set themselves is the translation of the Bible into previously unwritten tongues, a job inseparable from literacy rates, a factor barely paid lip service by them. Anyone who stumbled upon the From Fear to Faith series, would find it written not so much in pidgin English---although some clumsy attempts at a halting vernacular seem apparent---but in pidgin concepts and pidgin thought processes.

The Ostmans, who were translating into their native tongue, could have fudged any misinterpretation in meaning they made into a flowing vernacular that at least meant something, and no one would have been any wiser. Instead, these "primitives," are an Ostman creation, similar to the usually results when adults set themselves to the task of thinking and writing like children.

A pernicious example of this is found in story number 12, "Grandpa's Request," or "Grandpa Wee-kee's request..."
"One last thing that we want to ask you to pray for is our language. Our children are abandoning their Higaunon language because they want to be like the city people. Satan is bringing all kinds of things into our place through the contact of our young people with the city ways and they are being tempted with this. The worst thing, though, is that they don't want to retain their Higaunon language and this makes it hard for us to teach them spiritual truth. Then they listen to false religions who teach in the city language and they don't understand Higaunon anymore. We want our young people to know our language so that the church can continue to grow and be effective to reach out to the rest of the Higaunon villages. So please pray that the Lord will help us with this problem and that our children will want to retain their language and still be able to learn the truth about the Lord before they get confused."
Try as I might, even after multiple readings of grandpa's request, I still can't make sense out of what fundamentally is being said here. The acquisition of additional language skills wouldn't obviate my understanding the language I learned in childhood. If I were a Higaunon youngster who had moved away to the city, I may come home with a greasy duck-billed Pompadour, and my cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve of my tee-shirt, but I wouldn't have forgotten how to communicate with my grandfather. Even if the discussion veered into the sometimes esoteric vocabulary of the spiritual, I would only stop and say, "Excuse me grandfather, but what does that word mean again?" which is the primary method one uses to learn about concepts that can only loosely be approximated by language to begin with.

But I found an answer to the perplexing question, "if this doesn't mean what it says it means, does it mean something else---or nothing at all?" In a September 21st 2005, article, Evangelical Protestants in Venezuela: Robertson Only The Latest Controversy in a Long and Bizarre History, by Nikolas Kozloff, an Oxford Ph.D, writing in VenezuelAnalysis (and not in the New York Times, mind you), about Hugo Chavez's expulsion of the entire 160-person contingent of New Tribes missionaries from his country for working as deep cover assets of American intelligence agencies, if not card-carrying CIA agents themselves, is this passage:
Perhaps due to New Tribes' far-flung infrastructure, by the 1970s the missionaries had come under widespread public fire. The first salvo came from Pablo Anduza, the former governor of Amazonas, who remarked in 1973 that missionary education was alien to Indian traditions and "…missionary teachings encourage the creation of an artificial society which separates children from parents."
To me, it is a sure sign of the diabolical at play when truth is turned 180-degrees on its head. Sure, an inter-generational divide was presenting itself amongst the Higaunon, but it was caused by the missionary's efforts themselves--and it was by their intent and design. Naturally, greatest headway would be made with the young, who were growing up presented with a choice.

Missionary work must count its successes by the decade. Near the twenty-year mark, New Tribe was crowing about a conversion rate of little more than one percent (they aren't specific, saying "several hundred" out of a population of 30,000) And we don't know how soft they were. Bill Hart says of the smiling faces of "enthusiastic tribal teens" who were accompanying his family on the start of their journey, that "all of them profess to be believers," with that "profess" establishing a creeping category of doubtfulness. Useful as a brickbat by good Christians, the only tools for everybody else to use were the smiles and enthusiasm.

Dumalungdong is the highest and most revered prayer for the indigenous people of Lantad. This ritual is usually held when an individual completes his training for datuship or that of a babaylan who would then become a professed baylan. This ritual is also held when there is a need for the community for new leadership or turnover of leadership as in the case of Lantad. Thus the ritual when Datu Man-Oray, the Limbobongan ho Banwa (Grand Counsel) at the age of 125, expressed his desire to turn over his leadership to his legitimate heir Datu Masaba. Or when the community is beset with serious problems as in that held at Kalabugao in 1986 when the groups of Iglesia ni Kristo were encamped by Governor Zubiri in their ancestral lands.
Valmores 1997

In the year 1968, OCA Logging concession and BOLCAN timber concession in 1970 started the depletion of the territory’s old growth forests. Forest damage, however, was more attributed to the 1983 forest fires. These logging companies also drew in migrant settlers. Lantad at this period was known to be an agricultural productive community in the municipality of Balingasag which in turn was the top producer of agricultural products in the province of Misamis Oriental at that time. Roads at different points to the community, including farm to market roads were still passable. The peace and order situation was quite normal until 1981 when the problem of insurgency broke out.

In 1981, the insurgents started penetrating the area and by 1982, the peace and order situation worsened. Massive military operations were launched. Migrant settlers abandoned their houses, farms and work animals and resettled to the lowlands to escape the growing conflict. The Lumad moved further into the interior parts of the mountains, thus becoming by force of circumstances, masa or direct supporters or full timers of the insurgents. In 1982, the insurgents had the sitio under siege and in the last quarter of 1985, a Peoples’ Revolutionary Government (PRG) was instituted in the area.

With this development local government service employees could not enter the area for fear of being caught in the crossfire. Damaged roads, too, aggravated inaccessibility.

From 1984 to the middle of 1986, the CPP-NPA launched Operation Zombies, a systematic execution of deep penetration agents (DPAs) within its ranks. The years 1987 to 1989 marked the insurgents recovery period.

During the years 1986 to 1989, the economy of the community was in the hands of the revolutionary government. No farm products were sold outside the community. What they produced were intended only for consumption. The community consumed only within the limits of what it produced. Lowland settlers or small time businessmen were not allowed to enter the area.

In response, the government military forces launched Operation Skylark, an intensified ground and air assault from February to July 1990. Lantad became a no-man's-land. There was food, medicine and clothing crisis.

Major military operations continued until 1991 when the Lumads, tired of the situation and years of hiding, decided to surrender and live peacefully within the fold of the law. Lantad gained relative peace. The government granted amnesty to the surrenderees, most of whom were Higaunons from sitio Lantad.

In 1993, government assistance, including those from the local and from the province started to flow in. The DENR’s Integrated Social Forestry program (ISFP) had 75 recipients or beneficiaries. A school building was built. Non-governmental organizations, too, did their bit.

Valmores 1997

From Fear to Faith

Story 1 - Their Old Ways

Story 2 - Further Insights

Story 3 - More On Sickness

Story 4 - When the Missionaries First Came

Story 5 - Why The Missionaries Came

Story 6 - Fear to Faith

Story 7 - Too Late

Story 8 - First Higaunon Missionary and Martyr

Story 9 Struggles from Within

Story 10 - Suffering and Growth

Story 11 - Can You Pray With Us?

Story 12 - Grandpa's Request

Story 13 - A Closing Word


August 19, 2004, New Tribe Mission, More Than Just a Sense of Purpose (Bill Hart) by Rhoda Johnson,

September 21st 2005, VenezuelAnalysis, Evangelical Protestants in Venezuela: Robertson Only The Latest Controversy in a Long and Bizarre History, by Nikolas Kozloff, COHA,

October 13, 2005, IPS, Venezuela to Expel U.S. Evangelical Group, by Humberto Márquez,

October 24th 2005, VenezuelaAnalysis, Venezuela's War of Religion, by Nikolas Kozloff,

February 14, 2006, Venezuelanalysis, Final Deadline Passes for US Missionaries to Leave Venezuela, by Alex Holland,

February 16, 2006, Venezuelanalysis, Chavez Saves "The Fierce People" - The Yanomamö, Opinion and Analysis, by Les Blough,

May 9, 2006, COHA, Washington May Soon Try to Pin the Venezuelan Uranium Tail on the Iranian Nuclear Donkey, by COHA Director Larry Birns and Research Fellow Michael Lettieri,

November 27, 2006, CounterPunch, Ecuador and the Contradictions of Chavismo, Nikolas Kozloff,

February 9, 2007, CounterPunch, "If We Have to Die For Our Lands, We Will Die", Nikolas Kozloff,

May 30th, 2009, New Tribes, Saying goodbye is not easy!, by Lance and Laura Ostman,

December 6, 2012, StevenWarRan, Something Evil Lies in the Heart of the New Tribe Missionaries....,

December 13th, 2012, Lance and Laura Ostman NTM, 2012 Blog Updates,

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