Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Abiok Ligkaian ‘Bai Bibiaon’ Bigkay had the countenance of a true warrior: fierce, undeterred, and proud.
One of the most respected indigenous people’s leaders in Mindanao, she delivered a precise message to President Rodrigo Duterte during her acceptance speech during the Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan at the University of the Philippines on March 15.
“I want to tell Duterte to end martial law in Mindanao. We just want a peaceful life,” she said in Lumad language.
Such is the fortitude of the sole living female chieftain of the Lumad people of Mindanao.
In Lumad society, women do not traditionally become leaders in the community. While women are treated with respect and share in the load of farm work, becoming a datu is not the charted path for a female Lumad.
Bai Bibiaon, however, was different. Her ability to resolve domestic disputes in their village earned her the respect and adulation of her tribe. She had also advocated for the equal participation of women in their community.
“She became a chieftain because she earned the respect of our community,” said Jong Monzon, secretary general of PASAKA, an organization of Lumads in Davao del Norte, and Bai Bibiaon’s protégé.
Early on, Monzon explained, Bai Bibiaon successfully kept the peace in their village by amicably negotiating cases of “wife-stealing” — incidents where a married woman was courted off by another man. These disputes, Monzon said, could trigger war among tribes if they are not effectively settled.
Her strong leadership during these disputes would prove to be valuable when the community had to assert its right to its ancestral domain.
A true ‘bagani’
In 1991, Mindanao-based C. Alcantara and Sons (Alsons Group), a producer of plywood and other timber products, began to encroach on the neighboring villages of the Matigsalog-Manobo and Ata-Manobo tribes in Talaingod, Davao del Norte. The company, which was implementing its Integrated Forest Management Agreement that it had entered with the government, was widening the territory of its commercial timber operations.
The Lumads, however, rejected the advances of Alsons into their ancestral domain. “We did not want to sell our land,” Bibiaon said.
Three years later, high-ranking village datus from different tribes formed an organization called the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanugon or Unity In Defense of Ancestral Land to fight off the attacks and harassment of the company. The chieftains, in a sacred ceremony, then declared a “pangayaw” or tribal war against the Alsons Group.
With nothing but spears and arrows, the Lumad people fought armed soldiers and workers of the Alsons Group. Bibiaon was naturally at the forefront of the tribal war.
While she had been tasked with obtaining food for the frontline warriors, she used her inconspicuousness to spy on the enemy while she was foraging for food. Security guards of the Alson Group never suspected her to be a warrior, Monzon said.
The intelligence she brought regarding the locations of the Alsons soldiers was very important for the Lumad’s strategy, he said.
“For us, she is a bagani — a sacred term we use to call our warriors,” he added.
Attacks against Lumad schools
Bibiaon continued to fight for their people’s right to self-determination in the 1990s until the present. She became the leader of various Lumad organizations that have staunchly opposed the entry of businesses into the Pantaron mountain range — one of the last remaining virgin forests in the country, which covers six provinces in Mindanao.
Despite having seen and fought several wars in her lifetime, it is the continued attacks by military and paramilitary units against Lumad schools and activists that may be the greatest challenge yet for the female chieftain.
In May 2015, a series of attacks and harassment by military and paramilitary units forced many tribes from Bukidnon, Davao del Norte, and Surigao del Sur to seek refuge in nearby capital cities.
“We just want to educate our children so that they may be able to defend our ancestral lands in the future.”
Government defense units were accused of killing Lumad leaders and children. In response, soldiers said that they had only killed members of the New People’s Army. The insurgent group, however, denied these charges.
Bai Bibiaon, along with her relatives, then fled to an evacuation center in Davao City, where she is still residing.
She denies that teachers and students in their tribal schools have ties to the NPA, a claim President Rodrigo seems to ignore.
“Leave. I'm telling those in the Lumad schools now, get out. I'll bomb you … I will use the Armed Forces, the Philippine Air Force. Because you are operating illegally and you are teaching the children to rebel against government,” Duterte said in a press conference held after his State of the Nation Address last year.
The schools, which were built through an initiative led by Bibiaon herself in 2001, only exist to provide Lumad children with free education because the government had not built schools in their far-flung villages, Monzon said.
‘We are her children’
Bibiaon, who had never married or had children, said she chose to live her life for her people. “She once told me she did not get married and have children because we are already her children,” Monzon shared.
In Bibiaon’s speech to the audience at UP, Bibiaon said she hopes the youth would continue the fight of the Lumad for self-determination. She said that the Lumad schools, in fact, were built so that they could educate the future leaders of their communities.
“We just want to educate our children so that they may be able to defend our ancestral lands in the future,” she said.
This article was originally published in CNN Philippines Life.