Bibiaon remembers a childhood and early adulthood of relative ease. Accepting the role of tagahusay (arbiter) early on was not difficult, for problems were rare and conflicts could easily be settled. Everyday life consisted of gathering food from their farms and crafting daily needed objects such as clothing. What they couldn’t make themselves they obtained by trade. Bibiaon remembers a young Tagabawa who came into their domain bringing a much-sought-after item – salt – which, in turn, came from Muslim traders living on the coast. As Bibiaon tells it, this young man would become one of the greatest leaders of the Tagabawa Bagobos in recent times – Datu Tomas Ito, a staunch opponent of the Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC) geothermal plant that was placed within their domain at the foot of Mt. Apo in 1989.
By the early 1970s Bai Bibiaon must have already been a well-known tagahusay and must have already possessed a certain level of prestige, for when Datu Lorenzo Gawilan launched his uprising, he invited her and her brothers to join him. Datu Gawilan, a fellow Matigsalug Manobo, decided to take up arms after settlers and government soldiers began taking over the Simod Valley in Bukidnon.
According to Irina Wenk’s study, the uprising was violent but brief, lasting but a few months in 1975. The Marcos government granted Gawilan’s demand to remove the settlers, and his surrender to no less than Marcos himself in Malacañang was a media coup designed to show the dictatorship’s benevolence towards cultural minorities. The Simod Valley then became the first “strategic hamlet” in Bukidnon administered by the notorious PANAMIN under Manuel Elizalde, Jr., and is now known as Sinuda.
This account would explain the prominence of the Gawilans in Sinuda in any historical study of the Matigsalug. What did not make it into the written documents was what happened to the other baganis that joined Gawilan’s uprising, including Bibiaon and her brothers. Bibiaon proudly says that they did not join that thing they called “surrender” (Waru koy man nigduma tog ngaran og surrender, waru koy surrender…). Instead, they withdrew back into the Pantaron mountain range, their traditional refuge, where, though life was harder, they were able to genuinely maintain their way of life. For Bai Bibiaon, this meant continuing as a tagahusay, but this time, with a group of other women who formed a sort of jury that heard cases of grave import (this appears to be a singular phenomenon in lumad legal anthropology and political history).
Sometime during this decade, Bai Bibiaon recounted the curious story of how she met a group of non-Manobos in the mountains who called themselves “Ki-im” and who said that they were there to help the poor. Bibiaon must have met some of the first New People’s Army guerillas deployed to organize Mindanao, some from as far away as Luzon, for she recalls that some spoke only Tagalog. In a moment of wild (historical) imagination, we thought that maybe she had even met the poet Eman Lacaba, who was martyred in Davao Oriental in 1976; we scrambled around for his book of writings that bore his photograph and showed it to her. Bai Bibiaon, unperturbed by the crescendoing anticipation, simply said no, he wasn’t one of them.
After Gawilan, a succession of other bagani rose to head their defense of their territory and way of life. While some would weaken, others would stay resolved, such as Bibiaon and her brothers, especially after one of her brothers was killed by men associated with the PANAMIN.
But beyond this personal grievance, Bibiaon was early on already aware, at some level, of the dynamics between her people (those within her immediate sphere of influence), other Matigsalug (like the Gawilans), outsiders with corporate interests, and the government. She distinguished between having a shaky conviction vulnerable to compromise (waru natooni ton barug), and a firm, exact stand (insakto won no kabarugan) – namely, that of never giving away your homeland (kono ipamohoy ka ingod).
This principle she had in common with others who would soon approach her to form a united alliance in defense of the Manobo ancestral domain. Sometime in 1994, the wife of Datu Guibang Apoga sought her out to entreat her to support her husband, then already a wanted man after he launched a pangayaw against the logging company Alcantara and Sons or Alsons. Alsons had been encroaching on their lands under the government’s (thru the Department of Environment and Natural Resources [DENR]) Industrial Forest Management Agreement (IFMA). Datu Guibang hails from the Langilan River, and along with other datus representing dozens of other villages across different river systems, he took up arms (their traditional bangkaw or spear, kalasag or shield, and lit-ag, traps and snares) to actively drive away the men and machines that have come to cut their trees and take over their land.
The two leaders then secretly met, and an alliance was forged in defense of their territory. By this time environmental NGOs, support groups, and other concerned individuals, many of whom also tried in vain to stop the PNOC geothermal plant from punching holes in Mt. Apo along with Tomas Ito, have begun to take up Guibang’s cause. They linked with Bibiaon and other lumad leaders who were not forced into hiding, and they were able to raise the issue of Alcantara and Sons’ environmental trespass at the national level. This legal and extra-legal struggle would count as one of the genuine lumad victories where the company-aggressor was actually forced to pull out of the indigenous domain, and it resulted in the formation of the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanugon, today the primary organization for self-determination not just of the Matiglangilan or Matigsalug Manobos, but of many other groups that call the Pantaron their homeland.
These are just but snippets of Bai Bibiaon’s extraordinary life, and there are dozens of lessons and insights that could be drawn, but I would just like to highlight three that we extrapolated from our hours of interviews that I consider to be urgent.
The first relates to the consistent trend of State-supported indigenous communities (especially those in conflict areas) to assert a certain kind of indiginism that called for complete autonomy from each other (or, in the more impactful Tagalog, walang pakialaman). This was starkly shown during the last dialogue here in Davao with Mayor Duterte and between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and datus from militarized IP communities, of which I had written about before (see Thoughts During a “Dialogue” ). The tribal leaders on the AFP’s side insisted upon “to each his own” as their version of “self-determination”. I have already argued that this is the logic not of the lumad, but of the State, for lumad history and experience have shown a long train of connections and linkages, of cooperation during times of peace (Tomas Ito and other Tagabawas trading with the Matigsalug) and times of war (Guibang Apoga seeking an alliance with Bibiaon). In one panubad-tubad, or prayer, we heard Bai Bibiaon utter, she invoked both the Pantaron and Apo Sandawa, domains of many different groups united in the great effort to retain their cultural integrity since the arrival of colonizers until today. “To each his own” simply does not make any sense, and benefits only those in hegemonic positions through the creation of paramilitary monsters like the Alamara and the consecration of “tribal dealers” (as opposed to leaders) who are squarely under their influence and in their pocket.
The second is the formula that Bai Bibiaon and her kin came up with in response to these active attempts of the State to coopt them. She distinguished between a “shaky” and a “firm” stand, and they chose the virtue of uncompromising struggle. In a verbal aside that we unwittingly recorded, she advised Teody, our long-time interpreter and a young lumad leader from Talaingod: “Never mind if you do not have full knowledge of things, as long as you make a firm stand”, (balagad ku kag pakasabot, basta koykow insakto won no kabaruganan).
This is a very important line for our present information-obsessed world: one does not accumulate knowledge about the state of the world, and then only afterwards resolve to stand for equality and human liberation. What tends to happen in that one simply goes on and on, seduced (or overwhelmed) by an infinity of information, which stunts action.
In the headlines and other historical instances, these are manifested when issues are framed under what are the guarantees of winning or losing (think of the ilustrados and the fence-sitting elite during the Philippine Revolution, or of the Department of Foreign Affairs when they told Mary Jane Veloso’s mother Celia that she better just accept her daughter’s fate), and in a world where many of my students say that they will study first then serve the people later, this is but the strongest admonishment of people and circumstances that choose to play safe (or, let’s do a survey first).
For Bai Bibiaon, the only way to generate liberative knowledge and ideas is in the course of her and her people’s struggle. The firm political decision that equality and liberation is what makes humans human comes first, and only after that can one love having true knowledge of the world. This is progressive thinking to the highest degree, formulated not via a studied reading of classical political tomes, but from actual lived experience.
Indeed (and this is third), progressive forces can learn so much by listening to Bai Bibiaon’s (and others like her) own words. To give just one example, throughout our interviews, her poetics and her rootedness in her culture was reflected in her repeated use of the “house” metaphor, of building a new society the way one would build a house – not by oneself but through collective work by family members and village mates (she tells Teody, you cannot carry the post for the house by yourself [kono pakakaya ogtiang tu guod]). Such an image will no doubt echo not just among indigenous peoples, but among the other basic sectors that must be organized: peasants, workers, even the petite-bourgeoisie in the cities who, at the very least, are commonly faced with high rents and even the possibility of homelessness. To immediately label indigenous culture as unscientific and backward is the result of a facile understanding of dialectics, and shuts out such a rich trove of concepts and ideas and even beliefs that can make our struggle for a better life so much more meaningful and resonant.