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Mother of the Lumads: Bai Bibyaon Likayan Bigkay

Mother of the Lumads: Bai Bibyaon Likayan Bigkay

We do not know how old Manobo leader and tribal chieftain BAI BIBYAON LIKAYAN BIGKAY was when she died last November, surrounded by her loved ones. Sans a birth certificate, Bai Bibyaon  was probably in her mid-90s. Only the Pantaron Mountain Range, her birthplace and home of one of the last remaining virgin forests in the Philippines, and the Manobo ancestral lands would know.

Bai is the honorific term for elder women. Bibyaon means female tribal chieftain. Bai Bibyaon Likayan Bigkay is the first and only woman chieftain in the history of the Manobo people.  The position of tribal chieftain has traditionally only been held by men. The male tribal elders recognized her leadership and defense of her community and they knew a chieftain when they saw one. They named Likayan, a bibyaon.

Google her name and the iconic image of Bibyaon Likayan comes up. She is a regal-looking elder with her tubao (head scarf), beads, necklaces, and bracelets, wearing her red Manobo top, and raising a clenched fist. She has a stern visage, as befits her description of the only living woman warrior of the Lumad. She looks back at you with eyes that tell you that she is not as frail as she looks.

Dee Batnag-Ayroso, from the book of “BAYI: Stories of Luman Women,” told the story of how a young Likayan persuaded the tribal elders to allow her to represent her father in borrowing a horse, a protocol done between adult men only.   Years later, she would stand alongside male elders and younger men, breaking the rule that allowed only men in the battlefield. It was in the 1980s, when she joined the pangayaw with her bangkaw (spear) and pana (bow and arrow) to defend her community against the logging company of Alcantara & Sons (ALSONS). The pangayaw is the traditional Lumad method of resistance, a united stand of nearly 100 tribes against the logging company.

The logging company withdrew, but Bai Bibyaon continued her defense of the land, this time against other logging and mining companies not just in her town, province, or Mindanao but throughout the country.                   

This was also the time of building schools. In 1986, she co-founded the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanugon Council and helped set up Lumad Schools and Learning Centers for indigenous children. The Lumad schools did what the Philippine’s Department of Education never did, which was to make sure that Indigenous children are able to learn in safe, culturally-competent, patriotic, scientific, and service oriented settings, at all grade levels, for free. The success of the Lumad schools did not escape the attention of government and big business.  A literate community, aware of their rights and freedoms was dangerous to plunderers and thugs.  State forces closed nearly 200 Lumad schools. The military attacked these schools, occupied these schools, if it had not destroyed or set them on fire. Then president Rodrigo Duterte threatened to bomb the Lumad schools as part of its counter-insurgency program and accused the schools of teaching communism and rebellion against the government.

Government response was  true to form. It continued to target Indigenous leaders and communities, since the interest from the big corporations in the rich Pantaron Range and ancestral lands never really stopped. The government threatened and filed false criminal charges against the tribal elders, organised paramilitary groups, and recruited from their communities in its divide and rule tactics, and hunted down elder leaders and organizers like a pack of trained mercenary dogs.

In 2003, Bibyaon Likayan served as the founding chairperson of Sabokahan To Mo Lumad Kamalitanan (Sabokahan Unity of Lumad Women) with the vision of Lumad women as leaders, not just participants,  in the fight for self-determination.

In the midst of  intensive military operations and encampment in the Lumad communities in the mid-2000s, Bibyaon Likayan led the Lumads in their evacuations or bakwit to safety. The refuge at the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Haran center in Davao City proved to be temporary because of continued harassment and attacks from the government. In 2015, Lumad groups, together with Bibyaon Likayan, made the journey from Mindanao to Manila in the famous Manilakbayan 2015. They found sanctuary at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. Michael Tan, then Chancellor of UP Diliman, recalled that Bai Bibyaon was a familiar face on campus. Camped out in UP Diliman, Bibyaon Likayan and the Lumad were welcomed as visiting professors who shared their stories and knowledge with the UP students, faculty, staff, and community.

Bibyaon Likayan received many recognitions for defending her people, the land, and the environment:  Most Distinguished Awardee of the Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan (1984); the Gawad Tandang Sora Award from the UP College of Social Work and Community Development (2017; ) the Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan from the Center for Environmental Concerns (2018);  the the Ulirang Nakatatanda Award from  the Coalition of Services for the Elderly (2019) and the  Ginetta Sagan Award from the Amnesty International USA (2022).

Bibyaon Likayan never returned to Mindanao because of red tagging and the threats of arrest, death, or being displayed as a surrenderee.

Bibyaon Likayan believed in the power of her people to rise and prevail, like the Pantaron Range. In a statement she made in 2018, she said:

“Many more leaders from among our people who continue to suffer from hunger, government neglect and military abuses will rise to continue Salugpongan’s legacy of resistance. Hence, to all the Manobo and Lumad people, our resolve must remain unfaltering like the Pantaron on which generations of our people have lived and depended on for generations….We must prevail for as long as the causes of our oppression continue to persist and deny us of the right to live with dignity.”