A guiding light

“When I leave here, I will become a guiding light for you all. Don’t give up, but continue the struggle,” were reportedly among Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay’s last words to her loved ones before she died last November 20.

The first and only woman warrior chieftain of the Lumad led her people in resisting the plunder of their ancestral domain by corporations and their mercenaries all her life.

Photo by Kilab Multimedia/Image by Jo Maois Mamangun.

Bai Bibyaon, warrior chieftain of the Lumad, dies

Celebrated woman Lumad chieftain Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay has died, grassroots indigenous women’s organization Sabokahan IP Women announced Wednesday, December 6.

Bigkay died surrounded by loved ones last November 20, the group said. The cause of her death was not given. She is believed to be about 90 years old at the time of her death.

In accordance with the leader’s wishes, she was buried in an undisclosed location soon after her death, Sabokahan IP Women said.

Born in Natulinan, Talaingod, Davao del Norte, Bigkay first gained prominence in the 1980s when she led a pangayaw, a traditional war, against the company Alcantara & Sons they accused of excessive logging operations in the ancestral domain of the Matigsalug-Manobo tribe.

As the first ever woman chieftain of the tribe, Bigkay was credited for uniting, empowering, and rallying the Lumad across villages to stand up to the loggers.

“This victory against large-scale logging protected old-growth forest, which is the home of Lumad and whose biodiversity is vital in mitigating climate change [impacted] not only the Philippines but across Asia,” Sabokahan IP Women said in its announcement and tribute.

After the fall of the Ferdinand Marcos Sr. dictatorship in 1986, Bigkay became part of the Mindanao Peoples Federation (LMPF) Assembly to resist threats of ethnocide against indigenous peoples.

It was the assembly that resolved to use the collective term “Lumad” to claim political power and unifying identity to the 18 ethno-linguistic tribes of Mindanao.

It was not only in the defense of the Lumad and their ancestral domain however that Bigkay gained prominence throughout the years.

Education and child rights advocate

Bigkay was instrumental in the establishment of the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanugon council that built more that 50 Salugpungan Lumad schools and learning centers in Pantaron and other indigenous communities  throughout the island, Sabokahan IP Women said.

A personal advocacy to the Bibyaon (chieftain) was the elimination of the traditional “buya,” child marriage and arranged marriage, and urged her fellow Lumad to send their children to school instead.

Bigkay understood that Lumad families often marry off their daughters in response to conditions of extreme poverty and hunger and the schools she helped establish was aimed at transforming the role of girls in society.

“Rather than being confined to domestic roles and marriage, they could now become community health workers, teach scientific sustainable farming methods to improve the community’s food security, and school teachers,” the group said.

Bigkay Bai was later involved in the creation of national indigenous peoples’ organizations KATRIBU Kalipunan ng Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas and SANDUGO Movement of Moro and Indigenous Peoples for Self-Determination.

In 2003, she was the founding chairperson of Sabokahan To Mo Lumad Kamalitanan or “Sabokahan Unity of Lumad Women.”

Fighting ‘til the end

Even in her advancing years, Bigkay resisted further exploitation and militarization of their ancestral demands, leading the Lumad in their evacuation to Davao City and Luzon and in their national and international campaigns for justice.

“As a prominent figure in the fight for women, indigenous and environmental rights, Bai posed a haunting threat to the multinational companies and complicit politicians who actively attempt to plunder Mindanao’s estimated $1 trillion worth of natural resources. This made her a prime target for red-tagging, threat, and surveillance especially under following the Duterte administration’s declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, passage of the Anti Terror Law, and creation of the National Task Force To End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC),” Sabokahan IP Women said.

Bigkay has never returned to Mindanao since 2018 due to threats of arrest and detention as the military did with her relatives who were forced to sign affidavits calling for her “immediate rescue.”

For her lifelong struggle for her people, Bigkay was celebrated as the Most Distinguished Awardee of the Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan or “Environmental Heroes Award” in 1984 and again in 2018.

Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay (4th from left) receving the Gawad Tandang Sora from the University of the Philippines. (R. Villanueva/Kodao)

In 2017, she received the Gawad Tandang Sora Award from the University of the Philippines Diliman College of Social Work and Community Development.

READ: Woman warrior of Talaingod is 2017 Gawad Tandang Sora awardee

In 2019, she received the Ulirang Nakatatanda Award by the Coalition of Services of the Elderly as well as the Ginetta Sagan Award by Amnesty International USA in 2022.

“When I leave here, I will become a guiding light for you all. Don’t give up, but continue the struggle,” Bigkay uttered in her final days, Sabokahan IP Women said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

‘Wala silang pagrespeto sa akin at sa aking katribu’

“Wala silang pagrespeto sa akin at sa aking katribu dahil tingin nila sa akin ay walang kakayahan upang mag-pasya. Naging lider ako ng aking katribu dahil alam nila na ako ay may kakayahan na mamuno upang depensahan ang aming lupain. Nagreresolba ako ng problema sa aming komunidad dahil alam nila na mapapadali ang pag-aayos. Alam kong hindi mapagkakatiwalaan ang mga susundo dahil sila ang dahilan ng aming pagbakwit at sila din ang protektor sa mga kompanyang gustong mandambong sa aming mga lupang ninuno.”Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay, Lider Lumad sa Pantaron Mountain Range

UP CSWCD names Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay 2017 Gawad Tandang Sora honoree

The College of Social Work and Community Development of UP Diliman named Manobo leader Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay as its third Gawad Tandang Sora recipient as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations this year.

Bigkay was cited for her leadership in the Indigenous People’s struggles for human rights and dignity. Read more

Woman warrior of Talaingod is 2017 Gawad Tandang Sora awardee

BAI BIBYAON LIGKAYAN BIGKAY was early for the nine o’clock ceremony at the University of the Philippines-Diliman College of Social Work and Community Development (CSWCD) today. She sat at the front row of the hall, flanked by her two companions and interpreters, a Manobo Datu and a Catholic nun, patiently waiting for the people who are to present her the 2017 Gawad Tandang Sora.

There is little in her calm demeanor that showed she was aware the flurry of preparations in the entire hall was in her behalf, that the huge event was to hail her as the Melchora “Tandang Sora” Aquino of the current and troubled times.  Ligkayan Bigkay is just the third recipient of the award given by the CSWD only during momentous occasions. The first awardee, the brave academic Prof. Flora Lansang who fought against Martial Law, was honored during UP’s centennial celebrations in 2008.  The second awardee, Salve Basyang, tireless advocate of the rights and welfare of women and the elderly, was honored during the bicentenary celebrations of the birth of Tandang Sora in 2012.

There were fears the 92-year old third honoree (earlier reports of her age varied from 70 to more than a hundred) would not make it to the occasion because she had been ill.  Sr. Noemi Degala, SMSM, one of her companions on the trip and interpreter, explained the Bai is complaining of joint pains. “It is most probably brought about by her advanced age,” Sr. Noemi said. But Bai Ligkayan made it, garbed in the traditional red and black Manobo dress and resplendent with the ginibang bead necklace and bead wristband.  Unmarried, she still honors the Manobo tradition of wearing only two bead ornaments on her body, not even the tangkuro, exclusive to datus and chieftains like her. There were the inevitable requests for “selfies” with the guest of honor and she obliged, occasionally raising her clenched fist, like on the posters featuring her around the big venue and on the front cover of the ceremony programme.

When the program finally began, several short videos about the Lumad struggles were shown.  Bai Ligkayan remained quiet, even when the audience laughed and applauded the video of her berating North Cotabato Representative Nancy Catamco at their Haran, Davao City sanctuary.  The confrontation was the only time she was recorded livid, reducing the national government official to momentary and stunned submission as the Bibyaon threw the proffered water bottle at the congresswoman’s feet before stomping off.  But the usually reserved Bai grew animated when a music video was shown of Lumad children running, jumping and playing indigenous percussion instruments.  She slightly swayed her shoulders and nodded her head to the music, before returning to her calm demeanor.  She even declined an invitation to join the dance by invited artists from the College of Human Kinetics, gesturing to her aching right knee in refusal.

A cascade of tributes

When the time came to present the award, epithets echoed around the hall.  Gawad Tandang Sora Committee chairperson and Social Work and Community Development Secretary Judy Taguiwalo said Bai Ligkayan was chosen from among the nominees because she had the vision and courage to fight for her people.  “She is the mother of the Lumad,” Taguiwalo told the audience.  CSWD Dean Jocelyn Caragay said the awardee by her life and struggles enliven the college’s spirit for the underserved. UP Diliman Chancellor Michael Tan for his part explained his administration’s practice to host indigenous peoples in their annual “Lakbayan” to Metro Manila. “The indigenous peoples are the visiting professors of the university whenever they visit us. Bai Bibyaon is the Chancellor,” Tan said to laughter and applause by the audience.

Sr. Noemi’s introduction of the honoree was most accorded rapt attention by the audience. She said Bai Ligkayan is known by many names.

“By the Indigenous Peoples of Mindanao, she is called the ‘Woman Warrior of Talaingod’.  To women’s groups, she is the ‘Gabriela Silang of Mindanao’.  Today, she is to be honored as CSWCD’s ‘Tandang Sora’.  By the Philippine government she has been called a ‘rebel’.  By social workers of the previous (government) administrations, she was ‘a victim of a large-scale kidnapping disguised as internally-displaced’.  And by the paramilitary Alamara, ‘a coveted trophy for war’,” Sr. Noemi said.

The nun asked, “Who is this leader of the perennially-displaced Manobos of the Pantaron (mountain) Range to deserve this tribute? Who is this woman who dwells among the outcasts to come to Manila, the seat of political power and might?  Who is this literacy-challenged leader whose education is at ‘UP’–the University of Pantaron—to be feted by the University of the Philippines?”

Sr. Noemi revealed that Bigkay does not even have a birth certificate to reveal her true age and her parents’ names.  “The nameless is now being called names.  And what an honor indeed that she is named as today’s Tandang Sora, the revolutionary woman who embodied our recent centenary as a nation.  It was perhaps fortuitous that the moment Melchora Aquino died in 1919 was probably about the same decade that Bai Bibyaon was born,” she said.

The nun drew parallelisms why the elderly Manobo woman from the hinterlands of Davao del Norte traveled to the UP campus located just a few kilometers away from where Melchora Aquino succored the Katipunan wounded and within sight of the avenue named after the “grand old lady of the Philippine revolution.”

“Tandang Sora was the revolutionary woman of the national democratic revolution of the past. Bai Bibyaon is the revolutionary woman of today’s ongoing and raging national democratic revolution with a socialist perspective and socialist practice. This distinction given to Bai Bibyaon is only possible because she has stood as the leader for the nameless, the lowly, and the cast out. To students of history the award is an affirmation of the principle that the masses make history,” the Mindanaoan nun said.

Offers back her flower bouquet

The audience was on its feet by the time Sr. Noemi reverently pronounced Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay’s name to signify the award was about to be formally bestowed next.  The honoree, who only speaks and understands the Talaingod Manobo language, was the last to stand up, seemingly unsure that the loud applause was for and about her.  When she finally made her way onto the bedecked stage, she was uncertain on where to stand, looking at her companions, Sr. Noemi and fellow Manobo chieftain Datu Aylo Buntolan, as if asking why aren’t they joining her onstage.  They later did. True to character, Bai Ligkayan did not smile even once, most unusual of any honoree in any awarding ceremony.  The Bibyaon only had her iconic determined look, showing the reason why she is being honored–her resistance against all forms of abuse and exploitation against her people–is more a reason for struggle and less of celebration.

The text on the certificate was equally glowing.  It said CSWCD’s 2017 Gawad Tandang Sora was being given Bai Ligkayan for her fight for the Lumad’s rights and dignity.  Indeed, no one carries the Lumad struggle for human rights and self-determination with more dignity that Bigkay, more so when she raised her clenched fist for the assembled academics, students, officials, former CSWCD deans, staff and alumni of UP.  Her iconic salute was borne by her people’s history of struggle at the other UP in the highlands of southern Mindanao.

The awardee only had a short speech as a response to the honor just bestowed her.  Datu Aylo’s translation from Manobo to Visayan and Sr. Noemi’s translation from Visayan to English took more time.  The awardee first remarked on her long name, which refers not only to her person but her people’s culture.  She explained that her first name is “Ligkayan” and her family name is “Bigkay”.  “Bai” is a dignified honorific to Mindanao women of stature while “Bibyaon” is her title by acclamation as her tribe’s chieftain, forced to lead when their Datus have died defending their land and people by government forces in the service of mining and logging interests decades ago. She is the Talaingod Manobo Bai and Bibyaon, who to this day leads her people against the same forces of injustice and death.

Ligkayan Bigkay thanked the CSWCD for the recognition of her contributions to her people’s struggles for self-determination.  In the second part of her speech, the oldest person in the hall addressed herself to the youth and students present.  She called on them to help the indigenous peoples defend the environment and the future as well as to contribute to the poor people’s struggles for social justice and liberation in the countryside.

Sr. Noemi struggled to capture and convey the depth of Bai’s words and admitted failure.  “Let my deep sigh represent the depth of what she said,” the missionary nun said.  She revealed that Bai Ligkayan is in fact being hunted by the military at the Pantaron Range exactly for the reasons that she is feted by the country’s premiere university.

After her speech, Ligkayan Bigkay went on showing the audience what her greatness was all about. When asked to pose for photos with her bouquet of flowers she did not want the moment to be all her own, just as she refused all the accolades given her in the past be about her alone.  She reached out and took the hands of a person who always welcomed them on campus, their ally, the surprised Chancellor Tan, who was seated nearby.

“I was touched by the gesture.  I believe she sees me either as a son or a fellow elderly.  But it also means we are very good friends,” Tan said.

Earlier, when she stepped away from the podium and was being escorted back to her seat, the bouquet of flowers earlier given her was put back on her arms.  She looked at them briefly and then offered it to Secretary Taguiwalo, a gesture that could only mean she is sharing the adulation being showered her with a kindred soul, a comrade, a fellow woman warrior. But Taguiwalo had to decline.

It was Taguiwalo who voiced how the audience felt.  “The truth is, by receiving the award, Bai Bibyaon is bestowing us honor as a college,” Taguiwalo said. # (Report and photos by Raymund B. Villanueva)