Water is a repository of life. For the Cordillera region, no body of water bears more importance than the Chico River. Spanning the provinces of Mountain Province, Kalinga and Cagayan, the Chico River bears a brutal history for the Cordillera people’s movement. Beyond a site of life, lore, and livelihood, the river was pillaged under the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos during the failed Chico River Dam Project. Now, the river is colored with the violent struggle for self-determination for the Cordillera people.
In the comic book “Dawwang: Kababaihang Tagapagtanggol ng Kordilyera,” these events are revisited by local independent feminist publisher Gantala Press and illustrated by Nina Martinez. “Dawwang” is the Naneng word for “ilog,” underscoring the river’s significance as a body of water that sits through ancestral domains for the Cordillera people. The book is also the Filipino version of the comic, which has previously been published in English as “Let The River Flow Free” and “Lasst Den Fluss Fliessen” in German as part of the “Movements and Movements — Feminist Generations of the Goethe Institut-Indonesien” project.
Carving a space for Indigenous women
Comics historically, are a medium for superheroes. By design, superheroes are large-scale representations of human possibility molded by the impossible. More often than not, their fates are dictated by origin stories shaped by scientific intervention or magical misfortune. Rarely do we enjoy a comic that crafts a tale grounded in reality, moreso one that concerns a hero for a group of people who have been systematically oppressed. In this way, the book also historicizes a story that has been preserved by the Cordillera people, with an emphasis on the role Indigenous women played in the Chico River Dam struggle.
Throughout “Dawwang,” we follow the protagonist Sierra who visits imprisoned activist and human rights defender Beatrice “Betty” Belen in October 2020, in Tafuk, Kalinga. Manang Betty is an Igorot leader who has tirelessly fought to protect her ancestral lands in Kalinga, leading the resistance against a geothermal project by Chevron Energy Company in her province and has been subjected to red-tagging and allegedly trumped-up charges. She was released in February 2021, after the Kalinga court dropped charges of illegal possession of firearms. Sierra learns about the proposed dismantling of Cordillera Heroes’ Monument which pays tribute to Lumbaya Gayudan, Pedro Dungoc, Macli-ing Dulag — the slain leader whose death at the hands of the state forces in 1980 served as a powderkeg to the Cordillera people’s unification against state forces who had been encroaching upon their lands for years.
She then asks Manang Tiling to tell her the story of the Chico River Dam struggle of which she was part of, with the narrative then oscillating between the present and an account of the past. “Mahirap bang intindihin kung paano natin nakikita ang mundo?” Manang Tining asks. The comic recalls the state-sponsored violence espoused during Chico River Dam project, a proposed hydroelectric power generation project that would have destroyed the culture, livelihoods and ancestral domains of the Kalinga people.
The comic builds on the world within the literature, featuring a map of the Cordillera Region and a glossary on the first page to ground the reader in its specific cultural context. Translations and definitions for words like “bodong” (peace talks), “pangat” (village elders) and “surchachu” (government soldier) greet the reader in its first pages. “Bagong presidente” refers to Corazon Aquino and “Presidente” refers to Marcos, molding the time that passes by while effectively drawing comparisons between the past and the glaring truth of how little has changed in the present. More than simply narrating events, the comic does not pander to any specific audience but rather, amplifies the voices directly involved in the story without isolating the reader. It’s as if Manang Tining is telling us the story herself.
Honoring the role of Indigenous women
“Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable, being subjected to multiple forms of oppression: as indigenous, as women, and as poor and deprived sectors of society,” Executive Director of Philippine Task Force for Indigenous Peoples Rights (TFIP), Jill Cariño outlines in the book’s introduction. These markers of identity for Indigenous women bind them to systemic oppression, often excluding them from basic rights like availing education, health services and their general recognition as vital actors to society.
In “Dawwang,” their history is rewritten with the recognition of being at the forefront of defense during the struggle. The “lusay” is chronicled, an act thought to bring bad luck wherein elderly women collectively disrobe, which is done in protest against the soldiers and government personnel attacking them. Barricades of defense, marching to Camp Duyan in the middle of the night, taking up arms against the soldiers — all with Indigenous women at the helm. The comic does not stray away from bringing to light the harassment, sexual violence and murder of the women either, crafting painful vignettes of the realities Indigenous women, especially those that local leaders and human rights defenders face today.
While the Chico River Dam project is remembered as a landmark win for Indigenous people, their fight to self-determination and their ancestral domains, its legacy is one that continues to unfold. The movement was instrumental in the passing of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) in 1997, a law that required Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) from Indigenous people affected by development projects on ancestral domains. Yet today, many groups still face threats of displacement and harassment. The Duterte administration’s China-funded Chico River Pump Irrigation Project revisits the wound left in the wake of the Cordillera people’s ancestors, along with other ecologically destructive projects like the proposed Upper Tabuk Dam and larger Karayan Dam. Projects like these, coupled with new laws allowing for 100% foreign ownership in geothermal projects, disproportionately impact Indigenous people, ecological defenders and Indigenous women who take up roles of both and more. "Dawwang" leaves us to ponder on a truth that haunts us all: “Ang lupa lamang ang magpkailanman.”
Purchase a copy of “Dawwang” here. Proceeds will support the projects and campaigns of Innabuyog-Kalinga, a regional alliance of Indigenous women’s organizations in Kalinga-Apayao.