“Dawwang” is the Naneng tribe’s term for “river.” There is no question about the importance of the Chico River and the land surrounding it to the Indigenous agricultural communities of Cordillera. The river, the forests and the plains are unequivocally their sources of life.
In Gantala Press’ comic book “Dawwang,” Naneng leader Leticia “Tining” Bula-at gives her account of the Kalinga people’s decades-long fight as these sources of life continue to be forcibly taken away.
“Dawwang” is written by the feminist indie publisher Gantala Press and illustrated by Nina Martinez. It’s the Filipino version of the comic, which was published in English as “Let The River Flow Free” and German as “Lasst Den Fluss Fliessen” under Goethe Institut Indonesien’s “Movements and Moments – Feminist Generations” project.
In the comic, Manang Tining historicizes the role Indigenous women have played in the Cordillera people’s struggle to defend ancestral land from being submerged by the Chico River Dam Project. The relatively short comic manages to take us through the violence and destruction they have endured from the ’70s to the present day.
Although filled with injustices, the sprawling, beautifully illustrated narrative isn’t a sob story nor a romanticization of the sacrifices that their tribes have made. It is an emotional, daring, and indignant call for solidarity. “Nagluksa ang bayan, ngunit hindi ito tumangis,” Manang Tining says in the comic, reiterating a line often told by village elders when Martial Law-era Indigenous leader Macli-ing Dulag was slain.
The book begins with a young woman visiting Innabuyog-Kalinga leader Beatrice “Betty” Belen in prison. Manang Betty led the resistance against Chevron Energy company’s geothermal project and the human rights violations committed against the people of her village in Tabuk City, Kalinga. She was released in February 2021 after the court dismissed charges of illegal possession of explosives filed against her by the Philippine National Police. It is one of many cases of non-bailable, allegedly trumped-up charges being filed to suppress peasant organizers and activists.
In the scene that follows, the same woman relays to Manang Tining details of her visit as well as the demolition of the Chico Dam heroes monument. “Bakit papatayin ulit ang mga yumao na?” says the veteran leader in response before retelling the story of her people.
Manang Tining recalls their actions of resistance and the harassment they suffered. This included building barricades to prevent the entry of soldiers looking to build military camps in their villages and refusing bribes from the likes of then Presidential Assistant for National Minorities (PANAMIN) Manuel “Manda” Elizalde.
The comic is filled with both horrific and awe-inspiring stories. There’s a mention of an Indigenous woman whose body was sexually violated after she was shot dead. There’s an anecdote on a lusay—a collective act where elderly women disrobed in front of soldiers and government personnel to cast bad luck and protest.
The shelving of the Chico River Dam project was a landmark victory for the people of Cordillera, but the Duterte administration’s Chico River Pump Irrigation Project poses a new threat. The Chinese-financed river pump, along with new laws signed to remove importation restrictions and allow 100% foreign ownership of geothermal projects, are contrary to sustainability and pose socioeconomic dangers to so many families. If Indigenous communities are willing to fight for land and life, perhaps so should all of us.
You can get your copy of “Dawwang” here. Proceeds of the book will benefit Innabuyog-Kalinga’s campaigns against development aggression and Gantala Press’s production of books that contribute to the calls of marginalized communities.