(From Verbal Arts of Philippine Indigenous Communities by Herminia Menez-Coben)
The Buaya, crocodile people of the Northern Kalinga, have an epic heroine who was a headhunter as well as a shaman who danced on the edge of axes and tips of spears (58).
Her name is Emla in the Kalinga epic, gasumbi. In the epic, Emla and her female cousin, whose brothers Gawa and Battawa, are in the same epic cycle, the epic singer depicts the heroine as capable of heroism that is normally attributed to men only. She hesitates at first but then undertakes to lead the headhunting expeditition by: reading the omens; commands her pet crocodiles to ferry her fearful partner across the river; and as soon as she spots the victim she shouts, "I shall strike first!" As the head falls, she cries "The crocodile hit you through this woman, Emla!" She invokes her village affiliation as a member of a fearless people, Buaya, named after the fiercest animal in the Cordillera. Emla carries the severed head back to the village while the cousin brings the victim's heirlooms.
Emla's recitation of the palpaliwat/raiding boast in the epic represents transgressive performance that points to a deeper meaning of her role as shaman and warrior.
The performance of the raiding boast by heroine of the Buaya epic is anomalous since in real life only men can participate in palpaliwat. But the gasumbi singer is a woman and could have reinterpreted warrior politics as a genre of her own creation. Singers portray Emla as a true dulliyaw, a fearless warrior in the epic. Gawa, the brother, even relinquishes the center stage to Emla in the epic.
In another episode, Emla and her cousin kill two male village leaders that even their brothers never dared to attack.
Emla is not only a killer but a life-giver. Emla as shaman and warrior departs from the pattern (men-centered) as the gasumbi celebrates women's unique achievement as healer and seer, not as a child bearer.
Among the buwaya, female sexuality was not linked with reproductive ability but with shamanistic power. The most powerful magical woman, like the bravest headhunters, possessed the greatest sexual allure as depicted in the erotic embrace of the dancing warrior and shaman during the headhunting feast.
"The sacrificial efficacy of the Buaya festival to dedicate the head involves a miming of erotic excitement."
Among the Buaya and Buaya only, a female shaman accompanied the headhunters to enemy territory to cast the first spear.
The gasumbi singer portrays the epic heroine who kills and also resuscitates (life-giving). Taking a life in order to live (ref origin of the headhunt). (63)
Headhunting among Buaya declined in the 1930s and had not completely vanished in the mid 1960s while the gasumbi was still performed.
The last headhunter killed 10 in 1964.
There were still female shamans who officiated in the traditional rites.
The epic singer who is also a female shaman had a vested interest in keeping alive not only the verbal art but the practice of headhunting itself.
Buaya shaman is called dorrakit in Isneg.
Severed head = ritual payment to the spirits
Shamans as cultural brokers. Later Buaya shamans substituted human fingers, human hair mounted on carved wood, as substitute (77).
There was a time when I didn't bother to learn about our verbal arts among indigenous folks. I was a product of a colonial (mis)education, after all. Now that I am trying to learn and understand the indigenous paradigm, I could read about these practices and glean from the fragments gems that I recognize and even sense in my own body and psyche.
Emla - warrior and shaman of the Buaya in northern Kalinga. She who remains alive in the epic...she who remains potent even through the silencing of the practice that has been made illegal by the modern state.
I recall Renato Rosaldo's story about headhunting and grief as he did his research among the Ilonggots. He lost his wife in that trek as she fell to her death off a cliff. In that moment, he said, he understood what the headhunters have told him all along: 'we need a container for our grief'...
In the indigenous world view there is reciprocity and the understanding of sacrifice - taking a life to sustain life - as something that is part of what it means to sustain life on this side of the world. We give and we take to maintain balance.
How did we lose this respect for the intimacy of death? How did we come to call it violent?
Rosaldo, returning to the Iloggot village years later, asked the folks what they remembered of the old days. The folks refused to talk. "We are christian now," they said, and "we no longer practice our heathen ways." But they also said, "it pains us to remember who we used to be; please do not ask us anymore."
I read about it all the time: the pain of remembering what was been lost on the road to civilization.
When does remembering give way to the healing of those violent memories? Can we still walk on the same road? If not, what is this alternative road?
No, I wouldn't go back to the days of headhunting. That is not what re-indigenization means.