But mambabatok also transformed girls into women through the beautiful and intricate tattoos they created. Whang Od told of an old myth that says that women should be tattooed to increase their fertility. That is why many of the women in her village are tattooed and have large families. “I tattooed many of these older women before they reached puberty, because once their hormones kick in…we believe that the tattooing hurts more at that point. Women not only receive tattoos for fertility, but also for beauty, and some women can receive additional marks if their male relatives received some for success in war. Most of their designs came from nature, like rice bundles, ferns, steps or snake scales and especially centipedes which are powerful spiritual guides and friends of the warrior. Some of the women also have tattooed necklaces.”
Other male and female individuals like Whang Od wear small X’s on their faces either between the eyes, at the center of their cheeks, or at the tips of their nose. Some elders stated that these markings were placed on girls who struck (with family weapons) those human heads that were brought into the village. Others said that they are simply beauty marks. For example, when a woman is walking in the village, a man will take notice of her facial features because these tattoos are strategically placed at the contour points and they grab visual attention.
Whang Od’s other tattoos were given to her by her father. Upon closer inspection, her legs are completely covered with faint tattoo tracings which she said were her “practice marks.”
The mandadawak practice similar rituals when seeking to cure their sick patients of illness. In her attempts to determine which evil spirit is causing an affliction, the mandadawak sacrifices a chicken, pig or other animal. With a piece of green leaf, usually an orange leaf, soaked in the blood of the sacrifice, she sprinkles the crimson liquid on the hands and legs of the patient. She prays in a frightful manner over the head of the patient, and demands the evil spirit to accept the offering and to get out or remove the malady from the body.
Interestingly, the Kalinga believe that the smell of orange leaves is disturbing to evil spirits. And after a deceased family member is buried, the thorny twigs of the orange tree are placed at the entrances of the house of the dead for three to five days to keep its spirit from coming back into the neighborhood during the night and haunting anyone in the area. Although Whang Od could not give a definitive answer, probably the reason why she and other mambabatoks use orange thorn tattooing kits (siit) is because they have similar magical properties; evil spirits should always be kept away from the living especially when flowing blood may attract them. This is a common belief among many indigenous peoples that tattoo.
VOICES OF THE ANCESTORS
For hundreds of years, the Kalinga have overcome deadly colonial and tribal conflicts that threatened their security and survival in an unkind wilderness. Moreover, Christian evangelization profoundly altered their spiritual and social outlook, and new colonizers in the form of transnational logging, mining, and hydroelectric corporations threaten to usurp ancestral lands that have been, as one elder reported, “nourished by our blood.”
Out of these bitter struggles, however, the Kalinga have continued to be vigilant, courageous, and peaceful even though the 21st century is a time when the dynamism of modernity regularly clashes with their cultural practices and beliefs.
As more and more villagers migrate to towns and cities in search of jobs and college educations, many Kalinga have become dislocated from their ancestral traditions while others remain firmly rooted to them. But as long as the mountains and rivers of the Philippine Cordillera continue to rise and flow, their unity as a people will remain constant as this Kalinga proverb suggests: “From the mountains we derive our strength, the rivers our peace, the valleys our hopes and from the skies, the wisdom of our ancestors.”
For the Kalinga, nature has always provided a kind of talisman against unbridled change and a link to ancient traditions because it is constant, perpetual, and eternal. Nature was the basis from which many Kalinga cultural traditions sprang and none more so than the ancient art of tattoo. Tattooing was a natural language of the skin that gave voice to the ancestors and their descendants who attempted to emulate them by sacrificing their own bodies to make them more lasting and sacred.
Sadly however, Whang Od’s generation may be the last to wear these indelible symbols so closely tied to nature, Kalinga identity, and the ancestral past. And like the marauding headhunters who once roamed the mountains and forests of Kalinga only a century ago, these elders are the last vestiges of an era that will soon fade away into memory; but one that will always remain in story, song, and above all spirit.