Sitting on my desk is a tattered black and white photograph of a group of tribesmen, women and children, naked but for their g-strings. They are squatting on their haunches around a camp fire. Several of them look directly into the camera. One points, another laughs and holds up a stone, as if pretending he is about to throw it at the photographer. Some of them are smiling, apparently sharing a private joke. In the background, a young boy and girl are making something out of bits of broken wood. Behind a low fence, a group of men in formal American clothes and derby hats stand watching them. If you look closely, you can see a few of them are laughing too. If it wasn’t for the observers in Western clothes, it could be a scene taken from an ethnographic journal. But this is no documentary image of a distant people unaccustomed to contact with the rest of the world: this tribe is very aware we are watching, and they seem frankly amused by it.
When I first came across this photograph, I knew nothing about it, but the energy of the tribespeople drew me in. I immediately knew I had to find out who these people were. Where and when was the picture taken? What became of them?
My quest to unravel the story of the tribespeople in the picture has taken over several years of my life. It has been an addictive, fascinating, sometimes frustrating, but always fulfilling journey.
Now I know that the picture is one of a handful of photographic relics of an extraordinary episode in American history. It was taken more than a century ago at Coney Island, just a few miles from Downtown Manhattan.
The tribespeople are Bontoc Igorrotes, who became known in America simply as Igorrotes,1 meaning ‘mountain people.’ Fifty of them were brought from their remote home in the mountains of the Northern Philippines to America and put on show at Luna Park in 1905. They were billed as “dog eating, head hunting savages” and “the most primitive people in the world.” The tribespeople became the sensation of the summer season and were soon in demand all over the US.
Millions of Americans flocked to see the Igorrotes. The crowds were captivated by the tribe’s vitality, and thrilled and scandalized in equal measure by their near nudity, their dog feasts and their tattooed bodies which, the public learned, indicated their prowess as hunters of human heads.
As I study the Igorrotes’ faces in the picture on my desk, I have often wondered what it was that persuaded them to leave their homes to set up camp in America’s most famous amusement park. What did they think of America and Americans? How did they find life under the gaze of an audience? What was it like for the freedom-loving tribe to be locked up day and night at Luna Park? Did they regret their decision? What did they tell their families about their adventure when they returned home?
It is impossible to imagine what it was like for these pre-modern people to be thrust into the heart of the quintessential modern metropolis, New York.
This story is set at a time when disagreements about the political future of the Philippines had created a schism in American domestic politics. America had won the Philippines from Spain at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. But, far from being welcomed with open arms by the Philippine people, the U.S. had seventy thousands soldiers fighting in the islands to try to quash a rebellion of Filipino nationalists led by Emilio Aguinaldo. America won but was widely criticized for using excessive force and brutality to overcome the opposition to her rule.
The assumption of American control over the overseas territory prompted deep soul searching at home. Was it right for America to acquire an overseas empire? When, if ever, would the Fillipinos be ready to take over the responsibility of governing themselves?
The Philippine issue was the determining foreign policy concern of the day, and the thread which connected the three presidencies of the early 20th century. William McKinley led the U.S. into the war with Spain and won the Islands. Theodore Roosevelt, who assumed the presidency in 1901 after McKinley’s assassination, had unsuccessfully coveted the job of Governor General of the Philippines above any other political office, and dreamed of guiding the people of the islands towards self government, while William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s successor as President, had previously served as Governor General of the Islands.
The Philippine Islands were not just a concern for the upper echelons of the American Government. Later in life, back in the US, many of the men who had served in the Philippines saw their service there as a bond: time and time again in this story we encounter men and women who worked in the islands, as government servants, policemen, lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, preachers, soldiers and politicians.
As America was taking control of the Islands, she was also sizing up her new subjects. Ethnologists were sent into far corners of the country to assess and report on the country’s many indigenous tribes. The Islands’ people were then categorized according to their level of ‘civilization,’ from barbaric to semi-barbarous to those deemed cultured and educated.
The earliest American visitors to the Philippines were particularly taken with the ‘savage’ Bontoc Igorrotes. In his major study ‘The Bontoc Igorot,’2 compiled in 1903, the American ethnologist Albert Ernest Jenks observed that, aside from cutting off the heads of neighboring villagers, the Bontoc Igorrotes were a peaceful, good atroniz, honest, industrious, and likeable people with low rates of crime. Jenks noted that they were true primitives who had no words for many items in modern culture, including shoes, pantaloons, umbrellas, chairs or books.
In 1904, the American Government spent $1.5 million taking thirteen hundred Filipinos from a dozen different tribes to the St. Louis Exposition. The Philippine Reservation became one of the most popular features of the Fair, and the Igorrotes drew the largest crowds of all. By displaying the tribespeople in this manner, the U.S. Government hoped to gain popular support for its occupation of the Philippines by showing the American public that the Filipinos were innocents, a people far from ready for self-government, who were in need of paternalistic American protection.
From the first time the Filipinos arrived on American soil they were subject to endless newspaper articles which drew comparisons between their culture and that of their American hosts. Many articles focussed on their distain for Western clothes and what was portrayed as their insatiable appetite for that most domesticated of American pets, the dog. But the Igorrotes were also invoked in articles about pre-marital sexual relations, hard work, the simple life versus the complexities of modern living. Their trusting and trustworthy nature often drew comment.
During the Igorrotes’ first visit to America for the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair, the Macon Telegraph provided its readers with an insight into the Filipinos: “The Igorrote is more honest and more atronizi than the American. Knowing the value of money, he would not be tempted for one single instant to take that which did not belong to him, even if he were sure that his theft would never be found out. The property of another is absolutely safe in his possession.” [Macon Telegraph, September 11, 1904]
The Igorrotes were like a m...