Written by Francisco F. Claver, S.J. on .

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(The Wild Men of the Cordillera Central,  Northern Luzon, Philippines, at the St. Louis World Fair, 1904)

Francisco F. Claver, S.J.

Our Topic. If I go by the title of the subject assigned for discussion this morning, the Essence of Culture in Our Lives, and adhere to it literally, I’m afraid you would all be snoring in five seconds flat. You wouldn’t want that? I don’t either for the simple reason that I’d hate it if my jet lag would be all for nothing. 

So this is what I propose to do. Since our celebration these days is of a very particular event, the Centennial of the St. Louis World Fair of 1904, I think it is only fitting that we talk of something not too remotely unconnected with it. And so I would like to focus on the Igorots—mountain people from the Cordillera Central of Northern Luzon—who were exhibited here and helped make the Fair the great success it is said to have been.  They were billed in various ways, and one of them was as “the Wild Men of Luzon” and the huge crowds they attracted were a boon of no little moment to the organizers of the Fair. With this shift in focus, I will have to talk of their culture—our culture, rather, for I and you from the mountain region of Northern Luzon who are here today in great numbers can claim the culture of those “wild men” as ours. And I will talk too of what that culture meant to them, what it still means to us who have inherited it from them, how it molded them and us to be what we are: Igorots, People of the Mountains.

I thus append this sub-title to my talk: the Wild Men of the Cordillera Central, Northern Luzon, Philippines, at the St. Louis World Fair, 1904. Should I add: “and at Its Centennial, 2004”—to include their descendents present here today? If so, I’ll have to amend “Wild Men” to “Wild Men and Women,” just so I won’t be accused of being a male chauvinist. All of you then, members of BIMAK, men and women, in whatever country you are, count yourselves so included. And honored.

The Unasked Question

When I hear about what happened to those Igorots at the Fair and how they were the sensation at it, I can’t help asking: What did they, the crowds, see? And what was it that drew them in great numbers, what was it that sparked their curiosity? Right off I can say with the greatest certainty: They came to look at, precisely, curiosities, people different from them not just in appearance but in the way they behaved, talked, dressed, ate, danced, worked, etc. In short, the way they lived life in the transplanted village put up specifically for them. “The way they lived,” the way a particular people live—that’s culture.  

Parenthetically, let me add: What people saw was a human zoo. That the human exhibits were not kept in cages did not make the spectacle of them performing daily life routines less of a zoo. People came to gawk and stare at them, just as they would do in any animal zoo. Sensibilities are offended at the thought, today. They probably were not so offended in those simpler days, at least those of ordinary Americans—although, yes, some Filipinos were deeply offended but, as we shall see, for another reason; and, yes, there was horror expressed at the Igorots’ much ballyhooed liking for dog-meat. Those mountain people, as the other groups likewise from other parts of the Philippines, were an ethnographic exhibit, and in the way the science of ethnology was beginning in those days, the great interest was in the observable customs and artifacts of a culture—racial characteristics also (culture and race not always being adequately differentiated). The exhibit, as Dr. Wolfort pointed out yesterday, was all done in the context—we have no trouble calling it an ideology—of the theory of the linear evolution of peoples and cultures that prevailed in scientific circles of the day. What we now deem degrading in the act of putting people on exhibit was pretty much on the level of freak shows, common at the time.

So what was seen at the Fair as far as our Igorot forebears were concerned? Simply put, their external culture—the same things you would see displayed in museums but this time with live people actually demonstrating their uses for the benefit of curious on-lookers. External culture, yes, but still important.

What was not seen—though perhaps guessed at by the more astute—was something more important: their inner make-up, that is, their mental processes, their values, their beliefs, the non-visible aspects of culture that compose a people’s world view and ethos and give them a spirit and identity all their own. I don’t think anybody did some kind of psychoanalytic study to find out what made them tick. Because that ticking part, that’s what constitutes the essence of a culture. So let’s talk of the essential Igorot.

The Schools of Living Tradition

Back in the Mountain Province and Ifugao, our schools are trying an experiment in culture-preservation and -promotion with their SLT programs and experiments. SLT stands for “schools of living tradition.” The idea arose from the simple realization that our educational system in the Philippines tends to de-culturate our Igorot children, to make them lose a sense of their uniqueness as Igorots as they go through school. They get educated as a matter of course out of their culture—and for what? For what is seen as the national culture but in substance is no different from what prevails in other nations, Western especially.  

The gist of the experiment so far has concentrated on the training of school teachers to be conscious of their own culture, researching into it and, by the mere fact of doing so, becoming more sensitive to its nuanced realities. Incorporating what they have learned from their individual and group researches into their own classroom activities and teaching methods will, it is hoped, reverse the de-culturating effects of our current educational system.  

The rationale of the experiment is obvious: Through it, our teachers, the molders of our young, learn how to understand and appreciate better their native culture so that they can in turn teach their students to do the same. This way they help preserve what is best in their culture, to work to integrate them as much as possible with the best in our national and dominant culture. Where before teachers were (quite unknowingly) agents of de-culturation, they now are the agents of culture-recovery and -enhancement. Under their tutelage, our students should be able to learn how to operate well and succeed in the wider national culture, hence the continuing quest for quality education; but they should also be able to do so without losing their cultural identity and uniqueness altogether, hence the whole SLT enterprise. It is pioneering work, hard but not impossible, and exciting for the prospects it opens up for future action by all of us who are interested in the development of our people.

A further insight was gained as we advanced deeper into our program: the realization that what we were doing isn’t something good for cultural minorities like us Igorots only; SLTs should become a national program even for majority “tribes” like Tagalogs, Ilocanos, Cebuanos, and all other peoples of the Philippines to realize precisely that they are tribals, that is, that their distinctiveness as peoples dates back to a pre-Spanish cultural matrix which is the base of what we can call a generic Filipino culture. The de-culturation process that I say characterizes our educational system is a national problem and it is getting much worse in the globalized world in which we now live.

In the SLTs, our students are re-learning things that have been forgotten or ignored in their schooling—and in that of their parents, too, I would add. If the SLTs work out as they should, they will have to go beyond what they are doing now to the deeper aspects of native culture, to its essence: the things of the spirit that will make Igorots Igorots, wherever they find themselves. So now we ask: what are those distinctive “things of the spirit?”

The Essential Igorot: Two Stories (Og-okhod si i-Fontok

Let me try answering that question as I think the Bontok Igorots would have done in the two institutions which in the past were quite distinctive of them: the ato and the olog.  These two were for all practical purposes schools for the young: the ato, the village council house which doubled as a common dormitory for boys; and for girls, the olog, the sleeping quarters of unmarried girls. It was in these two institutions that traditional lore and ancestral wisdom were passed on to the young. And this was done mostly by what the Bontok call og-okhod—story telling. I have two stories to tell, two stories about events in our history as a people that will, I think, tell us plenty about what we are saying here is the essential Igorot. 

The first deals with our colonial past—more correctly, our non-acceptance of Spanish attempts at bringing us under colonial rule. That “colonial past” was the defining moment for us Igorots, for the fact of our non-colonization is what marks us off today as “Indigenous Peoples.” The Spanish never really extended their sway in Igorot territory as they had done in most of the Philippines, despite a number of military expeditions from the early 17th century on to accomplish the stated aim of the Conquista, the subjugation of the native peoples of the Philippines and their Christianization—bringing people under the cross and the sword, as the formula of the Conquest had it. Our highland people were able to fend off both cross and sword for more than two centuries until the mid-1800s.  Things changed then with the introduction of the Remington rifle: It was a gun unlike the medieval flint-lock musket that would work only when its powder was dry, a fact that allowed Igorot defenders of their land to lord it over the Spaniards during the rainy season! Our people’s spears and head axes were no match for that more efficient instrument of killing, and Spanish soldiers armed with that all-weather weapon, and missionaries with them, were able to penetrate further with greater ease into Igorot country, the soldiers to establish garrisons, the missionaries churches. 


That history of resistance to both Spanish cross and sword tells us something about our people. They were fiercely independent and they detested anything that unduly curtailed their freedom. But if they were successful in keeping their independence and freedom, it was because they were also interdependent among themselves and could come together against a common enemy. This means they knew how to put individual freedom at the service of the good of their community (or clan) and even of wider groupings.

A footnote to the above story: American Anglican missionaries came into Igorot country in the early 1900s, Belgian and Dutch Catholic missionaries following later in 1907. In the 100 years since their arrival, more than 90% of our people have embraced Christianity. It was a Christianity that came to them sans soldiers and guns. The new religion, freely offered, freely accepted—that, I think, simply confirms what I just said about our people’s high valuation of their independence and freedom from any form of coercion. 

If our people’s freedom and independence operated where religion was concerned, it also did in the sphere of governance. American colonial rule with its avowed aim of spreading democracy worked as well and our people did not resist its introduction. It was a more congenial political system for it was quite germane to the fundamental  democracy that already obtained in their communities. 

The second story to tell is something more contemporary, something that happened in the later part of the ‘70s during Marcos’s dictatorship. President Marcos conceived the bright idea of building four huge dams on the Chico River—the river that flows through the Mountain Province and Kalinga. These dams were intended to generate electricity, mainly for the Cagayan Valley, and provide that same valley with a larger irrigation system. A grandiose dream that would contribute much to the economic development of the country, so it was advertised. The only problem was that it would have entailed the destruction of all the towns and villages along the river’s route and the dislocation of tens of thousands of the population in the two provinces. It would have also resulted to the immense benefit of people outside the two provinces but not of the Bontok and the Kalinga. Just the contrary, they would have suffered the loss of property and land, cherished rice terraces especially, with no viable alternative sites to resettle them in. The rank injustice of the scheme grated on the people in a way Marcos and his technocrats, amazingly enough, had not given any thought to. The people resisted resolutely if non-violently the government’s move and succeeded in forcing Marcos to suspend the building of the dams indefinitely.  

The military dictatorship giving in to the demands of “primitive tribesmen,” as some of Marcos’s minions disdainfully referred to them—this was an unheard of development when seen against the way it had, till then, bull-dozed aside all opposition. It was a victory for the Bontok and the Kalinga, the one instance during Martial Law that Marcos retreated from something he had decreed. Looking back now we see it was a tentative but giant step towards the development of what would later be called “People Power” at the EDSA (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue) Revolution of 1986.

This incident tells us in no uncertain terms that Igorots still resist coercion and un-freedom, still are as independent and free as their forebears were centuries ago. Any imposition of decisions that affect them but are made without their consent is still deeply resented.

In the two historic incidents we’ve reviewed here, we have highlighted the way our people prize certain values: freedom, independence and interdependence, justice, land, participation in decision-making about the common weal, unity in facing up to common dangers, etc. What I wanted to put in clear perspective in the two stories are the things of the spirit that motivate our people strongly in their dealings with one another, some of  their values and attitudes, something of their world view and ethos, in brief, their soul. Not in its entirety, I repeat, but enough to say what their inner humanity was like. That inner humanity, their soul, I’m afraid did not come through in their exhibiting at the 1904 St. Louis Fair.  

Historical Ironies 

If just a little glimpse into that soul had been made, a deep irony concerning them might have been uncovered and appreciated. They were billed as “the Wild Men of Luzon,” but their “wildness”—and this is the irony—was a function of their never having been fully conquered by Spanish arms, their not having been subjugated like the rest of the Philippines.

I bring up this irony because some Filipinos resented the appearance of our “wild” pagan ancestors at the Fair, claiming (quite rightly, I might say) that their being exhibited  precisely as wild people gave a very wrong—and unsavory—impression of Filipinos in general, most of whom, they claimed, were civilized and Christian. The complainers were what were in Spanish times called the Illustrados—the civilized, urbane, educated, elite of native Philippine society. But a little thought would bring out this fact: They were such, these Illustrados, because they had been conquered, colonized, hispanicized, Christianized, the very antithesis of our Igorot wild men who were such for the reason that they were just the opposite: un-conquered, un-colonized, un-hispanicized, un-Christianized. That was the irony of our first story—and it was lost, it seemed, on everybody concerned: Americans, Filipinos, Igorots themselves. 

With the hindsight of a hundred years, we now see that if our insulted Filipino elitehad gone beyond the surface and probed deeper into the Fair’s use of our Igorot compatriots, they might have realized what we have just said above. And they might also have appreciated the fact that the many, if sporadic, rebellions of their own Lowland ancestors against Spanish rule came from the same spirit of freedom that had kept the Igorots fighting off successfully foreign domination over them for more than two centuries.  They might have recognized that the despised “wildness” of those mountain folk was due to that fact and they would have discovered themselves in them, seen that the independence they themselves sought first from the Spanish, then from the Americans, was embodied most clearly by those Igorots whose presence at the Fair they felt was too shaming and degrading of Filipinos.

There is an irony too in our second story. The New Society of Marcos was supposed to be based strongly on what he called “barangay democracy”—remember those Barangay Assemblies that were created and were touted as the backbone of the New Society and how they were convened ever so often for referendums where the people were asked to vote on issues according to “suggested answers” by the simple expedient of raising hands? Sham barangay democracy it was from the very start. But if there was any place in the Philippines where barangay democracy already and truly existed and flourished, it was in those villages along the Chico that Marcos was intent on obliterating in its dammed up waters.  

That was grand irony. But grander still was the fact that if the Bontok and the Kalinga were able to successfully resist Marcos in his iniquitous dream, it was because they were precisely barangay democracies through and through!

I propose that we now remember those exhibited ancestors of ours for the inner part of them that was not given much notice at the Fair. The outer shell of their culture evoked curiosity, wonderment, possibly even amusement—and yes, indignation at the dog-eating part of it—and it was used for propaganda purposes to rationalize and justify American (or at least President McKinley’s) imperialist ambitions. But their inner selves, their spiritual legacy—I would like to think they are yours too, they are ours. And that is why I was asked to talk about “the essence of culture in our lives.”

That essence, I know, is not exhausted by the two stories I’ve told. And there are many more aspects of Igorot culture that we can talk about, aspects that are probably even more fundamental and basic than what I have chosen to dwell on here. But as I’ve said above, my choice of facets of Igorot culture to dwell on here was what lay below the surface of the “wildness” that Fair-goers in 1904 went to wonder at.

But let me end with another story, this time a personal one and most revealing of something about our people I hadn’t given much thought to until it happened.  

A Third Story

I was visiting one day a remote mission parish in the diocese to meet the people over a crisis they were going through: they had just lost their priest who had gone on leave to sort his life out after a scandal he had created, leaving them without a pastor.

They asked me for a replacement. And I asked: “Any priest, so long as he can perform the religious rites you are so used to?” That gave them pause. Then one old lady answered: “No, we don’t want one who will cause the same trouble as the last one.”  “Fair enough,” I said. But as we talked on, I realized that it was not the “trouble” that was really at the back of their problem with their former pastor. When I pressed them, the same old lady replied: We don’t want priests who do not live up to their word. The last one declared his priestly vows in public before all of us when he was ordained. We hold him to his word.”

The word, the priest’s word. To them, this was more important than the trouble itself.  That had me thinking all the way back home. Soon after in Bontoc, as I was preparing for Mass one Sunday, the title of the Bible translation in the Bontok language that I was using made me stare at it for a long time and in a flash I understood more fully what the old lady had said about holding their priest to his word. The title of the Bible? Nan Kali nan Chios isnan Kali Tako—"the Word of God in Our Own Language.” The Bontok word kali means “word, speech, language”; but it also means “promise, vow, oath.”  The English saying “my word is my bond” (from Shakespeare?) was much truer—and more binding, to risk a tautology—in our language in the fact that “word” and “bond” are expressed by one and the same word, kali.  

Keeping one’s word: this was a key value among our people and it was what kept possible the peace pacts (pechen) that they entered into to put an end to tribal wars that now and again erupted among them. “The Wild Men of Luzon,” such were those Igorots advertised at the Fair. If the term was used of them there, it was because Igorots were commonly called and dismissed as salvajes—savages—by the Spanish who couldn’t subdue them! (It was a term that was still being used of us by Lowlanders of the time—and later.) But that dismissal did not bring out the fact that beneath it was a character trait that would have done credit to civilized people of honor everywhere: Igorots were (still are?) people of their word—or at least they put a high value on fidelity to one’s word.

That’s one more irony to add to what we noted earlier about our “Wild Men” at the Fair.

The Essence of Culture in Our Lives

I said I’d end with that third story. And I deliberately chose to end with it because fidelity to one’s word is still, I believe, a prime value among most of our ordinary folk. But it is in grave danger—like many of the other values I’ve mentioned in this talk—of being weakened and disregarded more and more as our people, the schooled ones especially, forget their roots in the de-culturating process of their education and get swallowed up in alien cultures they have to survive in. The Philippines has the unenviable reputation of being one of the most corrupt nations in Asia and unfortunately we in the mountains are being sucked into its culture of corruption. Unavoidably so? Maybe. But this does not stop us from wishing (and working) that the old value of fidelity to one's word would still mark us as a people, especially our elected government officials. For when they swear in their oaths of office to be "public servants,” and they lived up to their word, there would be less stealing from the public purse for private gain—the most common form of corruption at this time.

So back to the un-revised title of this talk: “the Essence of Culture in Our Lives.”  If there is any sense to those words as they apply to us, it is this: An Igorot is an Igorot, and a blue-blooded one (or red-blooded one?) if he is faithful to the distinguishing values of Igorot culture and lives them as fully as he can wherever he goes. Those values are by no means unique to us. They will be found in other cultures too, though perhaps manifested in different ways, held on to with greater or lesser affect, practiced with varying intensity.  But by that fact alone an expatriate Igorot, if he is faithful to his roots, will be able to contribute everywhere to the enhancement of those same values in his chosen land of residence if his special possession of them shines through in his life and actions. Real citizens of Igorot-land—real citizens of the world: come to think of it, that is exactly what our SLTs, schools of living tradition, seek to make of our young back home.

That’s the end of my talk, but whether you allow me or not, I still have one last story to tell! Back in late December I was in Hapao, a barangay of Hungduan in Ifugao, to bless the mission’s new church. For the occasion, the parishioners gifted me with a two-foot carving of an elderly Igorot warrior, clearly a Bontok native: stocky, stout of legs, heavily muscled, rather balding, with a spear at the ready, sangi (backpack) at his back but without a soklong (basket hat). I brought it home and put it in the dining room. Passing it by one day, I was puzzled by its face—I’d seen it somewhere but couldn’t place it. I got to my room and happened to look in the mirror, and there staring at me was the carved warrior’s face! 

I ask all of you: Can you look into a mirror and recognize an Igorot’s face—even if it’s your own?


Keynote address during the 5th Igorot International Consultation  (IIC-5) held in Clayton, St. Louis, Missouri, USA on July 1-4, 2004 with the theme, “Igorot: St. Louis — To the World.” 

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