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Malay Roots and an Igorot Reality Show on Coney Island

The Igorot are a group of Malay tribes inhabiting the Cordillera mountain range in Northern Philippines. Physically and culturally they resemble the tribal peoples of southern Taiwan and Yunnan province in China. This bolsters the theory that peoples who speak any of the 1,200 languages that belong to the Malay family originally came from that part of the world.

By Linda Grace Cariño


“Who Do You Think You Are?” is a television series that was first produced in the United Kingdom. Each episode follows a celebrity who traces family roots, going back in time and place to do so.  Of the episodes I have seen, I am most taken with the one with British actor Martin Shaw because – well, because he’s Martin Shaw.

There are now American, Australian and even South African versions the show.  What strikes me as I watch this show is how pitifully little many of the featured celebrities know of their own family trees, histories, and backgrounds.  In contrast, most Filipinos would be quite comfortable telling you of their ancestors several generations back and where these family roots originated. Filipinos in Southern Philippines, thanks to the tradition of the silsilah, can trace their ancestral roots back to ancient Sumatra.

In my case, I have two grandmothers who are Ilocano or Iluko, meaning from the Ilocos region in the northwestern part of the big island of Luzon. My paternal grandmother is from a town called Magsingal, Ilocos Sur, of the Udarbe-Tolentino-Cortes clans.  My maternal grandmother is from Balawan, La Union, of the Zambrano-Lopez clans. 

The Meaning of Igorot

One of my grandfathers is from China, and my mother has a book that traces his family roots back several generations. My other grandfather comes from the highland city of Baguio in North Luzon, from an indigenous family, which means that he is an Igorot.

Igorot is a term long used to refer to the indigenous peoples of the Philippines’ Cordillera Mountains of Northern Luzon. “I” is a prefix that indicates the origin of a person or a people. “Golot” means mountain, thus Igolot, later Igorot, means “from the mountain.” There are many Igorot tribes in the Cordilleras. My Igorot grandfather is of the Ibaloy tribe, which is indigenous to Baguio City and the surrounding province of Benguet. The Ibaloy have a common ancestor named Baruy, hence, I-Baruy, evolving through time into Ibaloy.

My two grandmothers are not highlanders so they are not Igorot. They come from the coastal lowlands, so they are I-luko, from the word luko-ong, meaning a depressed location.

Yes, this is how most Filipinos are – we do have basic knowledge of our family trees.  Still, for history buffs like me, “Who Do You Think You Are?” makes me envy the wealth of archival records available to the UK and American celebs in search of their family roots.

That is something the Philippines and perhaps other ASEAN countries should emulate: building and maintaining archival centers of records past and present, to nurture our wealth of documented data, including those that support what we inherently know about our families.  Because while there is much value to oral history, there is also much to be said about documents that support it. This is particularly true in the case of the Igorot tribes.

Bontoc people celebrated a festival called Lang-ay Festival. Photo: https://sapphireanaticsgroup.wordpress.com/2019/01/14/lang-ay-festival-of-mountain-province/

A Common Sense of Identity

Although there are 20 Igorot tribes inhabiting six North Luzon provinces, since the late 20th century all of them have come to develop a common sense of identity—as Igorot. As a person who has Igorot heritage, I had to react when Facebook posted and reposted a book titled The Lost Tribe of Coney Island:  Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century (2014)

A repost found its way into my feed, perhaps because this month, August 9 marks the 25th United Nations International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.  The Lost Tribe of Coney Island is by Claire Prentice, who investigates a story that she came upon in Coney Island, New York, about a group of Bontoc Igorot who were brought to the U.S. in 1905 by a Truman Hunt.

Some historical context: In the wake of the Spanish-American War at the turn of the 20th century, the US “annexed” the Philippines via the Treaty of Paris of 1898 (ratified in 1899) which provided for the former paying Spain US$20 million for possession of the Philippine Islands. The Filipinos, who had already declared independence in 1898, ferociously objected to the arrangement. A Filipino-American War ensued and lasted from 1899-1902, with the US prevailing and taking over the colonial rule over the islands from Spain.  Philippine independence was restored on 04 July 1946.

Lang-ay Festival 2019 in Philippines. Photo: https://www.hellotravel.com/events/lang-ay-festival

A Painful Tale    

Prentice writes, “Hunt was a Spanish-American War veteran and former lieutenant governor of Bontoc, where he had become a trusted friend of the Igorrotes (sic)… In early 1905, Truman Hunt traveled to Bontoc and made the Bontoc Igorrotes an audacious offer: if they agreed to leave their family and friends behind for a year and journey with him to United States to put on a show of their native customs, he would pay them each $15 a month in wages.” 

What followed was a painful tale of how Hunt and partners exploited those who agreed to go to the U.S. with him. 

In Coney Island’s Luna Park, the g-stringed Bontoc Igorot were cast into a turn of the century reality show that had them living in a replica of a tribal village, “showcasing” their native ways – tribal dances and native rituals. 

The Smithsonianmag.com page marketing the Prentice book has it that “Millions of Americans flocked to see the tribespeople slaughter live dogs for their daily canine feasts and to hear thrilling tales of headhunting. The Igorrotes became a national sensation…   all fueled by Truman’s brilliant publicity stunts…By the end of the summer season, the Igorrote show had made Truman a rich man. But his genius had a dark side…”

On the same page of Smithsonianmag.com, a description of the book says, “It is a story that makes us question who is civilized and who is savage.” 

Really?  In this part of the world, that question has long been answered.



The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pinter Politik.

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