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Saturday, October 18, 2008

"In the Land of the Head-hunters" as an Orientalist Text

In the Land of the Head-hunters as an Orientalist Text

We left Pines Hotel this morning and took up residence in a government bungalow. It is a compact little building, made of wood and some sort of thick canvas material—the latter giving it a very fragile appearance. It looked almost like a Japanese paper house but for the corrugated iron roof…par1

The first essential, after dumping down our baggage, was to get a fire lit in the kitchen gate. I essayed to chop fire-wood, and, after nearly slicing off my toes, gladly relinquished the job to two native Igorot boys who offered their services. They chopped wood, lit the fire, cleaned the dirty dishes, fetched distilled water from the neighbouring depot, and all for ten centavos each (roughly twopence half-penny): labour is cheap in the Philippines.par2

These Igorot tribesmen fascinate me. They are dark brown in colour, with shapely limbs, but their faces are scarcely handsome—flat-featured, broad-nosed, eyes far apart, and lank black hair. The general aspect of these gentry is fierce and forbidding, as befits their head-hunting reputation, and yet their voices are strangely soft and musical. As to their dress, it is reduced to the minimum, at any rate in regard to the men. They seem to find clothes irksome, specially when they are at work, and so (to Vera’s embarrassment!) we sometimes come upon stark naked brown men, whose only concession to decency is a narrow strip of embroidered work (reminding me of a piece cut off an old-fashioned bell-pull) suspended from the waist. The dress they more usually adopt is a curious blend of western civilization with Igorot savagery—to the waist a singlet, and then, from there downwards, nothing! To see an Igorot walking through the streets of Baguio, as I saw one to-day, clad in an abbreviated vest, a Bill Syke’s cap stuck rakishly on his head, and carrying a mackintosh over his arm, but with not a shred of trouser-cloth to cover his lower nakedness, makes a man wonder whether he is wide awake or merely dreaming dreams and seeing visions! And yet these unclad folk go about quite gaily and unconcernedly, and no one seems to mind…par3

The walks in the neighbourhood are gorgeous, and the interesting glimpses one gets of native life are most fascinating. Here you see an Igorot woman, heavy featured, wild-eyed, clad in native cloth, stripped in vivid colours, staggering along with a heavy basket hanging on her back and kept in place by a strap across the forehead. These baskets are of the type used by the peasants in Switzerland, and so possibly they got the original design from these far-distant islands. Another Igorot damsel passes with her arms laden with ornaments—coil on coil of glittering brass—and the flesh thickly tatooed from the hands up to the elbows. The little children are attractive in their naked simplicity, and some of them have winsome faces, and great, dark, lustrous eyes…par4

Sunday morning is the great time for this [Baguio] market, it is then that the natives from all the outlying districts come in to buy their week’s provisions. I have seldom seen a more animated or more entertaining sight. A sort of corral had been formed by bullock carts in the open space outside the covered market, and here all sorts of stalls had been erected and a roaring trade was going on. Here native dress (and undress!) could be seen in every shade of colour and variety of material. Some of the women wore curious white turbans, which looked as though a towel had been twisted rope-fashion around the head. Many of them were smoking enormous cheroots; some of them had the gauzy crinoline sleeves of Filipino fashion; others had their limbs laden with brass ornaments.par5

The up-to-date Filipino,” so runs the local guide book, “mingles with the scantily dressed Benguets, Lepantos, Bontocs, Ifugaos, and occasionally Kalingas… In one corner sturdy natives of the hills will be buying the piece-de-resistance of a coming feast—a dog—which will probably have four or five days hiking over the mountain trails, carefully guarded by its purchasers, before its miserable existence is brought to an end. A little further down a fashionably dressed visitor will be buying curios; across the way, squatting on the ground, smoking a cigar a foot long, will be a native woman haggling over the price of rice or camotes; and next door one of the Baguio housewives will be buying locally-grown strawberries and cabbages; and so on without end.” par6

Some of the men were of ferocious aspect. I induced one to stand before my camera while I snapped him—he had nothing on except a girdle and a hat, and his arms and chest were heavily tatooed.par7

After tea we went for a walk and saw a typical Igorot dwelling. It looked rather like a large beehive on stilts, and its outward filth suggested an interior that must have been verminous to the last degree. Close by was another house—decidedly novel from an architectural point of view, for its walls were made entirely out of kerosene tins!8

On returning home two visitors called to see us—one of the masters of the school, whose chapel service we attended this morning, and a missionary-person whom he introduced to me as an authority on the Igorots (apparently he runs a mission school for them in Bontoc, the Igorot metropolis). From him I gleaned quite a lot of interesting information about these wild tribes. He assured me that head-hunting has by no means died out; to his own knowledge several natives had literally “lost their heads” during the last few days; but, to console their pleasantries to their own dark-skinned brethren.par9

Their mode of burying the dead notables of the tribe is curious for the bodies are smoked and preserved for many days before the final interment takes place. Some of these dried-up corpses are to be seen in a cave near Baguio.par10

The Igorot children have small knowledge of what family life means, for when six years old they are separated from their parents, and all the girls of the tribe have to sleep together in a dormitory-hut called an “Olag,” while the boys spend the nights with the old men in a building of their own. The children may have meals with their parents, but they must not on any account sleep with them.par11

The “Olag” is as much a mating-house as a dormitory, and here the young men come when they want a wife. They believe in experimental matrimony; the girl is taken “on appro.,” so to speak, if she bears a child, well and good—the marriage is then regarded as binding: but if she proves barren, she is returned to the “Olag” as unsatisfactory, and another damsel is taken in her stead. It would seem that the one motive governing marriage among these wild men of the mountains is “procreation of children”—what we know as “love” has little to do with it.par12

The narrative above is excerpted from an unnamed Englishman's journal titled, “In the Land of the Head-hunters,”[1] written during his 1924 visit in Baguio City. This essay interrogates it under the rubric of Postcolonial Theory largely drawn from the theoretical paradigm of Edward Said as primarily fleshed out in his magnum opus, Orientalism.

In the Afterword to this work, Said notes that

The construction of identity…involves the construction of opposites and ‘others’ whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and re-interpretation of their differences from ‘us.’ Each age and society re-creates its ‘Others’… the construction of identity is bound up with the disposition of power and powerlessness in each society… (1978:332)

He demonstrates this binarism in identity construction in the West’s discursive [2] and essentializing representation of the Middle East (i.e., the “Orient,” thus the term “Orientalism”) which artificially bifurcates the world into the superior West, and the inferior East.

As Hans Bertens (2001: 205) explains,

The inferiority that Orientalism attributes to the East simultaneously serves to construct the West's superiority.  The sensuality, irrationality, primitiveness, and despotism of the East constructs the West as rational, democratic, progressive, and so on.  The West always functions as the 'centre' and the East is a marginal 'other' that simply through its existence confirms the West's centrality and superiority.  Now surprisingly perhaps, the oppostion that the West's discourse about the East sets up makes use of another basic opposition, that between the masculine and the feminine. Naturally the West functions as the masculine pole – enlightened, rational, entrepreneurial, disciplined – while the East is its feminine opposition – irrational, passive, undisciplined, and sensual.
Head-hunters may be read as an “orientalizing” text on the Igorots [3] for it exoticizes or sensationalizes and “others” the native. This it does by highlighting such details about him that somehow demonstrate his physical, economic and social inferiority compared to the Westerner thus projecting a distorted image of the native.

The title itself is revealing, rather catchy, when read by a “civilized” European who may immediately infer from it ideas such as follows:

1. The Igorots are uncivilized.

2.They are warlike people.

3. Most, if not all, of them are headhunters.

4.Only they, among all the ethnic groups in the Philippines, have a history of widespread headhunting forays.

The generalization and misrepresentation involved in these “facts” may come naturally to an uninformed European who may not be aware that in viewing the Igorots as uncivilized, he may simply be imposing a Eurocentric “discourse of civilization” on them. On the savagery of these "headhunting savages," he may miss out on the fact that, in the words of cultural critic Delfin Tolentino, Jr., “headhunting was an aspect of traditional culture and must therefore be understood in that sense,” [4] that not all Igorots at the time engaged in headhunting, and that Igorots also enjoyed periods of peaceful socio-economic coexistence with their neighbors (gold trading, for example) even before they were discovered by the Spaniards (Scott 1974: 51). Further, he may also be unaware that other Filipinos like the Ilocanos, Pampangos, Tagalogs, and Zambals had also engaged in headhunting prior to and during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines (Scott: 17, 48-53). Finally, his horror at the “barbaric act of headhunting” might make him forget to “reconsider the role of [his] own modern culture in exterminating the primitive and natural world that has nurtured it” (Howard 2000: 81).[5]

This travelogue views the native as a curio, a source of amazement and amusement and not as a repository of knowledge that allows one to understand a different but not necessarily inferior culture. One may even hear in this text the undertones of Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” the first stanza of which is, in the words of Servando Halili (2006:8), "heavily influenced by racialized ideology" that "denigrated and dehumanized" Filipinos "by describing them as 'new-caught'" and "hailing them as 'half devil and half child.'"

When the tone of this text is compared with, say, that of David Howard’s fully illustrated The Last Filipino Headhunters, one sees a marked difference between a Westerner who makes a passing comment on Igorot culture without really coming to a deeper appreciation of it, and another who starts out with the idea that these natives “were little more than imaginary relics of some prehistoric period, to be relegated to the same dusty shelf stacked with myths and folktales” and comes out of his immersion in indigenous culture with the conviction that he should “now look to the best qualities of primitive tribal culture when forming [his] own aesthetic and philosophical criteria.” (2000:9)

Howard observes that much of what many people know of the Igorots have come from the outsiders’ jaundiced perspective. He thus calls for the recognition and acceptance of “other peoples’ positive influences, without imposing our preconceived cultural assumptions and prejudices.” (19) In the same vein, Bertens (2001:199) writes:

…to take another culture seriously means to accept it on its own terms, to accept the distinctive ways in which it differs from our own culture. And it entails a genuine interest in the predicament of those who belong to the minority culture – in such encounters the cultures that are involved usually do not meet on equal terms – and who see their culture and their identity threatened by that of the dominant majority. To take another culture seriously means that we cannot take for granted that its literature shares our preconceptions and our systems of value or that it will reflect a universal human condition.

The text under study, however, evidences veiled impositions of certain “preconceived cultural assumptions and prejudices.” It starts out by noting the “fragile” condition of a public building which  is likened to a “Japanese paper house” (par. 1; cf. par. 8). The association of a usually assumed feminine quality (fragility) with another Oriental or Asian culture (Japanese) seems to smack of the Orientalism as described above. The author’s mention of “cheap” labor reinforces the economic backwardness hinted at in the first paragraph and illustrated in the pre-modern cooking preparations made by the “native Igorot boys” (par. 2). Incidentally, his “nearly slic[ing] off [his] toes” may be read as the writer’s way of emphasizing that “East is East and West is West” [6] or as a “crack” in the text which actually allows the native a peek into the European’s ignorance and crudeness amidst his claim to being civilized (i.e., his technological advancement ironically emasculates his basic survival skills).[7]

This British traveler’s euphemistic description of the “scarcely handsome” (read: ugly) faces of these natives whose “general aspect…is forbidding, as befits their head-hunting reputation” and his cavalier comments on the natives’ garb (par. 3; cf. “ferocious” look in par. 7) carry with them what Said in “Arabs, Islam and the Dogmas of the West” calls as “principal dogmas of Orientalism” such as “the absolute and systematic difference between the West (which is rational, developed, humane, superior) and the Orient (which is aberrant, undeveloped, inferior)” and “the Orient is at bottom something either to be feared…or to be controlled (in Macfie 2000: 104-105).”

His comments on the “nakedness” of the Igorots (pars. 3,5) point to the Orientalist picture of the “sensual” native and remind us of the infamous 1904 St. Louis Exposition where the “nudity” of the Igorots which “best condensed spectacle, commercialism, and late-Victorian sexual repression” gained more textual space in "newspaper coverage, memoir, and scrapbook" more than the Filipino soldiers' splendid "musical performances and tight drills" did (Kramer 2006: 255-266).  This preoccupation with the natives' "nudity" perhaps reflects the European's puritan sensibility with which he judged the clothing pattern of another culture.

As if to mollify a native reader who might get offended by his use of the terms “old-fashioned bell-pull,” “Igorot savagery,” etc. (par. 3) , the tourist drops descriptive terms that conjure up a “sweet” picture of the Igorots: “strangely soft and musical” voice, “gorgeous” neighborhood, “fascinating” native life, “attractive” children, etc. (pars. 3,4). The overall condescending tone of his write up, however, seems to carry more weight than his sprinkling of  pleasant descriptions of the Igorots and their culture.

His notes on a typical market day (and don’t forget the miserable dog!) and the traditional burial rite of the Bontoc society (pars. 5,6,10) are details that are seemingly intended, not only to add color to this already multihued culture, but also to further illustrate how odd or weird -- in other words, exotic -- indigenous culture is.

His mention of the “local guide book” (par.  6) implicates other Filipinos in the exoticization of the native. While the tourism industry in the country boosts both the local and national economy, it nevertheless becomes, to a certain extent, complicit in the identity construction of the Igorot. By extension, we might see here the press being implicated in this textualizing and commercializing project which is evident in the productions of today’s media outfits. In his paper, “Constructing Igorotness in Popular Culture,” Prof. Jimmy Fong (2008) of the University of the Philippines Baguio (UPB) observes,

Baguio-based and national Philippine newspapers and other publications also tend to use pictures or images of indigenous people on their front pages presumably because of the novelty or strangeness (oddity and unusualness being important and traditional news values) that the images still possess. Or the images are merely used as “clip art” freely cut and pasted onto anything for whatever purpose, but mostly for profit. How about an Igorot as a mascot?

The last two paragraphs of the narrative under study are classic illustrations of an Orientalist distortion of the indigenous people’s cultural distinctives. The Englishman advances the misconception that the “Olag” [sic] is a “mating house” functioning also as a dormitory (par. 8). But as Bontoc native Carmencita Cawed explains:

The olog is not a place where intimate relationship between sexes occurs, as it is commonly believed, but is a place where courtship begins and where a couple is betrothed a few days before the final ceremonies of marriage are performed. Once betrothed, the couple sleeps together in the olog. No relationship between boy and girl can exist, unless there is an intention of marriage. I quote Dr. A.E. Jenks in his observation: ‘The life in the olog does not seem to weaken the boys and the girls or cause them to degenerate; neither does it appear to make them vicious. Whereas there is practically no sense of modesty among the people, I have never seen anything lewd.’ (1972: 19) [8]

Again, the Englishman's reading of the Bntoc society's betrothal process and marital relationship is flawed:

The Bontoc have always been monogamous, and insiyan (divorce) is not lawful to them. However, a childless couple, after living for several years together, can break their contract with the hope that each one will be lucky to have children with another. This is the only lawful ground for separation and divorce. Arrangements are made between husband and wife, and no third party is involved. A Bontoc woman, on seeing that for several years of their union she cannot bear a child, will suggest to her husband to go look for another woman who can give him heirs. The man may accept or reject the proposal. Should he accept, he must leave his house and the lot, where the house is located. Respective properties are retained and anything acquired during the marriage is either divided or the man given his share to the wife. He then goes back to the ato and be among the eligibles. If the man marries after a short time, he builds himself another house. (Cawed 1972:21)
He cites a missionary whom he describes as an “authority on the Igorots” (par. 9). But whatever value judgment on the Olog-related practices of the Bontoc Igorot he got from the said missionary is not necessarily a fair assessment of this particular slice of the Bontoc’s lifeways, it being filtered through the colored lens of Christian morality (or an ecclesiastical version thereof). Further, the narrative does not take into account the unwritten moral code which the Bontoc had been known for at the time as expressed above and in other narratives about the Igorots in general; nor does it take into consideration the socio-political conditions that may explain the behavior of the Igorots at certain periods in their long and checkered history. [9] Had it done so, it would have perhaps taken a higher view of this tribe’s moral standards.

Howard (2000, 174) writes at the conclusion of his book:

The narrow Western concept of civilization implies a complicated social and religious order, legislated standards of morality, and serious concern for the rights and needs of all the members of society. Yet the reality of our advanced civilization is quite different – crass materialism, rampant racism, and a callous disregard for the beliefs and values of others abound in nearly every modern society. In light of this unpleasant reality, the simpler but more profound values of these tribespeople may well serve as a model for our own debased civilization.

Perhaps many Westerners object to Howard’s glowing picture of indigenous culture which he contrasts with the stark image of Western civilization. And some, like Bryan Turner in his “From Orientalism to Global Sociology” (in MacFie 2000: 371) might caution us against the danger of “a naïve trust in the ‘native’ or the pre-modern as a form of humanity which is not corrupted by Westernization or modernization” and against “an outdated orientalism for an equally prejudicial Occidentalism.”

Well-taken. And it should be added that even among Filipinos themselves there are some whose mindset  is  cemented with ethnocentricity and ignorance that they still tend to essentialize certain subcultures in the country.[10]

Still, all these reminders do not gainsay the fact that Head-hunters is a piece of Orientalist writing which -- although the author may not have been conscious of it –- was part of a pervasive "discursive formation" that continues to essentialize and "other" the Igorots (and all Indigenous Peoples, broadly speaking) to this day.



[1] Hereinafter, Head-hunters.

[2] Said employs Foucault’s concept of discourse, “a loose system of statements and claims that constitutes a field of supposed knowledge and through which that ‘knowledge’ is constructed. Such discourses, although seemingly interested in knowledge, always establish relationships of power.” (Bertens, 202)

[3] Natives of the Cordillera, a geopolitical region in Northern Philippines. Although there has been an increasing acceptance of the natives of the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) of their collective identity as Igorots, “Igorotness” remains a contested concept owing to the heterogeneity of physical attributes, practices and worldview within this Philippine sub-culture. (see Finin 2005; Fong 2008)

[4] Class notes.

[5] A case in point may be the “White Man’s” treatment of the Native Americans which has some semblance to the colonization of the Igorots by the West. Although it might be a little hyperbolic, Trebbel and Jennison’s denunciation of the Europeans’ atrocities may be appropriate here: “From the first atrocities of the Spanish, French, and English explorers and colonies to the final, frightful massacre of Indian women at Wounded Knee in 1890, the white man’s war against the red man is a record to match in savagery, if not in scope, anything the refinements of twentieth-century civilized warfare have produced.” (2006, 12)

[6] I take this out of its original context. Kipling’s “The Ballad of the East and West,” in contrast to his  imperialism-friendly poem “The White Man’s Burden,” seems to have no racist undertones as it merely presents the cultural differences of Kamal (Oriental) and the “Colonel’s son” (Westerner), circumstantial contradictions which need to be taken as natural features of a diverse human culture and which should not only be recognized but also understood or appreciated.

[7] This calls to mind scenes in the reality show "Survivor" where participating Westerners consider it  a feat to be able to crack open a freshly picked coconut, to dress a chicken, etc. when such mundane activities are just a child's play to those who belong to traditional cultures.

[8] Jenkins’ dated but still useful work, The Bontoc Igorot, can be accessed at the e-portal Project Gutenberg, available @

[9] Cawed (1972:17) includes in this Bontoc “code of ethics” such laws against lying, on respecting neighbors’ properties and on brotherhood. Two of the several books considered as “standard readings” on the socio-political background of the Igorots are Frank Jenista’s The White Apos (1987) and Howard Fry’s A History of the Mountain Province (1983).

[10] One recent example is the ethnic slur on the Igorots made by a Filipina in France which generated dozens of irate comments from Igorots and non-Igorots alike [see Francesca & Igorots (1)Francesca & Igorots (2)]. Other related posts: Call Centers & Racism, Burning Cultural Artifacts: A Biblical Mandate?, Churya-a, Kidla-a, Igorot, 1st Int'l Meet on Cordi Studies

Works Cited

Bertens, Hans.2001. Literary Theory: The Basics. New York: Routledge.

Cawed, Carmencita.1972. The Culture of the Bontoc Igorot. Manila: MCS Enterprises, Incorporated.

Finin, Gerardo A. 2005. The Making of the Igorot: Contours of Cordillera Consciousness. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Fong, Jimmy. 2008. “Constructing Igorotness in Popular Culture.” A Paper read during the “First Cordillera International Conference” held in Baguio City, 7-9 February 2008.

Fry, Howard T. 1983. A History of the Mountain Province. Quezon City: New Day Publishers.


Halili, Servando D. Jr. 2006. Iconography of the New Empire: Race and Gender mages and the American Colonization of the Philippines. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press.

Howard, David. 2000. The Last Filipino Headhunters. San Francisco: Last Gasp of San Francisco.

Jenista, Frank Lawrence. 1987. The White Apos: American Governors on the Cordillera Central. Quezon City: New Day Publishers.

Jenks, Albert E. 1905. The Bontoc Igorot. Bureau of Science, Ethnological Survey Publications, Vol. 1. Manila: Bureau of Printing. [AVAILABLE @ Project Gutenberg]

Kramer, Paul A. 2006. The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, & the Philippines. Philippine ed. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

MacFie, A.L. 2000. Orientalism: A Reader. New York: NYU Press.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

Scott, William Henry. 1982. The Discovery of the Igorots. Rev. ed. Quezon City: New Day Publishers.

Trebbel, John & Keith Jennison. 2006. The American Indian Wars. Edison, NJ: Castle  Books.


cristian carlo suller said...

ang daming source, sir. astig. ^_^ pinost ko rin yung akin, pero patawa lang.

scott saboy said...

charing lang yun kapatid :) binasa ko post mo, mayat! kunada, no maka 1 or 1.25 ka ken apo DLT arig mo kanu ti maysa a demigod naks -- raise the roof! ['']

christian said...

hahaha! dami-god nga ^_^ agdadamo ak laeng pay, gayyem. ngem sobra nga talaga diay aramid mo, epistaxis! very scholastic, mabalin nga paperen diay confernce.

scott saboy said...

ngem you're getting the hang of it kabsat, isunga dapat you take cultural crit next sem para enjoy. but well, i guess that icy call from russia is simply irresistible for a "filipino tropicano" hehe. wen mabalinen pangconference -- pangpunas lang koma iti podium nga usaren ni idol nga prof tau mwehehe...

kyogre said...

hala, almost all day ka gayam nga online, gayyem ^_^

scott saboy said...

wen a ta ipalpalpasko icheck dagitoy essays insubmit studyakes :) online. pati baket agienencode met grades students na. kasapulan met maiencode ko grades tapno maihabolko last nga paper ko hakhak...

melvi92 said...

Sir ammom gayam agilocano...hehehe

scott saboy said...

ay ket wen. awan ti dimmakkel ijay tabuk nga saan nga makasao ti ilokano.agyamanak ti panagbisitam ading... :)

MichaellaS said...

tks for the effort you put in here I appreciate it!

mai said...

wow.. astig sir

scott saboy said...

hi charmaine, good to "see" you in blogosphere :) cheers...