Page 99 of The Lost Tribe of Coney Island throws us right into the heart of the story. It’s the summer of 1905 and fifty Igorrote tribesmen, women and children from the far north of the Philippines, have been taken across the world and put on display at Coney Island where they are billed as “head-hunting, dog-eating savages.”
There in a mocked up tribal village, they perform a sideshow version of their culture from dawn to dusk, singing, dancing, staging sham battles and eating dogs in daily feasts with mutts brought from the New York pound. In return for spending a year exhibiting in America, the tribespeople have been promised $15 a month each by their manager, Truman Hunt.
America quickly falls in love with the Igorrotes. They are visited by millions of ordinary Americans along with anthropologists, famous singers and actors, even the daughter of the president. Reporters flock to the Igorrote Village and write stories about the tribespeople in newspapers coast to coast.
On page 99 they are visited by a journalist from the Independent, a high minded journal devoted to politics, economics, history and the arts. Almost uniquely amongst the journalists who interview the tribe, most of whom come seeking pure sensation, the Independent’s reporter seems genuinely interested in the tribe’s authentic culture. He attempts to interview the tribal leader Fomoaley Ponci about his beliefs. But the tribe’s manager, who has a genius for publicity, believes that the distorted version of tribal life he has been selling is more likely to capture the public’s attention than the truth. While Ponci attempts to answer the questions as best he can, Hunt keeps interrupting.
When the reporter asks the tribal chief what his people make of the Americans who have colonized his land, Hunt insists on translating the tribal chief’s answer: “The American people are our friends and want to learn our culture.”
Hunt has no compunction about selling the press a sham, and exaggerates the Igorrotes’ custom of hunting the heads of their enemies at every opportunity. Hunt appears to be a paternalistic manager but as the story progresses we see a darker side to his character. What happens on page 99 of The Lost Tribe of Coney Island is a clue to the scandal, man hunt and court case which are to come.