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The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Introduction

The Igorrotes on show at Coney Island, summer 1905

The Igorrotes on show at Coney Island, summer 1905

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 campfire. 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 the scene. 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 next to 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, ten miles from downtown Manhattan.

The tribespeople are Bontoc Igorrotes, who became known in America simply as Igorrotes, meaning “mountain people.” Fifty of them were brought from their remote home in 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? How did the freedom-loving tribe cope with being 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 premodern 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 taken control of the Philippines from Spain following the 1898 Spanish-American War. But far from being welcomed with open arms, the American occupiers were met by a rebellion of Filipino nationalists led by Emilio Aguinaldo. The US deployed tens of thousands of soldiers to the islands. The three-year Philippine-American War that followed led to the deaths of over 4,200 American and 20,000 Filipino combatants. Hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians were killed in the fighting, or died of disease and starvation in the famine that followed. America won the war 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 Filipinos 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 that connected the three presidencies of the early twentieth century. William McKinley reluctantly led the US into the war with Spain and won control of 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, and dreamed of guiding the people of the islands toward 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. Service in the Philippines united Americans from all walks of life: time and time again in this story we encounter men and women who worked in the islands, as government servants, police officers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, preachers, soldiers, and politicians, and who viewed their time there as a unique bond.

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 semibarbarous 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, 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-humored, honest, industrious, and likable 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 US 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, and in need of paternalistic American protection.

From the moment the Filipinos arrived on American soil, they were the subject of endless newspaper articles drawing comparisons between their culture and that of their American hosts. Many articles focused on the Igorrotes’ disdain 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 premarital sexual relations, hard work, and the simple life versus the complexities of modern living, while their trusting and trustworthy nature often drew comment.

During this first visit to America by the Igorrotes, the Macon Telegraph provided its readers with an insight into the Filipinos: “The Igorrote is more honest and more honorable 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.”

The Igorrotes were like a mirror held up to American society. America might be the more “advanced” culture, but while the host country took pleasure in patronizing the primitive tribe, it was not entirely immune to the idea that it might learn something from the Philippine visitors.

Displaying human beings for the entertainment and edification of the paying public seems shocking today, but “human zoos” were nothing new in the early 1900s. For more than four hundred years, exotic humans from faraway territories had been paraded in front of royal courts and wealthy patrons from Europe to Japan, and more recently at world’s fairs and expositions as far afi eld as New York, Paris, and London. But what happened in Coney Island in 1905 was the result of two modern forces meshing: American imperialism and a popular taste for sensationalism. The Igorrotes who were brought from the Philippines became caught up in the debate about America’s presence in Southeast Asia. They were used to push the case that America had a duty to protect, educate, and civilize such savage beings, and later, when the treatment they experienced became a national scandal, they were used to argue that America had no place in the Philippines at all.

The other force was equally irresistible. Early twentieth-century America was addicted to novelty and sensation. The human zoo that came from the Philippines and unpacked its bags at Coney Island in 1905 became the most talked-about show in town. The tribespeople were gawked at by everyone from ordinary members of the public willing to pay a quarter for the privilege of seeing human beings in the raw to anthropologists, politicians, celebrities, and even the daughter of the president.

But there was another ingredient in this potent mixture, a volatile one that propelled the Igorrotes onto the front pages.

Sitting next to the picture of the Igorrotes on my desk is another photograph, faded and torn in several places. In it, a man in a panama hat and an expensive-looking three-piece suit stands with a fat cigar in his hand, smiling for the camera. He is surrounded by a group of bare chested Filipino tribesmen. He is Dr. Truman Knight Hunt, a former medical doctor who met the Igorrotes after he went to the Philippines following the outbreak of the 1898 Spanish-American War. It was Truman’s idea t o take the Igorrotes to Coney Island. There he transformed himself into one of the great publicists of his age, spinning a colorful web of stories about “his” tribe that the press and public lapped up.

No one could have predicted what would happen next . . .



Chapter 1: From One Island to Another


IT WAS LATE in the evening when Dr. Truman Knight Hunt wrote the final name in the ledger. His body felt stiff as he eased himself out of his chair and stepped outside into the town — if a ramshackle collection of small, squat huts with dirt floors and thatched roofs could be called a town. There were no roads. In the distance he could make out the tribe’s rice terraces, which clung precariously to the surrounding mountainsides. Truman breathed in the night air. He felt as if he had met every Igorrote tribesman, woman, and child in the Philippine Islands that day. A hopeful crowd was still waiting to be seen, little flickers of red glowing in the fading light as they sucked on their pipes, sending puffs of smoke into the still air.

Children had dozed off in their parents’ arms. A mangy-looking dog looked up and growled at the American stranger in a false show of strength. Truman picked up a stone and hurled it at the dog, which ran to take shelter behind a group of boys.

Truman gazed at the tribespeople who were gathered around campfires, cooking and chatting. They were barefoot and naked except for their breechcloths (known as wa´-nĭs in the local Bontoc dialect) and the little basket hats (suk´-lâng) that the men used to store their smoking pipes and tobacco. Aside from their bangs, which they chopped in a severe straight line, the men never cut their jet-black hair. Instead they greased it with fresh hog fat, rolled it up, and tucked it under their basket hats. The women wore theirs in a loose knot. Some had blankets draped around their shoulders. Men and women alike wore huge ear ornaments made of copper wire, bamboo, or even teeth, and necklaces made of copper or beads.

By the light of the campfire, Truman could see the tribe’s intricate tattoos. They were made up of a series of fine India-ink lines, zigzags, and barbed-wire patterns that arced up over the men’s chests and down their arms. Every time they took another human head from an enemy village, the community celebrated with a month of feasting and by inking their bodies with new tattoos. Dogs were slaughtered and eaten as a centerpiece of the feast.

A group of naked children ran past the spot where Truman stood, playing the native version of tag.

Truman shouted to get the Igorrotes’ attention. Expectant faces looked up at him. The tribe’s language sounded strange in his American mouth as he told them he wouldn’t be interviewing anyone else. Anyone who hadn’t already been seen should go home. They needn’t bother coming back tomorrow. He had more than enough people and would be notifying the successful candidates shortly. A chorus of groans broke out. The tribespeople had been waiting all day and those who hadn’t met the white man who promised the opportunity of a lifetime were anxious to do so. He ignored them, turned, and walked back into his hut, closing the door firmly behind him.

He was tired after a long day, but was filled with a growing sense of confidence about his new business venture. One by one he had appraised each man, woman, and child who had stood before him. Truman’s criteria were simple. His tribespeople needed to be physically fit, sociable, and appealing — or at least not repulsive — to the eye. When they reached America, they would be put on show as live exhibits at fairs and amusement parks, so they couldn’t be frightened by those who would pay good money to see them. They must be strong enough to survive the crossing. His group had to be able to take instructions. He couldn’t stand willfulness and had sent anyone who had shown the slightest hint of it packing. In making his selection, Truman had relied on his gut. His instincts had served him well in his life so far.