Monday, February 27, 2023

The Igorot in Philippine Literature: Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay

Courtesy of this blog, every now and then I would receive an email, mostly from university students, asking for recommendations with regards to books about Igorots. These requests are usually due to them burdened with an assignment or a research project the completion of which requires them to accumulate knowledge about certain aspects of "the Igorot". When it comes to non-fiction books about Igorots, I have quite a pile to recommend. There's a good number of non-fiction books out there that cover Igorot-related topics from our history starting from the arrival of the Spaniards to our cultural traditions (then and now).

Want to read about pre-colonial and colonial Igorots? Read the books by William Henry Scott and Albert Jenks. Want to read about the art of Kalinga tattooing? Analyn Salvador-Amores has you covered. To anyone looking for reading materials about the Igorots, I highly suggest he/she visits the library of the University of the Philippines in Baguio or the bookstore at the Museo Kordilyera (also inside the UP Baguio campus).

Around November of last year, I received an email from a student currently studying at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. She introduced herself as a half-Igorot and half-Tagalog. Kristine is her name. Her father is from Angono, Rizal and her mother is from Tadian, Mt. Province. She explains that she is very proud of her Igorot origin but she adds that she rarely brings it up to people because aside from having 50% Igorot blood, there's not much else that would identify her as Igorot. She was born and raised in Angono. She doesn't speak nor understand Kankana-ey, the language of her mother. She is completely clueless about the traditions and cultural practices of the Igorots.

She emailed me because she wanted help in looking for reading materials about the Igorots. She specifically asked what books should she read. I sent her a patented reply. I recommended the usual books by Salvador-Amores, Jenks, Scott, and a few others. She thanked me for the recommendations. I didn't hear from her for a couple of months. Then this February, I received another email from her. She enthusiastically narrated that she read all the books I've recommended and that she found them engrossing and eye-opening. She then noted that all the titles are non-fiction. She also wanted another set of recommendations from me. This time, she asked for fiction books about Igorots. Now that she has knowledge about the Igorots and their history, she wanted to move forward and read how they are depicted in works of fiction. How are Igorots portrayed in literature? Do their portrayals in literary works jive with the words and observations of Scott, Jenks, Salvador-Amores, and company? These are questions she wanted some answers to.

At this point, I realized that I haven't read a single fiction book which feature the Igorot as a character. It has never occurred to me to go looking for one. So I told Kristine that I have nothing to recommend because just like her, I haven't read a single fiction book featuring Igorot characters. But I also told her that I'll help her find one. This sent me into a little journey looking for novels with Igorot characters.

And I found out there's very few of them. The one that got the bulk of my attention is Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay. I chose to read Bone Talk first for several reasons. One, the novel's author is a known name in the Philippine writing community. Two, it was published by Anvil which is one of the more prestigious (or should I say reliable) publishers in the country. So far, my experience with Anvil-published books has been within the realms of good to excellent. And three, the book has mostly good reviews with several influential Filipino authors vouching for it.

So for a couple of nights, I had to forego bingeing Trailer Park Boys on Netflix to devour the book. Bone Talk was marketed as a YA (Young Adult) novel. The style and flow of the prose definitely stayed close with the genre. Set in 1899 in a village in Bontoc, the novel is basically the coming-of-age story of an Igorot boy named Samkad. Serving as a backdrop for Samkad's transition from boy to man are real historical events like tribal conflicts and the arrival of American colonizers.

The plot is pretty simple. There are no grand twists and turns. But that doesn't matter because it's a well-written tale made colorful and engrossing with the way Gourlay weaved aspects of Igorot culture and history into the story. I also liked the pace of the story. It wasn't too slow. Gourlay didn't rush things either. So many YA authors these days have this annoying habit of rushing the plot forward in an attempt to drum up excitement. Fortunately, Gourlay didn't commit that grave error here. The pace of the story was close to perfect. Not too slow. Not too fast.

With historical novels like Bone Talk, it's expected that readers inquire about its accuracy. I grew up in Besao, a town in Mt. Province. Besao and Bontoc are neighbors. This should give me a tiny bit of authority to judge the accuracy of the book with regards to its depiction of the Bontoc Igorots and their culture/traditions. I think the book was mostly fair and on point. However, there are certain parts of the story that are not historically accurate. A lot of these are on the culture/traditions front. I am not going to divulge these in this article because I don't want to ruin the story for those who haven't read the book. Suffice it to say that Gourlay used her artistic freedom in crafting her tale to give it more color. To give it more sting, if you may.

To be fair to Gourlay, she doesn't claim her book to be historically accurate. In fact, she is very straightforward in saying that Bone Talk is not a history book. In notes at the end of the book, she wrote: "This story is not history though it is set during a real time, in a real place." It's also worth mentioning that Gourlay is not an Igorot. Some readers especially Igorot readers may feel some doubts after knowing this important fact. But at the end, whether Gourlay is or is not an Igorot is a non-issue. She did her research, she wrote the story, and she used her artistic freedom to craft the final product. It's what writers do.

Still, probably to appease those who might still be harboring doubts because of Gourlay's non-Igorot roots, she has this to say in her notes at the end of the book: "I do not hail from the Cordillera and I beg the forgiveness of its many and diverse peoples for any misreading of their culture. As a storyteller I can only spin a pale imitation of any reality. I hope that this story awakens the world's curiosity about this extraordinary time and place. With utmost respect to the people of the Cordillera."

Gourlay has been more than fair in depicting the Igorot in her book. And she's been more than humble in addressing those who might think otherwise. That's more than good enough for me. So dear reader, read this book.

And lest I forget, Kristine, you should read this book. This serves as a recommendation.

Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Shekang of the Ibaloys: an Ornamental Mouthpiece Made of Either Gold or Copper

Usually, what strikes me the most when looking at old photos of Igorots, especially those of women, is their penchant for decoratives and ornamentals. Their feet and hands are often adorned with bangles. Colorful strings of beads cascade down their chests as necklaces. More beads loop around their heads and hair. Heavy gold earrings dangle from their already strained ears. And many of them go so far as to have their skins tattooed. I thought this was where the ancient Igorot woman's love for decoration ended. I was wrong.

Today, I learned that Ibaloy women of old also decorated their mouth/teeth with mouthpieces made of either gold or copper. This mouthpiece is called a "shekang". I've read a few sources that refer to it as "chakang". So yes, centuries before rappers and celebrities popularized mouth grills, our Igorot ancestors had been sporting their own version of a mouth bling.

The design of the "shekang" is pretty rudimentary. A thin strip of gold or copper is hammered into shape so that it can fit over the teeth. The finished product would cover the whole frontal aspect of the teeth. So when a wearer of a "shekang" smiles, what you see is a mouth glittering in either gold or copper. The "shekang" is attached to the teeth using any of two methods. One, both ends of the strip are inserted into the gaps between two teeth. Two, pegs are made in the two ends of the strip then inserted into holes in the teeth. This means that in this second method, holes need to be bored in the teeth. This is where the pegs of the "shekang" are inserted to keep the mouthpiece in place. Sometimes, designs and patterns were etched into the metal.

It's believed that the "shekang" was casually worn by wealthy Ibaloy women. These are women from the "baknang" families. This makes sense because a person has to be wealthy to be able to afford precious metals like gold and copper. However, according to the Museo Kordilyera of the University of the Philippines Baguio, by the 20th century, the use of the mouthpiece "seems to have been limited to festive occasions".

The wearing of the "shekang" by the Ibaloys had been observed as early as the 18th century. A visiting Spanish missionary named Francisco Antolin had observed the Igorots and had written a study about them which he titled "Notices of the Pagan Igorots in 1789". Antolin arrived in the Philippines in 1769. He spent a considerable amount of time among the Igorots. In his study "Notices of the Pagan Igorots in 1789", Antolin wrote that in Kabayan, "leading women would place a plate of gold over their teeth and remove it to eat". [People interested in reading Antolin's accounts can get a copy of his study online. Obviously, Antolin wrote it in Spanish. But it was translated into English in 1970 by no other than William Henry Scott. Just search for "Notices of the Pagan Igorots in 1789".]

Also, a photograph of an Ibaloy woman wearing a "shekang" was taken by Dean C. Worcester, an American who served as the Philippine Secretary of the Interior from 1901 to 1913. The photo is of an Ibaloy family in Atok, Benguet. The woman in the photo was wearing a "shekang".

As to the purpose of the "shekang", it seems like the consensus among historians and scholars is that it's purely for decorative/ornamental purposes and as a status symbol/marker given that it's believed to be exclusively worn by women from wealthy families.

Image source: Emil Maranon III/Facebook

Thursday, November 17, 2022

On the Right Way of Wearing the Igorot Bahag

While doing research for a paper I'm currently writing, I came across this photo of an Igorot gentleman in an old travel book published in 1980 (Insight Guides: Philippines; APA Productions). It had me thinking about the controversy several weeks back regarding the male contestants in a pageant who were allegedly wearing the bahag the wrong way. 

Igorotland was up in arms lambasting the pageant organizers and the wearers. I found the controversy weird because I thought people were overreacting. I kind of understood why people were unhappy with the way the bahag were worn. The flaps of the bahag were exaggeratedly tucked on the sides to highlight the male form. There are those saying that the bahag was transformed into a sexualized prop. I get what they are saying.

However, I have bigger issue with the criticisms saying that the bahag were not worn the right way. This begs the question, what exactly is the right way to wear a bahag? 

Over the years, I've seen a lot of photos of our Igorot ancestors, mostly taken when Americans armed with cameras set foot in our mountains. And in these old photos, you can see that there is no ONE way to wear a bahag. Some wear the bahag with the flaps fully extended. Some tuck the front flap over the groin. And yes, some tuck the front flap or the back flap on the sides which make them look like they are wearing a brief instead of a bahag.

Tucking the flaps of the bahag to the sides is also a real practice. Majority of our Igorot ancestors worked in rice fields. To prepare these fields for planting, they are often knee-deep in water and mud. Practicality suggests that you tuck the flap over the groin or on the sides to prevent the cloth from getting muddied.

In conclusion, the organizers of the pageant may have exaggerated the wearing/tucking of the bahag but the way it was done wasn't too far off from reality.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The Haldak of the Ifugaos

The haldak is a traditional storage shelf that used to be common in Ifugao homes. It's a long thick slab of flat wood at the center of which are carved protrusions which serve both as decorations and hangers. The designs of these carved protrusions often resemble animals like pigs, dogs, monitor lizards, and turtles.

When installed in an Ifugao home, usually pinned to a wall, the haldak is installed flat with the carved designs on the underside. So the animals look like they are hanging upside down. The upper surface of the haldak serves as a shelf for jars, palay, and other household items. The underside of the haldak serves as hangers for baskets and other items.

Many of these haldaks are still in use to this day. However, many have also been sold to antique dealers and collectors.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences by George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer

An image of an Igorot graces this important book on cultural anthropology and criticism. The contents of the book are not exactly about the Igorots but it's a book worth reading for those who wish to gain insight into the workings of cultural anthropology. There's much to be learned here which one can then use as tools in understanding and dealing with the multiple cultural issues plaguing Igorot communities today (i.e. cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation, cultural preservation).

It's very difficult to find a copy of this book. Your best resort is to look for a copy online (Amazon) or check out the online shop of the University Press that published it (University of Chicago Press).


"Using cultural anthropology to analyze debates that reverberate throughout the human sciences, George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer look closely at cultural anthropology’s past accomplishments, its current predicaments, its future direction, and the insights it has to offer other fields of study.

The result is a provocative work that is important for scholars interested in a critical approach to social science, art, literature, and history, as well as anthropology. This second edition considers new challenges to the field which have arisen since the book’s original publication."

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

The Origin of the Panag-aapoy Practice in Sagada and Other Towns in Mt. Province

Every year, before evening falls on the 1st day of November, the folks in Sagada would troop to the community cemetery and light little bonfires over the graves of their departed loved ones. Called "panag-aapoy", this unique tradition has been going on for decades. A mass is first held in the afternoon at the nearby Anglican Church. After a blessing by the local priest, the lighting of the fires commences.

Also widely referred to as "panagdedenet", the practice is also quite common in several other towns in Mt. Province like Besao, Bauko, and Sabangan. In Besao, folks would go to the cemetery 1 or 2 days before All Saints Day to cut the overgrown weeds and brush around the graves. This leaves enough time for the weeds/brush to dry out. When November 1 comes, the weeds/brush are dry enough to burn for a little bonfire. 

It's not surprising that the practice is often attributed to Sagada given that Sagada is a popular tourist town. Several years ago, a little controversy erupted when tour organizers started calling "panag-aapoy" a festival. For the record, the practice is not a festival. At least according to the communities involved and the Anglican Church. And we agree.

The origin of the tradition is not crystal clear. However, it's most likely that it emerged from the conversion of the local populations into the Christian faith. The dominant Christian group in Mt. Province is the Anglican Church. They gained foothold in the hills and mountains of the north when they were able to dispatch Anglican missionaries after the arrival of the Americans. 

Lighting candles in graves during All Saints Day was introduced to the newly-converted Igorots. One theory is that there wasn't enough candles to light during these occasions. Keep in mind that the Americans took over the Philippines in 1898 after a short-lived but brutal war with Spain. Resources are not exactly spilling over the pot.

Another factor in the development of the "panag-aapoy" practice is that community cemeteries in Mt. Province are usually situated in wooded hills or mountain slopes that has an abundance of wood and brush. Instead of using candles that were either scarce or expensive during the early decades of the 20th century, the locals used the wood, saleng, and brush that were readily available. 

The practice of lighting little bonfires on All Saints Day was soon established and cemented into the local culture.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Beey Manok Falls in Kayapa, Bakun, Benguet

Located in barangay Kayapa in Bakun, this is a waterfall being eyed as a potential tourist destination. We tried visiting this sometime in 2019 but it wasn't yet open for trekkers. The name of the waterfall is in the Kankana-ey language. Beey is house, manok is chicken. So it roughly translates to "chicken house" or "house of the chicken".

Should the town decide to open the site for trekkers, it will add to the several waterfalls in the area that already accepts visitors. Most of these waterfalls are within barangay Poblacion - Tekip Falls, Mangta Falls, Pattan Falls, Pikaw Falls, and Sakup Falls. Also south of barangay Sinacbat is Dalingaoan Falls which some people refer to as Tres Marias Falls. This is actually a series of several waterfalls with 3 major drops. Thus explains the "Tres Marias" nickname.

Barangays Poblacion, Sinacbat, and Kayapa are adjacent to each other. This means a trekker can visit all these waterfall sites within a couple of days.

Even better, hiking destinations like Mt. Kabunian, Mt. Lubo, and Mt. Tenglawan are also within the same vicinity. Thus, a trekker can come up with a well-planned itinerary that can shoot at all these sites with one go.