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.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Karinderya Love Songs by John Pucay (Book Review)

The spate of bad weather the past few days has afforded me the time to finally dig into my to-be-read list. One of the titles I finished reading is Karinderya Love Songs, a recently published novel by John Pucay, a writer with Kankanaey-Ibaloi roots. Before anything else, it's great to see a fellow Cordilleran writer publish a work of fiction. Most books I've encountered that were authored by Cordillerans are non-fiction. Books that are usually the products of university presses. Books that are intended to be read by academics, not by the general reader.

This is a good start. Karinderya Love Songs just might be the spark that inspires writers in this corner of the world to begin working on their first novel, poetry collection, or short story collection with the goal of seeing it in print.

Karinderya Love Songs is at first glance a romance novel. It's written in the "first person" with an autobiographical style so you feel like you are reading someone's diary instead of a novel. There's not much of what you could call a plot. It's more of musings by the main character about concepts of modern love, sex, and dating.

It's obvious that the novel has millinneals and Gen Z as its target readers because these are the people who can potentially relate to the story. The themes and topics in the novel revolve around dating, sex, and romantic relationships. If this novel is a movie, it would receive an R-18 rating from the movie board. I'm not saying that that is a good or a bad thing. In the end, it depends on your literary taste.

Romance novels are not my cup of tea. I pretty much stay away from novels whose foundations are built upon romantic relationships. I can't honestly remember the last time I read a romantic novel. But I think one of the stronger points of Karinderya Love Songs is how unapologetic it is. It doesn't try to hide or skirt around the serious topics of love, dating, and sex. The novel unapologetically barges through them with guns blazing.

As I alluded to earlier, the novel pretty much contains the musings of the main character about love, sex, and relationships. You are going to either agree or disagree with his ideas. You are going to either love or hate his take on modern dating.

I gave the book to a female friend. I wanted to hear what a reader from the opposite gender think about the novel. A couple days later, she sent me her review. Basically, she said that the book has good parts and bad parts. That's pretty much every book ever written. She particularly pointed out that she found the book "crass". Well, maybe that's exactly what the book aimed to achieve. It literally describes itself as "crass" in its back cover. I told her to check the back cover. She replied, "Oh, I see."

[Karinderya Love Songs was published in 2022. To get a copy, you can search for John Pucay on Facebook or visit his website at If I'm not mistaken, you can also get an ebook version of his book if you prefer reading with your gadget.]