Living Memories of the Bontoc Tribe

While transiting through Bontoc, we had the extraordinary opportunity to meet some of the older members of the Bontoc tribe. Downtown Bontoc looks like any other small town in the Philippines, with jeepney stands, hotels, restaurants, donut shops, and hordes of teen fashionistas. It’s very easy to pass through and miss any signs of the region’s cultural heritage.

Bontoc Woman

But a closer look reveals that Bontoc is actually one of the best places in the Cordillera to find the small number of older Bontoc tribes-people who cling to their traditional culture in their last years. These are the grandparents and great-grandparents of the fashionistas so desperate to escape from their tribal past.

The women in these pictures, who we saw in the central market, were born into another world. Bontoc was a large collection of tribal palm huts along the Chico River between the Ifugao and Kalinga regions. Inter-tribal warfare and head hunting were still common in northern Luzon. The Bontoc tribes-people were traditional animists who had resisted conversion under the Spanish, but American missionaries were starting to bring their belief systems into the region.

Bontoc Women

Today, only older women wear the bright red, hand-woven sarongs. Extremely old men still occasionally wear loin cloths, although we only saw two such men during our two days in Bontoc. Some women wear a very distinctive snake-skeleton hairpiece, which I found very cool, others wear a string of bone beads.

The Bontoc traditionally covered their bodies with elaborate tattoos. For women, these were purely for decorative purposes, and they are still commonly seen today. Men had to earn their tattoos by killing enemies in inter-tribal conflicts. This probably explains why we saw no men with tattoos. Although head-hunting continued well into the lives of many of the older men, tattooing would have revealed the murders which might have brought punishment from outside authorities.

Bontoc Woman Shopping

Locals comment that traditional clothing is disappearing very quickly as the last generation of old-world Bontoc dies off. Repeat visitors to the region recall that just a few years ago, such visible signs of traditional Bontoc culture were far more common than today.

I guess I’m starting to sound like a broken record with these postings on tribal culture. But it’s true, the tribal people of the world will be mostly integrated within the next generation. If you’ve dreamed of experiencing any of these cultures, you’ve got to go now.

14 responses to “Living Memories of the Bontoc Tribe”

  1. Can you include a link to Survival International? My brain goes ’round in circles when I consider what might be best for people like the Bontoc.

  2. avatar greeneyes says:

    Great story and even greater photos.
    I like to see the contrast of the generations and their style of clothing and of course the tut tut transportation.

  3. I would love to visit and see the beauty of Bontoc.

  4. avatar rosieryll says:

    i like this.. i saw my grandma..ahej

  5. avatar rosieryll says:

    come and visit’s nice in here..

  6. avatar maikenz says:

    ehmmmmmmm!!!!!! IGOROTS are still the best of all!! an im very proud for it!

  7. avatar tere says:

    the old-tattooed women of the cordilleras represent their “high status” in the olden times. You might want to visit the last living tattoo artist in Tingalayan, Kalinga…

  8. avatar Janet Scott/Tama says:

    The lady with the snake bone crown is Ina Ngallowan. To date, she is still alive and healthy. Her generation will probably be the last front to wear our traditional garb almost everyday. I mean in Tucucan, unless it is a special occasion.

    Please take time to come visit our small town. Maligkhong rice terraces is close by. The museum in town is handy. Mt. Amoyao is there too for mountain climbers. The Chico River for river rafting and many more..

    • avatar Tony says:

      Thank you Janet for taking the time to write to us and tell us Ina’s name. We were fascinating with the ladies and (a few men) walking around Bontoc with traditional clothing on. We actually did go to Maligkhong, but we didn’t know there was a museum there. If we get back there, we’ll definitely check it out.

  9. avatar tesiesakoy chapap says:

    ” remembering ina ngallowan from tucucan bontoc pass away last sunday june 30 2013.. representing women snake tattooed … thank you guys for this photo remembering the bontoc tribes and culture..

  10. avatar Liway says:

    i love en proud of my origin place ALABama Bontoc!…

  11. avatar Maria says:

    Did it have an enemy??

  12. avatar Ben Batoon says:

    The tattoos have meaning actually. It symbolizes the classification of their status such as whether she is from a prominent rich family or a 2nd in rank to the rich family. I am not sure of the terms used to call each of the status. What I remember is there is a rank thats called Bangan I can’t really remember whether that qaa the term for a Princess or the 2nd rank. Another is if I am not mistaken was Longayban, there’s one more but I just can’t remember it because I was so young when our grand mother used to tell us about it. Remembering when I was young, the evidence of the igorot traded with the Chinese people was very clear with the jars that used to be all over the Cordillera region but when the antique collectors hit the place, those proofs of the trade were wiped out.there was this popular jar with dragon designs some with silvers and nickels and probably gold that the antique collectors used to race in gaining on every places. Others were spears with machete and axe and a wooden shield. Those were all gone to the antique collectors.

  13. avatar Bernardina Borgueta Torrey says:

    I am researching my fathers people and our culture. He was from Leyte, spoke visayan and served and retired from the American Navy and Merchant Marines. His name was Procesco Borgueta and was born between 1905 and 1911.

    I would like to visit the Philippines someday and begin with a tour of the region of my ancestors.

    Any, and all suggestions and recommendations appreciated.

    Thank you

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