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.

12 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 us..it’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??

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