Remembering the Lady in the Snake Bone Crown

For years, we referred to her as the “lady in the snake bone crown.” We met her while we were people watching at the market in Bontoc in the Philippines. Perhaps, “met” is a bit of an exaggeration as we really couldn’t speak to her. But we sat with her as she showed us her tattoos and her snake skeleton hairpiece, memories of a rapidly vanishing age. Despite the fact that we did not know her name or really anything about her, we remembered her very well. In fact, meeting her was one of the most meaningful experiences we had in the Philippines, a country full of amazing people.

In March 2013, Janet Scott Tama wrote to us to tell us the lady in the snake bone crown was Ina Ngallowan from Tucucan, a village near the Maligcong rice terraces, and that she was still alive and doing well. Putting a name to Ina’s face was an exciting discovery for us. We had talked about her and Bontoc’s vanishing traditional culture many times.

Last week, we received an email from Tesiesakoy Chapap telling us that Ina had passed away. We can only imagine the incredible change that Ina and the other locals in the villages around Bontoc have experienced over the course of their lives. Ina was born into another world where headhunting was still practiced and tribal conflicts were a regular occurrence. She lived to see a world with packed tourist buses, karaoke bars, and Internet cafes. It is hardly comprehensible that someone could live to see such transition. What an amazing life!

8 responses to “Remembering the Lady in the Snake Bone Crown”

  1. avatar lisanunn says:

    Wow. Thanks for posting this. I feel like I miss her even though I’ve never met her.

    • avatar Tony says:

      I know. I wish I had had the opportunity to really talk to Ina and hear more about her life. I’m sure she had some amazing stories to tell.

  2. It’s amazing how one encounter can have such an impact on a person. I wonder if it was the same way with her.

    • avatar Tony says:

      @Madeline, I doubt it. I’m she just perceived us as curious visitors. For us the impact was far more the understanding that we were encountering a person who represented living history. The Japanese designate certain individuals living national treasures. I really love that idea because it recognizes the cultural and historical value of individual people. Many of the people living around Bontoc and the mountain valleys of the Cordillera are indeed national treasures of the Philippines.

  3. avatar Greeneyes says:

    What a wonderful tribute to Ina.
    It always amazes me how the tribes people can adjust to such radical changes and commercialism in the jam packed cities.

  4. Agree, with Greeneyes. What a lovely tribute to Ina. It’s sad that with her passing (along with her people in her generation), a culture ravaged by the passage of time and modernity died with her too. On a sidenote, Ina means “Mother” in Filipino. Sounds kinda appropos for a lady born to a different time and different sensibility, much like our mothers.

  5. avatar Tony says:

    If Ina means “mother,” I wonder if that was her first name, or if that was being used as a title of some kind. We’ve been to many places where “mother” or “aunt” are used to address older women.

  6. Quite a possibility, that she was called “Mother” as an honorific title. If that’s the case, she was indeed a remarkable lady.

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