In 1904, the United States hosted the St. Louis World’s Fair, showcasing the first human exhibit. The Philippines, one of the participating nations, occupied around twenty hectares of the exhibit area to accommodate approximately 1,200 Filipinos and their dwellings. Among those exhibited were the Igorots, indigenous people from the Cordillera Mountains.

For more than 300 years the Spaniards and Americans fought the people of the Cordilleras called Igorots. They were called savages and uncivilized or ignorant by these invaders. These colonizers wanted to eradicate these peoples’ customs and traditions and enforce their western cultures and religions. The savages fought back. They wanted their cultures intact. They still have their culture down to this day. Schneidewind, Richard, 1876-1949. Bentley Historical Library The Americans likened the Igorots to the American “Indians” as “savages, headhunters,

The Americans labeled the Igorots as “savages, headhunters, and dog-eaters,” drawing a parallel with Native Americans. However, just as with Native Americans, these indigenous people were far more civilized than perceived.

In 1887, Filipino physician, poet, and writer Dr. Jose Rizal visited the Exposición de las Islas Filipinas in Madrid, Spain, where Igorots were displayed in a “human zoo.” The Igorots were in poor health and mocked by the Spanish audience. Rizal was outraged by this dehumanizing treatment and criticized Spain for it.

Ironically, the St. Louis World’s Fair and the Exposición de las Islas Filipinas displayed a more inhumane and savage treatment of these people than the Igorots’ own way of life.

For centuries, the Igorots flourished in the Cordillera Mountains as farmers and hunters, demonstrating a profound understanding of plants and animals. They occasionally had disputes with neighboring tribes, but these were managed by their common law called “budong” (peace pacts) or “pechen” in other tribes. They lived in harmony with nature, taking only what they needed and maintaining a sustainable balance with their environment. They traded goods, often using gold or local commodities like rice, g-strings, or animals.

The Budong: A System of Peace

Peace pacts provided significant protection for the Igorots. Each tribe had its own council of elders who safeguarded everyone’s rights. In the event of a conflict, elders and peace pact holders would convene to decide whether to pursue war or settle the dispute amicably. For their actions, the instigators of the quarrel would compensate the aggrieved party with goods like domestic animals. Weaker tribes often opted for peaceful resolutions.

Contrary to popular belief, headhunting expeditions were rare and war was undesirable due to its resource demands and the potential loss of warriors. When conflicts did arise, Igorot warriors targeted only enemy combatants, rarely harming women and children. Those who did were ostracized and regarded as enemies by all.

Living in Harmony with Nature

The Igorots were self-sufficient, having ample rice, meat, clothing, and shelter. Each household maintained rice fields and pastured animals, and the community worked together during planting seasons. They followed a natural timetable to avoid pest infestations, which is explained by modern scientific understanding of pest populations and crop cycles.

The poor in the community worked in the fields for rice wages and supplemented their diet with forest fruits, vegetables, and hunted animals. In Ifugao Province, home to the famous Banaue Rice Terraces, the “Muyong” forest reserves were maintained by the community to ensure water supply to the rice fields. Similar sacred water sources were protected across the Cordillera.

The Igorots only cut trees for essential needs, respecting their forests as sacred places inhabited by spirit creatures. Their beliefs in ancestral and nature spirits helped maintain ecological balance.

The Impact of Western Influence

Traditionally, the Igorots valued animals and fields above all. The introduction of money by colonizers shifted these values, leading to significant changes in their economic practices. Logging and mining industries, introduced by the West, caused more environmental destruction in a few decades than the Igorots had in centuries.

This Western influence led many Igorots to abandon their fields and migrate to cities for work, often in mining companies. The traditional respect for elders and the essence of the Budong system deteriorated, with conflicts increasingly resolved without consulting peace pact holders.

Crimes in the past were primarily acts of revenge, but the colonizers introduced more violent and disrespectful behaviors. The colonizers pillaged lands, burned huts and fields, and raped women, acts previously unheard of among the Igorots.

Resilience and Adaptation

Despite these challenges, the Igorots have continued to adapt. They strive to balance old traditions with modern ways, maintaining their unique identity while engaging with the wider world. Understanding their culture and history, and integrating scientific benefits of their traditional practices with modern knowledge, can help them compete globally.

The Igorots demonstrate that their ancestors’ ways, far from being savage, were deeply respectful of people’s rights and nature. They offer valuable lessons in sustainability and community living that the world can learn from.

Photo of Igorots in the St. Louis World’s Fair by Richard Schneidewind, 1876-1949. Bentley Historical Library