By Michael Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 02/01/2008

MANILA, Philippines — “Igorot” was the original title that I wanted to use for this column, because I am going to feature the Cordillera region. It’s an interesting term, which I’ll explain in this column, but it’s had a rocky history and still leaves many Cordillera residents uneasy, so I thought I’d use “Cordi” instead, an abbreviation of Cordillera, which has its own interesting history word- and geography-wise.

Let me shamelessly admit first that my column is intended to be a plug for a conference which I wanted so badly to attend, but can’t. The University of the Philippines, Baguio, is organizing the First International Conference on Cordillera Studies, to be held from Feb. 7 to 9, 2008 in Baguio City. There will be 140 paper presentations on an assortment of topics, including natural resource management, indigenous knowledge systems, health, gender, and social and political movements.


Why Cordillera Studies? Let me explain with some historical background, and a bit of personal nostalgia.

My childhood memories of what is the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) today, with several provinces, were of just one Mountain Province. Mountains had connotations of the remote, and those who lived there — “mountain people” — were seen as barbaric, uncivilized. “Ygolottes” meant mountain-dwellers, eventually mutating to “Igorot,” a generic term for different ethnic groups in the region.

Our family, on the maternal side, used to drive up every summer, renting an entire house for the rather large clan. And to keep us from getting too rowdy, the adults would threaten to give us away to the Igorot. One time, we were out in the yard and had resisted appeals from our parents to move into the house for dinner. Finally, one of them shouted, “Igorot! Igorot!” and indeed, coming up the hill was an old Igorot woman, sending the children scurrying into the house screaming. The fear was, of course, largely feigned, but there was, deep down, a morbid kind of curiosity about these very different people.

They did let us out of the house from time to time, for horseback riding, for a bit of handicrafts shopping and the inevitable trip to a photo studio where we’d be stripped down and decked out — the boys in G-string and wielding a spear, the girls in a blouse and “tapis” [native wraparound skirt], holding a basket — to have our photographs taken.

The summers in Baguio and the photo shoots weren’t intended to help us appreciate Cordillera culture. We were in Baguio to get away from Manila’s summer heat, and the trips to the studios, well, by becoming “Igorot” for a brief photographic moment, only reinforced the distance between us and them. We would continue to be fed bits and pieces of sensationalized information that added to the exoticism: the dog-eating, the dorms of young unmarried girls, the head-hunting (which actually happened outside the Cordillera but never mind, they were still “natives”). Making “them” different meant homogenizing the groups in the Cordillera. Only in college did I learn of the vast differences among the Ibaloi, the Bontoc, the Kalinga and the many other groups and sub-groups in the area.

The “exoticizing” of the Cordillera dates back to the Spanish period, with accounts of European travelers who couldn’t quite get into close contact with the “natives.” The Americans made some inroads into the region, with their schools and missionaries and, later, anthropologists. The Cordillera provided fine specimens to show what America needed to do or could do. Several dozens were exported for exhibit at the St. Louis Exhibition in 1904 and made to throw spears, and butcher dogs for Americans curious about their new colonial possession. Some of you may have seen the photographs of one of the children who had gone to St. Louis, in G-string, and how he was transformed many years later, wearing a proper suit and tie.


In college, I learned from more critical professors that the labels of “wild” were tacked on the Cordillera because they were unconquered, maybe even unconquerable. It wasn’t surprising that the Cordillera became a center of resistance against the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship.

“Cordillera” is Spanish (literally “little rope”) but refers to mountain ranges. In the 1970s, these mountain ranges took new meanings. “Mamumundok” [to go up to the mountains] then meant giving up on the government and joining the rebels.

Those who did go “up” to the Cordilleras were admittedly still lured by the idea of the “noble savage,” of a kind of lost innocence. But a few days in one of the villages was often enough to make those romantic notions evaporate. Life was harsh there, with the grinding poverty, the result of neglect by the national and local government. Measles would break out in one village and spread quickly, killing dozens of children within a few days. Surviving childhood was a major feat, but life remained precarious well into adulthood. I grew accustomed not to bare-breasted women but to their goiter-enlarged necks, fretting whenever it was a pregnant woman because I knew the fetus could be affected as well.

It was during this period when there were attempts to re-appropriate the term “Igorot” as a word of respect, and as an identity for the region. It didn’t quite work out, for varied reasons, but that movement helped to spur a growing regional consciousness.

Ironically, I think what’s hastening the emergence of a regional identity today has been the Filipino diaspora. Pushed again by poverty, there are thousands of people from the Cordillera, mainly women, who are working overseas and now have websites and blogspots and organizations urging regional unity.

I’m hopeful the Cordillera Studies Conference will bring out many of the stories that need to be told about the region. There’s something almost symbolic about the conference being in Baguio, a place that was originally built for American bureaucrats seeking escape from the tropical heat and ungovernable Filipinos. In Baguio, they were of course safely cordoned from the mountain peoples who might further aggravate their malaise.

It was to Baguio, too, where Filipino teachers were brought during the summer to train in “Vacation Assemblies” with American visiting professors, who would lecture on topics like “Anthropology,” “Genetic Psychology” and “The Government of the United States.”

The Cordillera conference of 2008 should take us full circle, as Filipinos and non-Filipinos, lowlanders and “mountain peoples,” come together to listen to each other, tackling the realities of a region that fiercely maintains its traditions and yet is so integrated into a global diaspora. The Cordillera’s stories should provide us with lessons not just for the region but also for the nation.

Interested in the conference? Contact the University of the Philippines, Baguio, Cordillera Studies Center. Call +74 4425794 or email Log on to the conference website ( for further details.