Reading Albert Jenks’ The Bontoc Igorot

Before I started reading Albert Jenks’ book on the Bontoc Igorots, I was ready to be offended. I was also prepared to write a snarky review and to bash the book with the righteous rage of an Igorot whose ancestors were slandered by an American writer.

I assumed that since Mr. Jenks is a “modern” American writing about the “primitive” Igorots in the early 1900s, he will be paternalistic and judgmental. In other words, I was prepared for him to say things like “Ugh, this people are really uncivilized. I’m glad we white people are here to save them.” Or “These people will all go to hell because they are not Christians.” You know stuff like that.

I must now admit that I was mistaken. Overall, the tone of the book is neither paternalistic nor judgmental. In fact, at some points, the book is respectful of its subjects and we are not talking here about the “Oh they are noble savages” kind of respect.

In my defense, it is still good to read things written about us Igorots/Filipinos by our colonial overlords with a healthy dose of skepticism and a critical eye. I guess what saved Mr. Jenks from my bashing is the fact that he is an academic. (You can check his short biography here.)

His role was not to bring the Igorots under the governance of the state. Neither was he tasked to save the heathens and bring them under the reign of a Christian God. Because of this, the author wrote about the Igorots with less tendency to be condescending than would a government functionary or an evangelist. [Here’s a question for you folks: In a truth-telling activity with a group composed of a politician, a priest, and an academic, who is most likely to tell the truth? It’s the academic according to my former boss who happens to be an academic.]

I am not saying that the book is not faultless. Actually, it has its silly parts. In one chapter, the author goes on and on describing the body parts of Igorot men and women that I was surprised he didn’t go to the extent of measuring his subjects’ private anatomies. Maybe, he did but didn’t say anything about it in his book. But let’s give Mr. Jenks some slack. Anthropologists are strange folks and Mr. Jenks — with his avid interest (fetish?) in his subjects’ noses, inward toes, heads, and armpit hair — is no exception.

My other beef against the author is that he keeps on referring to the Igorots as a primitive people. My blood boiled the first time he does this and he didn’t help matters by his repetitive use of the term. Nonetheless, I am willing to concede that maybe his offense is not unforgivable partly because maybe the word/term back then didn’t have the very negative connotations that it now has and partly because, as earlier mentioned, the overall tone of the book is not disrespectful. [So what’s an unforgivable offense, you ask? The St. Louis Exposition where Igorots were displayed like animals in a zoo is an unforgivable offense in my book. It should also be unforgivable in your book.]

At any rate, this rather lengthy blog entry is meant to introduce you to Albert Jenks’ book, The Bontoc Igorot. I will be publishing excerpts of the book with some of my comments thrown in. Let’s bear in mind that this book is the impressions of a man who lived with his subjects for a short period of time. It is not definitive of the Bontoc Igorot and the author, Albert Ernest Jenks, does not make that claim.

1 thought on “Reading Albert Jenks’ The Bontoc Igorot”

  1. Are you aware that his wife’s letters home, written during the time that she was in the Philippines with her husband, have been compiled into a book? It’s a really good read. She is occasionally a little ethnocentric, there’s a little bit of “save the savages” in it, but I like to give her a break. Considering she was a young girl from Wisconsin who had never travelled, her account is pretty open-minded. She often lambastes the American establishment there as well, and does have some admiration for the natives. The book also goes further than the Bontoc Igorot, in that she also chronicles their other travels through Luzon and their trip to Mindanao. It’s a great travel narrative. Sadly, it seems most of her letters were lost, but there’s still a lot there.

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