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[OPINION] The Ifugao, cowboys, and assimilation through education

Marlon Martin, Stephen Acabado

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[OPINION] The Ifugao, cowboys, and assimilation through education
'[T]here are no initiatives yet to properly train teachers in indigenous history and heritage'


When I first visited Cordillera, I was surprised by the popularity of country music and the cowboy-themed bars and restaurants. You’ll also see men walking around in leather boots, wrangler jeans, and cowboy hats, and sometimes, galloping on horses. You would think that you’re actually in the American West, instead of Banaue or Baguio. It felt like an unfamiliar world, a world very different from what I learned in Philippine schools about peoples who successfully resisted the Spanish. Since the 4th of July just passed, I thought of writing on the Americanization policy that shaped the modern Philippines.

In the 21st century, this concept of resistance is the foundation of Cordillera identity. Yes, it is a fact that the Spanish were never able to establish a permanent foothold in the Philippine Cordilleras, particularly in the western part of the mountain range. The Spanish did try will all their might, at least 8 times in the 1800s, only to be repulsed by an organized alliance of villages. They finally gave up in 1898 but the Americans soon took over.

The 333 years of Spanish colonialism was superseded by the American benevolent assimilation. This shift is particularly important in the making of the Filipino identity as it was not until after 1898 that the Philippine state as we know it today started to take shape. The term Filipino itself was not applied to the local inhabitants of the Philippines; it specifically referred to the Philippine-born Spanish (insulares). It was not until the late 19th century that the wider inhabitants of the Spanish colony co-opted the term and started to call themselves Filipino. When the Americans took over, Cordillerans and the Moros, groups who were not administered by the Spanish, did not consider themselves part of the Filipino identity. (READ: Demystifying the age of the Ifugao Rice Terraces to decolonize history)

It is surprising then, that with almost 200 years of active resistance against Spanish hegemony, the Ifugao almost did not struggle against the new colonizing power. Of course, there were small skirmishes, but not in the level of animosity and aggressiveness compared to what they threw to the Spanish. This contrast in Ifugao responses to American conquest has something to do with how the latter applied what they learned in their campaigns to Americanize the Native American populations.

The United States took over the possession of the Philippines (together with Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam) in 1898 as an offshoot of the Spanish-American War. The Americans instituted a different approach in pacifying the inveterate highlanders through the policy referred to as “Benevolent Assimilation.” This policy, however, was preceded by a bloody imperialistic campaign that killed at least 300,000 Filipino revolutionaries.  This bloody approach was justified by the United States through representational categories of the Noble and Bloody Savage to either help or slaughter opponents.

Whatever the approach utilized by the United States in the early period of their imperialistic expansion at the turn of the 20th century, it was an extension of their campaigns to overwhelm Native Americans. After the military campaigns, the United States proceeded with their expansion with the awareness that they have to repudiate the European colonial violence. 

It was unthinkable for the general American public to consider that the United States, borne out of their fight against imperialism, is now becoming an imperialist. Hence, the official policy was to differentiate their imperialistic expansion against that of European imperialism. This was addressed by benevolent assimilation through education. The crux of this effort is the idea of the “White Man’s Burden.” Since the Cordillerans were considered the new frontier, the colonial administrators, through their experiences with the conquest of Native Americans, initiated a long-term mapping of Cordillera groups. This was a significant shift in US policy and sort of an attempt to redeem themselves from their abhorrent failures in the pacification of the Native American groups that resulted in the disappearance of Native American cultures in the Great Plains. 

The push for documenting the upland groups became one of the bases for the establishment of the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes in 1901, which became the Ethnological Survey for the Philippine Islands in 1903. This new agency paved the way for the search for anthropologists to lead the ethnographic documentation of the Cordillera groups and, later, the establishment of the Department of Anthropology in the University of the Philippines. (READ: Berries for a cause: Women-led initiative connects Cordillera farmers to the city)

Continuing to apply what they learned in the Native American experience, the United States employed the same educational curriculum that they developed for Native Americans. William Howard Taft, the US Governor-General of the Philippines in 1901, once mentioned that Native Americans who received white education would be similar to Euroamericans “…in industry, in loyalty to the country, in law abiding character, and in morality.” Conceivably, this was the basis of the Philippine education curriculum developed by the United States. It used the educational system as the agent for the Americanization of the Philippines. 

The Philippine Cordillera, particularly, Ifugao, became this new frontier for instilling American values in the indigenous population, as they did with Native Americans. There is no other place in the Philippines where country music is very popular and where the older generation spoke fluent English but does not speak the national language. It is also a place where Americans brought their brand of Christianity. 

The events that followed soon after the American takeover replaced some of the Hispanic foundation of lowland cultures in the Philippines with those of Euroamerican ideals. Where the Spanish failed, the Americans succeeded by using education as a tool to indoctrinate the diverse ethnolinguistic groups in the Philippines to identify as Filipino. To accomplish this, the United States had to develop a curriculum that not only teaches children reading, writing, and arithmetic; it had to refashion Filipino culture just as education sought to “remake” the Indians at home. The history curriculum used by elementary and high school programs in the Philippines exemplifies this focus where local history is ignored over nationalistic histories. It has been over a hundred years, but this foundation of Philippine education is still in use.

A recent national policy shift in K-12 education mandates that the Department of Education must contextualize history curricula in local realities. However, teachers are under-equipped to carry out this directive since there are no initiatives yet to properly train teachers in indigenous history and heritage. Education, as used by colonial overlords, is a tool to shape the characters of citizens. Let’s also use education to acknowledge and redress the injustices received by our Indigenous peoples, a goal that the Ifugao Community Heritage Galleries in Kiangan, Ifugao, which now serves as the Ifugao Indigenous Peoples Education (IPED) Center, is endeavoring to achieve. –

Stephen Acabado is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His archaeological investigations in Ifugao, northern Philippines, have established the recent origins of the Cordillera Rice Terraces, which were once known to be at least 2,000 years old. Dr. Acabado directs the Bicol and Ifugao Archaeological Projects and co-directs the Taiwan Indigenous Landscape and History Project. He is a strong advocate of an engaged archaeology where descendant communities are involved in the research process.

Marlon Martin is the Chief Operation Officer of the Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement, a non-profit heritage conservation organization in his home province of Ifugao, Philippines. He actively works with various academic and conservation organizations both locally and internationally in the pursuit of indigenous studies integration and inclusion in the formal school curricula. Along with Acabado, he established the first community-led Ifugao Indigenous Peoples Education Center, the first in the region.

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