In scholarship as well as in popular knowledge, the word Igorot refers to the so-called "unhispanised" and "tribal" people of the Cordillera in Northern Luzon and, who until the first three decades of the 20th century, still widely practiced headhunting. Etymologically, it came from the Ilocano word gerret which means to "cut off" or to "slice" (the head). Because of its initial association with relentless killings and cutting of heads, just hearing the word today still conjures up images of "savageness" and "primitiveness" to the general public. That is why even at present one can still hear parents, particularly in the lowland communities, scolding and threatening their children to behave properly, or else they will be given away to the Igorots. Despite this and all the other negative connotations that still cling to the word Igorot, the peoples of the Cordillera, by some twists of history, have ironically transformed it to become their proud identity (Kaigorotan, Igorotlandia) and a rallying point against the very notions in which the Igorot name was first conceived and put upon them by outside observers.
This transformation of meaning of Igorot into a pan-Cordillera identity and its subsequent ramification in political lives of the Cordillera people are the subject of Gerald Finin's book The Making of the Igorot: Contours of Cordillera Consciousness. In it, the author charts the historical context in which the inhabitants of this highland territory came to imagined themselves as belonging to one social/ethnic group with uniquely shared cultural traits and history which, over a decade ago, became the basis for their call for regional autonomy. Drawing from various historical sources and ethnographic data, as well as from his own familiarity of the place being once a long-time Peace Corp volunteer in the Cordillera, he argued that the territorial transformation that resulted in the formation of a "self-conscious" regional identity in the Cordillera and how the idea of a single "Igorot" or "Cordillera people" inhabiting the high mountains of Northern Luzon is not rooted in any natural features of the physical environment (i.e., being in the highland) as regions are traditionally conceived of, but rather as an artefact of the administrative grid devised and imposed by the American colonial rule during their early years of exploration in the area.
He noted that prior to the coming of the Americans, there was nothing that can be said to characterise all the inhabitants of the Cordillera as one "sociological whole". They were diverse, as it still is now, in terms of language, material culture, architecture, belief systems, and to some degree, economic activities. They even did not know much about other villages in the mountainous area. Settlements were almost inaccessible to one another and frequent contacts were impeded by intervillage enmities and the threat of headhunting. Travel and communication in the Cordillera only became frequent when the practice of headhunting started to wane, when highways to connect different major settlements were built up, and to some degree, when Ilocano, as a lingua franca of Northern Luzon, became popular which allowed them to communicate with other "Cordillerans" who do not share the language of their natal villages.
The author further argued that the idea of a homogenous region occupied by the Cordillera people was a strategy by the American colonial authorities to set them apart from their immediate Christianised lowland counterparts and, to some extent, the island communities of the Visayas and the Moros of Mindanao, and to pacify and established a direct rule over them. This administrative grid, promoted almost singlehandedly by Dean Worcester - then member of the Philippine Commission formed by the United States of America to formally arrange the management of their newly-acquired territory and who cast a special interest in these highland people - became the basis for all the policies that Americans subsequently implemented on these people. To further ease their administration and monitoring, Worcester subdivided (rather arbitrarily) all the different villages of the Cordillera into several subgroups. This subdivision became the subprovinces that would later compose the Mountain Province established by the Americans.
This regional consciousness was further propagated by major educational institutions set up by the Americans and other colonial programs and policies they implemented in the Cordillera. The opening of the All-Igorot Trinidad School in Benguet - the first and only institution of higher learning for the whole region at the time - provided a venue for the meeting of young people from different places in the Cordillera, and establishing relationships and sharing traditions, arts, and dances of their own natal villages. In mining sites, the American policy of segregating low lander Ilocano workers from Igorot highlanders not only grouped together Cordillera people who were once hostile from each other but also instilled in themselves a sense of belongingness and brotherhood as one "race" or ethnic group. The American sponsored sports competitions, cultural shows where they can display their traditional music and dances, and region-wide feasting events also became crucial avenues to seal their bond and affirm their oneness.
Subsequent political events that occurred after the American rule also played an important part in continually shaping Igorot consciousness. This was first expressed in their quest to place a " genuine" Igorot in high government positions in the then Mountain Province which, after Americans left as chief administrators, were mostly occupied by the Ilocanos from the lowland, then through the expansion of Benguet, Ifugao, Bontoc, Apayao, and Kalinga (BIBAK) - a highlander student organisation which became influential in determining the outcome of electoral politics in the region during the 1950s. Educated Igorots who joined Nationalist movements in Manila in the 1960s and who went back to Mountain Province to advocate for the assimilation of Igorot to the larger Filipino population also worked in the context of a colonially defined Cordillera ethnic group. This consciousness was further cemented through a concerted effort displayed by the Igorots in opposing the construction of the Chico River Damn Project of the late President Ferdinand Marcos which when implemented, could cause the displacement of several villages in the Bontoc and Kalinga areas. The native spousal of Cordillera as a distinct region inhabited by the "Igorot race" reached its culmination when they quested for regional autonomy which was eventually recognised and given a special place in the 1986 Constitution under the administration of President Cory Aquino.
Unlike other historical writings about the Cordillera, this book also emphasised the role of Baguio City in the creation and propagation of Igorot consciousness and all Cordillera imaginings that came after. According to Finin, the American presence in the Cordillera is not so much about bringing the highlanders to the fold of colonial rule or taking over of the gold resources as to control them so that they can occupy a section of the mountain area safely in order to put up an urban centre where they could enjoy a healthier climate similar in North America. As a place where most of the American authorities resided and held office, it became the seat of American colonial administration in the whole Cordillera region. When higher institutions of learning such as high schools and colleges began to be built in Baguio, it also immediately turned the area as an educational centre for the Cordillera people, moving away from the Trinidad Agricultural School in Benguet. As the centre of government, commerce and industry, education, and cultural activities, Baguio soon became a symbolic place that captured the kind of progress that all the highlanders longed to achieve in their respective natal villages.
Well researched and well written, the book is insightful in several aspects. First, it offers a new way of looking at Cordillera history by pointing out clearly and convincingly the colonial origin of our idea of the Cordillera as a homogenous region occupied by what we historically now know as the Igorot, an aspect that was not discussed explicitly and in a substantial way in other historical works on the Cordillera. Second, it has laid out a potentially new and interesting research direction on issues of ethnic formation. While it has been long demonstrated ethnographically and historically that ethnic identities are not something given but are socially constructed and reconstructed - that is, they are a result of active identification by individuals to a particular social group, community, or society, little has been said about how this active identification can also be initially based from administrative grids imposed by colonial authorities to their colonies. In this book, Finin highlighted the influence of one colonial administrator Dean Worcester in our current thinking of the Cordillera, but it may also be important to explore, in line with his idea, the extent of influence H. Otley Beyer had on our current knowledge of ethnic composition in the entire Philippines. Beyer, similar to Worcester, is also one of the early American administrators and scholars who published lists of ethnic subdivision in the entire Philippines. Much of what we know as the Ilocanos, the TInguians, the Manobo, Samal to name a few, and their corresponding territorial region came, I think, from a population survey outlined by Beyer in the early years of American rule.
The book is also insightful in charting the role of politics and the historical processes that underwent with it in creating and shaping ethnic identities particularly supra-villages or regional identities. In the case of the Cordillera, Finin successfully demonstrated how American colonial policies influenced all subsequent imaginings of the Igorot both at the regional and state levels, beginning in the indigenization of public offices which basically entails the placing of native Igorot on key administrative positions and all the sentiments that went with it, and the impact of nationalist movement which have reached the Cordillera due mainly to Igorots who studied in Manila during the turbulent Marcos years.
This book is an important addition to the already growing literature on Cordillera history. One can surely consider that this work is a modern classic in Igorot/Cordillera studies along with William Henry Scott’s The Discovery of the Igorot and Felix Keesing’s The Ethnohistory of Northern Luzon. Students working on Cordillera history and culture as well for those who study American colonial legacies in the Philippines will find this book informative as it is interesting to an Igorot friend I happened to share in reading it.