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The Bontok People of the Philippines: History, Culture, Customs and Tradition [Philippine Indigenous People | Ethnic Group] Bontoc, Mountain Province

The Bontok People of the Philippines: History, Culture, Customs and Tradition [Philippine Indigenous People | Ethnic Group] Bontoc, Mountain Province

Bontok, meaning “mountain,” refers to the people who share close linguistic and cultural similarities and originate from Bontoc, which is the place and name of a municipality in Mountain Province. The people of this group call themselves Ifontok in their own language.

Bontoc province consists of 10 municipalities and 144 barangays. The Bontok cultural group resides in the 16 barangays of the municipality of Bontoc and the eight barangays of the municipality of Sadanga in the northeast. In Mountain Province, the Bontok comprise 12% or about 18,500 of the province’s estimated total population of 154,187.

In 1902, Bontoc and Lepanto were combined to make up a single province called Lepanto-Bontoc. With Cervantes as its capital, the province spanned the coast of Tagudin in the west to parts of Kalinga in the east. In 1908, Mountain Province was created, combining all the areas in the Cordillera mountain. Bontoc became a sub-province and the capital of the whole province. Tagudin and Cervantes were incorporated into Ilocos Sur in the early 1920s. In 1966, Mountain Province was divided into four provinces: Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga-Apayao, and Mountain Province, which retained the name of the old province. The new Mountain Province includes the territories of Bontoc and areas to the east in Paracelis, to parts of the west in Besao. Bontoc became the capital of the new Mountain Province.

History of the Bontoc tribe in the Philippines

The Bontok are believed to have first entered Luzon following the Cagayan River, then Chico River into the Cordillera mountain, and finally settled along the river where they are located today. They carved rice paddies out of the mountains, and these became an important source of Bontok livelihood. Irrigated rice cultivation spread westward to Kankanaey territory and Abra, northward to Kalinga area, and southward to Benguet. Before Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the Bontok had already developed rice farming as an economic activity, although root crops were the staple food. They traded with each other and with those outside their territories, including the Ilocano in the coasts. They brought down forest products like beeswax and some manufactured products like rough sleeping mats, net knapsack or hunting bags, and sieves for cleaning rice. They procured from the lowlands livestock, salt, blankets, dried fish, G-string, steel weapons, porcelain plates, and jars.

Rice terraces in Bontoc
Rice terraces in Bontoc (SIL International)

Before the Spaniards came, the Bontok practiced a religion centering on ancestral and nature spirits. They had highly developed social and political organizations. The Spaniards described them as “muscular,” “light-skinned,” and “strong.” They were, moreover, “crafty” and “astute.” They practiced tattooing. The men wore G-strings while the women wore wraparound skirts. They had earrings, bracelets, and beads of seeds, shells, glass, and carnelians.

The inhabitants of the Cordillera mountain as a whole resisted Spanish attempts to colonize them, as people in the lowlands fled from Spanish abuse and exploitation into the mountains that were the Bontok stronghold. Aided by its mountainous terrain, the Bontok defended their territory against colonizers’ control and preserved their independence. Spanish attempts from 1663 to 1665 to conquer them failed. Throughout most of the colonial period, the Spaniards could not subject them to their colonial policies like the tributo (taxes in cash and in kind) and polo y servicio (forced labor).

In the mid-19th century, however, the abundance of gold in these mountains renewed Spanish efforts to penetrate the area. Lepanto was the first Igorot area where garrisons were built. These were abandoned soon after, however, because of frequent Igorot attacks. In 1857, almost three centuries after the start of Spanish rule, the Spaniards established the Comandancia Politico-militar de Bontoc, a 1,322 square kilometers politico-military territory bounded on the north by Isabela, on the south by Lepanto, on the east by the district of Principe and Nueva Vizcaya, and on the west by Abra. During Spanish rule and up to early American rule, Abra, together with the Comandancia Politico-militar de Bontoc, were considered a single province. However, the Bontok continued to repulse Spanish presence in the comandancia. In 1881, they attacked the Spanish garrison, killed nine of its troops, and burned structures in it. They also attacked Spanish garrisons in Lepanto and Mayabo in Abra. By the time the Spanish rule in the country had ended, the Bontok remained virtually uninfluenced by the colonizers.

Although the Philippine Revolution was hardly felt in Bontoc, some Bontok warriors participated in the Philippine-American War, particularly in the battle of Caloocan, which was their first encounter with the Americans. The pacification methods employed by the Americans followed the policy of “benevolent assimilation,” which was evidently more effective than Spanish “pacification.” Local community leaders were appointed as presidentes (mayors). Schools were opened, and some Bontok students were sent elsewhere and abroad on scholarship. Roads were built to connect Bontoc to Cervantes in the west, Kalinga in the east, and Ifugao in the south.

It was during the American rule that Igorots, including the Bontok, were transformed in many ways. Bontoc and Sadanga became integrated to a centralized government. Christian churches were established, mainly by the Episcopalian (Anglican) missionaries who arrived in 1902 and the Catholic Belgian missionaries who arrived in 1907. A hospital and a prison house were built. By the 1930s, many Bontok were recruited to work in the Benguet mines that began large-scale migrations.

In 1904, 80 Bontok, whom their descendants call “Nikimalika,” literally “participated in America,” traveled to the United States with more than a thousand other Philippine ethnic groups from all over the archipelago for the Philippine exhibition at the International Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri. This St. Louis World’s Fair was used by the United States, then a young imperialist nation, to display its colonial possessions. Although the Bontok demonstrated their skill in their various arts and crafts, such as dancing to gong music, weaving, and metalwork, what drew the crowds of spectators were their almost daily “dog feasts” and the media publicity about them as “headhunting wild people.” Thus, they reaped for their American brokers the highest earnings of all those in the Philippine exhibition. Their Bontok descendants tell that the Nikimalika joked among themselves about the gullibility of their American audience when they randomly picked the young men among them to play the role of chief, and that they had felt a surfeit of dog meat because it was not normally their daily fare. Over the next decade, American businessmen organized more shows in the country and even in Europe for troupes of over 300 Bontok performers.

This expedition was preceded in 1887 by the Exposicion de las Islas Filipinas in Madrid, Spain. Thirty-four Igorots from Bontoc and Abra occupied the Rancheria de los Igorrotes at the Zoological Gardens. Here they demonstrated their singing, dancing, and cooking of pig. Jose Rizal, who was in Madrid at the time, was outraged at the treatment of his compatriots as zoological specimens.

Bontoc was occupied by Japan in 1942, but Japanese rule was constantly derailed by guerrilla activities. A Bontok named Pitapit, later named Hilary Clapp after the Episcopalian missionary who christened him, served as the first Igorot governor of the province. Just before World War II ended, Clapp went missing and was believed to have been killed by guerrillas. As the war ended, central Bontoc was destroyed by American carpet bombing on the suspicion that the Japanese were still hiding there.

Bontoc, the provincial capital, was the center of post-World War II rehabilitation, which included repairs and construction of government and private buildings, and support for agricultural production and business. Hence, hotels, restaurants, and stores flourished. Bontoc Poblacion became the commercial and cosmopolitan center of Bontoc. Elections were held in the province for the first time in 1956.

Road construction and widening continued. More schools were built, and cogon grass used as housing materials was replaced by GI sheets and concrete. Electricity was made available to central Bontoc in the 1970s and to the rest of the province in the 1980s. Television sets and radios soon followed. During this period, however, the Bontok were also putting up a resistance against the state plan to dam an extensive length of Chico River that would have inundated Bontoc itself and other villages close to the river.

Way of Life of the Bontok People

Wet rice agriculture is the essential economic activity of the Bontok. Rice fields are located mostly along Chico River and its tributaries. In the warmer parts of Bontok territory, rice is planted twice a year, while the colder parts can only support one crop of rice in a year. Central Bontoc observes two croppings a year, with the chinakhon type of rice grown from March to July, and the pak-ang from September to December. Those who only have one cropping do so from March to August. Root crops, particularly sweet potato, are supplementary crops grown on rice fields that have dried up after harvest. Cassava is grown on the peripheries of the rice fields and in small garden plots around the villages. Other crops are beans, bananas, coffee, and some temperate vegetables like cabbages, pepper, and string beans, known locally as Baguio beans. Fishing along the Chico River and the rice paddies is a matter of personal interest or pastime because the fish have significantly diminished.

The agricultural system has been wet rice terracing, which became the basis for the Bontok system of property ownership and inheritance. Four concepts of land ownership are the following: gakay or lakon, the tribal territory into which incursion by an outsider may lead to tribal war; lamoram or communal property, which is for common village use; tayan or corporate property, which is for the exclusive use of a clan; and fukhod, which is the private property that an individual can claim by inheritance or as payment for the labor and permanent constructions he has done on the land.

Bontok elders binding rice stalks
Bontok elders binding rice stalks, 1981 (Ma’I Collection, Filipinas Heritage Library)

In pre-Spanish times, the Bontok traded gold for jars, plates, beads, and brass gongs from the Asian mainland. Since the American period, the Bontok have been exposed locally to an interconnected economy. Roads have brought other agricultural products from nearby barangays and municipalities, and manufactured goods via Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, and Baguio City. Temperate vegetables come from Sagada and Bauko. Tools, kitchenware, clothes, electronic gadgets, and construction materials have since been entering the area through Baguio City and Nueva Vizcaya. As result, traditional industries in the area, such as pottery and weaving in Samoki, salt making in Mainit and Sadanga, and bamboo weaving have ceased. Some manufacturing has been revived in small scale for tourism purposes. The manufacture of the kalaleng (nose flute), tufay (spear), pinnang (head ax), and feneng (bolo) is now a thing of the past among the Bontok.

Bontok man smoking a cigar
Bontok man smoking a cigar, 1990 (CCP Collections)

Agricultural and labor practices have changed over time. Many Bontok have moved out of their villages to study or work elsewhere, resulting in a shortage in agricultural labor force. Most farm laborers are paid cash, a deviation from traditional reciprocal labor. Commercial fertilizers are adopted in many farms, especially by wealthy owners.

Businesses in the form of grocery stores, hardware shops, medical clinics, banks, and consulting offices also define the landscape of central Bontoc. Among the bigger employers of the Bontok are government institutions, especially schools, the police, and local government. Most employees are also farmers in the weekends, especially during planting and harvest seasons, while some go into the forest for firewood.

Indigenous Bontok's Self-Identity and Village Life 

Traditionally, the ato or ator is the sociopolitical and religious center of the Bontok villages. The traditions centering on this institution have diminished in varying degrees, though. Each ato has the intugtukan, a council of male elders, which allows the ato members to discuss community issues before decisions are made. Intervillage relations are determined by the pechen or pedin (peace pact), which requires mutual cooperation and protection between the villages concerned, especially when one village confronts an enemy. Members of one village must be protected by the other village whenever they are within the territory of that other village. Intermarriages are encouraged. A pechen is forged through a ritual conducted by the councils of elders of both villages who recite the myth of the first pechen, exchange gifts, eat and drink from a common plate and cup, and smoke a peace pipe. With long-distance travel now possible, the areas of responsibility covered by Bontok peace pacts have reached as far as Baguio City, the Benguet mines, and Manila.

Bontok council of leaders, early 20th century
Bontok council of leaders, early 20th century (National Archives of Washington)

The ato used to be the center of social norms and training. It was where members learned the customs, laws, and taboos of the village. As a center for learning, young ato members were introduced to history, dances, chag-ay (songs), oral literature especially the og-okhod, and other oral traditions. The ato determined and enforced the rules on each member and his family.

The Bontok say that their laws were given to them by Lumawig, their culture hero, when he came to live as one of them. These laws stressed solidarity, honesty, and respect for property. Punishments for transgressions were ostracism, confiscation of property, and execution. The incest taboo was strictly followed, so that males did not visit the ulog where their immediate female relatives slept.

The concept of justice is based on retribution, which in the past centered on headhunting. Male relatives of a murder victim were morally obligated to avenge his death, either by killing the culprit himself or any member of his village. They were subjected to ridicule and contempt if they failed to do so. Headhunting also had a religious dimension. A beheaded man’s spirit became a pinteg, a deity to whom the people prayed for a good harvest, good health, the identification of thieves, and the recovery of stolen objects. Headhunting incidents, though now few and far between, still occur.

Law violations are now increasingly being brought before the municipal courts instead of the council of elders, although the court decisions are still largely based on custom law. Fines rather than revenge are becoming acceptable as indemnification. Although the national government is represented in the Mountain Province by a governor, mayors, councilors, and other such government officials, the ato system remains a strong force in the village. The barangay captain and councilors must still turn to the council of elders for help in implementing government decisions.

Leadership rested in the amam-a (male elders). However, males no longer sleep in the ato, which are now sometimes used as meeting venues for barangay affairs. Some of the ato have fallen into disrepair. Nevertheless, the ato continues to play a significant role in the observance of community rituals and ceremonies. Two important rituals organized in the ato are the manerwap and the mange-yag. These two ceremonies are performed to “call the rain.” Manerwap requires ato members to go to a nearby mountain and stay there overnight while the elders perform animal offerings and recite prayers imploring Lumawig to send rain. In the mange-yag, members beat their shields as they go down to the river to catch fish. After offering prayers to Lumawig and the spirits that are housed in the nearby fawi (tiny hut built for spirits known to dwell in the area) they cook and eat their catch. In Sadanga, the ato plays host to thanksgiving feasts called fegnas, which are held when rice crops are about to ripen. Activities centering on the fegnas are fishing, prayers, eating, and dancing for three to five days.

Today, in lieu of the pechen, the villages of Sadanga and Bontoc are bound by their municipal membership. Nevertheless, the pechen that were forged between villages in the past are sometimes invoked during intervillage visits or when crimes involving residents of these villages need to be settled.

Bontok Tribe Social Organization, Customs, and Tradition

There are three traditional social classes among the Bontok communities: the kachangyan or the traditional rich, the wad-ay ngachana, literally “those who have names,” and referring to the middle class, and the pusi or lawa, also known as the poor. The kachangyan’s wealth and prestige are defined by inherited wealth of rice fields, heirloom Chinese jars, precious beads, gold earrings, brass gongs, and rice granaries. The kachangyan regularly sponsor feasts of merit that would validate their status as kachangyan. Although rich, the kachangyan also work as hard as the other people in the village, especially because they have more rice fields to work. The wad-ay ngachana are those with property, though not as extensive as that of the faknang (the Ilocano term for “rich”), who would have surplus food stored in the allang or arang. The lawa likewise own property and fields, but not enough to sustain their needs throughout the year, so they usually work in the fields of the rich for a share in the harvest. Intermarriage between the lawa and the kachangyan was traditionally frowned upon, but intermarriage between the middle class and the traditional rich was tolerated.

Group of Bontok men
Group of Bontok men (SIL International)

Money economy and the wider opportunities for work radically altered the economic aspect of traditional class categories. Many Bontok of lawa and wad-ay ngachana origins have acquired land and built houses that in some cases surpass those of the traditional elite. Hence, they became the faknang. Perhaps, the distinction between the faknang and the kachangyan today can be observed in the death rituals they perform. In those of the kachangyan, more animals are butchered, wakes are longer, and ritual processes are more elaborate.

Bontok girls
Bontok girls (SIL International)

Important stages in the Bontok life cycle are marked by feasts involving the butchering of pigs, chickens, and carabaos. Large feasts called cañao differ according to purpose and occasion. Besides being social gatherings, all cañao are, first and foremost, religious ceremonies. The cañao is also an economic leveler, for it reminds the kachangyan that it is their duty to share their wealth with the poor. Departing guests are always given the watwat, a chunk of meat to take home.

Bontok women with distinctive headdress
Bontok women with distinctive headdress (SIL International)

Mangmang is the generic term for all types of ceremony involving the butchering of animals and feasts. Different kinds of mangmang warrant certain types of animals. In the chaw-es, for example, a dog is usually butchered, although a pig or a chicken can also be used. A chaw-es is specifically performed to pacify the disturbed minds of individuals involved in situations of death or near-death experience. Warriors who took part in battle were required to participate in chaw-es. So were persons threatened by death and those taking part in rescue operations. Pig is used in another mangmang called chalischis, performed for various occasions like thanksgiving for a newly built house or a cleansing ceremony after a wedding. The pork is cooked and served to attendees. In the mangmang called sangfo, performed to heal the sick, most of the pork cuts are distributed fresh to attendees. Chicken is usually chosen for rituals aimed to counter the pashkep, or a curse cast by others. The pinikpikan, which is the methodical beating of the chicken’s neck, wings, and head, is deemed necessary to create blood clots and thus add content to otherwise non-fleshy parts.

In these ceremonies, an elder recites the prayer called kapya, which varies according to the purpose of the mangmang. The kapya is usually addressed to the spirits of anitos (dead ancestors) and nature spirits. Carabaos and cows are not butchered during any mangmang, as these are used only for weddings. Traditionally, the carabao was the animal of choice when the kachangyan sponsored marriage ceremonies called chono. Presently, cow beef is served at wedding receptions.

Like many agricultural communities, child bearing is a very important function of a Bontok wife. Whether the man or woman is the cause, childlessness can be grounds for divorce (ichang). If the marriage is childless after two years or more, the insup-ok (male or female shaman) is called to conduct a ritual of prayers and sacrifices. When conception does occur, taboos are strictly obeyed so as to ensure an easy delivery and a healthy life for the coming infant. Neither the expectant father nor mother should travel outside the village, for the luta (environmental spirits) or anito may become envious of the infant and cause either a miscarriage or deformity. Hot or cold springs are taboo, for these are dwellings of spirits. If the pregnant woman is touched by the sun’s rays at sunrise while she takes a bath, her child may become an albino. Eating chicken gizzard will cause her child to produce nothing bigger than the size of a gizzard in its lifetime. Sleeping near any opening of the house will make the infant accessible to an invisible bird that sucks out the hearts of unborn or newly born infants. If she opens the luchen or gourd where langob (salted pork) is fermented, an accident will befall a family member. Looking at or desiring the fruits of a tree will cause it to either die or stop bearing fruit.

The women of previous generations normally delivered their baby themselves, with minimal assistance from their husbands, who merely heated the water to bathe the newborn. If the labor was abnormally long, the insup-ok was called in to invoke the anito’s aid. Evil spirits in the house who might be causing the difficulty were driven away by the smoke of burning rags and rice husk. In cases of difficult childbirth, the inchawat (midwife) was called in. A girl’s placenta was buried on the left side of the doorway facing outside, and a boy’s was buried on the right side. Immediately after delivery, the mother, then and even now, eats pieces of salted pork boiled with peas. The pork affirms to the anito her right over the baby, and the peas aid in lactation.

Today, medical doctors are consulted. A big family is ideal to the Bontok because parents consider their children as their wealth. Only a minority of the Bontok practice birth control, depending on their level of schooling and income. Nonetheless, more and more mothers, particularly those in Bontoc central, acquire the services of medical doctors and midwives in childbirth.

When a child is born, another form of mangmang is normally performed, especially after the mother and child arrive home from the hospital. Traditionally, the house is taboo for visitors until the infant’s umbilical cord drops. The taboo sign is the karuchakid, which consists of two, long, soot-blackened sticks stuck into the ground and arching over the doorway. Presently, however, grandparents stand guard outside the door in place of the karuchakid. The family is also forbidden to work in the fields or eat fresh food during this period. The dropping of the cord is celebrated with a manmanok, and prayers for the baby’s protection are offered in a ritual called putting. The cord is buried in the same site as the placenta’s to ensure the child’s loyalty to both its family and community.

Children’s names were traditionally taken from names of ikit or apo (grandparents) and great grandparents, although some were taken from the child’s personality observed while growing up. Family names were not used; lineage was traced by oral traditions and in having the same names. Naming among the Bontok has since changed; in accordance with the Civil Registry Office, all have acquired distinguishing first names—also understood as “Christian name”—and family names.

Sa-eb is the Bontok equivalent of the Christian baptism and is in fact sometimes called funyag, from the Ilocano word bunyag, meaning baptism. Only men are invited, with three kachangyan elders leading the ritual. Early in the morning, the oldest man prays the khaeb, which is done in front of a basket containing three bundles of palay, symbolizing progress. The men do the ayyeng (group chant) specifically for the sa-eb. A pig and piglet are butchered, and chickens are prepared for slaughter when the kapya are said. To the rhythmic beating of the gangsa (gongs), the elder dips his fingers into a basin of the pig’s blood and touches the child’s forehead with it while shouting its name in prayer for the anito to hear. The mother, with the child in her arms, is then allowed to join the men as they dance. At midmorning, male relatives serve the rice placed on khyag (basket tray) and pieces of cooked meat. The guests will take home some of this food afterward; hence, they place it in their topil (lunch basket) or suklang or suklung (basket cap). Ayyeng and storytelling alternate until the second meal, which follows after an hour. The final prayers are said and the men disperse. Only then will the women and children of the family take their meal.

Social and cultural orientation for the young begins in the family, and familial responsibilities start to be defined by around age seven. The usual role of children during school vacations is to guard the ferew (rice fields) against the tilin (grain-eating birds). Boys cut firewood from the forest while girls help in weeding the fields and gathering camote leaves for pigs. Girls are tasked to tend to their younger siblings.

In the past, boys who had reached at least seven years of age and girls, about ten, were perceived to be mature enough to be sent to the ato or the ulog, where their social orientation was to continue. Boys slept in the ato and girls in the ulog. It was in these institutions where boys and girls learned gender roles, community responsibility, history, and literature.

The ulog also became a venue for courtship. Although the woman might invite the man to spend the night at the ulog, there was no sexual relationship unless they were officially betrothed. Courtship, which might be initiated by either man or woman, began when the suitor sent the love interest a ganta of faratong (black beans) through an elderly woman. A woman wishing to court a man who was absent from the village might send an elderly woman as her emissary to the man’s parents. With their permission, she then paid the man a visit, wherever he might be. Should he accept her, they could live together and have the wedding rites when they returned home. If he rejected her, he was expected to see that she returned home safely. The courtship process lasted a week, with the two families exchanging food items, beginning with the black beans, then pieces of meat, rice, and chicken. All items received by the families were distributed to relatives.

Today, schools have taken over the roles associated with the ato and ulog. Bontoc’s public elementary school is one of the oldest in the Cordillera, having been in operation since 1902. The Anglican missionaries opened up another in 1906 and the Belgian missionaries in 1911. All these schools were for children around Bontoc and from Sadanga. After World War II, more elementary schools in Sadanga and Bontoc were established, along with some secondary schools, and later, a state-run tertiary school. By the 1980s and 1990s, boys and girls stopped using the ato and especially the ulog altogether.

Traditional marriage ceremonies continue to be observed in varying degrees or in modernized forms among the Bontok. When a couple decides to marry, the traditional way of informing the woman’s family is by a gift of food called faag, literally “to tell.” Before the actual preparation for the marriage ceremony, the parents of the couple are expected to exchange food items like sukat si makan (rice and chicken) to pave the way for succeeding exchanges as well as mutual hosting.

The wedding rite is called the karang, which is literally a small basket into which is stuck the feathers of the biggest chicken that has undergone the pinikpikan for the occasion. Prayers are offered in front of this basket. Later, a piece of salted meat is placed in it and set aside for the anito. As in all celebrations, the male elders perform the ayyeng in a semicircle in front of the house, while the women and children stay outside this circle. This time, however, food is served first from the outer circle, so that the old men are served last. The celebrations taper off within three days, after which the couple may live but not sleep together for another five days while omens are observed. If the ato is still in use, the groom spends the nights there during this period. He is sent on the atufang, that is, to take a bath in the nearby spring, en route to which no accidents, which are bad omens, should occur. A second test is for him to gather wood in the mountains and his bride to work in the fields while omens are observed. The final test is for the fire to be kept burning in the hearth all night. If the fire dies, it is a bad omen.

Ordinarily, the lopis, a grand marriage feast, is held about five years later, unless a kachangyan family can afford to hold it immediately after the karang. The whole village is involved since several married couples agree to hold it simultaneously. The mother of either the bride or groom places food offerings in a basket, which she takes to the papattay, the sacred pine tree where sacrificial offerings are made to the anito. The animals to be cooked are ceremoniously butchered in all the houses of families sponsoring the feast, and the male members of the ato donate some meat and offer their services. While the old men chant the ayyeng, the women perform the suwaay (singing while pounding rice). The feasting lasts for as long as the food lasts. In one of the last days of the lopis, the bride places food offerings in a basket covered with a kalasag (shield) and performs ritual prayers at four points along the village perimeter, where stone stoves serve as altars. She prays for the two factors that make for a successful marriage: children and economic prosperity. Her last stop is the papattay, where she arranges her food offerings on the shield before praying and finally sticks some meat offering into the sacred trunk.

The grandest cañao is the chono, which must be approved by the village elders because it requires the participation of all kachangyan, and neighboring villages are invited. It is the kachangyan’s thanksgiving feast and an opportunity for the lawa to share the kachangyan’s bounty. The chono summons several couples to take part in the ceremony, led by a couple called pomango (“to lead” or “the lead”) who initiates the event. From its opening day, numerous pigs are butchered. The highlight, however, is the kechag (spearing), wherein numerous carabaos are simultaneously slaughtered by the couples, with the pomango butchering the most, which can be as many as 20. The animals’ heads are hung for display on the fansar (makeshift platform), where boys can clamber up to sing the ollakyo (improvised songs). In the chono are heard different kinds of salidommay (songs), sung to the rhythm of the gangsa. On the last day of feasting, each guest is given the watwat.

The closing rite for each kind of cañao is the paopao, which is done the morning after all the guests have left. The mother of the sponsoring family rhythmically beats the shield as a signal for the village children that she is distributing rice and meat. She does this at the sasaar, the nearest point of entry into the village. The children eat some of the food for breakfast, but they are expected to take most of their share home.

Although the practice of chono has ceased among many Bontok, there are some in Sadanga who continue to hold it. Vestiges of the chono in modern Christian weddings can be observed in the number of animals slaughtered, the dancing and feasting, and the performance of mangmang after the church wedding. Those who still follow the traditional karang are now required to apply for marriage certificates from the municipal government.

When sick, many Bontok, especially those without access to hospitals and health units, perform a mangmang and invite ensop-ok (traditional doctors) to divine the cause of illness.

Traditions centering on death continue to be strictly observed. The sangachil or sangadil continues to be used in many parts of Bontoc and Sadanga. Sangachil is a ladder-like fixture where the dead is made to sit for the most part of the wake. The dead is clothed with the traditional woven blanket, the type of which depends on the status of the deceased. Among the kachangyan, the expensive pinag-pacan is used; the poor use other types of woven blanket. The duration of the wake also varies, according to the economic status of the dead: The poor may be buried in a day or two, whereas the wake for the rich may last up to seven days.

Death rites differ according to age and the cause of death. For adults, there are two kinds of wakes: the inanitu, when the death is caused by the anito, which is either a natural or accidental death; and the finosor, caused by a fosor (enemy). The dead is placed in the house if inanitu, or outside if finosor.

Each adult offspring prepares pinikpikan chicken and contributes the pigs to be butchered for the utong or food taken by the spirit with it on its journey to the afterworld. The immediate family is forbidden to partake of the meat, although it is distributed to the guests for their breakfast and lunch. In a two-day wake, a pig is butchered every two hours starting at 8 am until the burial, which is done in the afternoon before sunset. The gallbladders of pinikpikan chickens are examined for omens.

The degree of mourning is determined by the age of the deceased person. Old people who have lived full lives have happy wakes, whereas young people are mourned. For a grandparent’s wake, there are three different kinds of songs, one of which has a happy tune. The guests engage in a chanted conversation with the dead, recalling their lives, or indirectly criticizing or praising the offspring’s behavior toward their deceased parent. For a dead child, only the dirge is sung.

At the wake of a young person, the mourners wear their oldest, frayed clothes. The women of a female deceased’s ulog wear strings of fitug (black beads) and leave their hair undone. They provide the corpse with a kalaleng or an afiw or afilaw (bamboo mouth organ) and pork fat in a bamboo container. The latter is to be used as hair oil in the afterworld. The men in the ato of a deceased male wear their suklang or suklung unadorned, that is, without its characteristic feathers and beads. They provide the corpse with tobacco leaves, a shield, and a spear.

The Bontok prepare their coffin, made of a pine trunk cut in half lengthwise and hollowed out, and store this in the vicinity of their house for its eventual use. A deceased adult is buried in a pit in the yard, a graveyard, or the paryong (burial cave). The corpse is lifted from the sangachil, and its legs are bent with its knees up to the breast. It is then wrapped with a fachala (death blanket or shroud) and carried head first to the grave. Pieces are cut from the fachala and distributed to the grandchildren to make them strong. At the moment of burial, immediate relatives must turn their backs so as not to be possessed by the spirit of the deceased. A child is buried in the front yard, in the same spot where its umbilical cord and placenta were buried when it was born.

Religious Beliefs and Practices of Ethnic Bontok People

Although the Bontok believe in the anito or spirits of their ancestors and in spirits dwelling in nature, they are essentially monotheistic. Their god is Lumawig, their culture hero and son of the god Kabunian, although the two are also perceived as one and the same. Lumawig is believed to have come down to earth to teach important rituals, arts, values, and other lessons in life. Lumawig married a mortal from Bontoc and sponsored the first chono. When he had imparted to the Bontok everything that they needed to know, he left for the heavens, and the Bontok were left to practice what he taught.

The Bontok believe in many spirits that may be found in nature, such as posong (lakes), wangwang or wanga (rivers), falls, springs, forests, and almost all other parts of the environment. This recognition of nature spirits explains why the Bontok still recite a prayer or perform rituals before they enter some natural environment. The most revered and feared spirits are the anito. Most of the kapya and offerings done in all forms of mangmang are addressed not only to Lumawig but to the anito. The cyclical rites and ceremonies observed throughout the Bontok calendar always involve the ancestor spirits. Illnesses are often attributed to them. Bad luck, failures, calamities, accidents, and other misfortunes are considered warnings or punishments by ancestor spirits.

Bontok men preparing ceremonial offerings
Bontok men preparing ceremonial offerings (SIL International)

Religious practices, rituals, and cañao attend their cycles of life, death, and agricultural activities. There are many kinds of cañao. The chao-es is the feast for the manerwap, which is the ritual imploring Lumawig for rain. A chao-es is also held when a person’s name needs to be changed because of an incurable ailment that is believed to be caused by an ancestral spirit. The fosog is the feast for fertility rites. There are sacred days called tengao or teer, which are some 46 days scattered in a year when work in the fields is taboo. The tengao are generally associated with crops, climate and weather, and sickness. During this period, kapya are addressed to the spirits for favors and blessings. The manayeng is a group prayer asking Lumawig for rain.

Bontok's Way of Living: Houses and Village Settlements 

A typical Bontok village is a compact aggrupation of afong (family dwellings) with small garden spaces for camote and faangan (sugar cane) in between. The typical afong is a one-room structure, where cooking, eating, and resting all take place. There is usually an attic where the akon (valuable possessions of the family) are placed. The roof is made of grass and the wall of mud or pine slabs. Compared to other Igorot huts, the Bontok afong are not elevated by posts, resting on the ground instead.

Bontok house called afong
Bontok house called afong, 1990 (CCP Collections)

The rich and the poor classes have different kinds of afong. A rich family lives in the fayu, which is open and relatively large, 3.6 x 4.5 square meters, with walls 1.04 meters high, and with a tall grass roof. A poor family lives in the katyufong, which is smaller, enclosed, and mud-walled. The residence of widows or unmarried old women is the kol-lob, also called katyufong.

The interior of the afong can be divided into sections, based on traditional household functions. The dining area is the most spacious and holds the patyay (an elevated stick rack) or the fe-ey (a loft) and the panannom (water jar), standing in a corner. Stored on the patyay or fe-ey are kitchen utensils: the khyag (rattan trays), palato (enamel or china plates), ungot (coconut shell or wooden bowls), tasa (enamel or china cups), mal-lakong (enamel or china bowls), fanilag (rattan trays), and fanga (pots). However, no furniture is used. After World War II, GI sheets replaced grass for walls and roofs. In recent times, concrete has been more in use.

Another structure found in a Bontok village is the ato. Each ato has about 15 to 30 afong, pigpens, and rice granaries, a low stone wall, and foot walks connecting the various houses to one another. A typical ili has about 600 to 3,000 inhabitants living in different ato. The strength of community feeling in the ili is based on kinship ties, ato loyalties, communal rituals, and a shared history of defending themselves against enemies.

Besides being the term for the social institution, the ato is also a physical structure consisting of a large hut called the pabafunan, and an open court where people gather to perform their rituals. The pabafunan is shared by about 6 to 18 males. With a thatched roof and walls consisting of stones cemented together by mud, the rectangular pabafunan has only one small opening 75 centimeters high and 25 centimeters wide, through which one enters sideways.

Adjacent to the pabafunan is the open court, which is a stone platform with a fireplace in the center and around which the men sit or move when ceremonies are performed. The seats consist of flat, elevated stones, worn smooth by the many generations that have sat on them. The court is shaded by a tree; there are posts, either carved to represent human skulls or holding stones atop them that resemble skulls. In the past, when headhunting was still practiced, these posts held the enemies’ heads brought home by warriors.

The council of elders meets at the fawi, a structure identical to the pabafunan or at the ato’s open court to deliberate on matters concerning its ato. The fawi is also where the human skulls used to be stored. Also called by the same term are the simple structures scattered along some trails; these are shelters where feasts are held when the Bontok go on ceremonial journeys.

Nearby would be the ulog, where girls sleep from about age four. Like the ato, it is a stone structure with a thatched roof. The single doorway is about 75 centimeters high and 25 centimeters wide. Inside, boards are placed side by side for the girls to sleep on. These are usually built over the pigpen. Unlike the ato, it is not an institution; hence, there is no ceremonial stone platform or open court. The males conduct their courtship here, and couples may engage in premarital sex as soon as they are betrothed.

In the periphery of the village are other functional buildings. The allang or ahkamang serves as a storehouse for palay, camote, and wine. The kongo or kongoan are pit houses for pigs. There are minimal trees in the traditional Bontok village. Fruit-bearing trees are grown near the ato, and papatayan (sacred trees) are located in key areas, mostly outside the community.

Video: Aired (March 10, 2019): Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho: Patok na kayamanan ng Bontoc, Mountain Province: Hindi lahat ng kayamanan, kumikinang. Sa Bontoc, Mountain Province, matatagpuan ang ilang dinarayong atraksyon tulad ng hot springs at rice terraces na talaga namang kamangha-mangha!

The Bontok, like other Cordillera groups, are renowned for their engineering skills in building rice terraces. Because rice is their foremost agricultural product and because of the mountainous terrain, they have devised an indigenous and scenic method of irrigation. The terrace walls consist of stones fitted together. These walls can be from 1 to 9 meters high and from 30 to 45 centimeters wide. The top layer of stones is used as the path among the terraces. Stone steps deliberately made to jut out of the terrace wall make up a staircase of sorts. After the rice harvest, the terrace is used as a camote bed. These beds are constructed in parallel or continuous spiral arrangements on each terrace.

Bontok Traditional Costume 

Traditional clothing left both males and females exposed above the waist. However, even in early times, women in the Lepanto area wore short blouses, once made of bark with a warp, sewed or quilted. It had no fastening in front and had short sleeves. In the 20th century, the men started wearing the American coat above their G-string for formal wear, and the women wore simple white blouses. Today, the Bontok have the trousers, shirts, dresses, and shoes of lowland Filipinos for everyday wear.

The Bontok have a tradition of cloth weaving. Samoki people were known as weavers of tapis (piece of cloth wrapped around the waist) and wanes, also wanas, and tayag (G-string). They wove out of the thread that they imported from the Ilocos areas. The background colors are dark, the favorite being blue. Geometric designs are diamonds, triangles, hexagons, and zigzags. Representational designs are the dancing man or woman, stars, leaves, and rice paddies. These are woven in yellow, green, white, and red threads. These designs are used for garments and blankets.

Bontok man’s hat
Bontok man’s hat (CCP Collections)

The men’s traditional outfit is the wanes. The design and the color of the wanes vary depending on economic status. The wealthy man’s wanes is pure white thread woven and designed more elaborately than the ordinary ones. A 17.5-centimeter disk made of mother-of-pearl shell called fikum may decorate the G-string. On the head is the suklang or suklung, a small cap of basketwork, which comes in various shapes: fez-like, hemispherical, or low and flat. The fal-laka is the bachelor’s cap colorfully adorned with beads, boars’ teeth, and red feathers. This cap is also used to carry personal items like pipes and matches.

Bontok man with tattoo
Bontok man with tattoo (Jenks 1905)

The women’s skirt is called the lufid, short and narrow, extending from the navel to the knees, and with a side opening. There are three kinds of lufid. The kinawaan’s dominant color is red, with black, white, yellow, and green plus some other decorative designs. The rich woman’s skirt is still considered special until today. The inorma has colors of red, black, yellow, and green, and is valued second to the kinawaan. The third kind of lufid is the fiyaong, an everyday wear and colored with dark blue or black and white. The wakes, a belt 10 centimeters wide, is wound twice around the waist to hold the lufid firmly to the woman’s waist. Sometimes, it has a white background to set off the yellow, green, black, and red designs.

Bontok textile called palangay
Bontok textile called palangay (Photo by Neal Oshima, Ayala Museum Collection)

Although the women wear no necklaces, their hair is tied elaborately together with the appong. Appong are strings of black seeds, brass-wire rings, white stone beads either pear shaped or many sided called mutting, reddish agate beads called apongoy, cherished stones called fukas, dog fangs called sapong, and snake bones called ekar. The appong, especially the fukas and apongoy, is an heirloom and is usually not for sale. Many elderly women still own and continue to wear these, but the more valuable ones are used only on special occasions.

Some unmarried men and women still wear ear stretchers or earplugs to create very long slits on the earlobes. The stretcher is made of two pieces of bamboo held apart by shorter pieces between them. It may be decorated with straight, incised lines. The earplugs are of wood, shaped like a bottle cork stopper, and decorated with straight incised lines, red seeds, or pieces of glass. The al-ling or senseng are gold handcrafted earrings with varied designs. The lingling-o is worn by the Cordillera groups either as an earring or a necklace pendant. It is circular with a cut on the bottom, resembling an almost closed C. A favorite variation among the Bontok is that which is shaped like a horned bull, with the cut representing the muzzle. The lingling-o are usually worn by the Bontok women as earrings, to which beads and shells are sometimes attached. These pieces of jewelry, all heirloom pieces, comprise the wealth of a family, along with the gangsa, china jars, and plates.

The tattoo used to be a prestige symbol, worn only by the village warriors. However, it is now purely ornamental. There are three types of tattoos: the chaklag, the breast tattoo of the headhunter; the pongo, the arm tattoo of both sexes or the woman’s tattoo; and the fatek, which is used as the generic term and refers to all the other tattoos.

The chaklag consists of geometric lines curving from each nipple to each shoulder and ending on each upper arm. Horizontal lines are made on the biceps to supplement the breast tattoo. The woman’s tattoo is on the back of the hands and encircles the arms, beginning from the wrists to above the elbows. On the upper arm, the figure of a man with extended arms and legs may be etched. The man’s tattoo has a simpler pattern and uses longer lines; the woman’s tattoo has crosshatched lines and patchwork designs.

Bontok's Handicrafts and Wood Carvings

Many of the traditional implements of the Bontok are crafted out of bamboo. Bamboo baskets may be kept in the afong for domestic use but are also important objects for trade, transport, and storage in the field. A typical bamboo basket has a transitional shape, that is, the gradual tapering of the basket from a four-sided base to a rounded top, achieved through certain weaving patterns. An example is the akob, a storage basket consisting of two bowl-shaped baskets of equal size. One serves as a cover when it is fitted over the other. When either half is laid with the circular opening on top, it rests on a square base of split bamboo or wood, which is attached to the body of the rattan twine.

Bontok baskets
Bontok baskets (Lane 1986)

The kolug, a shellfish basket, is attached to the woman’s waist. It is bottle shaped, with a square base and body but a rounded neck and opening. A break in the weave at the base of the neck makes this transition possible, provides ventilation for the shellfish, and lends an aesthetic feature to the basket. The bottom has open weave holes through which water is drained.

An egg-shaped basket for beans is the agairin. Large crisscrossing rattan splints just beneath the top rim provide decoration and effect, tapering from the wide middle to the smaller top. The body is woven in wickerwork design. A touch of color is provided by two strips of yellow orchid stems, woven horizontally across the upper half of the basket. It stands 8.25 centimeters high, has a 5-centimeter square base, 10.7-centimeter circular top, and measures 17.7 centimeters at the middle.

The man’s lunch basket is the topil, a covered basket that can carry three quarts of food. It consists of two rectangular pieces, one serving as the cover fitted over the body. The pieces are loosely attached to each other with a fibrous string or rattan twine. The cover has rounded corners, and the sides have a herringbone design. It measures 10 centimeters wide, 14 centimeters long, and 12.7 centimeters high.

The man’s most important basket is the pasiking or sangi, which is made of bamboo and rattan and worn like a knapsack. This is the Bontok men’s companion when they go to the field and forest, visit other villages, or conduct trade in distant places. The kimata is important in times of rice harvest even today. It is made of twin woven baskets and connected by a light pole, which a man carries on his shoulders. The lavfa is the counterpart of the kimata for females. It is an open basket, either square or round, slim and deep. A tayaan is another kind of lavfa, which is a large basket for transporting goods. A smaller basket worn by the woman on the rump is the agkawin, in which any small items, such as shells, collected in the field, or a few vegetables are contained. Worn over the woman’s head when it rains is the tugwi, about 1.2 meters long and having two layers between which is a large palm leaf. The man’s rain hat is the segfi, cone shaped, and waterproofed with beeswax. A household basket is the faloko, used to contain vegetables, camote, and rice. Other household baskets are the iwus, large and bottle-shaped; the kolug, also bottle-shaped and used as a container for rice; the akaug, a rice sieve; and the khyag or kiug, a food tray used only for ceremonial purposes. The gangsa and water jars are kept in baskets shaped for a snug fit.

From the wall near the hearth hang three small baskets called pagitaken. Whenever a pinikpikan ritual is held in the house, a piece of the sacrificed chicken and a handful of rice are placed in each basket as an offering for the anito. These baskets are not moved from the house, even when the family transfers residence.

A fine piece of woven sculpture is a human figure whose arms are wrapped around a bowl basket. Made by coiling split rattan peel, the figure has well-defined limbs and facial features. A tuft of human hair is stuck into the crown of the figure to serve as a wig.

Tools and implements are incised with the same geometric designs found on the woven cloths. Weapons harking back to times of tribal wars and headhunting forays are part of the family heirloom. The shield or kalasag is made of a single sheet of wood but is cut so that the three points project above, and two points below. Rattan strips are laced across the shield, serving as both ornament and reinforcement. For ornamentation, some shields are incised with geometric lines or crude drawings of snakes, frogs, or humans. Otherwise, the shield is simply soot-black. The tofay (spear) is a wooden weapon with either a bamboo or metal blade. Other weapons are the battle axe and knives.

Bontok food bowls and ladles
Bontok food bowls and ladles (CCP Collections)

Smoking pipes are made of wood, clay, or metal. Pipe makers may place a design on the bowl of the pipe by first making a beeswax model. One example of a design is that of a sitting figure of a man: His knees are folded up, his elbows resting on his knees, and his chin resting on his hands. His facial features are clearly etched.

Examples of Bontok figurative wood carving are the heads sculpted on the tops of tree fern trunks or poles to represent heads of slain enemies. Stones resembling human skulls are also placed atop poles. Bontok war trails had ceremonial structures called komis, in which omens were observed before a headhunting trip. A komis consisted of vertical posts whose tops were also carved to represent heads. Stones represented eyes and teeth. Baskets and racks used for the sacrificial animals hung from posts lying across the vertical poles.

Another example of Bontok wood carving is the house deity tinagtagoa, a seated figure with hands crossed on its breast. The tinagtagoa possesses neither the aesthetic finish nor the religious significance of the Ifugao bulul, a pair of figures of a man and a woman used in Cordillera societies in various social and religious rituals. Other examples of wood carving include the ceremonial containers used together with the bulul during rituals. These containers usually have sculpted animal heads protruding from their bodies, which are in turn decorated with waves following the contour of the piece. Household items like food bowls with a reptile’s head as handle, scabbards with a carved human figure, meat slicers sculpted in the form of a human figure with a piece of sharpened iron protruding from the chest, and various spoons and ladles with animal figures at the handle’s tip, are also part of Bontok woodcarving art.

Bontok Tribe Language, Rituals and Folktales

The Bontok use language to address two classes of beings: their living fellow human beings and the invisible beings consisting of deities and anito. Bontok social literature is that body of oral composition, sung or recited, whose purpose is to communicate ideas or attitudes to others at certain social occasions. Of great significance is the body of Bontok literature that expresses the Bontok worldview and reflects their collective history. This consists of their riddles, proverbs, aphorism, songs, tales, legends, and myths. Some examples of riddles are the following:

Wada san duay sing-anag-i menkasidkugda.

(There are two brothers, they turn their backs on

one another. [Ears])

Mo madsem maannaannawa mo pay

mapat-a ngumadan si tubong. (Abek)

(A bamboo tube by day, by night a sea. [Mat])

Mo bumala mengagabey, mo masiken

iwwakna san gabeyna.

(When a child, she wore a skirt; when grown

up, she was stripped naked to the waist.

[Bamboo blossom, or bamboo shoot])

Ritual literature is that body of literature addressed or chanted to the deities or the anito during ceremonies. Examples of ritual literature are the ayyeng, anako, kapya, manayeng or manaing, ollakyo, and achog.

One folktale tells of a stepson who, unable to bear a cruel stepmother, mutilates himself and is transformed into a kuling (a large bird) to teach her a lesson. She repents and becomes a loving mother to her remaining stepson while the kuling keeps a watchful eye over them. Carrying a similar theme is another tale of a mother who, becoming so absorbed in the pursuit of livelihood, neglects to feed and care for her child. The angry child becomes a tilin and returns at harvest time every year to eat the harvest to punish the selfish parent.

Another story revolves around a nameless man, practically an outcast, who finds the opportunity to kill a monster snake that has been plaguing the village. Having done a great deed for the people, he obtains a name. His grateful townsfolk name him Kawis, meaning “good.”

A legend tells of a rich man’s son who falls in love with a poor girl. His father tries to put an end to the affair. Catching them by the stream of the Kadchog one night, he beats them up. They are transformed into two great white stones, which one can still see there today. Since that tragic event, the Bontok say, the kachangyan no longer force their children to marry against their wishes.

A myth claims that the three stars in the Belt of Orion are the three daughters of a Bontok rich man and the Star Maiden. The maiden had descended to earth with her sisters one night to cut sugarcane and to bathe in the river. The owner of the sugarcane field, coming upon them, hid the clothes of one of them. When the maidens left for the sky, one could not fly away because her white robes were missing. The man took her as his wife, and they had three daughters. But the woman spent her nights weaving white robes for herself and her three daughters. One night, while the man slept, the woman and her daughters donned their white robes and flew back to the sky. Today, they say, the three stars and one big bright star in Orion are the Star Maiden and her three daughters.

A star maiden leaving her husband and flying back to the sky with her children
A star maiden leaving her husband and flying back to the sky with her children (Illustration by Lou Pineda-Arada)

The most important of the mythology are the og-good or og-okhod, which include myths, stories of origin and heroic exploits, and historical events. The most important of such narratives are those concerning Lumawig, the Bontok god and culture hero. Lumawig came from Mount Kalawitan to the land of the Bontok searching for adventure. He chose to marry the beautiful and industrious lady Fukan after rejecting one lady whose hair was too short, another who lived in a village that was too small, and a third who “tittered like a bird.” To Lumawig are attributed the beginnings of many Bontok sacred traditions, which survive to the present. He rewarded good and punished evil. He wanted peace and prosperity. He established the institution of the ato. He established the rituals. He performed wonders to teach ethical norms. He changed his own selfish father-in-law into a rock with water gushing forth from its anus, because the older man refused to stand in line for a drink of water that Lumawig had caused to spring from a rock. He established the chono ritual to forge peace among neighboring communities. In Bontoc town is a tiny garden patch that is tended by a special priest and irrigated by a constant spring; this is where Lumawig first taught agriculture to the Bontok.

On Mount Kal-lat is a huge stone said to have been set down there by Lumawig. When bad weather threatened the people, the men gathered around this stone and performed the kapya. Women are forbidden, but one curious woman came one day to see the stone. Lightning struck the rock and broke it in two. Today it still lies in that condition.

It was Lumawig who decreed the tengao, which he began when he gave his wife to the widower leader of the Tinglayan in order to establish some peace between those people and the Bontok. This new marriage brought two lovely daughters who, on a trip to see their Bontok grandmother, lost their way because of bad weather and were killed by the Kanew. The girls’ bodies were buried on Mount Papat-tay, which is now held sacred. It is believed that the Great Spirit resides in this mountain; hence, a shaman offers prayers and sacrifices there. It is forbidden to cut the trees on this mountain or to pick their leaves.

Lumawig, the Bontok god and culture hero
Lumawig, the Bontok god and culture hero (Illustration by Lou Pineda-Arada)

The myths are also an integral part of ritual. In the traditional wedding ceremony, the narrative of Lumawig’s wedding is recited. Part of the planting rites for an abundant harvest is the recitation of the myth about how the gods multiplied and increased the size of the crops.

Although the tales recounting the adventures of Lumawig are not in epic form, they bear similar narrative and thematic characteristics and may be fragments of a long narrative chant, not unlike the epics of the Ifugao and Kankanaey. These myths are the literary basis of tribal mores, social and political institutions, social history, and religious practices.

Bontok Tribe Musical Instruments, Songs and Folk Dances

An important ensemble of the Bontok is the gangsa pattung, consisting of five or more flat gongs struck with padded sticks. Depending upon the type of dance and the village where the performers come from, there are variations in the style of playing the flat gongs. In the central town of Bontoc, gangsa pattung has three categories of flat gongs with specific musical functions: mangokngok, maerwas, and matayoktok.

The mangokngok is the largest and lowest-pitched gong, playing an alteration of ringing and dampened sounds and providing the regular steady beat of the music. The maerwas plays patterns combining the ringing and dampened sounds. The matayoktok is characterized by the prominent use of dampened sounds.

Bontok flat gong ensembles are used on festive occasions such as victory celebrations for a successful tumo (headhunting trip), sa-eb, chono, peace-pact gatherings, and thanksgiving rites. In Sadanga, the playing of flat gongs in religious rituals is called feyar, and this is performed with the paliwat (recitation of challenges) and iyag (group chanting).

The musical instruments that often simulate flat gong music are the kullitong (bamboo-tube zither) and the abil-law and awideng (mouth harps). The kullitong has five strings of metal. These strings are raised by small stones that serve as movable bridges at both ends of each string. Mouth harps are the abil-law, made of bamboo, and the awideng, made of metal with a pulling string attached to its pointed tip. These harps are played at the ulog by young men, for entertainment and courtship. Also associated with courtship is the nose flute, kaleleng, also karraring or kal-leleng, which has three fingerholes and a thumbhole. Musical instruments, particularly for the young, are the sapsap-ok or pipes in a row, teptepew or short whistle flute made of bamboo or used gun bullet casings, and arsip and patpatfag or reed aerophones made from rice stalks. When a person has died violently, the sinongyup, a notched mouth flute, and the reed aerophones are sounded together with the wedwed (bullroarer) in order to disturb the killer’s soul.

Bontok man playing native nose flute
Bontok man playing native nose flute (Mario Feir Filipiniana Library)

Bontok music accompanies the daily affairs of the people. Parents who work in the fields hand over their children to the female elders in the kol-lob, where lullabies, folk songs, and og-good or epic are sung to the children.

Aside from the og-good narratives, the chag-ay is a specific set of songs for every important occasion in Bontok life. The ayyeng and its preliminary chant, siw-at (or erwa among other Bontok), are performed only as part of a ritual ceremony, such as the mangmang or other rituals in wedding feasts. The siw-at, which is a short solo by a male elder of good character, formally opens the performance of the ayyeng. The ayyeng, which is sung by the elders, is a prayer for a person, family, or couple. The lyrics are impromptu but a leader usually sets the direction of the chant. Anyone may break (fakasen) this direction to begin a new one.

The fal-lukay or fal-lugay is sung during ablution rites of headhunting victory celebrations. Young men courting ladies at the ulog sing the ayegka (love songs), which have traditional tunes but improvised lyrics. Hence, many such songs are never sung again. Rice-pounding songs, cheyassa or chay-assa and kwel-la or kudya, are also sung to commune in spirit with a loved one who is far away. The ayoweng or mangayuweng, the laborers’ song, is sung as they do farm work, such as pounding rice or walking on the trail toward the field.

Courtship songs were sung in the ulog and in some instances, during khakhayam. Khakhayam, among neighboring villages in Bontoc and Sadanga, is the occasion when a group of fafallasang (young women) are invited by another village to help in agricultural work. This provided opportunities for the faffallo (bachelors) to court the women from other villages. Songs like the bilbilso, salidommay, dissadis, tinaroyod, olonno, and cheyassa are expressions of love and desire. One popular song is the oddemdem. Part of the song is as follows:

O demdem

Maid kasin teken

Si ek laychen

Is kang-epan nan ek nemnem

Modi sik-a laylaychek ay gayem.

(O demdem

There is none other

That I will love

That my mind is completely satisfied with

Except you my love.)

The ogkhayam is sung by a male right after a kind of courtship dance and is also a petition for good things. Many Bontok songs are performed in wedding ceremonies. The sorwe-ey is performed while they are pounding rice as part of the preparation for the feast. During the night, they dance the chaing, in which the males form an inner circle and the females form the outer circle as they move in uniform fashion.

Bontok gangsa with human jaw handle
Bontok gangsa with human jaw handle (CCP Collections)

The chono feast is an occasion for the ato elders to try to strengthen pacts with neighboring tribes, and guests come bearing gifts for the chono host. Different types of salidommay are sung at the chono. All through the night, in front of all the houses of the sponsoring families, men stand in a semicircle with their arms around one another’s shoulders and sing the maiwag, to the staccato rhythm of the gangsa. The next evening, the old men sing the al-layo, which is an improvised song about the history of the sponsoring families. The ayyeng, also sung by the elders, is a cañao song imploring Lumawig to bless the singers and the cañao host with strength. Ollakyo, also orakyo, is the song of children in connection with the chono ritual, in which carabaos are sacrificed. The singing is done by the children while standing on a platform called fansar or patongan, and the song narrates how the sacrificial carabaos are caught and killed by being made to fall down the cliff. The ollakyo may also be any improvised song. For example:

Kinchag chas fakintot

Rakyo-o orakyo-rakyo-orakyo

Chinachapan chas kipan


Kinchag chas ad falakyo

Rakyo-o orakyo-rakyo-o orakyo

Insagfot cha nan olo

Rakyo-o orakyo-rakyo-o rakyo

Sapalit si kawitan


(They have felled fakintot

Rakyo-o orakyo-rakyo-orakyo

They have cut him up with a knife


They have felled it falakyo

Rakyo-o orakyo-rakyo-o orakyo

They have hanged their heads

Rakyo-o orakyo-rakyo-o rakyo

See the crown of the rooster


After the feast, just before the visitors from other villages leave the host village, they sing the farewell song called digdigwi. It is a song of gratitude to the hosts and an apology for any inconvenience that they might have caused.

Work-related songs like the attaey in Bontoc, or charngek in Sadanga, and ayoweng focus on the nature of the job, the difficulty of the work, or the heat of the sun. The cheyassa, although a song of courtship, is also a work song when the young men and women are pounding rice.

There are different songs performed during the Bontok wake. Anako is performed by women, and the lyrics begin with “anako” (my child). Ana-ey is performed by men, and statements begin with “aney” (an expression of sadness). Antoway may be sung in chorus but is led by someone, with others joining in. In some instances, the kalaleng and the afiw or afilaw are played. If the dead is a victim of violence at the hands of the enemy, the anako challenges the spirit of the dead to take revenge and restore his honor. An excerpt follows:

Intoy nabay gatanam

Inkay tay mid alam

Palalo kay kaseseg-ang

No inka et maeesang

Inka et ta alam nan

Ta wad-ay et en kaduam

Ta adi ka et maeesang

Inka et ta alam nan.

(Look where you have gone

Because you have not taken any

You are very pitiful [you are]

For look, you are alone

So, go get [him] now

So you will have some company

So you will not be alone

So, go get [him] now.)

The achog recounts the life of a dead person and is sung by two or three groups of people during the night vigil for the dead. The first three stanzas of a 19-stanza funeral dirge follow:

Id cano sangasangadom, wada’s Inan Talangey

Ay bayaw ay nasakit, ay isnan nadnenadney

San bebsat Inan Talangey, maid egay da iyey

Bayaw issan masakit, ay si Inan Talangey

Sa’t ikokodana dapay anocan nakingey

Wada pay omanono ay daet obpay matey.

San Nakwas ay nadiko, ay ba’w si Inan Talangey

Dadaet isangadil, issan sag-en san tetey

Da’t san ab-abiik na napika et ay omey

Bayawan ay manateng ab-abiik di natey

Adyaet mailokoy si’n anito’y sinkaweywey

Nan danen daet mattao bayaw ya nabaginey.

Da’t cano menligos, ay san deey nal-ayan

Ay dan’t cano ilan, ay nan enda dinaan

Ay daet maid wan-ey, bayaw ya’s nadapisan

Dapay adoadoda san ena nilokoyan

Da’t si Inan Talangey, wada ay masidingan

Ulay ikakamo na dapay kayet matayna.

(A long time ago, it is said,

there was Inan Talangey

Who had been sick for a long time

The brothers and sisters of Inan Talangey,

they did not bring

To the sick who was Inan Talangey

But she was lying in bed

and yet was very fussy

And at length she finally died.

After she was dead she Inan Talangey

They tied her to the death chair

near the ladder

Then her soul started to go

To join the souls of the dead.

She went with a long line of anito

Their path was grassy and among

the thorny plants.

Then back she who was dead looked

Then she saw the path from

whence they came

There were no wan-ey and no signs

of trodden plants

And yet they were many,

they with whom she was going

Then she Inan Talangey,

she was giving out strength

Faster she went and yet could be left behind.)

The distinctive features of Bontok music are the predominant use of vocal ornamentation, the rendering of various types of songs in leader-chorus style, and the playing of the gangsa with padded stick. Vocal coloring in music is rendered through heavy tremolos, hissing, and loud rhythmic breathing. In addition, the choruses sing in harmony, often in parallel thirds. Bontok musical genres are closely correlated with sociopolitical activities, such as the pechen, kayaw (headhunting rites), and fegnas or thanksgiving rites.

Most Bontok songs that have survived Western influence are associated with rituals and mourning, of which the ayyeng is always an essential part. Mourning songs continue to be performed, although Christian songs have been adopted during wakes. However, the traditional courtship songs are rapidly disappearing due to the influence of mass media.

Among the Bontok dances, the most spectacular are the war dances. The balangbang, a term derived from the sound of the gangsa, is a victorious dance performed by old men and women when warriors return with an enemy’s head. The faluknit, another victory dance, is initiated by a returning warrior recounting his headhunting feats and inviting his beloved to share in his triumph in the fal-lukay. He is followed by the other warriors and the rest of the community. In the past, the captured heads were placed in the center of the dancing circle as the women took turns kicking the heads to show their scorn for the enemy as the men beat the gongs. These dances are presently performed only for ceremonial or entertainment purposes.

Bontok dancing to the accompaniment of gangsa, early 20th century
Bontok dancing to the accompaniment of gangsa, early 20th century (Mario Feir Filipiniana Library)

The falliwes, literally “going around,” also called pattong and khangsa, is the main Bontok dance celebrating victory in battle. It is done in a circle with varying steps of shuffling, hopping, the lifting of feet, and bending of knees. The women usually dance outside of the circle in mincing steps. Occasionally a woman forces her way to the center of the circle. The women throw their blankets around themselves and extend their arms while clutching the implements or products of their labor, like tobacco leaves or a ball of thread. The later addition of two warriors carrying head axes and spears while mimicking a fight has made outsiders think that the falliwes is a kind of war dance.

Bontok pattong celebrating victory in war
Bontok pattong celebrating victory in war (Soliman A. Santos, Pinoy Weekly Online)

Some Bontok dances like the takik and pinanyuan are believed to have come from the Applais of west Bontoc. Takik is a flirtation, love, or courtship dance performed by five or more couples. The dancers move in circular and spiral formations. Pinanyuan or pinanyowan is a courtship dance, with the female performer holding a handkerchief or headscarf in her outstretched hand. The man tries to chase the woman, and the dance ends when the woman yields her kerchief to him. A variation of this dance is the inot-inot, which ends when the women allow themselves to be caught by the men.

There are mimetic dances centering on animals. Bal-latan (rooster) is a courtship dance with scratching steps called kalahig, depicting the movements of a rooster. Turayan, a high-flying bird, is a ceremonial dance performed by a datum (young man) and an elder of the tribe. This is a ritual introducing the young man to the gathering of brave men. In bigger celebrations like the cañao, the palakis is the community dance.

Nikimalika is a play written and directed by Chris Millado, based on the Bontok experience at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. It premiered in 1999 in Kennedy Theatre at the University of Hawaii, was subsequently retitled and restaged in the Grove Street Playhouse, New York City in 2000 as Li’l Brown Brothers/Nikimalika .The protagonist is Balikas, whose character develops from an innocent mountain native who falls prey to the material and amoral seductions of American life. The mysterious death of a fellow Bontok trouper sets him on the trail of the killer and on a psychological journey back to his origins.

Media, Films and Videos Featuring the Bontok People

Two radio stations serve Bontoc and the rest of the Mountain Province. DWFR-AM (972 kHz) of Philippine Broadcasting Service (PBS) is a government-owned radio station. DZVL-FM (100.9 MHz) is operated by the Manila Broadcasting Company.

The mainstream film Bontoc, 1977, set during the American occupation, tells the story of American-Igorot George Villamar, also known as George Limawin Foster (Fernando Poe Jr.), who infiltrates a major mining corporation and leads the local population in an uprising against the corporation’s exploitation of Bontoc’s people, land, and natural resources. The story climaxes with a bloody battle between spear-brandishing Bontok and the corporation’s heavily armed security personnel. The American governor-general eventually decides to return the land to the Bontok. Although the film features some Bontok traditions like song, dance, and marriage rituals, it also treats the Bontok as backward and undisciplined. Moreover, instead of featuring the Bontok language, normal conversations noticeably shift to Tagalog poetic verse whenever the Bontok characters talk to each other.

Bontoc Eulogy, 1995, a docudrama or “fake documentary” directed by Filipino-American Marlon Fuentes, examines the experience of the Bontok who were brought by the Americans to the 1904 International Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri. The name of the fictional character Markod, who is the film narrator’s supposed grandfather, alludes to the mythical narrator who is invoked in recitations of Bontok lore (e.g., “thus said Markod”). Archival footages and photographs are juxtaposed, and recreated footages of the Markod character are added. “Salvage footages” or footages taken by nonanthropologists, such as US Army cameramen and home filmmakers, comprised the archival footages used in the film. The only actual 1904 Exposition film footage used in the docudrama shows a panoramic view of the exposition grounds, the fairground, the gondolas, the crowd, and the parade. No footages of actual Filipinos at the fair were shown. All recreations were shot in Balboa Park in San Diego, USA. Music used in the Bontoc Eulogy includes recordings of indigenous Cordillera percussion instruments. An interview with a certain Bontok chief Famoaley in 1906 at Coney Island, New York, was translated into old Bontok, and the translation read by a Bontok elder based in Los Angeles. This reading was recorded and used as Markod’s voice-over in the film.


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This article is from the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art Digital Edition.

Title: Bontok

Author/s: Rosario Cruz-Lucero, with Humberto Tejero, Felicidad A. Prudente, Florentino Hornedo, and E. Arsenio Manuel (1994) / Updated by Stanley F. Anongos, with contributions from Gonzalo A. Campoamor II (2018)


Publication Date: November 18, 2020

Access Date: July 28, 2022

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