By Estanislao Albano, Jr.
While on a research mission in Bontoc for the Tabuk City LGU this week, our group stayed in with Manong Ben Feken in his farm at Maligcong. The first night, I finally had the chance to do what I have been meaning to for a long time – extract his opinion on how the Bontoc people were able to leave behind the headhunting or tribal war epoch. I had long wanted to hear him on the topic as it might give us further insights into the Kalinga poser.
Manong Ben started off with an experience he had in 1968 while working for an insurance firm in Benguet which showed that up to that time, the Bontocs were still regarded by their southern neighbors especially those living in the remote areas as sort of savages. While walking home from a village in the town of Tublay, he and his partner, an Iballoy, met some children on the trail. As the two parties were about to pass each other, his Iballoy companion announced to the children that he (Manong Ben) was a Bontoc man and he beheads people. Hearing that, the children dropped their loads, screamed in fear and run to hide on the mountainside. The Iballoy man would later shout to the children that it was just a joke but the children would not come out from their hiding places.
Manong Ben said that he learned from the experience that the reputation of the Bontoc people as ferocious headhunters still lingered among the Benguet people which was shocking because at that time the Bontocs had already abandoned the practice for more than a couple of decades. He related that his maternal grandfather who died in 1972 belonged to the last batch of headhunters of the Bontoc tribe. From his grandfather who was heavily tattooed, he heard gory headhunting tales.
“The turning point for the Bontoc people was the second world war. My speculation is that with the advent of firearms, headhunting lost its thrill. According to my grandfather, headhunting was done with primitive equipment and the challenge came from being able to approach the would-be victim with stealth, cut off his head and run away with it. The people saw no challenge and point in killing people from a distance which was already possible with the proliferation of firearms after the war. Headhunting also became dangerous because the enemy may just pick you up with their guns. There were other factors which led to the overhauling the culture of tribal violence. One was mass education and another was religion. Education taught them there are more important things than killing other humans. During the headhunting days in Bontoc, the killers were idolized and revered just like they are now in Kalinga. The priests and catechists were also very critical of old customs particularly violence. They lost the taste of the old ways and tribal wars because of the new things that were being introduced,” Manong Ben said.
Regarding the continuing practice of tribal wars in Kalinga, Manong Ben comments: “The practice will not die in Kalinga because people there still highly regard killers. The tomo (the feast in honor of a tribesman who just killed a man) is abetting the killer and the practice as a whole. The whole community it invited and everybody participates. It is an honor to be associated with the killer.”
Be that as it may, Manong Ben sees hope for the Bontoc’s northern neighbors. He asserts: “This might be an oversimplification but in the long run, Kalingas will realize they cannot gain anything from the practice because it has something to do with killing others. Sooner or later, the warlike Kalinga tribes will be isolated. I do not think they could sustain it indefinitely. The practice will vanish under the sheer weight of modernity. It’s only a matter of time.”
When I interjected my disagreement observing that modern things such as technology which brought the Bontocs to the point of renouncing tribal wars have instead became tools in the hands of some Kalinga tribes in the pursuit of their barbaric obsessions, Manong Ben said: “You are from Kalinga and I am an outsider but that’s the way I look at it. If you could live 500 years, you will see that it will not last that long. Even in just 100 years it will be eradicated.”
It is sad that 40 years after Manong Ben’s experience with the Tublay children which showed him that the Bontocs were still regarded as barbarians, fellow Cordillerans and many outsiders do not still feel comfortable with and are even terrified by warlike Kalingas for the same reason. Now Manong Ben is saying that the cause of the bad reputation will linger for another century or even five centuries! Actually, what is important is not how other Cordillerans regard us but how many more victims will lose their lives on account of this barbaric passion for blood and rejection of the ways of civilization.
In the meantime, the Bontocs continue to enjoy peace. Manong Ben who is now 61 claims that in his native Maligcong, he could not recall when a killing took place. Cases of persons trying to terrorize their fellows is unknown. There are no parents there who coddle their wayward children because in doing so, they will risk being isolated. He admits that it is different when a member gets into trouble with a member of another tribe because the tribe will rally behind the member but the difference is rather than take the law in their own hands, the Bontocs will subject matter to government due process
and respect the decision of the katarungang pambarangay or the court. He says: “We respect the government justice system.”
I know of some people in the Cordillera who only have contempt for the government law system and I believe that that is one of the secrets they are caught in a time warp when it comes to peaceful relations with others and among themselves and will continue to remain so perhaps in another millennium.