Gabriel Nivera
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Pictures & Conversations

A collection of images and the stories behind their creation.

Bugkalot: Head Hunters

Abaca - Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines

Tucked away in the Sierra Madre & Caraballo mountain ranges, is the ancestral lands of the Bugkalot Tribe, also known as Ilongot.  Roughly about 390 square km / 150 square miles of this rugged and beautiful country is considered their ancestral domain.  They settled along the banks of the Cagayan River,  it provided fresh water, food, and a swift mode of transportation to traverse great distances. The river also enabled the Bugkalot to strike and raid areas far outside their domain.  A fierce tribe known for head hunting, the Bugkalot were nearly destroyed by the Philippine government in the 1950s when the army was sent in to eradicate them. This was in response to Bugkalot raiding parties that terrorized and targeted settlements adjacent to their ancestral lands.

The Bugkalot were able to avoid destruction thanks to the efforts of missionaries who convinced the Bugkalot to stop raiding and killing people in the neighbouring provinces, it was a long and difficult process, in fact, last known ceremonial head hunt took place in the 1980s.  Head hunting was considered important rite of passage that marked manhood.  Although they are no longer head hunters, the Bugkalot are proud of their culture and heritage.  

One way they keep their rich history alive is through their traditional clothing and regalia.  An important artifact is the hornbill headdress. The headdress symbolizes status and maturity and only successful headhunters are eligible to don the headdress. It is made from a rattan frame, decorated with brass wire, and red yarn and shells. On the projected front part of this frame is placed the large red bill of a kalaw bird (a species of hornbill found in Philippines). Notches are added on the bill to indicate subsequent successful kills.

Like the hornbill headdress, the long earrings were only worn by men who had successfully taken a head. The first head taken by a warrior allowed them to wear one earring, traditionally on the left. Subsequent kills allowed the donning of another earring or adding notches onto the earrings to signify the count.

It was a privilege to have been allowed to photograph the Bugkalot and to learn about their heritiage.