Monday, September 7, 2015

by Claire Prentice

The biggest attraction at Luna Park (part of Coney Island) in 1905 was the Bontoc Igorottes (mountain people). Fifty of them were brought to America from the Philippines by Truman K. Hunt. They were billed as "dog-eating,  head-hunting savages" and put on a show performing native dances, basket weaving, jewelry making, and other rituals. Millions of people came to see the Igorottes. In no time, they were a huge sensation and were written up in newspapers nationally and then globally.
Hunt became a rich man from them. But he was an opportunist and told tall tales about the tribespeople. Unfortunately, the press swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. He stretched the truth to  entertain the public. Underneath his so-called charming demeanor, though, was a dark side. Truman was greedy (he stole their wages), heartless (he treated them like slaves), and deceitful (constantly lying to the U.S. government).
The Igorottes were kind, just, honest, and dignified people. They originally had thought the world of Dr. Hunt. He was a former medical doctor who had met the tribe after the 1898 Spanish-American War had erupted. Hunt had lived among them, treating their ills, setting bones, and giving medications when needed. So when he decided to bring them over to America, they trusted him completely. They thought that he was their friend. Some friend indeed.
The Lost Tribe of Coney Island is both an absorbing and disturbing read. It's very well-written and definitely keeps your attention. What's really shameful and appalling is that human beings were exhibited like animals in a zoo and the public paid money to gawk at them. Eventually it became an embarrassing circumstance in the history of the United States and the relationship between them and the Filipinos.
The massive research that author Claire Prentice did to create such a book is very impressive. (You will find all of it in the Acknowledgments.) She visited over thirty libraries, many museums, historical societies, universities, archives; spoke with a military historian; learned from a curator about fashions at the beginning of the century; had legal questions answered by a School of Law, and many more people whose line of work helped Prentice compile all of her necessary information.
This is an incredible story that merits being told. It's an eye-opener because it makes you think who really is civilized and who is savage.
Very highly recommended.