An Ilongot Murder Mystery

Review: Headhunting William Jones. Producer, writer, director, videographer, editor: Collis H. Davis, Jr. Assoc. producer, researcher and translator, Violeta P. Hughes (2016).

In 1909, Ilongot warriors murdered part-Fox Indian American anthropologist and Columbia Ph.D. William Jones. He had been on a field expedition into highland territory of the Ilongots of Nueva Vizcaya, ostensibly to study the tribe who had become notorious in the eyes of the U.S. colonial administration as savage headhunters. It is still unclear why Jones, who was apparently well liked by members of the tribe, became a victim. A documentary film, Headhunting William Jones, by Collis H. Davis, tries to make sense of the puzzle.

As Filipino Americans celebrate October as Filipino History Month, would do well to be reminded that the contours of the Philippines’ cultural diversity, the divide between so-called Non-Christians and Christians, was conceived during this period. It was the result of the practical applications of social theories emerging in the 19th century about cultural evolution or the belief the humans progressed from primitive to civilized, from savage to cultured.

The U.S. occupation army had already vanquished the Republican army of Aguinaldo and had control of the major towns including Manila. With Aguinaldo captured in 1901, the U.S. had quickly established a colonial government with the goal of continuing President McKinley’s “benevolent assimilation” program of pacification. Under Arthur MacArthur, father of the Douglas MacArthur, the pacification of the islands involved suppressing the continued resistance of Republican/Katipunan elements, the Moro uprisings in Muslim Mindanao, and the festering turmoil in the Cordillera highlands.

Ilongot hunting party (Source: Wikipedia)

Ilongot hunting party (Source: Wikipedia)

It was during this time that conflicts between the Kalinga, Ifugao and Ilongot became intense as the U.S. colonial government through the Philippine Constabulary, conducted pacification campaigns that often pitted one tribe against the other to gain their loyalty and establish a modicum of colonial governance. Under these conditions William Jones, in pursuit of what was perhaps an ideal ethnographic opportunity to observe “primitive” society face-to-face, hoped to reap the rewards of original fieldwork. He was also there to collect material culture, baskets, textile, weapons and tools of the Ilongot for the newly established Field Museum of Chicago where he worked.  

Propelled by new industrial capitalism, sociology (statistics and social science), modern communication (rail and telegraph), still and moving pictures, 19th-century colonialism opened a hitherto unknown world to industrial Europe and U.S. Great Britain, France, and Germany outraced each other to acquire by force or by steamboat diplomacy, territories in Africa and the Middle East and extract trade concessions in Asia. For Britain, the sun never set on its empire. As new players in the imperialist game, the U.S. saw an unprecedented opportunity in its acquisition of the Philippines, purposely wrested from the waning Spanish empire, as an extension of the popular Spanish-American War.  With the purchase of the Philippines, its diverse ethnolinguistic culture was a premium environment to conduct field studies in the newly emerging sciences of classification, including anthropology and statistics.  

It would be fair to say that anthropology was the child of colonialism. Rooted in the efforts of the British empire to manage a far-flung empire of diverse cultures, anthropologists, either as academicians or government agents, joined the search for a methodical framework for managing colonial subjects. The Philippines had become more familiar to Americans fighting “insurrectos” who were defending the independent Asian Republic. After the cessation of major hostilities some 2,000 Filipinos were shipped to the St. Louis World Exhibition of 1904 in Missouri, as an illustration of the human evolutionary scale ranging from savage to civilized. 

In governing its subject peoples, the U.S. was not short of models. The pacification-relocation of Native Americans was already an established model, of which William Jones was in fact a product, as a graduate of experimental schools meant to assimilate Native Americans into the mainstream.  The perverse, racist interpretation of African slave culture and behavior also made its way into these models. The Americans sent academics to test out these theories. Anthropologist David Barrows (for whom University of California, Berkeley, honors a building) became the architect of the Philippine public school system. Together with Dean C. Worcester, he created the cultural-legal fiction of “non-Christian” tribes, creating a difference from the coastal Christian populations. Both required some form of modern education, the former more so, to acquire a modern civilized nature. The primitive populations, like the headhunting Ilongots of the Philippines, therefore, provided a pristine opportunity for “real” fieldwork still unsullied by encroaching modernization.

Through the propaganda of zoologist-turned-ethnologist Dean C. Worcester, then the colonial Secretary of Interior, the notion of a separate “non-Christian” population (distinct from the 10 million Christians) provided an excuse to delay the Filipino nationalists' clamor for Philippine independence. Worcester advocated the “civilizing” and protection of the non-Christian tribes from the so-called “Tagalog” urban political elites while at the same time securing access for American commerce to precious Philippine natural resources, such as gold, that incidentally were abundant in the highlands. The murder of William Jones unfolded in this context.

The documentary by filmmaker and Fulbright lecturer Collis Davis Jr., (also Corregidor in Peace and War 2007) tries to discover an explanation for why the Ilongot murdered Jones, the role of his mixed heritage and the effect of Anglo-American education. According to Davis, Jones appeared to have a true academic interest in understanding the culture of the headhunting Ilongot. Using Jones’ diary, letters and other archival documents, Davis goes at length to provide a meticulous “whodunnit”-style examination to determine Jones’ character and the reasons for his murder. The documentary provides a CSI-type simulation of the crime scene, using 3D animation of the incident in very graphic and violent ways. While it adds drama, it does not explain the Ilongot behavior or the verbal exchange that might have occurred between Jones and the perpetrators. An altercation apparently occurred as Jones, after having lived among the Ilongot for eight months, was preparing to transport his collected artifacts by bamboo rafts to the nearest town. Jones eventually died of ax and spear wounds as he and his assistant Romano Dumaliang tried to escape downriver.

Collis Davis, Jr.

Collis Davis, Jr.

Probing for a deeper explanation, Davis was able to track down and gain an interview with Pepito, a great grandson of Dumaliang, who at that time was Jones’ teenage guide and assistant. Here Davis gets a perplexing explanation. Asked how the Ilongot viewed his grandfather, Pepito says that his father told him that the Ilongot liked Dumaliang and was kind to the two. Jones apparently gave first aid to those who might have been hurt or were sick or provided canned goods and salt.  Probing deeper, Davis asks, why then was Jones killed? According to his grandfather, Pepito recalls, they killed him because they did not want Jones to leave!. 

Feuds between Philippine cultural tribes were not uncommon; there were known predictable patterns and governing rituals. Spanish-era colonial efforts to convert the Cordillera, known for gold deposits, were among the reasons for frequent reports of headhunting, according to historian W.H. Scott. The succeeding U.S.- Filipino conflict of the 1900s also saw a spike in headhunting incidents. Jones arrived in Ilongot territory when the U.S. military were waging campaigns to pacify the Cordillera highlands and among the Moros in Mindanao. Jones, though he refused to be a government anthropologist, was -- in the context of colonial Philippines -- still a white man (White Apo) who was the very symbol of judicial and police/military power in the eyes of the Ilongot.

The killing of an American was a risky proposition not just for the perpetrators, but also for a whole clan. Something must have disturbed the Ilongot’s sense of self to trigger a violent act on Jones. The Constabulary quickly exacted retribution and burned the Ilongot homes. The American responses were ambiguous and clearly reflected the uneasiness of American colonial attitudes towards the Philippines, amid the agitation for independence by nationalist Filipinos.  Worcester, who had long been campaigning to prove the Filipinos were unfit for democracy, amplified the savageness of the attack as proof of the basic deficit in civility of the Filipino. Others blamed Jones’ impatience with the Ilongot as the reason. Eventually, the perpetrators were arrested, imprisoned and sentenced to execution but somehow escaped from the provincial jail. When they were re-captured, they were pardoned by the colonial government on the basis that their behavior was a cultural response.

Using Jones’ diary, letters and other archival documents, Davis goes at length to provide a meticulous “whodunnit”-style examination to determine Jones’ character and the reasons for his murder. 

The matter of fact presentation of Jones’ biography and murder, ably provided by Davis who had access to archives, interviews with experts of the period like Paul Kramer (Blood of Government, 2002) and Bill Solheim II, emeritus Philippine archeologist, provides relevant academic background to the nature of this incident.  At times the narration is stretched, including a silly graphic trope of a halo-halo (the concoction of sugary fruit and beans mixed in ice shaving) to describe the mixed ethnicities of the U.S. expatriates interred in the North Cemetery where Jones remains were eventually laid to rest.

Headhunting William Jones is not a slick documentary ala-Ken Burns, but it merits serious thought as it touches on debates about anthropology in service of colonialism, the American colonial experimentation in the surveillance and management of subject populations, notions of imperialist nostalgia and the appeal of adventurism and exoticism. The video does not explain headhunting, the image that perhaps attracted Jones to the Philippines in the first place. Neither does it expound much on Jones’ reflection on “wild” peoples being himself a Fox Indian. It would be useful for anyone deeply interested in the topic to peruse the accompanying website. It explores the contradictory impulses between Jones’ desire to be an objective anthropologist while also being guided by Anglo-American Victorian norms he had adopted. 

It would take 60 years for modern anthropology to grasp the complex behavior involved in headhunting. Postwar /post-colonial anthropology has shifted from collecting artifacts, measuring anatomy and studying systems of authority to studying systems of meaning. The Ilongot had been “pacified” by the ‘60s, although reports of head-taking signaled by the blossoming of the red-orange flowers of the fire tree still made news from time to time. While head-taking was customary and retaliation was governed by unwritten tribal law, what leads to that behavior puzzled Michele and Renato Rosaldo (Ilongot Headhunting 1980, Knowledge and Passion 1980) as it did Jones in the 1900s.

To the Rosaldos’ credit, we have a better understanding of headhunting. During their fieldwork, they analyzed over a hundred headhunting expeditions. They concluded that head-taking, graphically violent to us so far removed from its context and time, was an extraordinary resolution to the emotional state of “grief” that the person was experiencing. Killing happens because of "heavy" emotions that weigh and oppress "saddened hearts” and become expressed as “rage.” (Knowledge and Passion, p.19) Severing a head meant acquiring an “amet” -- the spirit of the beheaded that was necessary for cultural regeneration and emotional balance.

Perhaps in this context, we can understand the reason for Jones’ killing. His quick-thinking assistant, Romano, saved his head but Romano’s later reflection of the incident that Jones was killed because he was going to “leave” the Ilongot reveals the notion Jones departure was a source of Ilongot grief and sadness. The Ilongot acted in accordance with their grief. From a pioneering American perspective, Jones’ courage to understand the headhunters in a country that few Americans were familiar with was admirable. In hindsight, he went to study Ilongot from flawed early premises of the new discipline of 19th c. Anthropology that had not accumulated a body of knowledge capable of understanding Ilongot consciousness or cultural meanings that contemporary interpretative anthropology now benefits from.

The documentary of Collis Davis, Jr., Headhunting William Jones is an abject lesson in colonialism, which made everyone involved in its projects, complicit regardless of “noble” intentions. The “Other,” the Ilongot, have only their behavior to explain themselves. As colonial subjects, they have been rendered silent, judged by external systems and values.

Rosaldo, M. Z. (1980). Knowledge and passion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Dr. Michael Gonzalez

Dr. Michael Gonzalez

Dr. Michael Gonzalez has degrees in History, Anthropology, and Education. A professor at City College San Francisco, he teaches a popular course on Philippine History Thru Film. He also directs the NVM Gonzalez Writers' Workshop in California. 

More articles from Dr. Michael Gonzalez