Monday, October 13, 2014
The Lost Tribe Of Coney Island by Claire Prentice
At the St. Louis Exposition of 1904, the runaway favorite exhibit was one dedicated to the native tribesmen of the Philippines, the Igorrotes. People flocked to see another culture, one markedly different from their own. When the exposition was over and the tribesmen returned to their own country, they had marvelous tales to tell of the wonders they had seen in America, things and luxuries unimaginable to those who had stayed behind.
Spurred by the success of the exhibit, Dr. Truman Hunt proposed to put together a commercial exhibit of the tribesmen at an amusement park, Luna Park at Coney Island. There were many Igorrote volunteers, eager for a chance at adventure and financial gain. Forty-nine men, women and children 'signed' contracts agreeing to be in the exhibit for one year. They were to be paid ten dollars a month each (a princely sum at the time) and also get money from the sale of items they made.
Hunt had a history in the Philippines. Originally brought there by the army, he stayed on after the war and soon had a reputation for his medical care of the tribes. He established a hospital for cholera, and worked tirelessly to improve the health of the native people. He was highly regarded by the tribe and those he met in the government and easily obtained the permits he needed to start his grand commercial adventure.
His plan worked marvelously. The Igorrotes were the hit of the season. Hordes of people flocked to see them and their recreation of their native villages and culture. Hunt took in hundreds of thousands of dollars, a fortune indeed at that time.
But as time went on, things turned bad for the Igorrotes. They were confined to their exhibit area, and the shows they put on was a poor substitute for people used to roaming their habitat, being busy all day. The sensationalist aspects of their culture, such as head-hunting and eating dogs was emphasized. Their native dress, very minimal coverage of their bodies, was titillating and drew in crowds. Worse, they were split up into groups, sent all over to different parks and fairs, often living in squalid conditions. The pay they were promised never materialized, and the year they agreed to came and went.
The government learned of the scandal and were determined to help the tribe, but Dr. Hunt was a wily character, moving the tribesmen around and using his network of spies and well-wishers to evade the police. Could the government return dignity to this tribe treated so shabbily?
Claire Prentice has written an engaging book about a time almost unimaginable in today's modern world, when gaping at those different was considered acceptable and the native was stripped of their native dignity and their ignorance of the modern world used to betray and control them. Readers interested in history will enjoy this story and the look at America at the turn of the 19th century.