‘Martyr for science’
You never know where the next insight from the deep past can suddenly decode a chaotic present.
Take this indie film “Headhunting William Jones” by the African-American filmmaker Collis Davis. Returning to the headwaters of the PH-US “special relationship” over a century ago, it sheds eerie light on that recent diplomatic fracas between Presidents Obama and Duterte.
Now recall its beginnings in impassioned debate between US imperialists and anti-imperialists on the eve of the Philippine-American War. Anti-imperialists like the satirist Mark Twain, Democrat orator William Jennings Bryan, and psychologist William James argued for the Filipino right to self-rule back then.
William McKinley’s siren call for America’s “Manifest Destiny” won that debate but the truth remains: That slogan turned national policy was plain schizophrenia between America’s “civilizing mission” and its armed thrust for geostrategic waters surrounding a new market for its glut of consumer goods in industrialization.
The same dynamic led to the death of American anthropologist William Jones at the hands of headhunting Ilongot in Cagayan in 1909. When senior Fulbright scholar Davis stumbled upon this bizarre historical tale at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in the 1990s, it stirred memories of his own youth in segregated Virginia in the ’40s and ’50s. He just had to know more.
Tabling his research on the cultural history of rice, Davis retraced the life of Jones, a part-Welsh, part-Native American whom his alma mater called a “martyr for science.” His life began in pathos as a year-old child given to his grandma’s care with his mother’s death. His first nine years were spent with this chieftain’s daughter of the Fox tribe. Only after her death and three years of boarding school did his father take him home to Oklahoma, letting him loose in its vast open spaces where the boy became a man as a cowboy.
What sounds like an idyll ended in 1889, with Jones, 18, offered schooling in Virginia’s Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Founded by a reformist Union Army general, it was touted as the only school for Virginia’s newly emancipated blacks, an enlightened experiment just opened to Native Americans.
But what white American education offered Native Americans was not emancipation but assimilation. First they lost their lands, their individual homesteads turned communal. They were herded into reservations, their tribal identities replaced with American citizenship and their native languages with English. And—the most devastating—they were prodded to Christianity, their roots presumed inferior.
Jones’ Caucasian looks nudged his fateful decision for baptism in St. John’s Episcopal Church as an “honorary white” at age 21, severing his deepest ties with his Sioux people and alienating him from his black classmates.
Scholarly inclination proved stronger for this rising star in WASP America. Jones’ exemplary academic record at Hampton opened to higher education at Phillips Andover Academy, Harvard College and finally Columbia University for a PhD under the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas, who found him brilliant.
Jones became an even rarer breed as the first Native American with a PhD in the infant science of anthropology. In his first job curating for Chicago’s Field Museum as linguistic anthropologist, he plumbed Algonquin Indian languages and folklore throughout the Midwest and parts of Canada.
“[His thesis] describes the Fox soul release and spirit adoption ceremony [in] one of the early and classic descriptions of ceremonies of that kind,” wrote anthropologist Robert Hall in the ’80s. “Its implications take one into theoretical areas of innovation, diffusion, and evolution, into contacts as far afield as the Plains Apache, Mesquakies of the Upper Great Lakes area, and the high civilizations of Mexico.”
The potential to open mainstream America to the depth realities of the ancient Indian world proved a mirage. Before Jones could complete his Algonquin study, museum officials whisked him off to the Philippines that America had just “annexed” (the day’s euphemism for conquest).
Despite its much-publicized official end with the surrender of Gen. Miguel Malvar in 1902, the Philippine-American War was far from over when Jones arrived in 1907. Guerrillas, visionary millenarians and other resistance groups continued clashing with the US Army and colonial Philippine Constabulary patrols.
Jones at 36 was severely tugged and pulled between his scholarly calling and American imperial reality. The Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes was created precisely to study the levels of “these people’s social advancement and recommend policies for their control and ‘uplift’,” Davis writes. He adds that poet Rudyard Kipling famously called that goal “the White Man’s burden … newly-caught, sullen peoples, half devil, half child.”
The same mindset that decimated the American Indian Nations now introduced anthropology in the Philippines as a tool to “supply the justifications for American retention [of the islands as a colony],” classifying its indigenes “non-Christians,” just like Jones’ people.
Davis’ research in Filipiniana archives all over America revealed the imperial eyes that Jones now wore. An incident recounted by the Field Museum’s George Dorsey was how Jones knocked down a native who wouldn’t take off his hat as the “Star-Spangled Banner” played at the Luneta. There, too, was Jones’ revealing letter to Dorsey about an offer for the governorship of “a sub-province of wild people” in late 1907. He wrote: “The essential thing … [is] a man … in sympathy with the people [to] get them in … the right attitude toward the government…”
Praise or blame for ambivalent Jones is academic now. More intriguing is the “Headhunting” subscript—another mixed-blood American following its tragic course like a forensic detective for nearly 20 years a century later. Davis’ nuanced view of Fil-American history fit right in with “Visions of Asia” in the Cinemalaya Filipino indie film festival.
This film gives life to thorough archival research on a turn-of-the century tale told like a “CSI” episode, with photos of Jones’ youth, animated recreation of his execution in 1909, letters by US colonial officials like Dean Worcester who knew him well, interviews with living scholars, and fading memories of Jones’ Filipino friends’ descendants.
“Headhunting” ends on a sad note—William Jones’ grave site in Manila’s North Cemetery, where his remains were moved from Cagayan, shrunk by a rich squatter neighbor. That consciousness buried in archives could have enriched racial understanding had he been bolder in his cruel time.
But should his story resonate on both sides of the Pacific, the day’s new siren call—to tell it like it is—could well speed up exorcism of the decolonizing present it still haunts.
Sylvia L. Mayuga is an essayist, sometime columnist, poet, documentary filmmaker and environmentalist. She has three National Book Awards to her name.
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