The Shocking Story of the Philippine Tribe Exhibited in America’s Human Zoos

Igurrotes in a circle at Coney Island
Image: Bain News Service / Library of Congress
A huddled group of Igorrotes is watched over by curious spectators in Coney Island.

A loincloth-clad man tugs a dog into the arena as his fellow tribespeople begin to dance erratically. The canine, perhaps sensing its fate, growls viciously, but to no avail. It is neatly dispatched by a cut to the throat, dismembered and then flung into a cooking pot. Curious onlookers are separated from those undertaking the ritual by a fence made of bamboo. And those watching could be forgiven for not believing their eyes. Even in Coney Island, a part of New York renowned for its spectacle, this was something else entirely.

An Igorrote girl at Coney Island
Image: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)
A young Igorrote girl at Coney Island sits surrounded by onlookers.

Just after the turn of the 20th century, members of the Filipino Bontoc Igorrote tribe were a leading attraction at Coney Island’s Luna Park. Portrayed in the press as “head hunting, dog eating savages,” the Igorrotes were contained in their own “village” and acted out distorted imitations of their customs. Now, such an exhibit would seem downright inhumane, but at the time visitors numbered in their millions. In fact, this wasn’t the only popular “human zoo” featuring Igorrotes in America; the shows toured nationwide.