The Life of a Hat from Luzon

A version of this object biography was published in the Spring 2019 issue of Contexts: Annual Report of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

This hat is a product of — produced by and traded through — colonialism. Its resting place today is the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology in Providence, Rhode Island in the United States of America. There it lies mostly undisturbed; whether dormant or dead is hard to tell. But it was once part of daily life. The hat shielded its owner from the sun and from hazards both natural and man-made. It was also a handy bowl when flipped upside down — quite literally a vessel for life, though even this framing underestimates the hat’s vitality. After all, it has a nose, eyes, and an ear, not to mention some impressive hair. It is more of a head than a hat, in fact. There is something particularly compelling to telling the life story of such an object — from its beginnings in the early twentieth century in Ifugao, a province of Luzon (an island in the Philippines); to its “collection” by an American official in 1912–14; to its acquisition by the Haffenreffer at an auction in 1988.

Say you were to reinvigorate the object. Pick it up (it’s so light!); turn it upside down; feel the contours on the bottom of the bowl; drag your thumb across the tightly woven rattan brim; note how the light glistens off what seems like its polished metal exterior. When you’re done with the physiognomy, try moving your head closer and breathing in. The smell of the wood can’t help but evoke memories, fantasies, even disturbing thoughts. After all, its military past is ingrained in the pores of the wood and the basketry of its brim. What has the hat seen? What has it heard, touched, smelled?

Like in any biography, most of these holes in the hat’s story will remain unfilled. To learn more about this life, a good place to begin is its afterlife. In 1988, it was acquired by the Haffenreffer from Skinner’s, a Boston auction house. Its provenance as recorded by Skinner’s (and shared by the Haffenreffer’s curator) is sparse. It came from a Southern Historical Society that had in turn acquired it in 1934 from a Dr. Shaw. Shaw was a medical inspector with the Philippine Constabulary who was stationed in Bayombong (the provincial capital of Nueva Vizcaya in northern Luzon) from 1912 to 1914. Skinner’s entry also notes that Mrs. Shaw was a teacher at a government school in the same city.

These stale details tell little about the object’s life. But the contextual information that can be drawn out is surprisingly rich. Just what was this Philippine Constabulary, for instance? After the American government of the Philippines was established in 1901, some Philippine revolutionaries remained. Hence the creation of the Philippine Constabulary to (according to its 1915 manual) “prevent and suppress brigandage, unlawful assemblies, riots, insurrections, and other breaches of the peace and violations of the law.” The medical inspectors of the constabulary — like our Dr. Shaw — were assigned to regions of the Philippines, where they were charged to “make as frequent inspections as practicable of the stations in their charge, supervising the care of the sick and the instruction of the enlisted men of the division.” Shaw must have spent most of his waking hours attending to the injured men of the Philippine Constabulary — tending, that is, to just some of the wounds of colonialism. One day, perhaps, stifled by the hospital in Bayombong, he visited a local market and saw this striking face peering up at him. Maybe, like us, he peered at its features, caressed its brim, smelled its wood. Perhaps he haggled for a fair price. Or maybe he acquired it through less savory means — after all, the only people who could really stop him were the constables under his care.

Can we tell as rich a story about the people who actually made and first used this hat? The only information given in the Haffenreffer catalog is that this is an Ifugao object. Indeed, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Australia, the Ethnology Museum of Barcelona, and many more institutions around the world say much the same about hats like these in their collections — generally cataloged under the name oklop. But recognizing this gets us not much closer to the people who made and used the hat. Unfortunately, to learn more we usually need to turn to foreign scholars who study Ifugao. This is partly a result of unequal access to higher education, but also assimilation implicit in colonialism (and, in different ways, in later nationalist anticolonialism). As Marlon Martin and Stephen Acabado noted in 2015, “community memory of an indigenous past is all but forgotten as entire generations of younger Ifugaos started embracing the dominant culture, veering away from the ways of their forebearers.” Even foreign scholars — including anthropologists such as Roy Barton, Harold Conklin, Francis Lambrecht — mostly focus on a single aspect of Ifugao: the rice terraces. We are left with little to no information about those who made and used this hat. The only explicit mention of an oklop that I found in the published literature was the following note in George Ellis’ article on “Arts and Peoples of the Northern Philippines”:

Bowl-shaped wooden hats are made in eastern Bontoc, especially in Barlig, Lias, and Talubin. These are generally not decorated, but these (oklop) produced in north central Ifugao sometimes have facial features added. Especially prevalent in the Ifugao barrios of Kambulo and Batad, they are worn while hunting, working in the forest, or traveling and may be used as a container for food or water when necessary. The carving is said to be purely ornamental, and has no religious or ceremonial significance.1

It is unclear where George Ellis found this information, and hence I doubt its reliability. Most of the information (for instance, its “purely ornamental” use) is conjecture — scholars trying to fit an object into narratives they’ve assumed. One prominent such narrative is that of resistance by the “mountain people” of northern Luzon to Spanish and later American colonialism. But to fit this hat into such an overarching narrative would be to fall into much the same traps as George Ellis. What this hat mostly tells us, then, is a story of colonialism. We learn less about the people who made and used the hat than about its history of collection, acquisition, and exhibition — all by the American colonizers of the Philippines.


  1. George R. Ellis, “Arts and Peoples of the Northern Philippines,” in The People and Art of the Philippines, ed. Gabriel Casal (Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles, 1981), 239.

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