Dogtown: memories of the 1904 World’s Fair

The idea was to bring the whole world to St. Louis, Missouri.  That world included the major civilizations of east and west, and the remaining savage societies that were then undergoing, to western eyes, the civilizing tutelage of colonialism.  The 1904 World’s Fair opened on April 30 and closed seven months later on December 1, 1904.  Twenty million people visited the fair.

The largest single exhibit and also one of the most frequently visited was the Philippine pavilion, which showcased the peoples of the islands in their varying degrees of pacification and westernization. About 1200 Filipinos were shipped to St. Louis.  Their composition was quite strange:  there were 700 members of the Philippine Scouts and Constabulary who were supposed to represent the highest achievement of the American colonial project up to that point, and 500 civilians representing varying gradations of “wildness” and “civilization.”

There were 114 Igorots, 100 Moros, 41 Negritos, and 38 Bagobos.

The rest were Christianized Visayans.  These anthropological displays — and there were many from Africa and the Americas — were intended to depict various races as they went through the routines of everyday life.  But the Igorot routine became the most sensational, attracting widespread newspaper reportage and outrage.  It featured a scripted program that included the ceremonial slaughter of dogs and their consumption as part supposedly of the regular diet of this tribe.

The man in charge of the Filipino contingent, a certain Dr. T.K. Hunt, was reported to have persuaded then Secretary of War Howard Taft to authorize the regular supply of 20 dogs per week to sustain the dietary habits of these “Igorot Indians”.  The report so enraged Americans all over the country that rumors about disappearing dogs began to circulate in the neighboring communities.  The Igorots supposedly escaped from their pavilion during the night, took pet  dogs in the adjacent community, and then quietly returned to their site in the fair to cook their delicacy.  That site where our people were exhibited as savages is today known as Dogtown, a district so designated in the city map of St. Louis, Missouri.

A local resident, John Bordeaux, who works for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), accompanied me on a quick ethnographic survey of pubs and shops in the area to determine how much of this fiction remains in the oral history of local folks.  Sure enough, the reference to the dog-eating Igorots was the consistent element in the tales they awkwardly shared with me.  I do not know how many of them would recognize an Igorot if they saw one.  But I think they knew that Igorots were Filipinos, and that Filipinos were Asians.

I looked Asian enough to be offended by such a tale, and they were very careful in telling it to me.  But it was also obvious that local residents get a kick out of narrating the origin of their community’s name, and are unmindful of the racial slur it bears.   One pub, the Slainte Seamus McDaniel’s, carries a brief account of “The Story of Dogtown” on its menu.  It says: “About 1904 during the time of the World’s Fair, a tribe known as the Igorot Indians from the Philippines, came to participate in the fair.  One of the delicacies of these people were dogs!  The Indians used to sneak over here at night and snatch dogs from the yards of the people in the neighborhood and well… I think you can guess the rest!”

I visited the St. Louis Historical Museum, which houses the largest collection of memorabilia from the fair, to check the Dogtown story. There should have been photographs of these “Igorot Indians” slaughtering and cooking the neighbors’ dogs.  But there were none. It is very likely that no dogs were actually slaughtered in the Igorot pavilion.  Yet, the description of their way of life did refer to dog meat being a part of their diet.  That was enough to trigger a tale about missing dogs, and to name an entire village after them.

It is obvious that the 1904 World’s Fair was in many ways a carnival of “white supremacist voyeurism”, a phrase used by author Robert Rydell in his book, “”All the World’s a Fair” (1984).  Inside the museum, I began to wonder what ever happened to the Filipinos who were exhibited at the fair.  Were they all shipped back to the Philippines?

Did they know what function they were supposed to serve at the fair? What did they tell their people about America?

The museum recollection about the Filipino participation was silent on these questions.  But there was a depressing account of what happened to another “wild man”, Ota Benga, from the Batwa tribe of Congo.  He had been taken as a captive so he could be exhibited at the fair.  He became a popular fixture there because he would mimic the movements and poses of the visitors who came to watch him. They thought he was funny.  Later, an anthropologist who had befriended him learned that his funny antics were intended by him as a mocking parody of the behavior of the onlookers themselves, a way of displacing anger under conditions of captivity.

Ota Benga returned to his tribe after the fair.  But the experience had changed him.  He became restless.  Two years later, he was back in the States, with the help of the anthropologist.  There was however no place or role for him in this society except as an object of awe and amusement.  He later died in a zoo.

The United States has come a long way after 1904.  The civil rights movement of the ‘60s, led by an African American, Martin Luther King, jolted the nation and civilized the attitude of many Americans towards other peoples.


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