The term ålas (derived from the Spanish term alhajas, which means jewelry) refers to turtle shell valuables used within the highly reciprocal associations of the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands. Women, most especially, wore turtle shell as body ornamentation.

Used as necklaces and belts, ancient CHamorus prized turtle shell and used it in many ways. There were variations of the plain turtle shell plates, or lailai. Lailai with holes cut into it were called pinipu. Each hole signified an increase in value. Maku dudu were lailai polished on both sides that were worn around the waists of particularly wealthy women, and fastened by means of a double cord.

The terms guini and lukao hugua refer to turtle shell necklaces made of flat, round and perforated disks strung on coconut fiber. The highly prized guinahan fama’guon (children’s wealth) consisted of shell disks of varying thickness worn draped around the neck on special occasions.

Shell money should not, however, be viewed primarily as a form of body adornment, but rather as an item entangled in complex webs of sensitive social relations. Its main use in society was ceremonial, spanning the whole of the social horizon from offerings at funerals to payments for special and religious services; from servings as gifts at wedding celebrations to gestures of reconciliation in times of conflict and warfare.

By Julian Aguon

For further reading

Cunningham, Lawrence J. Ancient Chamorro Society. Honolulu: Bess Press, 1992.

Freycinet, Louis Claude Desaulses de. An Account of the Corvette L’Uraine’s Sojourn at the Mariana Islands, 1819. Translated by Glynn Barratt. Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 2003.

Russell, Scott. Tiempon I Manmofo’na. Ancient Chamorro Culture and History of the Northern Mariana Islands. Micronesian Archaeological Survey No. 32. Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 1998.