In westernized Guam the cardinal directions are lågu for north, håya for south, kåttan for east and luchan for west. If you examine the map of Guam, produced by the CHamoru Language Commission, that is what you will find in the map legend. However, the directions are different, depending on where you are on the island. Additionally, CHamorus on Saipan say that kåttan is north, luchan is south, håya is east and lågu is west.

Imported concepts cause confusion

Alice Joseph and Veronica Murray wrote a scholarly paper about this topic in 1951 claiming that CHamorus unconsciously modify their culture in an attempt to imitate the culture of their colonizers. They state that this holds true for Spanish, German, Japanese and American times. Robert R. Solenberger used this theory in 1953-1954 in an attempt to explain the confusion over CHamoru directional terminology.

Traditionally CHamorus had directional terminology very different from Europeans. There were no fixed compass points of the compass or concepts for north, south, east or west. Instead CHamoru directions were seaward, inland, to the right of seaward, and to the left of seaward.

Right of SeawardKåttan
Left of SeawardLuchan

Kåttan and luchan ran along the coast originally and lågu and håya were perpendicular to the coast. To use the CHamoru directional terms in their original sense one must first face seaward. Automatically this places kåttan on the right and luchan on the left.

The confusion came when CHamorus equated their directions from a specific location or village with European or Japanese direction terms. The foreign terms are fixed by the compass needle. The CHamoru terms were not fixed and were dependent upon the location of the speaker.

Over a period of time most CHamorus accepted their direction words in terms of European logic. The old terms lågu, håya, kåttan and luchan became the four points of the compass, north, south, east and west for the people of Hagåtña. In late Spanish times and early American times most CHamorus in Guam lived in Hagåtña. Consequently, seaward or lågu came to be north. Inland or håya was south, kåttan became east and luchan, west. After World War II many CHamorus moved from Hagåtña. They thought as Europeans and used their Hagåtña direction terminology incorrectly, as points of the compass, north, south, east and west.

Significant numbers of CHamorus resettled Saipan in the 1870s. They peopled villages on the west side of the island. Consequently, west was lågu (seaward) for them. Inland was håya or east. The right of seaward was north or kåttan, and the left of seaward was south or luchan. Just like the CHamorus of Guam, they began to use these terms as fixed points of the compass in a European sense.

Ignacio V. Benavente proposed the theory that the direction words became fixed in European terms based on the village where the most people lived. In Guam that was Hagåtña and in Saipan it was Garapan.

A few CHamorus in Malesso’ remember the original meanings of the traditional CHamoru directions. Jesus C. Barcinas explained to Solenberger in the early 1950s, just as Joaquin Reyes explained it again in 1968. The original CHamoru direction nomenclature depends on the direction of the coastline, seaward, and inland, and not on points of the compass needle. This is also explained by Rodrique Levesque in 1995. Taking what has been learned, we can now apply this to the old village of Pågu (Pago) on Guam’s east coast, or to Hågat on Guam’s West Coast.

Of course this exercise is futile, because the words were never intended to be used as fixed points of the compass. Consider a village on the southeast coast of Guam. For the inhabitants of that village lågu would be southeast and håya would be northwest. Kåttan would become southwest and luchan would become northeast. No CHamoru actually used the terms in this way. CHamorus have only applied these traditional direction terms to the European cardinal direction terms, north, south, east and west. For example in Luta (Rota) most people live in Songsong. This village runs NE-SW so lågu should be NW, but the Lutanese agree with the Saipanese and say it is west.

Many other Pacific Islanders don’t have this confusion, because they only had two direction terms. For example in Hawai’i, inland or toward the mountain is mauka and seaward or toward the sea is makai. Instead of abstract terms to the left and right of seaward, they simply named locations along the coast. For example, Waikiki and Ewa are used for directions along the coast in Oahu.

Knowing the original CHamoru definition of lågu as seaward gives a greater understanding of lågu as meaning foreign or from the sea, rather than just from the north (in Guam) or from the west (in Saipan). Galagu (dog) is an animal from overseas, not an animal from the north (in Guam) or from the west (in Saipan). William Safford who lived on Guam in 1900, translated gilagu as a Spaniard or man from the north. Gilagu originally meant someone from overseas. Sanlagu means a place overseas, now often used to denote the US mainland.

Most villages in the Mariana Islands are on the west coast. This may explain why luchan refers to the south-west monsoon or rainy season and why kåttan refers to the northeast winds or dry season.

By Lawrence J. Cunningham, EdD

Editor’s note: This paper was first published as Volume 1, Number 3 Micronesian Curriculum Materials Series, National Resource Center for Micronesian Studies, Title VI Funding, University of Guam, in July 1998.

For further reading

Joseph, Alice, and Veronica F. Murray. Chamorros and Carolinians of Saipan: Personality Studies. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1971.

Lévesque, Rodrigue. History of Micronesia: A Collection of Source Documents. Vol. 5, Focus on the Mariana Mission. Québec: Lévesque Publications, 1995.

Solenberger, Robert R. “Recent Changes in Chamorro Direction Terminology.” Oceania 24, no. 2 (1953): 132-141.