Marianas Maps  2Marianas Maps

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 Chamorro 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, Chamorros 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 Chamorros 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 Chamorro directional terminology.

Traditionally Chamorros 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 Chamorro directions were seaward, inland, to the right of seaward, and to the left of seaward.

Seaward – Lågu
Inland – Håya
Right of Seaward – Kåttan
Left of Seaward – Luchan

Kåttan and luchan ran along the coast originally and lågu and håya were perpendicular to the coast. To use the Chamorro 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 Chamorros 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 Chamorro terms were not fixed and were dependent upon the location of the speaker.

Over a period of time most Chamorros 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 Chamorros 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 Chamorros 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 Chamorros 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 Chamorros 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 Chamorros in Malesso’ remember the original meanings of the traditional Chamorro directions. Jesus C. Barcinas explained to Solenberger in the early 1950s, just as Joaquin Reyes explained it again (to me) in 1968. The original Chamorro 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 we have learned, we can now apply this to the old village of Pågu (Pago) on Guam’s east coast, or to Hågat (Agat) 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 Chamorro actually used the terms in this way. Chamorros 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 Chamorro 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

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. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1951. Reprint, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1971.

Levesque, Rodrigue, ed. History of Micronesia: A Collection of Source Documents, Vol. 5: Focus on the Mariana Mission, 1670-1673. Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, Levesque Publications, 1995.

Solenberger, Robert R. “Recent Changes in Chamorro Direction Terminology” Oceania 24 (2, 1953-4) pp 132-141.