Governed by inafa’maolek

Reverence for family is at the center of all CHamoru core values. Thus behavior is dictated by a sense of deep respect for the family, and a desire to maintain the dignity of one’s clan. While ancient CHamorus did not have written laws or a pronounced legal system, social order was kept by a deep sense of responsibility to the family in which one belonged. Those who disrespected this order, or brought shame to their clan, were severely punished.

A council of elders led by the maga’låhi and maga’håga (leading male and female of the clan) deliberated on matters of honor, preservation of the family, war and peace. They also made judgments and issued punishment to members of the clan who had brought dishonor. The women of the council, and especially the maga’håga, played a prominent role in the council. Decisions were todu manatungo’, made by consensus. However the maga’låhi could order punishments and fines on the manachang and acha’ot in his jurisdiction without the village council meeting.

When a couple married, women left their clan and moved to their husband’s clans land. However women could not be punished by their husband’s clan as that would cause a clan war to begin. A husband alone was responsible for any error committed by his wife, and he was the only one judged and punished in the case by his own clan. A widow who returned to her natural family was responsible for her own conduct, however, and would suffer all potential punishment herself.

People’s actions were primarily governed by inafa’maolek, or the belief that CHamorus are all connected and must consider the good of all over selfish desires. This sense of unconditional interdependency instilled in people a deep sense of responsibility for their actions, because they were always a reflection of their family. Thus, CHamorus avoided conflicts out of consideration for other members of their clan.


When CHamorus did battle, however, it was usually over matters of honor. Disagreements about women frequently caused these conflicts. Insults to a village chief and infringement upon fishing rights or property rights could also start a war. CHamorus did not fight to kill each other, however. In the beginning of the attack, CHamoru men would send out loud shouts, not meant to intimidate, but rather to animate the fight. They seemed to go to battle with the sole view of never coming to action, and if they did, it was to escape the reproach of returning home without having done anything at all. Only two to three people died in action, and the rest quickly dispersed. CHamorus believed that those who fell in battle or were murdered were tormented in hell, thus they avoided this type of death. The goal was never to kill, but rather to shame the enemy and improve personal and family status. A defeated village would ask for peace by presenting ålas (shell money) to the victors, which increased their wealth.


Revenge was another motivating force in conflicts. Every man eventually avenged the injury done to him. CHamorus were able to hold an insult until the most opportune moment arrived to avenge it. They did not utter a harsh word or display their disgust on their face in the moment. They held it in their chest and appeared easy and composed. Sometimes they would hold this insult for years until that favorable moment arose, and then they would release all fury. And while this is something they may had longed to do for years, within five minutes they’d return to their calm, collected disposition.

In learning from these experiences, CHamorus attempt not to offend others at all times. This code of behavior is called mamåhlao, or shame. People avoided showing off, calling attention to one’s self or causing a scene, because they believed it was not polite.

Chenchule’, a system of reciprocal giving, is another code of behavior that is not written but always followed. Because CHamorus were so giving to their family, they remembered when others were not willing to return a favor or help out. Any person who refused to come to the aid of his family or perform his daily duties out of laziness would not receive any help from his family. Such abandonment left the person with deep shame.


Respetu, or respect, was an important of the core value. Most crimes had to do with a lack of respect, either for an elder, a person of a higher class, a woman or the spirits of the ancestors. Respetu was not only paid to the family, but also to the natural and spiritual world. People did not see themselves as separate from their environment, and CHamorus believed that their ancestors watched over them and could both protect and punish them.

If a man disrespected his family and acted as if he didn’t care about anything, the anti, or ancestral spirits, would withhold their protection and leave the man vulnerable to death and disease. The anti could also curse the man, making him unlucky at fishing and planting, thus unable to provide for his family. The anti would sometimes go throughout the village in the middle of the night and punish a disrespectful person with illness. From that time on, the person would be held in low esteem because the rest of the village knew that he had disrespected the anti. The person would be so offended that he would go into his house and not come out for days.

If a person continued to lead a disrespectful life, or died a lonely or violent death, his spirit would not rest in peace. It would dwell in a place far away from where the other members of his family were buried, and torment the living. These spirits have been known to haunt caves.

Women’s role

In the living world, the utmost respect was paid to women. Women were the heads of household. If a man gave an order contrary to his wife’s or punished their children, she would turn on him and beat him. If a man were to cheat on his wife, she would gather all the women of the village, who would come wearing their husband’s hats and armed with spears and lances. They would attack the adulterer, and if he had growing crops, they’d destroy them. They’d make him come out of the house and threaten to run him down with their lances, at last driving him away.

At other times, the offended wife would punish her husband by leaving him and return to her family with their children. Her parents, or elders from her clan, would go to the husband’s house and carry away everything of value, sometimes not even leaving him a spear or a mat on which to sleep. During this time, the children would not acknowledge their father, even if he were to come close to them. If the wife chose to return to her husband, his relatives would have to go to great lengths for her to do so. However, if a wife were unfaithful to her husband, her relatives did not have to go to such lengths, because it was considered less serious for a wife to cheat on her husband. A man might kill his wife’s lover, but he could not punish her for the infidelity.

Children’s punishment

Punishment of children was also very minimal, though parents were strict when it came to practicing the core values, and ensured that their children were respectful at all times. Since CHamoru men and women were hard workers, they had very little regard for those who were lazy. They taught their children to work hard at an early age, and children knew how to perform tasks like their parents, because they were taught with great love. So great was the love between parents and children, that children were not spanked and were scolded with loving words, said Fray Juan Pobre de Zamora, a Spanish visitor to the Marianas before colonization. He noted:

When a child took offense to or was shamed by something his parents said, he would walk a short distance away and turn his back on them. They would then toss sand or pebbles on the ground behind him, to remind him they hadn’t forgotten him. After he cried for a little while, one of the parents would go to him, lift and carry him back to where the others were gathered. Then the parents would give him some of the best food around and talk to him like he was an adult, telling him how he should behave. They also created songs and sang to the child and the village about the child’s good qualities. Thus children grew to be very obedient.

Since there are various representations of CHamoru culture, mostly written by outsiders, there are different interpretations of how parents disciplined their children. Some historical accounts said that children paid no regard to their parents unless they needed assistance, whereas others like French explorer Freycenet have said:

There is no country in the world where sons pay more respect to their fathers. Age does not free them from obedience; and I have seen men of forty tremble at a mere reprimand from their father.

Between castes

Another arena in which crime and punishment was frequently documented was between castes. The CHamorus had a strict caste system, and the lower class manåchang were expected to bow before the higher-class matao. A sign of respect was to draw the hand lightly over the stomach of the person of higher status, and nothing was deemed ruder than to spit before him. The manåchang could not go near the houses or boats of the matao without permission. They were not allowed to eat or drink in the matao’s house, and if they needed something they had to ask from a distance. Marriage was forbidden between castes, and a matao parent might kill their sons if they married daughters of lower class families.

One of the greatest punishments aside from death was to be demoted to a lower class and banished from the village. A banished matao man became a lower class acha’ot and could appeal to the clan members of another village to accept him. However, a matao that became an acha’ot would have a matao wife, which was not allowed.  If her husband was banished she did not have to go with him.  If she loved him enough she would pay a fine to be demoted and follow him.  The fine went to the maga’låhi.

An acha’ot would have to find a matao who would agree to receive him as his servant. A person could not be an acha’ot in his own clan, because this name literally meant that he was a stranger. When he found a protector, he would have to serve him without salary until the expiration of his sentence, or until he made amends for his crime. It was not easy to regain matao status, however. If he were ever to become the founder of a new settlement, an acha’ot would have to do so with the assistance of a wealthy man, who might have rewarded him for some special service or as the result of a victory in war.

A matao who had built his own house without the help of his clan – whether at marriage or after a typhoon or fire – could not be banished. However, if he had committed a crime that required punishment, he could be tricked into banishment. His family would build a more beautiful and spacious house and make him live there. As quickly as he got settled, they would come and kick him out. Once he left, his property would be confiscated including the gift of the new home.

If an acha’ot was exiled because of a judgment, he could never return. However, if he left on his own to escape legal proceedings, he retained the hope of returning one day. For example, if one person killed another and they were from the same village, the assassin would flee and go off to another island to avoid being killed by the victim’s relatives. He would stay away until his father or mother, or he himself, could offer the most prized turtle shell, along with some rice and a large fish, to the parents or wife of the deceased as compensation for the death. Once this had been done, the acha’ot was free to return to his village without fear.

Many of the codes of behavior that governed ancient CHamorus are still upheld today. CHamoru families continue to operate through inafa’maolek, and maintain a deep sense of respect for their elders and their environment.

Common crimes and punishment

Listed below are some examples of common crimes and punishment documented from ancient CHamoru society.

  • If a manåchang did not bow when he saw a matao, he would have been punished by death, because it was considered as disrespectful as challenging the matao to a fight.
  • Displaying a lack of interest was considered sarcasm and was thus a punishable offense.
  • If a person accompanying an older woman to visit her relatives told her to be careful while climbing their stairs, this would be considered an offense because it would be an implication that the family did not take care of their home.
  • A man would be condemned to death if he fought with one of the barbed spears meant for fishing, unless he could prove that he had no other means of defending himself.
  • Any debate between two people had to be settled between them. However, if a fight was too violent, the spectators intervened and the chief of the village was called to exercise his authority. A simple command on his part was enough to make the two separate. Refusal to obey without hesitation, however, would have brought about severe punishment.
  • Ancient CHamorus would never correct an older person, or another person of higher rank. The worst behavior was to ridicule another person in public. No one wanted to be publicly shamed.
  • A stranger arriving in broad daylight in a village without first greeting the maga’låhi and asking permission would be arrested. However if he testified that his visit was friendly, he would be released. If a man entered the village at night unannounced, he ran the risk of being killed by the first person that discovered him.
  • Every person was assigned an area in which they could fish. If a man was caught fishing outside of his area, he could be banished. However, if a man was caught luring fish from one person’s area into his to get a better catch, he could be killed.

By Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero, MFA

For further reading

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

Driver, Marjorie G. The Account of Fray Juan Pobre’s Residence in the Marianas, 1602. MARC Miscellaneous Series No. 8. Mangilao: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 1993.

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.

Fritz, Georg. The Chamorro: A History and Ethnography of the Mariana Islands. 2nd ed. Translated by Elfriede Craddock and edited by Scott Russell. Occasional Historical Papers Series, No. 1. Saipan:  Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 2001.

I Ma Gobetna-na Guam: Governing Guam Before and After the Wars. The Hale’-ta Series. Hagåtña: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission, 1994.

Lévesque, Rodrigue. History of Micronesia: A Collection of Source Documents. Vols. 1-13. Québec: Lévesque Publications, 1992-1998.

Rogers, Robert. Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 1995.

Russell, Scott. Tiempon I Manmofo’na: Ancient Chamorro Culture and History of the Northern Mariana Islands. Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 1998.