Roles defined by age, gender and status

From ancient times to modern Chamorro society, Chamorros have used age, gender, placement within the family (e.g. first born), abilities, and social status to some degree, as ways to divide labor—the roles, duties and types of work a person would be expected to fulfill.

One of the first things written about Chamorro society was that manåmko (elders) were highly respected and held a lot of power. An early Spanish visitor to Guam, Fray Antonio de los Angeles, in 1596 said the elders gave orders and everyone obeyed them – completely. It was family elders who ruled their clans and thus ancient Chamorro society.

As adults aged, they became more honored and respected, eventually becoming exempt from manual labor, but still contributing by passing on their knowledge to the younger members of the community.

Sisters and brothers

In ancient times, Chamorros had clear divisions of male and female areas of authority as well as different, but ultimately complimentary, roles in their families and society. Some of these divisions have blurred over time, though there are areas where strong delineation still occur—where people can see the patterns formed by i mananiti (ancestors) alive and thriving today.

In ancient times, it was formally recognized that it was the oldest daughters and sons within a clan who would typically make the important family decisions and be eligible to be titleholders of the clan – måga’håga and måga’låhi (female and male titles, respectively). They settled disagreements and made key decisions such as where clan members would live and to whom they could have committed relationships (comparable to what we call being married today). Up until recent decades, issues such as courtship and the introduced concept of marriage required family elders’ approval. Nowadays however, children have a greater voice in these types of decisions that affect them.

Gender-determined duties

For thousands of years, famalao’an (women) were responsible for creating pottery, preparing food and performing much of the weaving. Lalåhi (men) were expected to carry out tasks such as making tools and protecting the village. Those with enough social standing or recognized ability, would be accorded the right to learn navigation and build canoes. Certain activities however, were shared by both genders, such as child rearing, farming, fishing and roof thatching. While fishing outside of the reef was the men’s domain, both men and women fished and secured other marine resources within the reef. When thatching roofs, the entire village joined in with women preparing the food and weaving the thatch, while men climbed up and secured the thatch to the roof.

Children’s tasks

At a certain age, famagu’on (children) would be initiated into the tasks of their parents, learning from and working alongside older family members. Girls would be trained with the women of their clan, while uritao (young single men), would be taught skills by their male clan members in i guma’uritao (the house where young men would live and learn) and elsewhere.

During the Spanish colonial times and in early U.S. education programs, these patterns continued in many ways. In the local schools, girls might go to a separate school or session, being taught cooking, sewing, and weaving. At home, girls did household chores like the ironing and the washing and stayed around the women. Boys however, learned different subjects in school—farming, carpentry, making copra (dried coconut meat) as well as some weaving. These subjects were meant to help them fulfill their work at home and in island life.

Core values remain today

Though certain aspects of Chamorro culture and society appear different today, many core values are still recognized as having been passed on from ancient times through the generations. For example, the extended family or clan, continues to be the core of Chamorro society.

Responsibility and authority to manage family and family affairs still belongs to elders. A time-honored pattern has been that women by and large ruled the household while men have been more likely to represent the family in the public realm. Over the years however, Chamorro roles have adapted due to natural shifts in indigenous culture and influences from Spanish and U.S. colonial culture and institutions. Other influences such as globalization and modernization are being adapted too.

Chamorro women have been recognized leaders in island cultural, social and religious organizations. They have been strong custodians of Chamorro culture through hundreds of years of challenge and change and have largely been responsible for their children’s religious upbringing. Though more men have held political offices and other positions of public authority since they were introduced as such to the island, modern-day Chamorro women can be found in all levels of authority in education, business, government and the professions.

On the other hand, Spanish and U.S. patrilineal family practices have been introduced, some of which has been incorporated into Chamorro culture which in turn has impacted the roles that males play in Chamorro society. Mothers and fathers now head Chamorro families and most would consider both sides of the family equally as important. Farming, fishing, and rearing children among other responsibilities continue to be shared activities. Long-standing male family obligations have long included such things as woodcutting, tending the cooking fire, butchering chicken, pig, deer and the like, putting up tents or making pala pala (pole and thatch structure), or hunting.

For Chamorros, younger family members are expected to respect elders, especially family elders, and seek and follow their wisdom. One of the first things taught to the young is to show respect to elders by performing mannginge’, bowing with a kiss to the hand, or placing a kiss on the cheek. Elders still direct younger members in family tasks, there is always something patgon (children) can be doing to help—running errands, preparing for an event or helping with the cleaning afterwards.

Although it is the general responsibility of children to listen to and take care of older people, the responsibility for caring for elderly parents is generally taken up by the oldest daughter in the family.

Inafamao’lek (making life good)

Indeed, a family’s reputation partially rests on how well its members fulfill these obligations. In this way, Chamorros perpetuate their cultural value of inafa’maolek or making life good for their family and society, through mutual cooperation, support, and recognition of the collective interest.

By Kelly G. Marsh, MA

For further reading

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

Department of Chamorro Affairs Research, Publication and Training Division. Chamorro Heritage: A Sense of Place; Guidelines, Procedures and Recommendations for Authenticating Chamorro Heritage. Hagåtña, Department of Chamorro Affairs Research Publication and Training Division, 2003.

Driver, Marjorie G. “The Account of a Discalced Friar’s Stay in the Islands of the Ladrones.” Guam Recorder 7 (1977): 19-21.

Garcia, Francisco, S.J. The Life and Martyrdom of the Venerable Father Diego Luis de San Vitores of the Society of Jesus, First Apostle of the Mariana Islands and Events of These Islands from the Year Sixteen Hundred and Sixty-Eight Through the Year Sixteen Hundred and Eighty-One. Translated from Spanish by Margaret M. Higgins, Felicia Plaza and Juan M.H. Ledesma and edited by James A. McDonough. Mangilao, GU: University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, 2004.

Hattori, Anne P. “Culture of Guam.” Every Culture. (Accessed 18 June 2012)

Kasperbauer, Carmen A. “The Chamorro Culture.” In Hale’-ta – Kinalamten Pulitikåt: Siñenten Chamorro; Issues in Guam’s Political Development: The Chamorro Perspective. 1st ed. Hagåtña: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission, 1996.

Poehlman, J. “Culture Change and Identity Among Chamorro Women of Guam.” PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1979.

Political Status Education and Coordinating Commission. Hale-ta – I Magobetnå-ña Guahan: Governing Guam, Before and After the Wars. 1st ed. Hagåtña: Political Status Education and Coordination Commission, 1993.

Political Status Education and Coordinating Commission. Hale-ta – I Manfayi: Who’s Who in Chamorro History. Vol. 1. Hagåtña: Political Status Education and Coordinating Commission, 1995.

Political Status Education Coordinating Commission. Inafa’maolek: Chamorro traditions and values. Hagåtña: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission, 1996.

Russell, Scott. Tiempon I Manmofo’na. Ancient Chamorro Culture and History of the Northern Mariana Islands. Micronesian Archaeological Survey 32. Saipan, CNMI: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 1998.