Mother of the Chamorro people
Fo’na is the female protagonist of the Chamorro/CHamoru creation myth. In the story, Fo’na (also spelled Fu’una) along with her brother Puntan (also spelled Pontan) devise a plan to use their bodies and spirit to create and bring life to earth and mankind. She uses her spirit, at his request, to divide her brother’s body parts to create the earth and the heavens. She also brings life to flora and fauna. Afterwards, when Fu’una sees that her brother’s request is fulfilled, she throws her body into the earth and transforms into what is now known as Lasso’ Fu’a (Fouha Rock). From this rock sprouted the first humans.
Although there are several variations of the origin myth, this narrative tale passed on through oral tradition, explains how the ancient Chamorros viewed the world and what they valued. When early Catholic missionaries asked the Chamorros who created the heavens and the earth, they received several answers. The Chamorros told the missionaries that their ancestors made the universe, resonating the key Chamorro value of the interdependence of humans and nature, of man and woman, and of relatives. They also believed that a woman gave birth to the land and sea, and all that they could see.
The birth of Chamorro culture and the Mariana Islands
The Mariana Islands have been inhabited at least 3,500 years by seafaring people believed to have sailed from Southeast Asia. By the time the first European explorers arrived in the islands in the mid-1500s, Chamorro culture and society was already well established. Archeological studies confirm that Chamorro language and culture are Austronesian in origin. Austronesia refers to a region that comprises much of the Pacific and southeast Asia, and extends as far as Madagascar off the coast of the African continent. There is great cultural diversity within Austronesia, but many cultures – including the culture and society of the Chamorro people- are matrilineal and practice a form of ancestral worship.
Ancient Chamorros belonged to their mother’s clan. Name, wealth, and titles were inherited through the woman’s side. A man could not become a maga’låhi (chief) just because his father was one. Men inherited this status from their mother’s brother. Matrilineal clans were the basic unit in ancient Chamorro politics. Each controlled a specified area, and rank by seniority was very important. Within the clan, the matrilineage that was closest to the ancestral mother was oldest, and therefore received the most respect.
Women in ancient Chamorro society were treated with special status and consulted on all major decisions. The women exerted considerable influence, especially because decisions were based on consensus. For example, no one would help a man in an argument, however the whole tribal clan will side with a woman. If one sought the help of a male relative, he would come by himself. If one sought out the highest-ranking woman in the family, the whole family, including in-laws, were required to help.
The ancient Chamorros also engaged in ancestor worship. In early missionary accounts, there are descriptions of Chamorros keeping the skulls of their dead in special places in their homes. These skulls were the physical embodiment of their ancestor’s spirit (anti), and would be treated with signs of respect and also prayed to in order to request help or favors.
From the ancient Chamorros’ perspective, however, ancestors were not thought of as gods – creators with supreme powers and the source of moral authority. Their veneration of their aniti, rather, was an extension of basic human relationships from this world to the supernatural world.
First female leader
Fu’una and Puntan, however, stand out because they are pivotal in the Chamorro understanding of the creation of the universe and the origin of the Chamorro people. Fu’una is the giver of life and the mother of the Chamorro civilization. In this sense, she is the first female leader and ancestor of the Chamorro people. While there are no records or evidence for veneration of Puntan as a god, the Chamorro people did pay special homage to Fu’una.
Although Jesuit missionary Father Diego Luis de San Vitores recounted the story of Puntan and Fu’una, he declared that neither was as given “any worship or visible ceremony.” However, Fray Antonio de los Angeles, the first missionary who lived among the Chamorros in Guam from 1596-1597, reported that the Chamorros “believed they are born of a rock – whence they all go each year for a fiesta.” This is undoubtedly a reference to Fouha Rock. In these fiestas, there would be presentations of gifts such as seeds, fishing implements and rice cakes. The blessed rice cakes would be kept and used to cure sick people back in their home villages. These celebrations would also include the recitation of the story of creation, among other stories, from memory. The individuals who could sing or tell the most verses were lauded for their skill.
The story of Fu’una and Puntan is one of the most enduring oral traditions, although it is not well known, even among many contemporary Chamorros. It is only recently that this story of creation has received attention along with other features of ancient Chamorro society, religion, language and culture. From the story of Puntan and Fu’una, both scholars and cultural enthusiasts alike have explored ways in which the two spirits are relevant for our understanding of Chamorro culture and society. What follows are examples that illustrate how oral traditions are often more than mere stories, but rather, are reflections of culture and the people who engage these stories as part of their heritage.
In ancient Chamorro society the family consisted of a lineage that was traced through women. This may be one reason as to why Fu’una is the active participant in the creation story versus her brother who is equally vital but conveyed in a more passive tone. From this family comes the first maga’låhi (male leader) and first maga’håga (female leader). The maga’låhi and maga’håga in Chamorro society are the eldest male and female children of a clan/village leader. Dr. Robert Underwood, professor emeritus and University of Guam President, noted that this form of organization denotes the influence of the Chamorro matrilineal society as well as gender equity. Fu’una also uses her own power to create life, thus emphasizing the unique power of women to give birth.
Language and symbolism
Like the other Austronesian languages, Chamorro is primarily oral, with no written form or ancient orthography. Chamorro cultural specialist Leonard Iriarte, who has extensively researched ancient Chamorro language that predates Spanish influences (known as Fino’ haya) adds that the allegorical language and intricate prose used to describe Puntan and Fu’una and the creation story are significant.
In the story Puntan and Fu’una were in “infinite space” (the universe); this is thought to represent the journey through vast open sea without land or anything in sight. The siblings were born without a mother or father, which conveys the sentiment of starting anew in a land with none of their ancestors’ remains. Puntan’s character and role epitomized the role of Chamorro males in society and is an oral deed to the lands he has discovered and has provided for his people. Fu’una’s character and role in the story convey the role of women in Chamorro society and the matrilineal heritage from which it stems. According to Iriarte, these symbols and their meanings were utilized by the people to perpetuate their customs.
Iriarte further asserts that the siblings’ names reveal that Fu’una, which means first or the first, and Puntan, which means a coconut tree sapling in Chamorro language, are significant because a coconut sapling takes root after dropping from its mother tree and sometimes grows elsewhere.
In this way, Fu’una represents the first maga’håga to settle in the Mariana Islands and the mother of the Chamorro society. Her ability to be empowered by her brother and create the earth and the heavens with his body denotes matrilineal heritage. This matrilineal heritage is exhibited in the highly valued relationship of siblings and gender equity which is unique to Chamorro civilization. This equity can been seen in the Chamorro language in gender-free words such as che’lu (brother/sister) and asagua’ (spouse, husband or wife). Likewise, Puntan represents the first maga’låhi; the symbolism of the coconut sapling represents the beginnings of the Chamorro people taking root in a new land.
The brother/sister relationship between the Puntan and Fu’una can be used to explain the central value of interdependence between nature, man and woman, and relatives in ancient Chamorro society. Brothers and sisters helped to ensure the survival of the clan through providing for each other, nurturing children, and maintaining clan resources. This sibling relationship was, at times, more important than the relationship between husband and wife. Whereas spouses could divorce each other and end a marriage, the relationship between siblings was more more enduring.
The actions of Fu’una and her brother to work together also seems to emphasize the social value known as geftao. Geftao means giving and/or unselfishness in Chamorro. The spirit of geftao is exhibited through Puntan and Fu’una’s conception and execution of a plan on how to use their bodies and spirit to create life. Likewise, the Chamorro people practiced a communal effort in all that they did. In almost any endeavor big or small, such as harvesting crops, hunting and gathering, or building a house, everyone in a family or village took part in the task and the bounty.
Fu’una in contemporary Chamorro culture
Though Western society and the introduction of Christianity changed many practices of the Chamorro people throughout their history, today, there are people that still show tribute and praise to Fu’una through dance, chant, and pilgrimages emulating the ancient practice of pilgrimages to Lasso’ Fu’a (Fouha Rock) to have rice blessed and to pray and meditate.
Although most Chamorro households are comprised of a nuclear family, the extended family system still thrives in contemporary Chamorro culture, evident in large-sized gatherings for baptisms, marriages, and funerals. To this day, the oldest ranking-females are considered the matriarchs and are highly regarded. A review of Chamorro music throughout the decades reveals tributes to mothers, grandmothers, even elderly women.
As an ancient Chamorro mythical figure, Fu’una has influenced and inspired Chamorro women and society throughout history by the values that her story embodies, from the organizational patterns of men, women and children, to how they regard and care for each other. Fu’una’s legacy today lives in the people, land, water and air in the Islas Marianas (Mariana Islands), and for this reason Fu’una is given the gratitude and reverence as nana (mother) of Chamorro civilization.
By Celeste Perez
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.