Editor’s note: This speech was presented at Guampedia’s Chamorro Heritage Series, 5 December 2012, Latte of Freedom Hall of Governors, Ricardo J. Bordallo Governor’s Complex, Adelup.

Early descriptions

SI NANA – this term brings powerful images and emotions to those who use the words or hear them spoken.  The words embody centuries of respect for the leadership, nurturing and creative abilities of women in Marianas society.

Our contemporary respect for women is living proof of the powerful role performed by our maga’haga’ (women’s lineage) over more than 3,500 years.  Historical proof of the power of women was written by early visitors and by Catholic missionaries who established their mission in the Marianas in 1668.  Ironically, it was perspectives of these Europeans that neglected to see or to report the full impact of maga’håga leadership in Chamorro/CHamoru society.

They reported the obvious material productions and the extraordinary or sensational activities of women as they perceived them.

Fray Juan Pobre described the women as being very skilled at making plaited mats which were used as mattresses, blankets, eating and food drying surfaces, as wrappers in which to present gifts, and to fashion into various kinds of hats.  These were made out of akgak (Pandanus tectorius) leaf, using right angle or diagonal plaiting styles. Other types of baskets and hats were made of coconut fronds. They made roofing thatch from nipa or pandanus leaves which were individually folded over a bamboo strip and sewn in place. Needles used to sew the thatch were probably made of bamboo.  Less durable, temporary thatch was made of mature coconut frond which was split down the middle and diagonally plaited.  A small container called katupat, used to cook individual portions of rice, was woven from a single immature coconut leaf in the shape of diamond or square.  After the little bags were woven, they were half filled with grains of rice and placed in boiling water.  The rice swelled to fill the cavity, making a convenient way to carry food for a journey.  This practice is also found in the Visayan Islands of the Philippines and in Indonesia, and is called by the same name.

While most fishing was done by men, women fished in shallow lagoons and tidal pools, feeling among the rocks and catching the fish by hand. They also gathered shellfish, molluscs, crabs and lobsters from the reef.

In the Chamorro system of matrilineal inheritance, a woman’s children, because they belonged to her clan, would have a close, loving relationship with her brother–their uncle (mother’s brother).  A man’s eldest sister as well as his mother’s eldest sister were held in high esteem because their children were in the line of inheritance after his younger brothers.

The fact that the women had great power in Chamorro society is documented in the following examples:

In each family the head is the father or elder relative, but with limited influence.  Thus, a son as he grows up neither fears nor respects his father.  As with brute animals, the father has this advantage: he has the place where he gives them their food.  In the home it is the mother who rules, and the husband does not dare give an order contrary to her wishes or punish the children, because if the woman feels offended, she will either beat the husband or leave him.  Then if the wife leaves the house, all the children follow her, knowing no other father than the next husband their mother may take.

… if a man leaves his wife, it costs him a great deal, for he loses his property and his children.  But women can do this at no cost, and they do it often out of jealousy, because if they suspect some unfaithfulness, they can punish them in various ways.  Sometimes the aggrieved woman summons the other women of the village.  Wearing hats and carrying lances they all march to the adulterer’s house.  If he has crops growing, they destroy them.  Then they threaten to run him through with their lances.  Finally they throw him out of his house.  At other times, the offended wife punishes her husband by leaving him.  Then her relatives gather at his house and they carry off everything of value, not even leaving a spear or a mat to sleep on.  They leave no more than the shell of the house and sometimes they destroy even that, pulling it all down.  If a woman is untrue to her husband, the latter may kill her lover, but the adulteress suffers no penalty.

Francisco García, SJ

Upon reaching puberty a young man became uritao (bachelor) and moved to his mother’s clan, under the supervision of his mother’s brother.  He moved into the guma’ uritao, or “bachelor’s house” of the clan, which served as his home from the time of puberty until his marriage.  The uritao carried walking sticks which they called tuna [tunas – meaning straight] which were “curiously carved and colored with the root of a plant called mangu [ turmeric].  At the head of this they affix through a hole three streamers half a yard in length made from the soft bark of the trees with heavy threads in the form of tassels,” (García, [1683] 1994: 408). 

An account by Gonzalo de Vigo [1526] who stayed in the islands for four years, describes the use of the sticks as he observed:

One custom they have in these islands is that all the unmarried men who are ready for women carry two rods in the hand [R. Lévesque says, “Oviedo, quoting Urdaneta himself, says that the lads carried one, not two, small rods that were painted, or white”].  All of them, men and women, generally carry with them, and always so along the footpaths, some mat baskets, very well crafted, and inside them they carry the pinanco [betel wad] that I have said they ate earlier.  The bachelor Indians who carry the rods have such a freedom that they may enter the house of whatever married Indian whose wife pleases them and make use of her for whatever they like in complete confidence.  If by chance, at the time the lad wants to come in, the husband happens to be at home, then, as soon as the other enters, the pinanco baskets are swapped, the husband goes out, and the lad stays inside.  The husband cannot go home until he learns that the other one has left.

These accounts tend to give an extreme example, although one which was observed on more than one occasion.  There undoubtedly was respect and love among husbands and wives as well as between children and their father.  The tenderness Fray Juan Pobre observed with which both parents disciplined their children is an example of the balance created by this type of social structure.  This passage, however, points out that men lost a great deal when their wives left them, and it would cost his clan dearly to gather wealth for another bride price should he wish to remarry.  Therefore, husbands tended to treat their wives with respect, and his family encouraged his good behavior because of their stake in the marriage as well.  Fray Juan’s earlier reference stated that the man gives the woman a dowry, which can be construed as a bride price, except that there is no return of the valuables if she decides at any time to leave her husband.  In addition, he provides a house for her on his clan land, to which they move when they marry.

Descriptions of men and women repeatedly state that the natives were virtually naked:

They go naked, and some are bearded and have black hair that reaches to the waist.  They wear small palmleaf hats, as do the Albanians.  They are as tall as we, and well built.  They have no worship.  They are tawny, but are born white.  Their teeth are red and black, for they think that is most beautiful.  The women go naked except that they wear a narrow strip of bark as thin as paper, which grows between the tree and the bark of the palm, before their privies.  They are goodlooking and delicately formed, and lighter complexioned than the men; and wear their hair which is exceedingly black, loose and hanging quite down to the ground.  The women do not work in the fields but stay in the house, weaving mats, baskets, and other things needed in their houses, from palm leaves.  They eat cocoanuts, camotes, birds, . . . [bananas], sugarcane, and flying fish, besides other things.  They anoint the body and the hair with cocoanut . . . oil.  Their houses are all built of wood covered with planks and thatched with leaves . . .; and they have floors and windows.  The rooms and the beds are all furnished with the most beautiful palmleaf mats.  They sleep on palm straw which is very soft and fine. . . . (Nowell, 1962 [1521]: 130)

The description of the Chamorro practice of coloring their teeth red or black was a reference to their chewing of betel leaf (Piper betel), areca (betel) nut (Areca catechu), and quicklime, which produces a bright earthy red juice and stains the mouth red.  Over time the juice stains the teeth black.  Archeological research has found a few examples of blackened teeth with incised decorations.  An account from the Loaysa expedition in 1526 stated that Chamorros blackened their teeth with the sap of a certain plant.  Dutch Jesuit priest Father Pierre Coomans described the process of staining a woman’s front teeth which was practiced in the 1670s:

In order to do this, they spend some sweat; they mix black coloring with some gum to make it long lasting.  They often reserve an entire day to anoint that one tooth; nevertheless, this care and above all this time, taken for this unction will take up as many as 14 days, during which time the teeth must not touch anything.  That is why they suffer a continuous torment, with only a funnel, to give sustenance to their body, so as not to die.  When the effect has been obtained, the neighbors and friends organize a formal feast, as if as many Ethiopians as teeth had come into the world. (Lévesque, [Coomans, 1673] 1992, VI: 75)

The Loaysa account of 1526 further elaborates on the description of the natives:

The men have good and hard bodies.  They walk around naked in the flesh, exhibiting their natures, the women as well as the men, except that the women cover their privy parts in front with some tree leaves in the following manner, by tying a string around their waist and from that string they hang the leaf that swings from side to side in front of their nature.  Because sometimes the wind carries away that leaf, they always carry other leaves as spares.  Both women and men wear their hair very long and loose. (Lévesque, [Urdaneta, 1535] 1992, I: 467)

Sancho, a shipwreck survivor, told Fray Juan about the customs of the people . . . as he observed them in 1602, including the following comment:

. . . The men like their hair to be very black; the women, however, have very flaxen hair, which is naturally so since they do not use lye nor bleaches to make it blonde, unlike the sad and miserable women in our country who are not content with what God has given them. (Driver, [1602] 1983: 207)

Since Pigafetta’s account states that both the men and women wore their hair long and black, it must be assumed here that the “flaxen-haired” women of 1602 were practicing a fashion of that particular period, 80 years later.  Father Pierre Coomans’ description of the 1670s describes the way women bleached their hair:

They anoint the whole head and their hair with a mixture of lime and oil, then expose themselves to the burning rays of the sun at noon, for hours, rather, for days on end.  Whenever the head is burning hot, they sprinkle it with sea water, if you look at it, you show your appreciation. (Lévesque, 1992: VI: 75)

It is believed that women practiced the art of healing as suruhånus with herbs and massage, while the position of makahna, one who intervened on behalf of the spirits for healing and other assistance, was generally held by men.

These descriptions of the Chamorro people span a period of over 150 years, beginning with Pigafetta’s account of 1521 and encompassing Garcia’s writing which described the early missionization period of 1668 to 1681.  An analysis of the various descriptions can give us a general picture of continuity and change within the culture over several generations, during the time when Westernization had not yet changed practices to a great extent.

To summarize, the general consensus throughout these accounts was that Chamorros were generally light-skinned, the men being darker than the women because of their exposure to the sun.  They were generally robust and healthy people, who were somewhat larger than the average European.  Although hair fashions changed, accounts throughout this period emphasize that blackened teeth were considered beautiful.  It is not clear whether men also consistently blackened their teeth throughout this time span, although constant betelnut chewing would create this effect in both sexes.  By 1670, it seemed to be a prevalent practice among women, although that does not rule out men from also participating.  Observations in 1521 described both men and women as wearing their hair very long and black.  Beginning in 1602, women were observed with bleached hair, a practice that persisted until at least 1670.

Throughout this time span, men were described as being completely naked.  Women were sometimes described as naked, but usually were observed wearing at minimum a leaf (tifi) attached to a cord around their waist, or a piece of paper thin bark (gunot) which covered their private parts.  In 1596 they were observed wearing a piece of matting which covered them from the waist down.  The use of turtle shell plates as an apron suggests that status determined some forms of body adornment.  Fragrant flower garlands for women and the use of coconut oil for both sexes indicate that smell as well as visual enhancement of the body was valued.

Art as practiced in the Marianas

Art, as defined in the Western tradition, does not exist in many Pacific societies.  In the Western tradition, art is set aside from daily life, placed in museums, performed in elite venues, hung on walls and bound in books.  Artistic productions by Pacific peoples were historically not categorized as separate from other facets of their lives, and appear in the form of utilitarian productions, ritual objects, exchange valuables and in oratory, song, dance and poetry.  Additionally, tattoo, body painting, masks, and body ornamentation serve important functions in the cultural context of each particular society.

A cross-cultural definition of art which encompasses all the productions described above is “the concern for elaboration far beyond the point justified by the functions of conveying mere information, the concern to display mastery within the rules of the medium, the concern for endless repetition of a simple message in ever more elaborate, ever more beautiful terms” (Forge, 1979: 283).

In anthropological terms, art is “any cultural form that results from creative processes that use or manipulate words, sounds, movements, materials, scents, or spaces in such a way that they formalize the nonformal in much the same way as poetry intensifies the formulation of language” (Kaeppler, 1992: 313).

“In general, the peoples of Micronesia have not been noted for their artistic accomplishments and most of their material objects are routinely utilitarian.”  The carving of canoes and wooden tackle boxes, the weaving of complex designs into tër (lavalava), and the beauty of intricate lashings on houses and canoes combine great skill with aesthetic sensitivity.  This transforms the commonplace into aesthetic objects which enrich this world because they are beautiful (Steager, 1979: 347).

Overview of Marianas arts and artifacts

The most visible and well-known prehistoric artifact in the Marianas is the latte monolith.  Ruins of these stone columns consisting of a pillar and cup-shaped capstone grouped in parallel sets can be found in sites throughout the Marianas.  The houses which were constructed on top of these stone foundations were described by Miguel López de Legazpi in 1565, when he stopped in Guam and claimed the Mariana Islands for Spain:

Their houses are tall, well built and finished, raised one level above the ground on top of some big stone pillars, and upon those they build the granary and have their living room, with rooms and divided areas on either side of the living room. Their sleeping areas are matted like [our] camp beds.  As for their high attics where they store their household and personal effects, and the small windows in their rooms, everything is well crafted, something worth seeing because they are made without any tools.

Beads of various shapes have been found–perforated through the center of a round section of cone shell or at each end of a cone shape. Rectangular and tubular shapes have also been found.  An especially interesting Pre-latte site for the study of ornamental objects is Chalan Piao, located on the west coast of Saipan.  Conus shells were the primary material found in excavations of the Pre-latte Period.  Disk-shaped beads, rings, armlets and bracelets were made, some which retained elements of the original shell while others were highly polished

Numerous disk beads varying in diameter from less than a half centimeter and smaller have been recovered from Chalan Piao and other Pre-latte sites in the Marianas.  Comparison of these beads to those manufactured in the Caroline Islands south of the Marianas in historic times indicate that the disks were strung on fiber cord in either uniform sizes or graded from small to larger beads at the center of a strand. These were possibly used as exchange valuables among Micronesian societies.

The use of Spondylus shell became more prevalent during the Latte Period (Circa 900 BC – 1690 AD).  Although rare, contemporary artists have reported finding this orange-colored spiny molluscs on Guam beaches, and they do grow in certain bays.  Burial excavations dated to the Latte and Early-contact Periods indicate that the shell was used as women’s decoration, probably indicating high status and wealth.  A particular burial excavated at Ipao was dubbed by the archeological team as “the Princess of Ipao” because of numerous Spondylus beads located on her cranium, throat and in strands from the waist, suggesting that she wore a fiber belt or apron decorated with the beads. Additionally, she was flanked by two “warriors,” one who had a spear point imbedded in his shoulder.  The Ipao burial also showed that Spondylus disks were paired according to size and shape so that the concave disks faced each other in a string, with graded sizes from smallest at the back to largest being at the center of the necklace.  An Early-contact Period burial excavated at the Hafa Adai Beach Hotel site in Saipan revealed a female with a belt encircling her lower waist made of large Spondylus disks.  Their position indicated that they were probably affixed to a fiber belt.  Above this strand, encircling the waist, was a belt of smaller Spondylus beads.  A survey of latte sites in Guam yielded a pendant fashioned from the lip area of the Spondylus shell, triangular in shape, with the base filed into a scalloped edge.

A rare account of women’s body adornment collaborates the findings of archeologists and provides some additional information:

The women have their special feasts, for which they adorn themselves with ornaments on their foreheads, some of flowers like jasmine, and some of valued trinkets and tortoiseshells, hung from a string of red shells that are prized among them as are pearls among us, and of which they make also some waistbands with which they gird themselves, hanging around them some small, well-formed coconuts on some string skirts made of tree roots, with which they finish their costume and adornment, and which seems more bird-cage than dress. (Lévesque, 1992: V: 68)

Spondylus shells have been described in various accounts as red, orange or pink.  Although these descriptions are from outsiders, it is worth noting here that the word red, agaga’ in Chamorro, is used to describe a variety of warm colors.  For example, the yolk of an egg is called agaga’, as is the blood red of a hibiscus flower or the embarrassed blush on one’s face.  It is one of the few colors which retain the indigenous Chamorro name rather than adopted Spanish designations, the others being white, apaka’, and black, atilung.  These are traditional colors used to paint canoes.

The thick hinge portion of the giant clam shell (Tridacna) measuring about three to five inches long and an inch thick has been found in burials.  It is shaped like a quarter moon (sometimes described as a canoe shape) with holes drilled at each end through which cords could have been attached.  Since it was of giant clamshell which is an extremely dense, strong material and usually reserved for making adzes, it may have been used as an exchange valuable.  This specific object has taken on significance in contemporary art, and is currently worn as a neck piece or incorporated into other Chamorro jewelry designs.  Written accounts do not describe their use at the time of contact.  Hans Hornbostel’s notes of 1924 state he was told that Governor Georg Fritz in Saipan (1904) found a series of 12 of these objects linked together by a fiber cord, which were taken to a Berlin museum.  Six huge objects, presently called Sinahi, were on display in the Berlin Museum für Volkerkunde  when I visited in 1998.  These fine specimens measure over 6 inches from tip to tip.

Missionary accounts tell about the value placed on turtle shell as an item of exchange to ensure peace between warring clans.  A chamorri (high class) woman displayed her wealth with Spondylus bead necklaces and by wearing a large plate of turtleshell as a tifi‘ apron, tied around her waist by cords attached through holes cut in the top and bottom of the shell.  The value of turtle shell depended upon the way it was obtained.  For example, a turtle caught on the beach was not as valuable as a turtle caught in the open ocean under more difficult circumstances.  All turtles were first presented to the highest woman of the clan who in turn presented it to the chief, who decided the value of the shell and marked it by cutting circular holes in the segments of shell.  Smaller holes had different meaning than larger holes, and the number of holes was also significant.  Smaller plates of such shells might have been used as pendants, while larger ones could have been used as tifi‘ for women or breastplates for men.  They could also have been used for ceremonial belts.

The holes cut from plates of turtle shell were used to make necklaces by punching a hole in the center and stringing the disks close together to form a cylindrical tube.  The length of the tube and the size of the disks determined the value of this necklace.  It could have also been used as a belt, as has been documented in the islands of the Carolines south of the Marianas.  In the Latte and Early-contact Periods regular trading voyages took place between the Marianas and these atoll islands, and turtle shell could have been an item of exchange between them.  The possibility that turtle shell was formed into little boxes is indicated in a brief account by a visitor to Guam in 1590, who described the offer of these apparently highly-valued objects in trade for a sword coveted by a group of Chamorros in canoes:

As it were, everybody wanted it [the sword] for himself and for this they offered me with signs all the water, fruits, fish and more.  One who thought he could get it for himself took out from below many mats and some curious little chests [Lévesque’s footnote says ‘they were called “agu” in Chamorro …and were probably made of tortoise shell’]. (Lévesque, II: 618, quoting the Boxer Codex of 1590)

Chamorros had shell money called ålas that was used for ceremonial exchanges and as an indication of wealth.  Spondylus and turtle shell were the main types of shells used as valuables.  The Louis de Freycinet account of 1829 records a type of ålas called guinahan famagu’on which was considered priceless.  It is described as a string of unpolished turtle shell disks of varying thickness which measured about one inch in diameter at one end and gradually increased to about six inches diameter at the other end.  The French de Freycinet scientific expedition that visited Guam in 1819 is the only source, which describes Chamorro exchange valuables.  They were helped by a very well-educated mestizo Chamorro named Luis de Torres, who apparently obtained the knowledge from elders of his time.  A drawing from the expedition contains an illustration of this guinahan famagu’on, which Freycinet apparently saw or collected.

Such post-dated information is open to question; but the explanations are so detailed and supported by illustrations, with information obtained from a native historian/ ethnographer, that I tend to give them credence.  Guinahan famagu’on literally translates as “children’s wealth,” and was given by a family to someone who had rescued or saved their child.  The rescuer had the right to accept the gift and thus re-establish reciprocal balance, or refuse it and become an honorary in-law.  The latter united both families and accorded the rescuer kinship rights to land and other favors.  Therefore, if the rescuer was of higher status than the child’s family, the precious guinahan famagu’on would probably be chosen, while a lower-status person would benefit more by becoming an honorary in-law.  One who gave a great gift of knowledge to a child, such as teaching him to be a navigator or makana, could also be offered the guinahan famagu’on.  It was worn by men on very special occasions, draped around the neck.

Stone artifacts of the Mariana islanders include latte, mortars, adzes, slingstones, grinding implements, net and line sinkers and others.

Among the most commonly seen artefacts on Guam are large stone mortars (associated with the Latte Period), called lusong, usually of dark grey igneous rock.  Types with a single grinding hole were the most common, although multi-holed forms were frequently seen…Several hundred were noted during the survey, (Reinman, 1977: 96).

These large heavy boulders and other smaller ones can be found today in isolated areas as well as in ranches and village yards.  There was probably at least one in every cooking or food preparation area at the time of contact, used for pounding or grinding rice and other foods. Lusong were also used to grind medicinal herbs.  Both practices are within the living memory of 20th-century Chamorros.  Elders at the Lanchon Antigo cultural village site in Inalåhan in the 1970s demonstrated how they used the lusong to pound rice when they were youngsters.  The ritual involved a rhythmic chanting in the ancient numbering system whereby two to four persons standing upright around the stone alternated the pounding in a single hole with long wooden pounders, “hacha, hugua’, tulo, fatfat, …”  Small portable mortars and stone pestles are still used for grinding medicinal herbs and for grinding betelnut for toothless elders to chew.

Bone artifacts include spear points, awls or pins, fishhooks, needles and other perforated objects.  Spear points made of both human bone and fish bone have been recovered from archeological sites.  The human bone spearpoints are intricately worked with two and sometimes three barbed edges.  Other than short fragments displayed in the Guam Museum and in private collections, the oldest surviving example of a human bone spearpoint is housed in the Museum für Volkerkunde in Berlin. It was collected in Saipan by German Governor Georg Fritz in 1904. One of three well-preserved human bone spearpoints which were found in Saipan in the 1980s had orange Spondylus shell inlay at its base.  The fine craftsmanship and use of Spondylus shows a sense of artistic pride in its creation as well as being an effective weapon.  An early missionary account published in 1683 describes the lethal nature of these weapons:

The arms they use are stones and lances are not tipped with iron but with long human bones.  These are sharpened to three or four points.  They easily pierce the flesh, and then some of the points break off, and remaining in the wound, inevitably cause death. (Garcia, [1683] 1994: 170)

No known accounts exist which explain the rituals for disinterment involved in collecting long bones for making spearpoints.  An account by Father Coomans (1667-1673) mentions that bodies were buried on their backs with the legs extended upwards, close to the surface.  The leg bones could be recovered later on, by pulling on a rope that had been fastened to the ankles at the time of burial. The custom of burying bodies near the home existed to prevent their enemies from “getting at the leg bones of the dead (to make spear points)” (Lévesque, [Coomans, 1673] 1992: V: 18, 49).

Archeological reports point to the large number of pottery sherds found in latte sites throughout the Marianas. Pottery was made in the Marianas in the Pre-latte Period (1755 BC to AD 800) as well as the Latte Period (AD 800 to 1521), which would indicate that pottery making stopped before the missionary period [beginning in 1668].  Missionary accounts do not mention pottery making.  Recent archeologists designate four major cultural periods based on changes found in pottery construction and design.  These phases, described by Moore in 1983, are the Early Pre-latte Phase (1755 BC to 500 BC), the Intermediate Pre-latte Phase (500 BC to AD 1), the Transitional Period (AD 1 to AD 500-1000), and the Latte Period (AD 1000 to AD 1521).  Each period is connected to a distinct pottery style exemplified by changes in rim form, shape, wall thickness, decorative motifs and techniques through time.  The Pre-latte pottery is usually referred to as “Marianas Red” because of the red clay used in its production.  Pre-latte clay was tempered with coral sand and the pieces were more finely executed and decorated, although smaller, than the Latte Period.

Pre-latte pottery is characterized by small, thin-walled vessels with flat as well as rounded bottoms, occasional shoulders, and parallel-sided simple and everted rims.  A particular style of the Pre-latte period, beginning about 1755 BC, was the lime-impressed pottery, which had stamped impressions, usually of circles, lines and wavy patterns, into which quicklime was rubbed to create a white contrasting design.  This type of pottery can also be found in the central Philippines.  Pottery of the Latte Period, called “Marianas Plain” was tempered with black volcanic sand and generally was better fired but lacked the fine decoration, burnishing or slipping found in the earlier pottery.  Pieces were characterized by larger, heavier, round bottomed vessels with thickened simple and everted rims, which indicate they were used for cooking.  The larger jars were used for storing food and water.  Crosshatched designs found on Latte Period pottery were not lime-impressed, nor were they as finely executed.  Marianas Plain ware is characterized by unpolished smooth and roughened surfaces of combed, cord or paddle-marked textures.

Anthropologist Laura Thompson analyzed the Honolulu Bishop Museum’s Hornbostel collection of pottery sherds from Guam, Saipan, Tinian and Rota, and published the results in 1932.  Of the more than 1500 pieces in the collection, there were none that could be reassembled to form a complete pot.  However, her analysis of the pieces revealed patterns of design that can give us some idea of the ways designs were applied and of the designs in use at the time.  The impressions of plaited pandanus mats, showing both check and twill designs, have been found on some sherds. The fragments are too small to determine whether the impressions were made on the bottom of the pot as it rested upon a mat during construction, or if it was a more deliberate, overall pattern, indicating that clay was pressed into a basket mould.  Some pot rims are bordered with fingerprints, and double rows of curved marks have been made by fingernails across the surface of some potsherds.  The most common method of surface decoration consists of parallel lines or grooves incised over the exterior surface of the pot.  Most lines are vertical, and a few are curved, horizontal or crosshatched.  Anthropologists suggest that the change in pottery construction and design was a result of an increased population which accompanied the Latte Period, requiring the manufacture of many large storage jars and cooking vessels.  While earlier Pre-latte vessels were probably used as serving bowls as well as for ceremonial and exchange use, the roughly-finished Latte-period pottery may have been a response to utilitarian needs.

One sherd which was found in a plowed field in the Ajayan Bay area suggests that limited pottery production may have continued into the missionary period.  Etched into the fragment is a line drawing which looks like two human figures, wearing clothing indicated by fringe marks on each side of their bodies, and carrying a figure on a stand supported on their shoulders.  The figure in front is holding a staff with what may be a cross at the top, although the fragment breaks cleanly at the crossed position.  The style of drawing is not the same as anthropomorphic figures found in cave drawings, although there are some similarities.  An alternate interpretation of this drawing proposes that this was an ancient Chamorro funerary procession, with the figure on top being the deceased and the fringes of “clothing” being coconut leaf body decorations.

One material example of Chamorro art exists in drawings found in caves and rock shelters in Guam, Rota, Tinian and Saipan.  These drawings appear to have been painted with lime paste or charcoal on the rock surface.  The drawings show weapons, animals, and environmental features.  Frequently they seem to be action-packed drawings of human figures, drawn in a style that resembles Chinese characters. The age of these drawings has not been determined.

A recurring symbol in several sites shows what looks like a shield with a cross on it.  This might possibly indicate a Spanish shield or banner, which would place the drawings in the contact period.  Another symbol repeated several times is an ellipse with a horizontal line drawn through it. The Chugai cave in Rota shows a different drawing style of realistic-looking turtles, marlin and other figures drawn with black pigment on white limestone walls. From an artistic perspective, a series of line drawings in lime centered within a colorful mineral-leached ceiling area of a northern Guam cave suggest that the artist took special care in the aesthetic placement of these figures.

Celebrations and body adornment

The celebrations of the ancient Chamorros involved feats of physical skill, dancing, singing, and great debates with poetic recitations.  Food was always an important part of the festivities:

During the year, they get together at special times or for festive occasions.  These gatherings include not just the people of a particular village, but those of others as well, and they reciprocate with festivities and banquets, saving their salted fish for such occasions.  Two or three thousand people gather for some of these feasts, though usually not more than one or two hundred, possibly a thousand, depending upon the resources of the fiesta’s host.  They also get together to hold debates: those representing one side meeting in certain barn-like structures [kamarines], those of the other side, in others.  One debater will get to his feet and begin to argue, or to make up ballads, or to poke fun at those across from him, who are from another village.  When the first group has finished, someone from the opposing side gets up and begins to argue against the first side.  In this fashion, as I have said, people from many villages get together to debate from eight o’clock in the morning until two in the afternoon, when they eat.  Some individuals bring food, but the usual thing is for the people of the village where the gathering takes place to provide the food.  From these debates, animosities are apt to develop (as happens with all disputes) especially when they want to appear as if they know it all.  The wisest of the indios gather for these debates, some will have learned the skill, called mari, when very young.  These debates are the most spirited of all their events; consequently, dissensions arise, which result in one village challenging the other.  When this happens, they proceed to an agreed-upon spot, either quite peacefully or lunging at each other, then they skirmish with their slings, and sometimes they throw darts at each other.  Since I have been among them, I have seen several disputes, but all have been settled peacefully. (Quoting Fray Juan Pobre de Zamora, Driver, [1602] 1983: 211)

We do not know if the Chamorro word gupot was used in ancient times.  Used today, gupot means a gathering in which a large amount of food preparation and consumption is involved.  The ability to command and organize the successful presentation of an abundant food table determines and reaffirms the status of a family.  As is the case today, the gupot was probably used to mark a life cycle event such as a birth, a marriage or a funeral.  Father Coomans’ 1673 reference to the organization of a feast after a woman had undergone a teeth-blackening process indicates that this was an important event in a woman’s life.  The importance of mari (debate and poetry) in Chamorro society as shown in the above account may be another reason for such gatherings, where prestige was garnered by those who excelled in this art form.  García remarked in 1668 that “they admire poetry, and consider poets men who work wonders,” ([1683] 1994:169).  This love of debate and poetry, together with a tendency towards mockery, characterized Chamorros of the pre-colonial times, and can be traced to present-day practices.

Their festive activities are reported in more detail in an account from the Jesuit annual report for 1669 to 1670:

In their most ceremonious gatherings and solemn feasts, they eat rice, of which there is goodly abundance.  At their meals, they are very moderate; and at the feasts there are no excesses in eating or drinking, nor do they use any liquor that causes drunkenness, a thing that has impeded the introduction of the Faith and Christian customs into so many lands.  Their celebration on these occasions is nothing more than recounting their histories, wrestling, and throwing spears; and during these entertainments they pass about for refreshments some cakes of morisqueta, tamales [Editor’s note: some rice and corn cakes, respectively], fishes, coconuts, plantains, sugarcane, and, in place of chocolate, a drink made of atole [rice gruel] and grated coconut. The women have their special feasts, for which they adorn themselves with ornaments on their foreheads, some of flowers like jasmine, and some of valued trinkets and tortoise-shells, hung from a string of red shells that are prized among them as are pearls among us, and of which they make also some waistbands with which they gird themselves, hanging around them some small, well-formed coconuts on some string skirts made of tree roots, with which they finish their costume and adornment, and which seems more bird-cage than dress.  Twelve or thirteen [women] join together to form a circle, remaining in one place, singing in verses their histories and antiquities, with point and harmony of three voices, sopranos, contraltos, and falsettos, and with the tenor taken by one of the principal men, who attend these entertainments; and they accompany the singing by movements of the hands, with which they flourish some half-moons on the right, and on the left some boxes with bells and shells which serve them as castanets, and all this so rhythmically, and with slapping, and with actions so well suited to words that it causes no little admiration to see how quickly they learn the things they apply themselves to. (Lévesque, [quoting Jesuit annual report for 1669-1670] 1992: V: 6)

The materials used in the adornment of women for their dances included natural materials and trinkets, which could have been glass beads as mentioned in García’s version of this account.  The following passage, written by Father Coomans in 1673, is analyzed by Lawrence J. Cunningham, indicated by the bracketed portions with the initials – ‘ljc.’  This analysis discusses other exotic beads and their possible sources:

…they cover themselves from the naval down to the knee with a skirt, and they usually decorate themselves with some rather long nerves from leaves, then prepare wreaths with small flowers that look like hyacinths to place on their forehead, and they also add a precious-looking collar made of discolored glass beads [ljc – keep in mind that Chamorros had contact with Europeans for over 150 years in 1673], or if none are at hand, some local stones in any case yellow, but this they very rarely wear…[ljc – Lévesque’s footnote states:  This color could perhaps be translated as ‘yellowish,’ or ‘golden.’  The wife of a Carolinian chief, who had drifted to the Philippines about a decade earlier, carried such a collar of beads, described as made up of material unknown to Europeans, but resembling amber.  They are no doubt related to similar beads still preserved in Palau, but by no means unique to those islands then.  (ljc – Palauan women, of high status, still wear these.  The large bead looks like yellow plastic but it is a natural substance not found in Palau…)]  On their chest, as well as on the back, they hang some tortoise shell, with some small pieces of coconut shells artistically crafted…[ljc – Lévesque’s footnote states:  The expression ‘as well as’ could also be translated ‘rather and.’  I think that Father Coomans is describing two pairs of half-coconut, or pieces of tortoise shells tied both on the chest and on the back of a dancer.  A similar coconut-shell dance is still performed in the Philippines today.  In any case, the shells on one’s back are used by one’s partner in a dance, to make rhythmic noise.]  Through the left arm they slip in a piece of wood in the shape of a half moon, and from the fingers of the right arm hang…some castanets,…[ljc – Lévesque’s footnote states:  I imagine that some small stick was tied to each right-hand finger, and the fingers tapped upon the wooden half-moon on the left arm. (ljc – other accounts say the castanets were lots of shells tied to a stick that was rhythmically shaken.)]  (Cunningham, 1998a: 3-4)

Women’s use of pendants on their foreheads, which hung from a string of red beads, supports the use of Spondylus beads as found on the cranium in burials mentioned earlier.  The “Princess of Ipao” burial showed strings of Spondylus from the waist, indicating that they were affixed to a fibre cord or perhaps a plaited apron.  The use of turtle shell has been noted in many accounts, as an exchange valuable as well as for adornment.  This material would have decayed relatively quickly in a burial, so we do not have archeological evidence of its use as ornaments.  “Pendants of small coconuts beautifully arranged” could indicate anything from the small buds on the coconut flower, to the daddek [immature coconut without meat or water] which could range from acorn size to that of several inches in diameter.  Since they were described as pendants they were probably arranged in strings of various patterns and sizes.  The description of the skirt as being made of hanging roots of trees that “looked more like a cage than a dress” is open to wide interpretation.  Perhaps they were the aerial roots of the banyan tree, which range in thickness from that of course hair to that of thick rope.  However, it was noted that the skirt didn’t hide the body, but looked more like a cage through which the body could still be seen. Further attempts at interpretation based on the scant but intriguing description would only be conjecture.

The description of the women’s dance is quite detailed as far as movement.  The purpose of their dance was to repeat their legends and other ancient beliefs, using rhythm and hand motions to reinforce the words of the songs.  Measured time and swaying movements while the dancer remained in place would indicate a rather slow, graceful dance.  However, the remark about the liveliness with which they performed allows for possible variation in tempo, and the vague mention of slapping further increases the rhythmic possibilities.  The small boxes which they shook to keep time could be made of woven material, or carved from wood.  The sound produced by these different materials would be distinctly different, so that interpretation of the dance is open to many variations.  It is possible that Spanish castanets had already influenced rhythmic instruments. It is interesting to note that the singing was in three-part harmony, a practice that seems to have carried through in the surviving song-verse making genre.

The status women in society is given substance in the fact that the death of “a chamorri or of a well known matron” caused similar expressions of grief pointed to the high status of women in Chamorro society.  Women, especially if they were among the oldest in the clan, had important roles in funeral and other rituals.  In addition to key roles in rituals, women were the makers of mats and other containers used, for example, in funeral wrapping and rice presentation.

The practice of laying pieces of tree bark or of painted paper on top of the body is significant.  Material of this kind has not survived, so this documentary notation is the only evidence we have that Chamorros made some type of bark cloth.  Tapa, made from the paper mulberry tree inner bark found in Polynesia is not found in Micronesia.  However, there is evidence that a form of bark cloth was made from the breadfruit tree in the islands of Chuuk (formerly called Truk), five hundred miles south of Guam.  There is evidence of trading between these two areas, so the technique was probably known to the Chamorros.  Furthermore, the “paper” was painted, indicating a decorated type of bark cloth.  Women who used this paper in funerary ceremony could also have been involved in painting them.


This reconstruction of Chamorro life at the time of early contact provides a picture of their daily practices and beliefs.  It also gives us a look at their material culture, their technology, and their ways of celebrating and commemorating important events in their lives.  I have tried to tease out from these descriptions what role women had in the production of art.  With the evidence available to us we know that women played a significant leadership role in ancient Chamorro society.  We can therefore surmise that they also had the freedom within that society to express their creativity in whatever way they chose.  It is recorded that women worked in the home, producing finely-woven mats, baskets and other objects that were admired for their beauty beyond mere utilitarian use.  We know that they had dances specific to women for which they adorned themselves with Spondylus, turtle shell and flowers.  We do not know if women practiced the art of making the stone, bone and shell ornaments that we today admire and replicate in their honor.  Their society produced large quantities of clay pots and cooking vessels for ritual and utilitarian use.  Surely the women had a role in this production, but there is no written documentation to describe what they did.  They chanted the personal histories of deceased members, from which we can assume that they passed on the history of their people through storytelling and songs.  We are told that the people greatly admired the poets among them, who used their talents of spontaneous call-and-response impromptu verse to bring honor to their clan.  It is safe to assume that women as well as men were honored for these talents.

A recognized “neo-Chamorro” society has survived from ancient times.  Artistic elements from that ancient society have survived through continued use or adaptation through new methods or materials.  Today we honor our women of Guam for traditional art forms that they have perpetuated and perfected with their own talents and skills.  Pandanus and coconut leaf weavers Elena Benavente, Dolores Paulino, Lucia Torres, Rosabella Quinata, Maria Crisostomo and Floren Paulino are among those who have been officially honored for their exceptional skills.  Rosita San Nicolas is the one woman recognized for her skill in weaving shrimp traps from bamboo.

Kantan Chamorita singers kept the skills of spontaneous verse-making alive through the voices of Angelina Camacho, Marcella Aguon, Lourdes Taitague, Maria Crisostomo, Asuncion Cruz and others.  Storyteller Clotilde Castro Gould used her talents to inspire a wide following of today’s storytellers who include many women of all ages.  Suruhanas (healers) and Techas (prayer leaders) are recognized in every village and parish for their respective skills in physical and spiritual healing.

Yet to be recognized are the present generation of artisans who are honoring their heritage by reproducing objects from ancient Chamorro art, based on artifacts and historical references.  While this art has been dominated by men, Jill Quichocho Benavente is one woman who shares her talents in working with stone, bone and shell with many younger men and women.  SI NANA continues to embody centuries of respect for the leadership, nurturing and creative abilities of women.

By Judy Flores, PhD

For further reading

Amesbury, Judith R., Darlene R. Moore, and Rosalind L. Hunter-Anderson. “Cultural Adaptations and Late Holocene Sea Level Change in the Marianas: Recent Excavations at Chalan Piao, Saipan, Micronesia.” In Indo-Pacific Prehistory: The Chiang Mai Papers. Proceedings of the 15th Congress of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 5-12 January 1994.

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, 1989.

Forge, Anthony. “The Problem of Meaning in Art.” In Exploring the Visual Art of Oceania. Australia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Edited by Sydney M. Mead. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 1979.

García, Francisco. The Life and Martyrdom of Diego Luis de San Vitores, S.J. Translated by Margaret M. Higgins, Felicia Plaza, and Juan M.H. Ledesma. Edited by James A. McDonough. MARC Monograph Series 3. Mangilao: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 2004.

Author’s full citation

García, F., SJ ([1683] 1994).  Life and martyrdom of the venerable Father Diego Luis De SanVitores of the Society of Jesus.  Madrid:  Ivan Garcia Infanzen.  Partially translated by Margaret Higgins.  First history of Guam. Guam Recorder, o.s., 13, 14, and 15 (Sept. 1936 – July 1939).  The Higgins translation was edited into a single unpublished volume by the Nieves M. Flores Memorial Library in Hagåtña, Guam, 1985.  Books 1,2, and Chaps. 1-4 of Bk. 3 of García’s history were also translated by Sister Felicia Plaza for MARC, 1980, with the unpublished manuscript in the RFT-MARC Collection.  Father McDonough (edited the complete Guam Humanities Council unpublished volume in 1994, from which the pages were referenced.

Kurashina, H. and Clayshulte, R.  Site formation processes and cultural sequence at Tarague, Guam.  Mangilao, Guam:  Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 1983.

Lévesque, Rodrigue. History of Micronesia: A Collection of Source Documents. Vols. 1-6. Québec: Lévesque Publications, 1992-1995.

Nowell, Charles E., ed. Magellan’s Voyage Around the World: Three Contemporary Accounts. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1962.

Kaeppler, Adrienne Lois. “Epilogue: States of the Arts.” Pacific Studies 15, no. 4 (1992): 311-318.

Reinman, Fred. An Archaeological Survey and Preliminary Test Excavations on the Island of Guam, Mariana Islands, 1965-1966. Mangilao: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 1977.

Spoehr, Alexander. Marianas Prehistory: Archaeological Survey and Excavations on Saipan, Tinian and Rota. Fieldiana: Anthropology. Vol. 48. Chicago: Chicago Natural History Museum, 1957.

Steager, Peter W. “Where Does Art Begin on Puluwat?” In Exploring the Visual Art of Oceania. Australia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Edited by Sydney M. Mead. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 1979.

Thompson, Laura M. Archaeology of the Mariana Islands. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin, No. 100.  Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1932.