Ancient CHamoru castes

Ancient CHamoru society was divided into three classes:

  • Matua or Chamori, the highest class
  • Acha’ot, the middle class
  • Manachang, the lowest class

The Matua controlled the most resources and lands and were the most politically powerful class. Historical accounts give us a clear image of their place in society, but less is known about the other two classes.

Politically, the people of the Mariana Islands had no centralized government, whether over the island chain as a whole or over any single island. Instead politics operated at the level of individual clans and villages.

Ancient CHamoru clans were collections of families that traced a similar maternal ancestor. The leader of a clan was the maga’håga (first daugher) who was the oldest and highest ranking woman in a clan. Her oldest sibling or son would be the maga’låhi (first son). The children and siblings of these leaders were the manmaga’låhi and manmaga’håga and together they oversaw the affairs of their clan. These positions were not set in stone however, as maga’låhi or maga’håga who proved themselves to be unfit as clan leaders could easily be replaced by someone else within the clan.

A village would be made up of a number of clans and each maga’låhi and maga’håga would be responsible for the affairs and holdings of their clan alone. It was the task of these leaders to decide where new villages would be started, who would marry whom, and where family members would live.

Skill and ingenuity brought status

All clans were not equal however, and a clan’s social position within a village depended upon the influence and prestige it could garner through the behavior of its leaders and their representatives. Political clout in ancient CHamoru society depended upon the amount of respect you were given by others. Thus displays of gineftao (generosity), or social responsibility in times of trouble, as well as great deeds in battle or creative ingenuity would increase the amount of respect and honor you and your clan was afforded socially.

To this end, members of clans would compete in different social activities such as warfare/fighting, mari (debate), history/storytelling, and Kantan Chamorita (improvisational singing). During large parties or ceremonies clan members would contend over who was the finest wrestler, who could hurl a spear or throw a slingstone with the best accuracy, or vanquish their opponent with their wit and knowledge of clan history or genealogy. The winners would gain more prestige in the eyes of their fellow villagers.

These competitions were conducted within villages, but also between villages. Sometimes these battles would be with words, where members of rival villages poked fun at the other. They would, sometimes however, be settled with weapons. Warfare between CHamoru villages was largely symbolic and ritualistic. The point of going to battle was to humiliate or outwit your opponent, not to slaughter or conquer them. Thus, just as clans competed within a single village to enhance their social position, villages also competed in similar ways.

By Michael Lujan Bevacqua, PhD

For further reading

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

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

I Manfåyi: Who’s Who in Chamorro History. Vol. 1. The Hale’-ta Series. Hagåtña: Political Status Education and Coordinating Commission, 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.