Most used of plants
The coconut, called niyok in Chamorro/CHamoru and cocos nucifera scientifically, is undoubtedly one of the most important native plant foods in the Mariana Islands. Chief among other plants of primary importance to the original CHamoru people including taro, breadfruit, yams, sugarcane, bananas, mangoes, and lemons, coconuts are a staple of ancient, colonial, and contemporary CHamoru horticulture.
The coconut tree is the most used of all plants native to the Mariana Islands. CHamorus have learned to make use of every part of this tree and have been doing so for approximately 3,500 years. Requiring little to no effort, the coconut tree existed in rich abundance and the island’s first inhabitants took advantage of this.
The various parts of this plant are used in a myriad ways. The meat and juice of the coconut is used to meet nutritional needs. Coconut milk, squeezed from its grated fruit, is a popular ingredient in much of CHamoru cooking. From this can be made butter and oil, which can be either consumed or used as body and hair oil. Coconut juice, often drank directly from the coconut, is similarly popular. Fermented coconut juice, or tuba, is also popular among CHamorus and is sold especially in the southern village of Malesso. In addition, this juice can also be boiled to make molasses. Further, this can be spun to make palm sugar.
The meat of the coconut is eaten either just as it is or grated by means of a coconut grater known as a kamyo and is used in a wide variety of CHamoru food dishes. Grated coconut is often used in kẻlaguen dishes, a CHamoru specialty made with shrimp or chicken, grated coconut and lemon. It is also used to make coconut candy which is popular with children. The sweet coconut desert known as åhu is popular at various social functions such as rosaries and parties.
The sap from the tree can be used to make tuba, an alcoholic drink, or tuba vinegar.
In addition to this, the coconut itself has become part of various children’s games, the most popular being the coconut relay, in “which children in a line pass it under their legs down the line, trying to outpace the opposing team.
Coconuts are also common feed for local livestock. Old and hollowed coconut shells are used for many things including serving as a kind of cup or bowl and holding liquid. They are also fashioned as utensils such as spoons, cups, and handicrafts. The shells can also be used for starting and maintaining fires.
Further, they have been used as a dance implement in post-contact CHamoru performance art. Coconut fiber is commonly used to suspend objects such as shells, pendants, and beads. The shells are often used as bra cups.
The husk of the coconut can be used to decorate a centerpiece, polish a floor, or keep a fire burning. The wood and trunk of the coconut tree is used in hut construction.
Coconut leaves, young and old, are used in a variety of ways as well. New leaves can be used as wrappings for food such as rice or rice cakes. Older leaves can be used to make brooms. Leaves were woven in the past to serve as the roofs of houses. Beyond thatching, coconut trees were often used to build houses.
Young leaves are still commonly used to make everything from hats, baskets and fans to decorations and handicrafts. Young, yellowish leaves are also used in traditional CHamoru ceremonies. Importantly, the coconut tree and all its parts are still used today in all of these ways by contemporary CHamorus.
Each year, in the contemporary life of Guam’s people, coconut plants are harvested, from nuts to leaves, as students of CHamoru culture celebrate ‘CHamoru month.’ At this time, students across the island sharpen their focus on the ways of past generations and engage in more traditional activities, such as building and thatching huts and learning to weave arts and crafts.
Like CHamorus of old, such activities build community which serves to benefit the movement to perpetuate traditional knowledge on Guam. The coconut is central to the collective life of the CHamoru people, then and now.
For further reading
Cunningham, Lawrence J. Ancient Chamorro Society. Honolulu: Bess Press, 1992.
Gomoll, Larry E., ed. Plants of Guam. Mangilao: College of Agriculture and Life, Sciences, University of Guam, 1979.
Stone, Benjamin C. “The Flora of Guam. A Manual for the Identification of the Vascular Plants of the Island.” Micronesica 6, no. 1/2 (1970): 1-659.