Land inheritance

Ancient Chamorro people formed a matrilineal society and so inheritance and descent was through the mother’s family.  Land was communal property that the clan used for the benefit of the entire group.  The maga’låhi (chief or highest ranking male of the village) controlled the use of the land, and upon his death, his brother who was the next eldest male would inherit the property.  If he had no brothers, a nephew (who was the son of the maga’låhi’s eldest sister) would inherit the property.

The maga’låhi controlled much of the use of the land, but it was passed down through the women.

The son of the deceased did not inherit the property.  Instead, his sister’s son, or her nephew would become the maga’låhi, and he would take the name of the founder or chief of the clan. This was how the matrilineal system worked to preserve clan lands in the hands of the mother’s family.

Changes under colonial rule

The Spanish colonized Guam in the late 17th century and the Americans took control in the late 19th century. Both events changed the pattern of land-use practices. Properties were subsequently kept together or divided among the children within a nuclear family, as opposed to clans.  If there was enough land, siblings would share the land equally, but if there was not enough land for all the children, males were favored.  The youngest male child would inherit the family home if he cared for his parents until their deaths. Today a daughter often cares for her aging parents, but traditionally, the youngest son was expected to do this.

Spanish pattida

Under Spanish rule land was viewed as belonging to the individual family.  The Spanish word, partidos, is the customary practice of dividing land among children.  This practice of pattida, although adopted by the Chamorros, was not fully utilized as family members continued to keep the family land intact in accordance with the ancient Chamorro system of land inheritance.

When the father saw that his death was near, he would call all his children together.  With everyone present, he would tell them how the family land would be divided amongst them.  There was no argument or discussion among the children since it was the wishes of the father which were final.  This was the practice throughout Spanish occupation, although it was not followed by all Chamorros.

In some cases, the old Chamorro custom was still followed in that the land would remain in the family name, and be used by the entire family to generate income.  Each member would have a role to fulfill in terms of the division of labor.  The men would plant the crops and tend to the fields, while women would work with the harvest preparing it or getting it ready to store away.

American pattida

The American era in the beginning of the 20th century ushered in a new system of dividing family land, but again was not wholly practiced by the Chamorros.  In this system, the father would divide his estate equally among the heirs.  The larger land holdings were then broken into smaller plots based on individual families.  Dispite this different colonial system, Chamorros still had a way of maintaining family land for use for the good of the entire family.

By Art De Oro

For further reading

Brunal-Perry, Omaira. “Nineteenth Century Spanish Administrative Development in the Province of Guam.”  In: Guam History Perspectives, Vol. 1. Edited by Lee D. Carter, William L. Wuerch and Rosa Roberto Carter. Mangilao, GU: University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, 1997.

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

Cunningham, Lawrence L. “The Ancient Chamorros of Guam.” In: Guam History Perspectives, Vol. 1. Edited by Lee D. Carter, William L. Wuerch and Rosa Roberto Carter. Mangilao, GU: University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, 1997.

Freycinet, Louis Claude de Saulses de. An Account of the Corvette L’Uraine’s Sojourn at the Mariana Islands, 1819. Translated by Glynn Barratt. Saipan, CNMI: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation and the University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, 2003.

Sanz, Manuel. Description of the Mariana Islands, 1827. MARC Educational Series 10.  Translated by Marjorie G. Driver.  Mangilao, GU: University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, 1991.

Thompson, Laura M.  Guam and Its People: With a Village Journal by Jesus C. Barcinas. 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947.

Thompson, Laura M. The Native Culture of the Marianas Islands. Volume 185 of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum bulletin. Honolulu: The Museum, 1945.