Social ranking

The social ranking of individuals, whether by age, gender or social status, has always been important in Chamorro society.  In pre-Spanish times, social status dictated occupations and activities, living situations, marriage rules, social etiquette and taboos, and access to power, wealth and prestige in the form of control over land and ocean resources.   One’s status usually was dictated by the social rank of the family or clan into which an individual was born.

As with many other societies throughout Micronesia, traditional Chamorro society was divided into matrilineal clans comprised of family members that worked together to sustain and promote the interests of the group.  Clan alliances were continually forged or dissolved through activities of intermarriage or warfare in an effort to ensure access to resources on land and sea, as well as to increase social status.  Clan leaders were usually the oldest male and female family members (known as maga’låhi and maga’håga, respectively) whose age and experience not only obligated them to care for the welfare of the clan, but also afforded them a certain level of respect by younger clan members or from others of lower social status.  Councils composed of high-ranked men and women presided over the affairs of the clan, with power and authority arising from the lineage of women.

Castes vs. classes

Chamorro clans were divided into two distinct, ranked social castes.  Social castes are different from social classes in that individuals are born into a particular caste and their status, therefore, cannot be changed.  Social classes, on the other hand, are more fluid and members can move between classes.  The upper caste was known as chamorri, and the lower caste was known as manachang.   Movement in between these castes, such as through marriage, was prohibited.  Concubines or other relationships could be maintained only within one’s social class.   In addition, the chamorri caste was divided into an upper noble class called matao and a middle, or demi-noble class, known as acha’ot.

While the social stratification in Chamorro society was rigid, it is not entirely clear if the middle class acha’ot and the lower caste manachang comprised a commoner class, or if the middle class was a kind of lesser nobility.  It is suggested, however, that the acha’ot class had more in common with the matao, with some acha’ot having relatives of matao ranking, or who were once matao that were banished to the acha’ot class because of some cultural infraction.

Nevertheless, early accounts describe the chamorri and manachang as occupying separate settlement areas and engaging in specific activities and behaviors that befitted their particular places in the social hierarchy of Chamorro society.

In general, the upper caste chamorri occupied areas along the coast with easy access to the reefs, lagoons and the open ocean.  The manachang, by contrast, lived further inland in the hills and jungles of the islands.  The chamorri were warriors, fishermen, craftsmen, artisans and village leaders, while the manachang were servants and village laborers.  Although the manachang could not own land, they were not slaves and were still able to cultivate it and grow food for themselves as well as for the chamorri.

Fray Juan Pobre de Zamora, a Spanish Franciscan friar who lived among the Chamorros in 1602 prior to Christianization on the neighboring island of Rota in 1602 for several months, pointed out this situation and described the good treatment of the manachang by the chamorri and the deep respect the manachang had, in turn, for the upper class.  The Jesuit missionary Fr. Diego Luis de San Vitores in 1668 also described the esteem the commoners had for their aristocracy, including the distinctions between upper, middle and lower lineages.

By the time of French explorer Louis Claude de Freycinet’s arrival in 1819, much had changed in the Mariana Islands under Catholic and Spanish colonial rule.  However, Freycinet included in his account of the native islanders a description of the traditional social customs related to caste, class and social status, such as deferential behaviors of manachang in the presence of matao and taboos on specific cultural activities.

More recent descriptions based on Freycinet’s account of traditional Chamorro social structure continue to emphasize the specific behaviors and dynamics between individuals of the different social castes and classes, but they also pay attention to the shifting power dynamics and the emergence of new social class structures from the influence of Spanish colonialism and the Catholic Church.

This includes the rise of the principalia and eventually the mannakhilo’ as a new social class of high ranking individuals and families, and the mannakpåpa’, or low-ranking social class.  Unlike traditional social rankings based on matrilineal lines of inheritance, the rankings of mannakhilo’ and mannakpåpa’ were more representative of political and economic affiliations with Spanish administrators, church officials, and later, the American naval government.

By Dominica Tolentino

For further reading

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

Driver, Marjorie.  Fray Juan Pobre in the Marianas 1602.  MARC Miscellaneous Series, no. 8.  Mangilao, GU: University of Guam, 1993.

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.

Political Status Education Coordination Commission. Hale’-ia: I Ma Gobet-na Guam: Governing Guam Before and After the Wars. Hagatna, Guam. 1994.

Russell, Scott. Tiempon I Manmofo’na: Ancient Chamorro Culture and History of the Northern Mariana Islands.  Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands: Division of Historic Preservation, 1998.

Spoehr, Alexander. Saipan: The Ethnology of a War-Devastated Island. Saipan, NMI: Division of Historic Preservation, 2000.

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