Transmission of Christianity into Chamorro Culture
An interpretive essay: In the beginning
There is little doubt that Chamorros today live very different lives than Chamorros did 400 years ago, and have different ideas about what is and isn’t Chamorro culture. We would be hard pressed however, to find any culture which didn’t change drastically in some ways, over such a long period of time.
The past four centuries of Chamorro history are not simple, but rather at times, incredibly complex and violent, full of colonialism, war and genocide. Because of this history, it is common today amongst everyday people and academics to remark that “there aren’t really any Chamorros anymore” or that “there really isn’t any Chamorro culture anymore.” Surprisingly enough, these statements can be heard from Chamorros just as often as non-Chamorros.
In some accounts of Guam history, writers make a distinction between Chamorros who lived four centuries ago, and those that live today, by marking contemporary Chamorros with the label “neo,” or “neo-Chamorros.” The Chamorros of long ago are simply Chamorros, but those of today, because of their complex and tragic history are “neo-Chamorros.” The implications of the term are clear, the real Chamorros were here prior to European contact and colonization, the ones we find today in Guam are mixed up, hybrid, impure, the “neo” meaning new in the sense of “not being real.”
The most common explanation for this difference, this divide that separates Chamorros from their ancestors, is the colonization by the Spanish which began in the second half of the 17th century. During this period, Chamorros underwent their most violent and drastic transformation in recent history. This period began with the establishment of a Catholic mission in Guam, whose aim was to convert the Chamorro people and civilize them.
The subsequent decades that followed were marked by resistance and open warfare between Spanish priests and soldiers and Chamorros of all the Mariana Islands. At the end of this conflict, which has become known as the Chamorro-Spanish Wars, tens of thousands of Chamorros had been killed by war or disease, and thousands more had been forcibly relocated from their villages and islands into new settlements designed by the Spanish, where they were slowly forced to give up their way of life.
After this period, Chamorros became Catholics, intermarried with Filipinos, Spanish and Mexicans, adopted Spanish dress, dances, food and some language. The Chamorro, after this point, seemed to disappear, subsumed within a hybrid mix, in which the Spanish or Filipino parts become dominant, and no one is sure what is or isn’t Chamorro anymore.
How cultures change
It is a truism, an obvious fact which no one can deny, that all cultures change. We can see these in our lives, and in the history of all peoples attest to this fact as well. If this is true however, then it is also true that no culture is ever uniform or pure. If cultures are always changing, then there is never any original point, or clear original image of it, from which we can judge how real a culture still is, or how far from its original form it has been taken.
We can compare changes, from certain points in time, and discuss how these changes have taken place and why. But we can never pick a point in time and say that this point is the “true” form of said culture. Because if we do this, we imply that the true culture is only found at that point, and therefore any changes to this culture, automatically make it inauthentic or “not real.”
For many who believe that Chamorro culture today isn’t “real,” believe this to be so because the practices and ideas we call Chamorro now aren’t really Chamorro, but borrowed from other cultures. Since the seventeenth century, Chamorros have been heavily influenced by Spanish, Mexican, Filipino and American cultures, and as a result much from these cultures has been either borrowed or forced upon Chamorros.
For instance, if we look at something like Chamorro Catholicism everything from the practices to the language used seems to belong more to everyone else and there is little there which can be considered Chamorro. In this thinking we encounter the same logic, as before, where we find the true form of a culture belongs to a single point in time, and only at that point in time was the culture real or genuine. There are three problems with this thinking.
First, as already mentioned, it assumes that a culture can only be real if it doesn’t change, which logically and in real life terms, makes no sense. Cultures are adapting and changing all the time. Second, all cultures borrow from each other, and Chamorros are no different. The act of borrowing from other cultures is something which does not only provide evidence of a culture’s inadequacy or inauthenticity, but also its vitality, and its ability to persist and survive under changing conditions. Third, this idea assumes that only cultures which are isolated or uninfluenced are real. The problem with this is that all cultures not just interact with other cultures, but even within themselves are already a wealth of diversity. Even 500 years ago, prior to Guam being colonized, when everyone on the island was who we would consider to be Chamorro, and the island had yet to be inundated with “foreign” influences, you would not find a pure, uniform culture.
At that time, Chamorros divided and identified themselves based on issues of village, island, clan, spirits and belief. Each person, each clan, and each village might have very different ideas about who really is Chamorro, or what a Chamorro is or should be. This is the same today, as Chamorros are divided in a multitude of ways. There are Chamorro Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, and Baha’is. Different families have different practices for weddings and parties, and have different relationships to the land. Chamorro culture has always been diverse, even prior to “outside” influences.
Forced cultural change
The most sound argument for placing an insurmountable divide between Chamorros today and their seventeenth century ancestors, is because the cultural changes that took place because of the Spanish colonization, were forced upon them. These changes were not natural, which the Chamorros determined for themselves, or chose to make. Instead these changes were violent upheavals of a society, which were resisted and fought against by Chamorros, at times to the death.
Of course this point is undeniable, as Chamorros were indeed forced to take up Catholicism and therefore ripped away from their own religion and culture. But to say that this tragedy makes Chamorros inauthentic or that it means that there is no more Chamorro culture is overly simplistic and inaccurate. The period of colonization by the Spanish was indeed tragic, but it is nonetheless a crucial part of Guam and Chamorro history, and one which can be seen as a time of genocide and forced conversion, but also one of Chamorro resistance and survival.
If cultures can change, it means that their changes aren’t pre-determined, but always shaped as an effect of different forces and choices, some large and some small. This means that culture isn’t an abstract set of customs and ideas which is handed from one generation to another, or in this case viciously forced onto one culture by another. Culture is always a shifting set of ideas, values and practices which influence and determine the behavior and thinking of individuals or groups, but is also open to be manipulated and altered. Furthermore, culture is a concept which can represent an infinite number of layers of society, societal interactions and beliefs, and can never truly be divided into things which truly belong and truly don’t.
At the end of the seventeenth century in Guam, we saw a huge clash between the Spanish and Chamorros that, although it involved physical fighting and battles, was ultimately a cultural conflict. A conflict over whose culture is superior, who has a right to colonize or dictate the existence of another, but also from the perspective of Chamorros, who has the right to their own culture, and to protect their culture from invasive attacks. Chamorros fought to defend their culture, while the Spanish fought to destroy their culture, and replace it with their own. From this struggle, the history books tell us, that one side emerges as the victor, while the other slowly fades away.
In the centuries that followed, Catholicism and the way of the colonizer appeared to be in charge. The Church seemed to take over all aspects of Chamorro life, becoming its center, and Chamorros thus live their lives literally by the tolling of its bells.
On the surface it might be clear that the colonizer had won and that the natives and their culture had been vanquished, and thus their destiny as a distinct people or a distinct culture has been lost as well. Since this time Chamorros have taken up Catholicism and made it their own, yet labels such as “Spanish” and “Catholic” still mark these practices as originating somewhere else and not really belonging to Chamorros.
In cases such as this it is important to remember that the labels we use for things often speak far less to the way things are, and have much more to do with relations of power in history and in contemporary situations. For instance, Chamorros are renowned today for their large religious parties which take place at regular intervals throughout the year to honor Catholic village saints on Guam. The label for these parties is Spanish in origin, fiesta, as is the schedule which organizes these parties. But to call these large parties or the love of holding large parties in general, as Spanish or borrowed, doesn’t really reflect both the historical and contemporary reality. Prior to the colonization of the Mariana Islands, the Spanish commented on the love of partying of Chamorros, and the sheer scale, intensity and duration at which they held parties. In additions to parties for weddings and funerals, Chamorros had regular religious parties throughout the year, during which they would honor and celebrate the spirits of their ancestors.
To say that fiestas today are Spanish or not really Chamorro, gives too much power to the label or to Spanish influence, and doesn’t recognize that these parties represent a link that survived or continued to thrive despite the violent overthrows of Chamorro life the Spanish represented. Even in violent, chaotic situations such as the ones Chamorros found themselves in during the Chamorro-Spanish Wars, the cultural changes that took place, did so through a mixture of resistance and accommodation. Neither side in this cultural battle truly “won” or were able to completely master the other, or fully defend their way of life. In situations such as this, where death is the cost of resistance, it is important to remember that the success of the colonizer can just as much be the success of the colonized.
While it is clear that the Spanish became i manma’gas Guam (the bosses of Guam) after the war, and therefore assumed the right to dictate public norms and decide the labels and names of culture, the actual practicing of customs was still something they could never completely determine or control. Catholicism became dominant in Guam, not because of the military victories of the Spanish, or the simple superiority of their culture, but rather because of the manipulations Chamorros made, the changes they created for themselves within the new oppressive religion. Through these careful, subtle manipulations, they found ways to continue many of their beliefs and practices, albeit through different names or with different artifacts.
In order to survive and working within the restrictions placed upon them by the Spanish, Chamorros nonetheless found ways of blending their culture together with the colonizer’s or sneaking into their newly imposed life some of the beliefs and practices they were forced to give up.
Relationship between culture and imperialism
Although Guam did represent an important economic and military link for Spain, it was primarily religious reasons that led to its colonization. In the 140 years following the island being stumbled upon by Ferdinand Magellan, Spanish traders and explorers were content to occasionally stop at the island for rest or refueling, and nothing more. What led to the eventual establishment of a permanent presence on the island was a desire to Christianize and civilize Guam’s impoverished and pagan natives. It was Father Diego Luis de San Vitores, who successfully lobbied the Queen of Spain for the funds and soldiers necessary to set up a mission in Guam, and the entire island chain was named the Marianas in her honor.
In all cases of imperialism and colonization but clearly in the case of Guam, the ability and necessity to dominate, subjugate and transform another people or culture is not done for economic or military factors but cultural ones. The Spanish right to come into another’s land and take over and dictate the lives of the occupied is a right determined by their cultural superiority. The culture of the colonizer is not simply better however, but is a force of civilizing and improvement, and therefore comes with obligations that it be spread to those inferior or less civilized.
It is through these feelings of cultural superiority that all kinds of violence or racism can be justified. Through this thinking, in all matters the colonizer knows best, and even against the will of the colonized, this knowledge must be made into law. Therefore, when the Spanish established their mission on Guam, it was necessary that they not respect the existing culture of Chamorros and not treat it as anything other than savagery which must be obliterated.
To respect Chamorro culture meant that it had a right to exist or had a spirit to it, which could and should resist any attempts to destroy it or force it to change. To respect this culture meant that Chamorros had a right to refuse to be baptized, refuse to attend mass, and refuse to submit to Spanish morality or any of their other mandates. So in order to carry out their mission of spreading the light of Christianity and legitimize the violence which accompanied such efforts, Chamorro culture had to be reduced to either misguided ignorance or outright devil worship.
We can see this difference between the insights of Fray Juan Pobre, a Spanish priest who jumped ship in 1602 and lived amongst Chamorros, and the policies of the Spanish mission during the last four decades of the same century. For Pobre, Chamorro culture was obviously not Christian, but was nonetheless not evil, but rather possessed many qualities that Christians in Europe lacked. Especially in terms of how kind, cooperative and peaceable they were, and how well they treated their relatives and neighbors, Pobre saw them as more Christians than many Christians. As a visitor amongst these islands and amongst Chamorros and their culture, Pobre saw their way of life as something savage, but also a thing of beauty which could be marveled at, which could be learned from and respected.
With the establishment of an official mission, such admiration was replaced with cold colonial logic where the native and his culture are worth nothing until they are remade into something which attests to the glory of the colonizer.
How the Spanish converted Chamorros
The efforts of the Spanish to Christianize Chamorros took two basic forms, one by peaceful persuasion and outreach, the other by force. When they initially arrived in 1668, the Spanish were buoyed by beliefs that their task wouldn’t be too perilous, as surely the Chamorros would be easily converted once they had been presented with the light of God and the truth of His words.
And for a time, these fantasies seemed true, as relations between the Spanish and Chamorros were altogether cordial. San Vitores, aided by his knowledge of the Chamorro language, would extol the virtues of his God through sermons and songs, and many Chamorros, intrigued by these new visitors, agreed to be converted or have their children baptized. At this level of engagement, the Spanish priests and their religion weren’t considered to be threatening but rather a new novel presence on Guam.
As time passed and more Chamorros were converted, the Spanish became more emboldened in their tactics and moved from simply talking about the greatness of their God to actively condemning cultural practices and behaviors of Chamorros that they saw as immoral. At this point, the Spanish presence changed from being a novelty to more of an irritation and many initial converts quickly recanted.
The Spanish onslaught on Chamorro culture was directed at a number of cultural norms, attitudes and practices, including, the role of women in Chamorro society and the immoral freedoms they were allowed, the worship of ancestral spirits and skulls of deceased relatives, and activities in the men’s houses (guma’uritao), where Chamorro men and women engaged in unmarried sexual intercourse. These practices and ideas were integral to the lives of Chamorros, and so naturally they saw these condemnations as an attack on their culture and freedom.
When Chamorros refused to willingly give these things up, the priests responded with force. Chamorros, enraged at these pious invasions into their families and lives, responded with force as well. The ensuing conflict, which lasted until 1695, became known as the Chamorro-Spanish Wars. During this period a number of Spanish soldiers, priests and servants were killed and churches burned down. The Spanish in turn killed hundreds of Chamorros, crushed the skulls of Chamorro ancestors, razed entire villages, forced Chamorros to attend mass, and placed the heads of executed rebel leaders on pikes to deter any further resistance.
How divisions helped convert Chamorros
Although this period is rife with conflict and resistance, the ways Chamorros reacted to the Spanish was not uniform in either positive or negatives senses. As already mentioned, many Chamorros eagerly agreed to be converted, especially in the first months of the mission. Some did so out of curiosity, simply wanting to know what these newcomers offered.
In another way, Chamorros were also influenced to convert because of the technology that the Spanish offered and represented. By 1668 Chamorros already had more than a century of experience with Spanish technology and guns, tools and metal (lulok) were already high coveted items. For artisans, lulok was already replacing shell and rock blades for tasks such as canoe carving. Some Chamorros may have associated this superiority of Spanish technology with the new culture they offered, and thus seen conversion as a logical choice, either in order to obtain more Spanish goods, or because they saw the Spanish as the new dominant group.
In other ways, conversion and acceptance of the Spanish and their rule was also a strategic move which could be aimed at garnering more status or power. The Spanish accounts tell us that when the first missionaries arrive in 1668, they were welcomed by Kephua, the chief of Hagåtña, and from him they received land on which they built the first church (guma’ Yu’os).
Some scholars suggest however that this might be inaccurate, due to Spanish ignorance or bias. At that time of Chamorro history, villages had no singular leader, but rather groups of maga’haga’ and maga’låhi from each of the village’s clans. If Kephua was a maga’låhi in Hagåtña, he would have been just one of many. His gesture of giving land to the new visitors probably would have been aimed at increasing his status or the status of his clan amongst the confederation of families that made up the village of Hagåtña. By converting and being hospitable to the Spanish, Kephua was given Spanish artifacts such as iron hoops and a hat but also given a privileged position in the new order the Spanish represented. This privileged status can be seen up until the present as evidenced by his visibility in Guam history, and in the landscape of the island today as evidenced by his large statue in Hagåtña.
The conversion and acceptance of Spanish culture for strategic reasons was duplicated at the village level as well. For the first few months after arriving, San Vitores wasn’t allowed to leave Hagåtña. As he was considered to be the magas pale’ of the new regime, the leaders of Hagåtña hoped to keep him and his new religion as their own as evidence of the greatness of their village.
The presence of the Spanish led to the exacerbation and widening of other divisions in Chamorro society. Although scholars are uncertain as to how rigidly stratified or divided Chamorro society was at this period in terms of castes, the arrival of the Spanish nonetheless represented a means of potential social mobility. Lower class Chamorros could convert to the new religion in hopes of being remade as equal to all others before this new God and new society the priests offered.
The division of youth and age was also one that helped plant the seeds of the Spanish religion into Chamorro life. Young Chamorros were often the most eager to convert and give up the ways of their parents. According to one Spanish priest, it was through the young converts that the most durable conversions were made as these young people would take the beliefs of the Spanish with them directly into their families and work to convert their parents, their siblings and other relatives.
Lastly, although this period of conflict between the Spanish and Chamorros is referred to as the Chamorro Spanish Wars, the battle lines were not neatly drawn with all of the Spanish on one side and all of the Chamorros on the other. At several moments during this long conflict, there came a point where the Chamorros who were resisting the Spanish could have wiped out the colonizers.
For instance in 1684, a Chamorro named Antonio Yura led a massive assault on the Spanish in Guam with the hope of eradicating their presence from Guam. With a large number of Spanish soldiers fighting in the northern islands, the Chamorros on Guam came close to succeeding in their mission as they killed three priests, wounded the Spanish Governor, and were able to burn several churches. The Spanish were saved however through the assistance of a Christian Chamorro named Ignacio Hineti who mobilized the entire village of Sinajana to defend the Spanish until reinforcements arrived from the north.
The role of the Reduccion
Following their military victories throughout the Mariana Islands, and in order to control the Chamorro population and ensure there were no further outbursts of resistance, or that they could not revert to their old pagan habits, the Spanish instituted a policy of reduccion. Through this policy, Chamorro life was radically altered especially in terms of geography and ancestral ties to land. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, Chamorros lived throughout the Mariana Islands chain. Their skills with canoe navigation and sailing gave them an incredible amount of freedom and mobility, and this was one of the reasons that the war between the Spanish and Chamorros lasted so long. Chamorros wanted by the Spanish would quickly flee to neighboring islands. Priests who settled in the northern islands were far away from the center of Spanish power and would find little help if the Chamorros of their islands became restless.
Through the reduccion, by 1730, nearly all the Chamorros from the Mariana Islands were forcibly resettled into new villages on Guam or Rota. In the hopes of instilling into Chamorros their new faith, the very structure of Chamorro villages was shifted to place the Catholic Church and Catholic life at the village center.
This resettlement represented a huge disruption in Chamorro life, since so much of their clan identity, practices and beliefs were tied to their ancestral lands. All Chamorros suddenly found themselves forced to live someone else’s life on someone else’s land. Even if Chamorros were to maintain their traditional worship practices, they did so at the risk of angering the ancestors of the families whose land they were now forced to occupy. Furthermore, with the battles over, Chamorro resistance to the Spanish could no longer take the same public and open forms. Open violent confrontations with Spanish priests or soldiers were no longer advisable or possible.
Chamorro resistance didn’t cease however, but shifted and adapted to this new situation. Chamorros who were determined to maintain their beliefs and traditions would need to find ways of blending it with their new religion. Although it is clear that the Spanish won the physical war of the seventeenth century, they did not win the cultural war. Chamorros didn’t simply abandon their beliefs, but instead found creative ways of keeping what they could, without inciting retribution from their new conquerors.
Lanchos helped protect Chamorro culture
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Chamorros found themselves packed into new villages with hundreds of other Chamorros. The new rulers were watchful over all Chamorros, ensuring that they followed their new religion properly and didn’t return to their pagan past. In these new villages, disease outbreaks were frequent because of the new unsanitary and crowded conditions Chamorros were forced to endure.
In order to escape this new order, and find a place where they could maintain their traditions safely, Chamorros developed what has become known as lanchos or ranches belonging to clans on their property outside of the village. By calling them lanchos, which is derived from the Spanish word “rancheria,” Chamorros hoped to keep the Spanish from invading this part of Chamorro life as they had nearly all others. In these spaces, far away from the priests and their soldiers, Chamorros were able to maintain their connections to the land by raising crops and animals, as well as keep up some of their traditions through oral history, songs and folklore.
Role of Famalao’an in Chamorro culture
One cultural norm which the Spanish were determined to stamp out, while Chamorros were determined to protect was the role of Chamorro women in society. In Chamorro culture prior to the arrival of the Spanish, women and men were largely equal in society, albeit in different spheres of life. Men were in charge of warfare, tool making, canoe building and navigation and fishing outside of the reef, while women were in charge of child rearing, weaving food preparation and storage and fishing inside of the reef. A clan would be run by a maga’haga’ (female head) and maga’låhi (male head). Women controlled the resources of a clan, most importantly the parceling and use of land. It was also through mothers that people identified their genealogies.
The cultural norms which most appalled the Spanish with regard to women, were those which gave them freedom in terms of their relationships and sexual partners. Chamorro women were allowed to enter into marriages and leave them with their honor in tact, at will. Men were not. If a man cheated on his wife, he could be beaten or killed by her relatives. The same retribution was not considered appropriate for women who committed a similar offense. Furthermore, as if almost spitting in the face of Spanish morality and obsession with female purity, Chamorro women who were sexually experienced were considered better marriage prospects than those who were not.
Chamorros at that time had men’s houses, or guma’uritao, where young men would be taught different skills to mold them into productive members of society. These skills were oral history, family genealogy, canoe building, tool making, but also, much to the rage of the missionaries, included sexuality. In the guma’uritao young men and women were allowed to engage in sexual intercourse in order to teach them about sex and mature relationships.
The Spanish, shocked and appalled at these freedoms Chamorro women possessed, became determined to put them in their proper place in society. The man was firmly established by the Catholic Church as the head of the family. The Church further enforced the idea that wives belonged to their husbands and the children in turn should take their father’s names and therefore belonged to the husband as well.
On the surface the man does appear to take over Chamorro life, but the power of Chamorro women doesn’t dissipate. Instead, it becomes less public, and became more concentrated in the family structure. Chamorro women continue to be the real heads of households but because of the Spanish injunctions, are forced to do so in the background. The women become the heads of social networks which provide the resources and womanpower to make the social life of Chamorros, fiestas, funerals, weddings, and even the very functioning of the Catholic Church possible.
Prior to arrival of the Spanish, religious services would be performed by men and women. Under the Spanish the pale’ (priest) and other men become the leaders of the Church and the spiritual lives of Chamorros. One of the ways in which Chamorros resisted this domination and protected their beliefs was through the position of the techa.
Techas were spiritual leaders who would direct people in the chanting or recitation of tinaitai at religious ceremonies or funerals. After the conquest by the Spanish, Chamorros were able to keep this position of public spiritual leadership as one for women.
Makahna became Suruhånu
In addition to the displacement of women, the spiritual leaders and figures of Chamorro life also found themselves under attack by the Spanish. The worship of ancestral spirits was one of the central tenets of Chamorro society prior to Spanish colonization. Chamorros of this period believed that the world around them was filled with the spirits of deceased Chamorros who could potentially play a role in either positively or negatively affecting the affairs and fortunes of the living. They also believed that in order to live a safe and prosperous life, Chamorros had to always maintain a respectful and reverent relationship to the ante or their ancestors. To not do so would risk incurring their wrath.
These spirits that were in different ways referred to as manganiti or taotaomo’na , were thus venerated regularly throughout the lives of Chamorros. The skulls of their ancestors, which were called maranan uchan , would be kept in the home and treated as if a member of the family. It would be spoken to respectfully, thanked regularly for all its help, and if the family was successful in farming, fishing, warfare or other tasks, it would be these skulls and the spirits they represented who would be celebrated. Chamorros also had parties and festivals and offerings of artifacts through which they further honored these spirits.
Although Chamorros would interact daily with these spirits, the chief intermediaries between the world of the living and the world of the manganiti were called makahnas . These were spiritual leaders who could be hired or requested to help Chamorros in their interactions with the spirits of their ancestors. These makahnas could be called upon to influence the ancestral spirits to join one side of battle against another, to ensure a good fishing expedition, to cast a spell or make sick an enemy, or to heal or release someone who had come under the influence of a spirit.
The Spanish claimed that these spiritual leaders were devil worshippers and sought to eradicate them and stamp out their influence. The makahnas were, in all truth, the conquerors’ competition for the minds of the Chamorros. They were the leaders of a religion and framework of ideas that threatened the ability of the Spanish to win over the Chamorro people.
Early on in their mission, the Spanish were able to convince thousands of Chamorros to have their babies baptized. When afterwards many of the babies died, the makahnas were at the forefront of the effort to link these deaths to the new dangerous religion and how it was angering of the spirits of Chamorro ancestors. The physical war between the Chamorros and the Spanish was propelled forward through this sort of war of ideas, over who could better provide a safe and prosperous future for Chamorros.
The religion and beliefs that the makahnas represented namely ancestor veneration and the idea that the landscape of Guam was populated by the spirits of deceased Chamorros, did not disappear when the Spanish won the war in the seventeenth century. The public figure of the makahna did disappear as the Spanish publicly outlawed and condemned the former religion of the Chamorros. But the beliefs in the persistence of Chamorro spirits remained and were supported by the makahnas , as intermediaries between the living and their ancestral spirits, was transferred onto another public figure, that of the medicinal healer.
What these healers were called at the time isn’t known, but we do know that they were experts in using the plants of Guam to make medicines for different ailments and illnesses. Much of their knowledge would be kept secret, save for when it was passed down from one generation to the next within a family. Before Spanish colonization, these healers were not considered to be spiritual leaders.
After the Spanish conquest of Guam, these healers began to take on the role of the makahanas in Chamorro society, and became what we know today as suruhånus and suruhånas . In the suruhånus we find more evidence of the blending of Chamorros and Spanish culture in order to maintain some sort of continuity.
Although the cultural practices that Chamorros should respect and worship the spirits of their ancestors could no longer be openly practiced or followed, the ideas still remained strong for Chamorros although they were forced to take on different forms. On Guam after the Spanish colonization, and even up until today, the world around us is still populated by the spirits of Chamorro ancestors now called taotaomo’na, and Chamorros continue to respect and believe in them.
Stories abound on Guam amongst Chamorros and non-Chamorros of the presence and power of these spirits. They have the power to help people and as ga’chong (friends) give people incredible strength, and yet also make people ill, especially those who have displeased or disrespected them. The image of the taotaomo’na has been twisted due to the influence of Spanish Catholicism to think of them as primarily negative beings. Words such as aniti and manganiti were neutral terms for spirit and spirits prior to the arrival of the Spanish, but through the course Spanish colonization, the meaning of these terms slowly shifted to become “devil” or “evil spirits.”
This was a common practice amongst missionaries and colonizers around the world. One could not simply replace all Chamorro beliefs with Spanish ones. Instead the missionaries carefully selected words and concepts from the native religion, which they would use in their ministry in hopes of making the conversion easier or more palatable.
For instance, the Spanish in order to reach out to Chamorros used Chamorro words such as sasalåguan to refer to concepts or locations in Catholic religion. Sasalåguan was the fiery home of the taotaomo’na Chaife who plays a huge role in origin stories of Chamorros. Catholic missionaries used the word sasalåguan, the fiery imagery, and the fear derived from Chaife who was known to sometimes keep the souls of deceased Chamorros in cages in his domain, in order to communicate to Chamorros the concept of hell and punishment for sin. Chaife moved from being a remote ancestral spirit within Chamorro cosmology, and was transformed into a satanic figure within Catholic cosmology.
As the Spanish could never completely banish these beliefs or spirits from Chamorros, a more effective tactic was to demonize them and change them from being the fundamental unit of Chamorro religion into the evils of the Catholic religion.
Suruhånus played and continue to play a crucial role in maintaining the belief in these spirits and act as bridge between them and the Chamorros of today. Suruhånus continue to offer traditional remedies to a wide range of illness. However they also provide assistance for families who are having problems with taotaomo’na. Suruhånus can communicate with taotaomo’na in hopes of finding the sources of sickness or to find out if the sick person has offended a spirit and brought on their condition. The suruhånu can then intervene in and offer apologies or offerings to appease the taotaomo’na.
Spirits became Saints
In the acceptance of Catholic saints by Chamorros we can see another way in which the existing beliefs of Chamorros were adapted in order to survive the conversion process. As already mentioned, prior to Spanish colonization, Chamorros kept in their homes maranan uchan and other statues or artifacts meant to be a link through which they could interact with their ancestral spirits.
The Spanish routinely destroyed these skulls during the Chamorro-Spanish Wars in an effort to stamp out the pagan religion, but also to demoralize and frighten Chamorros. Even though the Spanish demonized the Chamorro religion as devil worship and an anathema to the Catholic faith, what actually aided the Spanish in the process of converting Chamorros after the wars was the similarity between the worship of ancestral spirits and Catholic saints.
Following the end of the wars, Chamorros were forced into a new religion, which in this way, wasn’t completely new. Although the spirits were different, no longer the ante or deceased, respected relatives, the structure was surprisingly similar. Just as Chamorro ancestral spirits had artifacts which tied them into the homes or the lives of their relatives, so did Catholic saints, through icons, images, statues, and prayer books. And just as the spirits of Chamorro ancestors could be called upon in times of need, so too could saints. Furthermore, just as Chamorros had regular celebrations and activities to honor their ancestral spirits, so did the Catholic saints.
In time however, tensions cooled and generations passed. The culture which Chamorros had created stopped being a form of resistance to the Spanish and instead a manipulated and delicate mixture of cultures that became kustumbren Chamorro, kuttura Chamorro or Chamorro culture.
For further reading
Cunningham, Lawrence J. Ancient Chamorro Society. Honolulu: Bess Press, 1992.
Driver, Marjorie G. Fray Juan Pobre in the Marianas, 1602. MARC Miscellaneous Series 8. Mangilao, GU: University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research, 1993.
Freycinet, Louis Claude de Saulses de. An Account of the Corvette L’Uraine’s Sojourn at the Mariana Islands, 1819. Supplemented with the Journal of Rose de Freycinet. Translated and prefaced by Glynn Barratt. Occasional Historical Papers Series 13. 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 Coordinating Commission. Hale’-ta – I Ma Gobetna-na Guam: Governing Guam Before and After the Wars. Hagåtña: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission, 1994.
Political Status Education and Coordinating Commission. Hale-ta- I Manfayi: Who’s Who in Chamorro History. Vol. 1. Hagåtña: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission, 1995.
Russell, Scott. Tiempon I Manmofo’na: Ancient Chamorro Culture and History of the Northern Mariana Islands. Micronesian Archaeological Survey Report 32. [Saipan, CNMI?]: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 1998.
Souder, Laura. Daughters of the Island: Contemporary Chamorro Women Organizers on Guam. Mangilao, GU: University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research, 1992.
Thompson, Laura M. Guam and Its People. With a Village Journal by Jesus C. Barcinas__. 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947.