Guam is one of the fifteen islands that make up the Mariana Islands. Today, this archipelago is divided into two U.S. political jurisdictions: the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the territory of Guam. The diverse culture of these island reflects a host of different arrivals, who brought their Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Chinese, Spanish, American and other Pacific Islander cultural practices with them to Guam and the rest of the Mariana Islands, making them a culturally diverse place to visit and live.
The majority of the population of Guam, however, traces its ancestry back to the original inhabitants of the island: the CHamoru people. The CHamoru are believed to have lived on Guam for nearly 4,000 years, creating the foundation for the culture that exists on the island today.
To give you some insight into how CHamoru culture has influenced the island, we’ll take a look into the fascinating history of these people, including how they arrived to Guam in the first place, their unique practices and the stories that shaped their culture.
Note: The spelling of the word “CHamoru” has long been debated, and you’ll see many variations in written accounts, including “Tsamoru,” “Chamorru,” “Camuru” and the more popular “Chamorro.” However, the Kumision I Fino’ CHamoru (Chamorro Language Commission) recently adopted the spelling “CHamoru,” which we will use in this article.
Who Were the Ancient CHamoru? A Little History
Archaeologists believe that humans originally landed in Guam and the rest of the Marianas after sailing east from Southeast Asia, likely Taiwan. Because there was no written history of these people before the arrival of Europeans, most of what we know about the culture of the CHamoru comes from archaeological evidence.
As they interpret this evidence, archaeologists have split early CHamoru culture into two eras, based on a set of distinctive structures that the CHamoru built, called latte houses. Not much is known about the CHamoru in the pre-latte era, except that archaeologists have found pottery shards made in this era.
However, around 800 CE, the CHamoru began building the significant stone structures they’re now known for. Latte houses were constructed of two rows of stone pillars, made up of a trapezoidal stone pillar (haligi) and a rounded cap (tasa) that sits on top. These rows of pillars held up wooden and thatched roof frames.
As for how they shaped and moved the latte, archaeologists have many theories, but most come to a similar conclusion: The construction of these latte houses was an impressive feat. In fact, some of these houses remained in use through the 17th century.
The life of the CHamoru people began to change with the European arrivals. A Spanish expedition led by Ferdinand Magellan visited the Marianas in the early 16th century. They found that the people who built the latte houses had formed a matrilineal, clan-based society built around fishing and agriculture. Spain soon annexed the islands, establishing a capital on Guam.
Further influence from Jesuit missionaries forcibly introduced aspects of Spanish culture and the Catholic religion to the CHamoru, an influence that continues into current day. For example, you’ll see Spanish loanwords in the CHamoru, although many were altered to accommodate the sound system of the CHamoru language. Additionally, as you’ll see in a moment, some CHamoru religious and cultural rites mix with Catholic rites as well. Ultimately, the colonization by Spain had a detrimental effect and, between conflict and disease, only about 10% of the CHamoru population remained by 1700.
After years of Spanish rule, followed by a transition to American rule, interrupted by a brief occupation by the Japanese, there’s been recent interest in the CHamoru culture and preserving it for future generations. Institutions like the Guam Museum curate regular exhibitions of historical artifacts and artwork that showcase CHamoru culture. Students are learning cultural dance practices to connect with their CHamoru roots. Additionally, all public schools on Guam teach the CHamoru language from elementary through high school, and CHamoru is one of Guam’s official languages, along with English.
If you’d like to discover a little more about the CHamoru culture, we’ve got a few more pieces to share with you.
The CHamoru Creation Story: Puntan and Fu’una
There’s no better way to get to know a culture than to understand their beliefs around how the world was created. Let’s explore the CHamoru creation story.
According to oral tradition passed down for many generations (which has created many variations of this story, depending on who tells it!) a brother, Puntan, and his sister, Fu’una, created the world together. One day, Puntan asked his sister to take apart his body and use it to create the world. One of his eyes became the sun, and the other, the moon. His eyebrows formed the rainbows in the sky, and his body, the soil. Fu’una used her supernatural powers to bring life to these parts, forming the world we know today. In order to be with her brother, she threw herself to the earth and creating Fouha Rock, out of which the first human beings emerged. Today, the CHamoru people still consider Fouha Bay, as a meaningful and powerful location that’s intrinsically linked to their creation as a people.
From this creation story, you can easily see the prominent role that women were given in CHamoru society, one that’s equal to men. Even though Puntan gave his body to create the world, it was the energy of Fu’una and the contribution of her own body that gave the world life—and human beings.
Finally, we mentioned earlier the influence of Spanish colonization on cultural rites and traditions. In one account of Guam’s history, an observer noted that, during a pilgrimage in honor of a Catholic patron saint, villagers stopped at Fouha Rock to pay their respects, demonstrating the unique blend of Spanish and CHamoru culture that you’ll experience on the island today.
To help you get to know the CHamoru culture just a little more deeply, we’ll also share one of the other values CHamoru hold close: inafa’ maolek.
Restoring Harmony by Making Good
Inafa’ maolek literally means “to make” (inafa’) “good” (maolek), but its deeper meaning centers around bringing harmony or order to one’s environment. When you view it in a larger context, many suggest that inafa’ maolek is also about maintaining harmony within the entire community—fostering a spirit of interdependence.
In other words, much like Hawaii’s aloha spirit, inafa’ maolek recognizes the need for cooperation among the community so that everyone is taken care of—and lifted up when needed. If you’ve experienced Guam as a friendly and welcoming place to be, you can likely credit it to the spirit of inafa’ maolek for creating an environment of mutual assistance and care.
Celebrating CHamoru Culture
After a 4,000-year residency in the Marianas, the CHamoru people have left their imprint on these islands, including its largest member, Guam. As you continue to learn about the history and culture of Guam’s original inhabitants, you’ll also gain additional insight into the culture, practices and people who shape Guam today.
Considering making Guam your home? We’d be happy to help! Just reach out to us for a free quote. Our Guam-based team will be happy to help you make a safe, easy and affordable move to the island.
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