Woven into tradition
Weaving continues to be an important practice on Guam. For thousands of years Chamorros have used Guam’s abundant foliage to produce useful and unique items. Although the art of weaving is not as prevalent on Guam today as it has been in days gone by, or as critical for everyday life, it is still seen as one of the lasting artistries of Chamorro culture.
In ancient Chamorro society women completed the majority of the household tasks including most of the weaving. They used various leaves and palms to create items for everyday life including mats, sails, hats, baskets, bags and decorative pieces.
Many pieces were created from the same material but served different purposes. For example, a mat woven out of pandanus leaves, or akgak, could be used for sleeping, blankets, funeral preparations, food serving platters or cloths to clean surfaces.
Typical, everyday woven items included mats, boxes and hats. Rectangular baskets (kottot) were used for presenting gifts of rice. Smaller boxes, some equipped with handles (alan mamao) or complex latches (saluu), were used to carry betel nut. Chamorros wove bags with lids (balakbagk) equipped with straps to carry items at waist level. There were also larger woven cases (hagug) used like a backpack for carrying provisions and food.
In addition to the many types of woven bags, Chamorros also wove mats, plates and even cradles from leaves. The Chamorro basket weave is noted for its strength provided by a double rim.
Some woven items were more decorative than practical. Many weavers excelled at artistic creations including birds, shrimp, headbands and floral arrangements. Many of these items were created using a weaving tool known as a si’i. The tool is a piece of flat, triangular-shaped metal that measures roughly six inches.
Ancient Chamorros also used their weaving skills to create fish nets (talaya), traps and slings but less is known about these practices. Some sources indicate the ancient society used bark from the wild hibiscus (pagu) tree or bamboo for nets and traps. Some weavers also incorporated coconut husk fibers into rope and bamboo needles and gauges when weaving fishing nets. Slings were typically made from pandanus leaves.
The pandanus plant (Pandanus tectorius) is native to Guam and provides fibrous leaves that are good for weaving. The wide leaves grow low to the ground, making them easy to reach by women collecting weaving materials.
The pandanus leaf is typically prepared by cutting it from the plant and by using a si’i, a small cutting tool, to remove the hard, sharp thorns along the edge of the leaf. After the thorns are removed, the leaves are boiled and scraped with a shell before being dried in the sun. The dried leaves are rolled up and kept inside for a few days. Finally the leaves are left out in the sun for weeks where they are cured and readied for use. Before using the cured pandanus leaf for weaving, the weaver would drag a shell-tool across the surface of the leaf to make it more pliable.
Other plants found in abundance on Guam, coconut and nipa palm fronds, were also used for weaving materials. Both of these trees are found anywhere on island, although the former is more common. Typically younger leaves were best for basket. They were left in the sun to cure before use.
Sturdier leaves from the coconut or nipa palm, were used for roof thatching on traditional Chamorro huts. Nipa thatch was preferable because it lasted roughly five years compared to coconut thatch’s two-year lifespan. Nipa and pandanus leaves can last up to eight years as thatching over bamboo slats.
When preparing leaves for thatching the fronds are typically collected in the drier months. Dry season falls in the beginning of the calendar year on Guam. Once harvested, the fronds are split down the middle. The two spines are then placed on top of one another and the leaves are woven using diagonal plaiting to make a piece of thatch. The pieces are tied together and dried before being placed on the roof of the home.
Another utilitarian form of weaving is trap making. Many times traps were made from bamboo that has been heated over hot charcoal and then stretched into the proper shape. Traps can also be made from coconut leaves.
Although many woven items have been replaced with modern manufactured items in contemporary Guam, weavers continue to produce mats, bags, novelty items and decorative pieces that are either used locally or sold to tourists.
One of the most popular areas on Guam to watch and learn weaving is at Gef Pa’go, Inajaran, a cultural demonstration center in Southern Guam. Gef Pa’go employs several master weavers who demonstrate the art to students, tourists and interested residents. The Gef Pago cultural village area also has a small gift shop featuring woven creations by the masters employed there. The gift shop sells small woven animals, fish and utilitarian pieces created out of dried palm leaves.
Many of the masters working at Gef Pa’go and around the island learned to weave from family members or others living in their village when woven items were crucial to every day life. The tradition was not encouraged by the Japanese during the occupation of World War II but resurfaced after the liberation of Guam in 1944.
Although the practice of weaving continued after the war, the number of island residents that regularly wove began to dwindle as modern items became more available and replaced items had been woven in the past. In turn, the number of island residents who knew the art of weaving also began to dwindle.
In recent years, however, weaving is increasingly being seen as more of a cultural reminder and decorative art rather than an essential practice for everyday life. Weavers continue to make decorative items for local parties, fiestas, gatherings or displays. Decorations typically include hanging pieces, table centerpieces, palms woven in a vertical manner to create a divider are often seen.
Weavers are also beginning to transform the practice into more of an art medium. For example, woven leaves are now being used as a medium for sculpting.
Beetles threaten Chamorro craft
HAGATNA, Guam (AP) - Guam’s traditional weavers say they’re worried that their craft could disappear if invasive coconut rhino beetles continue to destroy local trees.
The rhino beetles dig into the heart of coconut trees to eat and pass through undeveloped leaves. The damaged leaves grown in a V shape that makes them unsuitable for weaving, reported The Pacific Daily News (http://bit.ly/1OYvikR).
Weavers say they are already having a hard time finding leaves, and the beetles are so widespread that the island will have to import coconut leaves from its neighbors for the Festival of Pacific Arts in 2016. Boats from the Northern Marianas would need to drop off fresh leaves every other day, weavers told the Pacific Daily News.
“For all the weavers that are coming, we doubt that we have enough,” said Rose San Nicolas, who weaves at the Inarajan cultural village of GefPa’go.
San Nicolas can point out a few trees at GefPa’go that weavers used to climb daily. She said it was easy, before, to climb up and get a day’s supply of leaves.
Now none of the trees has useable leaves.
She said she’s lucky to find one good tree for every 10 trees she inspects.
James Bamba, who weaves at SagganKotturanChamoru in Tumon, said he now has to make 30- to 40-minute treks along the beach and sometimes into the jungle to find leaves.
It’s particularly difficult, said Bamba, to make big items like hats or baskets without good leaves.
“I see in the next 10 years I probably won’t be weaving. I know it sounds so grim or dismal, but it’s not by choice,” he said.
Weaving is an important part of Chamorro culture, according to Bamba. He said the group has distinctive weaving that sets it apart from other islanders.
Researchers say Guam’s rhino beetle is a different breed and that a virus effective at control other populations doesn’t work here. They are hoping to find a strain that will be effective against Guam’s beetles.
University of Guam entomologist Aubrey Moore says the beetles seem to have become immune to that virus and that there is a fungus that can also be used to control the beetle.
San Nicolas said the cultural village is trying to plant new coconut trees, but she’s still concerned that the tradition won’t get passed down to future generations.
“It worries us because, like the old saying, how can we let our children and their children know? How can we show them?” she said.
The Associated Press