Spotlight on Guam's remarkable history, resilient Chamorro

Photos courtesy of Guam Visitors Bureau
Photos courtesy of Guam Visitors Bureau

Spotlight on Guam's remarkable history, resilient Chamorro

Guam Visitors Bureau

Guam, the largest and southernmost of the Mariana Islands chain, has a unique and complex cultural history. Located in the Western Pacific in the geographic region known as Micronesia, Guam is well known for its strategic military and economic position between Asia and the North American continent, but is less known for its remarkable history and resilient people.

Inhabited for thousands of years, archaeological evidence indicates that the Marianas Islands were one of the first places to be settled by seafaring peoples, possibly from the Maritime Southeast Asia area, over 4,000 years ago. The Mariana Islands appear to have been continuously occupied by people who shared the same culture and language that eventually became known as Chamorro.

Guam’s history is also one of multi-colonialism, with the last 400 years of Guam’s history marked by administrations of three different colonial powers: Spain, the United States and Japan.

The ceding of Guam to the United States as an unincorporated territory after the Spanish-American War in 1898 introduced Chamorros to democratic principles of government and the modern American lifestyle, while keeping them subjects of a sometimes-oppressive U.S. Naval administration.

Guam also had a unique position in World War II, when Japan invaded the island shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. For the next three years, Guam was the only U.S. territory occupied by Japanese forces until the Americans returned in 1944 to reclaim the island.

The political maneuverings after World War II and the post-war buildup led to even more expansion of U.S. military interests in Guam and the rest of Micronesia, with Guam becoming a hub for economic and commercial development. The easing of military restrictions for entering Guam and the establishment of a local, civilian government, have made the island an ideal place for people from all over the world to visit, go to school, find jobs or pursue a variety of economic interests.

Today, in addition to its inviting beaches, elegant hotels and great bargains, Guam has another vital attraction – its unique culture. The traditions and customs of Guam’s proud island heritage thrive, despite invading conquerors, wars and epidemics, and changing governments. Forged from a neolithic foundation and molded by historical events, Guam’s living culture has expanded into a vibrant, modern way of life.

Since the 17th century, Catholic churches have been the center of village activities. Even today, every village has its patron saint whose feast day is celebrated with an elaborate fiesta, which the entire island is invited to attend. Family groups still hold christening parties, weddings, novenas, funerals, and death- anniversary rosaries. All are flavored by the rich Spanish heritage.
Spanish influence may also be seen in the mestiza, a style of women’s clothing, or in the architecture of Guam’s southern villages.
Countless Americans, Europeans, Asians, Micronesians and other visitors have left their imprints on the island’s pastimes and tastes, but nowhere is the island’s multi-cultural influence more evident than in its food.

At a fiesta or other island party, families prepare heavily laden tables of local delicacies, such as red rice, shrimp patties, a Filipino-style noodle dish called pancit, barbecued ribs and chicken, and taro leaves cooked in coconut milk. Another mouth-watering treat is kelaguen, usually prepared from chopped broiled chicken, lemon juice, grated coconut and hot peppers. Fiery finadene sauce, made with soy sauce, lemon juice or vinegar, hot peppers, and onions, is sprinkled over the food for a truly memorable dish. After a hearty meal, Chamorros often enjoy chewing pugua (betel nut)  mixed with powdered lime and wrapped in pepper leaf.

Music is an integral aspect of an island lifestyle, and performances using traditional instruments, such as the belembaotuyan, are highlights of cultural presentations. The belembaotuyan, made from a hollow gourd and strung with a taut wire and pressed against ones bare stomach, creates a melodic sound enjoyed by all. The nose flute, once a long forgotten instrument, is now making a hearty return.

The Kantan Chamorro style of singing has been a favorite form of entertainment for generations. Additionally, it has been used to lighten long hours of group work activity, such as weaving, corn husking and net fishing. One singer would begin the familiar four-line chant, referring romantically or teasingly in the verse to another person in the group. The challenged person would then take up the tune and the song might continue in this fashion with different singers for hours.

Contemporary music is an important element of social gatherings, ranging from fiestas and fandangos to casual backyard parties. Musicians usually sing Chamorro, American, Filipino, or a variety of Asian songs.

Legends and folklore about village taotaomo’na (ancient spirits), doomed lovers leaping to their death off Two Lovers’ Point (Puntan Dos Amantes), and Sirena, a beautiful young girl who became a mermaid, are portrayed in many of Guam’s enriching cultural dances.

Guam’s traditional arts are very much alive. During cultural fairs and exhibitions, visitors often have the opportunity to watch master weavers, carvers and even a blacksmith at work.

Weavers, using the traditional pandanus or coconut fibers, fashion baskets of various sizes, purses, hats, floor mats and wall hangings. Carvers hew tables, plaques, figurines of people or animals, and household implements using ifil wood or pago woods.
The traditional ways are being passed along to the younger generations through apprenticeship programs in order to preserve the island’s art heritage. A master blacksmith, for example, recently graduated three pupils who have learned how to make useful steel farming and fishing implements, such as coconut graters, hoes, machetes and fishing spearheads. Other hand-forged items include betel nut scissors, tools for weaving and knives.

A trip to Guam is like visiting the four exotic corners of the globe. Guam is considered the hub of the western Pacific and undeniably Micronesia’s most cosmopolitan destination - a true example of the great American melting pot. In addition to the indigenous Chamorros and ‘stateside’ Americans, Guam boasts large populations of Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Micronesian Islanders, as well as a few Vietnamese, Indians and Europeans.


Guam’s Seven Historical Eras - Guampedia

2,000 BC – 1668: Ancient Guam

People first arrived on Guam and the rest of the Mariana islands probably from Southeast Asia, possibly in many waves over many years. These people evolved into the Chamorro people with their own distinct language and way of life.


1668 – 1898: Spanish Era

Starting with the arrival of Father San Vitores, Guam was colonized by Spain until the Spanish-American War.


1898 – 1941: US Naval Era

The US Navy ruled Guam from the end of the Spanish-American War up until the Japanese invasion of Guam on 8 December 1941. The Chamorros petitioned for US citizenship for the first time in 1901.


1941 – 1944: World War II/Japanese Era

Japanese forces occupied Guam from 8 Dec. 1941 to 21 July 1944.


1944-1950: Post-War Era

A period of rebuilding after the destruction of World War II. Naval Governors were once again in charge of the island. This the period when the military took land and built several large bases. The people of Guam pushed hard for self rule and US citizenship.


1950 – 1970: Guamanian Era

With the signing of the Organic Act on 1 August 1950 Chamorros became US citizens, though they had limited self government. The governor, a civilian, was appointed by the US president. The Organic Act set up the Government of Guam as well, with the Administration, the Legislature and the Courts. The term “Guamanian” was coined, which includes Chamorros, Filipinos and everyone else who makes Guam their home.


1970 – Present: Contemporary Guam

Guam’s first elected governor took office and Guam started having a tourism on a regular basis which gave the island a second industry besides military. Chamorros continue to struggle for self-determination.

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