Act of Decolonization #4: Guma' Kutula Ha' Ma Li'e'

I wrote several months ago about Chamorros in the United States as "ethnic achakma'" and the need for Chamorros to assert ourselves in the United States as just another ethnic group that makes exciting and delicious food!

In this post, I used the dance group Kutturan Chamoru which operates out of Long Beach, California as a potential example of how Chamorros in the states can break out of these stereotypes and bland minority existences. On Guam right now there has been a proliferation of Pacific dance groups, many Chamorro oriented, but many others clearly Polynesian. In the Chamorro diaspora, there is a high level of participation in Polynesian style dance groups, both in Hawai'i and especially in Southern California. The existence of Kutturan Chamoru is important because it represents a moment where the "Pacific Islander" label which is dominated in the United States by a orientalist Polynesian imaginary, did not dictate what was to be possible, and instead the group's leaders and dancers drew from the young but nonetheless rich tradition of Chamorro dancing that has been around for two decades.

A few months after this, my post was commented on by somehow, who I have to assume is a member of the former Chamorro chant group Guma' Palu Li'e, or as I believe it is now known, I Fanlailai'an. Instead of prefacing it, I'll just paste it below:

Kutturan Chamoru Performers doing something Chamorro? That is nothing Chamorro at all. Maybe the Spanish part, due to the fact that Chamorro is an introduced Spanish term meaning "to be bald or shaved."

Come on Miget you know that even though Franks group says they're doing Chamorro doesn't mean they really do Chamorro. Many of their chants are either Hula Kahiko "Ancient Hula" by using their drums and Ipu Heke and putting Chamorro words to it, as well as traditional Maori Chants from Aotearoa, they take that and basterdize it by putting Chamorro terms. It makes us Chamorros look like copy cats and a people whose life is about "stealing" other peoples culture and "claiming" it is ours.

Only one group does it right and that's Guma' Palu Li'e from Guam. Everything other group instructors teach are what they claim as "borrowed" but I claim it as "stealing."

Naturally I had many problems with this comment, and so I'll post my response, with a few changes below:

But for now, I'll just say this. Be very careful about saying who does "Chamorro right." Guma' Palu Li'e borrows from many many cultures as well, its just not as visible. Since the Polynesian influences of Taotao Tano' style groups look similar to what the dominant perceptions is of Pacific dances, so people think of them as serial borrowers. I know that Guma' Palu Li'e is supposed to be a chant group, but if you look at the dancing here on this video, the influences/borrowing is just as obvious as Taotao Tano's.

For me, this whole "borrowing" issue is troublesome and unimportant. All cultures borrow, but just that some because of their size and power don't get called out on it, by themselves or others.

Here is something to consider, and if you read enough history and then think about the way certain people talk, you'll see its true, even if you don't like it. Colonizers never borrow, it is only colonized peoples which borrow. Of course this isn't actually true, but this is the perception that we are stuck with. When the United States borrows it is because they are multicultural and a tolerant nation. When Chamorros borrow it is because their culture is gone or they are just copycats. We Chamorros ourselves perpetuate this, and act as if we have committed impure sins because there are Spanish words in our language or that Chamorros a hundred years ago decided to dance Spanish dances. People who admire and praise Guma' Palu Li'e for taking the language back to what it would have sounded like if we were never colonized, are reproducing and protecting the dominance of this perception, by attempting to show that we Chamorros have never borrowed, when what we need to accept and publicize is that everyone borrows, and those who can get away with it without anyone calling toka' are the powerful.

The issue is not whether or not a group borrows, but what you do with it. When Taotao Tano' first came out they were rejected by people throughout the Pacific and Guam as being copycats. Since then however, they have slowly reworked the imagination of Guam and elsewhere to make a Chamorro place for their dancing.

Since I'm not interesting in finding the pure Chamorro which doesn't have to borrow anything, I can enjoy and accept this cultural success alongside a "purist" group such as Guma' Palu Li'e, since for me they aren't opposed or opposites, but just two responses to the loss of culture, identity and art. I am glad they both exist. Taotao Tano' style groups do not reject that colonization happened or continues to happen, and creates with that history, those influences. Guma' Palu Li'e tries to create a Chamorro language and culture that was never affected by colonization. Both of them, not just Guma' Palu Li'e are dealing with "the real Chamorro." One the real Chamorro at a certain point in time or if history had been different, the other, a Chamorro who has experienced colonization and survived and is interested in creating art despite what people say.

Please, though do not argue that Guma' Palu Li'e is truer Chamorro because it didn't borrow Spanish words, Spanish dances or Polynesian motifs. I think that creatively Guma' Palu Li'e is important, but when you say that its the truest or mas magahet na Chamorro, what are you looking for or trying to find? Purity? The real Chamorro? Too often the people who do this sort of thing forget the necessity of respecting or dealing with most or all of Chamorro history and culture, and not just the parts that seem to be the most indigenous or pure.

I will end here with a story, which proves to me why people who argue for a pure Chamorro in the distant past are wrong. My grandfather is Tun Jack Lujan, the Chamorro Master Blacksmith. Because of his work he is respected by many many people. Manamko' remember his father and him and their tools that they depended upon to survive on the lancho and in particular during the war. Even most of the Chamorro artists who represent themselves as producing indigenous works, recognize the importance that his machete and fosinos symbolize in terms of Chamorro toughness and ability to survive and sustain itself. (incidentally, i gehilo' Guma' Palu Li'e has incredible respect for my grandfather's work and recognizes him as a true Chamorro artist and cultural master, despite the fact that Chamorros didn't have metal or that the Chamorro word for blacksmith is herrero, ni' maayao ginnen i fino' Espanot.)

At one arts festival on Guam, my grandfather was talking to a group of artists near one of their booths, where they had bone, shell and wood carvings. My grandfather is in his 80's and uses a cane when he walks around. He got tired of standing around while talking and looked for a place to sit, and saw a wooden latte carving, which he could use as a stool. After he sat on it, one of the artists yelled at him, that he couldn't sit there, that is for our ancestors. My grandfather looked at this artist, gof lalalu, and responded that I AM YOUR ANCESTOR.

When discussing issues of culture and I find people entangled in the notion that the real Chamorro is forever encased in a distant ancient past, I always tell this story, because for me it shows how disrespectful that attitude is. How it does not celebrate survival or resistance, but only seeks to lament or capture something long lost or which might have never exised. That way of conceiving culture basically sees the Chamorro as an all or nothing concept or way of being, and the moment it is tainted, whether in blood, in speech, in ritual, or in demographics, it vanishes and only returns as tragically sad ghosts which haunt the landscape they once called their own.

But this leads me to a more theoretical point, about the way these ideas of culture limit resistance, limit potential revitalization and naturally decolonization. For those who demand that this way of conceiving both culture and time is the correct way or only way, they unwittingly participate in a cruelly form of colonization, one which takes place through ideology, by continuing to control the way we see things such as time, possibility, life and death.

For those who insist that a pure Chamorro ever existed (in a theoretical sense), they do not only mark a date and time when that purity was in effect and when it was ruined, but they also, because of the way they silently modern anthropological ways of understanding culture, ultimately assert that the Chamorro is a cultural being only. One of the most powerful legacies which the United States, Europe, the West all cling to is their privileged roles in developing modern democratic political systems and mechanisms for social change. Because of this monopoly all others therefore have an open debt to the West, and the acceptance of this debt, even in vibrant, proud and seemingly "authentic" native forms, means the victory of the anthropologist, and the death of the Chamorro.

Furthermore, for those who accept Chamorro purity as something important, viable and should be used to judge others against, they basically do accept that it is the West who created the domain of the political, or the domain where the world around us is analyzed, understood and possibly changed. This might seem like a silly little or too densely useless theoretical point, but the ramifications are severe, hongge yu'.

For those who see decolonization as primarily about the past, or to put it another way, as a act where the past is the point at which our focus, i kinalamten-ta, i masahalom-ta should be directed, they tacitly accept that it is the United States, the colonizer who controls the future. The colonial world in this framework is therefore mapped out with the real Chamorro at the first end of the spectrum in the distant past, and the United States at the other end which can either be intrepreted to be the present or the future. Ultimately this spectrum is split by this opposition into two pieces, with the Chamorro controlling the cultural end and the United States controlling the political end. But as in nearly all binaries, these opposing ends are not equal, not only is one superior to the other, and produced as being self-determined and not supplementary, but in the case of this binary, one end is given the ability to make changes, to move and adapt, while the other is only considered authentic, living and real if it remains the same.

Dibina manu manu?

The problem here is thus that, resistance in this framework can only go so far, it can only work within the static confines of what is considered to be "cultural" and therefore can never go ont to question the split within the Chamorro which continues to colonize us, through the way we do not move to contest how we are divided into "authentic" cultural pieces, and inauthentic political pieces.

We can see this clearly articulated in a number of the different cultural resurgence movements that have taken place in Guam over the past few decades. These movements have included such moves as the institutionalization of Chamorro language instructions in public schools and the recreation and reinvention of Chamorro dances which were lost during Spanish colonization. While these movements have been inspiring and helped to change the landscape of Guam in terms of what is permissible and possible, their mainstream acceptance has in somewhat reified the split between the cultural and political.

Most acts of decolonization are dubious because of their acceptance of the pre-colonial native as not just a viable political category, but the only authentic category for Chamorros to be. Far from an indigenous remnant, this position of a beautiful brown subject without split, is a thoroughly modern fantasy. These statements should not be read as yet another crude colonizing impossibility being imposed upon indigenous people, but rather a critique implying that the truth of our existences as indigenous peoples (perhaps another name for decolonization?) lies only by peering through this split and refusing it.

When for example, a performer from a Chamorro dance group states to me that “my dancing has nothing to do with politics” it cannot help but echo something deeper and more problematic. Something also reflected in this statement by a Chamorro artist, “I don’t think of myself as being politically involved…the artifacts I make are part of our culture. They are part of keeping it alive, I don’t really think there’s anything political about it.”

These declarations echo an acceptance of a particular “indigenous” position and therefore a particular colonizing gaze, whether it be the anthropologist, the military serviceman, or the Japanese tourist for which the Chamorro performs. The cultural reinventions in histories, dances, arts which were at one point critical interventions disrupting the naturalness through which the death and non-existence of the Chamorro was imbibed, become the performances that welcome the US Navy as it’s submarines, cruisers and servicemen come to port. The paradox of the category of the native, that this gaze implies, is that while they are unsplit, pure, their unsplitness is produced only through a split, a divorcing of themselves from the mechanisms of their production. A depriving them of agency, or a force in the manipulation or invention of their representations.

The Chamorro is to be found in the realm of culture, arising in ghostlike gasps and blinks of continuity, as the ruins of the past are trotted in tourist shows and for arriving Naval vessels. It is therefore divorced from politics, the realm of “certitude,” of decisions and debates over meaning and naturalness, the sphere in which the “now” and what it is comprised of and therefore constitutes is formed. The realm from which a critique of that gaze would be made, the realm from which the critique of that gaze is possible. Culture is therefore nothing but performance, and the production of that performance necessarily beyond critique.

For a more concrete way that this dynamic stifles the possibility for Chamorros to change their island and the world around them, atan i tinige' gi pappa'. The label activist is one very clear example of how the split between the cultural and the political operates. There is no such thing on Guam as a "cultural activist." If you are a cultural person then you operate in the past, and only up until the very last moment, the edifice right before the past ends and the present begins. Your authenticity depends primarily on your inhabiting the world of the past and never leaving it. The moment you leave that world, the Chamorro's existence and purity is once again called into question, as if your own.

The activist on the other hand is divorced from this past completely, and detached from the protective embrace or justifying narratives of culture. As the Chamorro activist acts, he does so too often against culture, against the past, and working within a "western world" where there is no cultural preservation, continuinty and no respect.

Of course this is completely wrong, but it is the perception which people from all walks of life are entangled in. It is crucially important that it be changed, that we give the Chamorro a political existence and refuse to give the right to change the world, to improve it, to take stands for justice or against injustice to the United States alone. For indigenous people, decolonization is at its core, the refusal to accept this modern division between the cultural and the political. It means to transgress this division, to move back and forth across it and in Guam it means to reject the monopoly on the future and on progress which both the United States claims and we too often enthusiastically agree to. To reject the notion that the Chamorro is only "cultural" and furthermore to reject that its ideal state is only cultural, is to literally make possible the controlling of our future.

Chamorro Conference exhibits cultural pride, not political activism
by Samantha Lynott, KUAM News
Thursday, March 30, 2006

Representatives from throughout the Marianas are in the middle of the first-ever three-day conference focusing on issues and concerns of Chamorro language, cultures and perspectives. Flora Baza Quan is executive director of the University of Guam Endowment Fund, which made this conference possible. She said that it's happening right now is a dream come true.

"This was a vision for a lot of people who may not even be here all throughout Guam and the CNMI," she shared with KUAM News, "but the fact that it is happening (and we're hoping it will be an annual event) is a very positive thing for the Chamorro renaissance, the Chamorro revival in culture throughout our region."

One of the main organizers of the event, Johnny Sablan, encapsulated the message of the conference in the celebrated language. He proudly said in his native tongue, "Stand up to enjoy our language and our culture."

Both Sablan and Quan have stood up for the Chamorro culture by in more than one way. "Some people call us 'activists' but we're not," the latter maintained. "Activist is a negative term. Actually, we believe because Johnny and I go back with the singing; we're like the first recording artists, Johnny especially. We recorded our songs and the culture is not dead. It's not dying. It's very alive. And this conference is a reaffirmation that there's nothing dead about our culture."

The many performers, artists, chefs and workshop presenters have been displaying a variety of ways to keep that culture alive. Today's presentations focused on research and development. Emilio Ayuyu from Saipan shared ancient Chamorro healing techniques that were passed down from his grandmother. "I'm hoping that some medical doctors that graduate in modern medicine can look into that and combine the knowledge of the modern medicine and the herbal medicine of these local medicines for the healing process," Ayuyu said.

Such presentations by Chamorros about their culture is what makes this conference unique, says project coordinator Raymond Quintanilla. "Some people can claim to right perspectives about Chamorro culture from their viewpoint, but the difference about this conference is that we have the people from the islands representing eight different islands - Guam, Rota, Tinian, Saipan, Agrihan, Anatahan, Pagan, and Alamagan. They're coming here to express their viewpoints, their perspectives about the Chamorro Culture," he explained.

Organizers of the conference hope to plan a second for the near future, hopefully on one of the other of the eight inhabited islands in the Marianas.


Frank Partisan said…
Thank you for your informative post. I hate to admit, it was new to me.

Really good blog.
Unknown said…
KCP isn't represent anything Chamoru ?? PLEASE .. KCP strays away from hula we Guamanian dances and sing Guamanian songs ... unlike other dance groups we stick to our culture ... we ACTUALLY LEARN about our culture and our past. We don't just dance and sing without knowing what it means or the origins of it. The dance instructor goes over each song and dance thoroughlly before teaching. To say that KCP isn't Chamoru sounds ignorant becuase it's anything but true. We are Chamoru and know our culture very well, don't put words on our mouth. You might want to get your facts straight before you open your mouth. Don't be so quick to speak on something you know nothing about.
Unknown said…
This is quite an old posting, but I thought I'd put in my two cents because it is a new objection to me.

Every culture is what the people of the culture make of it, no matter how young or old. Just because things were once done one way does not mean that we have to practice them in the same manner. But this also does not mean to forget where we came from either. The growing problem that faces the Chamorro youth in America is not that they have forgotten where they have come from; it is that they never really knew.

You cannot blame someone for doing something wrong and expect them to correct their ways without knowing what it was that they did wrong in the first place.

It is natural for us, as humans, to adapt to our surroundings, thus making change inevitable. We can try as hard as we can to cling to the remains of a lost culture, but what makes it hard is when times change and old practices are not the most practical.

Chamorros here on the mainland do what they can to stay connected to their culture. The Kutturan Chamorro Performers represent the culture to the best of their ability. They have given the Chamorro youth a chance to connect with their culture. For some of the members in KCP, it is all new because they were not raised with basic Chamorro principles. KCP not only teaches the dance, but they teach the language and history of Guam, and practices that were once common. The group gives them a sense of pride, and it is articles like this that make them think twice about something that gives them so much joy.

KCP may not be the best representation of the Chamorro culture in the eyes of some, but that is no grounds to take away the credit that KCP is due for awakening the Chamorro spirit within a wide number of youth. A great number of that youth have no Chamorro blood in them, but have no problem representing KCP. But because KCP allows non-guamanians to join, should that be another point taken away from their claim to "doing something Chamorro"?

Whatever the social status held today by the Chamorro people as a whole is not only the fault of those who are "falsely representing" it, but it is the fault of our predecesors who have falsely taught us. Every culture will change over time.

It is not the fault of the younger generation for acting in the "chamorro ways" that they are accustomed to. And that is just it: they are accustomed to it. We on the mainland are at an extreme disadvantage because not only are we out of our natural element, but our daily lives can not always be led in the "true chamorro" way.

I am a Chamorro woman living in California, and what I do in my day to day life is MY Chamorro way. I am ashamed that I do not know how to speak my own language, but I did not hear my native tongue spoken when I was a child. I have made efforts to learn.

I dance with a Hawaiian Halau and the Kutturan Chamorro Performers, but does that make me two faced because I am learning an art form from a different island?

We Chamorros are all family. And as a family, we have no place to criticize something our chel'u has done that we know NOTHING about, unless we have taken proper action to HELP THEM correct it.
I'm usually not sure how to respond to comments like these, because I don't know if they're attacking me or not. I just want to clarify, that the comments in the post which attack KCP, aren't mine, they were a comment on a post of mine. I support KCP, and have written many times over of how important they are in terms of supporting and promoting Chamorro identity and cultural revitalization in the United States.
Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said…
I, too, should have clarified ... I was not directing my loooong comment to anyone in particular. The (former) member of Guma' Palu Li'e had a strong opinion about KCP and other groups and individuals like KCP, and I just wanted to voice my own equally strong and objective opinion.
Pacificdreams said…
Actually, island culture and customs SHOULD be taught and done in the same manner as it was back then. There are reasons for this, so to go saying that we can still do them but not in the same manner is maybe why there are cultures and customs like yours fading away and being replaced by ideas. Micronesians have tradition, customs and culture, even when it comes to our dances. Changing or doing things in one's own style is no longer considered custom or tradition. Even when it comes to dances there are ways to a dance, there is a right way to do such dance. Every village also has a dance done in their custom. Every detail is important, from the flower and decoration, to the color of the grass skirt, to the tattoos and local jewelry piece. Dances are to be done traditionally. The only dance you can make up and change are contemporary dances. As for trying to teach the youth about a culture I can understand that, but to teach them dances that are made up is having them base their culture on a lie. The dances are made up by two men on reference to the dvd dances of life, how can you teach dances of the past when these dances themselves were never dances of the past. Micronesians, Polynesians, and Melanesians have very distinctive dance methods, I am from a culture where we have so many chants and different types of dances, dancers move to one ryhthem, and in sync, where observing the chamorro dances, you can tell that they have not been dancing long at all. These dances are recent and obvious that they are made up. However I do sympathize and feel for an island that lost it's culture. The thing is, most of the people who replied on here make sense, and I can understand. I think a lot of Pacific Islanders are angered by some Guamanians because they see part of their dances being used. If you come from an island that dance is a big part of their culture you would understand. I can't speak for all Pacific Island nations, but for micronesians, we all have different methods and a style of dance, and when we glimpse a certain style or method we can say "hey that is a dance step or style from Kosrae/Marshall/Yap/Palau...etc. mixed into the dance. I can understand the anger some feel, because to them, their culture or custom is a big part of their life, and we are very protective of our culture and dances. I have never seen an island that wants to find their culture so much as the Chamorros, and for that I do admire the passion you have that drives you to being in touch with your roots.
Unknown said…
Wow! But why would you assume it was a current or former member of I Fanlalai'an? See, this is why we Chamorus' can never move forward and where the ina'fa'maolek dies...
The person was from Guma' Palu Li'e and their attitude was very divisive. I think both groups have important things to offer and so please don't accuse me of killing inafamaolek.

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