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