Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Searching for a Slingstone

I was searching for a slingstone.

It is an artifact, an ancient weapon that one rarely finds just lying around Guam, however today I am saddened to find a place where I there are plenty of them.

Peering through the gaps in a fence made of orange plastic which guards the multi-million dollar remodel for the Okura Hotel, I see scattered and crushed beneath backhoes and bulldozers fragments of the slingstones I am seeking. These sights of development are becoming more common on Guam, in anticipation of the massive military increases the island is expecting over the next few years. Vague but monstrously huge sums of money are being dangled before the people of Guam by local business leaders as well as Federal and military officials, and people are clamoring both on and off of Guam to get a piece of the action.

Around the island we see the halom tano’ (jungle) being cleared and the tåno’ (land) being hollowed out. In places such as Okura, the excavation is resulting in huge collections of Ancient Chamorro artifacts, slingstones and pottery and even bones, finding their way to the surface.

In the recent expansion of the Okura Hotel, the bones of more than 350 Ancient Chamorros have been uncovered and unearthed. The discovery of te’lang (bones) during development on Guam is nothing new, especially in Tumon, which was long ago a vibrant Ancient Chamorro village. During the construction booms that eventually turned Tumon into the concrete jungle of hotels and bars that it is today, a huge number of Ancient Chamorro village and burial sites were disturbed and unearthed. How much damage was done and how many graves were disturbed is unknown, since many hotels did nothing to preserve, study or even respect the bones.

The thinking of these businesses was probably a pragmatic “who cares?” These bones are old, broken and anonymous. They were buried within the odda’ (soil) long ago, and any tombstones or latte to mark their existence is long gone. There is no life left in these bones, so who care what happens to them.

We too, might make the same assumption, although perhaps with less disrespect, that the rising of the bones from the earth was a tairespetu (rude) awakening, caused by the metallic indifference of a bulldozer. As I squeeze the orange plastic fence, hoping to get a better look at the excavation, I know that there is another way to see the violent arrival of these te’lang.

Ancient Chamorros believed that after death, the ante (soul) of a person remained in their bones, most specifically the skull. After all the flesh had left a person’s skull it would be taken from the buried body and returned to the home of its relatives. Once there, the skull would be treated as a revered member of the family, because of the good fortune and protection it could bring to the living family members.

Lying, buried amid these weapons which they used in their time to defend Guam, we can imagine these bones throwing themselves against these bulldozers in an attempt to stop them. Could then, their rising from the earth, be their own decision, their own form of quiet, but clear protest? Does their arrival represent their efforts to tell us something and somehow continue to protect us and Guam?

Given the “jungle” in which they emerged, are they warning us against this new round of “development” or at least demanding that we rethink what the idea means and how we should “develop Guam?” Is their protest in hopes of stopping Guam from again entering an unsustainable and dangerous development cycle? Have they returned to remind us, that there is more to the land, more in the land, then simply the money one can make from selling it?

As I release the orange fence and begin to turn away, unable to reach any of the slingstone pieces, there is one thing here that I can still take hope in, and as I feel that spirit, I whisper a respectful “Saina Ma’ase.”

Ancient Chamorros believed that the success or failure of their lives depended upon maintaining a respectful harmony amongst their living relatives and more importantly their deceased ones who had become ancestral spirits. The ante of one’s elders resided close by the family at all times, and one planted crops, fished and fought battles with their assistance. Families which met with incredible calamity or violent death, were though to have offended their ancestral spirits and lost their protection.

In September of 2007, after a number of small protests by members of the community regarding the treatment of the Chamorro remains by the Okura Hotel, construction there abruptly stopped. The stated reason was simply a lack of funds. I know that this is the most likely reason, however I still smile to think, to hope for something else. Perhaps this stoppage of construction is a signal, a sign that the ancestral spirits of Ancient Chamorros are still with us, defending us, and possibly still throwing some slingstones of their own.

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