Thursday, November 26, 2009

Decolonization and the Loincloth

I’m sure that most people out there have heard the term “sausagefest” before. Its a term you use to refer to the fact that something is comprised mainly of men, or to call attention to the fact that there are way too many men here.

The Micronesian Island Fair last month at Ipao beach, was a very interesting and inspiring experience, but also one which some might refer to however, as a sade’fest. Sade’ is the Chamorro word used for diaper, but it is also the contemporary Chamorro word which is used for loincloth.

For a variety of reasons at this year’s event, there were sevearal dozen men, from Guam and from other islands who were sporting very little clothing other than a small shred of cloth covering their, you know what’s.

Chamorros from Guam and Rota who were wearing loincloths did so because of their participation in certain events, such as the building and maintaining of the guma’higai, a small cultural village which was built on the edge of the fair, and was meant to represent a blending of ancient and prewar traditions. Men also came sinade’ in order to participate in the guma’latte blessing ceremony that was held on the afternoon of the last day of the fair. A large guma’latte or latte house will be constructued at Ipao over the next few months, which will eventually be the home of the Saina, or the large open ocean sakman canoe that the group TASI built last year and sailed to Rota earlier this year.

The blessing ceremony was truly a site to behold, since it incoporated not just these men in loincloths, but also hundreds of chanters and dancers, all of which represented contemporary Chamorros making a pact or a convenant with the spirits in the ground at Ipao. As part of this compact they will be allowed to build a structure there, but they will also have to pay proper respect and deference to the ancestral spirits that still remain there.

At the start of the ceremony, more than a dozen men in loincloths and different ancient inspired regalia from weapons such as futfut and pulus, to acho’ atupat, and tuhong tinifok made from designs recorded from ancient times. It was incredible to see, these men standing tall and proud, and unfazed by the fact that around them, people were constantly snapping pictures, there were numerous remarks being made about the shapes and tightness (or lack thereof) of their daggans,
Chamorros prior to Spanish colonization, went naked most of the time, and would wear certain articles of clothing (such as grass skirts, pandanus vests or a tife’) for special events, such as parties or war.

Loincloths started being used in Guam as an assertion of a more indigenous identity or to make a statement only in the past few decades, first as part of plays or shows, but later as the wardrobe of certain political and cultural activists. Naturally, those who did these sorts of things, especially the activists, were looked down on and metaphorically spat upon as being crazy people, fools, who want to turn back the clock, or can’t accept the way things are and live in fantasy worlds.

Nowadays, they are becoming more and more common, especially with the rise of youth dance groups. There is however, still a certain amount of public scorn and contempt for not just those who wear loincloths, but those who are making efforts to bring back certain practices or re-invent things which were lost. They are perceived as people who are fighting against the will of history, as attempting to do the impossible, raise the dead, or reconnect to something we have already been long broken from.

Although we all speak constantly about culture and regularly claim to know how it works, and when something is really something, or when something is borrowed, or when something no longer exists, most people don’t actually consider in their comments how culture works. To be very clear, there is no such thing as authentic or original culture. Not on Guam and not anywhere.

There is no certain and natural way in which a culture is supposed to exist, whereby if they change they are somehow inauthentic or don’t really exist anymore. Cultures are constantly changing, and they change not only because something is lost or because something is gotten rid of, but also because they adapt and they re-invent themselves.

Therefore there is no natural or correct route to culture, it will always change, regardless of whether you are colonized or influenced by another culture, your culture will always change from one generation to the next and never remain the same.

Therefore, there is no actual reason why Chamorros cannot attempt to revive old forms or try to reinvent arts such as dance or trades such as canoe carving or navigation. You can claim that those things were lost along time ago, but that is no reason why we shouldn’t bring them back today.

We may place a high value on culture which appears to be natural or authentic, but in truth culture is always about choices. It is always a matter of people making decisions, to change things, to adapt, to incorporate and so on. It is the same today, when we look at our history and how it is changed, it is up to us to determine whether we want to take it in a new direction or not. And ideas of what we can or cannot authentically do shouldn’t play a role in making our minds up.

The work that groups such as TASI are doing represent a form of very concrete and clear decolonization. An attempt at forging a new path in Chamorro culture, by reaching into the past for something that was lost, but making an over effort that this be there for us in the future. It has nothing to do with turning back the clock, but merely taking control over our culture and our future. The ways that Chamorros navigated the seas when the Spanish came to Guam is not something that we should let remain in the history books or archives alone, if we have the desire and the means it should be brought back, it should become an everyday part of our strength as a people.

The same, perhaps, goes for the sade’.

I wonder, if as I watch events such as the launching of the Saina, and the construction of the guma’latte, if I am watching a real shift in the course of our history take place. I wonder sometimes if someday the carving of a sakman or a galaide, will not only just be something that a group like TASI does, but something which all families take part in. Something which fathers and sons or mothers and daughters accomplish together.

When I consider the possibility of this happening, then I also wonder what will become of the sade’? Will there come a point where its considered normal to wear a sade’? Will there come a point in Chamorro culture where Chamorro men will wear loincloths for special ceremonies or occasions? Where a well-made, expensive sade’ will be like a nice suit? I wouldn’t be against this at all, but it does make me think about how I really should be working out more.

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