Sunday, July 29, 2012

First Stewards #4: The High Talking Chief

On the last day of the First Stewards Climate Change Symposium those of us in attendance were treated to a custom of the Samoans, tulafale, or a high talking chief. A literal Samoan chief was in attendance and took the stage. He was followed by a shirtless man, wearing a wrap, holding in his hand a beautiful carved wooden staff. The chief himself didn't speak, but instead all the talking was done by the talking chief. This we were told is the way things are in Samoa. Talking chiefs are those who are trained in the art of storytelling and genealogy. Gifted with articulation and creativity they would be the ambassadors for the high chiefs, speaking to the people, inspiring to them and also listening to them and representing the chief in the best way possible.

He shared some beautiful sentiments about everyone coming together and making important connections and fighting to protect their communities. His words were translated by a member from the Samoan delegation who had a microphone in the audience. After he was done he called to the stage Micah McCarty, a tribal council member from the Makah of Washington State. The Makah along with the Hoh, Quinault and the Quileut are all Washington State tribes. They were the hosts for the symposium, and Micah in particular acted as the MC for much of the proceedings. He was one of the leaders featured in the promotional materials for the conference (such as the program) and so for many he was the "face" of the symposium.

The Talking Chief presented to Micah two beautiful presents, the staff and the whisk, a symbol of wisdom, both the essential gear of a high talking chief. 
"This is the staff of a high talking chief in Samoa. A Samoan orator. This is a symbol of authority. In our villages. In our districts...Everywhere you go in Samoa you are a high talking chief, it is a symbol of authority...I would like to present to you, Micah, in the spirit of appreciation for a job well done in organizing this symposium. 
Micah accepted the gift and was visibly choked up and emotional about it. He wanted to accept the gift, but also wanted to make sure that the proper protocols were followed. He pulled out an object that was both a rattler and a whistle and began to say a solemn chant. It was a very touching moment, for so many reasons.

One of the things that was interesting from a Chamorro perspective, was the emphasis on protocol. For any official event in Guam there are protocols, but these are ones that are more or less standard for most modern countries. These is a prayer of some sort (in the past it was Catholic, but nowadays it can be from several religions, including one that is Ancient Chamorro in spirit). There may be a dance or a song. There are mentions of the famous and political people in the audience. But for the most part there is little that is there that you could call is derived from a Chamorro experience or Chamorro history/culture.

That is to be expected in some sense because Guam has been colonized for so long and part of colonization is the hiding or the expelling of those things that become associated with the colonized. This is not a statement on how we don't have any of the authentic Chamorro things anymore and they were all lost to colonization. It is instead a question on whether or not the Chamorro feels as if they can make a mark on the world through their culture. Whether their culture is something worth asserting, especially in the company of non-Chamorros, or whether it should be hidden away and not really imposed on others. This is where the value of a sense of sovereignty is for indigenous people today.

Indigenous people tend to be very small and sometimes invisible groups. They are obscured and given subordinate places in the lands that they used to call their own. Their suppressed histories, their attacked cultures, their stolen lands all point to them having nothing and so much being taken from them. Given the realities they face it might appear to make sense for them to just give up everything and just let it all go. But that sovereignty can give you a foundation upon which you can strengthen your identity, re-infuse value into your culture and keep your ability to stand strong, fight on or decolonize alive.

For the first stewards conference there was alot of protocol implemented into our daily activities. There were certain protocol officers who participated in all cultural activities. There were witnesses whose purpose was to go back to their communities in order to communicate as best as they could the messages of the symposium. There were regular ceremonies, prayers and chants that accompanied introductions, exchanges. It was beautiful to see.

Amongst the Guam delegation attending the conference we discussed what sort of protocols we have and we traced some of what I've already mentioned. There were references to sniffing the hand of an elder, and initially refusing something that is offered to you but we couldn't come up with much more than that which is taken seriously. For some conferences and events there is an emphasis on that, but Chamorros seem to lack that feeling of sovereignty. If they are invisible in most things, inaudible in most places, it is fine, because they accept the idea that Chamorros are secondary to the United States, and so it is perfectly normal for an aura of Americanness to dominate or inundate everything.

But this is one of the most important conversations in Guam that no one wants to have. Guam has been a Chamorro homeland, as far as we know for 4000 years. It was a Spanish colony for a couple hundred. A Japanese colony for 32 months. An American colony for more than a century. But when we look at the island today, there is a cursory sort of respect for the indigenous people, but they are, like most indigenous people today, not supposed to have any sovereignty. They are supposed to give up their language and culture and land in order to make way for others, and not impose themselves on others, but allow someone greater, in this case the United States to be the neutral imposing force. Such is the most nefarious aspect of settler colonialism. Is that it appears to be so natural and invisible. It is appears to be so practical there shouldn't be anything wrong with it. Why should Chamorros have more say in Guam than anyone else? The American flag flies over Guam and that means they are in charge. The idea of respect and holding a true love or affection for the place that you live is gone by this point, all that is left is selfish settler colonialism.

1 comment:

The Saipan Blogger said...

Is the chief Ray Tulafono? And are you still in DC?

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