Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Uncharted Waters

Over the weekend I took the kids to a birthday party where instead or horse rides or karabao rides the family was offering proa rides. The party took place on the beach in Hagatna right across the street from the Federal Court Building. Children and adults could take turns riding in the canoe as it went out to the edge of the reef and back. Sumahi and Akli'e' have ridden in boats before but never a canoe like that crafted and manned by Chamorros and other Micronesians.

The canoe and the rides were provided by Rob Limtiaco, a former apprentice of Tun Segundo Blas, the late Chamorro Master Carver. Limtiaco studied under Tun Segundo when Chamorros were at a different point in terms of their shifting of consciousness and moving towards a more indigenous context. This was when Chamorro dancing as we know it today did not exist. There were Chamorro activist groups but Nasion Chamoru was still a decade away from existence. Criticism of the military in terms of its form and its sense of possibility was very different. The way that Chamorros understood themselves as a people was still limited heavily by colonialism and a gross anthropological view of their history. They still saw themselves as having little and being little due to the stains of colonization on them.

For example, according to historical accounts Ancient Chamorros created six different types of canoes. From largest to smallest they were: sakman, the lekkek, duding, duduli, panga and galaide. By the 20th century Chamorros only knew about one of these the smallest, the galaide, which is most likely in truth not even a Chamorro word. The galaide in a way represented the Chamorro in a colonial context. The galaide had no sail and was used primarily to get around in a single bay but not really travel anywhere. This was the Chamorro after European colonization, stripped of its wings or sails in a sense. Stuck and disconnected from the Pacific around it.

As if to make things even worse Chamorros came to use the term for a canoe with no sail to refer to all canoes. That is why for many older Chamorros today the word "galaide" can be used to refer to any type of ship and even canoes with sails even if historically that isn't the right usage. I have had conversations with elderly Chamorros who refuse to accept terms such as "sakman" for canoe because in their mind all there was and can be is the "galaide" and whatever image they have of it.

The movement to recover the tradition of Chamorro navigation attains a new beauty when seen in this context. It is not about going back in time or creating something which is perfectly authentic, whatever that means. It is about giving the Chamorros a sail again. It is about challenging the colonial assumptions that deprived them of their sovereignty and identity, which in essence tore the sail or la'yak from their canoes and then demanded that they exist without the mobility or that sense of purpose. But this is what decolonization is supposed to be about, not the denial of colonization, not a fantasy about living before it or without it, but instead that strength to see the need to attach a sail again to one's canoe, to be able to sail again into new uncharted waters.

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