Friday, March 14, 2014
The Taotaomo'na Test
I always prepare my students for things that might happen and this both excites and scares them. Most people on Guam have heard of taotaomo'na stories and know people who know people where things have happened to them. But even if the stories are everywhere, this doesn't mean people have an intimate relationship to this spirits. It doesn't at all mean that somehow they have a deep or even passable understanding of the spirits of Guam.
As I have written about many times, the term "taotaomo'na" is itself an interesting discursive wall that has a very tragic history. Taotaomo'na is not a term that you find in the accounts of the Spanish when they first came to Guam and began colonizing. It is a term that appears much later after Chamorros have been colonized and accepted Catholicism as their faith. It is a term that was used by Chamorros whose relationship to their ancestors, especially those who lived prior to the arrival of Catholicism, had become detached and even antagonistic. Chamorros once had an incredibly intimate relationship to the spirits of their ancestors even to the point of talking to them and asking favors of them in addition to keeping relics of them such as skulls. Catholicism intervened and disrupted this, making Chamorros feel estranged from those spirits since now the power and productivity of the world was determined by God, Jesus Christ and a host of saints.
Taotaomo'na is the name of that estrangement. It literally means "the people of before" or "of the front." It is not something that Chamorros solely use to refer to spirits, but something they also once used to refer to the artifacts of their elders. Taotaomo'na was something that they would whisper in reverent tones when they walked by latte stones. Taotaomo'na was something they might invoke when they would find a slingstone or a human bone spear in the jungle. When Chamorros began to use shell jewelry again such as the sinahi, the word "taotaomo'na" was used by some elders to refer to those necklaces. Taotaomo'na enao!
So it is natural and understandable that my students feel that same estrangement and not feel like they have an real connection to those spirits. But through my taotaomo'na stories I try to help them open up and start to see those spirits in different ways. See them not as menacing shades or as trickster pests, but as potential elders, saina siha, guides. The taotaomo'na see much and make their own choices as to how they respond. Sometimes they stay silent, sometimes they punish, sometimes they help.
While taking my students on a hike to Pagat recently I was noticing bad omens everywhere. My shoe broke at the start of the hike. Eight students got stung by bees. A student peed near a latte stone and then a tree came crashing down behind me. A student reported seeing a pile of grenades, which disappeared after we went looking for it. A piece of pottery fell to pieces in my hand. I stepped into a hole and sprained my ankle. With all of these things happening I was preparing for the worst. I felt like something bad was going to happen.
For this hike we took the extended loop trail at Pagat instead of just going down to the cave and then back up. By the time we got to the cliffs, people were spread out over the trail and I needed to stay close to the rear to be sure those struggling were ok. I divided people into groups, each with a guide who had been on the trail before more than once. Once they were in groups I started to send them back up. While I was in the last group heading up the strangest thing happened. As we were walking along one trail, moving in one direction, we all of a sudden skipped and ended up on another trail on the other side of the cave. The trails don't intersect and we would have had to walk quite a way to end up on the other trail, but all of a sudden in the blink of an eye, we had ended up in a completely different part of Pagat.
I took this as a sign that someone had gotten lost or was about to get lost. I can't explain it, but for some reason this is how I interpreted the signs. I rushed ahead to get to the cave area and see if anyone was there. I found some students and asked them if anyone had gone off the trail. The students there weren't helpful. They said someone might have gone south instead of west like they were supposed to, but no one knew for sure. I knew three places on the trail heading up the hill where people often get lost and I felt like this was a big gamble and if someone had gotten lost I would need to get it right the first time to have any hopes of finding them.
I choose a path by the large nunu tree there and started to run. For several minutes I followed that trail and didn't see anyone or any signs that someone had been through there recently. Eventually I decided to stop and head back, feeling pretty certain that no one had gotten lost and everything was ok and I was just freaking out. Before I turned around though, I felt the need to check one more time. I yelled out into the jungle, "Is anyone lost out there?" From off in the distance I heard, "Yes, we are."
I found two students who had wandered away from their group and ended up completely lost. I would like to think that all of that wasn't random, and that is wasn't just me having a bad day and then me getting lucky. I would like to thank that the spirits, the taotaomo'na, the manganiti knew what was going on and intervened, just the way the used to, to help protect the living.