Saturday, August 02, 2014


I wrote a column for the Marianas Variety titled "Sympathy for the Taotaomo'na" a while back, it provided an overview of different beliefs about Guam's particular brand of spiritual phenomena and how most people may need to expand their understanding of them. For most on the island, taotaomo'na are ghost stories. When you start talking about them, people begin to get intrigued, to get frightened, hairs on their body begin to stand up.

For me it is very interesting that when Destination Truth visited Guam years ago almost everyone hated the show they produced. They were here for a few days, met with people, filmed in the jungles, at beaches, in Tumon. While they were here they seemed to those I spoke to friendly, nice and understanding. People were almost universally irritated and appalled when they saw the Guam Zombie episode they created. The idea that taotaomo'na were somehow zombies made sense to people. It was disrespectful and ignorant. We watched the episode in some of my Guam History classes and no one liked it, or no one at least admitted to liking it. In many situations when Guam is featured in "elsewhere" media a large segment of the population will approve of it simply because it can be filled into the always important "putting Guam on the map" category. No one knows about Guam, people should know about us, and so any press is good press when no one knows who you are.

What I felt was interesting was that none of my students even tried to make this argument. None of them felt that the "attention" Guam would receive from this episode was worth the stupidity of it or the inaccuracy of it. The usual cool someone elsewhere in the world knows a fraction of a thought more about us now, just wasn't enough for the students.

To speak of taotaomo'na as zombies is pretty inaccurate. Even the frightening taotaomo'na that people see as being headless, faceless, with gaping wounds, or the more infamous spooks such as the white lady, none of them are felt to be like "zombies" as people see the walking, shambling and occasionally running and flailing wildly dead. The taotaomo'na doesn't crave human flesh, the taotaomo'na is not a person who has been reanimated. When we think about taotaomo'na, if they aren't simply a bump or a sound or a shape in the dark, they usually have more depth that your typical zombie.

Amidst all the critical conversations of Destination Truth it occurred to me that even if people didn't like the particularly shallow interpretations of the taotaomo'na that the paranormal reality show was offering, they didn't seem to notice that their own understandings of the taotaomo'na were just as shallow and superficial. The taotaomo'na don't exist in simplistic ways of frightening or terrorizing. They have their own stories, they have their own memories and they have their own tragedies of loss and struggles to remember. A philosopher once said that the dead return, because they were not properly buried. The dead appear and make themselves known because of something that prevents them from resting, finding peace, moving on, whatever way you choose to imagine it.

If a taotaomo'na pinches you, if a taotaomo'na is visiting your house, if a taotaomo'na is haunting your dreams, there could and should be a wider reason for it. It isn't simply because that is what taotaomo'na do. Many people understand this aspect, but not in terms of recognizing the interority of the taotaomo'na, but rather in conceptualizing their resolution or their neutralization. People see the purpose or the reasoning behind taotaomo'na, not in terms of their presence, their acts, the way they appear, but rather in the way so many taotaomo'na stories end with an attempt at restitution, an apology, a submission, a promise to not do something again. In those parts of the story people see that a taotaomo'na doesn't haunt simply to haunt. He does so to protect something. She does it to prevent something. It does it to keep something alive, to keep something dead. Sometimes he will do something because he can't help himself. She will haunt you because she has mistaken you for someone else.

When you get past the terror and the otherworldiness of taotaomo'na, you can presented with stories that are fragmented, blurred, confusing and all in all very human. Stories of people who brush up against taotaomo'na and get pinched or scared don't tell us much, but if you listen to the stories of those who spend time with taotaomo'na, those who have talked to them, listened to their tales, learned from them, it can help you understand why Chamorros in the past would have seen these spirits as worthy of being revered, these were after all their ancestors, their relatives, those who had come before. 

This brings me to the term "gaiga'chong" which is often used for those who have an intimate relationship to a single taotaomo'na or to taotaomo'na in general. For them taotaomo'na are not crazy spooks, they aren't monsters or demons, for them they are "mangga'chong." For them the spirits are often euphemistically referred to as "friends." Below is a description I gave of someone who is "gaiga'chong" from my article "Taotaomo'na FAQs" in 2012.
Gaiga’chong: This is a word that can refer to your buddy, your friend, your confidant or the love of your life. In certain contexts, the term is heavily associated with people who befriend taotaomo’na, and live their lives intimately linked to one, or several of them. The prefix gai- in Chamorro means “to have something” and so gaiga’chong means “to have a partner.” Gaiga’chong people are always a little bit different. They may keep to themselves and appear to be aloof, strange or nothing special. They may also be exceptional, and excel at everything they do, sometimes appearing to be superhuman, super intelligent or even psychic. They get their exceptional abilities from the taotaomo’na, who can whisper to them secrets or help them to the point where they appear to be incredibly strong or adept. Being in a relationship with someone who was gaiga’chong could be difficult, especially if that person was often ekgo’ (jealous). Jealous gaiga’chong lovers were often known to have their taotaomo’na helpers spy on their significant other, reporting their every move to make sure they were being faithful.

The reason I'm thinking of this today is because, while I was taking my class hiking at Pagat earlier, one of my students brought his brother along, who he had told the class earlier is gaiga'chong. He told a couple stories about him, how he he used to disappear in the jungle sometimes and even sneak out to sleep there at night. When he would be around suruhanas they would feel overwhelmed by him because of the presence of his friends who were always following him. I've meet many people who were gaiga'chong before, but it is always a bit of a surprise. Right in the middle of talking to him, he just wandered away into the jungle. He appeared ten minutes later further up the trail waiting and smoking, saying he found some cool stuff in the jungle.

Below is an article from 2010 when Destination Truth was in Guam for those interested in learning more about their visit. 


‘Destination Truth’ probes taotaomona

THE crew of Syfy Channel’s “Destination Truth,” a weekly reality series that features paranormal occurrences, is on Guam to do research on taotaomona, the ancient spirits that Chamorro people believe guide them.

Known for his worldwide travels to seek the truth behind legends such as the Chupacabra to the Burmuda Triangle, Josh Gates and his crew arrived on Guam last week to meet with locals and document their experiences with the taotaomona, the spirits of ancient people that arrived in the Marianas about 5,000 years ago.

The crew includes Bobby Pura, co-producer and investigator; Erin Ryder, co-producer, researcher; Mike Morrell, audio engineer; Vanessa Joy Smith, tech manager; Rex Williams, medic; and camera operators Gabriel Copeland and Evan B. Stone.

Now on its fourth season, Destination Truth features supernatural occurrences in different cultures around the world.

“Micronesia, I think, is a place that I don’t think gets featured enough in film and TV. So we really wanted to come to Guam to experience the culture,” Gates said.

*Traditional healing*

The research began Saturday with the investigation into the practice of traditional healing.

The crew’s first stop was at the home of Bernie and George Nelson in Dededo, where they sat down and talked to Emilio Aldan Ayuyu, a 58-year-old suruhano.

Originally from Saipan, but residing in Dededo, Ayuyu was asked to make a special type of oil mixed with secret ingredients from the Nelsons’ medicinal garden. It is believed that the organic solution would protect the crew from “chalan maipe” or curse from the spirits.

“A few nights from now we’ll be out in the jungles a bit,” Gates said.

After interviewing Ayuyu, the Destination Truth crew went up north to Hila’an Point near NCTAMS to talk to Ko San Nicolas, of the Nusantou clan, from Ypao. In the evening hours, they drove down to the village for a private blessing ceremony performed by the clan.

“Everyone that we have met has been so lovely,” Gates said.

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