Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Decolonizing Death

People ask me all the time what decolonization means or is. Manhoben, manåmko’, taotao sanhiyong, taotao sanhalom, all hear of this term as they go about their lives, but are unclear as to what it might mean. For most it stirs up fearsome feelings about losing everything that makes life possible and so they are seeking some reassurance that decolonization couldn’t mean that. I have a variety of answers, anecdotes, theoretical lens and concept ready to go, but it always depends on the context. Are they speaking to me about decolonization in a political context? Or is it cultural? Linguistic? Economic? Spiritual? People will conceive of decolonization differently based on their particular interests or their set of phobias. Many will instinctively define decolonization in a particular way because of their fears of feelings of dependency. Others will want to define it in a certain way because of their interest in something changing.

You can conceive of decolonization in a very narrow sense, as either a pointless or useful thing. You can see it as a matter primarily for cultural practitioners, for political activists or for crazy people and narrowly define it so that it is easier to manage, understand or ignore. For me, I believe in the opposite philosophy. As colonization is something that permeates almost all aspects of life on Guam, decolonization must necessarily be something with the same potential scope. As colonization affects the large, the small and all in between, decolonization must be able to work in the same way. It has to be something that we can conceive of as working in a multitude of ways on a multitude of levels. 

To simplify things from this point, I would argue that decolonization can be broken down into two basic ways. The first is when something significant happens that people are aware of and take note of. It can be for example if Guam became an independent country or if it became a state. There is a public, formalness to the event, a feeling that we have entered a new realm of time and that things have changed in earnest. When a previous Governor of Guam wanted to changed the official name of the island to Guahan, he was attempting to facilitate one such sea-level changes, although it did backfire when people realized that emptiness of the intentions and the actions. 

More often than not though, decolonization happens without people even realizing it. Because decolonization is something that ultimately is centered around colonial legacies and what to do with things that are currently attributed to the colonizer’s presence or influence, there are explicit ways that people contend with those things, and people generally fear those sorts of changes as not being possible or advisable. People on Guam lament everything from the economy to the educational system to the government but resist any discussion about changing those things so that they don’t follow the imported colonial models that we have been making minute changes to for decades and centuries. Although people may resist openly these changes, Guam changes constantly, with meaning and identity shifting and people not realizing their own role in the shifting. 
I have plenty of examples to help illustrate this point, but I’ll provide a very personal one today for this column. And as the title indicates, I am speaking about “finatai” or death. Prior to European colonization, the religious framework for Chamorros was centered around ancestral veneration. Upon death, family members would become aniti, ancestral spirits who existed around us and could be called upon for help in times of need. The worship of skulls was a key part of this, and as you can imagine the Spanish priests sought to separate, by any means necessary, Chamorros from these totems and these beliefs.

Later Chamorros became Catholic and adopted a European religious cosmology, although aspects of their beliefs prior to colonization persisted. Belief in the aniti, now rebranded as taotaomo’na is still present up until today, but the dominant framework for belief and for giving the world a spiritual structure is one dictated by churches such as i Gima’yu’us Katoliko. Chamorros began to revere and remember their dead in ways that sometimes hinted at their older traditions, but were primarily reliant on Western religious rituals and beliefs.

When my grandfather, Tun Jack Lujan, the Chamorro Master Blacksmith passed away earlier this year we held a burial ceremony for him and sang songs that reflected a Chamorro Seventh Day Adventist tradition, a religion that was only introduced to the island a few generations ago. But we were also happy to welcome to the ceremony the groups Pa’a Taotao Tano’ and Inetnon Gefpago, who opened and close the service with chants. For these groups, they saw my grandfather as an honored elder, a master artisan who had dedicated his life to perpetuating the culture of the Chamorro people. They sang of him not as a soul to be caught by God in death, but as a spirit who connected us to our ancestors for thousands of generations past, long before the introduction of Christianity. 

Just a few generations ago, having cultural dance groups like this was impossible and unthinkable. It would have been further unimaginable to have them sing at a funeral and to honor the dead through references to ancient elders and ancestral spirits. But this is the possibilities for decolonization. When groups such as Pa’a Taotao Tano’ and Inetnon Gefpago take on the task of changing the contours of our consciousness, it can happen without many people even realizing how what was once made impossible via colonization has now been made normal through decolonization.

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