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"Chamorro teacher Joe 'Dågu' Babuata keeps weaving tradition alive"
by Chloe Babauta
Pacific Daily News
August 7, 2017
When Joe “Dågu” Babauta saw “Tan Maria” weaving a hat out of coconut leaves at 12 years old, his lifelong love affair with the art of weaving began.
“Being that I was so young, I had to ask older friends who drove to take me down there from Agat, to where she used to weave at the old Chamorro village behind the Inarajan church,” he said.
Since then, he’s taken any opportunity to learn weaving from anyone he can. He’s spent countless hours getting a feel for the leaves.
“Whenever I would see something, I would ask them (if I could) try,” he said. “That’s the best way to learn, to ask around."
From the time he started weaving, he’s dedicated his life to the craft and helping others learn too.
Babauta has been teaching Chamorro language and culture at Marcial A. Sablan Elementary School in his home village since 2005.
For more than three decades, Babauta has honed his skills and turned fronds into unique creations.
Evolution of the Art
Chamorros have had a long history with the coconut tree, which Babauta honors by passing down the tradition and knowledge.
“Everything, from the roots up to the tip of the tree, there’s a use for it,” he said.
Chamorros have used coconut products for medicine, clothing, slippers and huts.
The leaves are just as useful and versatile.
Some of his most impressive woven work include a life-sized sea turtle and a latte stone — which he can put together in about 15 minutes.
“Before, weaving was for survival,” he said.
There are many different uses and styles of basket weaving depending on the purpose. Different baskets are made for fishing, collecting fruits and cooking rice, to name a few uses.
“Today, it’s more like an art,” he said.”
He sees modern-day weaving as an art form, commonly used as decorations for social events.
At weddings, families decorate with small pieces like birds and katupat, a diamond-shaped woven container for rice.
He said he notices some families still even make the rice in the katupat.
“I’m very happy when I see stuff like that because just to make the katupat, somebody around the family knows how to do it,” he said. “I always ask, ‘hey, who did it? I’d like to meet them.’”
Although the rhino beetle has rapidly affected Guam’s healthy coconut trees, Babauta said it isn’t so bad down south.
“There are trees down south that are affected already, but for some reason the spread is not as fast as up north,” he said.
From Agat, all the way around the south and back up to Talofofo, there are still many healthy trees, he said.
Babauta usually harvests his leaves around the Agat area.
While preparing for Chamorro Month in March, Babauta said teachers in northern villages asked him for help in finding leaves because healthy fronds are scarce.
He’s brought the leaves for the weaving competition for the past two years since northern teachers don’t have easy access to them, he said.
“Thankfully, not all of the southern area is affected yet,” he said. “But yes, it is down there. If you see the trees (in Asan), there are a lot that are affected here. I’m hoping that someone will come out and take (the affected trees) down.”
Babauta said cutting down trees affected by rhino beetles will help, because otherwise the beetles will move from one tree to another.
“We’re trying to spread the word that instead of just stacking your cut leaves and dead coconut leaves, burn them right away,” he said. “Because if you leave them, then that’s what (the rhino beetles) like.”
Passing Down Tradition
Just as he learned from older and more experienced weavers, Babauta wants to pass down the tradition to the next generation.
In July, he hosted a weaving lesson for families at the Guam Museum. There, he talked to parents and children about the history of the weaving tradition, different parts of the coconut tree and its importance to Chamorro society.
"I’m hoping that by doing this, other people (who) are interested would come to me. I’m happy to share.”
At the workshop, he helped participants learn and finish their creations, no matter their pace.
“Even just the way of teaching it, I try to make it easy so they can pick up on it. I teach whoever wants to learn.”
Babauta worked to incorporate weaving into the public schools' Chamorro studies curriculum for the upcoming school year, he said.
He hopes teachers will incorporate weaving into their lesson plans at least once a week.
“The main reason why I did this is because every year during Chamorro Month, we have our weaving competition,” he said. “I’m hoping more kids show up.”
To help pass on the tradition, he's been teaching his coworkers to weave so they can continue when he retires someday.
For the past four years, he’s held summer workshops for interested teachers.
Weaving helps children become more interested in learning the Chamorro language, Babauta said.
“It helps to get the kids interested in learning the language. Just the actions of weaving.”
He teaches his student weaving mostly in Chamorro.
“That way, when they come to me, I tell them they have to explain to me what they’re doing in Chamorro,” he said. “And the ones that are really interested will pick up faster. Just like learning music and songs.”
Babauta said he’s optimistic the faculty at his elementary school will keep the tradition alive and continue to teach the art of weaving when he retires someday.
“I hope that even if I retire, the other teachers will continue,” he said. “So far they’re continuously doing it, and I’m hoping that they pass it on.”