Simplified History is Biased History

I get asked questions about Guam History all the time. 

Almost every day I give an interview to someone who is doing a paper about Guam or Chamoru history, whether it be for middle school, high school or college. 

Or it may be someone doing research for a documentary, a TV show, a newspaper or a book. 

It could be just someone wanting to know more about their roots. 

Or just someone visiting with questions that are bothering them about the contemporary or historical landscape of their temporary home or tourist visit. 

Normally I know the answers, or I know where the answers are.

Or I know that we don't know the answers.

But there are some questions which I'm not quite sure how to answer.

It may be because of how they are phrased, often times because whoever is asking the question may be assuming something that isn't in history or in reality, or isn't connected to what is in the facts or the historical data, and so sometimes I can be at a loss as to how to make a connection.

But other times, it is just because the terms and words and feelings involved make things so complicated, that while there might be plenty to talk about, simplicity might be tough when answering. 

In Guam History terms, one common question and historical figure where this sort of complexity emerges is around Maga'låhi Kepuha. 

He remains the best known of all of our ancient ancestors. 

He welcomed the Catholic Chamoru and was praised by the colonizers for it.

He has his own park and until Typhoon Mawar his own iconic statue. 

And the history books for a time celebrated him as the good native who recognized the power of the colonizer and respectfully made way for their inevitable authority. 

But more recent scholarship and activism has turned Kepuha into more of a sell-out figure.

Someone who didn't stand up for the national spirit or identity, the freedom and sovereignty of his people, but instead, in the name of his own power and the prestige and protection of his own family, decided to support a new colonial regime, that eventually cost the Chamoru people so much.

For a variety of reasons, unpacking Kepuha is always a little bit trickier. 

For someone that we know relatively little about compared to your average politician of today, there are still so many layers in which we put meaning and symbolism into him, and that can be difficult. 

For example, I wrote on this blog a few years ago about how a Middle School student had interviewed me for their National History Day project, where they had selected Maga'låhi Kepuha as a model of an important historical figure and a hero from Guam's History. 

Everything we know about Kepuha as a historical figure comes from just a handful of historical accounts from the 17th century. 

They all tend to portray him in the same light, as a beacon of hope for the new Christian faith in the savage lands, except for a few that come from other voices attached to the colonial mission but who weren't priests. 

Those voices complicate the picture of Kepuha as someone who was eager to embrace the church and simply saw the light of religious inevitability and immediately converted. 

So when you tilt your head, his texture in history can shift dramatically as a hero, villain, as just a person at the right place, wrong time, or vice versa. Or someone just inundated by historical grey, taking advantage of an opportunity. 

There is even the reading of him as someone who was not significant at all, but someone who just stands in to represent those who supported the priests and new religion and that Kepuha himself either didn't exist or wasn't as important as he is made out to be.

Take for instance the issue of land being given to Spanish Jesuit priests for the first church.

If we believe what the priests say about Chamoru culture at the time, then it would not be Kepuha who would make this decision but rather his sister and other women in his clan.

They would make the decisions over the land. 

Were the other Spanish accounts over-exaggerating the power of Chamoru women in social-political life?

Or were they simply eliminating them from this exchange because of their own biases and just reducing what was a larger discussion within a clan, to just Kepuha's gesture? 

A few years ago I wrote a column in the Pacific Daily News about this, talking about how simplified history is usually inaccurate. 

In the case of Kepuha, if he either comes out of your analysis as simply a hero or a villain, then your analysis is probably insufficient or too simple. 

Real history is usually complicated and difficult. 

I'm pasting my article below with more details.


"Simplified History is Biased History: The Case of Kepuha"

by Michael Lujan Bevacqua

Pacific Daily News

December 19, 2019

History has no ideology. This is true in the sense that the events of the past themselves don’t have any implicit bias.

But whenever we tell history, a natural bias will emerge. This bias can take many forms. It doesn’t mean that we can’t understand history in important ways, but there will always be limitations, based on what we can know and how we will frame its retelling.  

One of the ways historians, governments and everyday people can bias our understanding of history is to simplify it. We let ideology enter our understanding of history when we require it to be simple, when in truth it never is. On a daily basis we divide it into victors and losers, good and evil.

We lose our ability to understand historical figures and events if we take this too far.

We find an excellent case of this in Guam history around the figure of Maga’låhi Kepuha, who was noted as one of the first maga’låhi in Guam, who welcomed the mission of Påle’ San Vitores when they first arrived in 1668.

The Catholic church and local governments long promoted Kepuha as the model CHamoru because of his support for the new colonizers. That contrasted him with others who resisted, such as Mata’pang or Hurao.

But opinion also swings heavily the other way, where some see Kepuha as being a sell-out, who traded the future of the CHamoru people for his own personal or familial gain.

Truth in middle

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle.

Kepuha did welcome the Spanish, even to the point where he allowed some of their group to stay in his home. He was one of the first adults to be baptized and converted and his family gave land for the first church in Hagåtña.

Although he accepted the religion, he also regularly argued with San Vitores in the year that they knew each other. Kepuha liked the authority the new religion gave his village, but he also didn’t like how it was weakening their culture and society in other ways.

Kepuha’s death in 1669 was one of the events that helped trigger larger conflict between CHamorus and the Spanish. San Vitores wouldn’t allow his family to take their relative’s skull, per the culture of ancestral worship. His son or nephew, also called Kepuha, declared emmok (vengeance) and became a rebel leader in the coalition later formed by Maga’låhi Hurao.

One account from Kepuha’s initial welcoming of the Spanish really makes clear the complicated position he might have been in. After welcoming the Spanish to stay in his home, one of them made clear to the Maga’låhi that if anything were to happen to the priests, his family would be killed as a result. Kepuha was so worried about the danger to his family that he guarded the entrance to his latte house himself.

Kepuha may have initially welcomed the Spanish, but been unable to turn back on his choice, for fear of what might happen to his family.

Knowing history can give us answers to life, but it may not always give us the answers we might want. But its real value is in representing the complexity of the past.

Life is complicated. If we assume the past was simpler, we may not recognize the complexity around us today.

Michael Lujan Bevacqua is an author, artist, activist and assistant professor of CHamoru studies at the University of Guam.


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