Updated: Feb 22
A critical review of contemporary cultural practice by Dakota Camacho
Chamorro plagiarism disguised as ‘cultural borrowing’ is a documented (but seldom rigorously discussed) reality in the cultural performance realm.* The uncritical mis-appropriation of other pacific cultures and reworking them (or not, as the case may be) with some local inspiration has also taken root in other art forms. I’ve had a joke going with some friends that if you see a filipinx-latinx looking person with Polynesian tattoos they’re probably Chamorro.
Chamorro scholar Michael Bevacqua has written about this critique of cultural authenticity as another form of internalized colonization whereby questioning the authenticity of current cultural practices thereby asserts the ‘authentic’ Chamorro is only existing pre-contact.** He says, this critique relies on the belief that the colonizer controls the interpretation of indigeneity and that only within the western framework does the indigenous lose its claim to indigeneity during colonization.
I do not believe that indigineity is defined by a timeline of authenticity or by western colonizers. From my perspective, Indigineity is a community expression of an environmentally and genealogically specific identity. While definitions of indigeneity differ from place to place, as do our languages, indigenous scholars have found it useful to outline a basic framework of what constitutes an indigenous worldview.***
I believe this hair-trigger emotional (and sometimes incredibly intellectual) self-consciousness around ‘authenticity’ and need to assert our indigineity is caused by the rupture to our indigenous worldview and it is only through revitalizing our worldview — the way our ancestors relate to the natural world, cosmos, lands, ancestors, waters and all of creation — will we ever be self-confident in our expression of indigineity. And through this self-confidence, we will find that ‘feeling’ of freedom, Nina Simone, and Audre Lorde tell us is there in that deep, ancient, darkness. ****
Facing realities: The Worldview Cost of Land Loss
The reality of cultural loss for Matao is heavy and deep. We have been for over three-hundred years now been resisting displacement from our language, traditions, and lands. And, in many accounts we have been quite successful in bringing our ‘culture’ back. Yet, many of us have difficulty explaining that feeling many of us get when we watch what is promoted as our ‘culture’.
It’s a mix of pride and comfort that somebody is doing ‘something’, that admiration for the neni’s pride in who they are, the relief that have some semblance of culture to call there own — and yet, at the same time, a deep longing for something handed down, something unbroken, something more ‘authentic’, something more ‘Chamoru’ or ‘Chamorro’ or ‘CHamoru’ or ‘taotao håya’ or ‘Matao’. I believe these feelings are symptoms of the unrealized potential of renewing our indigenous (Matao) worldview.
We have all been moved off of our ancestral lands since the Spanish enacted their policy of Reduccion in the 1700s, which resulted from the thirty year overt war against Spanish colonizing and the foreign diseases. These factors led to a decline of our indigenous population down to 1% of what existed before the arrival of the Spanish. ***** Now, these census numbers and population statistics referencing ‘pure-blooded indigenes’ have a whole host of problematics, yet they can be useful, in a way, for us to come to peace with a reality we have been, with good reason, refusing to face.
We are contending with an insidious form of settler colonialism that has severely disturbed our relationship to our land and waters, and in order to truly experience a revitalization of ‘culture’ we must come to a deep understanding of the impacts of this disruption, and then move forward in attempting to craft a remedy. Medicine without a full understanding of the reason the spirit/body are vomiting, bleeding out, shutting down, will ultimately not solve the problem. It’s like treating bruising with an icepack only to realize it’s been caused by a taotaomo’na communication.
And, just as the Kákåhna and makåhna offer us specialized insight into what the spiritual/physical ailments may be, I believe we need to devote ourselves to developing this specialist knowledge about our history/historical wounds.
Eve and Tuck’s definition of Settler Colonialism aptly applies to the history/present conditions of Guåhan, Låguas, yan Gåni: "Land is what is most valuable, contested, required. This is both because the settlers make Indigenous land their newhome and source of capital, and also because the disruption of Indigenous relationships to land represents a profound epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence” (Tuck and Yang 2012). ****** And, it is for this reason that land claims played, and continue to play, such a central role in the Chamorro liberation movement.
Yet, the disruption of our epistemology, ontology, and cosmology resonates today, in insidious ways, and as such, I amplify the words of Renee Lynn Broadbridge Legge Linklater, Rainy River First Nations scholar, “it may be necessary to decolonise our worldviews and essentially understand the fragmentation that has occurred. To deny the impact of colonisation on Indigenous worldviews would only contribute to the solidification of colonised perspectives” (Linklater 2012). *******
Revitalizing our culture, reclaiming our culture, requires we understand what is meant when indigenous people say ‘culture’. In the present, I would say we are attempting to reclaim our indigeneity without fully grasping what indigineity is, what an indigenous worldview is". And, this is dangerous because it internalizes interpretations of our indigineity which subtly perpetuates colonizing, and erases opportunities for the renewal and indeed revitalization of our indigenous worldviews.
Dancing Our Worldviews or Stealing our 'Dance'
Cultural dance is one very clear example. Cultural plagiarism has been applauded by an American folklorist, Judy Flores, through her academic research and used the fact of ‘cultural loss’ as a justification, saying she believes its the only thing Rabon (and his colleagues) could do. ********
It may have appeared to be the only thing that could be done at the time. And we should give respect to Rabon for his work in renewing our community's appreciation for indigenous dance. Yet, it is way past the time to confront the hard truths that make his methods questionable, and potentially destructive to the development of indigenous consciousness.
First, the justification of plagiarism as a symptom of colonialism means we define our indigineity by necessary, albeit unfortunate, relationship with colonizing. This is one which relies on linear timeline of western thought where cultural loss led to our cultural ‘re-invention’. It is one in which the method of creativity comes into being as a response to a deeply colonial loss. We have to keep repeating the story of our cultural loss, as a way of making our ‘borrowing’ okay. As Tuck and Yang point out, “[i]ndigenous peoples are those who have creation stories, not colonization stories, about how we/they came to be in a particular place - indeed how we/they came to be a place” (2012). ********* Creation stories are essential for indigenous peoples because they give us insight into how our ancestors viewed the phenomena of the natural world — how they viewed the creative process (Royal 1999) ********** And so we end up investing in a form of dance that ‘represents’ our culture rather than investing in efforts to articulate our creativity from within our indigenous worldview.
Secondly, it demonstrates a colonizing perspective in which culture and cultural practice can be separated from context, peoples, and lands, and especially so without acknowledgment. In 1983, Rabon, a professional Polynesian dancer, "began to choreograph hula movements to Chamorro music in order to create something with a local identity” (Flores 1999). *********** This requires deconstructing what the meaning of being a ‘professional’ means in context of cultural dance — which in the 1980’s likely was completely divorced from the cultural protocols. Though we can never be sure, because despite the citing of his training, there is never once an acknowledgment of who his Kumu Hula were/are.
As Kumu Hula Vicky Takamine points out, "Halau is different somewhat from most dance schools. In halau you make a commitment to the kumu hula, the master teacher that's very difficult to break. You become a family and have kuleana, responsibilities and priveleges that come with being in the family. You are connected to a genealogy of teachers that you are responsible to that have come before you and will come after you and a family of kumu hula, brother and sister halau that will hold you responsible for your choices and actions” (Takamine 2011). ************
This relationality is endemic to most, if not every, indigenous culture, and can be seen in Matao/Chamorro culture through our practices of ika/chenchu’le during Matai, and even in the practice of faninge’, to honor each our relatives, our genealogies, and responsibilities.
Her next blog post also aptly explains the importance of the Halau system within the cultural context.
“From [my kumu] Aunty Maiki we learned to make all of our own instruments, printed our own kihei and pā'ū, learned drumming patterns and which ones belong to the hula pahu and which drum beats belong to the ipu, the correct way to place your ipu and sit while drumming, what chant styles were appropriate for hula and oli etc. We 'uniki with 'ailolo, the formal eating of the pua'a hiwa, a pure black pig roasted to perfection and partook of all the parts of the pua'a symbolically infusing those qualities into our whole being. We were expected to be experts in our field of dance and chant and we worked hard to ensure that our kumu was pleased with our work” (Takamine 2011). *************
The taking of hula movement, rhythms, and instruments and applying them to Chamorro music was the initial choreographic method of Rabon. We can not be sure how much, or if this has changed at all. But, we can take note that without Rabon’s acknowledgement of his training, that we will never be sure whether or not his Kumu are pleased with his work. We can never be sure if the ‘borrowed’ [sic] drum patterns, chant styles, instruments, etc. are appropriate or appropriated. Are Frank’s student’s now (unknowingly) apart of the Hula genealogy which created his practice? What’s their commitment and responsibility to the teachers that came before him?
The continued use of the ipu heke (gourd) and the djembe by Chamorro dance groups, despite being confronted by Kanaka Maoli about the inappropriateness of the actions, demonstrates that inafa’maolek, somehow only applies locally, and not (as our ancestors would have conceived) inter-indigenously.
Yet, the ‘re-invention’ of Chamorro dance has not really created inafa’maolek locally either. A friend of mine recently described the Chamorro dance scene, "Whenever I see Frank Rabon's work (and the work of other "indigenous CHamoru dance groups"), I often find myself shaking my head as a CHamoru woman. I feel as if I am watching my children suck on the wrong woman's tit for nourishment. I sometimes feel like pulling them aside and telling them to get milk from their own mother. Your mother's milk was made JUST for you. You can survive off another woman's milk, but it is not MADE FOR YOU. Your mother did not die. She is still here and her breast are swollen from waiting to nurse you! This borrowed milk will not tailor itself to your immune system's needs and your specific sicknesses” (Anonymous Chamorro Mother). **************
Yet, despite many people sharing this perspective, so many of us have remained silent on the issue, often in an effort to maintain our good relations with our friends and family who are students or teachers of this form. Flores asserts, via a western theory of ‘authenticity’, that the communities acceptance of the art form will lead to it’s authenticity. We must be vocal about our perspectives, or we risk the normalization of a practice that so many of us disagree with.
And, this bring me to my third and perhaps most important point. Cultural ‘borrowing’, as it is used and framed in our cultural performance world today sub-consciously asserts that it is too hard or too impossible to devise a cultural philosophy of performance. But, as I argued above, developing and articulating our cultural philosophy should be the foundation for our revitalization efforts. Without being able to explain our movements, gestures, rhythms, facial expressions, regalia, words, instruments, — aka our dance — within the framework of our culture, means we will never heal from the wounds of epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence. We will only be pretending we are better on the surface, while dying from a colonizing cancer, we’ve come to accept as endemic to being Chamorro.
Re-thinking Epistemic Violence & Indigenous Ways of Thinking
Perhaps this is why Flores work to support the ‘re-invention’ is so problematic. Her theories which support the contemporary performance methodologies come from western ideologies — which do not require her disavowal of western constructs and therefore the continued colonizing of the Chamorro. We can see this in her applaud of Guam Visitors Bureau’s financial support "towards standardising dance movements to establish its identity within tourism promotions for the island” (Flores 1999).[note]Page 211 of the aforementioned thesis [/note] Interestingly, GVB’s interest in Chamorro dance coincided with the industry’s need to distinguish Guåhan culturally, because tourists were beginning to question the ‘authenticity’ of cultural performance they witnessed in the hotels by citing the absence of that ‘culture’ in the community. The standarization of ‘culture’ rather than the critical investigation of the meaning of culture — means that Matao keep replicating a ‘safe’ form of culture which is also conveniently marketable, rather than investing in the renewal of a Matao worldview, philosophy, and epistemology.
Such a renewal would mean that indigenous consciousness becomes a serious threat to the comfort of Americans who have made Guåhan home and claim to support indigenous culture, while simultaneously never investigating their own sub/conscious epistemic/ontological prejudices and therefore never taking responsibility for distracting us from what is necessary for the realization of Matao sovereignty.
My critiques of the contemporary methods of cultural performance should not be read as personal attacks. Though, many peoples responses demonstrate the frustration that surfaces when we directly confront the colonizing constructs which pervade our current concepts of our own culture. I will be clear that my critique is lodged in an effort to widen our understanding of what is at stake in our cultural performance, and what is possible if we choose to be honest, ask hard questions, and work together to find ancestral solutions.
So to my mañe’lu who learned plagiarism is our culture. I believe we need to be honest and work together to do better. Our ancestors spent thousands of years observing the natural world and explaining these processes through fino’ håya, lålai, mali’e, carvings, jewelry, and other art forms. We must refuse the western myth of our cultural ‘death’ as a reason to look elsewhere. There is a reason why wisdom is menhalom and creation is na’huyong. Wise creation is from the inside to the outside.
Our ‘authenticity’ should not be judged by how close we think our performance was to our ancestors, or how close we come to the standards GVB et. al invented. Our ‘authenticity’ should be articulated within the worldview of our ancestors, by our closeness, oneness with the ancestors, the natural world, Guåhan, Låguas, yan Gåni. My hope is that organizations like CAHA, Guam Humanities Council, CHamoru Studies and others supporting cultural development off and on island start investing in projects that critically investigate a CHamoru/Matao worldview, epistemology, ontology and ways to explore these notions through the body.
We are the ancestors and the ancestors are us. We are the only ones in the world with the bloodline connections to our lands and waters. There is a reason why HASSO means to remember, to think, and to imagine. Our job now is to be clear about how we remember our past so imagine our future.