This piece is meant to spark discussion and raise awareness of our ancestral language fino' håya. It was originally published on my old website and a friend has recently asked for the link to it. This writing represents the beginning of ongoing research into this topic. I would love to hear feedback from you!
Two years ago, I released my first album NA’LÅ’LA’ so I had to make decisions about how I wanted to represent myself, and therefore my community. The album drew on my experiences back home in Guåhan and in indigenous communities across the world where I have built relationships and participated in cultural spiritual practices. Because of my experiences outside of Guåhan I made a choice to stop identifying as Chamorro and to begin identifying as Matao. I understand this to be a controversial and confronting choice for many in my community, who by-and-large have never known a cultural identity other than being Chamorro.
Despite knowing that my new (and yet very old) identity would be taking a bold step away from my community’s cultural norms, my experiences in other indigenous communities and the research that I have read by indigenous academics, all point to the potential healing within our ancestral languages and knowledge.
Before I continue articulating the reasons behind my decision, I need to contextualize this choice within my own path of cultural healing and restoration. When I was a teenager, I believed that I was uniquely displaced from my cultural identity because of my status as a ‘Diaspora’ Chamorro. Despite growing up in a big Chamorro community, I used to believe that because I didn’t grow up in my ancestral land, I was less equipped with my cultural identity.
When I arrived in Guåhan for a year-long study abroad to Guåhan, I was surprised to find that a lot of my peers felt a similar sense of cultural loss, despite being born and raised back home. As I observed the cultural movement, I discovered that the wider community was grappling with over three hundreds years of colonizing severely disrupted the spiritual and cultural practices that I encountered in other indigenous communities. As I student of I Fanlalai’an Oral History Project, I began to understand the need to develop critical consciousness about what was readily accepted as cultural truth.
The most blatant example of this is the hotly debated topic of the names of our ancestors of Creation. It seems to be accepted within the Chamorro community that our ancestors names are Puntan and Fu’una. These names were recorded in ethnographic records and were re-introduced to the community through Frank Rabon’s ‘re-invention’ of Chamorro dance. These names are now widely used and understood as the names of our ancestors, despite not a single language speaker being able to identify the meaning of these names within our pre-contact language.
I Fanlalai’an Oral History Project contributed an important discovery to our cultural restoration when they pointed out that the names recorded in the ethnographic records would have been transcribed through the European year. I Fanlalai’an now posits that if Puntan and Fu’una were rendered in our modern orthography, they would be written Pontan, meaning a ripe coconut, and Fo’na meaning first (woman/ancestor).
This important difference in opinion highlights a necessary discussion about how we define cultural truths as we move forward with our cultural restoration. Otherwise, we risk misinforming the next generation and creating spaces for future fabrications.
We have lifted Puntan and Fu’una out of the ethnographic records but it seems we have left behind one of the most important cultural activities recorded in those same documents, Mali’e — our ancient art form of improvised song, oral history, and debate.
Mali’e played one of the most important roles in our traditional communities because it was the place where we playfully formed our community’s collectively held agreements. One Mali’e would stand up and say, ‘Things happened this way (Tumaiguini)’ and another would stand up and say, “no no… it happened this way,” and it would continue as a debate until the quarrel was resolved.
This practice demonstrates how the ancestors valued our knowledge of our oral history, language, and an ability to contest each other through playful, cunning, and open-hearted creativity.
Often, we veer away from these difficult conversations for a host of reasons: we don’t want to make our friends and family angry because Chamorros are too passionate about our beliefs, it’s too hard to change what we know because Chamorros are hard-headed, and/or we don’t want to continue to create divisions in our community when we have so much we already disagree about.
Yet it seems the more we walk away from participating in disagreement and debate, the less we practice the skills we need to advance our self-understanding. If we don’t create the space to test the truth of our beliefs, the less we practice explaining why and how we interpret the truth. If we don’t discuss how we arrive at our conclusions about what the Truth is, the more we encourage ourselves to passively accept things as they are, and the deeper we sink ourselves into cultural confusion.
How can we enliven the spirit of Mali’e in our community? What will it take for us to embrace the difficult conversations with open hearts, playfulness, and intellect? How can we embrace the need to discuss how we interpret the truth?
But what does this have to do with identifying as Matao, rather than Chamorro?
I believe that Chamorro is yet to be contested interpretation of our indigenous identity. It is not incorrect or wrong to identify as Chamorro. It is one way to interpret who we are given the centuries of colonizing we have experienced.
It was only in the last forty years or so that we have begun questioning our indigenous identity. The discussion has largely focused on our political relationship to the United States and the suffering we have experienced at the hands of colonizing. Indigenous communities across the world are moving away from these politically motivated discussions and moved towards cultural resurgence — strengthening the cultural foundations that give life to indigenous peoples, lands, languages, and ways of being.
I choose to identify as Matao because I am aligning myself with a global movement of indigenous people who wish to restore the use and practice of our indigenous languages. It is through witnessing this growing indigenous consciousness that I have come to believe that Chamorro identity does not serve our long-term goal of healing from colonization.
My path of healing has brought me to understand the contributions I can make to our community as a Mali’e — a debater, a poet, an oral historian, a language learner and speaker, a rapper, a creative.