Chamorro people

"Chamoru" redirects here. For the language, see Chamorro language.

Chamorro people (1915)
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Guam, Northern Mariana Islands
Chamorro and English
Christianity (mostly Roman Catholic)
Related ethnic groups
Other Austronesian people and Micronesians

The Chamorro people are the indigenous peoples of the Mariana Islands; politically divided between the United States territory of Guam and the United States Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Micronesia. Today, significant Chamorro populations also exist in several U.S. states including Hawaii, California, Washington, Texas, Tennessee, Oregon, and Nevada. According to the 2000 Census, approximately 65,000 people of Chamorro ancestry live on Guam and another 19,000 live in the Northern Marianas.[1] Another 93,000 live outside the Marianas in Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States. The Chamorros are primarily Austronesian, but many also have European, Mexican, East Asian and Filipino ancestry.

Chamorro language

Main article: Chamorro language

The Chamorro language is included in the Malayo-Polynesian subgroup of the Austronesian family. Because Guam was colonized by Spain for over 300 years, many words derive from the Spanish language. The traditional Chamorro number system was replaced by Spanish numbers.[2] Chamorro is often spoken in many homes, but is becoming less common. However, there has been a resurgence of interest in reviving the language, and all public schools on both Guam and The Northern Mariana Islands are now required by law to teach the Chamorro language as part of the elementary, middle, and high school curriculum. The most said phrase in Chamorro is, "Hafa Adai," which means "Hello" in English.

Early Chamorros

Chamorro girls in the 1930s

The Chamorro are commonly believed to have come from Southeast Asia at around 2000 BC. They are most closely related to other Austronesian-speaking natives to the west in the Philippines and Taiwan, as well as the Carolines to the south. They were expert seafarers and skilled craftspeople familiar with intricate weaving and detailed pottery-making. The latte, a megalithic rock pillar topped with a hemispherical capstone, was used by early Chamorros as foundation for buildings and has since been appropriated as a "national" symbol. Chamoru society was based on what sociologist Dr. Lawrence J. Cunningham termed the "matrilineal avuncuclan", one characteristic of which is that the brother(s) of the female parent plays more of a "father" role than the actual biological male parent.[3][4]


Chamorro farmers were recorded during Spanish times to plant seeds according to the phases of the moon. For example, farmers on Guam often plant tuber crops such as sweet potatoes and yams at full moon during low tide.[5]

Cosmogony and religion

Depiction of latte stone colonnades on the island of Tinian.

According to early Chamorro legend, the world was created by a twin brother and sister, Puntan and Fu'uña.[6] Upon dying, Puntan instructed his sister to make his body the ingredients for the universe. She used his eyes to create the sun and moon, his eyebrows to make rainbows, and most of the rest of his parts for various features of the Earth. After she was done, she turned herself into a rock on the island of Guahan/Guam, and from this rock emerged human beings. Some believe that the rock was once located at the site of an Agat Church, while others believe it is the phallic-shaped "Laso de Fua" located in Fouha Bay in Umatac.

Ancient Chamorus engaged in ancestor veneration, but did not practice "religion" in the sense that they worshipped deities. However, there is at least one account, provided by Christoph Carl Fernberger in 1623, that human sacrifice was practiced to curry the favor of a "great fish". This claim may be related to a Chamoru legend about why the island of Guam is narrow in the middle. According to the legend, a massive fish was gradually eating away at the island from both sides. Although the ancient Chamoru supposedly had magical abilities, the huge creature eluded them. When the men were unsuccessful in hunting it down, the women used their hair to weave a net, which grew larger as they sang. The singing enchanted the fish, and lured it into the giant net.[7]

Castes and classes

Chamorro performer elder

Chamorro society was divided into two main castes and continued to be so for well over a century after the Spanish first arrived. According to the historical records provided by Europeans such as Father Charles Le Gobien, there appeared to be racial differences between the subservient Manachang caste, and the higher Chamor[r]i, the Manachang being described as shorter, darker-skinned, and physically less hardy than the Chamori. The Chamori caste was subdivided into the upper-middle class Achoti/Acha'ot and the highest, administrative Matua/Matao class. Achoti could graduate to Matua, and Matua could be reduced to Achoti, but Manachang were born and died as such and had no recourse to improve their status. Members of the Manachang and the Chamori were not permitted to intermingle. All three classes performed physical labor, but had different specified duties.[8][9] Le Gobien theorized that Chamorro society comprised the geographical convergence of peoples of different ethnic origins. This idea may be supportable by the evidence of linguistic characteristics of the Chamorro language and social customs. Father Pierre Coomans wrote of the practice among Chamorro women of teeth blackening/dental lacquering (also a custom among the Japanese and Vietnamese), which they considered beautiful as a distinction apart from animals.[10] Fernberger wrote in his account of the Chamorro that "penis pins" were employed as a chastity measure for young males, a practice similarly employed by inhabitants at least as far south as Indonesia.[11]


Traditional beliefs among the Chamorro include tales of taotaomo'na and birak, as well as the Spanish-introduced concepts of duendes and hauntings in places such as in Yona, other old buildings, schools, hotel elevators, and the Maina bridge.[12] Taotaomo'na are spirits of ancient Chamorros. Birak is a broader term that may refer not only to the undead, but also to demons or general elemental types.

Foreign rule

On March 6, 1521 Ferdinand Magellan and his men had after having crossed the Pacific Ocean encountered the first "indios" since leaving South America.[13] Later Spanish visitors named the inhabitants "Chamurres" derived from a local term for the upper caste; this was then converted to "Chamorros", an old Spanish term for "bald", perhaps in reference to the local habit to shave.[13]

Over the centuries, the Marianas have been occupied by several foreign countries (Spain, Germany, Japan, United States), and present-day Chamoru. society is almost entirely multiethnic, with the inhabitants of Luta/Rota being the least so. The Chamoru are primarily of Austronesian ancestry, but began to significantly interact with Spanish and Filipinos during the Spanish Colonial Era (1600–1898 AD). Primarily since the late 19th century onward, many Chamorus have intermarried with other Pacific Islanders, Mainland Americans, Filipinos, Chinese, and Japanese.

During the Spanish Colonial Era, the Chamoru population was greatly reduced by the introduction of European diseases and changes in society under Spanish rule. The Spanish killed many Chamoru men and relocated most others to Guam, where they lived in several parishes to prevent rebellion. Some estimate that as many as 100,000 Chamorus may have populated the Marianas when Europeans first settled in 1667. By 1800, there were under 10,000. Within the parishes, the Spanish eventually focused their efforts on converting the natives to Catholicism. Father Frances X. Hezel stated that Chamorus caught or reported engaging in pagan "sorcery" were publicly punished. Through this, they were given Spanish surnames through Catálogo Alfabético de Apellidos or Alphabetic Catalog of Surnames. Thus, a multiracially mixed Chamorro with European descent and a Spanish surname may not necessarily have Spanish blood, any more than Filipinos with Spanish surnames do.

Because the Marianas are a part of the United States, the Chamoru people enjoy greater economic opportunities than many other Micronesian peoples. The increasing numbers of Chamorus, especially Chamoru youth, relocating to the U.S. Mainland, has further complicated both definition and preservation of Chamoru identity. On Guam a Chamoru rights movement has developed since the United States gained control of the island. Leaders of the movement seek to return ancestral lands to the Chamoru people, and attain self-determination.

"Chamori", "Chamorro" and "Chamoru"

Pre-colonial society in the Marianas was based on a caste system, "Chamori" being the name of the ruling, highest caste.[8]

After Spain annexed and conquered the Marianas, the caste system eventually became extinct under Spanish rule, and all of the indigenous residents of the archipelago eventually came to be referred to by the Spanish exonym "Chamorro". The name "Chamoru" is an endonym derived from the indigenous pronunciation of the Spanish exonym.

Some people theorize that Spanish definitions of the word "Chamorro" played a role in its being used to refer to the island's indigenous inhabitants. Apart from "Chamorro" being a Spanish surname, in Spanish it also means "leg of pork", "beardless [wheat]", "bald", "close-cropped", or "shorn/shaven/[hair or wool] cut close to the surface".[14][15][16] Circa 1670, a Catholic missionary reported that men were sporting a style in which their heads were shaven, save for a "finger-length" amount of hair at the crown. This hairstyle has often been portrayed in modern-day depictions of early Chamorros. However, the first European descriptions of the physical appearance of the Chamoru people in the 1520s and 30s report that both sexes had long black hair which they wore down to their waists or even further. Another description, given about 50 years later, reported that the natives at that time were tying up their hair into one or two topknots.[10]

Modern Chamorro culture

Chamorro culture has over the years acquired noticeable influences from Spanish, Mexican, American, Japanese and Filipino cultures, as well as the presence of fellow Oceanic (mostly Micronesian) groups. Influence from the German era in the Northern Marianas is most visible in the form of certain given names and family surnames.

The prehistoric concept of inafa'maolek ("doing good for each other", often translated as interdependence) is a core value of traditional Chamoru culture. Respect for one's family, community, and the elderly (manamko) are major components, although this varies from person to person and family to family. The culture is now strongly influenced by American customs and values, largely because the Marianas archipelago (partitioned into Guam and the CNMI) is currently possessed by the United States of America, as organized but unincorporated territories; in addition, most people of Chamoru descent now live outside of the Marianas in the United States. The American military has a major cultural influence among the Chamoru; enlistment rates are higher in the Marianas than in any other place in the USA. On Guam, the enlistment rate is around 14 people per 10000;[17] by contrast, the US state of Montana, which has the highest per capita enlistment, has a rate almost half that, with approximately eight people per 10,000. (See the Guam page for more details about this topic.)

Cockfighting and cockfight-related gambling were introduced by the Spanish and have long been a significant pastime in Chamoru culture, especially among men. It is still popular among the members of older generations and with Filipino immigrants, who raise roosters for cockfighting purposes; however, mixed martial arts fighting competitions have grown in popularity as spectator sports, particularly among the members of more recent generations. Large-scale events are held throughout the year on Guam and Saipan, which feature local competitors as well as guest participants from abroad.

Chamoru life has long centered on one's matriarchal clan. The concept of a "clan" stemming from a common female ancestor is still observed. Today, large extended families remain central to life in the Marianas.

In the years since Americanization, diabetes and heart disease have become increasingly common among the indigenous population as well as among non-indigenous Oceanic people living in the Marianas, particularly the Carolinian Refaluwasch.[18]

Traditional healers called suruhanus are still greatly respected for their knowledge of herbal treatments and spirits.


Most Chamorros are Roman Catholic[19] and few in the Marianas still maintain some customs and beliefs from the time before the first European conquests; some residents of the Marianas will still ask permission from ancestral spirits before entering parts of jungles.

Among the 56 states and territories of the United States, the Mariana Islands have the highest rate of religious self-identification, with a combined percentage of only 1.75% of the population (Guam at 2.5% and the CNMI at just 1%) not claiming membership in or affiliation with a particular religion.


Much of Chamorro cuisine is influenced by various cultures. Examples of popular foods of foreign origin include various types of sweet or savory empanada, originally introduced by Spain, and pancit, a noodle dish from the Philippines.

Archeological evidence from islands in the Marianas reveals that rice was cultivated there since prehistory.[20] Red rice made with achoti is a distinct staple food that strongly identifies Chamoru cuisine among the many dishes of fellow Pacific island cultures. It is commonly served for special events, such as parties (gupot or "fiestas"), nobenas, and occasions such as a high school or college graduations. Fruits such as lemmai, mangga, niyok, and bilimbines are consumed in various local recipes. In the Marianas, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and American cuisine are also commonly available.

Locally distinct foods include kelaguen, a dish in which meat is cooked in whole or in part by citric acid rather than heat; Tinaktak, a meat dish made with coconut milk; and kå'du fanihi (flying fox/fruit bat soup). Fruit bats and local birds have become scarce in modern times primarily due to the World War II-era introduction of the brown tree snake, which decimated the populations of local birds and threatens the fanihi population as well; hunting them is now illegal.[21]

Guam has highest per capita consumption of Tabasco sauce in the world, equaling almost two two-ounce bottles per person per year.[22] Tabasco and Spam united to create Hot & Spicy Spam, which debuted on Guam. Cans of Hot & Spicy Spam sold throughout the world feature a recipe for Spam Fried Rice from Guam-based restaurant Shirley's.[23]

The Marianas and the Hawaiian islands are the world's foremost consumers, per capita, of Spam, with Guam at the top of the list, and Hawaii second (specifics regarding the rest of the Marianas are often absent from statistics).[24] Spam and other canned meats were introduced to the islands after World War II, leading to a dietary shift and numerous health problems.[25]

See also


  2. Rafael Rodríguez-Ponga. Del español al chamorro: Lenguas en contacto en el Pacífico. Madrid, 2009, Ediciones Gondo,
  3. Pereda, Nathalie. "Distribution of authority". Che’lu/Mañe’lu: Siblings. Guampedia. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  4. Cunningham, Lawrence (1992). Ancient Chamorro Society. Honolulu, Hawaii: Bess Press, Inc. p. 229. ISBN 1-880188-05-8.
  5. Wuerch, William L.; Ballendorf, Dirk Anthony (1994). Historical Dictionary of Guam and Micronesia. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press. pp. 12–13. ISBN 0810828588.
  6. Hattori, Anne Perez (September 23, 2016). "Folktale: Puntan and Fu'una: Gods of Creation". Guampedia. Retrieved May 28, 2016.
  7. "How the Young Maidens Saved Guam". Legends of Guam. Guampedia. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  8. 1 2 Lujan Bevacqua, Michael. "Ancient Chamorro castes". Mampolitiku: Politics. Guampedia. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  9. Tolentino, Dominica. "Higher social class". Matao and Acha’ot. Guampedia. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  10. 1 2 Flores, Judy. "Hairstyles and teeth staining". Ancient Chamorro Concepts of Beauty. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  11. Wernhart, Karl. "FERNBERGER'S ACCOUNT OF THE MARIANAS". A Pre-Missionary Manuscript Record of the Chamorro, Micronesia. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  12., Ghost stories: Taotaomona and other spirits inhabit Guam
  13. 1 2 Laurence Bergreen. Over the Edge of the World. Harper Perennial, 2003. p. 222f. ISBN 0-06-621173-5.
  14. "Spanish-English Dictionary: "Chamorro"".
  15. "Spanish to English translation: "Chamorro"". Yahoo! Education. Archived from the original on 29 March 2014. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  16. ""Chamorro" definition". Babylon. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  17. "Total Military Recruits: Army, Navy, Air Force (per capita) (most recent) by state". 2010. Retrieved 2010-05-25.
  18. Durand; et al. "Diabetes in the indigenous population of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.". Asia Pac J Public Health. Retrieved 5 May 2013.
  19. "Northern Mariana Islands Travel - Guides & Reviews - Travel Library". Retrieved 2011-02-20.
  20. Tolentino, Dominica. "Ancient Chamorro Use of Rice". Guampedia. Retrieved 18 May 2013.
  21. Brooke, Anne. "Fanihi: Mariana Fruit Bat". Guampedia. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  22. "A TABASCO® World Tour". Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  23. "Picture of Hot & Spicy Spam with Shirley's recipe". guam ♥s SPAM. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  24. Magistad, Mary Kay. "Guam loves Spam". Archived from the original on 6 August 2012. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  25. Bevacqua, Michael Lujan web (2015). "REVIEW ESSAY: The Song Maps of Craig Santos Perez". Transmotion. 1 (1). Retrieved May 28, 2016.
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